It’s been a long time since we had a good MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM show to enjoy. Up until now, the peak of the series has been GUNDAM WING, a show which concluded twenty years ago and has not aged well. Since then no GUNDAM has felt like it was living up to the potential that was so clearly there.

Personally, it felt like I had all but written off the series as a whole. But then they made MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM: IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS and it gave me hope. Everything in IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS lives up to what GUNDAM is capable of. IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS uses everything at its disposal to create a realistic, character-driven show. This is the GUNDAM we’ve all been waiting for.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT

For the uninitiated, MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM is a series of mecha anime that began in 1979, created by Tomino Yoshiyuki. Mecha is a sub-genre of anime in which humans fight their wars piloting giant robots. Those giant robots are called mobile suits. The term “Gundam” refers to one or more of these mobile suits that have been specially made. So while all Gundams are mobile suits, not all mobile suits are Gundams. Because they are stronger than the average mobile suit, they usually require a pilot who is more skilled than average as well.

The Original Mobile Suit Gundam with a Colony in the background
The Original MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM | Image: Madman Entertainment

Initially, GUNDAM took place within a timeline called Universal Century. GUNDAM WING was the first show to exist in its own timeline, which is referred to as After Colony. Each new GUNDAM show since then usually exists in its own universe.

IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS is the story of Tekkaden, a mercenary group of child soldiers raised to fight. Amidst the machinations of the powers that be, this group, with the Gundam frame Barbatos to aid them, fights to accomplish their goals. At their center are a pair of friends, Orga and Mikazuki. Their ambition to escape the circumstances of their birth entangles them in a deadly political struggle.

This might sound familiar to those more acquainted with the franchise. IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS is like many GUNDAM shows: Teenagers fighting in big humanoid mechas, acting as cogs in a larger political machine controlled by adults who run the gamut from idealistic to downright evil. We see our heroes explore what it means to love others, and how to deal with death and loss. GUNDAM’s have always explored big themes within a larger than life, fantastical plot. Indeed, this is the mission of all good sci-fi.

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CHILDREN AT WAR

Mika and Orga talking with their backs to the audience
Mikazuki (left) and Orga (right) having a heart to heart. | Image: Cruchyroll

GUNDAM: IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS may share common themes with previous GUNDAMs, but where those other installments might scratch the surface, IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS digs into these themes and never loses sight of them. The show treats these themes with an earnest lens which grounds IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS in reality like no other GUNDAM has been able to accomplish. The best example of this is the age of our heroes.

The original GUNDAM did spend some time focusing on Amuro’s age and inexperience, but most GUNDAM shows don’t. Between that first series and IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS, each show expects the audience to accept their young age and move on. It’s therefore easy to forget these are teenagers. We see Heero Yuy of GUNDAM WING running around with guns, jumping out of skyscrapers, being talked to like he’s an adult, and fighting with the skills of a super soldier. Then we’re told he’s fifteen years old and it rarely comes up again.

IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS does not make this mistake. This show explores its characters’ ages in a realistic way. The loss of our protagonist’s innocence at such a young age is tragic, and that drives the plot from the very first episode. We’re not watching a war story where the main characters happen to be children. Ultimately we’re watching a story about abused children trying to take enough power for themselves the only way they know how, so they never have to go through these dark times again.

A GUNDAM WITH CHARACTER

Mikazuki and Orga in the foreground, Tekkadan members line up behind them with Barbatos Gundam towering in the background.
Tekkadan and the Gundam Barbatos | Image: Crunchyroll

IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS develops its main characters extremely well over the course of its fifty-episode run. It is truly an ensemble show, and when a character dies, you feel the impact. Three characters stand out most, however.

ORGA ITSUKA

Orga Itsuka, the leader of Tekkadan, is reckless and single-minded. When offered the chance for Tekkadan to become “Kings of Mars,” he takes it. In that position, he sees the power to lead his family of orphans to a better life finally. He has good intentions, but he is still childish. Orga fails to consider the consequences that this decision will have for the world around him, or how the decision will affect the responsibilities he has already accepted.

Furthermore, as the people in his life begin to pay for his decisions with their lives, Orga begins to question himself and his decision making. Orga is always losing sight of what is truly important, which is normal for a teenager. While thrust into a position with adult responsibility, he is often criticized for his inability to see the larger picture. Again, completely normal teenager stuff. 

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MIKAZUKI AUGUS

Mikazuki Augus, our heroic Gundam pilot, is a literal sociopath, seemingly unaffected by violence or love. He is a product, as are the rest of Tekkaden, of a brutal world which exploits children with nowhere else to go. Mikazuki is driven by his friendship with Orga, trusting him implicitly. Mikazuki resigns himself to be the sword in Orga’s sheath, and his abilities in combat make him a dangerous weapon indeed.

However, their initial success doesn’t come without a cost. Mikazuki’s increasingly deteriorating body is an analogy for all child soldiers who fight long enough. Eventually, Mikazuki is only able to move his limbs within the cockpit of his Gundam, the Barbatos, thanks to the alaya vijnana system which connects his brain to the computer of his mobile suit. Because of this, combat becomes his only purpose, and he admits as much. Mikazuki has no ambitions or dreams of his own, and if the war were ever to end, he would cease to have purpose.

