Iron Blooded Orphans Is, Unsurprisingly, Not as Good as Turn-A Gundam

[HorribleSubs] Mobile Suit Gundam - Iron-Blooded Orphans - 07 [720p].mkv_snapshot_13.11_[2015.11.15_12.06.51]

As G-Tekketsu proceeds into its seventh episode, it is a conflicting series; it hints at some very interesting ideas it has yet to satisfactorily develop, some other details have turned into a very interesting character study and it sits in an uneasy place between lazy formula and a genuinely interesting take on well-worn ideas. In my initial writing on the series I highlighted its subtlety and willingness to use body language and implicit bits of character development as strengths; it was setting up a contrast between a cynical and pragmatic yet ultimately ignorant hero, and an idealistic yet out-of-touch privileged woman trying to reach out to him. This continues for a while; during the series’ episodes on Mars, the protagonist, Mika, is shown to be illiterate and able to fight only by the muscle memory of his life as a tank driver – in time he admits this and tries to learn to write, but before then it is shown by his refusal to read manuals or instructions. Mika – and his superior officer Orga – remain the most interesting characters even as the series falls into a slump; their dynamic has become a strange inversion of the usual machismo of robot anime.

Orga, being the superior officer, has taught Mika; he is now realising the the combination of Mika’s unwavering loyalty and technological advantage has created a soldier who is outdoing his own achievements. While Orga is the glue who keeps the mercenary unit he has create together, he is – as episode 7’s fight shows – over-eager to prove his “superiority.” These two men – the boy who can do nothing but follow orders because of his lack of education and worship of his superior officer, and the superior who is worried his seniority is under threat – present a truly interesting mentor relationship in a genre that is usually quite traditional in its male bonding. Mika asks Orga to cover him in episode 7; Orga fights beyond the call of duty, putting himself at significant risk, in order to fulfil his “duty”. Behind this one can read the implicit insecurity; the inexperienced, stupid pilot who has up until now been Orga’s lackey, willing to kill on command and fight as a grunt, is now giving orders and setting the pace for the whole unit. The protagonist in a robot anime – especially a Gundam series – is generally the “best” pilot, the one who kicks out against his superiors because they do not appreciate his genius. Here there is the opposite problem; there is a perfectly obedient, consummate soldier who is simply so good at his job it disquiets his superiors. Orga likes Mika being his useful weapon, as shown when Mika happily killed a helpless downed enemy pilot in order to stop him escaping – so if Mika will fight one enemy ace, Orga will fight two to a standstill in an inferior machine to prove himself. The implications this has – the fanatically loyal child soldier who may in time learn a moral compass as he learns to read and write set against the commander worried he is losing influence and so is taking risks – are very interesting.

I am reminded of the camaradarie of pilots depicted in Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction book The Right Stuff; a novel about the space race and the process of testing fighter jets which in its brutal opening chapters goes in-depth into the ways in which fighter pilots treated each other. There was a paranoid insecurity of not being the best, not having the titular “right stuff”, that killed many men; pilot candidates would take risks beyond their ability to earn the respect of their peers and retain their position, and Orga at this point in G-Tekketsu embodies this. He has won initial victories against Gjallarhorn, saved the lives of the CGS personnel and overseen their transformation into Tekkadan; he has approved of killing downed pilots as they try and escape the wreckage of their machines, of exposing and branding traitors before returning them to sender. He has created the embodiment of the militaristic, macho ideal – a manly army of hard-bitten men who will happily kill and do anything to survive and beat their enemies. He has – one can imply – primed Mika to be the embodiment of this in the Barbatos. And now his machismo, his “right stuff”, is called into question as his protege is handily outdoing him.

That is the good stuff of G-Tekketsu; a storyline that began as something interesting is blossoming into something genuinely in-depth, a story of two men seeing an almost exploitative master-pupil relationship subverted in a way that may kill either or both of them. Initially this was set against an equally fascinating arc for Kudelia, the leading woman around whom the war revolves. Kudelia is a privileged woman believing herself to be an enlightened activist who has been shown to be blinkered and cloistered, and who is doing her part; she teaches the illiterate children of Mars, does her part with physical labour and so on. Yet her lack of meaningful progression makes this ring patronising; the way in which her scenes are depicted increasingly present the injustices seen on Mars as easily surmountable by gap year activism. Kudelia teaches the happy orphans on their starship and then the men go and fight. This is a real problem when writing a story about political epiphany; one risks presenting the injustices as convenient plot tokens rather than a believable worlds. The backslide of Kudelia in episode 7 of G-Tekketsu is a good example; she goes from a dedicated teacher and someone who has been verbally smacked down by Mika’s quiet dedication to an inept sex object unable to even dress herself for space without her maid present. The scene of Kudelia needing the adorable Mars girl Atra’s help to dress herself undermines her character arc for the sake of a lazy fish out of water scenario.

