I have a love/hate relationships with a ton of things. My ‘06 Honda Civic, my dog, ham sandwiches but as far as anime go, there is no show I love to hate more than the most recent mainline entry into the massive and expansive Gundam franchise, Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans. If you follow my twitter, you would know when it’s Sunday as that’s the day the newest episode airs and I always had something to say about it. But now with the show finally completed, what is the final verdict? Is it worthy of toting the Gundam name? Did it raise enough flags? Did it sell enough Gunpla?! Let’s check it out.
Sunrise’s Iron Blooded Orphans started in the Fall of 2015 and, after a two season intermission, continued in the Fall of 2016. It shares a somewhat similar staff as 2011’s Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (these are very different shows, mind you), having Mari Okada and Tatsuyuki Nagai as writer and director respectively. This series was a fairly risky step for Sunrise. With the financial and commercial failures of their last mainline Gundam series, Gundam AGE (which was only saved from cancellation due to the success of Gundam Unicorn) and Reconguista in G (which didn’t even get a full 50-ish episodes, which hasn’t happened since 1996’s After War Gundam X), Sunrise tried something a little safer with Gundam Build Fighters and its sequel, Build Fighters Try. While a success, Build Fighters didn’t attract a ton of new fans to the franchise. Sunrise was once again trying to find a show that could bring Gundam into the mainstream once again.
Chalking in at a whopping 50 episodes, IBO takes place in the Post Disaster Era, where about 300 years have passed since the fabled ‘Calamity War’ came to an end. The world finally settled into it’s new form of government and peace was shakely attained. However, the peace was short lived as new seeds of conflict were beginning to sprout in the Mars Sphere.
Mikazuki Augus and Orga Itsuka are two of many boys belonging to the Chryse Guard Security (CGS), a private security company on Mars. CGS is hired to escort Kudelia Aina Bernstein, a girl seeking to liberate the people of the town of Chryse from the oppression of Gjallerhorn, one of the new governmental powers. However, Gjallerhorn launches an attack on CGS, hoping to stop any future rebellions Kudelia may inspire. The adults leave the boys behind as a decoy so that they may escape and Orga takes this chance to lead all of the boys in a coup d’etat against the tyrannic CGS. Orga then gives Mikazuki the task of repelling Gjallerhorn using a mobile suit harboring a legendary Gundam Frame, a weapon used during the Calamity War, that CGS was using as power source. Together with the power of Mikazuki’s Gundam Barbatos, the boys of CGS fight against Gjallerhorn so that they may find their own place in a world that’s turned it’s back on them all.
As far as Gundam series go, this is a fairly standard setting. Gang of kids must fight against an evil governing power but when you have a long running franchise such as Gundam that frequently borrows aspects from the series’ that came before it, that’s to be expected. It’s the little things that set IBO apart from its brethren. The weightier, more ground focused combat of the mobile suits, the near complete lack of beam weaponry, the more dark and bloody tone, the sharp and stylized design of the characters/mobile suits, etc. Iron Blooded Orphans definitely feels like it’s carved out it’s own corner in the Gundam multiverse.
The writing and characters is where I feel the show really falls flat. The plot, more often than not, goes way over-capacity and is boring as all hell. There are many episodes in the show that just feel as though nothing was accomplished. Hell, it got bad enough to where I almost tell people to skip the entire first half of season 2 since it feels so much like filler. There are many points in the series where IBO tries to emulate the political talk that many Gundam series are famous for but unfortunately, it is to no avail. The reason those political talks work is because you understand and are interested in what each side of the argument is looking to accomplish. With IBO, there are way too many factions and subgroups that keeping track of all of them and their goals is a mind numbing task. I even considered busting out a notebook to keep track of the massive cast and their connections to each other but I didn’t like the characters enough do something like that.
When the plot of a show fails, many can still hold their ground when they have a good cast of characters. Mamoru Hosoda’s film ‘The Boy and The Beast’, though not like Gundam at all, is a great example of this. The plot is riddled with nonsense and plot holes but the characters are endearing enough to even it out. Sadly, IBO doesn’t hit the mark here either.
