It’s been roughly half a decade since Anime Limited announced they had partnered with Sunrise in order to release the Gundam franchise in the UK and France. Generally I’ve been quite happy with their handling of it, though with 40 years-worth of content fans will always have differing preferences on which entries they want to see release first. The company has generally kept to a chronological release of the foundation Universal Century timeline with various alternate continuities released along the way. Indeed not long after the partnership was originally announced, mention was made of releasing the then latest series Gundam Iron-Blooded Orphans. Finally the time is upon us.
300 years ago humanity engaged in a disastrous conflict that became known as the Calamity War for the vast damage it did. In the aftermath a new order was constructed. The Earth based Gjallarhorn rules with military might and prejudice, leaving the terraformed colonies of planets such as Mars to function as lawless states with massive inequality and poverty. The situation is so bad that many children find themselves working as soldiers for abusive PMCs. Onto this stage steps Kudelia Aina Bernstein, an idealistic teenage girl from the wealthier side of Martian society who is campaigning to fix the problems of her homeland. Seeking to travel to Earth to discuss her ideas with politicians directly, Kudelia hires the PMC CGS due to their high numbers of child soldiers in hopes of understanding their plight. But Kudelia’s political goals are not without their opponents, who are more than willing to assassinate her and all associated with her. When Gjallarhorn directly attacks the CGS base, the young soldiers receive an opening to change their fate.
Iron-Blooded Orphans (hereafter referred to as IBO) is an interesting entry in the franchise for a few reasons. Sunrise have been trying to sell Gundam to the West for two decades now but it has always felt like we were treated as something of an afterthought, even with newer productions. More recently however Sunrise have been open about how societal trends in Japan are shifting away from Gundam, making finding fans elsewhere a priority. In that respect, it’s hard not to miss how IBO feels that little bit more aimed at Americans. Mikazuki Augus, the nominal main character (IBO is really more an ensemble piece) is wholly unlike any Gundam pilots before him. We’ve had socially withdrawn Gundam leads before but with Mika there’s no real character arc to explore. Mika is emotionally numb due to the life he’s lead from a young age, doing what takes him in the spur of the moment whilst protecting those close to him in the loose family he’s made. Chief amongst these people stands Orga Itsuka, the de facto leader of the CGS youth whom Mika has willingly followed for most of his life. There’s a brotherly bond between the two, tempered by the fact that the more well-adjusted Orga sometimes feels overwhelmed by the feral Mika’s demands of him. Together the pair lead the charge on the kids transforming the remnants of CGS into their own operation, Tekkadan.
What results is a very Lord of the Flies-inspired narrative as the children (who range from young kids to teenagers on the verge of adulthood) attempt to finish the job they were hired for and transport Kudelia safely to Earth. This means having to deal with the admin side of the business and a large number of opposing groups who find their attempts questionable to laughable. However, this isn’t a peppy ‘underdog makes good’ story. IBO never forgets the tragedy of the situation that is child soldiers and indeed there are some questions about what exactly Mika gets out of continuously killing and being so good at it. This is tempered by more balanced characters such as the pragmatic Biscuit (whom the creators seem to be fully indulging Gundam silliness on, given his sisters are likewise named Cookie and Cracker). Witnessing all of this first hand also has a massive impact on Kudelia, who starts off as well-meaning but clearly naïve and sheltered. It’s become a trope that the lead female in a Gundam story must embody purity and hope but Kudelia thankfully changes that. Hers is one of the strongest character arcs in the show and she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty (figuratively and literally).
On the opposing side stands Gjallarhorn, who function as a space age aristocracy. Although supposedly simply a form of military police, it’s continuously made clear that they effectively rule the world and are obsessed with status and Earth-bred purity. Although antagonist factions like this aren’t exactly new to Gundam, it’s never really so strongly been the focus to have social standing be the central conflict. The Gjallarhorn characters have lived such privileged lives that they’re happy treating military campaigns as a game, whilst the Tekkadan cast are used to having to fight even to simply eat and drink. When the show originally ran from Autumn 2015-Spring 2016, I found it somewhat laughable how much this issue was pushed. Indeed, even what few adults become trusted allies seem to on some level sell out the Tekkadan youths for their own ends. However, the end of season one dovetailed with the summer of 2016 and it’s fair to say how the Western world has changed in a few short years for the worse actually made me respect IBO more. I’m from working class roots so the show always spoke to me somewhat but modern reality has only increased that, leading to a Gundam work I think is perfectly commenting on the world we currently live in and how frustrating it can be to be a younger person living within it.
In a narrative sense, however, the show does offer some hope with the characters of McGillis and Gaelio. Heirs to two of the prestigious Seven Star families that rule Gjallarhorn, the pair act as recurring antagonist but share a desire to apparently return the organisation to its noble routes rather than coveting power for power’s sake. This is a very intriguing plot thread looking at the issue of if leadership determined by heritage is valid or simply creates problems. It’s also notable how modern Gundam productions seem to be eschewing the tradition of having a masked antagonist, with various recent Gundam stories being very self-aware what a silly trope it is to repeat simply because Char did it.
