Mobile Suit Gundam has been around for 38 years, and in that time it has seen countless new entries in the form of anime sequels and spin-offs, manga, light novels, and lets not forget the merchandising empire that is gunpla. Yet I haven’t felt like there’s been that truly great Gundam story in quite a while. Every show has the potential of course, but they typically fall apart somewhere. Iron-Blooded Orphans feels like it finally broke that string of average Gundam stories.

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Iron-Blooded Orphans is a very boots in the mud story, very gritty, brutal, and defeatist at times. It’s a story about orphans who have been treated like property and trash all their lives and that are searching for a place to belong, but the only place they know is the battlefield. It’s dark in that sense because almost every character is or was a child soldier, with only a handful of characters not having come from that background. The brutality is cemented by many different facets. This is seen the most in the mecha combat as ranged weaponry is nothing compared to up close and personal brawls. You see mobile suits being smashed by giant maces, cut in half by physical swords, there are chain whips, giant pliers that crush the cockpit of a mobile suit, and so on. It’s medieval in a sense and that means that most battles, in atmosphere of course, take place on the ground rather than in the air. I’ve grown accustomed to mobile suits always flying and shooting beams everywhere, rarely landing, so IBO is a breath of fresh air in that it harkens back to the original Universal Century Gundam series, the ones where technology was still at a point where sustained flight for mobile suits was not a thing and they fought it out like soldiers in World War II, ducking behind cover and fighting up close if need be.

That brutality also extends to the deaths in this series because it isn’t just nameless mooks who die all the time(though there are a lot of those deaths.) and it’s these named characters that sometimes get the most horrific and/or tragic deaths. Comparing IBO to a series like Victory Gundam is fair game, only the deaths are much bloodier and you spend more than three episodes with these characters, protagonists and antagonists alike. Granted, deaths eventually become predictable because IBO raises death flags like they’re going out of style. And when no death flags have been raised, there is always some sort of indicator in the scene that implies that something tragic is about to occur. It got me like that so many times and my heart stopped and my chest hurt. The show is very good about shocking you in a way that leaves you thinking about it for days at a time and processing that information.

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But I think one of the most refreshing things about this show is that the protagonists don’t fight in an actual war. They’re a private military company, you pay them and they fight for you. They aren’t fighting for Earth or for Mars, they’re fighting for themselves, for their future, and that does eventually snowball and they end up in the middle of a large scale conflict of sorts, but it doesn’t start out like that and the road that took them there is believable. The ending does feel a tad rushed, though only in the sense that perhaps another episode or two would have been ideal. Other than that, the ending was actually pretty good and quite different from pretty much every other Gundam series out there.

However, one thing that definitely sets the characters of Iron-Blooded Orphans apart from previous Gundam entries is that they are very morally grey. Some characters can definitely be pegged as good or evil, but many others are not so easy to pin down. For example, Mikazuki Augus is supposed to be the main protagonist, and the main protagonist is usually a good guy, but Mikazuki can’t be called a saint because he will kill anyone if ordered to in cold blood. Death has very little meaning to him and is simply a means to an end. On the other side of the conflict is Rustal Ellion. He is the de facto antagonist of the second half of IBO, however, while he may pull some shady tricks, and at least one of his subordinates falls heavily under evil even if it is caused by sheer stupidity, he is also not so easy to call undeniably evil given certain events that I won’t speak of due to heavy spoilers. The show portrays these characters as grounded human beings who have motivations both simple and complex and sometimes they’re working towards the same goals without even realizing it, taking different paths to achieve those goals and thus coming into conflict with one another.

Like its premise, Iron-Blooded Orphans has a very gritty art style. Everything is drawn with tons of detail and the animations are very fluid at times. The CG ships stick out of course, but the hand drawn mobile suits are the real stars of the show anyway so that is really all that matters. The designs of the regular mobile suits aren’t particularly anything special, but the Gundams are completely different beasts. Their designs are both intricate and simple, and each one of them has something that makes them stand out from the rest. Gundam Barbatos starts off almost skeletal due to its parts having been sold for cash over the course of 300 years and so it gradually returns to its original form and then beyond that as the series progresses, Gundam Gusion starts off as nothing short of a pot-bellied tank that doesn’t even resemble a Gundam and wields a giant hammer, Gundam Kimaris reminds me of a centurion with a lance, and so on. Barbatos of course has the best design, at least to me. Being the main protagonists Gundam that makes sense.

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Now let me be clear that the art and animation are not on the same level as Gundam Thunderbolt. There are moments, especially in the second season, where it looks like the artists and animators went all out and that is the closest this gets to Thunderbolt levels of perfection. It maintains the level of detail that it does probably because it was split into two 25 episode seasons rather than one continuous 50 episode run. Even then there are a few moments where the art simplifies to save some cash and a couple of stock animation.

The soundtrack for Iron-Blooded Orphans is, to put it simply, absolutely amazing. I don’t think there’s been a Gundam soundtrack that I’ve liked this much since Gundam SEED. And that’s saying something because there have been multiple new series since then. Then again, I also would expect nothing less from the composer behind the soundtrack to Your Lie in April. Some tracks get you pumped up for the action, get you angry at the characters who are framed as the villains, and then there are others like the track above that want you to feel nothing less than sorrow. It gives me chills every time and makes me tear up.

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In the sound effect department, not a single thing sounds off. Everything has some sort of weight to it. It has meat. A mace smashing into thick layers of armor, fragile parts being crushed under the weight, the power behind rocket thrust, echoing gunfire, and the sound of bullets pinging off of the ground. Nothing is left undetailed and it helps to anchor everything.

At the end of the day, Iron-Blooded Orphans is without a doubt among the best that the Gundam franchise has to offer, especially when it comes to the alternate universe series. It’s a very grounded, very human tale that is not ashamed when it comes to depicting gory and unsettling scenes whenever they may come up. If Gundam Build Fighters was a Gundam show aimed at fans of all ages, Iron-Blooded Orphans is definitely aimed at an older audience. I highly recommend that if you didn’t watch it while it was airing, to give it a shot if you’re a fan of the mecha genre or just plain like good stories with great characters.