In the year 2000, most Americans were introduced to the idea of Gundam through Cartoon Network’s Tonnami block with the hit series Mobile Suit Gundam Wing like I was was. Its popularity guaranteed almost every release of the Gundam franchise since then on either Cartoon Network or the Sci-Fi channel, and hopefully the latest, Iron-Blooded Orphans, won’t be an exception since a dubbing cast has already been announced. It has already sparked model kits and fan art across the internet, and honestly made this Gundam fan consider it to be possibly the very best of the bunch.
Like Gundam Wing and all other entries before it, Iron-Blooded Orphans (IBO) exists in a harsh reality where kids are soldiers against a corrupt government. But this Gundam show goes a bit further than its previous series, and despite much controversy overseas it brazenly confronts realistic depictions of child soldiers, child slavery, children murdering, and the effects of mass poverty. The sheer brutality of IBO’s world is only matched by the determination of its victims, a group of orphans enslaved by the military on Mars. The two main characters are Orga and Mikazuki, two orphans that were forced to survive by killing and stealing at as young children. Mikazuki and many of the other children were forced to undergo a risky surgery to attach themselves to mobile suits in order to work and fight for their oppressors—a surgery most of them did not survive. Those that did, under Orga’s command, overthrow their captors and embark on a galaxy-wide journey toward freedom. Calling themselves “Tekkadan” or Iron Flower Brigade, the children continue to fight as an organization that vows to help a political activist garner better rights for the people of Mars who are dominated completely by a galaxy governing agency known as Gjallarhorn. As they make their way toward Earth, it becomes very clear that no one is safe and that the only positive outcome is the fact that they got to choose their fates for themselves.
From the first episode, IBO shows no mercy in its depiction of child slaves. More surprisingly, it makes it clearer that none of its main characters are safe from the hand they’ve been dealt in this world. Orga is constantly tormented by the burden of leading the children in battle as well as the crushing weight of Mikazuki’s expectations that he’s held for him since they were very young. Mikazuki is drawn with wide, unblinking eyes that demand unwavering answers from his childhood leader and his intensity carries through to the battlefield. He cuts down his enemies without a second thought and without remorse—actions of what most would consider a sociopath created by war. Actions that are mirrored from his childhood when he had to kill to survive. All of this is framed by the perspective of a young woman named Kudelia, the aforementioned activist, who vows to stand up to the corrupt government and make real change for the people of Mars.
The style of IBO is clean and beautiful, but the weight of the series is harsh and unrelenting. Some of the character designs stand out like a sore thumb, like Orga’s visor-like hair, but the majority are easy to look at and remember. Each episode’s narrative is action packed and emotional in a very balanced way that keeps you coming back for more. And each time you return you just wish things could be better for these characters, but it keeps you wondering who will even survive the end.
The Gundam designs are some of the most unique in the franchise’s history in that there is no one style of Gundam. Each one seems to be designed specifically toward what its main approach to fighting may be. The main suit, Gundam Barbatos, is a sleek and quick machine like its pilot Mikazuki and it is versatile in that it can wield almost any kind of weapon. Gundam Gusion eventually shows up in completely opposite fashion, sporting a bulky frame and a giant hammer—clearly a wall of power to be reckoned with. As more and more appear, it becomes obvious that each suit is a reflection of its pilot in some way and this provides a unique connection and easy association visually for viewers. It never pours on the action scenes in the mobile suits too heavily, and it spends most of its time developing the world and the characters in it.
By the end of the first season, I was left breathless and exhausted as much as the characters were after what they went through. It never falters on the seriousness of their situation and though you get small moments of humor, it is only to build character and further twist the knife in your heart when the pain of their world hits them another time. As the newest entry in the Gundam universe, I can honestly say that none of the previous shows have come close to covering the issues of our real world the way that IBO does. It’s not overly preachy about how awful these things are, but it definitely makes sure that you see the horrors and you lament the losses that the characters endure. There are no throwaway characters and there are few annoying stereotypes to detract from the experience.
Iron-Blooded Orphans is powerful and one of the most unique entries in the Gundam franchise. The entire first season is available on Hulu as well as Crunchyroll at 25 episodes and it will return for a second season in the Fall of 2016.