TV Gundam has had a rough go of it in the last decade. Ten years ago, the legendarily poor Gundam SEED Destiny was finishing up its run. A couple of years later, there was the improved-but-not-great Gundam 00. In 2011 Gundam AGE failed to excite fans with both character designs and plot moves that were almost universally derided. If you don’t count Gundam Build Fighters as a Gundam show proper and consider it a spin-off, then last year’s enigmatic Reconguista in G was the most recent television Gundam series before this year’s Iron-Blooded Orphans (IBO).
This track record is less than stellar; however, IBO has turned out to be something that is easily the best franchise entry in the last ten years and may even be the best TV Gundam since Turn A aired in 2000.
The most noteworthy and also the most controversial fact about IBO is that it is being written by Mari Okada. While she has garnered fame for writing dramas like Toradora! and Ano Hana, Okada’s experience in anime writing is quite varied. She’s written action series such as Darker Than Black and CANAAN, and, surprise, she has even penned mecha series before. Okada wrote Aquarion EVOL, unquestionably the fan’s favorite show in that franchise. Yet, Okada remains a polarizing figure in the American fan community. Some Gundam diehards wrote IBO off as soon as they heard that Okada’s name was attached to the project, while some other folks gave it a chance but quickly dropped the show. Reports also indicate that the show isn’t faring well at all in Japan either.
This is such a shame because I think IBO has some fantastic character writing, especially for a Gundam show. Okada clearly defines roles that her characters are going to play; however, this clarity shouldn’t be mistaken for simplicity, as the principle cast is far from one-note Perhaps people long for the days of illogical actions and unclear motivations in their Gundam ? Lack of clarity in character definition should not be seen as creating complex characters. At any rate, although we know their roles, the protagonists are written with a nuance that keeps their actions from feeling perfunctory. Mikazuki is more than just another emotionally dead child soldier, evidenced by the kinds of relationships he has. Kudelia isn’t just a Releena retread; she participates in the lives of the people she represents politically and admirably attempts to roll with the punches as her worldview expands. Orga struggles to go from top dog to being another link in the food chain while attempting to protect his “family” and retain their values. There are several tightly strung, interdependent relationships among the characters such that, if one relationship is shaken, many feel the vibrations.
Conspicuous by its absence in this piece is mention of robot fightin’ of any kind. This is not to say I dislike the combat in IBO; on the contrary, I find it very enjoyable, especially when it takes place in terrestrial environments. The thing is, the robots aren’t the main focus of the anime. Instead, the hook to this show is its characters and how they respond to the change and political upheaval around them. As of this writing, the tenth episode of the series has aired, and I can’t recall when the last mobile suit battle occurred. IBO‘s relaxed pace allows the characters to stretch their narrative legs since a mecha battle isn’t required once per episode. In addition to the extra time to increase character depth, doling out the combat scenes sparingly adds an shot of gravitas to each one.
IBO is indeed different from a conventional Gundam show…but what is a conventional Gundam show, really? What does one of those look like? Is true blue Gundam something like Wing or SEED? How about Turn A? Or, the most recent one, G-Reco? Which of these are “Gundam enough” to be considered “for real Gundam”? My point is that the franchise’s identity has been so diluted over the years, that adequately defining a Gundam anime (in a way which meaningfully distinguishes it from its peers) is a tricky prospect. In fact, I’d just as soon give that venture up and like the Gundam that I like, rather than worrying about if it is “Gundam enough.” Maybe if the audience can file away its different lists of check boxes labeled “What Gundam Should Be” and judge IBO on its own merits, then they will find something they can actually appreciate and enjoy.