Organized violence in pursuit of a political aim often becomes a very messy affair. That is not to say that war doesn’t work, but it almost always costs more than anticipated. A great example in living memory would be the 2003 War in Iraq led by the United States. The overall success and failure of the war and subsequent occupation is still hotly debated, but what isn’t is that Iraq cost significantly more in manpower, time, treasure and prestige than the experts predicted. Revolutionary and Civil Wars tend to be even more messy because there often isn’t a way to negotiate peace. The War in Syria began in 2011, and it took almost five years before any real talks occurred to end the war. During that time, hundreds of thousands of people have died, and over ten million people have become displaced. It is unknown at the time of this writing if this effort will lead to an end of the violence.
The Gundam franchise is well aware of the bloody nature of revolution, so the natural setting of many of their stories involve it. The Zeon Revolution that occurred in Mobile Suit Gundam killed half of humanity before the story in the anime began. Gundan Wing saw colonies seek a chance to gain freedom by creating the Gundams, and that effort snowballed into major conflict involving multiple parties attempting to grab power. Many people died as a result. The franchise always views war as wrong, but it is this view that causes an inherent hypocrisy. The message in Gundam is that war is bad, but the purpose of it is to sell model weapons. This has required the anime to glorify the violence and war that it repeatedly preaches is wrong.
This is the central reason why the first season of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans feels so different than the previous Gundam series. The characters in both Tekkadan and Gjallarhorn fight because they understand violence is necessary to achieve their aims. The story is straightforward and taps into a primal aspect of humanity. It is no wonder that the first work of literature in Western Civilization, the Iliad, is a story of Achilles’ rage. Achilles is heroic because he can do great things, and he is remembered because his rage changed the course of history. Mikazuki is Iron-Blooded Orphans’ Achilles who is also able to do great things in his rage that change history. Why care about virtue when you can watch great champions use their terrible power?
Iron-Blooded Orphans also uses questionable methods to tell its story. Any fan of the Iliad would know that Prince Hector was the ideal man, with his only failing being unable to best Achilles. Iron-Blooded Orphans uses Marxists ideas to make the story compelling. For better or for worse, Marxists understanding has permeated throughout Western and Eastern Civilization. People see the world in terms of class, and generally view those above them working towards their own benefit at the expense of those bellow them. An issue with Marxists thought is that the problems of the world stem from a structural system that goes to the core of society, so society must be completely changed at its heart to achieve true justice for the members of society. There is a reason why Socialists put so much stock into revolution, and I have already made the case earlier that revolutions turn messy. Revolution is often viewed as necessary step, so that means violence is necessary to achieve true justice. There can be no compromise, because meeting halfway with evil is evil.
What makes a person or organization good or bad in Iron-Blooded Orphans is not due to their virtue, but whether or not they live in a privileged state. The children who formed Tekkadan gained their power through violence, even to the point of executing the second highest ranking person in their private security firm. The story plays this off as justified because the children were treated inhumanly and were set up as sacrifices in the previous battle. The ethics of their mutiny is never mentioned. Tekkadan become affiliated with the criminal organization known as Teiwaz. The show then quickly introduces the Pirate group called Brewers to show that there are worse criminals out there. We know the Brewers are evil because they’re slavers, and they even use slaves to fight. Though how the slaves remain so when they operate the majority of the military equipment is beyond me. We then see the workers in the colonies around Earth are oppressed by Gjallarhorn. Gjallarhorn is bad because they engineer a conflict by given the workers faulty equipment and faking an explosion to start the violence. It doesn’t matter that the workers were perfectly fine in killing to achieve their goals if only they had the means, or that marching on a government building with firearms and tanks would automatically justify a military response. Victims are given carte blanche to address their grievances in this anime.
