Fight for Survival, Dream for the Future – Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans

Gundam is a massive and unwieldy franchise. With a history spanning over four decades of anime, sequels, spin-offs, alternate universes, and more, after a while the distinctions between each Gundam series starts to blur. Each time there’s supposed to be a “unique” take on Gundam, they will often carry enough of the common tropes to be familiar, or will slowly jettison the new elements in favor of going with the tried and true. This is the perpetual challenge that Gundam faces, so it is to my surprise that not only did I enjoy the recent Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans TV series (which is not the shocking part; I love Gundam in general), but that I felt it maintained its identity and its high quality despite it being just the kind of series set up to derail itself.

Iron-Blooded Orphan (IBO) takes place in a futuristic world where battles are waged using giant robots called mobile suits. The story centers around the characters Mikazuki Augus and Orga Itsuka, two boys who belong to the bottom-most rung of society, uncharitably called “human debris,” and who at the start of the series are essentially indentured child soldiers for a mercenary group. Early on, they and their fellow human debris rebel against their masters, create their own mercenary group called “Tekkadan,” and fight to try and find a place in a world that literally calls them garbage. Along the way, they meet a number of allies, notably Kudelia Aina Bernstein, a young aristocrat from Mars with lofty ideals of justice and equality, an encounter which changes their lives.

On the surface, Mikazuki as the pilot of the Gundam Barbatos appears to be cut from a certain cloth of Gundam protagonist. As a highly skilled pilot who has fought from a very young age and whose lack of expressiveness makes him appear emotionless, Mikazuki is descended from previous characters such as Heero Yuy from Gundam W and Setsuna F. Seiei from Gundam 00. Where Mikazuki differs from the other two is how IBO highlights his connections with Orga.

Mikazuki is cold and merciless to his enemies, but within his friendship with Orga (it’s perhaps better to call them “brothers”), there’s a very unique connection. Mikazuki is not an empty shell, but he sees in Orga a strong ambition, and he essentially acts as a right arm for the sake of his long-time companion. Similar relationships exist between Mikazuki and Kudelia, as well as between Mikazuki and a long-time female friend named Atra Mixta. Other notable characters are Naze Turbine, a man who literally has a harem of women as his ship’s crew but is actually more about empowering women by giving them skills and educations, and McGillis Fareed, a high-ranking officer who shows what happens when friendship and ambition collide. These characters and relationships are among the many that collectively create a narrative where camaraderie and family persist in the face of harsh odds. IBO never abandons that sense of family, and it is crucial to understanding the role of Tekkadan in all of the conflicts that occur as the series moves towards its conclusions.

One notable aspect of IBO relative to past Gundam series is that, in spite of the series being subjected to the dreaded “split-season” approach, it remains remarkably consistent. One of the major pitfalls of many mecha anime from Studio Sunrise over the past 10 years or so is a tendency to try and improve aspects of the series based on marketing and merchandising feedback. Often times, the series end up losing much of what made them special in the process, but this never really happens with IBO.

In terms of emphasizing toy sales over story, IBO actually shows a great deal of restraint. According to series lore, Gundam Barbatos is just one of 72 different Gundams used in a previous conflict known as the “Calamity War.” In another series, especially one more focused on profits from merchandise, it’s likely we would have seen all 72 show up onscreen. However, even at the conclusion of IBO, only a handful appear. The Barbatos itself is also supposed to have a feature that allows it to integrate the weapons and abilities of other mobile suits, but the anime never really puts this front and center. Changes that occur in the Barbatos more reflect the changes and traumas that Mikazuki goes through as the series progresses.

Because IBO keeps its feet firmly planted and doesn’t fly off-track in a desperate attempt to cater to market research, Tekkadan never stops feeling like Tekkadan. No matter how powerful Mikazuki becomes, and no matter how much Tekkadan’s forces are bolstered, they never stop feeling like an underdog. The steps they take to get further are microscopic compared to the vastness of what surrounds them, especially when it comes to the realm of human society. One of the recurring aspects of IBO highlights this well. While Tekkadan gains military power, their approach to life, which is to treat themselves as a family first and a mercenary group second, often leaves them lacking and inexperienced in terms of diplomacy. On multiple occasions, success on the battlefield is contrasted with failure politically.

The story told in Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans feels like just a small slice of a vast world and history. Whether this is the end of the IBO universe or the start of something more, I come away immensely satisfied.

Fresh, Familiar, Fantastic: Granblue Fantasy Anime Early Review

I recently wrote my initial thoughts on the new Granblue Fantasy anime, which you can find on Apartment 507.

In short, I think it’s off to a great start.

Sound! Euphonium and Friendship Across Differing Skill Levels

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Whenever a group of people share a common interest, it’s easy to think of them as a cohesive unit of similar minds and opinions. Then reality sets in, and it becomes clear that they’re often from different homes, have different personalities, and even perceive their hobby or passion differently. For the music-themed anime Sound! Euphonium, I find that its character portrayals go a long way in emphasizing the subtle peculiarities of the members of the music club. Friendship and other complicated relations arise from these differences and help to further emphasize the fact that music is what unifies them.