MCGILLIS FAREED

McGillis brings flowers to his loving wife
McGillis and his Child Bride | Image: Cruchyroll

An ambitious member of a Gjallerhorn, McGillis Fareed might have the darkest childhood of all. Toward the end of the show, we learn that this darkness has informed virtually all of his decisions. The same thing drives McGillis and Orga: a desire for enough power to escape being the victim.

Ultimately, McGillis is stunted (understandably so) by the abuse he suffered as a child. While his body has grown, and he is an adult, we can infer that his mind is still that of a child’s. Even his dream of power is rooted in a story he read as a child. He starts a whole war over it. People die because he thinks he can enact a prophecy from a storybook.  

PUTTING THE BLOOD IN IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS

Bloodied man grasping his side in the cockpit of a Gundam
Aihiro is a mess. | Image: Crunchyroll

IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS is mainly concerned with the horror of these lost children trying to make their way in a violent world. The thing which drives that horror home is the show’s brutality. As if the name alone wasn’t enough to tell you what to expect, IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS is perhaps the most graphically violent of all the GUNDAM’s. I mean, these guys go for the cockpits. Characters we love are unceremoniously gunned down in the streets.

Well, okay there’s a bit of ceremony. It’s still an anime after all.

But the fact that main characters aren’t indestructible is revolutionary within the broader context of the franchise. In a show like GUNDAM WING, you never really see death on the battlefield. People talk a lot about it, but what you see is a lot of big robots exploding. Some of these robots do have people in them, sure, but as a viewer, you can’t see this. As a result, the violence seems neutered and the stakes diminished.

The heroes will eventually figure a way out of their situation. In the end, they’ll still be out there doing their thing. Ultimately the violence is meaningless. However, the brutality of IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS reminds us that war isn’t a child’s game, even when children are the ones on the front line. It’s a bloody mess, people die, and our heroes don’t always live to see the end.

IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS doesn’t amp up the violence just for shock value. It’s simply a cartoon that refuses to treat such a serious subject cartoonishly.

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VERDICT

Young Orga hunched over in an allyway with blood streaming from a wound in his head
Young Orga | Crunchyroll

IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS accomplishes so much in its two seasons. It’s hard to imagine anything new becoming a classic. When most people think of the franchise, they think of MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM, or they think of GUNDAM WING. Honestly, IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS probably won’t do much to change that right away. It might take years for this anime to become a classic, and there are more factors than just quality which will determine whether it reaches that level in the canon, if it ever even does.

While that may be, this GUNDAM remains the pinnacle of what this franchise is capable of. The action, the artwork, and the storytelling each take this GUNDAM far above what has been accomplished before. And above all is the character development. In the larger GUNDAM universe, this level of character development is unprecedented. Heero Yuy is not a realistic depiction of a 15-year-old boy. Nor is Relena Peacecraft a realistic depiction of a 15-year-old girl. I’m not sure they’re even realistic depictions of human beings.

The characters in IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS are serious and thought-provoking depictions of teenagers. In exploring their age in a real way, IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS takes a tired anime trope and breathes new life into it. That’s why GUNDAM: IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS isn’t just another GUNDAM, it’s the best one.

Featured image courtesy of Crunchyroll.

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4 Comments

  1. Unhappyfan

    February 18, 2018 at 12:40 am

    A masterpiece…. it failed to be by the second half of season 2.
    LEt’s face it, the second half became a terrible mess with a forced and unsatisfying conclusion. The first season and part of the first half of the second had little in the way of plot armor. Characters behaved intelligently or they died, and even then they were never entirely safe.
    Yet the second half had multiple characters regress, and the worst is Mcgillis who literally became stupid. He was a man obsessed with metaphor, yes, but he knew the Essence of a symbol. He knew it required circumstances. And yet he seemed to forget it entirely just so He Would Lose.
    Even if you are gonna go with him losing, he would NOT have died without causing irreparable damage to Gjrallahorn. It is pure bullshit that the leader of the arianhord fleet, who, mind you, is a war criminal responsible for a false flag and the cold blooded murder and execution of protestors, became god damn president when there was countless ways Mcgillis could ahve doomed the entire organization. Reveal every tini, tiny sin, expose them utterly in case he every died, assassinating improtant members. Fuck, he would have done just that to that fat mafioso bastard to destroy their aiblity to contorl the media.
    And yet he did nothing that a character who was designed by default to be a puppetmaster would do.
    You look closely enough and it all falls apart.

    It lost the right to be a masterpiece at that point man.

    Reply

  2. Bonnie

    February 15, 2018 at 6:56 am

    Well written and extremely comprehensive! I enjoyed reading it!

    Reply

  3. Warren

    February 14, 2018 at 6:08 pm

    I can tell how much thought went into this review when it’s being called a masterpiece, even though it’s one of the most flawed entries in the franchise to date and also states that Wing is one of the best even though it’s a very flawed show. Iron Blooded Orphans is at best a mediocre mech anime that just happens to have Gundam in the title. Opinions are fine and all, but if you’re honestly going to “review” something, make sure to really put some thought behind it and pay attention to the many problems. Just because you found it entertaining, doesn’t make something good.

    Reply

  4. Genji

    February 13, 2018 at 11:55 pm

    I disagree with you saying that the last ‘good’ gundam show (besides IBO) was Wing, because I thought 00 was pretty dang good.

    Reply

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