By Andrew Osmond.
The first season of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans, released as a Collectors Blu-ray set by Anime Limited, is a meeting of two formidable anime forces. One is the venerable Gundam giant robot franchise, which most readers of this blog will know – there’s a general intro here. In any case, Orphans, which some fans call IBO, is entirely suitable if you’ve not seen a Gundam anime before. Like Gundam Wing and Gundam 00, Orphans starts a completely new story, albeit with sly echoes for long-time fans.
The other big name behind Orphans is writer Mari Okada. Most of you will also know her – she’s the writer-director of the film Maquia and is profiled here. Okada was the lead writer on Orphans, directed by Tatsuyuki Nagai, who’d collaborated with Okada previously. Orphans was one of two Okada-Nagai anime in 2015; the other was the film Anthem of the Heart.
Orphans’ story starts centuries in the future, on a terraformed Mars. As usual in a Gundam anime, the story stems not from alien invasion but from human conflict. Mars is impoverished by Earth’s long-distance control, and many of the colonists are campaigning for independence. However, the story focuses on youngsters who care nothing for politics. Orphans is the story of an underclass of abused children.
Most of the show’s characters are introduced as child soldiers and slaves, treated by adults as expendable commodities. Some of them are used by a private Mars army company, allowing for a cruel twist on mecha traditions. The kids undergo painful and dangerous surgery, so they can plug their bodies into machines and pilot them with their brainwaves. That way adults needn’t waste time teaching them to read.
The set-up’s grim, but it’s couched in an upbeat adventure. The first episodes show these kids, all boys, shaking off their masters’ shackles and forming their own mercenary company; it’s called Tekkadan, the Iron Flower Brigade. The boys have a tight family loyalty, and the show highlights two of the team; the spiky-haired natural leader Orga and his shorter quizzical-looking best friend, Mikazuki. Mikazuki is the designated hero, being able to interface with an antique giant robot, Gundam.
The first job the Brigade takes on is an epic journey through space, escorting a girl called Kudelia. She’s an aristocrat campaigning for better conditions and independence on Mars, and she needs to negotiate with parties on Earth. A relationship of sorts develops between Kudelia and Mikazuki, though given their contrasting backgrounds, it’s hardly love at first sight. Because of what he’s seen and suffered, Mikazuku has come to blank his emotions, not even recognising them. As fans have noted, he’s not far down the spectrum from the “locked-in” schoolgirl Jun, who’s scared of speaking, in Nagai and Okada’s Anthem of the Heart.
Orphans uses its serial format impressively. The characters and their relationships change considerably, sometimes very surprisingly to challenge our sympathies. For instance, the later episodes bring in a female enemy character called Carta. At first, she seems like a hilarious caricature of a sci-fi B-movie villain. Long term Gundam fans may be reminded of the wacky figures in Gundam ZZ. Yet by the season’s end, the same character is shown in an amazingly different light.
True, parts of Orphans are shockingly blunt in their foreshadowing. This is a show where a random conversation about a past event can be massively relevant just moments later. Yet the show plays an impressive long game in setting up themes and characters which pay off many hours later, sometimes explosively. For example, Mikazuki is no “soft” hero. The early episodes show him calmly shooting adults dead in cold blood, warning us that the heroics we cheer can easily descend into moral murk.
For old-school fans, there are sly in-jokes as plotlines from older Gundams – the original show particularly – are reworked twistily. (Once more, we see the perils of entering an atmosphere in a robot suit.) At the same time, Orphans’ first season works perfectly well as a self-contained story. The 25th episode seemingly brings things to an “end,” with no cliff-hanger or obvious sequel hook. Yet a second season began in Japan six months after the first; it will be released by Anime Limited at a later date.
Like other Okada works, Orphans deals in unapologetically emotional topics with darkly real resonances. It also has some naughty provocations, as you’d expect if you’ve seen Okada anime such as O Maidens in Your Savage Season, where schoolgirls learn about sex. Anyone expecting Okada to deliver a straightforwardly feminist Gundam will be surprised. Contentions elements include a polygamous male space ace with a literal harem, and another man in an arranged engagement to a very young girl. The latter’s another subtle in-joke for Gundam fans. Orphans reflects, perhaps knowingly, how Gundam has always been a bewildering mix, where genuinely strong, super-capable women intermingle with hoary male chauvinists.
Some fans object to Orphans being described as an “Okada anime.” They point out, for example, that Okada was only the lead writer, working in a team including Hajime Kamoshida, best known for his light novels which became the anime rom-com Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai. The collaborative nature of Orphans was pointed up in an excellent interview with Okada, unofficially translated here. In it, Okada stresses her back-and-forth discussions with director Nagai, from which many of the show’s ideas came.
TV is a highly collaborative process, far more than film. Yet Orphans’ producer Masakazu Ogawa told Funimation that he specifically wanted Nagai and Okada on the series. Before Orphans, the duo had worked together on Toradora! and Anohana, both emotive teen dramas. “These two are known for creating series that impact and resound with viewers,” Ogawa said. “Since our story focuses on teenagers’ lives, we wanted a piercing and impactful story that would speak into the hearts of viewers. They did a great job with that.”
Even critics who see elite film directors as authors (“auteurs”) of their works never claim they invent everything. Rather, these directors shape and select; they guide and orchestrate a team towards works reflecting their own tastes, interests and outlook. As a lead TV writer, Okada could surely do the same, albeit in the limits of a weekly series in an established franchise. Perhaps it’s wrong to call Orphans an “Okada anime,” but it must bear her creative handprint.