Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans – 04

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Tekkadan and their celebrity passenger aren’t off to Earth yet, and that’s a good thing. This is a 26-episode show, no need to rush, and besides, while this episode is less hectic than last week’s coup and duel, laying out the full measure of the stakes and all of the dangers that lie ahead for Mika, Orga, Aina, et al is crucial to our full emotional investment in the events to come.

As we see, getting Aina to Earth is no simple matter to say the least, and can’t be done by Tekkadan alone. It requires getting in bed (oh God hopefully not literally) with outside middlemen, forming dozens of little alliances of temporary trust with outsiders; those with their own motivations. With so much on their backs Orga and Aina have no choice but to gamble, and neither assured a survivable return.

On the contrary, with Todo’s private moments of stewing, it’s clear Orga has made a potentially fatal mistake in thinking the threat of death keeps the old man in line. Todo is planning the demise of Tekkadan in its infancy, not for Gjallarhorn or his old bosses, but because it’s his way to survive. If he gets a little more agency and teaches some punk kids a lesson, so much the better.

“Young vs. Old” is also a theme in Major Coral equivocating before the younger Fareed, subtly offering a bribe that’s shot down with the threat of arrest, then cursing the even older Crank for failing (as Crank and Orlis’ comrade stews).

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The Olds seem to prefer when the Youngs are beholden to them. It gives them power and purpose. Todo’s Orcus contact is of big help (assuming it’s not a trap, which it is). Nobliss, who doesn’t even bother dressing to address Aina, clearly considers Aina to beholden to him for his cash infusion. But Fareed rejects his older comrade’s “intelligence” and goes out with Gaelio to gather his own.

There’s a lot of housekeeping this week, as we learn Orga gained Akihito and his group of “Human Debris” (i.e. former property of Maruba) to his side with the promise to free and protect them, as they wouldn’t be able to secure jobs elsewhere. In a strong symbolic gesture, the big CGS sign is painted over by one of the youngest grunts. Out with the old, and all that.

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Finally, this episode makes a slight detour to the Biscuit’s family farm, run by a stern, no-nonsense Granny Sakura who, like Yukinojo and Crank, are the old people trying to foster amity with the young rather than oppose and oppress them. Mika brings Aina here for the same reason he comes: working the land helps clear the head.

That also means, of course, Aina and Atra cross paths again, and for now, Mika has his cake and eats it too, catching Aina when she tugs too hard at an ear of corn, while also heartening Atra by thanking her for the bracelet. At the same time, Mika uses this to show Aina that even this big biofuel corn farm only nets Biscuit’s family a meager return; not enough to survive. Her saving Tekkadan also saved that farm and family, so she should buck up and stop focusing only on the negative.

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Then, all of a sudden, there’s a clashing of plotlines with Fareed and Gaelio nearly running over Cookie and Cracker in their Humvee. Mika doesn’t hesitate to take throat of Gaelio, the first face he sees emerge, and start squeezing mercilessly. Fareed manages to cool everyone off, but I liked how when Fareed and Gaelio were alone, Gaelio was the easygoing one. Here, Gaelio is hostile where Fareed is amicable. He even retches when he sees Mika’s implants.

At the same time, Fareed is, if anything, more threatening than Gaelio, all courtesy, easy smiles and cordial words. There’s raw tension in him approaching Cookie, Cracker, and Atra…and offering them candy. He knows Mika is far more than a farmboy. And there’s the sense he doesn’t believe Biscuit any more than he believes Coral. Meanwhile, Aina has to hide in the corn with her aide. This won’t be the last they see of the gallant inspectors.

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As it happens, Fareed is already aware that CGS is now Tekkadan; a product of Orga and Biscuit playing everything after the mutiny strictly by-the-book, business-wise. When Mika returns to base, Orga shows him Tekkadan’s new insignia, again designed and painted by their youngest as a symbol of hope and strength. Orga looks on the sign with pride and an even greater desire to protect what they’ve won at all costs.

