How Mari Okada Writes Mobile Suit Gundamby Lauren Orsini,
Mari Okada puts a very personal stamp on her work. From anohana to Hana-Saku Iroha, you can always recognize this prolific author's screenwriting by the hallmarks of extreme melodrama, complicated character relationships, and sometimes even theatrical deaths. So when the news came out that Okada would be lead writer for the upcoming Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans, Gundam fans were apprehensive. The Gundam multiverse is pretty well-established. How was Okada's distinctive style going to gel with the established tropes and storytelling of a franchise that's been running for 35 years?
Iron-Blooded Orphans is very distinctly Okada, with plenty of drama, self-narration, and lots of emphasis on human relationships. And yet, somehow it's also unmistakably Gundam. It's clear that Okada or somebody on her writing team has done their Gundam homework. As Anime News Network's weekly streaming reviewer for Iron-Blooded Orphans, I see a new homage to earlier Gundam characters or plotlines in nearly every episode.
Through Iron-Blooded Orphans, Okada is working with a story that already has clear and expected plot directives, but it isn't exactly averse to drama either. Gundam's creator and first director, Yoshiyuki Tomino, earned the nickname “Kill 'Em All Tomino” for a reason. At its core, Gundam isn't an action show—it's a space opera. From Amuro to Kira, family, friends, rivals, and lovers have factored just as deeply into their stories as how many mobile suit battles they won. It's not only how they fight, but how they feel about it, and this emotional factor is extremely conducive to the melodrama with which Okada has made a name for herself.
Here's where the show makes clear references to overarching Gundam themes, demonstrating that its Okada twists are not as off-brand as you may have expected.
The more we see of Iron-Blooded Orphan's protagonist pilot, Mikazuki Augus, the more apparent it becomes that he is not as unique as he may seem at first. Most immediately, he follows in the footsteps of two other “strong and silent” Gundam protagonists: the taciturn Heero Yuy and Setsuna F. Seiei.
Like Heero, Mikazuki was engineered for warfare, undergoing painful procedures to become that way. In Gundam Wing, Doctor J manipulated Heero's genes to help him earn the nickname “Perfect Soldier.” He's all action and very little speech. So in Iron-Blooded Orphans, when a child Mikazuki undergoes the excruciating Alaya-Vijnana surgery three times (more than any other character) and lets his gun do the talking, it's immediately familiar.
Setsuna also fits into this child soldier narrative, when Gundam 00 informs us that he's been skilled with a variety of weapons and combat techniques since the age of 10. His experimental undertaking occurs in the Gundam, where he is exposed to concentrated Gundam Nucleus particles that alter his brain into producing quantum brainwaves. It's similar to how Mikazuki's Alaya-Vijnana nodes, which connect him directly to the Gundam Barbatos, help him to utilize the Gundam's full power in a way that lesser pilots couldn't. Both pilots are physically altered by their piloting—not through brainwaves in Mikazuki's case, but in a hemorrhaged eye.
That's where the Okada twist comes in. Mikazuki is an homage, but there's one extra note of dramaticism that Okada adds to his storyline that we've never before seen in a Gundam protagonist: a permanent injury. Usually a Gundam protagonist becoming injured means he loses his protagonist status, as with Kamille at the end of Zeta Gundam. In season two, Mikazuki is blind in one eye and can't move his right arm unless he's hooked into Barbatos. Normally, a Gundam protagonist is untouchable until he isn't, and then a new protagonist takes the role of the dead or injured pilot, who is quickly forgotten. Mikazuki's injury is a permanent reminder of the unforgiving nature of war, which doesn't care if you're the main character or not before it immutably alters your life. It's the kind of dramatic extension that fits into Okada's wheelhouse, but still matches Gundam's “war is hell” narrative.
Kudelia is more than Mikazuki's love interest. She's a politically savvy leader, a seasoned speech-giver, and in season two, the president, founder, and CEO of her own company. A woman in such a powerful role sounds very modern, but it isn't for Gundam. This future-focused show has long featured female characters in positions of power.
