Attack on Titan owes a whole lot to Mobile Suit Gundam. Both franchises typically center on young people fighting skyscraper-sized killing machines, losing badly, then discovering one among them has the ability to battle the giants on their own terms. We're not the first to make the comparison between AoT and mecha anime, of course, but it bears repeating. Especially as AoT is careening into its second season just as we've wrapped up perhaps the most striking Gundam series in decades.
That would be Iron-Blooded Orphans. And if Attack on Titan grabbed your attention when it premiered several years ago, it's the show you should be watching now instead.
See, your typical Gundam show tells the story of two roughly equivalent factions duking it out in giant robots. The armies' relative power level might be wildly different. Gundam Wing, for example, starred heroes piloting planet-killing doomsday monsters against battalions of tinfoil origami. Physical differences aside, the combatants usually share things like military structure and a publicly stated ideology. Gundam series are about war in the traditional sense.
Not so in Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans. This show deals in slavery, child soldiers, and an extreme class divide that forces kids to form the Martian mercenary group Tekkadan. Together they take up arms (in the form of enormous, metal murder machines), not to fight some lavish war, but simply to determine their own destiny.
Oh, and they'd prefer not to get killed in the process. That part... doesn't work out for all of them (which is pretty common for Gundam series). From episode one onwards children get abruptly iced by sniper fire, mech combat, and oppressive governments. Iron-Blooded Orphans might even, cyclically, owe a lot to Attack on Titan in that regard. IBO's stark depiction of death and dismemberment -- while not quite as gratuitous as the show about naked titans eating people -- shares a kind of flippantly hands-on attitude with that other show. It's not impossible that IBO's introductory episodes intentionally took a page from the other anime's striking, no-one-is-safe attitude. This particular Gundam show started two years after Attack on Titan went to air, after all.
And therein lies one of Attack on Titan's weaknesses: its use of time. An entire, extremely satisfying and well-concluded two seasons of Iron-Blooded Orphans aired between the nearly four year gap between its competitor's first two seasons.
More than that, even when Attack on Titan does air new episodes it's tough to tell if the show has more of a story to tell than the basic premise it modified from Gundam. After a fascinating, electrifying start the series' first season slowed way, way down and rarely picked up speed again -- except for some action-oriented blips at the dead center and conclusion of the 25-episode stretch.
Maybe it's for the sake of adapting the manga as faithfully for television as possible but Attack on Titan is talky in the extreme. The problem is that anime and manga are two very different mediums. What works in the first -- say, lengthy internal monologues describing what's going through a character's mind just before a battle -- doesn't necessarily work in the second, where the audience can't move ahead at its own pace. Which led, intentionally or not, to... well, damn near every episode of the first season ending on some sort of cliffhanger to drag viewers past the exposition.
The result was a first season that felt very stilted and, since it ends on yet more and bigger cliffhangers, like something that didn't quite live up to its promise. The first episode of Attack on Titan is brimming with potential, thanks to a simple visual twist on mecha anime and unforgiving world-building. The finale felt like the writers buying time (three and a half years of it, to be precise).
Iron-Blooded Orphans, by contrast, one-upped the show that one-upped it. The compelling, deeply physical action of Eren Jaeger and company fighting titans mano y mano? It's here. IBO's entirely self-contained universe eschews high-tech weapons like beam sabers and laser rifles in favor of fuck-off huge maces, huge pincer-like weapons, and plain old swords. The most powerful weapon in the whole series is, apparently, a gun that shoots rail spikes the size of water towers. Meaning any fighting that gets done on the show is bone-crushingly intimate and brutal -- not soft and abstract like in some of the previous shows.
IBO has its share of cliffhangers, in the sense that episodes sometimes end with Tekkadan getting ready to enact some plan or face some foe, but the series doesn't tread water with them. Oftentimes the space battle promised at the end of the previous ep will already be underway in the next. It creates an overlapping pace that's as blistering as it is efficient. Time doesn't feel wasted in the series.
More importantly, though, Iron-Blooded Orphans uses these methods to tell complete stories.
You can look at the first season and see a very clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. Tekkadan starts their journey trying to ferry a Martian aristocrat to Earth, where she hopes to make political inroads to loosen the blue planet's tyrannical political grip on her own. Without spoiling it, you know by the end whether she's succeeded or not -- plus the immediate effects the outcome will have on our favorite child soldiers' way of life.
It doesn't end there, though, as season two picks back up with a story arc-focused format, where individual stories told over the course of five or six episodes feed into the greater narrative. In the same way that Attack on Titan took Gundam inspired mecha series and warped them into something fresh, Iron-Blooded orphans uses these arcs to play with its own franchise's clichés, archetypes, and history. Except where Attack on Titan retreads old ground with fresh paint -- swapping mobile suits for titans and sci-fi for low fantasy -- Iron-Blooded Orphans scratches much deeper (perhaps owing to the fact that no franchise should be better at turning its own ideas upside down than that franchise itself).
There's no better example of that then IBO's lead character, Mikazuki Augus. Whereas past Gundam protagonists are vaguely determined, wield power nobody else has, and yell a lot (not unlike AoT's Eren Jaeger) Mika is calm, collected, and almost chillingly sociopathic at times. Rather than balk or scream in the face of war he just sort of... kills people. One early episode even has him shoot a man mid-sentence without blinking an eye. Even that characterization has its nuance over time, though, especially as his relationships with other members of Tekkadan deepen and peel away at his cold exterior.
Of course, it's easy to recommend Iron-Blooded Orphans now. The series has ended. We can tell you that it sticks the landing -- that its critique of capitalism and emotional beats pay off in the end. Attack on Titan has only just started its second season. By the time that show is done, all the strange pacing and frustrating cliffhangers might turn out to have been worth it.
But that's exactly the point. Iron-Blooded Orphans has ended. It got in and told its complete, compelling stories in the time between when Attack on Titan's first season ended and its second one began. As much as AoT might be worth it in the end, it might also not. It's a tough, arduous process to find that out, too, when you're watching a series that, on average, has a new episode roughly once every month and a half.
So here's a suggestion. With Attack on Titan's second season airing now, watch the lower-profile Iron-Blooded Orphans instead. The shows have many of the same qualities -- like savage action, a cast of young characters in untenable situations, and giant killing machines kicking the shit out of each other -- but the experience is more instantly gratifying. Both because of IBO's superior pacing and because it's all available to watch right now.
Attack on Titan isn't going anywhere in the meantime. In fact, by holding off to watch the horror/fantasy series once it's complete, you're saving yourself the frustration of week-to-week cliffhangers and inert episodes interrupting the pace.
Attack on Titan might deserve your time in the future, sure, but Iron-Blooded Orphans deserves it now.