MEDIA AND VIOLENCE: HOW IRON BLOODED ORPHANS GETS IT SO RIGHT WHILE GAME OF THRONES GETS IT SO WRONG
Violence in media is kind of a controversial topic nowadays. It’s often an easy target for parents to excuse the younger generation’s inexcusable behavior, or a good scapegoat once another school shooting takes place (it’s a crying shame I can even talk about this in the plural sense). At the same time though, I don’t feel we can just conveniently wave away complaints about violence in media as “SJW talk” either. Violence in any form is bad. It’s a destructive force that more often than not ruins the life of those who wield it, as well as the person it’s inflicted upon. It’s not something I feel media shouldn’t shy away from. But it’s also not something that I feel should be promoted either.
And this brings us to two very different shows that both have become known for their graphic violence. Two shows that on the surface couldn’t be more different. One a mech anime, the other a high fantasy tv series. One a show about a rogue military unit know as Tekkadan. The other a show about royal families vying for power in a fictional kingdom called Westeros. Yet what these two shows share is that they really make no illusions about how fucking harsh life can be. They both take place in societies governed by violence. Ones where ruthless people who know how to play the political game thrive while idealists find their efforts all for naught. And of course, another thing they share is that they’re both not exactly squeamish when it comes to killing off their main cast members. As both have amassed quite a substantial death count over the course of their respective series.
So why is it that I feel Iron Blooded Orphans is one of the best sci fi shows of all time while Game of Thrones has, by this point, become an obscene gorefest?
Before I go into both shows and how each depicts violence, I feel I should start by stating my own views on the subject. I am a pacifist at heart. I abhor violence and feel that ultimately, it just leads to nothing more than just destruction and death. But I am also not so naïve as to think that being a pacifist at all times is going to solve everything. If someone attacked me with a knife, should I just allow myself to be knifed to death? Thereby causing immense grief and pain for those around me. Or should I inflict violence on my attacker, thereby perhaps, causing immense grief and pain on people close to him? When it comes to violence there really aren’t any simple answers.
So yeah, in short, my views on violence are rather complicated, but at the very least, I don’t think violence itself should be a goal worth achieving. And this brings us right to Game of Thrones and my increasing frustration with that show and how it depicts violence.
PART 1: HOW GAME OF THRONES GETS IT SO WRONG
I used to be a huge fan of this TV series. When it came out, I was instantly hooked and I went on to read the books, play the video games, and became a prominent member on a forum specifically dedicated to the show. But right around the time season 5 began, my fandom for the show began to wane considerably. And it’s not because at this point the show began to diverge considerably from the books. In fact, I daresay that this divergence happened exactly because of the much more deeply rooted problems that have plagued the show since the beginning. Problems that remained largely unnoticed upto the point that the show began to reach books 4 and 5. For those who haven’t read the books, books 4 and 5 is where the series began to take a more thoughtful and philosophical approach. And I daresay the writers of the show couldn’t keep up with that, so they fell back on what made the show such a big hit in the first place: lots and lots of violence.
Now don’t get me wrong the books are equally as violent as the show - moreso even. In fact, I can safely say there are certain scenes in the books I’m glad never made it into the show. But for all the gory violence and shocking deaths, the books never make any attempt at convincing us that this is normal or good. And then, by the time the story gets to book 4, some of the characters begin to contemplate ways to try to govern, not through violence, but a genuine political system. While others are confronted by people with a far more peaceful outlook on life. The books are an exploration of violence that at no point condones or normalizes it. It is always depicted as this destructive force. And by this point it’s slowly becoming obsolete in the world of the books as alternative routes are discovered and different philosophies begin to gain popularity.
The show, on the other hand, makes no such considerations. While it was never quite as nuanced and thought-provoking as the books, the violence was always there for a reason. It was a way to enforce the drama and core ideas of the series. It was a means to an end. From season 5 onwards though, violence itself has become the end goal. It was no longer about the drama or themes. The main purpose of the show became to shock the viewer with increasingly gruesome scenes of death and violence.
Where a character would get a full arc in the earlier parts of the show, characters in later seasons are unceremoniously killed off without having really done anything of any real importance. Just another name to add to the show’s kill list. Another actor to scrap from the payroll. And where earlier on in the show scenes of violence would feel like being punched in the gut by how gritty and non-stylised they were in the later parts they're just depicted as cool action starring badass characters.Which in a way negates the meaningfulness of the deaths of characters earlier on in the show. The violence in Game of Thrones serves no purpose anymore other than to shock. Where the books explore it as a concept, the show just revels in it.