But the fact of the matter is, Tekkadan and its mission hang on a thread, and any one thing could blow it off into oblivion, be it further interference from the various units of Gjallarhorn (bet on it), making a deal with the devil in Nobliss, or underestimating Todo’s capacity for treachery. As Todo so aptly puts it in the episode’s final line: he’s about to show these young rapscallions “how terrifying adults can be.”

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Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans – 03

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I don’t hesitate to award this episode a 10, and can be confident it’s not just a kneejerk reaction to the adrenaline rush it provided as things moved forward very fast. I’m giving it a 10 because it was virtually flawless by my standards, and comprised the total package: a taut, refined narrative, intricate character dynamics and motivations, and beautiful presentation, all while preserving the Gundam heritage that deserves to be preserved and subverting it where appropriate.

The escalation from serving a warm, home-cooked meal to everyone—including the surly First Corps—to a complete takeover of CGS by Orga’s Third Group, was delivered with stealthy deftness that respects the viewers. We all knew something was going to go down; it was only a matter of when, how, and if it succeeded.

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The answers to three questions are ‘now’, ‘forcefully’, and ‘yes, most definitely’. The stew they feed the Firsts is drugged, and they wake up, they’re tied up and at Orga’s mercy. I really dug his wry response to his former boss’s classic “who do you think you’re dealing with?” line:

“Incompetents who can’t give proper orders and caused this much damage.”

They’re not just incompetents who got Orga’s comrades killed, they’re incompetents who will also fail at the business end, and lead to the death of the company, along with the rest of the Thirds, in time. Orga is putting an end to their reign before that happens. It’s not just revenge; it’s pragmatism. This is how they survive.

The First Corps commander still thinks he’s in control, talking about sparing the lives of the people with a gun to his head. Again employing Mika as his steady right arm of enforcement, he makes an example of the commander by having Mika put two bullets in his head. No negotiations. No deals. Join Us, Leave, or Die are the only options. It takes Mika having to shoot one more First dead before everyone else has made their decision.

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So…now what? Interestingly, those who decide to join Orga’s new CGS regime include the accountant, Dexter Culastor, who soon determines just how screwed the company will be if they don’t find work immediately, and Todo, a middleman between the First and Third who was going to go whichever way the wind was blowing.

The problem with CGS right now is that they’ve got Gjallarhorn on their asses. Far from being a feather in their cap, no one will do business with them lest they too incur the wrath of Gjallarhorn. Todo has a solution: hand the young miss Kudelia over, in exchange for being left alone (and a little cash).

It’s a self-serving, weaselly plan (apropos since it came from the self-serving, weaselly Todo), but it’s also one of the only ways to get Gjallarhorn off their backs, if there even is a way. Eugene likes the plan and wonders why Orga hesitates, but the discussion is tabled by the arrival of Crank.

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As we should have known, Crank is not there to defect; he’s there to put and end to things between CGS and Gjallarhorn one way or another. If he wins the duel, they’ll hand over Kudelia and the captured mecha. It’s an arrangement even Aina agrees to, because like Crank, she wants to minimize further needless bloodshed, especially where kids are involved.

Orga asks Mika if he’ll do it, but it’s only a courtesy, because he knows Mika will do it. He may be short and scrawny, but Mika is the toughest motherfucker in CGS, as demonstrated when Orga tells Aina (who wants to do something to help and is considering having a mecha interface implanted) that a large chunk of those implanted ended up in hospital beds for life or worse…and Mika’s had it done three times.

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The duel commences, and Thank God the mobile suits have P.A. systems so the pilots can talk to each other. To not have such systems was an obvious and intolerable, beaten-to-death plot hole in Recon. Here, Crank can tell he’s fighting a child, something he abhors, but he must do his duty nonetheless. Wisely, this episode’s sole representative of the “bad guys” is a reasonable, honorable man doing what he thinks is best in this scenario, and if he gets killed, at least all the responsibility will fall on him.

