Final Thoughts: Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans

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ORPHAAAAAAANS NAMIDAAAAAAAAA

Iro’s Final Thoughts

Is this show supposed to be dark, or not? Are we supposed to think of Tekkadan as the heroes, when they act like terrorists? Mikazuki murders people with almost sinister glee throughout the show, while basically every named character in Tekkadan makes it out alive, and I can’t tell if I’m supposed to think this is admirable or deplorable. The show itself doesn’t know either, alternating between trying to make everyone seem cool and having the older cast members lament the kids’ loss of innocence. Everyone goes too far to maintain a sense of moral grayness, but also not far enough for me to be sure Sunrise wants me to see them as terrible people.

Some shows might be merely bad, or perhaps good because we expected them to be worse than they were, but the most disappointing shows are those we enter with high expectations but which turn out poorly, and IBO definitely has a knack for setting itself up to fail. In a way, keeping the cool fights or intriguing character moments few and far between long stretches of dull, melodramatic pontificating was a great plan for IBO, because it tricked me into watching every goddamn week. Iron-Blooded Orphans is inconsistent, not knowing what it wants to be, and so it just flounders for 25 episodes unable to make up its mind on anything important, forcing me to ride a mildly unpleasant roller coaster I got tricked into getting on in the first place.

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Gee’s Final Thoughts

Back in 2015, this is what I wrote about the first episode of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans:

Gundam fans know the old cycle. New Gundam gets announced, fans get skeptical. New Gundam airs, fans rejoice at what seems like a great entry in the franchise. New Gundam finishes, fans despair as the plot utterly shits the bed in the second half and loses anything that made it interesting…No Gundam series has had a good ending in quite literally over a decade. No reason to start now.

Make of that what you will.

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Gundam in many ways, is an encapsulation of my feelings about the mecha genre in general. It’s filled with some hallmark entries that literally defy convention and genre. It’s also filled with some of the most low quality garbage to ever mark the face of the very medium itself. And yet even in its lowest moments, it has glimmers of how much greater it could be.

Iron Blooded Orphans has all of the individual ingredients of a great show, and perhaps that’s why it disappoints me so much despite my already low expectations. I’ll warn everyone now, this is going to be a long and thorough teardown of Iron Blooded Orphans, so strap yourselves in.

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I want to start off with the good though, because I think even Gundam deserves that much. Right off the bat, Iron Blooded Orphans has one of the most interesting premises of any Gundam in literal decades. Starring a ragtag group of child mercenaries living on the outskirts of an impoverished Mars, Iron Blooded Orphans brought a potential pathos and grounded feel to the normally high flying Gundam franchise. In the early episodes, it seemed to make good on that promise, focusing on the struggles of those disenfranchised by war. Shame it only lasted about three episodes.

Additionally, like most Gundams, design and music are no issue. With an all star cast of mecha designers, from Ippei Gyobu to Kanetake Ebikawa, Iron Blooded Orphan’s limited selection of robots are a great one. The Graze is still one of my favorite mecha grunts I’ve ever seen, despite it’s frankly atrocious performance in-show. I even eventually came around to Barbatos, appreciating its unconventional design and almost feral appearance. Throw in some other great stars like both of the Gusions forms and the tragically underused mobile workers, and Iron Blooded Orphans certainly isn’t hurting for entertaining designs. If only they had been actually used.

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Finally, I have to give all my praise to Masaru Yokyoama’s stellar soundtrack. Filled with passionate acoustic guitar and quiet strummings in equal measure, it’s the most fun I’ve had listening to a Gundam show since Gundam Build Fighters. If you were to judge the show on its OST alone, you’d think Iron Blooded Orphans was a melancholy character piece about the disenfranchised individuals who fall through the cracks of the grinding machine that is war, dotted with intense and beautifully rendered combat. It makes it all the more tragic that describing Iron Blooded Orphans that way would be a bald faced lie.

Now that I’ve exhausted Iron Blooded Orphan’s good points, it’s time to move onto the myriad ways it failed. This section will be divided into multiple subsections focusing on overall thematic ways the show failed to accomplish its goals.

