One year ago, Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans (IBO) wrapped up it’s American broadcasting. Spanning two seasons and fifty episodes, it was a fascinating rejiggering of the Gundam franchise; one that came with a great deal of introspection as to what it’s history means in a different light. IBO takes place in a post-apocalyptic solar system devastated by ancient wars – one that’s only recently recovering and moving forward. With the divide more dire than ever between the haves and have-nots , the series focused on a mercenary company staffed by child soldiers (known as Tekkadan), in their journey through the universe in order to build a name and security for themselves.
What makes the series so remarkable was it’s deconstruction of the Gundam meta-series and its long-held traditions. This is not to say that deconstructions are unheard of in the greater Gundam meta-series, but IBO went a step further and took a critical look at the tropes that have undergirded the franchise for decades now. The largest balloon that got popped was the very concept of having teenagers pilot mobile weapon platforms. The Tekkadan are child soldiers – a life no one should have – that have been damaged emotionally (and even physically in some cases); a fact made all too clear from the very first episode.
In my eyes,while Gundam 00 took baby steps toward that insight (with characters such as Setsuna F. Seiei and Lockon Stratos), IBO approaches transcendental territory. It looked into tropes we took for granted and showed just how damaging that kind of life would be for someone. In the end, however, it still stumbled over itself by descending into an explosion of colors and super-messiahs piloting giant robots. That may sound like a strange criticism to make for a series as steeped in messianic storytelling as Gundam, but this series made a conscious choice to keep it’s setting, technology, and characters relatively grounded. While more traditionally fantastic elements do slip loose here and there, it’s a show that focuses upon the constant moral dilemma the characters face. Sacrificing their bodies to wage war, Fighting more violently (as opposed to the more traditionally antiseptic beam saber), and removing some of the enjoyment an audience would normally feel are all examples of this.
The 2000 AD-esque future of IBO is also quite unlike it’s predecessors. The have/have-not dichotomy is really illustrated by just how bleak certain places (like Mars) are as opposed to Earth. The upkeep of the Tekkadan Mobile Suits vs the more sterile and shiny Gjallarhorn models as well as having certain characters like Mikazuki or Atra suffer malnutrition, (unlike more traditionally drawn characters like Kudelia or Orga) are all telling signs.
The little things are what matter. While it was hard not to want to identify with the protagonist from Gundam oo, it felt more like I wasn’t watching a real person. There was no such problem identifying with the struggles of the characters in IBO like Mikazuki or Orga who had arcs, spotlights, aspirations beyond sitting in the cockpit of a suit. Their success or failure isn’t necessarily material to that, but it helps create a three-dimensional tone. In that regard, that’s part of what makes IBO such a daring addition to the Gundam series. One would hope we still hold it up as a benchmark for what the series can continue to be going forward.