And here we finish off my Gundam-themed Mecha March. I produced quite a bit more than I expected.
In the last month, in addition to a few commentaries, comparisons, insights, and theories, I have reviewed several installments of the Gundam franchise, and each of them has been remarkably different. A Romeo and Juliet, a grand opera, an animated video game, a nigh-religious text, a kids’ show… there is no shortage of variety here. But one thing which they all had in common: the gundams were mostly good guys, and the good guys won. That is not the case here, in this most brutal, primal, vicious story about a family born of blood and iron, which lives and dies in the horror of war.
This is the one where the gundams lose.
That is Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans in a nutshell.
I hate tragedies. Really, I do. Thus, I put off watching this one for quite some time, but I needed to watch it to round out some of my posts for Mecha March. The further I got into this show, the more I knew – being forewarned by the internet – that the last few episodes were really going to hurt. And that was after a good deal of hurting throughout the series.
The story follows a group of youths, impoverished war orphans who joined a mercenary company as child soldiers in order to survive. When they get caught up in something bigger than they realized, the company betrays and tries to abandon them, so they take it over in coup. Renaming their company Tekkadan – meaning “Iron-Flower Brigade,” as in a flower that will never wilt – they embark on a quest to find and make a place where they belong, where they can live as humans instead of as human refuse. In the course of this, they turn the world on its hinges, destroying their enemies with their wits, bodies, and wills combined, making a big splash… right up until a most bitter end, when they are the ones destroyed and forgotten.
Knowing beforehand that they were going to lose, I was somewhat surprised just how much of the cast survived, but a huge swathe of the cast still gets wiped out. It is a mark of the craftsmanship of the show that each death feels like it matters in some way, no matter the multitude of them, even those which are ultimately pointless and in vain. Life feels more real in this show than it does in most other Gundam shows, and so death has a greater impact as well.
Almost everything about this show speaks to that brutal realism.
Most mecha anime, and Gundam shows especially, have things like lasers, beam weapons, and energy shields, but that is almost nowhere to be found here. There’s a simple explanation for it: they developed an armor which severely limits how effective laser weaponry is. Thus, almost every weapon is entirely physical, and really much more creative than simply having big guns and laser swords. There is a surprisingly wide and varied arsenal that is all geared towards stabbing, crushing, tearing, and otherwise annihilating the enemy. There’s a level of viciousness in that which I have scarcely seen in any show. Even the inevitable superweapon of mass destruction is entirely kinetic.
The more fictitious part of this science fiction centers around what is called the Alaya-Vijnana System (which is easy to remember because they say it several times in each and every episode). It is a system which connects a mobile suit, armor, or ship directly to the pilot, giving them a spatial awareness with which to move the machine like it was their own body, via a painful and dangerous injection of nanites along their spine. It gives these young, uneducated orphans a significant edge in combat against enemies which are often better trained, better armed, and more numerous. And it takes a severe toll on their bodies.
There’s such grounded details of daily life as cooking, doing laundry, and bathing, that last being mentioned particularly by the female characters as they make the boys and men clean themselves. There’s the true horror of child soldiers whom the grownups can’t protect no matter how much they want to, because they can’t restore an innocent childhood that was stolen from them before they ever had it. There’s the effort of one woman born of privilege striving to see the world as it truly is and refine her ideals, even as she and her protectors are surrounded by two-faced traitors. There’s how every victory comes at a cost, how not every battle or war can be won, and how good people who are simply striving to live the best they can are used and stabbed in the back by petty little pissants. And there are huge currents of dissatisfaction which rage against the status quo, raising up storms of blood against the establishment, all of which eventually comes to naught, as the worlds continue to turn as they always have.
It is a staple of the franchise to have a masked antagonist, but Iron-Blooded Orphans has two such figures, the second one rising directly in opposition to the first. This is because the first man who dons a mask uses, betrays, casts aside, and outright murders the people closest to him, people who loved, admired, and trusted him as if he were their own family. It’s all a Machiavellian scheme to attain greater power, power enough to, ironically, overturn the corruption within the organization which rules the Earth. But then the same character has another scheme to take over, which turns out to be short-sighted and naive to the point of stupidity, and it is his scheme, his failure, and the bloated vision of glory which he presented to Tekkadan which leads to their final defeat.
Which goes into how little sense people often make in this show, including the fatal mistake made by many people, to build up their chosen leader, their hope for the future, without ever really thinking about it. A girl is held up as an icon of revolution, though she never intended such. A mastermind with large ambitions knows nothing of love or loyalty, and yet people sign on with him and follow him into war. Another nobleman and officer is beloved by his subordinates who throw themselves into death for him, and yet he is also a willing murderer of noncombatants, of unarmed women who were fleeing his approach. Several times, people of honor or dishonor fall in battle, and those who are left behind seek vengeance as if the honorable warrior did not die honorably, or as if the dishonorable traitor were somehow a good person. And finally, the last enemy which faces Tekkadan and defeats them decides, for some reason, to do good things and address some of the massive atrocities which have been left unanswered for centuries, despite how he willingly set out to murder people who were willing to surrender, just to set an example, and he is hailed as a hero for it.
The gundams are labeled as devils, their heads taken and held high in a victory for mankind, and everything just keeps going on. The wheel keeps turning.
The one victory which Tekkadan has, in the end, is that the next generation, by some miracle, is able to have a childhood far more peaceful and happy than they did. The flower born of iron blood is trampled in the dust of history, but still blooms at last in peace.
I have been speaking this entire time about the meaning of the show. I haven’t mentioned specific characters by name, or details of the plot except its beginning and ending, or talked about the battles, or the animation, or the music, or any of most of the things I usually talk about. That is because all of these are swallowed up in the meaning which they put forth. The plot is good, though it has holes, as do the characters with some inexplicable choices they make. The fights are riveting and no one really has plot armor in a prolonged tragedy. The animation is beautiful and fluid, and the music is perfect. But all of these are merely parts of the show, and the meaning of it is what lingers with me.
This is simultaneously my least favorite Gundam show and the one that will probably stick with and haunt me forever.
Rating: 9 stars out of 10.
Grade: solid A.
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