What Makes Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans so Great?

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I just finished the latest episode of Iron-Blood Orphans and it left me as breathless as most of the series has, even though there was barely any action. It also left me wondering what makes IBO so special compared to recent Gundam shows. I haven’t been interested in most of the non-UC era series that have come out in the past decade. This isn’t out of a sense of Universal Century elitism – I enjoyed all of the non-UC series I’ve watched from the 1990s. I will always have a soft spot for G-Gundam, and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of X and Wing (two shows I still need to finish). Build Fighters is an admittedly fun time and I own a disturbing amount of gunpla from Build Fighters Try. The only other recent one I kind of liked was Gundam 00 – but I found myself liking the characters way more than the plot and lackluster pacing.

I thought that G-Reco would be the series that finally got me hyped for a new episode every week, but that, uh, definitely did not turn out as planned. But I knew from the first time that I heard the heart-breaking “Orphans Namida” theme that this was the new Gundam series I had been waiting for. Below are a few of the main reasons why I love IBO so much.

 

(There are some spoilers ahead for both seasons one and two.)

So much moral ambiguity 

The best Gundam series involve a lot of dealing in gray areas. Likable antagonists, sympathetic villains, and well-evolved backstories make for a much more enticing show than a simple Good vs. Evil plot. I think this is one of the things that made the original Mobile Suit Gundam stand out among its mecha peers: very rarely at the time did we see such humanized antagonists.

Most of the major organizations in IBO can be considered morally ambiguous. I think that this treatment is especially effective with Gjallarhorn, which easily could have turned into a faceless Big Bad imperialist group. Gjallarhorn was started centuries prior with good intentions, but by the beginning of IBO it is facing a large amount of in-fighting and strife. The group is painfully divided, with each group following their own moral codes and each being varying levels of “right.”

Teiwaz, the Turbines, and Tekkadan are also morally ambiguous. None of these groups were started to save the solar system, and even though they may do good things sometimes it is ultimately for the money. Teiwaz is more or less the Space Mafia, while its subsidiary Turbines is constantly criticized in-house among Teiwaz as a harem of girls forced to fight (which is only 30%-50% true, depending on how you look at it.) Turbines and their leader Naze are great examples of moral ambiguity and no matter how you look at it, you’re still going to root for them and cry for them until the bitter end.

Tekkadan’s affiliations with both Gjallarhorn and Teiwaz have been for their own personal benefit. Their first mission to safely take Kudelia to Earth is by far the most universally beneficial, but even this was done for profit. Tekkadan is a family, and as its young leader, Orga has messed up plenty of times. While they are trying to reach their end game of peace and financial independence, the group is at a huge risk of losing everything.

Dark as Hell

IBO takes Gundam’s child soldier trope to a whole new level of sad, beginning in the brutal first episode when Tekkadan’s members are still the abused and exploited child laborers of CGS.

Mikazuki is the most tragic Gundam pilot I’ve seen since Victory Gundam‘s Uso. He doesn’t react as emotionally as Uso does, but that makes it even more heartbreaking. Uso had a relatively normal childhood, but Mikazuki is used to a life of pain. He is dependent on Orga, and the two are unhealthy influences on each other. Orga really needs a “No” man, but Mika is willing to die for whatever Orga wants. Kudelia is a great influence on Mika, teaching him how to read. He also creates a dreams for himself: he wants to become a farmer. But IBO loves to crush dreams, as well as nervous systems.

The end of the first season is bittersweet, with Mikazuki beating Graze Ein at the price of his right eye and right arm. The middle of the second season is even more soul-crushing, with the fight against Hashmal resulting in a loss of functionality of the entire right side of his body. Fighting for Orga has left him unable to have any future now, beyond fighting and dying.

Ein’s fate and the Alaya-Vijnana System in general are painful reminders of the costs of war and of loyalty. Alaya-Vijnana is taboo and dangerous (paralyzing or killing most children it is attempted on) and Graze Ein is a complete abomination and destruction of humanity in the name of power.

Even the Gundams, despised monsters of the past that are named after demons, are dark and menacing in this show. Rather than saviors, they are Ideon-style machines of destruction.

I could really go on and on about how dark this show gets, but I shouldn’t make this article any sadder than its already become.

Gundam fanservice

 

Nearly every Gundam iteration has its own Char Clone: a masked, typically blonde man who is either outright evil or morally ambiguous. IBO gave us two masked men: Montag/McGillis in the first season and Vidar/Gaelio in the second. Montag wasn’t great, but Vidar was super satisfying for all of us Garma fans out there.

If you haven’t watched the original Mobile Suit Gundam, I’m about to give 38-year old spoilers: Blonde, revenge-driven Char betrays his childhood friend, the purple-haired, charming Garma. It is a huge turning point for Char in the series, but it is also the tragic end of Garma. Season two of IBO feels like the Revenge of Garma, with Gaelio taking on the Char Clone role and (at this point, the series is unfinished) poised to destroy McGillis.

Strong, large cast with interesting mobile suits

 

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I love her. Source: shokugekis.tumblr.com

IBO‘s cast is huge, which is not something that I would normally consider to be a good thing. What IBO successfully does is balance these characters, providing just enough screen time to make their actions (and sometimes their deaths) actually feel like they matter. In season one, Kudelia could have been a useless, boring figurehead; instead, she was one of the best characters, with the show displaying her diplomacy skills and her empathy in an excellent manner. I must admit that I have been disappointed with her treatment in season 2, but it is understandable given that her part in the story is mostly over.

The female pilots of Turbines are also excellent, well-developed characters, with Lafter and Amida being among both the strongest women and the strongest pilots in the cast. With the development that they are given, the Turbines appear much less like a battle harem and much more like a challenging group of fighters who happen to share the same baby daddy.

The suits in IBO are not pretty, but they are perfect for the show. My favorite suit, the Gusion, is ugly in most of its forms but it looks as rough and practical as its pilot. As the Gjallarhorn grunt suit, the Graze is also not particularly attractive but it’s customized versions are cool, especially Carta’s Graze Ritter. The Barbatos is an amazing suit that fits the demonic theme perfectly. The simple but dark designs of the suits match the mood of the series well.

It feels like a great amount of effort was put into the series to make the themes and mecha strong and consistent. Simply put, IBO is a well-rounded show that will break your heart, and that is why I recommend it.

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