Kudelia both physically and behaviorally resembles two previous Gundam noncombatants. In Gundam Wing, there's Relena Darlian, a politician and diplomat. Like Kudelia, Relena is first introduced to the viewer as a blonde, pampered princess with little knowledge of the universe outside her upper-class bubble. But as the series continues, she acquires new maturity and a new last name, Peacecraft, as her political influence starts to reshape the world. Then there's Lacus Clyne of Gundam Seed and Gundam Seed Destiny. It's the same arc—a rich girl we have a hard time taking seriously at first (and Lacus is even a pink-haired pop-star singer to boot) who soon grows into her role as a political leader.
In other words, Kudelia's character arc as an ignorant ingenue turned capable commander isn't anything new. The Okada twist in Kudelia's story is her more-complex-than-usual love life. While Relena has no rivals for Heero's affections, and Lacus is the sole apple of Kira's eye, Kudelia isn't the only person vying for Mikazuki's attention. There's also Mikazuki's childhood friend Atra, who comes from a similar impoverished background as the pilot. However, Kudelia and Atra are not true rivals, but close friends who protect one another and bond through their love of the same man. In the world of Iron-Blooded Orphans, where bigamy and harems are not only established but even accepted, there's no small possibility of them ending up as sister-wives to Mikazuki.
Love triangles are not unheard of in the Gundam universe. In the Universal Century, Char and Amuro's rivalry over their shared love interest, Lalah, is the catalyst for conflict between the two pilots over multiple series and movies. In G-Gundam, Rain seems at risk of losing Domon to Allenby. But in Gundam love triangles, who wins? Normally, the preferred love interest is a noncombatant who demonstrates her power in other ways, usually politically. The fact that Okada is leaving us hanging about whether or not Kudelia is a shoo-in for Mikazuki's love, and even leaves the possibility of a three-person relationship open, is certainly more dramatic than usual.
Finally, we come to the most obvious Gundam throwback: McGillis Fareed. A blond, frequently masked antagonist with enigmatic motives and an underage love interest, almost everything about McGillis is an homage to Gundam's most famous archetype: Char.
Nearly every Gundam series has featured a “Char” character, a masked antagonist who isn't entirely a bad guy, so you still sort of want to root for him. In this vein, McGillis's role is classic. Char was an extremely likable villain, not just for his charisma and competence at piloting a mobile suit, but for his increasingly justifiable motives. At first it seems harsh that Char would go up against “the good guys” and even betray his best friend, but as we learn more of Char's backstory, we see what compelled him to seek revenge at any cost. Such is the case with McGillis. The show hasn't ended yet, so we don't know his entire backstory, but it's not so simple as him being the privileged son of a political leader—he's adopted (as was Char), and he's undertaken a ruthless pursuit of power that can be deadly to anyone who stands in his way.
Even his purple-haired best friend, Gaelio, is an unmistakable homage to Char's naive, purple-haired friend who was born with a silver-spoon: Garma. In Mobile Suit Gundam, Char singlehandedly orchestrates Garma's downfall, and Garma never sees it coming. If Garma could've come back from the dead, he would have been hellbent on revenge. In that way, Iron-Blooded Orphans season two is almost a take on “what if Garma had survived?” It gives us a newly hardened Gaelio, ready to give McGillis the most unpleasant surprise of his life.
That's the first way Okada has dramatized the Char storyline, but the other is in McGillis's 9-year-old fiancee, Almiria. In a recent episode, the pair nuzzled noses in a move I'm sure Okada put in purely to make viewers twitch. Almiria's youth is startling, but it isn't out of the norm for Gundam. A major part of Char's story was how infamously he used people, and his favorite targets were often young or even underage women. In Char's Counterattack, the 40-something Char even cultivates a relationship with Quess, a capable 13-year-old pilot who's fallen head over heels for him. Okada has simply extended the age gap even more to make the manipulation even ickier. But is Char a pedophile? No, and McGillis probably isn't either. Just like Char encouraged young women's affections for him to make them more pliable, McGillis's engagement with the daughter of a world leader is clearly one of convenience first. It's exactly the kind of melodrama that Okada's typical storylines thrive on, but there's nothing about it that doesn't fit into Gundam already.
Iron-Blooded Orphans is emotional, theatrical, and very obviously an Okada show. But unless you've watched a lot of Gundam, it's hard to tell just how much research went into her only partially unique take. Since the show is still ongoing, there's probably plenty in the works that I've either missed or haven't noticed yet. Let us know in the forums what your favorite Gundam homage is in Iron-Blooded Orphans!
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