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Anime Self-Examination: How "Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphan" Challenges the Franchises' History of Child Soldiers

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Courtesy of Sunrise Animation.

Courtesy of Sunrise Animation.

Recently, I have begun to binge-watch an anime called Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphan. It's from 2015 and one of the many spin-off giant robot Gundam series in Japan over the past 30 or so years. I happened to catch it by accident from a recommended YouTube video. The plot intrigued me because of the politics involved and the depth of the story that revolved around its central characters of mercenary/orphans, self-named Tekkadan, and how they got caught up in machinations and revolutions while trying to make a living for themselves.

However, the biggest thing that stood out to me was a review from the Japanese Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization that same year, in which a critic criticized its portrayal of child-soldiers. And this is true. The anime does make frequent use of the depiction of kids who are taken from their families and who kill and are often killed in battle at the whims of corporations and governments.

"We're connected. The blood of our dead comrades spilled and the blood we'll be spilling have mixed and hardened like iron. So we can't leave each other. We're not allowed to. Even if its dangerous or painful."

— - Orga Itsuka, Teenage leader of Tekkadan

A Long Standing Tradition

The thing is, however, that this is a common trope in most Gundam series, if not many anime franchises overall. The protagonists usually are somewhere between their mid to late teens. Presumably, it's to sell more toys to appeal to a certain audience. In Japan, they are even made into animated sex-symbols that to Westerners usually feels weird. But it's harder to sell toys about a character who's in his late 20s or 30s like in real life after all.

This is something that stood out to me way back in the early 2000s when I first watched the series Gundam Wing on Toonami. It stood out to me as somewhat cliché and simplistic, with its plot and worldview seen through the eyes of five boys recruited to pilot gundams. Child-soldiers: in particular the character of Heero Yuy. A terrorist and rebel who is recruited and for most of the series, treated as an expendable asset because he is an extremely good soldier.

So the article made me wonder why it was such a big deal that IBO too used child- soldiers when the franchise for the last thirty-something years has frequently made use of the trope?

An Underrated and Tragic Gem

Thinking back on it though, IBO more than any other Gundam series leans really hard into the child-soldier realities that previous series tend to skip over. The closest to it being the main protagonist from the 2007 Gundam series, Gundam 00, Setsuna F. Seiei.

Not only are the protagonists kids, but many of them die in the very first episode. Used as cheap cannon fodder for their adult commanders, whom they later kill in revenge. Nearly everything about the show is permeated with a grittiness that I don’t usually see in similar series. From the close combat that focuses more on hand-to-hand and physical ammo rounds instead of beam weapons, to how these kids deal with an adult world that they both feel and are unaware, is too above them to understand.

The series doesn't focus much on the larger themes of war and peace like it's predecessors. Instead if focuses on the personal effect it has on kids who fight in it and unaware of the deeper implications. As one Tekkadan's enemies later comments after the conflict, the kids didn't fight for ambition or high ideals, but to survive and place to belong, being seen as human beings.

The show several times depicts or hints at off screen children forcibly taken to fight. Brutalized and are forced to kill others. Their victims and enemies see them as just innocent children, and are killed when they realize the awful truth and retaliate in kind.

There are different levels of how child-soldiers handle their traumas as well. Some kids lose all sense of playfulness, while others on the surface seem almost normal unless pushed or in unguarded moments. Some, including one of the main Gundam pilots, Mikazuki Augus, often display a disconnection from the world and the violence they dish out being arguably sociopaths in their own right. Some become so dependent upon someone to give them orders that they latch on to whatever charismatic leader they find and kill whom they are told to kill.

But they all share a deep ferocity and aggressiveness that both frightens those who use them and inspires them to continue doing so.

Courtesy of Sunrise Entertainment.  While most Gundam series use the robots as asthetic and appeal, the Gundam Barbatos belonging to Mikazuki is named after a demon, embodying the brutality theme of the series with its close quarter, merciless combat

Courtesy of Sunrise Entertainment. While most Gundam series use the robots as asthetic and appeal, the Gundam Barbatos belonging to Mikazuki is named after a demon, embodying the brutality theme of the series with its close quarter, merciless combat

Tekkadan themselves establish early on a penchant for merciless retribution if crossed the wrong way and despite their age, that can be disturbing to watch. Also, PTSD is shown in many forms ranging from a despondent and distant behavior, to low-self esteem that allows adults to use them in war because the kids see themselves as no more than ”human debris” and “space rats”: slurs used by adults to remind them of their sub-human status. The kids even venture into murderous sociopathology when triggered, such as at the end of the series when a group of them ambush and assassinate a businessman that betrayed them.