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Stakes. Iron Blooded Orphans really wants us to believe in the stakes at hand. Will Kudelia manage to reach Earth? Will Akihiro make up with his brother? Will our heroes survive against the overwhelming forces of Gjallarhorn? Who fucking cares? I certainly don’t, and I’m not sure Iron Blooded Orphan’s writers cared either. A grand total of two named good guys are killed in Iron Blooded Orphan’s entire run. Both were telegraphed from a hundred miles away and neither were even in a giant robot at the time. Yes, you read that correctly. Not a single good guy mobile suit is destroyed in the entirety of Iron Blooded Orphans. Beat up sure, mangled even. But outright killed? Not a single one. The penultimate episode had me believing that cyber-Ein’s arrival signaled a legitimate escalation. Too bad the final episode revealed that literally every single person Ein attacked in the prior episode miraculously survived their seemingly fatal beatings. There isn’t a shred of tension to be found in a show seemingly built around being more intense than prior entries in the franchise. I’m not saying you have to have people dying to create tension, but even the political elements are devoid of anything interesting. Gjallarhorn are moustache-twirling villains while our protagonists can literally do no wrong. Iron Blooded Orphans might be the most black-and-white show I’ve seen in a while in terms of its portrayal of morality. Speaking of…

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Morality. Iron Blooded Orphans wants you to believe that it’s a morally grey story about irrevocably broken individuals working for a good cause. Too bad this is impossible when your villainous faction is basically just incompetent Zeon. Gjallarhorn is filled with corruption and incompetence to such a degree that I have a hard time believing that the other factions chafing under its rule didn’t rebel sooner. Iron Blooded Orphans keeps trying to convince you that its heroes are troubled and willing to get dirty, but it’s literally impossible to believe that when the plot justifies their every action. It got to the point where I started rooting for a Garma Zabi clone and a failed child killer.

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Characters. Surprise surprise, a Gundam show has once again handled its characters so clumsily that you end up sympathising with its designated villains more than its heroes. This isn’t the first time a Gundam has unintentionally done it and it probably won’t be the last. What’s different here is that the good guys have maybe a handful of interesting characters to their name. Biscuit was an interesting opposing voice to Orga’s bravado until he was killed as a last-second gambit to generate drama. Orga has all the makings of a conflicted leader well on his way to a Big Boss style fall from grace until all of his actions are justified in-universe by the plot. His supposed friendship with Mikazuki had all the makings of an interesting relationship until you realized that Orga literally spoke more with Biscuit than Mikazauki for most of the show.  I’m not going to even talk about Mikazuki because he is literally that much of a non-entity. Props to the guy for using bludgeoning weapons for most of the show. Really made for an interesting gimmick to see a protagonist win through sheer brutality. Too bad he graduated to a superior Nippon katana in end. The rest of the cast is barely even worth talking about. Akihiro’s best traits are that he looks like Guts and that he’s too simple of a character for even Gundam to fuck up. McGillis is literal human garbage, but I guess that’s more character than Mikazuki has. Kudelia might be one of the worst peace princesses I’ve had to suffer through in a while, but since Gundam SEED exists, I can’t throw too much shade at her considering who she shares her archetype with.

Meanwhile, from Galileo’s perspective, Tekkadan is a group of violent unpredictable mercenaries responsible for the death of his friends and comrades, making his ineffectual rage and incompetent piloting so much easier to sympathise with. Ein is honestly a character that probably should have gotten killed off much earlier if just because building him up into your final boss is a fucking joke. A subordinate soldier mad with grief over the death of his superior should theoretically be an interesting plot device, but all Ein manages to accomplish over the course of 25 episodes is slightly bang up a couple of good guys who escape without any severe injuries and talk a lot about killing kids. Oh, and taking the bullet for Galileo on multiple occasions because Galileo might be the worst Gundam pilot ever. Hell, I can’t even call Ein a successful child killer since he literally fails to kill a single child in the entirety of Iron Blooded Orphans. And yes, Iron Blooded Orphans fucked up its characterisation so bad that I was rooting for someone whose stated goal was to kill children. Think about that for a second while I go on to talk about how bad Iron Blooded Orphan’s fights were.

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Fights. Well sure, Iron Blooded Orphans has uninteresting characters and a bland plot that doesn’t go anywhere, but surely the fights are great? After all, with such great designs and an absence of beam weaponry, surely all the fights will be gritty slugfests between an outgunned underdog and the overwhelming forces of an entire planet’s military? And come on, this is a mainline Gundam show, even a kid’s spinoff like Gundam Build Fighters had literally the best Gundam fights in over a decade, surely Iron Blooded Orphans can deliver?

