This article is a guest post from Twitter user and translator extraordinaire @karice67! You can find more of her writing and translations on her personal website, Hot Chocolate in a Bowl.
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’.
Nice and informative article. However, I want to know, is it a problem that Atra exists? I mean, do all Gundam fans want someone like Kudelia as the main love interest with no rivalry? Personally, I find Atra’s character refreshing. I don’t think every Gundam series needs to follow the same formula over and over again. I understand that Kudelia is a typical Gundam heroine but isn’t it interesting to have something different every now and then? Saying that, I’m pretty sure Kudelia has a better chance to be with Mikazuki but we still don’t know if there will be a romantic resolution. I like Atra and the thought that such character “could be” a love interest is interesting.
Well, I don’t have a problem with Atra, personally. Is she somewhat controversial in discussions about the show? I haven’t really been able to keep up with it, what with everything else that’s grabbed my attention over the last year or so…
Kudelia is a Gundam archetype but Atra is an even older one… her character dates back to Fraw Bow and Fa Yuiri, the childhood friend of the main character.
Nope. Atra is not a problematic character among Gundam-newcomers & longtime-fans who like IBO. Of course, some IBO-haters will always find reason to hate IBO. And no, we, open-minded Gundam fans always accept and even welcome new ideas and new interpretations as long as it’s done well. We don’t bash a Gundam show just because it’s different. Heck, two series of what fans considered to be the worst Gundam (Destiny & Age) are rehashes with questionable to downright terrible writing & execution.
But the thing about Gundam is that there are vocal elitists among its fans who are close-minded and unable to accept new concepts. There are UC elitists who consider all AU series are bad and consistently badmouthing the newest AU series on various forums. On the other hand, there also are elitists of a certain AU series (be it Wing, SEED, 00 or even IBO itself) who also talk shit in regards to other Gundam series (be it UC or other AU series). If you find some Gundam fans who are posting extensive hate-comments toward a certain show or arguing and bickering on the internet about what Gundam series is better or best, they most likely belong to certain groups above.
Apparently a lot of people take issue with this show? I absolutely love it and don’t understand any problems fans have with it. My only concern is Mcgillis and Almeria’s relationship which always leads me into a place feeling disturbed, concerned for Almeria and thinking that their scenes together are very sweet and adorable. It’s a strange feeling but no other anime has made me feel such a strange combination so I say kudos to whoever wrote their relationship. As for Atra, I’m relieved by her character, she could totally be jealous but she isnt. I’m glad she’s in the show. In the end, I don’t care who wrote this show, I enjoy it.
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IBO is doing pretty good in Japan and has legions of audience and fans overseas. I think it’s doing great so far. Of course, some people can have problems with the “grim & immoral” depiction of the world and situation where IBO characters live in
Another interesting post from Wave Motion Cannon. (Or re-post, in this case.) This isn’t just something that applies to anime, but to television in general. I think a lot of people don’t realize how collaborative television is, and therefore how difficult it is to attribute a specific element of an episode to someone.
For example, I frequently see people say that Tomino should hand off his ideas to someone else and let them do the writing, as if he has been scripting and directing every episode of his shows for the past thirty-something years! That sort of amateur criticism is frustrating.
On another note, I didn’t know that IBO was in development as long as G-Reco was. Makes me wonder if the next big Gundam thing is already in the pipeline.
I agree with the premise that anime is produced by many people and all have significant influence on a project, though my impression is it pushes too far in downplaying the influence of series composers in general and Okada specifically.
I think the interview you translated and cited here suggests significant Nagai influence in this series, at least compared to AnoHana and Kokosake:
“For example, with AnoHana (2011), I was the one throwing out the kinds of characters and stories I wanted to depict, and he helped me iron them out. Even for The Anthem of the Heart (2015), although we discussed the broad direction before hand, it was I who first put pen to paper in terms of setting out the story. But this time, it’s all based on what Director Nagai wanted to do.”
Obviously, that doesn’t make it clear what specifically Nagai wanted specifically for the series either, but I think that’s worth noting, and probably key in whatever argument there is in considering IBO “Nagai’s Gundam” over “Okada’s Gundam.”
The interviews for Nagiasu have a good perspective in the process from the planning committee to the actual first draft of the scenario (and also likely in line with Okada’s level of influence on projects like AnoHana and Kokosake).
You also took note of Hajime Kamoshida’s impact on the series, but I think it’s worth noting that his involvement is an extension of Okada’s influence. Kamoshida (author of Sakurasou) is Okada’s childhood friend and has become a regular screenwriter on her anime projects.
Thank you for the long detailed comment. I’ve been looking for planning-related interviews for over a year now—and am actually building up a piece looking specifically at “Okada originals”—so I do have a working perspective on what series composers do. And the thing is, it varies, even when we’re talking about a single screenwriter, like Okada. There are a number of shows where she was one of the people responsible for the “original story” (like AnoHana, KokoSake, Kiznaiver and M3), and the first three of these I certainly regard as some of the better case studies for those who want to investigate her ‘style’.
However, there is variation even within these: e.g. in an interview for M3, she commented that director Jun’ichi Sato originally asked her to write something ‘light’, before later changing his mind to go for something ‘dark’ instead. And that’s just amongst shows where she is actually credited for “original story.” There are also cases such as Mayoiga, where it’s clear that she was brought to the project after the broad themes and story were already on the table .
That said, I didn’t know that Kamoshida was Okada’s childhood friend, so thanks for that piece of info. I did notice that he was only involved in shows that Okada was series composer for, and expected that there would be some kind of link between them, but I just didn’t have time to look it up.
I should also note that there are many so-called “Okada shows” that I haven’t yet seen, including NagiAsu and Hanasaku Iroha, which I did find a lot of website interviews for. If you know of any fully translated interviews besides this True Tears one as well, I’d certainly be interested in reading them. ^^
I think the real thrust of the piece is that we should judge these things on a case-by-case basis and according to information/evidence rather than simply a production credit. Karice is downplaying Okada’s influence in this particular case rather than in general.
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All interesting points but I still didn’t dig the ending. I did feel that mikazuki and kudelia work better together. That’s just how I feel.