Although I’ve been an anime fan since childhood, I’ve always had this tendency to avoid mecha anime–i.e., anime that feature giant robots that the characters pilot to engage in grand battles. There are two main reasons for this: First, the majority of the mecha shows I happened to catch a glimpse of–e.g., Zoids, IGPX, and Gurren Lagann–were aimed at the male demographic, making me feel like I didn’t belong there in the first place. Second, from the little I saw, the shows looked like they were focusing on the battles with the robots instead of on the characters piloting them. As someone who is interested in the workings of the human mind rather than the inner workings of a robot and all its shiny weapons, this pushed me even further away from shows like the long-running Gundam franchise.
However, in recent years, there have been a few mecha shows that have shown me that they could have deep and interesting characters, specifically Majestic Prince and Cross Ange. That’s why I was feeling a little more open to the latest Gundam series, Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans (Kidō Senshi Gandamu Tekketsu no Orphans) anime. I won’t lie; it probably was also because I am a huge fan of the voice actor Kengo Kawanishi (seen in the photo above, left), who played the lead role in an anime for the very first time as Iron-Blooded Orphans’ protagonist Mikazuki (above right).
Looking at the schedule for Sunrise Festival (anime studio Sunrise’s own film festival), two items caught my eye: Cross Ange and Iron-Blooded Orphans. The Cross Ange screening was a selection of a few of the best episodes with an accompanying talk show by the creative staff.
However, Iron-Blooded Orphans was an all-night screening of episodes fourteen through 25 of the series with a cast talk show at the beginning featuring–you guessed it–Kengo Kawanishi. That was all I needed to make my decision: I would watch Iron-Blooded Orphans.
That’s right. Despite warnings on the internet from die-hard Gundam fans telling me I shouldn’t because I “wouldn’t understand” due to the complexity of the events of the previous installments, I ignored them all and watched my very first Gundam series beginning with Iron-Blooded Orphans (though I decided to enjoy the show in the comfort of my own home instead of sitting in the front row of the theater all night).
And I must say, I found myself pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t just about the robots, but was instead a deep, engaging, emotional story woven by characters who grow as the series progressed.
Mobile Suit Gundam Orphans takes place in a future in which humans have colonized Mars. Unfortunately, Earth exploits Mars’ riches for its own economic gain, leaving many of the inhabitants of the former in poverty. This forces many young boys into work as child soldiers to make ends meet, and they are looked down upon by society as lower than human.
Kudelia Aina Bernstein (seen in the video above at the 1:05 mark)–an advocate for the independence of Mars and the aristocratic daughter of a powerful politician–arrives at their HQ to hire the group to protect her on a mission to Earth. While everything is being set in motion, Kudelia goes to the mercenaries in an attempt to learn about the struggles of the band’s child soldiers.
At first, Kudelia is sympathetic and seems to say and do everything a normal person would do; she makes an obvious effort to treat them like equals, reaching out for a handshake with Mikazuki despite there being no apparent need to do so. When Mikazuki wavers on whether to give her a handshake or not, she asks him, “Why? I just wanted to be on equal terms with you.”
However, she soons finds out that the reason he had hesitated to shake her hand was because he had oil on his. Then, he says words that are almost like a slap in the face: He tells her that the fact that she has to make an obvious effort to be on the same level as them means that she thought herself to be of more importance than them from the beginning. Despite what she thinks she believes, somewhere deep down inside of her, she considers them to be less than her.
Later, after the child soldiers fight off forces that come to the base looking to harm Kudelia, she tries to do what is obvious to her once again: express gratitude. After all, lives have been lost because she was there and she feels obligated to say thank you to Mikazuki for protecting her. However, not only does he reject her thanks, he gives her more words of harsh reality: “They all died because of one mere person like you? Don’t look down on my comrades.” Though she only has the purest of intentions, once again, she considers herself so important that it seems natural for others to protect her rather than fight to protect themselves.
As a viewer, I found myself coming up with the same solutions as Kudelia as I watched the show: Think of those different to you as equals and give gratitude and apologies if you’ve caused trouble. It just seems like common sense. However, the moment Mikazuki made me realize how cruel these words could be to a group of people I wasn’t a part of, I had an epiphany: Kudelia is a mirror of the viewer.
Having had the reality she knew shattered by Mikazuki, Kudelia begins to change throughout the series, gaining more understanding for the not only the soldiers, but all the people of Mars. Following her on her journey through the television screen, my worldview expanded as well. It’s only once in a blue moon when an anime challenges a viewer not just to turn on and tune in but to broaden their horizons and succeed in doing so.
While the members of the child soldier group Tekkadan initially consider Kudelia to be naïve and look down on her, she’s not the only one who has a lot to learn. Specifically, the brigade’s leader Orga (seen in the image above) finds out that he is not as knowledgable as he initially thought. Having spent time with the members of his group since youth (and without parents or siblings to call his own), he considers the soldiers of the Tekkadan to be his family.
Because he cares so deeply for them, he initially insists that the members never be separated, even if it’s to go on jobs that benefit the overall brigade, and is extremely cautious when it comes to the safety of his comrades. However, as time passes by and he gains more and more experience with the world outside of Mars, Orga begins to realize that in order to make progress, sacrifices must be made. If one refuses to move ahead because of the fear of possibly losing what is important, nothing will change.
Is what the Tekkadan seeks necessarily correct? Will it make them happy–or at least happier than they were on Mars? Maybe not. However, I’m reminded of the idiom “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Even if the result might not be exactly what they dreamed of, the Tekkadan members put their lives on the line for what they want. As a leader, Orga finds that he must kill his true feelings of wanting to shield his family from all danger in order to allow the members of the Tekkadan to achieve their goal of making a better life for the entire brigade.
Maybe I’ll never understand the science of how a Gundam mecha really works. Maybe I’ll never remember all the names of the weapons, and yeah, maybe I won’t pick up every single reference to past Gundam shows that appear in the series. But I know one thing: I enjoyed Iron-Blooded Orphans not as a mecha anime, but as a character-driven drama that had me wanting to know what would happen next every single episode. Though the first season of Iron-Blooded Orphans is over, a second season has been green-lit to air this October–and you know I’ll be there at the premiere not just to listen to the talk show, but to enjoy a brand new Gundam anime as a brand new fan.
You can join me in watching the first season of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans for free with English subtitles on Daisuki, Crunchyroll, and Gundam.info’s official YouTube channel. The second season begin airing on October 2, 2016, and you can check out the promotional video for that with a translation by us now.
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