There are large gaps in talent and experience between the core group of four in Sound! Euphonium, and each of their stories are made further complex with their reasons for playing. Reina is by far the most dedicated to the art of music, but it’s not from a pure love of song, as evidenced by her crush on her teacher. Sapphire (“Midori”) is not quite as skilled as Reina but still very strong, and her fondness for instrument mascot characters makes music a lifestyle of sorts. Kumiko has a love-hate relationship with her euphonium, which is gradually revealed to come from a love-hate relationship with her older sister. Hazuki starts off as a complete newbie in all respects who learns the tuba as a social experience.

In spite of these differences, all four characters feel like equals. Their individual relationships might not be evenly developed (Reina is more connected to Kumiko than the others, for instance), but they come across as a close group of friends whose perspectives play off of each other. There’s a vast chasm in ability between Reina and Hazuki, but the paths they take when it comes to their journeys with music feel just as emotionally significant to the individual characters. Although Kumiko is clearly the main character of the story, and Midori is never shown to be in any of the same awkward situations, she still comes across as vital to the quartet.

Sound! Euphonium has a lot of strengths, and chief among them with respect to what was written above was the balance between the development of its narrative and the environment created by its character interactions. Unlike K-On! (a series to which it is often naturally compared), which had being in a band as a theme but was more dedicated to showing slice-of-life comedy hijinks, the goal of reaching Nationals centers and grounds the story in a momentum of forward progression. Having its characters at widely varying skill levels helps to give that challenge of coming together a greater importance, while the sense of equality that exists between them in spite of those gaps creates an almost palpable sense of intimacy.

 

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The Secret Best Character: Kevin from Tiger Mask W

Pictured Right: The Best Guy

Both anime and pro wrestling are larger-than-life fantasy worlds, so it’s inevitable that a wrestling-themed anime like Tiger Mask W would be populated with big, bombastic personalities… some even based on real-world wrestlers! Among these characters, there’s one that at first seems easily forgettable, but as the show has progressed reveals himself to be the best man around: Kevin Anderson.

Kevin is a wrestler for the dastardly Global Wrestling Monopoly, the largest wrestling federation in the world and front for the Tiger’s Den, a clandestine organization that trains evil wrestlers. He does not have any appellations, like “Hitman,” or “the Ace,” or “Bigfoot.” With generic tights and a generic look, Kevin’s just Kevin. At best, he’s the guy always next to the GWM’s hot new wrestler, Tiger the Dark.

But it’s in the background where Kevin shines. Through thick and thin, Kevin rises to the occasion, especially when helping out Tiger the Dark. He knows he’s not quite as strong a wrestler, especially compared to the top echelon of GWM big-shots, but he’s loyal to this friends and will lend a hand in times of need. Over and over again, Tiger Mask W makes it seem like Kevin is just going to fade away into irrelevance as the other characters grow in power and intensity, but Kevin’s actually never far behind. When others look out for themselves, Kevin has an eye for the bigger picture.

In the anime and manga Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, there’s a scene where the characters are playing a dating sim and trying to genuinely find the right partner for the protagonist. As they go through all the girls, they find in every single one of them a deal breaker that makes them not good enough for their precious player character. Suddenly, it dawns on them: it’s the best friend, a guy who’s always there to help out, lend an ear, and even give a shoulder. Kevin is Dating Sim Best Friend.

Kevin Anderson is a seemingly milquetoast character who defies his own design. In doing so, he might just secretly be the greatest supporting character around.

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A New Release: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for April 2017

Did you know that Kinomoto Sakura’s birthday is April 1st?
Upon learning this, I realized that major spoilers for Watanuki in XXXHolic were staring me right in the face all along (his name means “April 1st”).

Do any of my Patreon supporters have an April birthday? Whether they do or not, I’m still just as grateful for their support:

General:

Johnny Trovato

Ko Ransom

Alex

Diogo Prado

Viga

Yoshitake Rika fans:

Elliot Page

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

Here are the post highlights for this month:

Part 2 of my Genshiken re-read is up, and it’s amazing to see how many characters come and go in the second volume.

March also saw the end of the New York International Children’s Film Festival. Here are all the Ogiue Maniax reviews from the event:

My Life as a Zucchini

Window Horses

Rudolf the Black Cat

Ancien and the Magic Tablet/Napping Princess

The runaway hit of the last season was definitely Kemono Friends. It was such a big deal I had to write about it twice… sort of.

I also got back on track on my chapter reviews of Kimi xxxru Koto Nakare. The series looks like it got delayed for a little while, but I hope it’s coming back. I really do think it’s an excellent series.

Lastly, it was a close call, but I wrote my thoughts on March Comes in like a Lion. I knew I’d like the show, but I’m even more impressed with how well the show makes its protagonist Rei relatable.

April means the end of the winter anime season and the start of some new shows. That means you’re likely going to see a bunch more reviews for anime that concluded this past season. Early on, I saw quite a few people online expressing their opinions that the winter was something of a disappointment. While this has turned around somewhat, thanks to the rising popularity of shows such as Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid and Kemono Friends, I feel like that idea still persists.

