The opening episode of Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans (abbreviated henceforth as G-Tekketsu) is particularly strong both as a franchise entry and as a piece of science-fiction television. While I particularly enjoyed the dense, confused mayhem of G-Reco, its predecessor, that series’ shortcomings became obvious in time; in trying to tell a story about characters uncertain of what they were doing, it was unable to tell the audience effectively what was happening. G-Reco was, in the end, about various groups of people unused to war finding their efforts at starting one went awry; in some ways a possible critique of the “chickenhawk,” the politician who talks big about militarism but has no stomach for blood. Yet in the end its concepts – of a number of insular, superstitious nation-states in space ending up embroiled in a pointless inconclusive war that ended up benefiting a small number of loudest-voiced people – were significantly more interesting than its status as a piece of fiction.
Tekketsu opens in apparently a similar fashion yet executed far better. The viewer is introduced to events that are about to kick off a major conflict without really being given more of a geopolitical picture than can be derived from how the characters talk about their own actions. There are not really lengthy explanations of the status quo for the benefit of the audience, but instead conversations that involve the cast talking about how the status quo benefits their own ambitions. The initial conspiracy involves the attempted betrayal of a vocal Martian independence advocate by her family, who try to strengthen their own political position by having her removed from the picture. It fails as what was supposed to be a simple military raid is met with stern defence, and in turn the main cast of characters – soldiers of a Martian security force – are introduced to the idea that war on Mars is inevitable. In the sequence of scenes that comprises the episodes – negotiations between the Martian politicians and the military, discussions between pro-Earth military officers, scenes of life on the Mars base and in the cities – enough information is given about the situation to allow the story to be told. Mars wants independence, Earth sees it as both too valuable to give up and at the same time an economic albatross.
In a way, I am reminded of a very good animated series I have seen before; Fang of the Sun Dougram. That series’ scope was larger; it was set on the distant world of Deloyer, which was isolated and hostile owing to spatial phenomena interfering with Earth technology. It followed a young Earth soldier defecting to a pro-independence militia and fighting to bring down the government. In the end, the military campaign was only questionably successful – although reform came, the role of one prototype robot in this measured victory was limited. Tekketsu hits many of these beats; there are pro-Establishment voices seeking internal reform and running up against their self-interested families. The Ahab Reactor’s radiation clouds fulfil a similar role to Deloyer’s X Nebula, updating Gundam staple the Minovsky Particle (which in the original story justified visual-range and close combat by providing a reason why beyond-visual-range weaponry was rendered useless). This mixture of common genre knowledge and adept exposition – characters not expositing in the form of blunt information but slanted, personal conversations – works well. The Ahab interference requires physical patrol vessels to orbit Mars, justifying the existence of bored, over-equipped military forces with a hair-trigger who can easily be brought in to assassinate a political embarrassment. Private security companies like CSG, the organisation Tekketsu’s protagonists work for, are presented as a strategic boondoggle; they take isolated and dispossessed people, give them surgical enhancements to allow them to operate military hardware, but have no real military strength compared to actual armies.
What is more interesting is how Tekketsu uses body language and subtle cues in dialogue, something of a contrast to how plainly-spoken about emotions most Gundam series are. Its visual style is exaggerated in an often hyper-masculine way, both in positive and negative terms. Its soldiers are muscular, hard-worn types led by paunchy, sneering desk officers. Its politicians and special forces are preening, adorned nobles with a psychotic edge. The leading woman in the story, Kuderia, shifts between assertiveness and ignorance as soon as she is faced with genuine hardship. It is a series that does not spell out how it wants its characters to be read with expository dialogue, it does it through visual cues, mannerisms and interactions – a much more interesting method. Kuderia’s naivete is laid bare in how she offers to shake Mika, the main pilot’s hand. He refuses, claiming his hands are dirty and unfit for her – rebuffing her wish to see him “on equal terms.” Kuderia is reaching out with what she thinks is a gesture to make her “accessible” and “normal” but is taking a condescending, privileged tone in doing so. Mika claims that the fact his hands are dirty from work shows that they will never be “on equal terms.” This short conversation was one of the most interesting parts of the episode, in my opinion – if the remit of an opening episode is to lay down some characters and establish an ongoing plot (as even the king of ambiguous opening episodes Rahxephon offers) then relying on character conversations rather than talking at the audience is a much better way of setting up this clearly key relationship. Kuderia will survive her attempted assassination but she is initially being presented as someone who does not understand the people she is fighting for. For the voice of Martian independence, she is presented better in this short conversation as the naïve, armchair activist than in her introduction as a privileged voice. If the Dougram analogies hold true I would love to see her become a Crinn Casshim figure – somebody who rejects their privilege and genuinely leaps into the physical activism.
So Tekketsu’s first episode presents mysteries that should be followed up on – the future of the Martian colony, the nature of the Barbatos (the war robot that Mika uses to fight off the Earth forces), and the political situation on Earth. It also provides enough information to make these mysteries clear by context, and enough cues about the characters to give a good sense of their initial worldviews, life experiences and attitudes. It does this quite naturalistically, albeit still in a quite heightened form of naturalistic fiction. Its visuals exaggerate subtle cues and personality traits, but it is nevertheless using the visual medium to its strengths to quickly communicate supplementary information that would otherwise need loudly stating in unrealistic, blunt dialogue. Stylisation and exaggeration in television drama are not bad things; purely naturalistic dialogue is not the ne plus ultra of drama. On the other hand, watching Tekketsu reminded me that one of the merits of enjoyable anime (and drama more widely) is that that stylisation does not need to go hand in hand with dialogue that assumes the audience cannot read subtext or visual language. Indeed, perhaps its most refreshing thing was the utter lack of an introductory narration spelling out the geopolitical situation (held out into the second episode, too); we are not told that in such-and-such year, this happened on this colony and that these factions are at war. We are shown that war is coming instead.