From the beginning the Gundam franchise has shown us the cost of war. We’ve seen it through a range of human emotions, mental strain, death, and destruction. Two of the latest Gundam anime have focused on a physical cost as well as mental. Daryl of Gundam Thunderbolt and Mikazuki of Iron-blooded Orphans lead their fights despite a continued cost to their bodies.
Every episode of Gundam Thunderbolt is like being punched in the gut, often leaving me speechless, and Iron-blooded Orphans wasn’t been far behind. Both series bring us some of the darkest depictions thus far in the Gundam series and amazingly they have come out very close together. (Although it should be noted that Thunderbolt is based on an ongoing manga that began in 2012.)
The Gundam franchise has been running for 38 years with multiple iterations, spinoffs, universes, reimaginings, and sequels. While it is one of the most important foundations of the real robot genre Gundam has had entries all over the spectrum from rather realistic interpretations (or as realistic as one can get about giant robots) to iterations that are pure super robot and everything in between. In that 38 year span, Sunrise has tried to adapt the series to the tastes and expectations of the times. How successful they have been is up for debate, wildly variable depending on the version you look at, and highly subject to revisionist interpretation but they wisely keep tweaking the formula each time. That said there are a few key pillars that are almost always part of the Gundam DNA.
One of those pillars is that Gundam is a series is the constant antiwar message of the series. You can argue the franchises effectiveness in that regard. There is the idea of attributed to Francois Truffaut that there is no such thing as an antiwar film by the fact that no matter the underlying message cinema often makes war look noble and cool despite what it otherwise wants to do. Usually, an antiwar film’s most powerful weapon in the face of that argument is showing the cost for the soldiers and civilians caught up in the conflict. Since Yoshiyuki “Kill’em All” Tomino’s iconic run of the original series Gundam has never shied away from killing characters in order to prove how horrible war can be. But as Gundam is always evolving it has started to try a new approach to show the horrors of wars.
When you think about the toll a war takes on the combatants it is easy to conjure up the simple deaths of the battlefield. These sorts of casualties are often visceral and horrific. But it is easy to forget all the other ways wars rob the life of those it touches. While the body counts were huge during the bloody battles of Gettysburg, Antietam, and The Wilderness in the American Civil War it is important to remember that 2/3 of the casualties of the war were due to disease as opposed to bullets and bayonets. And that also ignores all the soldiers who survived the war but were emotionally and physically scarred by the fighting.
Gundam Thunderbolt and Iron-Blooded Orphans deal with the price of war in ways more than just killing off characters. Although they also still kill off characters. Recently Gundam has also been slowly crippling its main characters as a recent way of showing of the price of war. It is one thing to see a character die heroically in a fiery blaze of glory. It is another thing to see them slowly lose pieces of themselves as they are forced back to the front time and time again despite the fact that each time they go back they are slowly disappearing.
In Gundam Thunderbolt, Daryl has lost the bottom half of his legs before the series began; he lost one arm while we watched; and then had his remaining limb surgically removed. Instead of processing loss, and with pressure from the Zeon scientists on the project, Daryl doubled-down in order to fight ever harder. Though I wouldn’t say it was depicted as an easy choice.
When Daryl daydreams, he is running barefoot on the beach as a child.
Daryl’s psychological state comes off as a duality. Sometimes he really feels and remembers, and sometimes it seems like he is floating from above observing himself. This feels incredibly believable for someone is the midst of a brutal, traumatizing set of circumstances.
On another note, Gundam Thunderbolt also deals interestingly with the topic of masculinity and humanity. Io, Daryl’s rival on the Federation side is a hostile guy even at the beginning. As a feeling of being emasculated by Daryl who he scorns for his loss of limbs starts to take over, Io’s rage emanates from him. Io says as much when they finally come face-to-face at the end of the OVA.
If you’re familiar with the Universal Century timeline you will know that while Zeon starts the war with a tremendous momentum thanks to their embracing of Mobile Suit technology they are still at a disadvantage due to having a smaller population and fewer resources than the Federation. With that in mind, it makes sense why Zeon would try to implement unconventional and even desperate methods to bolster their ranks. As the war goes on their numerical disadvantages come into play more and more. Therefore any plan that can possibly increase their fighting force and end the war quickly is vitally important. One of Zeon’s solutions to this problem is the Living Dead Division. It is a program that treats wounded Zeon soldiers like used tea bags. It slowly drains the last remaining vestiges of life from those who have already had so much taken from them in the war effort.
All the members of the Living Dead Division could theoretically get discharged due to their injuries but have signed up for this special project to use cybernetics to not only let them fight again but possibly be even more effective. A mixture of zealous patriotism, a desperate need for purpose, and unexamined fears have thrown the members of the Living Dead Division into a very shady program that is exploiting them in inhumane ways. The most of the researchers behind the project clearly have little to no regard for the subjects of the program and mostly see them as lab rats that are to be used up in order for their research to benefit soldiers that they actually consider important. While Daryl and the rest of the Living Dead Division have a sense this is going on but consciously and unconsciously ignore that fact with excuses of comradery, nationalism, and dogma.
The name of the squadron says volumes. While they have not died in battle they also are not considered fully human by their superiors. In a war where most of the soldiers are merely nothing more than strategic resources, they are extra expendable. They are not some sort of glorious Captain American project where the members are transformed into reborn heroes of the Zeon cause. They are mostly seen as scrap stone that is merely been recycled into concrete for patchwork jobs with all the associated affection and thought one would have for a disposable material. Even their own forces have relegated them to an utterly inhuman position.
