I had a chance to see Kokoro ga Sakebitagatterun da (Anthem of the Heart) this weekend, which I bring up here because like Iron-Blooded Orphans, it’s a collaboration between Nagai Tatsuyuki and Okada Mari. That film was much more akin to AnoHana (understandable, as it was by the same studio and set in the same place) but I nevertheless find it fascinating to look at the work these two have done together as a collective body of work. Toradora, AnoHana, Orphans – the stylistic and tonal range is astounding, and that’s not even bringing the wildly disparate work Okada has done with other directors into the equation.
The point is that these two – especially Okada – are mighty hard to pin down, and even if the project doesn’t always work, that kind of range is something to be respected. But a common thread I see through most of her work is that the word that springs first to mind for me with this series – “restrained” – isn’t one of the first descriptors you’d use. But it is here – Iron-Blooded Orphans is so far a model of restraint. It’s playing nice with the Gundam thematic palette, avoiding needlessly convoluted plotting and abstaining from broad melodrama. Especially after the Aquarion experience, it’s fair to say I was expecting something very different. And it’s nice to be surprised, especially by artists whose work we know extremely well.
The book says that after you do a breathless action episode like last week’s, you do a breather episode. And this time around Okada and Nagai are following the book – and doing so with very good results. This was a breather episode with a purpose, not simply taking your foot off the gas and coasting. Action series are like sports series in that these sorts of episodes have to happen, but the good ones understand that they can be every bit as entertaining – and important – as the episodes that cause their existence to be necessary.
What I really liked about this episode is that it was, quite simply, a 22-minute essay on interdependence. This ep was all about people needing each other – and why that’s a good thing. Orga reflects on why living up to Mika’s faith is what drives him forward. The adolescent hierarchy of Tekkadan grows increasingly protective of Kudelia, but even as that’s happening she’s feeling increasingly protective of them. This is the positive reflection of her somewhat arrogant and condescending paternalism of the first couple of episodes: Kudelia is coming to understand the weight of responsibility that her good fortune in life has placed on her. The boys are people who, through no fault of their own, have been denied their most basic human rights and he opportunity to make something of their lives. And because of her the situation she was born into, she’s in a position to try and do something to help them.
There’s definitely still the possibility for condescension in this scenario, but it doesn’t play that way here – in fact the episode is actually rather touching in the way it depicts Kudelia’s reaction to the way the boys support each other. There’s an overarching message that it’s impossible to get anywhere without depending on other people. But that doesn’t change the fact that Tekkadon is still basically powerless – forced to depend on others to try and survive. Be that Orcus or the new potential guides to Earth, the Jupiter-based Taiwaz (who sound a bit like the Yakuza) Tekkadan can’t do it on their own – which gives Kudelia’s efforts to try and broker some sort of peace a real sense of urgency.
We’ll see if this low-key approach continues – it seems very likely we’re going to see some serious tragedy before the series is over – but for now, it’s carrying the series nicely. The new player entering into the mix is Houki Katsuhisa’s Maruba Arkay (there are times I think Gundam names its villains after IKEA furniture), the president of CGS whom we briefly met in the premiere. But for me the most interesting antagonist remains McGillis Fareed – he doesn’t waste time on needless cruelty or grudges, avoids meaningless posturing and generally seems inclined to think everything through clearly before he acts. There haven’t been many chess players in Gundam over the years, but Fareed definitely seems like one to me.