This is, of course, a very brief summary of all my issues with the show. It’s not my intention to use this piece to just rag on Game of Thrones, since that’s been done enough by this point. Instead I refer you to a video by YouTuber Mr Btongue , who explains every issue I have with the show and does it far better than I ever could.
PART 2: HOW IRON BLOODED ORPHANS GETS IT SO RIGHT
Despite the fact that Iron Blooded Orphans is set in the future and in space its setting is remarkably similar to Westeros. It’s also a world governed by violence. One in which there’s a very strong social and economical divide. And if you’re born on the wrong side of that divide, violence is the only way to get ahead in life, and in many cases, the only way to even stay alive. Iron Blooded Orphans makes no attempts at hiding this harsh truth. Time and again, we are reminded of the fact that any progress made by Tekkadan came at the expense of the lives of their enemies and - more often than not, their own comrades. War is never glorious and the show makes sure we never forget that fact. Even though Tekkadan largely consists of like-able and well intentioned people they are also cold blooded killers who wouldn’t hesitate a second to put a bullet between your eyes if their superior officer commanded them to do so.
And nowhere is this more apparent than with its two main protagonists: Orga and Mikazuki. Orga is a highly intelligent young man capable of great empathy and the leadership skills to back it up. His goal is to create a home where he and his comrades can live a life as free men, rather than as cogs in the machine of war. But in order to achieve that goal, he does things that most people wouldn’t consider ethically correct. Mikazuki on the other hand is the very embodiment of the term stone cold killer. Shooting unarmed people in the face without so much as batting an eye. However this doesn't mean he's without any emotions either. He displays a deep affection for Orga and would do anything for him and his comrades. And if that includes cold blooded murder then so be it. Neither of these characters can be considered heroes, but they’re not villains either. They’re people with good intentions, who use violence as a means to acquire their goals. Yet at the same time, the use of said violence also costs them a lot, and as the show moves on, it begins to dawn on them how it ultimately has only led them further away from their goal.
This is also clearly evident with another character in the show: Kudelia Aina Bernstein. A high placed diplomatic official from Mars striving for independence from earth. Kudelia is often compared to Relena Peacecraft from Gundam Wing but in my opinion she’s more the perfect antithesis to Relena. Relena is a pacifist through and through, even when the world crumbles around her and as such is often at the mercy of those willing to soil thier hands with blood in her name without her own knowledge of this. However this does mean she manages to stick to her ideals at all times. Kudelia on the other hand starts the series as a full-on pacifist but quickly discovers that she won’t be able to achieve anything if she doesn’t get her hands dirty. And so, she ends up having Tekkadan fight for her time and again, knowing full well she’s sending them out to their deaths, and at the same time, sending them out to kill others in her name.
However, by the time season 2 rolls around she’s gained a lot of power. She uses her newfound power for good though, starting an orphanage for the people who lost their relatives in the war she played such a pivotal role in. But because of this, for the first time, she is confronted with the image of people living in peace, without having to resort to violence to remain alive. And so, this girl who in all but name only, is technically a warlord begins to ponder the idea of governing without force. At this point it’s unclear whether this thread will lead to anything, but it is, at the very least an interesting notion. And it’s the kind of nuanced thinking that Game of Thrones is so sorely lacking.
Oddly enough, depsite anime having the stigma of being overstylised the action in Iron Blooded Orphans feels a lot more real and meaningful than that in Game of Thrones at this point. While there are certainly grand action ballets where it seems the person that screams the loudest will win, the moments that hit by far the hardest are the ones where the violence seem to erupt pretty much out of nowhere. Everything is fine right upt the moment it isn't anymore and more often than not these moments are over as quickly as they begun while leaving a lasting impression on the viewer.
Iron Blooded Orphans is a show that doesn’t condemn violence. But it doesn’t glorify it either. It doesn’t just accept it as another part of its setting, and it certainly doesn’t revel in it. Nor does it offer any actual solution to the problem. It explores violence and the effect it has on people and from there on leaves it up to viewer to decide how they feel about it for themselves.
PART 3: SCENE COMPARISON
Now you may think I’m just pulling things out of my hind parts to make my point. Or that this is a completely unfair comparison. So, to illustrate my point, let me very briefly compare two very similar scenes from both shows. They both involve a character exacting bloody vengeance on a character that caused them a lot of pain in the past. But the way this vengeance is shown and the implications behind it couldn’t possibly be more different.