The kids are not alright in this show.

They are treated as expendables. The boys of Tekkadan are determined to rise above their circumstances, forming their own merc group and taking dangerous jobs after rebelling against their commanders.

It’s not just the theme of child-soldiers that run through IBO however, but other child abuses as well. It’s strongly implies that girls are vulnerable to becoming sex-slaves if generous benefactors do not take them in and sponsor them. And one of the adult main characters is a former sex-abuse survivor himself that inspires him to seek more power.

While not having the most gore in an anime series, IBO is still a hard watch, even with the fighting robots.

A Fourth Wall’s Point of View

IBO brings in supporting characters who voice the sentiments of us, the viewer. That kids should not be seeing war and slavery and living it’s horrors. There are frequent debates between characters about this clash of moral duology. During one conversation, when the potential of eliminating of using children as killers is brought up, one of them, Mikazuki responds with unusual coolness, Then what would I do?”

Some come to understand and accept where the boys are at, and others not, with the violence they endure being too much for themselves to handle. In many ways, it's a Japanese, futuristic, and animated take on the classic story, Lord of the Flies.

I am divided as far as these conundrums go. On the one hand, I like how it showed the brutal life that child-soldiers undergo and the people who mistreat them. The brutalization and the extreme circumstances of war and violence that often create such people who then reflect that back onto that same world.

In many ways, IBO is a low-key rebuke of its Gundam heritage for treading so lightly around the blatant trope that they’ve used for so long. It head-on acknowledges the fallout that despite the cool battles and soundtracks, these are kids fighting wars and who are spared none of its cruelties, even the Gundam pilots. While season one and the majority of season two has Tekkadan pulling out victories from near defeats with youthful ingenuity, another common Gundam trope, by the final few episodes, IBO depicts clearly how over their heads the teen mercs are. Their luck steadily runs out, main characters die off, and series-long allies cut ties with them because of how affiliation with them affects business.

One underworld boss whom Tekkadan used to work for says that Tekadan’s reckless tactics and vigor, while inspiring to watch, also shows that they would have never become a successful organization. It’s also mentioned several times about the boys' penchant for not fully considering the consequences of their actions, which is what bites them in the ass and nearly kills the entire group by the end of the series, rather than leaving survivors.

While most Gundam series play off the miracle trope of victory with no consequences, IBO has its protagonists bear the full brunt of their choices, yet still allows itself to play the moral victory trope at the end. And ironically, the two opposite portrayals work well together, giving the moral but bitter sweet, happy ending a gravitas and depth that doesn't feel cheap or inauthentic.

It isn't a fantasy or some sort of contrived, public marketing stunt. It is an unfortunate and cruel reality in many parts of the world today. Ironically, this is also why many Gundam fans consider the series the most underrated of the entire Gundam multiverse.

"So...how many should I kill? How many more until we get there? Because I need to know! Tell me Orga Itsuka! You're gonna take me there aren't you?! That's what you told me! What should I do next?!"

— - Mikazuki Augus

That being said, because of my own Western sentiments being raised in America, I am conditioned to think of children as exceptions to the amorality of life and should be shielded from war and violence. And truthfully speaking, I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Plus, anime has become well-known for its potential of not pulling punches when it comes to real world depictions. Hence why Netflix has sponsored shows like Castlevania.

However, I also accept the reality that such evil like the ones depicted in IBO exist across the world. It is tragic to me how these depictions of this reality in a way have become so generic. Not that the plots are not good. Most of the Gundam stories are actually very good.

Yet, it almost comes as an assumption that the pilot of a gundam is going to be some kid. Children committing violence is an extremely difficult thing to consider and something that I wouldn't understand to live through. There's no real show I think that can truly depict what the life of a child-soldier is like and what it does to them. How it changes and alters their minds.

I read one story some years ago where two twins, a brother and a sister, were the leaders of a rebel group somewhere in Indonesia. And they were not even I think fifteen-years old. If that story is true, then perhaps child-soldiers leading rebellions is not so far off the mark after all.

So I think if you're going to criticize IBO or any future Gundam series' depiction of children committing acts of violence, then you have to criticize the franchise- any franchise- as a whole that does so as well, no matter what country produces it.

And Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans really hammers that home.

© 2021 Jamal Smith

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