It may not be the best idea to watch Tekketsu no Orphans right after watching Gundam Thunderbolt, but it does present an interesting perspective on Gundam history. As I mentioned in my blog post on the second episode of Thunderbolt, I think these two series represent the stylistic extremes of the Gundam continuum – whereas Iron-Blooded Orphans it the franchise as its most mannered and updated, Thunderbolt is a pure relic – Gundam at its most stripped-down and elemental.
This is not a one-sided comparison by any means. If anything it seems to me that there are elements each incarnation could take from the other that would improve themselves substantially. Thunderbolt is rough, sometimes awkward narratively, and a little disjointed – it could use a little polish. But for me, there’s a simplicity and an honesty to it that Iron-Blooded Orphans rarely displays. I’m not going to make a blanket statement like “less is more” and say it applies to all Gundam series with a broad brush, but maybe the themes Gundam is built around – and those are pretty much the same in every version – pack more power when there’s not so much effort to leverage them for big emotional payoffs.
It seems a week doesn’t go by when we don’t get an emotional payoff in Orphans that splats because it was oversold and/or too predictable. This time it was Ein’s death (if indeed he is dead), which in addition to being predictable threw in being an almost-exact replica of Fumitan’s for good measure. I don’t really care about Ein because I don’t think we’ve ever been given a good reason to (it’s ironic that Crank Zent’s harikiri was really the first domino to fall in this chain of missteps), but this moment should have been better because it was clearly intended to be the emotional centerpiece of the episode.
Not even the great Inoue Kikuko can do much with the material she’s given to work with as Carta Issue, yet another Orphans villain that’s far too much of a ludicrous popinjay to be taken seriously, though she does inject a good deal of silliness into the role. She ends up more or less in a face-off with Eugene, which is quite entertaining in spite of the latter’s unintentionally (I think) comic obsession with looking cool even as blood streams from his nose – the result of controlling two ships via the Alaya-Vijñāna system. Eugene and Carta can’t help but make one wonder if indeed Orphans is operating on a self-parodical level to a degree that isn’t immediately obvious – it would be nice to think so, actually.
A saving grace of Tekketsu no Orphans, of course, is that it usually gets the big action set pieces just as right as it gets the emotional ones wrong (which is ironic in itself), and this one is no exception – ending in a rather effective cliffhanger as the main Tekkadan players appear to be plunging into Earth’s atmosphere at an entirely untenable rate of speed. The whole encounter in space is a study in chaos (no small thanks to McGillis Fareed), and quite intentionally so – the depiction of everyone operating just on the edge of panic is artfully done.
The other saving grace of Iron-Blooded Orphans is that the larger political plot and McGillis’ role in it continue to be interesting. While there’s not a cast member I could honestly say I’m emotionally invested in at this point, McGillis is intellectually engaging for sure. The way he’s currently playing the fox among the chickens for his own murky aims is easily the most fun thing to watch in the series, and the fact that he’s doing it using the worst disguise ever with only Mika seeing through it plays like an intentional yet affectionate jest at the franchise’s expense. That’s another example where it feels as if the unique elements and fresh perspective these creators bring to Tekketsu no Orphans are really shining through, and really working – and I hope we see a lot more before the series is over.