Iron-Blooded Orphans is a bit of a vexing show, to be honest. It’s one of those series that you tend to like in spite of its flaws, and of course that’s a double-edged sword. It’s nice to have that essential quality that inspires your affection, absolutely – but that doesn’t make the flaws go away. There are things about this show that just don’t work for me, but so far they haven’t been enough to cancel out the things that do.
There’s a moment in this episode that captures for me what makes Tekketsu no Orphans at its absolute best. The scene when the human debris kids are eating their meager rations and musing about reincarnation is burned in my memory – not because of the dialogue (which is pretty standard-issue) but the scene itself and what it represents. The image of those boys outside their mobile suits, revealing how frighteningly malnourished and haggard they are, is absolutely haunting. And it represents the distilled essence of why this story works – the plight of the children victimized by the venal adults in this mythology is as poignant as I’ve seen in any Gundam series, and they pretty much all try and depict a version of it (that success probably comes down to the artistic temperament of the writer and director).
It’s a good thing that’s true, because there are other areas in which this series really struggles to achieve lift-off. The action scenes are fine, certainly, but nothing so exceptional by Gundam standards that they’d be enough to make the show on their own. I continue to be troubled by the gender politics here, and Atra is especially a problem in that respect – I just want to see more from here than dreams of being a junior wife in a polygamous marriage and of the delicious food she’s going to have waiting for her man on his return from battle. And too many of the major characters have yet to grow beyond their two-dimensional templates. Kudelia is an accessory, showing little evidence that she’s ready to become a real leader. We get precious little insight into Mika’s true feelings about what’s happening around him (though that’s undeniably a standard mecha protag archetype). And I don’t see much with Orga that goes beyond the requisite leader tropes he represents.
There’s still time for all that to change, certainly, but we are about halfway through the series. At this point what’s happening with Iron-Blooded Orphans is that the stories of the second-tier characters like Akahiro and Takaki have more emotional traction than those of the leads. And in looking at Akahiro and Masahiro, their tragic tale with its mid-battle embrace was certainly effective, but less so because its ending was so predictable. Indeed, it was the fate of Masahiro’s comrades that I found really tragic, because they were dying utterly unloved and forgotten. They’re no less victims than Masahiro is, and likely all have stories as sad as painful as his. But they’re throwaway casualties of the plot – Masahiro’s family being killed by Akahiro’s allies even as Akahiro waxes poetic to his brother about the importance of family. Those boys are the real emotional center of this show as far as I’m concerned, and their tragic fates the reason it can be so effective.