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.

New York Comic Con 2016 Essay #3: The Artist Alley vs. My Expectations

For this year’s New York Comic Con (which is now months ago, whoops!), I’m doing something a bit different with my coverage. Instead of doing a standard con report, with overviews and opinions on panels, artist alley, etc., I’m going to be writing a series of essays based on things I saw at NYCC 2016. Think of it like extended thought exercises and musings inspired by the con.

While manga is closest to my heart, I love comics in general. Even if individual titles aren’t my cup of tea at times, and even if I find myself going back to Japanese comics more often than not (for reasons both rational and irrational), I never want to stop giving different types of comics a chance. This is one of the reasons I’m generally eager to visit the Artist’s Alley at New York Comic Con. Though it’s been years since I looked forward to Wednesdays (the day when new comics in America come out), I still opened myself up to the artists of NYCC 2016 with a simple desire: I wanted to be wowed, to be drawn to them and convinced to read more.

Perhaps I set too unfair a standard for myself and for the artists there.

I want to emphasize that I think the New York Comic Con Artist’s Alley is full of incredible talent. These are hard-working artists, each of whom have their own stories when it comes to how they came to comics. Also, given that NYCC is built on American comics culture, a lot of it would be the things you’d expect: superheroes, graphic novels, and certain approaches to cartooning and anatomy that have grown out of the American tradition. I think all of these things are great and have their own unique strengths worth exploring, but when it came time to find something that, pardon the cliché, spoke to me, I just wasn’t able to.

I feel that the decision-making process I went through as I looked from booth to booth was vague, even to myself. It’s not that I had any specific criteria. For example, I enjoy seeing comics about cool girls doing cool things, but I’d find that the particular arrangements that existed in the Artist’s Alley fell into recurring categories that made them all blend together to a certain extent. If they weren’t female superheroes, they were girls who wanted to show how much they defy gender expectations. These are both very good things, but it’s as if, in the rush to seize these ideas and the momentum they carry (whether for profit, social consciousness, desire to create interesting stories, or something else entirely), they ended up collectively dulling the product in my eyes.

I believe that a lot of the problem lies with me. When you distance yourself from something as I have, you tend to look at it in broader strokes. The opposite is often true if you get too deep into something. For example, when it comes to anime I’m a long-time Gundam fan. I’ve seen nearly every series, and I appreciate the subtle nuances and varying approaches that they bring, for better or worse. To someone outside of Gundam fandom, it just all looks like robots fighting wars and characters giving speeches. Thus, when I looked at Artist’s Alley as this well of potential to bring me back into the fold, I think I was expecting it to have much more of a gravitational pull than it had any right to. After all, if you’re at an Artist’s Alley at New York Comic Con, it’s natural to assume that you should already be into the stuff. It’s not the responsibility of the artists there to “convince me” to give American comics more of a chance, only to convince me to check out their work.

I still plan on taking a similar approach to Artist’s Alley next year with some adjustments. Instead of hoping for something to call out to me and speak directly to my soul, I’ll drift towards anything that catches my fancy. I shouldn’t expect a revolution, but I should at the very least leave the door open for minor reforms.

Ogiue Maniax Talking Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans on the Veef Show Podcast

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I stopped by the Veef Show to discuss the latest Mobile Suit Gundam series, Iron-Blooded Orphans. Have a listen, as we have fairly different perspectives on the show, and I’d love to know what you think of the series as well.

For reference, the post I mentioned about McGillis can be found here, and the series I mention at the end of the podcast that I have begun chapter reviewing is here.

So in conclusion, Fumitan Admoss is the best.

McGillis from Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans is More Char than Char

McGillis_Fareed-5_G-Tekketsu-5Ever since Char Aznable became one of anime’s most memorable characters, many Gundam series have included similar rivals for their heroes. In general, they’re enemy pilots of roughly equal power who wear masks or something similar to hide their faces, and who often have their own ulterior, if noble, motives. Most recently joining the likes of Zechs Merquise, Harry Ord, and more is McGillis Fareed from Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans, and his approach to being “a Char” is probably the most well-realized out of all of them.

Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans spoilers below.

Throughout the original Gundam, Char Aznable is willing to (and has!) back-stabbed even his closest friends because his true goal, to get vengeance for the death of his father, overrides any sort of sentiment he might possess. McGillis is incredibly similar. He’s willing to sacrificing childhood friends for the sake of accomplishing his motives, but in a way he might also be even more scheming and cut-throat than Char himself. While Char might sabotage some of his own side for personal reasons, he never actively leaked information to the enemy or tried to orchestrate both sides to fall in his favor.

McGillis has gone from being a fairly interesting character to being one of the reasons I’m looking forward to the next season of Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans. Given the overall quality of the show, I really, really hope the series doesn’t suffer from Sunrise “half-way point syndrome” like so many of their mecha anime, where in an attempt to become more successful a show loses what made it special in the first place.

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Realism: Gundam Thunderbolt vs. Gundam Iron-Blooded Orphans

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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Gundam: Reconguista in G – Ambition, Eccentricity, and Perspective

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Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans and Gundam Thunderbolt seem to be the Gundam anime a lot of people are looking for. Whether it’s the story of child soldiers of the former or the hard SF feel of the latter, they both capture in different ways the idea of Gundam as that realistic war story with a science fiction twist. While I’ve been enjoying both of these quite a bit, I wanted to step back and look at the previous Gundam anime, 2014’s Gundam: Reconguista in G, because I think it was a legitimately strong series whose merits went underplayed and under-appreciated.

Gundam: Reconguista in G has a reputation for being confusing, convoluted, and nonsensical. Even the writer and director himself, the original Gundam creator Tomino Yoshiyuki, considered G-Reco a disappointment. I disagree. While the series is rife with Tomino-isms that make the narrative and its characters’ decisions hard to follow, one thing rings out loud and clear: G-Reco is the story of people who, for better or worse, have no true connection to war.

G-Reco takes place many years after the end of the original Gundam timeline. In this new era, the Regild Century, voyage into space is restricted, and energy resources are rationed out to prevent the world from falling into the same catastrophes which scarred previous generations. Over the course of the story, characters frivolously and repeatedly switch sides, the ones most eager to fight have the least conception of war’s effects on humanity, and ultimately even as soldiers die left and right, the consequences of their warfare, if you can call them as such, are vague and ambiguous. On the surface, it doesn’t appear to be a story worth following, but I believe that it all emphasizes a central point, which is that the more humankind is distanced from war, the less they understand its repercussions.

Tomino was born during World War II, so it should come as no surprise that the original Mobile Suit Gundam had a strong anti-war message. While the children of that generation weren’t born in an era of conflict, the adults knew full well what post-war reconstruction was like, and many anime and manga creators have strongly believed in the dedication to pacifism stated in Japan’s constitution. However, G-Reco debuted in a different era, in this current time when forces in the Japanese government have clamored and have now even successfully reduced the influence of the Japan’s official stance on pacifism. Similar to Gatchaman Crowds Insight, G-Reco argues that, while there are merits to a world where large-scale global conflict is a distant memory, namely because it means people don’t have to suffer to the same degree, it ironically pushes war and violence even further into the realm of appealing fantasy. It becomes about heroes and villains, about glory and pride, rather than death and destruction.

At the same time, the characters in G-Reco are largely positive and optimistic, and while its ending is rushed and its final scene is undoubtedly the most confusing part of the anime, it also speaks towards a great deal of faith in the youth of today. They make plenty of mistakes, and they’re in some ways just as guilty of treating war as play, but they’re also not beholden to the manipulations of adults and the older generation. In this respect I get a vibe from G-Reco not unlike that of Evangelion 3.33, though the unique tendencies of their respective directors make for different overall presentations.

