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The Nature of Agency in Iron-Blooded Orphans October 20, 2015

Posted by navycherub in Anime, Essay, iron blooded orphans, mobile suit gundam.
Tags: , ,

Note: This contains spoilers for the first three episodes of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans

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The world of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans is one full of political strife. Right from the beginning, we have been introduced to factions with clear larger goals, from the Martians who want independence after the economic turmoil their current regime has put them under to the regime itself, the Earth Sphere, whose affluence is reliant on their control of Mars. Even within those larger organizations, we see how smaller groups such as the military group Gjallarhorn and our protagonists’ employers, the Chryse Guard Security, execute their own goals despite being cogs in larger machines. This entry in the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise isn’t interested in examining events as simply major powers clashing on a large scale, though.

Iron-Blooded Orphans’ focus is instead on the individual agency of its characters and how their worldviews clash with the reality of the world.

This isn’t to deny the importance of the organizations the characters serve, though. Being a war story at heart, Iron-Blooded Orphans puts its characters in these clashing groups with purpose, letting them express themselves and grow from their initial circumstances naturally. Though they are only individuals in a larger plan, their desires and intentions push them to use their situations to their advantage.

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The narrative makes its intentions clear through smart illustration of characters pushed against their current predicaments. In the first episode, we are introduced to McGillis Fareed, an officer and inspector under Gjallarhorn. It is hardly explained what, exactly, his job entails, but it is quickly made clear that isn’t the point. Instead, what is made clear is how Gjallarhorn sees the world – as a constant state of potential, if only everyone were to play their respective parts. To McGillis, Gjallarhorn exists for the greater peace and order of the world, and if others have to suffer for that larger good, so be it.

Of course, he himself is only a young officer, so the way he carries himself betrays the sense of utilitarianism he claims to serve. His desire for power is obvious to everyone but himself – the way he talks about the strength of their technology, and the manner with which he carries himself around the actual commander of the Mars Branch, Coral Conrad, speaks to his true desires. McGillis sees Gjallarhorn as a vehicle he can manipulate, eventually allowing him to be at the top of the hill where he thinks he truly belongs.

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It’s interesting to compare McGillis’ idea of upward mobility to Orga’s, because they are actually very similar so far. Orga was also a pawn for Chryse Guard Security with long-term plans of finding a better place in the world eventually, as we’ve seen in the dissolution of First Group forming of Tekkadan. From the very beginning, we can tell that Orga has a mind for understanding his environment and the rules that govern it. When talking about receiving beatings as a child in the CGS, he mentions that it didn’t really make a difference if you cried or not – you were punished either way. In this way, he maintains a purposeful image around everyone, carefully toeing the lines of each relationship; Orga knows exactly how much he can rebel against his superiors while keeping his crew safe, allows only a certain amount of unrest among his camp, and ensures his side looks the most appealing as much as possible.

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The case studies for this are small but telling stories of how characters in Iron-Blooded Orphans value their agency in themselves. In the first episode, a particularly rebellious child named Eugene boasts of how the company president, Maruba, noticed their skills, potentially meaning they could move up and replace the First Group. Orga is smarter than that and knows Maruba would never respect them enough to allow that to happen, but isn’t directly confrontational with Eugene like he is with the First Group members and explains this calmly, while also not getting riled up when Eugene’s temper gets out of hand. Eugene’s view of the world as a place where success and skill inevitably lead to respect and rightful compensation is made plainly clear as not a viable path by the narrative’s preference toward Orga’s more practical understanding of how people actually work.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Akihiro. Unlike Eugene, Akihiro is completely disconnected from the idea that he could have better – to him, being alive at all is worth protecting, so it doesn’t matter who he is serving as long as he has a place. Loud kids and rebellious ideas are only welcome as long as they don’t threaten his comfort. In other words, Akihiro is willing to forgo his agency in exchange for his life. Orga’s outward confidence seems to be enough to convince Akihiro to stick around, but it isn’t entirely clear yet how the story itself feels about his worldview – Orga seems to like him, but in a world where the peace is constantly being threatened, being satisfied simply allowing history to pass you by doesn’t seem like it will be rewarded in the long-term.

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If Akihiro is the opposite of many of the characters in Iron-Blooded Orphans, protagonist Mikazuki is essentially not even on the chart. Akihiro may have chosen to let others dictate his life in exchange for safety, but at least he chose – thus far we haven’t actually seen Mika desire anything for himself. The reason Iron-Blooded Orphans is able to portray Mika as a frightening consequence of war so convincingly is because every element of the rest of the show is built on the theme of agency. Mika’s willingness to do anything Orga asks of him without questioning a word is certainly useful for Orga, but it also reduces Mika to a tool instead of a person. When Mika talks about all lives being precious, not just his own, it should sound noble but instead comes off as robotic. When Mika pilots the Barbatos without any regard for his own health, victory is unable to feel completely fulfilling. When Mika kills people in cold blood, even if it is for the greater good of the group, it feels downright wrong. If anything in the show so far casts doubt on the seemingly perfect way Orga handles himself, it is ironically the number one tool that has enabled him so far, Mika himself.

If Iron-Blooded Orphans were a simpler show, Orga would be the hero and we could root for him unconditionally. Instead, Orga’s plans are built on unstable foundations, and no one perspective in the story is without flaws. The world is a complex place, but when push comes to shove, how far is too far?

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1. Justin - November 29, 2015

I love your review! Could you please continue reviewing IBO? Considering all that has happened in the past few episodes I would love your take on everything and the themes of this show.

navycherub - November 29, 2015

Thank you. I am actually a bit behind on Iron-Blooded Orphans but if it’s something people would like, I can see what I can do!

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