It is this complete support to those who are disadvantage that makes the Iron-Blooded Orphans so troubling. The rebellion of the colony workers is the only event that is clearly a revolution, and the anime handles it in a completely biased way. The anime initially casts doubt on the workers by having Tekkadan unaware that they are transporting weapons and by having a firefight break out so quickly. The anime then humanizes the workers to make it clear they’re in the right, even though they are quick to violence. The only view of the company the workers work for is given by the introduction of Biscuit’s brother. The brother’s first actions are to betray Biscuit and to allow a little girl to be beaten, even when its known that she’s not the person they’re after. The revolution must be just because of what was seen from both sides, and the subsequent slaughter reinforces the idea. The fighting is resolved by Kudelia Aina Bernstein informing the world of what was occurring in the colonies, and the dubious spark that started the bloodshed. Showing that the world will side with the workers if only they knew what was going on.
The unfortunate reality is that no war can easily be stopped once it’s started. Like Pandora’s Box, it cannot be closed once it is opened. While the workers were able to reach an agreement to end the fighting, what deal could they make that was worth the lives of so many of their comrades? If the workers had means to resists then they would keep on resisting, but what most likely happened is that they were so thoroughly defeated that they would accept whatever deal was presented to them. The most radical workers would already be dead, and those who were still alive understood they had no way of winning through any conventional means.
Iron-Blooded Orphans’ creators at least recognized how pro-violence the story was so they introduced a tragic aspect to Biscuit’s brother. He knew that both Gjallarhorn and the workers were moving towards war and did everything in his power to prevent it, even allowing a little girl to be beaten. He was the only one who saw what the cost of the revolution would actually be. His message is subverted in two important ways. Kudelia, who has always been presented as the paragon of goodness in the anime, takes a very different lesson from the workers’ revolution. That incident, to include Fumitan’s death, made her resolved to the idea of having a revolution. Before, Kudelia only desired economic freedom for Mars, now she desires the complete upheaval of the system that keep the Martians and the Colonists oppressed. The second way the message subverted was how the story handled Biscuit. Biscuit received his brother’s suicide note and understood what he was trying to say. This led Biscuit into conflict with Orga. Biscuit has always been a voice of reason for Tekkadan, and now he is the only one questioning if the violence is worth it. Biscuit then comes around to Orga’s view and then dies. He shows that reason can side with Orga and violence, and then he exits the story so reason can never change its mind again.
Iron-Blooded Orphans creates another outlet shortly after to show that what Tekkadan is doing isn’t really good by turning the Teiwaz liaison, Merribit, into the sole voice of peace after the death of Biscuit. She alone was willing to voice that Tekkadan’s desire for revenge for Biscuit would take them down a dark road. She alone questioned the cost Orga was willing to pay to accomplish the mission. She alone was willing to say how wrong everything had become. Her pleas did nothing. The most concerning aspect was that the old mechanic who had been with Tekkadan from the beginning saw everything she did, but chose to do nothing. He knew the children were walking an evil path, but quietly continued to enable them.
The story of Iron-Blooded Orphans isn’t over, and there is the possibility that whatever tragedy that will be seen in the second season were directly caused by these actions in the first. The members of Tekkadan who died will never come back, and Mikazuki appears to be permanently handicapped from fighting with the Gundam. McGillis has gained tremendous power in Gjallarhorn and has eyes on purging the organization. Other organizations are trying to incite a revolution in hopes of gaining more power and wealth. There are also people who fully believe in the revolutionary cause, and may feel the deal Kudelia reached is not enough. Iron-Blooded Orphans has been extremely creative in its approach to storytelling, but it has left it up to the ending to define the entire series. The story feels like it will it will become another Calamity War between those who desire to change the world and those who desire to maintain it. Both sides will escalate the violence higher and higher until it can go no further. The real question is what the message at the end of the anime would be. As it stands now, Iron-Blooded Orphans contradicts the principles the Gundam franchise has had for decades. The fact Iron-Blooded Orphans appears to be so popular may also be a sign of a cultural change on what people believe justifies violence. It may be that a generations long peace that the much of the world has achieved have made people apathetic to the forces that created it. The injustices of the world are heightened by the stagnation, and the possibility of a better one is enticing. I just hope people understand what the costs of change are beforehand.