Where Does Close Reading Become Projecting Meaning That Isn’t There? (More Thoughts on Iron Blooded Orphans)

[HorribleSubs] Mobile Suit Gundam - Iron-Blooded Orphans - 03 [720p].mkv_snapshot_18.28_[2015.11.03_00.27.26]

Both the greatest strength and potentially greatest weakness of G-Tekketsu is its laser-focus on masculinity and the “expectations” placed on men and women in a fiercely macho, dog-eat-dog society. It has failed to go anywhere fast so far with its story of Kudelia’s move from naivete to competence as an activist or political figure, with her still – some distance into the series now – bemoaning her lack of competence. Indeed, it has perhaps become even more reductive in how it presents its women. There is a narrative justification for this – this is a ship of sex-obsessed children in thrall to a salacious polygamist’s apparent living the manly dream, and the story is ostensibly about the demolition of their masculine ideals. Yet this inevitable demolition – and the foreshadowing does still suggest it is inevitable – has yet to come in any concrete way.

A character is wounded in battle, and the male characters worry a little about this but then he is shown to be making a recovery that same episode and that feels like that. A character dies, and his comrades hold a space funeral for him – yet beyond these supertextual scenes there does not feel a convincing depiction of the deeper-rooted effects of the events. The younger children turn to the maidservant and bridge officer Fumitan for comforting because she has a more womanly figure. Kudelia embraces Mika when he cannot sleep, and he kisses her to her shock – but, and perhaps this is expecting too much from the series, it never quite feels like it sells its emotional climaxes. They are either resolved, the climax built to and then deflated in one episode, or used to make some point about how the men view the women that does not really feel like it is passing judgement. One of the most interesting things I got from the quite reductive depiction of Naze Turbine and his harem was that the series was hinting – especially with its continued mantra of Tekkadan being a family – that the naïve characters were latching onto people that seemed “cool” and “manly” and not realising that they were being taken for a ride. If the slimy, sexed-up Turbine is to be used this way – a slick, appealing exterior masking something less savoury – it is not evident.

Indeed, the problem seems to be the series is taking it as a given that suppressing your emotions and acting like the macho soldier archetype is bad, but never convincingly reflecting this. If this is nuance it is ineffective nuance, because as it stands in order to present worse alternatives to the “all the lads” atmosphere of Tekkadan and the Turbines it must plumb strange, caricaturish depths. Tekketsu is not a visually subtle series, and it is not subtle in its dialogue. This is not a bad thing, per se – except that if the initially viable reading of it as a slow-burning buildup to an emotional cataclysm as the naïve dulce et decorum est attitude of Tekkadan is demolished is to hold up, it relies on very subtextual reading of scenes presented unsubtly as something else. If there is to be underlying menace and tension, Tekketsu really needs to show greater signs that there is a payoff coming. Instead, there is a very strange arc concerning the Brewers space pirates and child-traffickers. The Brewers have a prison-like ship filled with brainwashed and abused children picked up from the wartorn space zones they travel, who will machine-gun soldiers after pretending to be unarmed and letting them lower their guard. They are led by animalistic caricatures of child abusers – a lizard-like man with a lolling tongue and a hog-like enforcer – which sit very uncomfortably in their depictions. The aesthetic of the Gusion’s pilot, one of the Brewers, is very redolent of the quite homoerotic visuals of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure – and so the association of this pseudo-glam-rock effeminacy with child abuse is a very unwelcome subtextual association. This may be reading too deeply into visuals simply intended to quickly convey grotesques and monsters – the slick lizard-like manipulator and the dumb boarish brute, but that the associations can be made did put something of a pall on the episodes for me.

The whole Brewers arc, with its missing brother’s sacrifice, is not really an effective payoff for the expected undermining of the manly ideal. When, at its climax, Mika kills the lizardlike man and claims he deserves to die, there is not quite the same shocking impact as when he shoots the ejected Graze pilot earlier in the series. That first scene, early on, presented Mika as an unbelievably methodical soldier, the “manly” cold killer who sees enemies as enemies and as a product of his upbringing cares not for the rules of war. This later scene, in which the cornered pilot asks if Mika enjoys killing to which Mika replies that some people deserve to die, feels more like vigilante wish-fulfilment, its shock value lost by the fact that Mika is killing an unrepentant child abuser. If the intent was to visually echo that initial display of callous brutality, the choice of victim as someone who it is hard to actually endorse does not work. Any plot arc concerning so emotive and challenging a topic as child abduction in a series that extensively uses plain visual language and exaggerated dialogue is going to be very difficult to pull off, and if anything the brutality of the Brewers undermines any longer-lying plot points about Mika’s inhumanity. One may subtextually read into it a condemnation of absolute morality – Mika kills who Mika feels deserves to die – but it does not work so well in its melodramatic setting.

Thus is the problem with Tekketsu – the most interesting thing about it is the way a savvy, well-read viewer can read very deeply between the lines to see it as a slow-burning but potentially savage satire of the militaristic dream, but it actively avoids engaging with this on a supertextual level in any way remotely as explicit as its plain depictions of this macho-ness working. Perhaps its most interesting episode was the one in which the crew were given leave and spent it chasing women and getting drunk only to come across immature despite their bloody pasts – that was an adept example of the kind of subtextual storytelling that the medium and style permits. One could perhaps read into the Brewers a dark parallel of Tekkadan, with the charismatic manipulator leading an army of children in thrall to him, but it – like episode about the concerns about a wounded comrade – never quite works. I watch Tekketsu and see what I think it is trying to do, but as it continues at a very leisurely pace I begin to wonder if I am only seeing what I want it to be doing.

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