The tech standard for the series is one I find highly engrossing. After the Calamity War, Gjallarhorn locked down the secrets of most of its technology. This includes mobile suits, with pretty much any we see bar their own being literal relics of the war. This extends to the Gundams, the heroes of ending the war. The idea that the surviving Gundams have all ended up with very different fates from what they were designed for is pretty cool. Indeed each of the Gundams designed for the series is supposed to invoke a heroic knight, with Barbatos (Mika’s unit) instead leaning more into the image of a delinquent. The Barbatos has a very imposing design with lean, organic-looking armour placed on a skeletal frame. As much as I admired the classic boxy Gundam look it has locked the franchise into a lot of repetition, so I always welcome attempts such as this and 00 to take it in fresh directions. The Barbatos starts off stripped down and across the season acquires upgrades, largely from bolting armour and weapons poached from enemies onto it. This gimmick is partly due to the model kit line to encourage people to buy multiple kits to upgrade Barbatos themselves but is a consistent aesthetic to show how low Tekkadan are on money and resources, mirrored when they capture a Graze and replace its damaged armour with patchwork replacements.
The Graze itself is the Zaku proxy of the show, Gjallarhorn’s modular unit. It’s instantly recognisable as an Ebikawa design and as much as I love his work, I’m glad that he’s been given a restricted role here. Ebikawa handled most of the ‘hero’ mecha in Gundam AGE and sadly for me it highlighted how limited his designs are when simplified for animation. The Graze plays well with this necessary handicap, resulting in a grunt suit that pulls off the modular, adaptable design concept well. Most factions also make use of mobile workers, agile fighter tanks. Combined with the fact that IBO eschews the franchise standard of beam weapons for physical ones, you have the setup for some very unique and visceral battles that play out like medieval war rather than sci-fi light shows.
In putting out these releases Anime Limited have been working with right stuf, who have been releasing the Gundam catalogue in America. For whatever reason IBO was the sole exception, licensed instead to Funimation. I’m not sure if a reason for this has ever been given (Sunrise seeing if perhaps Funimation were a stronger licensing partner in the US?) but it seems to have had a knock on effect to delaying any release of the show here. Indeed, hard not to notice that we have this release not long after Manga Entertainment UK (whom AL have a good working relationship with) were bought out and effectively became Funimation UK. I mention this because what we get is a straight port of the Funimation release, right down to on disc content and the discs being marked as being Part 1 or Part 2 even though this a complete season release. This isn’t too annoying, bar the existence of trailers for Funimation US titles…some of which autoplay before you can access the disc menu. I’m well aware that sharing masters is the nature of the global anime business (especially for somewhere like the UK, which is only diminishing in influence and capital due to ongoing self-inflicted stupidity) but these trailers feel awkward and intrusive. Who wants to be stopped from watching a title they paid for by a trailer for a title that won’t even run on a UK native Blu-ray player? Indeed the release is so close to the US one I half wonder why we didn’t also get the ‘exclusive’ HG Barbatos kit they did.
Questionably coloured Gunpla aside, we do get the AL standard Gundam Collection artbox to hold both this and season two. These kind of boxes will be familiar to anyone who collects anime releases and for Gundam I find they vary depending on what art assets are available. This one isn’t too bad, given IBO had some fairly solid promotional art put out for it. We likewise receive the standard reversible cover for the case itself, the key difference being you can swap out a sleeve with a plot synopsis for one instead with an episode list.
The show is presented in a choice of English and Japanese. I’d originally watched the show as it streamed in subtitled Japanese and with a fondness for that very solid cast I was very interested to see what I’d make of the dub. The show is once again handled by the New York based Bang Zoom and although that’s a solid talent pool we really are at the point now where like Ocean before them we’re stuck hearing the same voice actors in every Gundam dub. To be fair, the worst it got here was McGillis being voiced by Steve Cannon who has voiced 3 lead heroes in previous Bang Zoom Gundam dubs but various other actors can be heard pulling double duty, such as Richard Epcar voicing an early antagonist and then using a very similar voice for another minor antagonist when the former one dies. It’s not like I feel Bang Zoom has a bad talent pool but a production can only achieve so much when actors are having to play multiple characters. Granted the Japanese production did this too but it was largely restricted to a brief line or two amongst battle chatter, several episodes apart.
Beyond that, my only major issue is Kyle McCarley’s portrayal of Mika. As mentioned earlier, he’s a very unique character and I always felt Kengo Kawanishi’s performance nailed that perfectly. McCarley puts a bit too much emotion into the voice but thankfully grows over the run and by the end of the season is a much closer peer for Kawanishi’s take. Likewise, Cherami Leigh nails the nuance of Kudelia and Cassandra Morris is perfect as Atra, Tekkadan’s adorable and badass chef. Lastly, I’d be remiss to not praise Carrie Keranen’s turn as Carta Issue, a bombastic semi-joke character who plays perfectly to the actresses’ strength.
Iron-Blooded Orphans is one of my favourite Gundam titles, so I’m very happy to finally receive a UK physical release and one of such good quality. There are issues (the porting of the Funimation masters to a complete season set and resulting lack of on disc extras) but overall this does its job well. Season two is due to be released soon but even then there’s enough closure here to enjoy it as a single 25 episode story if you wish.
The place it belongs is in your Blu-ray collection.
Mobile Suit Gundam Iron-Blooded Orphans Season 1 is available to purchase from Anime Limited and Amazon UK.