The Fall 2015 Anime Preview Guide
Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans
How would you rate episode 1 of
Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans ?
Gundam: the franchise where emotionally fragile youths are put in charge of dangerous war machines without shirts for the Good of Mankind. While there are other shows that do similar things, the Gundam franchise is really the go-to example of the mecha genre for me, and Iron-Blooded Orphans, this season's Gundam offering, has no interest in veering from that established path. And it really doesn't need to – it's a winning formula, and if this first episode suffers from what I've begun to think of as Prologue Syndrome it still manages to pull in even non-franchise fans like me by about halfway through.
So what is Prologue Syndrome? Iron-Blooded Orphans is a great example of it. This introductory episode is very keen on making sure that we know who all the main players are, including their names, and what their short-term goals are, no matter how many characters it has to introduce and no matter how many plot threads and world building details need to be crammed in. Ostensibly our heroes are Mika and Orga, two orphans who grew up on Mars in the harshest of systems. They appear to have joined the military as a means of escape, only to find themselves firmly placed in the “cannon fodder” category under an abusive system that takes in boys, installs tube-like ports in their backs so they can drive mecha and tanks, and generally doesn't give a crap about their living conditions or well-being. Now presumably teens, the boys find themselves stuck shepherding around rich girl Aina, who wants to promote Peace and Friendship because under her silly pseudo-19th century dress she's Just Like Them. (I do enjoy when Mika quashes that particular delusion.) Unbeknownst to all of them, Aina is Iphigenia to her dad's Agamemnon, and he's just sold her off to further his own ends. It looks like everyone's about to get a crash course in getting along...if we can remember all of their names, motivations, and affiliations.
That's the major downfall of Prologue Syndrome, and Iron-Blooded Orphans is no exception: so much is thrown at you in a bid to establish the plot and premise that it gets really hard to keep track of everyone and all the story points. We're not sure what anyone's motivations really are, and while I very much like that our plucky orphans seem to be their very own side – not aligned with Earth or Mars – it still feels a little jumbled. While it would have been far too slow to drag this out into two episodes, it's also too much for just one, making for a slightly lackluster beginning in terms of story. The rest of it feels much more enticing, with varied character designs, uniform designs, and music that is sweeping and grandiose when it needs to be. And despite its issues, I did find myself getting pulled in and feeling curious about what is going to become of Mika, Orga, and Aina, so the episode did do it's job. But I feel like I'd have to watch this with a character chart next to me to keep track of things, so unless it can reduce the overload in the next episode or do something that really is amazing (beyond all the shirtless guys in space, that is), Iron-Blooded Orphans isn't going to be the Gundam show that finally pulls me in.
Iron-Blooded Orphans is my first introduction to the mecha monolith that is Gundam, outside of a few episodes of Gundam Wing I caught when it aired on Toonami. Stepping into a beloved franchise that shares multiple timelines can be intimidating, and I was immediately concerned that I would be lost in technical jargon and space-history of which I had no prior knowledge. That wasn't entirely the case, but the first episode did leave me with some space politic whiplash.
A lot of players are dumped into this first episode, set in a child soldier training facility on Mars. Mars is vying for independence from Earth and at the helm of these discussions is the young noblewoman Kudelia Aina Bernstein. Kudelia is desperate to be seen as a woman of the Martian people, and handpicks third-rank soldiers Orga, Mikazuki, and Biscuit to escort her to Earth for political talks. Unforunately, her dad sells her out to the Gjallarhorn group that opposes the rebellion. The group make it pretty frank that Kudelia is going to become a martyr.
A third group of Inspectors, who hint at a three-centuries old war over an energy source are also thrown into the mix. It's easy to get disoriented between the three factions, as each are involved with one another somehow. I found it easier to focus on the Martian vs Gjallarhorn plot and just accept that the inspectors would make more sense a few episodes in when I had a real grasp of what they do.