The natural point of comparison for Kudelia is either Dianna Soriel from Turn-A Gundam or Crinn Cashim from Fang of the Sun Dougram. She comes up lacking against either. Dianna is, from the start, the antithesis of the sheltered noble – she may have been politically ignorant, but she is nevertheless idealistic and has an idea of what should be being done (her disgust is that this intention is not being honoured, as well as the exposure to the human cost). Her substitution with Kihel Heim is unbelievable to an extent but an entertaining character arc, giving a firm basis for her political epiphany by literally seeing the enemy’s perspective. What she is seeing is the downside of simple ideologically-motivated orders, the human cost of bluntly following an ideal. Kudelia’s arc in G-Tekketsu seems to be based around her being given opportunities to be proved right, situations that suggest her brand of activism is what Mars needs. From the other perspective there is Dougram. Crinn begins in Kudelia’s position, the child of the oppressor who decides to become an activist. Here the similarities end; Crinn does not go through a fish-out-of-water stage, the story is not about his learning perspective or humanity by exposure to cute orphans. It is about someone beginning the plot as a soldier and conscientiously rejecting orders he objects to to the extent he changes sides. It is undeniably an ethically-motivated change, a political awakening to injustice which he acts on as directly as possible. Not “helping how he can”, as Kudelia helping teach orphans to read or falling over picking vegetable is, he is humanised by becoming a grunt and fighting. He is almost like Mika in a way, given the powerful robot Dougram to help him fight – but he is a genuine member of the guerillas rather than a sympathetic outsider.

What this seems to suggest is that the strength of the series remains in its micro-scale interactions, its story about two men who have begun in one unhealthy relationship (an almost exploitative one between an educated man and an illiterate boy) and which have ended up drifting into an equally unhealthy one (a man worried he is losing influence taking risks to keep up with his junior, and a boy who may in time see his unquestioning loyalty challenged as he becomes more educated). Its macro-scale plot, about the political awakening of a soi-disant liberal, is ringing increasingly untrue; Kudelia’s trials seem to be comic inconveniences rather than a genuine developmental arc. Indeed, these cliches are a wider problem in the series’ woman characters; the maid Fumitan remains the most interesting as she is simply a pseudo-officer figure. The Teiwaz pilots introduced in episode 7 are introduced with unsatisfying broad-strokes personalities; there is the vain one who complains about her makeover being interrupted by her military duties, the bland one and the vaguely dominatrix-y one with a maternal side. At this stage, in a series that has done quite a lot with subtle characterisation, that is all the Teiwaz squadron are – and there is an uncomfortable pseudo-paedophilia to a hardline soldier saying it is time for Tekkadan’s pilots to get a “spanking” (given Mika has been painted as a vulnerable child). What sits uneasily here is the fight with the Teiwaz squadron is intensely exciting, and they are all presented as competent threats – but as characters they are nothing. Even the Gjallarhorn squadron who were the first wave of villains had some characterisation from their debut and had satisfying arcs. There is nothing to go on with the Teiwaz women.


One comment

  1. Frog-kun

    I haven’t seen Turn A, so the comparison isn’t particularly meaningful to me, but I did nod along to most of what you wrote here. I completely agree with you that “the strength of the series remains in its micro-scale interactions”. There’s a level of nuance in the character dynamics that’s missing from shows like, say, Aldnoah Zero. On the other hand, the battles already feel repetitive and the sloppy artwork makes it difficult to enjoy the action scenes on the level of pure spectacle.

    I seem to be fonder of Kudelia than you are, though. Yes, there are those scenes which display her clumsiness, but there’s an air of naturalness about Terasaki’s voice-acting that makes these characteristics easier to swallow. Overall, such scenes don’t detract from her overall nuanced personality. Even in episode 7, she took the pragmatic option and tried to stay out of the battle. Note that she doesn’t insist on handing herself over to the enemy anymore at the first sign of trouble.

    That said, I have to agree that she hasn’t really had the opportunity to show off her strengths yet, and she could definitely still fall into the pitfalls of condescending paternalism. There are a lot of ways this show could screw up majorly, but fingers crossed!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s