But like Aina, Crank is misguided about one thing, at least as far as Mika’s concerned: He’s not some poor kid being victimized. Everything Mika does, every order he’s obeyed from Orga, has been of his own free will, and out of his desire to stay alive. Mind you, this is Mika’s own perspective; in reality he’s a severely screwed-up dude; “a bit Touchy”, as Atra remarks, doesn’t nearly cover it).

Crank, for his part, never underestimated Mika; he saw what he was capable of the last time he watched him fight. Instead, Crank is simply limited by his loyalties in what he’s able to do. So when he’s done as much as he can and still loses the duel, and is unable to move to kill himself, he asks Mika to do it for him.

Again, he didn’t have to ask: Orga already told Mika to kill Crank; there wasn’t going to be a different outcome, because Mika isn’t the brains of this operation, nor do I think he wants to be. And a notable gesture on Mika’s part: both before he takes off in Barbatos and after he kills Crank, he smells the bracelet Atra gave Yukinojo to give to him, perhaps keeping him grounded in his humanity among all the carnage. For those keeping score: Aina got to feed Mika, while Atra got her bracelet to him.

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The role of brains belongs to Orga, who stands fast even as a huge piece of mobile suit comes crashing down feet away from him. And that’s when he comes up with a new name for their company. Goodbye CGS, Hello Tekkadan, meaning “Iron Flower”, one that will never wilt. Nice name.

As for Aina’s role, she first becomes the newly-named company’s first official client when she commits to using Tekkadan as her security service indefinitely, no longer depending on her untrustworthy father, but the largess of Nobliss Gordon—a name we heard from Coral as also being Gjallarhorn’s financier. It also seems Aina will be eschewing a mecha interface implant for a more political role with Tekkadan, the company that kept her alive.

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Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans – 02

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Gundam IBO backtracks a bit with the first of what seemed like a redundant scenes whose heavy lifting had already been more efficiently handled last week: Orga sends Mika to fire up the Gundam. This week we see Mika’s side of it, and I can’t say we didn’t learn a lot: why Mika was bleeding last week (Gundam’s visceral neural interface is a lot tougher on the body than the mobile workers), Aina’s condemnation of using such barbaric interfaces (no surprise there; but Mika doesn’t care if it will help them survive), and the fact Mika can’t read. That’s right, Mika is the Charlie Kelly of GIBO.

That’s all well and good, but it was an awful lot of infodumping so early in the episode, and I enjoyed the alacrity with which Mika simply showed up in the Gundam that had been teased early last week, without excessive explanation.

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But once we’re back in the present with Mika battling and bleeding in Barbatos, we learn that he and his Gundam are only the savior’s by a very shallow margin. Because a lot of quick jerry-rigging had to take place to even get it going, the mechanic forgot to fill it up with gas. Also, Mika himself soon runs out of juice and passes out, mere moments after Lt. Crank, his arrogant young CO killed and his subordinate injured, orders a retreat. The Third Group lives another day thanks to Mika and Orga, but only barely.

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As Mika’s adorable love interest Atri heads to CGS for a supply run while giving Biscuit’s twin sisters Cookie and Cracker a lift, Coral lays into Crank for not getting the job (getting Aina killed in “glorious battle”) done. This was the other scene that I felt went too far out of its way to explain the Aina assassination plot, which was more elegantly implied last week. Still, Coral’s men’s failure harms his reputation and threatens his unit’s funding, so he orders Crank to take care of Aina before the blue-coated Gjallarhorn inspectors show up, which is soon.

Crank, an old space salt, has no desire to do further battle with child soldiers like the pilot of the Gundam, as he fears they’re fighting against their will. His empathy falls on deaf ears, as Coral will certainly find someone else to do his dirty work if Crank doesn’t. But this is the first case of someone in Gjallarhorn having an ounce of empathy for the childrens’ plight, and depending on how things go, it could be paving the way Crank defecting.