Alas, Iron Blooded Orphan’s animators seemed to care as much as its writers. Conflict is few and far between, and what few we do get, even fewer are animated very well. Poor directing and quality issues plague Iron Blooded Orphan’s animation across the board, but it’s the worst with the fights. Iron Blooded Orphans is notably directed by Tatsuyuki Nagai, who has no experience directing mecha, and it shows. Neither animated nor choreographed particularly well, almost all of the conflict in Iron Blooded Orphans is a bore to watch. The highlight of the show’s fights was way back in episode 7 when a pseudo-mobile armor flew around dragging Mika into a bunch of rocks while two women were kneeing a man in the face as he was furiously trying to punch their knees. It was a great fight goddamn it.

There are a few other highlights sprinkled throughout the rest of its run, but nothing that’ll impress anyone who’s been watching mecha anime for longer than 3 months. The finale is probably the worst I’ve ever seen, keeping most of its interesting fights off-screen. Hell, we don’t even see what Akihiro did that got his Gusion Rebake so messed up. Meanwhile, Ein and Galileo’s ineffectual flailing denied us even the consolation prize of a good fight. Think about that for a second. Good fights are the baseline minimum of mecha. When all else fails, the mecha fan can take solace in giant robots beating each other up. Iron Blooded Orphans denies us even that. As always, Gundam Build Fighters remains the gold standard of what mecha fights can be in the 21st century. It’s crazy that a kid’s spinoff can have the most passionate and entertaining fights a mecha franchise has seen in years, but here we are.

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Pacing. With the announcement of a second season, I’m forced to wonder why Iron Blooded Orphans ended up the way it did. Three episodes of tense grounded conflict, 20 episodes of bland meandering, and two episodes of desperately attempting to tie loose ends leaves us with a show that said a whole lot about very little. Iron Blooded Orphan’s pacing is all over the place, and as many of us on The Glorio Blog have gone over before, pacing is a vastly under appreciated trait in anime that can sink or save a show. If Iron Blooded Orphan’s plot took place over half the episodes, we probably would have gotten much better show than we did. As it stands, 25 episodes feels like too long for too little, but somehow also not enough. The endgame arc should have been a much bigger part of the overall plot than the hurried conclusion we got. As a result, Iron Blooded Orphans feels all over the place.

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Tone. Overall, my issues with Iron Blooded Orphans can be boiled down to this. Through its entire run, it couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. Grim war story where the stakes are real? Political drama? Melancholy character piece? Crime story? G-reco-esque fever dream? The biggest problem with Iron Blooded Orphans is that it fails to commit. Iron Blooded Orphan makes a lot of claims but neither confirms nor denies any of them, instead continuing its journey down this weird uneven middle ground that isn’t that interesting, but also isn’t a big enough train wreck to stop watching. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Mari Okada probably should have stayed on for the entirety of the run. Hearing that she only wrote a few episodes makes a lot more sense in retrospect. With a single main writer, Iron Blooded Orphans would have probably benefitted from a more singular focus. I’m not going to say Mari Okada is a good writer or that she wouldn’t have made Iron Blooded Orphans even more of a train wreck, but it would at least have had some focus.

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And that’s the biggest issue with Iron Blooded Orphans really. It’s not even that bad, it’s just supremely mediocre and unfocused. The individual elements of Iron Blooded Orphans are good enough that we should have gotten something so much better. But we didn’t. What we got is another forgettable entry in a veritable franchise full of forgettable entries. Say what you will of them, I’ll be thinking about Reconguista in G and Gundam Build Fighters for years to come. I can’t say the same for Iron Blooded Orphans. I’ll probably watch the second part whatever form it comes in just because I’m too committed now and I love the robots, but I’ll be going into it with even lower expectations than I had for Iron Blooded Orphans to start with.

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7 thoughts on “Final Thoughts: Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans

  1. i think some of the flip flopping came due to parents reaction to it. after all parents dont mind people killing each other while in giant robots but when Mika shot that bloke in the head early in the series while he was tied up, they suddenly took offense. ..

    and dont get me started about the opening being changed

      • with the opening credits you see mika standing in a puddle with a gun in his hand, colour kicks in & its blood. various scenes of action & a song that basically saying you need to fight for what you want.

        the presense of blood in the series made me say ‘hello’. as a parent i’ld be a bit iffy allowing my kids watch a animation with blood floating in a corridor or leaking out a mobile worker.

        think it was episode 1 or 2, when the boys take over cgs and have 1st squad locked up. they’re tied up by the thumbs, basically mika comes in and shoots one of them in the head.

        think it was episode 14, when the boys do a boarding action on the pirates. they’re going room to room. they find a room of children & move on. the children shoot and kill a couple of the human debris, in return the human debris kill the kids.

        cue new intro… lets all be fluffy and hug. we did the things we did but gallahorn made us do it

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