As the progenitor of the “real robot genre,” every time a new Gundam series comes out the question of its realism comes up. Even though its robots tend to be brightly colored and increasingly full of weird weapons, the simple formula of mecha as tool of war endures. Just this past year, we’ve had both Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans, which follows a group of child soldiers, and Gundam Thunderbolt, which combines a gritty feel with a more hard science fiction feel. Which is more realistic? Does it matter?
I don’t intend to actually answer these questions. Rather, I’m bringing them up to try and start a discussion about the ways in which we try to position the idea of realism in something like Gundam. It’s not the first time I‘ve talked about it on this blog, either. With the first episode of Gundam Thunderbolt available, however, I can’t help but feel that it’s probably the Gundam a lot of the fans who revel in a certain image of realism have been looking for. One might call it the Macross Plus of the Gundam franchise in this respect. Its hard SF aspects, both in terms of presentation of technology and its expected character types, provide an interesting contrast to Iron-Blooded Orphans, which has a more contemporary “anime” look, cute girls and handsome boys and all. One can almost detect a generation gap in Thunderbolt vs. Iron-Blooded Orphans in terms of anime fandom; Thunderbolt feels like it came out of the science fiction conventions from which anime cons originally grew from.
In turn, Iron-Blooded Orphans seems more divisive in terms of what it tries to do with its realism, its young boys trying to carve a place in the world because of their circumstances as child soldiers. Of course, child soldiers aren’t new to Gundam. One could argue that the earliest protagonists of Gundam were child soldiers, but in this case it’s more the young guerilla archetype, seen also in Gundam 00. I do see Iron-Blooded Orphans get a bit more flack, and though my sample might be skewed by the fellow fans I interact with and observe, I think it has to do with how Iron-Blooded Orphans, unlike Thunderbolt, carries a kind of more “feminine” aesthetic that does not jive with more traditional images of realism as gritty.
Of course, grittiness does not automatically equal realism, but I think we’re trained to believe it. It’s one of the biggest trends of modern video games, and while there are plenty of games that push against it, many kids are growing up being taught by games and media that this is what “real” looks like. That said, Gundam Thunderbolt still has elements of the fantastic, and perhaps in the space between it and Iron-Blooded Orphans we can find versions of “realism” to satisfy all of those looking for it.
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