Love her or hate her, Mari Okada is a name that many anime fans are likely to recognize. One of the most prolific screenwriters in the industry over the last decade, whether you consider yourself a hardcore or casual anime fan, you’re sure to have seen at least one show she’s “written.” But this widespread exposure also has its downsides: Okada has collected a reputation for overwrought drama, complicated romances and the emasculation of male characters. The latter can hardly be said of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans, but discussion of the show remains peppered with the sentiment of “Damn Okada.”
Such comments recently prompted long-time Gundam fan, Lauren Orsini, to write an editorial in her defense. In her ANN piece, Lauren pointed out that many of the ideas Okada has been criticized for are rooted in Gundam staples such as the stoic protagonist, a potential love triangle, and exceedingly young fiancées.
However, much of the discussion on Okada’s involvement in Gundam: IBO, is fundamentally flawed because it ignores everyone else who was in the writers’ room. Namely: the producers who set up the project, the director that they hired, and at least one other core member of the writing staff. Simply put, automatically blaming Okada for key facets of the story or characterization indicates a misunderstanding of the role that “the main writer” plays in the anime production process.
Take, for example, the injuries that Mikazuki has sustained—the right side of his body that now works only when he plugs himself into Barbatos. Or how Kudelia has Atra as competition for Mikazuki’s attention. Lauren argues that these elements reflect Okada’s penchant for more dramatic developments and complicated romantic relationships. However, these major story elements were probably decided during the planning phase of the show, and Okada only joined the team a few years down the track. To be precise, the interviews listed at the bottom of this post clarify that Sunrise producer Masakazu Ogawa first invited Tatsuyuki Nagai to the project around 2009-10, when the director was working on the A Certain Scientific Railgun. In turn, Nagai seems to have asked Okada for assistance around the start of 2014. Hence, it is highly likely that many major story elements—such as Mikazuki’s injuries, or the existence of Atra and thus the love triangle—were already on the cards before Okada was brought on board.
This applies not just to the elements of IBO that reflect “Okada’s tendencies,” but also to the Gundam tropes that long-time fans would easily recognize: the stoic protagonist, the political princess, and the mysterious masked man. Ogawa has worked on all of the franchise’s TV series since Gundam SEED Destiny in the mid-2000s. If anything, Nagai and Okada were brought in as “new blood” that would produce a fresh take on the long-running franchise. But although Ogawa was arguably the foremost Gundam expert out of all the planning staff, Nagai’s interviews demonstrate that he is also a huge fan, having seen every single series in real time since Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (1985). In fact, Okada has stated outright that she’s “basically been organizing the story according to what Director Nagai wants to achieve.” Given all of this, it seems strange to credit Okada alone for the inclusion of these tropes.
Of course, this does not discount Okada from having some responsibility for many of these elements, or for other aspects of the show that viewers take issue with. Although IBO’s broad worldview and themes were decided before she came on board, as the main screenwriter, she would have been an instrumental member of the team filling out the rest of the story during development and scripting. In fact, Okada and Nagai revealed in a pre-S2 interview that they both attended the voice-recording sessions, and that what they observed at the studio influenced several characters’ personalities and story arcs. For example, Yūma Uchida’s performance as Ein encouraged them to take his character in a different direction and increase his involvement in the plot. But the exact details of his eventual character arc would have been ironed out in through a group effort in the writers’ room.
How, then, might you find out who was responsible for what? Where would you even start? Well, the first thing to do is to find out who was in the writers’ room at particular points of the writing process. In the case of IBO, we had Ogawa and Nagai right from the start (2009/10), with the latter tapping manga author Yū Itō shortly after for original character design. Then planning was put on the back burner, as Gundam AGE went ahead, before starting up again in 2014 after Nagai was done with the Railgun series. It was at this juncture that the director turned to Okada for advice about how to execute what he wanted to do. And once she was confirmed for screenwriting, Hajime Kamoshida was also brought on board to develop the official terminology for the show’s historical and mechanical settings. Hence, at the very least, these four to five individuals would have been in the writers’ room from 2014 onwards.
