I’ve talked about the Gundam franchise once before with the sub-par 00. Honestly, it’s a franchise I’m not super familiar with even though it’s incredibly famous. I’ve seen bits and pieces of some others but the only other one I’ve watched all the way through was Wing, which I have a lot of praise for. None of the others have really grabbed my attention, though. Enter Iron-Blooded Orphans, which just finished its second series in April. I haven’t seen anything of this one. I’ve heard some positive things but I can’t say whether or not I agree with them. One thing that interests me is that it was written by Okada Mari. She’s written some anime adaptations we’ve looked at before like Toradora & Kuroshitsuji. We also have her to thank for writing Canaan, Black Rock Shooter TV & AnoHana, the original novel, anime & manga. She doesn’t have the world’s best track record with me (The late Sir Terry Pratchett holds that distinction) but she does have a pretty solid one. Especially when it comes to non-adaptation works. And, with Gundam, the anime and manga were basically released simultaneously. This may be another Gundam series I can be really positive about, but let’s watch through it before making that judgement. After all, we all remember that time Ikuhara Kunihiko disappointed me even though I usually like his work. Keep in mind, this review is going to cover both series of Iron-Blooded Orphans.
We open on Mars with a company called CGS. They’re hired by a young activist, Kudelia Aina Bernstein, to escort her to Earth so that she can try to push for some changes to benefit Mars. Things go south quickly. The powerful military organisation, Gjallarhorn, sends troops to demand that CGS turn over the young lady. This results in the older member scarpering and the child soldiers taking advantage of the situation to take control of the company, after using a Gundam Frame to repel the initial attack. Under the leadership of Itsuka Orga, they change the name to Tekkadan. Their first mission, finish the escort job that CGS started. Thus begins their legend.
The biggest flaw with IBO is that there are some plot points that rely on some pretty contrived stretches. In the first series, our heroes arrive at a colony where there’s a group that’s been heavily inspired by Kudelia & she’s still being chased by Gjallarhorn. Both groups mistake Tekkadan’s chef, Atra, for her. Now, let me get this straight, Kudelia is a public figure who’s appeared on television stations and the like, but these groups don’t know what she looks like? Gjallarhorn couldn’t pull up a stock photo for their goon squad to look at? The group inspired by her speeches and ideas never bothered to actually watch them? What makes this even dumber is that we know they have access to them. There’s a point where she’s recognised by a member of the group who saw her on the news. But we’re expected to believe that this major public figure who’s inspired all these people is only recognised by this one person? Is literally everyone else in the group named Matt Murdock?
The second series gives us another with a character who was shown pretty definitively dying in the first series turning up alive and well. You’ll know them when you see them, they try to hide the identity but it’s really obvious. Then again, this is Gundam, maybe he was just replaced by his identical younger brother. No, I’m not sick of mocking that bit from 00 yet. A more minor issue is with the romances. There are some characters who end up together even though they’ve just exchanged a few lines and never shown any chemistry. Fortunately, the romance is just a side thing and has very little impact.
The death scenes are a bit of a mix. On one hand, the series generally does do a good job of illustrating why a character matters before we see them die. Unfortunately, this has the side effect of making the major character deaths incredibly predictable. Most of the time you’ll get five minutes into an episode where a major character dies and you’ll know it’s coming. Now, there are ways to write a strong character death when it’s obviously coming. Beast Wars managed it as did A Prayer for Owen Meany. The difference between those and this is that one started delivering hints for a good dozen episodes in advance and the other was a fairly long novel where most of it was dedicated to showing why the character mattered. It doesn’t work as well when you try to cram all of that into fifteen minutes or so. Especially when it comes to less prominent characters who haven’t had all that much of a role.
There are plenty of positives to the narrative. I appreciate that the series takes risks. There are quite a few major characters who don’t make it. There are times the antagonists win major victories. The ending is very bittersweet. The series also has a good amount of subtlety in its portrayal of the conflicts. There’s rarely a side that’s just abhorrent, rather, you’ll get two sides coming into conflict and you’ll have an understanding of why each one is fighting. And chances are they’ll both fight dirty. You’ll probably favour one side over the other but you can understand both. The series is also good at handling its darker content like slavery, arranged marriage involving characters who are far too young or child soldiers in a way that doesn’t shy away from showing or discussing the darker aspects. The content isn’t just there in an attempt to be edgy or dark, it’s actually relevant. Sadly, that’s not common.
One thing that’s kind of inevitable when you’ve got a cast this big is that some characters are better developed than others. You’ll have some characters who are largely relegated to the background, others who are big supporting characters & the core group. I will say, the characters you spend any amount of time with do have decent levels of verisimilitude. They’re fleshed out enough to make them compelling. The major characters get even more development, mostly. Then we have Mikazuki. In some ways, he’s kind of like your typical, emotionally stunted protagonist. He has a perpetual thousand yard stare, speaks pretty monotonously and follows his orders. He is shown to have some emotions, mostly violent, but he’s still kind of dull. I do appreciate that our antagonists are given proper motivations and fleshed out too.
One thing that Sunrise is pretty consistently good at is artwork & this series is no exception. The backgrounds, mechs, space ships, & character designs are all really strong. A lot of the characters even have noticeable non-verbal tics. Which adds some realism to them since we all have things like that that we do without even thinking about it. The action flows well and a lot of the battles are absolutely brutal. The artwork is also really effective at setting tone. The worst I can say about it is that a lot of the major characters have shounen hair. You know what I’m talking about. Ridiculous looking hair styles that probably involve entire tubes of gel every day but the characters have them because they stand out.
There are plenty of strong performances. To name a few of the more prominent ones, we’ve got Terasaki Yuka, Kanemoto Hisako, Takumi Yasuaki, Sakurai Takahiro (stop following me, Cloud), & Hosoya Yoshimasa. There aren’t any poor performances in this. About the worst you get are the minor characters who never get to demonstrate any kind of range. Even then the few lines they get are capably delivered. The music is really good too. The theme tunes are nicely done & the music within the episodes is used, effectively, to enhance the atmosphere.
IBO has a lot of characters who read as bisexual and a few who take things a step further. Mikazuki likes to talk about how Orga gave him his life and he’ll do anything for him. Although he also has female love interests. Speaking of, Atra & Kudelia both seem to be as interested in one another as they are in Mikazuki. Especially Atra who likes to fantasise about a world where the three of them are all together. In the second series, Takaki seems to have a thing for Aston. We also have Yamagi who wants to Trowa Shino’s Quatre.
Iron-Blooded Orphans has some flaws. It has some really noticeable contrivances, romances that are mediocre at best & the main protagonist is just okay. Still, it’s a really good series with positive aspects that far outweigh those issues. My final rating is going to be an 8/10. Next week I’ll look at Koe no Katachi.