I was mostly impressed that in 25 minutes, writer Mari Okada managed to not only set the pieces on the chessboard but also fully flesh out character motivations and the setting that sculpted them. There is no clear-cut right or wrong side yet. The Martians running the facility are implanting kids with “Whisker” plugs in their vertebrae and see nothing wrong with smacking them around. The higher-ups are absolute cowards. Mika and Orga's relationship dynamic, Kudelia's motivation to be a better leader, heck even the three Gjallarhorn commanders were allowed enough time to play off one another so viewers get a sense of their roles.
For a first-timer, Iron-Blooded Orphans serves as a great entry point for Gundam. There's a lot to digest here, so while it can be enjoyed on its first viewing, a rewatch is recommended just to get a firm grasp on the details being presented.
Hurray for strong premiers! After several days of dreary light novel adaptations, Fall 2015 finally connects with good old Mobile Suit Gundam. In this new Gundam, we are swiftly introduced to Orga and Mikazuki, two young men stuck in the third unit of a backwater Mars military base. In spite of their lousy position, Orga and his team are told they're being assigned to escort the key representative Kudelia Aina Bernstein, a high-ranking noble daughter who's become a symbol of Mars liberation. But of course, this ramshackle team hasn't been chosen because the military respects their talents; they're being set up, and no sooner have they been introduced to Aina than their base comes under heavy military fire. With their commanding officers abandoning them and a battalion of mobile suits closing in, Orga and Mikazuki will have to work with their comrades to find their own way out of an impossible battle.
After watching half a dozen premiers that just wouldn't stop with the exposition, it sure is nice to watch a show that actually has confidence in its own storytelling. Iron-Blooded Orphans hits the ground running, establishing its world in the natural conversations of its many characters. Within the first half of this episode, we've already been introduced to an entire team of young soldiers, and have some context for their superiors, Aina's situation, and the various powers invested in her success or failure. Conversations here are purposeful and efficient, and I already feel like I have both a strong grasp on the various characters involved and even some actual affection for Orga, Mikazuki, and Aina. Mari Okada's an inconsistent writer, but definitely a talented one, and given the focus of a traditional Gundam-style opening, her gift for illustrating character shines through.
With the first half of this episode dedicated to establishing character and context, the second half jumps straight into an actual battle. This too is pulled off with some real skill - there's a sense of actual stakes and danger here (in one particularly great scene, you can pretty much see the moment Aina realizes she's no longer inside her safe noble bubble), and Orga's attempts to hold off a much stronger force feel both desperate and clever. The animation so far isn't great, but the base designs are strong - I initially didn't feel too sold on the character designs for this one, but they work much better in action, and the low-caliber mechs here have a nice utilitarian feel to them. Overall, this is a sturdy and polished premier, a strong first step in another Gundam adventure.
Review: If Comet Lucifer represents the copycat newcomer as mecha series go this season then Iron-Blooded Orphans represents the establishment. However, by all appearances it is a stand-alone project from the rest of the franchise, possibly even one that introduces a new timeline. Hence prior experience with the franchise does not seem to be necessary.
Though it may be part of one anime's most venerable mecha franchises, its first episode's content feels like a mishmash from a plethora of other recent mecha series, especially Aldnoah.Zero. You have the idealistic young woman who is the daughter of a leader who seeks to travel to Earth to peaceably promote an independence movement on Mars, which is something that the higher-ups of an organization called Gjallarhorn are not keen about. Hence an attack on her to thwart that – one that may have even resulted from her cowardly father selling her out – is arranged. Fortunately she's chosen the orphans of Third Group as her escort; her motive was to get closer to ordinary people and understand them better, though she quickly finds out that such is easier said than done. Besides being a tenacious lot, they also have a special trump card: a Mobile Suit of their own, which may be a relic of a highly destructive war from 300 years earlier. When Third Group's initially-successful efforts to fend of the Gjallarhorn attackers wither in the face of Gjallarhorn Mobile Suits, standoffish young Mikazuki follows through on the planning of his friend and Third Group's commander Orga to charge out into the fray with his own Mobile Suit.