The reason a series like say, ‘Zeta Gundam’ has interesting politics is because you can put yourself in the shoes of people on both sides of the issue. Nearly everything falls in a moral grey area and there is never really a definite good or bad side (except for the Titans, screw them). While this could be true with IBO also, the characters are written so poorly that it’s hard to sympathize with them in the first place. This isn’t true of every character though. Gaelio Beauduin isn’t the most unique character but he’s solidly written and his motivations make sense. McGillis Fareed, being one of the most boring people in the main cast, is still a structurally sound character once you understand his upbringing. Mikazuki Augus, our central protagonist, is an emotionless husk of a man who feels as though he’s there solely to deus ex machina the casts way through tight situations as he is so insanely good at piloting a mobile suit. There’s a lot of implication that his borderline social disorders are due to the number of possibly fatal surgeries he underwent as a child, leaving him apathetic and passionless, but it’s never really confirmed in the series. Sadly, the only real time Mika is compelling is when he’s in the Barbatos. Aside from Orga, the rest of the cast is bone-dry boring to just plain badly written.
Frankly, it’s not even just the characters that suck. It’s the dialogue. The show does the absolute minimum when it comes to character interaction, with each conversation being anywhere from stoic and cold to just plain stupid (see Orga’s cold food analogy). It’s little, pointless dialogue sequences during downtime that can make characters seem more likable and human but IBO doesn’t really attempt them often.
However, where the show fails in story and characters, it makes up for in animation, aesthetics, music, and just a raw cool factor. The animation, while not particularly consistent, is a strong point for the show for sure. I can give a show that had to stretch its budget across 50 episodes worth of material a bit of a break, so the few stretches where basically no worthwhile action occurs can be forgiven, at least in my eyes. When the action does ramp up however, is when the show really starts to shine. The major battle sequences between the mobile suits are animated well and have a great feeling to them. The mechs are quick and sleek, they rely more on melee weapons as opposed to guns, and that really helps IBO stand out amongst the other Gundam series it will inevitably be compared to. Along with great sound design and a very talented voice cast, the action scenes leave little to be desired.
Masaru Yokoyama is a composer I’m fairly familiar with. Your lie in April, Plastic Memories, and Rolling Girls are all shows he has previously worked on and I can safely say the music for each of these series has greatly affected my enjoyment of them. He’s a fairly flexible and well-rounded composer and his work for Iron Blooded Orphans is some of his best yet. Using a mixture of more traditional Japanese stringed instruments as well as more unconventional ones (a xylophone being the most standout), Yokoyama is able to produce a truly unique soundtrack that, at some points, practically carries the show on it’s shoulders. The action scenes wouldn’t be nearly as good if they didn’t have these incredible songs to back them up. Even the slower “emotional” scenes have music good enough to almost make me care about whatever they happen to be talking about. The titular track “Iron Blooded Orphans” is an obvious standout and accompanies some of the best moments the series has to offer. However, ”Make You Believe” and “Tending to Others” are a few of the more somber and slow tracks the OST has to offer. I would highly recommend checking out the full OST if you ever get the chance, there are quite a few gems to be found.
The last topic I’d like to discuss would be whether the show is a glorified toy commercial or not. The answer is obviously yes, as Gundam has been just that since it’s inception, but whether it feels like a toy commercial or not is a different story. Some Gundam series end up feeling like they aren’t really trying at all to make a show or tell a decent story, they just want to sell the model kits. IBO is sort of a toss up. It truly feels like they tried to do some new stuff with this show. They didn’t just copy paste aspects from other popular mecha series, slap “Gundam” on it, and call it good. The story definitely leaves a lot to be desired but the overall tone and the feel of the action scenes gives me the impression that the staff actually wanted to do something cool with this show, that they actually tried. I’d give it a pass here.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans is a series that was never quite stable to begin with. It very much wants you to take it seriously but will throw ridiculous plotlines and bad characters at you left and right, all the while showering you with impractical weapons and dopey mobile suits that will make you physically laugh out loud with how absurd they are. It’s another show the diehard UC fans can check off as trash but for anyone with a somewhat open mind, it can be a fun series. However, in the brief moments where the direction, the music, and the action all come together, Iron Blooded Orphans shines brighter than many of its peers. Even if those moments are short and infrequent, they will be ones I won’t soon forget and that, at least in my eyes, is pretty important