This series probably has more baggage than any other this season. There are so many eponymous words attached to it – Gundam, Sunrise, Nagai, Okada – that it’s impossible to go into it with an open mind, no matter what anyone might claim to the contrary. Unless, of course, one isn’t an anime fan to begin with – and it’s hard to imagine there are too many viewers like that in the audience for a show like this one.
Where does one even begin, then, to try and analyze what happened on screen here? I suppose they would have to start with the most basic, elemental point – the premiere of Tekketsu no Orphans was good. It was very good, in fact – not brilliant, but solidly entertaining from start to finish. The setup here is as familiar to Gundam viewers as an old shoe – tension between a wealthy Earth and a poor Mars colony roiled by an independence movement. Child soldiers exploited by adults on both sides. Political intrigue and betrayal. It really is like a song where you know all the words.
The difference from the stock Gundam show, of course, is the presence of director Nagai Tatsuyuki and writer Okada Mari. Both are about as famous as anyone in their field, and they have a track record together – AnoHana and the movies attached to it, Toradora. Okada also has a track record writing original material for existing franchises, and it’s an abysmal one – Rurouni Kenshin, Kuroshitsuji, Lupin III. Most relevant here is Aquarion Evol, her spectacularly misguided take on another beloved (though very different from Gundam) mecha franchise.
Like I said – more baggage than an Airbus A380. If one chooses to accentuate the full half of the glass, it’s in partnership with very strong directors – especially the stalwart Nagai – that Okada has tended to do her best work. And again, this first ep is excellent – she has a way of scene-setting that’s very effective, and while there are moments of clumsy exposition, the episode does a very good job of setting up the premise. But I’ve been fooled by strong first eps with Okada before only to be brutally disappointed, so I’m going try to keep my expectations very much in-check.
Okada and Nagai have 25 episodes to work with (that was announced today) which should be ample time to flesh out this story of the iron-blooded orphans at the heart of the story, and the conflict they’re caught up in. The major players appear to be the quietly GAR Augus Mikazuki (Kawanishi Kengo) – the one who pilots the Gundam this week – and his best friend Itsuka Orga (Hosoya Yoshimasa). There’s also the requisite chubby mechanical genius Biscuit Griffon (Hanae Natsuki) – seriously Tomino, where do you come up with these names? – among others. Critically, there’s also Kudelia Aina Bernstein (Terasaki Yuka), the MacGuffin and catalyst for now. She’s the daughter of the president of the Mars colony (Kinoshita Haruyuki), and she’s hand-picked four boys from the Third Squad of abused orphans to escort her to Earth to mediate a peace conference.
There’s certainly the usual Okada silliness here – all the buff boys pilot their tanks with their shirts off just because, for example – but there’s some real bite and poignancy to the story. I especially liked the way Kudelia came off as more of a villain than the men doing all the betraying here (including her father and the boys’ adult comrades) in some ways. Her arrogance and sense of rich woman’s burden here is really despicable, and her intent to relate to the boys on a so-called equal level really insulting and demeaning. No doubt as she’s educated as to just how naive and sheltered she is she’ll grow as a character, but Okada and Nagai have certainly given her plenty of room to do so.
All of this as chestnut as it gets in anime, of course – not just Gundam, but sci-fi anime in general. We’ve seen stories of child soldiers exploited as expendable tools by craven adults over and over and over again, and it’s surely going to be a challenge to find anything really original in telling that story yet again. But even as she jumps the shark, one thing Okada is generally good at is finding the new angle, the original twist – and she’s pretty fearless. I’m loathe to get my hopes up, believe me, but especially with the unassailably great Nagai-sensei on board I really think this has a chance to work. Enough so that I’m going to be disappointed if it doesn’t, anyway.
OP: “Raise your flag” by MAN WITH A MISSION