A lot more than this is actually going on, as the first episode throws out an extensive cast of named characters who will all presumably play important roles to one degree or another and suggests multiple levels of plots and scheming. This is what matter most for now, however. On the plus side, the first episode does successfully portray Third Group as a roguish but tenacious lot, one whose commander Orga is doing his best to see is used merely as a regular playing piece rather than a sacrificial one. On the downside, the only other thing which distinguishes the first episode is the seeming density of its storytelling. Its action sequences are solid but unexceptional, and the same thing could be said of its mecha designs and cast of colors. The prevalent color schemes give the series a rather drab look, and none of the character designs stand out, either. In fact, the artistry seems to be putting much more effort into making the boys look pretty than the princess-like Kudelia.
In other words, the whole production has kind of a ho-hum feel to it. Comet Lucifer was also a mishmash of elements from other mecha series, but its brighter look gives it a cheerier, more inviting appeal, especially for those (like me) who may not be hard-core mecha fans. It will have to show something more than it has so far – something fresher, or at least more dynamic – to get much enthusiasm from me.
Mars needs democracy! The city of Chryse on the red planet is the center of a rebellion by Martian colonists to separate from the Earth Sphere, and so far, it isn't going well – powerful forces within the Earth Sphere – controlled by the orbital space HQ Gjallarhorn – need Mars to continue contributing to Earth's economy at all costs. Kudelia, a powerful aristocrat from the wealthy Bernstein family, is seen as the figurehead of the rebellion – so it's too bad her own father has sold her out to Earth in an attempt to crush the rebellion. She's headed for Earth, and as a symbolic move designed to highlight the downtrod population of Mars, she's selected an unlikely escort: the ragtag Third Group orphans from CGS, a private security company. Referred to as “space rats”, these guys are the least likely to succeed – they've all been implanted with the “Whiskers”, a strip of ports in their back (think The Matrix) that allow them to better pilot mecha using an old man-machine interface. Our hero is Mikazuki, along with his pals Orga and Biscuit, specially selected by Kudeila to escort her to Earth. It's a good thing, too, because the Gjallarhorn attacks swiftly, and it's mere minutes until the Third Group is outmatched. Thankfully – and you knew this was coming – it turns out they have a Gundam, which erupts from the ground right at the decisive moment and starts kicking ass.
So this was widely referred to as ‘Mari Okada Gundam’ since it was announced, its defining feature being its screenwriter, the woman responsible for Anohana and most recently Selector Infected Wixoss. She's never written for Gundam before, and based on this first episode, it was a great idea bringing her onboard. Iron-Blooded Orphans has an earthy, grimy wartime feel to it; tonally, it reminded me most of The 08th MS Team, one of the most fondly-remembered Gundam series. Gundam has always had flawed heroes, but usually they stick with the difficult-to-love quiet rebellious loner, or a generic Good Guy Chosen One, but when they go for “scrappy team of lovable misfits” (“discarded by society” helps too!) it's easy to root for them. Mikazuki is a pretty generic street rat type so far, but his dynamic with Orga is set up really well in this first episode and it made me care about all of the Third Squad kids pretty quickly.
Iron-Blooded Orphans has a lot of moving parts, but it's only deceptively complex; this episode starts out confusing (due to the relatively haphazard way they introduce all the various factions and the sizable cast) but as it goes on it all becomes very clear. I was really entertained by the first episode of this show; it helps that it's absolutely gorgeous (note to anyone making a mostly-brown gritty wartime show: use bright, soft colors and your show won't be ugly or dull to look at) with beautiful Sunrise animation and some impressive mecha fights. It's a standalone series, too; this isn't connected to the UC Gundam timeline, so if you're a total newcomer to the world of Gundam this is actually a great place for you to start. There's a great flourish when one of the bloodthirsty Earth Sphere lieutenants comes at the Third Squad with homicidal fervor, and it was emblematic of the kind of energy this show is reaching for. Instantly likable characters, desperate battles, a broad science fiction story about a colony struggling for independence, giant robots and even a Char-like smooth-talking pretty boy weirdo who's working with the bad guys; what's not to love? Sign me up!
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