Once the members start replacing their body parts they begin to lose their links to humanity. If you have ever played any cyberpunk role-playing game they almost always have a game mechanic where you lose your humanity as you replace body parts with artificial replacements. As Kate mentioned when Daryl gives up his remaining arm it has the feeling of a Faustian bargain. While he gains greater power he also sells off much of his remaining humanity. Gundam Thunderbolt clearly wants the audience to sympathize with the Living Dead Division but at the same time, they are also not the lily-white heroes. Daryl and his men are not making unquestionably righteous choices. While you are supposed to feel pathos for their condition it is also partially through their own choices that have led them to this situation.
At the end of the first part of the series when so much of the cast dies it is less a battle of noble hero and villains and more the tragic end to many characters who might have gained more with the release of death than the purgatory of continually fighting of the remains of broken colonies in the Thunderbolt Sector. While the mecha battles still are cool and stylish they are somewhat mitigated by the utterly inglorious existence of the soldiers involved.
It should be noted that while the Federation does not have its own Living Dead Division the death by degrees is also present in characters like Claudia Peer. While she is not losing limbs like Daryl her body and mind are rotting away due to drug addiction she devolved in response to the stress and trauma of the war. Her addiction is a little outside of the scope of this post but I wanted to mention it as it is very strongly, if tangentially, related.
In Iron-blooded Orphans, similar to Daryl, Mikazuki chooses to fight more and more despite a deterioration of his body. When the series begins, Mikazuki is already surgically implanted (along with nearly everyone in the Tekkadan crew) with an advanced system for piloting. And he is often having his humanity questioned. He continues to push his connection to the system resulting in trauma to his body and brain. And eventually he loses full control of his limbs when not connected to his Gundam.
Mikazuki enters into a womb-like dependence on his Gundam. The Alaya-Vijnana System connecting him to his unit acts an umbilical cord which allows Mikazuki to function. Outside of the system, he doesn’t have the use of one side of his body.
Mikazuki’s reactions to all of these circumstances is single-mindedness. He is a fighter, he fights. Those around him react with more grief and horror to his state than he does. But far from being simply a stoic hero, the depiction of Mikazuki is one of childhood trauma in which he left behind his control long ago.
And Iron-blooded Orphans features many characters experiencing similar or parallel loss of body over the course of the series.
Iron-Blooded Orphans adds the issue of child soldiers to issues brought up in Gundam Thunderbolt. While the members of Living Dead Division were at one point normal soldiers who were presumably normal citizens. While almost all of the Living Dead Division surely did not come from privileged backgrounds none of them are Kuntala styled untouchables. The members of Tekkadan are child soldiers who are often viewed somewhere between beasts of burden and regular people by many people in the show. Native born Martians are already second class citizen compared to native Terrans so the members of Tekkadan are the underclass of a underclass. These orphans start off as being seen as not fully human so radical, dangerous, and cruel modification to them are just a common occurrence.
In the Post Disaster universe, the Alaya-Vijnana System implant is considered a barbaric technology being very dangerous and potentially fatal despite the fact that it greatly enhances a pilot’s abilities. It has such a social stigma because of its dangers that it is almost exclusively on child soldiers and other outsider combatants. If commanders will casually throw Alaya-Vijnana Systems on their soldiers than they clearly don’t view them as humans of equal consideration.
While most of the child soldiers in Iron-Blooded Orphans have grown up twisted due to their horrific upbringings but Mikazuki is an extra special case. He was a very strange sense of self often being rather detached from his ego. He is often completely separated emotions and is almost robotically passive when taking order from Orga. He often just acts and even views himself as a tool whenever anyone he respects gives him an order. While Daryl is a character who slowly loses his sense of self one wonders how much Mikazuki ever had in the first place. He is so separated from any personal identity that he can throw away parts of his body without a second thought. It was almost as if he was born into his world’s version of the Living Dead Division.
Since Mikazuki merely views himself as a tool for those he considers family he thinks little of what he is losing or gaining. He would replace his limbs in a second if it would make him more capable. If given the chance he would almost certainly throw away his physical body and go full body conversion cyborg like Ein Dalton did.
Speaking of that Ein is prime example of someone who was willing to throw away his humanity for power. While he was already unbalanced in his quest for revenge when he is turned into a brain in jar to pilot his suit after getting critically injured he loses any sense of moderation of compassion. In fact even being killed by Mikazuki during the Battle of Edmonton his grudge still lingers on when what little is left of him is used to act as a coprocessor of the Gundam Vidar for Gaelio. Dying does not let him let go of his resentment as he is forced back to fight against Tekkadan again.
Despite the setting of the far-flung future, with giant robots and neigh magical science and medicine which could allow them to gloss over physical costs of the war, these series decide to make them a focus. Even though both Daryl and Mikazuki willing give up their bodies in the pursuit of victory, there is still a sense of their bodies not being their own. They are tools, willing or not, of a war machine that doesn’t place value on human lives which is very Gundam.
When Biscuit Griffon, Mu La Flaga, or Ryu Jose die their deaths are tragic but heroic. All the casts members are touched by their sacrifice and they are remembered as heroes. While their deaths are terrible you could see them as something you would want to emulate. Going out in a blaze of glory to save your comrades is admirable and noble. The slow and painful unmaking of Daryl and Mikazuki is less heroic. It is more like heartbreaking death as a disease slowly eats away at a loved one than a gallant martyrdom. While you can admire the person so willing to sacrifice pieces of themselves for others it is much harder to watch and applaud. It will always be tainted with a degree of horror.
So while I’m not sure this sort of body horror finally makes a war movie that has a strictly anti-war message it does make it harder to take nothing away from the experience but the glory of combat. It lets the price of conflict stick with the viewer through the characters. It reminds the viewer that there are no real winners for those who fight on the battlefield. It is only a question of how much have those soldiers lost when the fighting is over.