The next thing you should try to find out is the process through which the story was brought to fruition. Typically, the broad outline of the entire story is laid down during the planning stages. That’s right: what happens at the end of an anime series is, more often than not, decided before the screenwriter even puts pen to paper for the first episode’s script. The research that I did on another mecha series suggests that this outline is usually just 2-3 sentences per episode, and is not completely set in stone. Details—such as exactly when a particular character dies—may be modified, though the overall outcome rarely changes. Sometimes, as Takahiro Sakurai (McGillis) and Masaya Matsukaze (Gaelio) revealed in an S1 interview, the voice actors are even provided with information about character deaths at the time of the audition! Next, the team kneads out detailed settings of the world, developing official glossaries encompassing the names of the show’s core technology: in IBO‘s case “Ahab Reactors” and the like. These need not be set in stone, but someone will be assigned to keep track of any changes or additions to the list of key terms. Only then can the writing team start work on the episode scripts, and at this point, other screenwriters are often brought in, especially for longer series—IBO has already seen seven additional individuals credited for its scripts.
However, this still does not tell you exactly who did what. Although the extra writers do not often have a significant influence on the storyline, they are generally responsible for the dialogue in the episodes that they are assigned to write. But this does not necessarily mean that they came up with that episode’s best lines—anyone in the writers’ room for the script meetings could have suggested them. Furthermore, even after a script is approved, lines of dialogue can be changed during the storyboarding stage, or even at the recording studio! The same thing applies for larger story elements: any one of the core writers could have pitched a particular idea, and the settings, characters and story arcs are typically adjusted as the scripts are written. Basically, unless someone says in an interview exactly who was responsible for what, be it something as broad as a particular twist in the story or something as defined as a particular line of dialogue, then it is impossible to know exactly which details should be credited to—or blamed on—whom. If you find the right interviews, however, you can find out some helpful facts, such as how Kamoshida was the foremost voice for the battle scenes.
So where does this leave us? Is it still useful to look for patterns in the work of a screenwriter, such as Okada? Will knowing what we love and hate about the shows she’s worked on give us any indication as to whether we’ll love the next anime we find her name attached to? To be frank, I do not know the answer to those questions. If reputable anime journalist (and screenwriter) Yūichirō Oguro is right about the amount of research you’d need to do, then no one in the English-speaking fandom will ever learn enough about Okada’s work to be able to characterize it fully. All I know is that Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans isn’t “Mari Okada’s Gundam.” It might be feasible to call it “Nagai’s Gundam,” but ultimately, IBO should really be accredited to everyone who worked on it, no more, and no less.
1. Kōjirō Taniguchi (Planning) x Masakazu Ogawa (Producer), Bandai Visual website, September 25, 2015
2. Tatsuyuki Nagai’s interview in the January 2016 issue of Animage (published Dec 10, 2015)
3. Hajime Kamoshida (Settings Terminology, Script) x Masakazu Ogawa x Kōjirō Taniguchi in the Winter 2015 issue of Great Mechanic G (published Dec 18, 2015)
4. Tatsuyuki Nagai’s interview on Ultra Jump, December 26, 2015
5. Takahiro Sakurai x Masaya Matsukaze interview in the March 2016 issue of Animage (published February 10, 2016)
6. Mari Okada’s Bandai Channel Creators Selection interview, March 25, 2016
7. Tatsuyuki Nagai x Mari Okada on Comic Natalie, September 30, 2016
A full translation of Okada’s Bandai channel interview is linked in the text of this article. I have not come across full translations of any of the other interviews, but I’ve definitely seen short summaries of them around on forums like mechatalk, so have a look around if you want to know what else they said.
 This isn’t to say that they changed the story “at the last minute.” In the same interview, Okada reveals that when recording first began, probably around 5-8 weeks before IBO started airing, the writing team was working on the episodes that would decide Ein’s fate.
 Two interviews that I suggest for more detail on this are Hiroyuki Yoshino on writing Macross Frontier and Jukki Hanada on writing Sound! Euphonium. For even further reading, feel free to check out my project on Anime ‘Writing’.