[My thoughts on Iron-Blooded Orphans with spoilers…]
The last Gundam series that I watched to the end was Gundam 00 and it was such a long while back. Long enough that I can’t remember anything about it. This one though, I’m not likely to forget. Iron-Blooded Orphans leaves quite an impression and a bitter taste in my mouth (but that’s more to do with the ending).
This story wasn’t what I expected. It was clear from the start that it was going to be unpleasant. For once, a story featuring child soldiers acknowledged that they were child soldiers and that there were problems with it – most anime either skirt around the issue, or ignore it altogether. We see our protagonists trapped in a system, fighting for their place and they are manipulated, outwitted and eventually defeated by the adults.
Still, their story is quite compelling. From the beginning, we see these children driven into corners and we see them claw their way up and out. I wanted to see how far they would climb, how they would change themselves and the world around them, and if they would ever actually achieve what they set out to. The story gives us a less conventional set-up with regard to their ambitions: our protagonists aren’t aiming to save the world; they’re aiming to save themselves. They are not heroes at all, but mercenaries – a private army of sorts that seeks to advance its own interests. The story itself focusses on the smaller battles and brawls that they get into, which unsurprisingly have no universe-ending consequences. The world spins on, with or without them, a grim reflection of reality, but it takes a while for them to understand their own insignificance. Despite all that, it’s easy to become invested in their fates because they’re all quite likeable.
I completely enjoyed watching the protagonist – Mika. As far as protagonists go, he’s a breath of fresh air. Mikazuki Augus is a simple person. He’s not fighting for grand ideals and he’s not really holding on to any principles. He’s not driven by justice or peace or anything personal, even. He’s a tool (literally). Mika’s character throws into sharp relief the lofty ideals and the great and convoluted plans of the adults around him. Compared to him, everybody talks too much and thinks too much. It’s immensely satisfying to see him point this out from time to time.
In some ways, Mika feels like the personification of the Gundam itself, inorganic and mechanical, but still driven by something human at the core. We don’t have to deal with emotional outbursts and we don’t have to worry about his feelings. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have feelings – it’s more like he doesn’t give them too much thought. It’s very unusual in a protagonist but for this story, it works.
It works because there’s more than enough emotion from the rest of the team to make up for Mika. Heading that team is the extremely passionate, determined and emotional Orga Itsuka. Orga and Mika have a strange relationship and a backstory that most fortunately, the show doesn’t expound on because we get it: they drive each other. As different as they are, I found Orga as likeable as Mika. It’s Orga’s charisma that pulls the orphans together and it’s his words that urge them forward. His self-loathing when his orders kill members of his “family”, his frustrations at his failures and his quest for revenge are as human as his intention to laugh like an idiot when they eventually make it to their goal.
I found the pair of them quite endearing. Together, they enable the audience to latch onto the fates of the orphans, waiting with bated breath so see if they win.
They don’t and that’s where my issue with this story starts.
I began to suspect, somewhere along the middle of the second season that it wasn’t going to be a happy ending. I thought the kids had bitten off more than they could chew and I figured that there were going to be repercussions. Understanding that they were doomed is one thing; watching it play out is quite another and a lot sadder than it sounds. Their deaths aren’t exactly written well, either. Orga, for example, finds random assassins on a quiet street, and it seemed like the only reason they were there was because the series was nearing its end. Mika’s end, similarly, felt underwhelming. I know that it all makes sense overall– these kids cannot possibly defeat a superpower through sheer determination alone, but perhaps many years of watching anime heroes do the impossible has made me expect great things from our main characters, even as they die.
The orphans are never vindicated and the villain becomes the hero. Altogether, it was very unsettling. One might argue that this is the story’s selling point. It’s realistic. In the real world, the good guys don’t always win. History is written by the winners and some stories are relegated to the shadows, altered, forgotten or erased. It’s true, but this is fiction and I like a happy ending.
Then there’s the case of McGillis Fareed, the catalyst behind the orphans’ doom. We learn quite early in the story that McGillis is a sharp and cunning creep. Then we find out that he spent his entire childhood, adolescence and adulthood learning about the importance of power and scheming for it. How is it possible that a character who plotted everything out couldn’t possibly foresee that Plan A would fail and come up with Plan B? In fact, such as character should have had several back-up plans, maybe all the way to Plan Z. He didn’t though, costing his unfortunate allies everything.
I think I was expecting a lot more intrigue and wit from this character so his failure and the subsequent demise of the orphans made the conclusion of the story all the more difficult for me to sit through. Once McGillis loses his cunning, along with most of his credibility (and power), there’s really no challenge left for the antagonist. It’s going to be a one-sided victory and the rest of the conclusion is just watching the orphans lose. Maybe that was why I found the conclusion so unsatisfying.
So, if I had to sum this series up, I would say that I like the characters, I like the way the story went but I severely dislike how it ended. I didn’t think it was bittersweet; I just found it bitter. I would never rewatch this and I don’t think it’s the best in its genre but I would recommend it if someone asked. Of course this is just my take on it. If you have watched Iron-Blooded Orphans, feel free to share your own experience below.