As for new shows, I’m looking forward to Love Rice a show about rice-themed idols. It’s as if Hanayo was allowed to make her own anime.

 

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[NYICFF 2017] Driven by Dreams: Ancien and the Magic Tablet / Napping Princess

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

There are few quotes in science fiction more famous than Arthur C. Clarke’s above. While the idea largely has to do with how science fiction extrapolates the possibilities that can be envisioned from scientific development, Kamiyama Kenji’s new animated film, Ancien and the Magic Tablet, plays with the notion in an interesting way, using a blend of dreams and reality to fuse technology and magic together throughout its narrative.

As a warning, while I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers, the fact that this film is full of surprises only five minutes in means I can’t avoid talking about at least a few of the twists.

Ancien and the Magic Tablet begins with the story of a princess of a kingdom, Ancien, who is trapped in a cage above the royal castle. Her kingdom, known as Heartland, is ruled by her wise father, who is responsible for spreading the use of automobiles throughout their land. The reason Ancien is locked away is because she has a mysterious power to bring inanimate objects to life, including dolls and cars, an ability that would turn all of Heartland upside down.

…Except that it’s all a dream and the actual story is about a girl named Morikawa Kokone, a perpetually sleepy Japanese high schooler living in Okuyama Prefecture in the “far flung” future year of 2020—shortly before the Tokyo Olympics. Living with her widowed father, who works as a mechanic and programs self-driving car AI for the elderly residents of their town, Kokone learns that her father (or rather his computer tablet) holds valuable secrets worth a lot to some very important people. Kokone ends up on an adventure to Tokyo to get to the bottom of all this, all while she keeps having dreams about Ancien and Heartland—a world based on stories her father told her as a child—that mysteriously play out in reality as well.

One of the main thrusts of Ancien and the Magic Tablet (known in Japan as Hirune Hime: Shiranai Watashi no Monogatari, or “Napping Princess: The Story of the Unknown Me”) is a treatise on the benefits of self-driving cars. Ancien and her tablet are overt parallels to the AI technology that Kokone’s father possesses, and it’s portrayed largely in terms of its benefits. In regards to this stance, the film impresses me because it doesn’t try to remain neutral or passive in terms of the beliefs it’s trying to convey on such a controversial topic.

Given the writer and director Kamiyama’s previous works (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Eden of the East), a certain level of love and faith in technology is expected. While Ancien could do more to address the repercussions self-driving cars could have on the global economy, I don’t hold it against the movie too much because it does emphasize certain benefits that don’t come up as often. For example, it can be argued that self-driving cars aren’t only about taking away control, they can be about ensuring safety because of loss of control or disability. A more nuanced approach would’ve been interesting in its own way, but I can live without it at least for one film.

Going back to Arthur C. Clarke, the dream world of Ancien, particularly the “magic tablet’s” ability to “bring things to life,” are basically a fairy tale metaphor for real-world technology. However, because the events in Ancien’s and Kokone’s sides of the story mirror each other and even seem to influence each other, it’s an ongoing mystery as to how the two narratives are related. Is it somehow possible that Kokone is tapping into an alternate reality? The film keeps you wondering right until the very end, and the ultimate explanation for the relationship between Ancien and Kokone’s worlds is actually very satisfying and makes absolute sense.

Ancien and the Magic Tablet feels like the start of a conversation rather than a definitive conclusion. I hope we continue to see its themes in future animated films.

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You’ve Finished Kemono Friends! What Next?

So you’ve watched the last episode Kemono Friends, and found it to be an excellent conclusion to a surprisingly good anime. Its portrayal of friendship and its exploration of defines humanity has left you with lots of laughs and maybe a couple of tears. Now you’re looking for more, and you find that the studio behind Kemono Friends, YAOYOROZU, only has one other anime to its name. Its title is confusing and maybe even a little difficult to pronounce. Should you watch it? Is it as good as Kemono Friends?

The answer is yes, yes, YES.

Tesagure! Bukatsumono does not take place in a mysterious zoo/amusement park. Its characters are not animal-human hybrids. What it does have in common with Kemono Friends, however, is a keen sense of humor that uses both excellent timing and a kind of anti-timing to great effect. To begin to get an idea of what this show is all about, I recommend watching the opening with subtitles on:

Perpetually tongue-in-cheek, the self-aware and often aimless Tesagure! Bukatsumono revolves around four girls in the same club, whose main activity is trying to imagine what other clubs are like. As they all talk through their preconceived notions and try to make up their own “new and improved” versions of other school clubs, their answers become increasingly absurd, providing much of the humor of the series. The title of the anime roughly translates to “Let’s Find a Club!”

You might notice that something feels a little different about those “new and improved” suggestions that the girls of Tesagure! Bukatsumono make. The reason is that those sections are not scripted—they’re actually improv. The back-and-forth between the characters/actors is genuine, and any gaffes are kept in. If you enjoyed the next-episode previews of Kemono Friends with the penguin idol group PPP (or even their dedicated episode), Tesagure! Bukatsumono is that times ten.

Currently on Crunchyroll, each episode is roughly 13 minutes. Much like Kemono Friends, you’ll know if you enjoy the series after one or two episodes.

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