Now neither of these scenes are major gamechangers in the broader scale of their respective shows, but they’re still fairly significant events. So if you wish to avoid spoilers, you’d best skip to the conclusion.
One of the characters in Game of Thrones is an innocent young girl who goes through a lot of shit over the course of the series, including physical and mental abuse. In the most recent season there’s an episode where she comes face to face with her abuser. He’s caged and bound to a chair by his hands and feet as she visits him. He taunts her but she remains cool and composed, standing there, defiant of his psychological torment. Then at the climax of the scene she sets the dogs on him and stands there unmoved as the dogs devour him. We don’t see his death. We just see her standing there, looking at it, unflinching. Then as his screams ring out she walks away and as she does so a glimmer of a smile plays across her lips.
Now let’s look at a somewhat similar situation in Iron Blooded Orphans:
In the second season, Tekkadan has split into two factions: the earth faction and mars faction. A good chunk of the first half of season 2 is spent on a different organization trying to play the earth faction out against the mars faction. This eventually results in a completely senseless battle where, unbeknownst to them, the mars faction ends up killing their own allies. A little later in the same episode Tekkadan has captured the guy responsible for setting everything up that way and interrogates him, trying to find out who gave him his orders. The man himself however, remains uncooperative. Mikazuki, fed up with it all, simply points his gun at him. Before he can squeeze the trigger though, one of the earth cadets who lost his friend in the battle interrupts him and asks to be left alone with the man. Mikazuki agrees and they leave. Out in the hallway they try to predict what will happen and quickly come to the agreement that the kid in question won’t pull the trigger because he’s such an innocent kid who could never kill someone in cold blood. Back in the room, the kid is holding the gun but doesn’t seem to be doing anything with it as the traitor tries as best he can to justify his actions. The traitor says he just had to make a decision for himself. “So do I” says the kid as he raises his gun. We cut to the outside of the building as three shots ring out. Next, we see the kid as he comes home and a relative hugs him. But he is unable to hug her back as he sees a picture of his fallen comrade and his hands ball into fists.
The difference here is obvious. In Game of Thrones the act of taking revenge is a moment of victory for the character. She’s gotten through hell, but came out a stronger person. As she gains the strength to be able to face her demon and as she takes care of him for good, we can feel a sense of fulfillment. But let’s take a step back here and think about what is actually going on in this scene. We have a completely innocent teenage girl who went through hell and what came out is someone who is not just unfazed by the sight of death but even finds joy in it. This is not a moment of victory. It’s moment of defeat. It’s the death of innocence in the face of overwhelming violence. There is nothing glorious or badass about this scene. It’s heartbreaking. So why is it not depicted as such?
In Iron Blooded Orphans, on the other hand, the implication is very obvious. The character might’ve gotten revenge but it didn’t bring his friend back. What he did wasn’t some moment of great fulfillment. It was cold blooded murder. Innocence is lost and in its stead stands blind rage. This is not a moment of victory. It’s a soul crushing defeat.
CONCLUSIONNow I’m not here to convince you that Iron Blooded Orphans is great and Game of Thrones is terrible. I do feel that Iron Blooded Orphans is absolutely fantastic and does a lot of things extremely well, but I also feel it does some things not so well. And likewise, while I absolutely abhor Game of Thrones nowadays, for many years it was a great show that got a lot of things right. And if you still enjoy Game of Thrones then you should definitely continue to watch it.
But I do feel that violence in media and the impact it has on our lives is something that should be talked about and shouldn’t just be waved away as “SJW talk.” Because whether we want to admit it or not, the entertainment we watch has an impact on our lives. If you just got done watching a gritty action show you feel very different than when you just got done watching a relaxing slice of life show. Fiction can influence our thoughts and emotion on a subconscious level and in the most extreme cases, change the way we look at things in life. This is a strength, not a weakness, and it’s one of the things I love most about fiction. But because of that I do feel that every once in a while, it’s good to take a step back and look at what the shows and movies we love are actually saying about things like the violence they depict.
I don’t presume to have convinced you of my own take on the subject here, but I do hope you enjoyed reading this little thinkpiece. And that maybe, it will help you to form your own opinion on the subject.
Until next time...
Media and Violence: How Iron Blooded Orphans gets it so right while Game of Thrones gets it so wrong
Kerberos looks at how violence is depicted in media and how this influences our own thoughts on the subject by comparing two very different shows...
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