I think it’s fitting that the last battle in G-Reco concludes with no clear winners and no real fallout, but also has some notably unceremonious deaths. It pushes the idea that war is both meaningless yet full of things that cannot be undone, and it is up to the current generation of humanity to take advantage of our distance from war by keeping it there, while remembering that such distance comes with its own perils.

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Otakon 2015 Interview: Takamatsu Shinji

This is an interview with director Takamatsu Shinji from Otakon 2015. Takamatsu as worked on many anime including Gundam X, the Brave (Yuusha) series

First question. Most Gundam series had romance but didn’t have it as a strong focus. Gundam X is a series that put the romance at the very forefront, and it was in some ways the main focus. Why was this decision made for this series?

It’ll be a long story!

I wanted to make something that was Gundam but not Gundam. One rule of Gundam X was to get out of Gundam and to be meta about Gundam, to do things that were not like “Gundam.

Before that, about a decade prior, you worked on Z Gundam and Gundam ZZ. What was your director Tomino Yoshiyuki, and how would compare his style to yours?

Well, I did grow up watching Gundam myself, and by the time I started to work at Sunrise Mr. Tomino was in the position of being a great director, so it was a scary prospect working with Tomino.

During Z Gundam I was production management, so I reported directly to him, and I was scolded by him every single day. There were days when I was scared about everything.

Romi Park is also at this event, and she gave a similar description of Tomino that is not inaccurate compared to yours.

However, Ms. Park worked with Mr. Tomino much later than I did, and if you look at Mr. Tomino at the time of Z Gundam, he really was off the wall.

You’re also very well known for your work on the Brave series, and you worked on many of them. What was the main reason you returned to the Brave series for so many years?

The first director of the Brave series, Yatabe [Katsuyoshi], brought me onto production for the show, and I worked on a little bit of Gundam in between. So, there was a hiatus for me, but otherwise I started from beginning to end for the entire series. And I got my debut as a director from the Brave series, so I am very much fond of the Brave series.

Might Gaine was my debut as a director, so I am particularly fond of it.

In that case, I have an interesting question to follow up with.

The Brave series is known for being very toy and merchandise-heavy but also having good storytelling, as well as in some cases the staff resisting the merchandising aspects of the Brave series. Two famous examples I know are a hidden cel in Goldran which sarcastically talks about it’s supposed to be a robot that’s easy to make into toys, and how Might Gaine’s ending is a criticism of the toy industry.

What were your and the staff’s feelings at the time, and how did the toy companies such as Takara react?

That’s a very deep and vexing question!

So when I was getting started with Might Gaine, I was told that there’s just supposed to be good and bad, and all I had to do was to have toys that featured good guys and bad guys who would just battle. The staff really felt we need to show some kind of resistance, and that that wouldn’t just be the end of the show. And by staff, I mean myself.

You did not work extensively on Gaogaigar, but I have to ask this question. Do you have any details you can share as to why Project Z never got off the ground?

That I don’t know about!

That’s okay! Moving on, another similar series you worked on was Chousoku Henkei Gyrozetter, which was based on an arcade game. How would you compare working on Gyrozetter vs. working on the Brave series?

Gyrozetter was based on a video game, so while the look and feel of the show may be similar to a giant robot show, production of the show was otherwise completely different.

Unlike previous shows, the robots came from video games, so it wasn’t really needed as a tangible object, and I thought we could have done more with that.

I did grow up watching toy merchandise-based shows and I did think about what if the robot were a toy, but that wasn’t reflected in the show. That would be my regret. I talked about the resistance to merchandising intent of the toy companies for your earlier question but I actually love toys.

Last question. In regards to Cute High Earth Defense Club Love!, people have talked a lot over the years about the idea of a magical boy series. Whenever anyone brings up magical girls, someone asks, what about magical girls? What was the motivation behind finally putting that into reality?

The producer pitched it to me, and I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to work on something no one’s ever done before? And it turned out to be fun. (laughs)

Thank you!

Thank you.