If the ultimate test of whether a series is working or not is whether you feel anything for the characters (worry, for example) Kidou Senshi Gundam: Tekketsu no Orphans is definitely working for me. I think it’s a testament to the experience and savvy of the creative staff that the intra-episode pacing is as good as it is – every episode is a slow build, with the B-Part almost always much more engaging than the A-Part. And that was certainly true this week.
That’s not to say that this series isn’t an odd duck, because it certainly is. I still can’t quite figure out where it sits on the spectrum either of Gundam or of She-Who-Must-Not-be-Named, because right now it seems to be falling into the “neither” camp. And make no mistake, episodes like this one are part of the process of Ok*da softening up the audience like a chef working a tough piece of meat. The other shoe is hanging by a thread, and it’s a steel-toed boot.
There’s slow build written all over this episode, which marks another in a surprisingly (with Gundam, close to unprecedentedly) long string of what are effectively slice-of-life eps. I very much appreciate the fact that Writer-san and Nagai-sensei are giving a chance for the secondary characters to form their own identities – kids like Takaki and Ride, too young to hog the glory either in battle or at the negotiating table, but nevertheless trying to make their mark in their own way. Mind you, it was pretty clear as soon as Takaki told the story of his younger sister that we (and he) were being set up like a bowling pin, but that’s all a part of the tenderizing process.
The other character who gets some development here is Atra, and that’s an area where Iron-Blooded Orphans is losing me a bit. The notion of the social structure on the Hammerhead being treated as normal is one thing – context is important in this case, and I suppose it might even be said to be daring to treat polygamy in such a matter-of-fact way in a mainstream anime. But Atra’s calculus during her conversation with Kudelia didn’t exactly strike me as a positive thing. I would hope Atra at some point comes to realize that she can set her sights higher than that fantasy (in my book she and Biscuit make the much better match anyway).
There’s much nostalgia on the table this week – boys musing about losing their virginity, about their hardscrabble and tragic family histories, and Atra about her first meeting with Mikazuki (and her life as an urchin enslaved in a whorehouse). This is a tough world these kids live in, one that doesn’t run on empathy or even pity, and Orphans has done a very good job of humanizing them and making us understand why their bond is so important to them. But it’s building up to something, and when Takaki asks Akihiro to take him with him on a patrol, it’s pretty much a given that the shit is about to hit the fan.
Again, I think Tekketsu no Orphans really passes the test here in the sense that when it seems likely that Takaki is about to sacrificed on the altar of dramatic impact (and he still might), we really care. It may not be the most difficult path to audience buy-in, but it gets there. Over the past several episodes this series has focused very much on the human side of the equation – establishing the stakes. At some point it was always going to turn towards drawing against the reserves of engagement it’s been building up, and we may be starting to see that happen.