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Atra’s encounter with Mika—which she was clearly very much looking forward to any may well have been the primary reason for her coming at all—lasts all of ten seconds. Atra doesn’t challenge the still-bloodstained Mika’s assurance that he’s all right, and he shuffles off, saying he has things to attend to. Mika may regret taking Atra’s love for granted down the road.

As Mika attends to things, he crosses paths with Aina. During the battle, she felt useless. After the battle, she’s still there, and feels she can’t leave, out of guilt for everyone who died for her sake, feelings she relays to Mika as an act of contrition. But Mika doesn’t want her sorrow or her pity, and coldly requests she not look down on his fallen comrades and think they only died for her. They also died for him, for their other comrades, and for themselves.

That brings us to what is perhaps the Third Group’s breaking point: the First Corps is back, but rather than have their tails between their legs, they’re eager to punish the Third for their insubordinate actions. Orga, respectful of his superior on the surface but clearly restraining his contempt, works out a lovely explanation for what happened, but is met by his superior’s fist.

Orga takes this beating for his men, but it looks like he’s not any more willing to take any more than his men are willing to watch. Orga knows how things will go with the First Corps dopes in charge. Declining business, higher-risk ops, and more Third Group death and suffering as they’re used as bait. He’s through with that life, and starts preparing for a mutiny.

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In another instance of their strong fraternal, symbiotic bond, Orga says he’ll call the whole thing off if Mika isn’t on board, while assuring the men that Mika will definitely say yes. When he meets up with Mika, who is fueling the Gundam that is stuck where he left it, he says he’s on board with whatever Orga thinks is best. He’s also working rather than paying respect for the dead because of something Orga said to him when they were young: “You can see the dead when you’re dead, so to keep the living alive, do everything you can.”

“Everything you can” means rising up against their First Corps oppressors before they’re sent on a mission they can’t come back from. But with Aina still at the base, Coral nervously receiving the two elite young Gjallarhorn inspector-majors he has no intention of revealing his failures to, and the decent veteran Crank deploying alone to complete the mission Orlis could not, possible alliances abound. Yet at the end of the day the Third Group will probably have to take care of themselves, as they always have.

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Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans – 01 (First Impressions)

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One thing I’ve learned about Gundam over the years is that no one show or OVA with its name slapped on it can ever wholly ruin its legacy, nor prevent me from checking out the next project with an open mind. Reconguista was an unqualified disaster in part because it was so in love with itself, it built a towering wall of self-congratulatory retrospection around itself, leaving me out in the cold.

Recon in G was also spearheaded by Yoshiyuki Tomino, whose specific style came off as both out-of-touch and proudly, stubbornly exclusionary of anyone but the most die-hard fans of his work, ignoring all Gundam that had followed, most of which improved on the original.

It was not a step, but a zero-gravity leap backwards, one even more troubling because a full 26-episode season’s worth of resources were committed to an sugary, empty love letter to itself. But like I said, I wasn’t going to let past failure prevent me from catching something new and exciting from the Gundam brand…and Iron-Blooded Orphans (which I’ll shorten to GIBO from here on) is just what the doctor ordered.

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One reason I had reason to believe GIBO wouldn’t be another dud was staff: Putting Gundam in the hands of Tatsuyuki Nagai (AnoHana, Railgun, Toradora) pays immediate dividends. Nagai retains much of the charming Gundam milieu, but rather than keep it exactly as it was in the Carter Administration, he updates and refines the flow of the action.

Okada Mari (AnoHana, Hanasaku Iroha, Nagi no Asukara, Toradora) tweaks and humanizes the classic Gundam dialogue style and brings it into the 21st century, while Yokoyama Masaru (Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso, Yamada-kun to 7-nin no Majo) brings a fresh musical perspective to the sweeping score.

Compared to Reconguista, there’s young blood at work here, but their impressive CVs and relevance in the current anime world shines through in their collaboration here. While Reconguista shut me out, GIBO drew me in, with a slightly dirty hand.

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So what’s GIBO about? Well, there are many thick, juicy layers to excavate, but it’s all pretty organically unfolded. On the Martian colony of Chryse you have the titular Iron-Blooded Orphans like protagonist Mikazuki Augus, who serve at the bottom rung of the private security company CGS.

