Before watching a single Mobile Suit Gundam property, the franchise was initially described to me in the immortal three words of American General William T Sherman: “war is hell.” It was subsequently chronicled as “the worst 30-minute toy commercial,” but for this post, I’m primarily going to focus on the former. Epitomized by this age-old narrative, most Gundam series I’ve seen inevitably return to this trope, especially those within the Universal Century timeline.
The original Mobile Suit Gundam 0079 movie trilogy – I’ll confess to never having watched the original series, although those who have watched both the moves and the series assure me that the movies are better – and embodies this throughout. Amuro Ray, and later Kamille Bidan of Zeta Gundam, are children of Federation engineers and officer; however, they certainly don’t know the hardships of war initially, especially Amuro. Thrust into war when his colony is attacked, the somewhat withdrawn Amuro steps into the Gundam cockpit out of necessity, not desire. Mobile Suit Gundam and Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam are bildungsromans for Amuro and Kamille respectively as much as they are about duplicitous agents, political intrigue, or even the robots themselves.
“Gundam orphans” carried with it a separate connotation prior to the recent Mobile Suit Gundam Iron-Blooded Orphans debut. A trope entirely unto itself – paid homage to in series like Eureka Seven – the Gundam orphan is also a product of the UC timeline, first appearing the in the original Mobile Suit Gundam with the oft-obnoxious and high-energy trio of Katz, Letz, and Kikka.
Iron-Blooded Orphans immediately eschews the traditional coming of age story catalyzed by “war is hell” in presenting us with characters who already know the horrors of war. They are both war orphans and child soldiers with hearts pre-hardened prior to gracing the small screen. The series sprinkles in moments showcasing their humanity – Biscuit Griffon is a particularly nice boon to the series in this regard – however; it’s clear from the initial cold open featuring a young Mikazuki Augus and Orga Itsuka that these are children very familiar with war. For good measure, another sub-section of war orphans are added in the form of Akihiro Altland and his fellow “Human Debris,” children who are conscripted into the Chryse Guard Security against their will courtesy of human trafficking. Additionally, while these young men are technically enlisted in the Chryse Guard Security, their Third Army Corps is deserted by their superiors as early as the premiere episode.
Therefore, Iron-Blooded Orphans becomes a story of children trying to organize themselves and discover a method of moving forward without relying on aid from anyone. Gundam had previously trained me to watch out for various shifting goalposts and alliances, but Iron-Blooded Orphans‘ one “betrayal” thus far was so telegraphed that I cannot type it without sarcastic quotation marks. It also props up a cartoonish adult buffoon as the children’s adversary – used as more of a springboard for them to showcase their tactical prowess, fighting skills, and luck – not as any source of dramatic tension. As of the series’ fifth episode, Iron-Blooded Orphans is more interested in the birth of their rebellious organization, the Tekkadan, from the existing Chryse military, rather than the larger-scale political conflict.
Naturally, one feeds into the other, and the shadows of the greater military dispute loom over the small Tekkadan. The very existence of Chryse’s Princess Kudelia – and the tension-filled “chance” meeting of Orga and Mikazuki with opposing Gjallarhorn officers McGillis Fareed and Gaelio Bauduin – point towards the strained political landscape that the Tekkadan will learn to maneuver.
The opening song of Iron-Blooded Orphans – sung by the aptly-named MAN WITH A MISSION – “Raise Your Flag,” provides an interesting framework for what is already shaping up to be a personal series defined by its characters. Flag-raising is usually associated with an alliance of some kind, or respective national pride. The leads of Iron-Blooded Orphans, Kudelia aside, have no allegiances outside of the ones they make with each other through the creation of the Tekkadan. Instead, they are more unified by circumstance and defiance, creating their own flag to fly under as they go off to battle.
Iron-Blooded Orphans doesn’t have one defining moment where its characters are faced with the fact that war is hell, they have already lived it. The question is now of what meaning they find under their own emblem.