Twelve Days of Anime 2015 Part 6: Make TV Gundam Great Again

iboTV 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.

ibo2The 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.

Twelve Days of Anime 2015 Part 6: Make TV Gundam Great Again

13 thoughts on “Twelve Days of Anime 2015 Part 6: Make TV Gundam Great Again

  1. IBO is my first Gundam series. I never watched any before since I do not know which ones are good or not. I am really enjoying it so far too, although now I am getting a general idea on die hard fans view of Gundam has been. Still should be inserting where the remaining half of the show goes.

    1. The people I’ve talked to that haven’t been into Gundam before but tried out IBO are all enjoying it so far. This certainly makes me feel better about my “we want Real Gundam” theory.

        1. I think Turn A is the best Gundam show. Definitely check that one out. I also really like G Gundam, but man is it different than almost anything else in the franchise. If you’re feeling like digging deep into the franchise’s roots, there are some compilation movies of the original Mobile Suit Gundam that I think are very well done, but it’s hard to tell how a neophyte would digest them.

      1. Buffaloe says:

        IBO beeing my first Gundam as well I have to say It’s quite good and I’m certainly going to have a look at other entrys in the franchise you recommended. Actually I’ve been thinking about having a go at Gundam for quite a while but since it’s such a big confusing franchise I never really knew where to start. And so I’m glad IBO came around and proved itself to be an enjoyable and rather accessible show.

        1. Yoshiuki Tomino should be crying in his tea right now. This is /exactly/ the sort of thing Gundam shows should be aiming to accomplish but haven’t done so for quite a long time. If you’re jumping into Lake Gundam, heed the warning of this post: it’s very much a mixed bag in terms of tone and also in terms of quality.

  2. animecommentary says:

    You know, considering that Gundam as a franchise existed for 36 years (37 when next years rolls around), it serves a great time capsule of trends in mecha anime – the original Gundam series came about during a time when the “original” wave of Big Robot shows were still popular, and Tomino wanted to provide a more realistic alternative to them. Nowadays, we expect the sort of narrative that Mobile Suit Gundam helped established, and trying to remain on the pulse of pop culture for 30-plus years is a daunting task; it’s no surprise that we get shows that get poor reception, as people’s tastes differ greatly, and there’s still a lingering question of “what Gundam is.”

    1. Gundam has a fanbase with varied tastes and tolerances, that’s for sure. I just find it odd that this show would be receiving a completely different reception if that one word weren’t at the front of the title.

  3. Shin-chan says:

    I heard one long-time Gundam fan (Ghostlightning, if you know of him) say this of IBO, and it cracked me up. It was essentially, “I’m worried about people whose first Gundam series is IBO, because IBO is actually good. To me, a key component of being a true Gundam fan is loving all of the things that make so many Gundam series bad.” It was said in jest, but the angst over the fact that someone who could simply like Gundam for being a good show when much of the franchise isn’t, at least not in a conventional manner, is an interesting idea.

    1. Oh yeah, I definitely know Ghostlightning (his blog was one of the biggest influences on me to start my own), and I think there is a lot of truth to what he’s saying. IBO is accessible in a way that pretty much every other Gundam isn’t. It’s largely an acquired taste, which seems counter-intuitive given how popular it is.

      1. Shin-chan says:

        I think that one of the big components of the appeal of things that are an acquired taste, especially those things that have some degree of cultural significance like Gundam does, is to be able to claim that one has acquired that taste. Being in the “in” group of people who appreciate Gundam is “cool,” or at the very least gives someone a social niche that they can now fit into and identify with.

        Maybe that’s just making too many assumption on my part though. Most of my favorite things are in some way acquired tastes (intensely philosophical/psychological anime, harsh music, Yoko Taro games), but I just enjoy things that are interesting, as in, they contain a high volume of really interesting things. I find that often times pieces of media that have high barriers to entry are so densely packed with ideas, subversion, and experimentation that it can make them harder to digest, but that is their appeal to me.

        1. No, I don’t think you’re off base. I think a lot of us want to be fluent in this exotic language people are talking in and to feel the enthusiasm the ardent Gundam fan feels. And, as you say, the name carries a lot of weight. It’s one of the few enduring brands (for lack of a better term) in anime. Being part of the zeitgeist when a new iteration comes around is appealing. However, it sure seems like part of the process of scaling Gundam’s high barriers to entry involves becoming kind of a strident asshole. I think I ignored this part.

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