The citizens of Chryse are starting to demand independence form the Earth Sphere, but their own cowardly president intends to save his own skin by throwing his people to the wolves. Those he betrays include his own daughter, Kudelia Aina Bernstein, a well-loved, charismatic young agitator who Earth Sphere wants out of the picture.

To make that happen, Aina’s dad Norman lets her handpick the CGS Third Group to serve as her bodyguards for her trip to Earth. Doing so appeals to her desire to “see and feel the truth” and feel the pain of the victims of the Earth Sphere’s rule over Chryse. But in actual truth, the irregular child soldiers, used as cannon fodder by the greedy CGS president Maruda, aren’t expected to stand a chance against Earth’s elite Gjallarhorn unit, which is being deployed to put down the Chryse rebellion in its infancy.

It’s a cowardly, dastardly plot by the self-involved old guard to retain power by snuffing out the flame of youth and hope. It also shows that these old guys know how to play the game far better than Aina, at least at the moment.

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The main couple, Mikazuki and Aina, are from the opposite extreme ends of Chryse’s social spectrum, but unlike your typical aloof princess character, Aina wants to be “on equal terms” with the CGS grunts protecting her, so as to better understand the people she leads and serves. In a clever bit of misdirection, Mika refuses her repeated attempts to shake his hand not because he resents or distrusts her, but becaused his hands are filthy.

Even as Aina tries to reach out to those below her, they’re so conditioned to keep their distance they politely decline her entreaties. Aina’s seiyu Terasaki Yuki often voices boys and younger versions of adult male characters, but her robust pipes lend the pretty Aina some gravitas.

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The same night Aina arrives at CGS headquarters, Gjallarhorn springs into action, but in their arrogance their stealth attack is quickly sniffed out. CGS soldiers like Biscuit Griffon (whose retro design I really dug) whisk Aina to safety as the bullets start to fly. She’s constantly insisting that she can help out, and no one refutes her claim, but she has infinitely more value as the leader of the Chryse resistance than an exposed front-line soldier.

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Mind you, it isn’t CGS as a whole that is sacrificed in this operation, but the Third Group members composed of Mika, his “big brother” Orga Itsuka, Biscuit, et al. The higher ups try to use them as a decoy and human shield to cover their retreat, but they’re foiled when Biscuit remotely launches signal flares, giving the retreating brass and First Corps’ position away to the enemy, which eases off the Third. Still, it isn’t long until Gjallarhorn stops messing around and fields a mobile suit, which can outrun and outgun anything the Third Group has…with one very notable exception.

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In the cold open, we see a sight not out of place in a previous Gundam series, 00, in which a young Mika has just killed on apparent orders from Orga. He turns arond and nonchalantly asks Orga “What should I do next?” It’s a dream of a memory Orga wakes up from, which is revisited when the present-day Mika asks him the very same question. In the memory, Orga replies “We’re going…somewhere not here…to the place where we truly belong.” Their lives aren’t just about surviving when the deck stacked against them at every turn. It’s about finding purpose to those lives they’re fighting for tooth and nail.

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So how do they get there? By fighting the man. Gjallarhorn’s cocky young commander Orlis swats at the CGS bugs with his mobile suit until he’s challenged by a second, stronger suit, a Gundam, piloted by Mika as the Third Group’s trump card. Mika brings Orlis’ suit down in iconic fashion, creating a symbol of what must be done in order to find that place where the iron-blooded orphans belong.

No doubt Mika, Orga, Biscuit & the rest of CGS’s third group will serve as a vanguard for what will become Aina Bernstein’s Chryse Independence movement. Their deeds will change the history of Mars and will affect the lives of many, from Danji, the would-be rookie hero who got too close to the enemy and paid the ultimate price, to the too-adorable-for-words shop girl who seems to carry a flame for Mika, all the way to the most powerful sniveling old white guys in the galaxy.

I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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