Reaper's Reviews: 'Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress'

Updated on June 9, 2018

Original title: Koutetsujou no Kabaneri
Production: Wit Studio
Genre: Action/Drama
Length: 12 episodes
Release: April 8, 2016 - July 1, 2016
Source: Original
Review Release: June 9, 2018

With my love for Attack on Titan finally settled thanks to a pair of reviews detailing my thoughts about its two first seasons, I felt the need to watch something similar. You know that itch when you finish a good show and want more of that show, but for now there is no new offering from it? Exactly. So what do you do in such case?

Well, you can always try and find something that evokes similar storylines, themes and characters to the ones presented in the previous work that you experienced. Or maybe something done by the same production team, directed by the same director? Hell, just go over to MyAnimeList and look at the anime’s recommendations list.

And so we have Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, an anime produced by Wit studio and directed by Tetsuro Araki, following humanity’s attempt to fight off endless numbers of man-eating zombies… Sounds familiar? It got slick visuals and good music, too, so what not to love?

Well, almost everything else.

Story & Setting

Kabaneri’s premise can be basically summarized as a steampunk-influenced zombie show with massive trains and marksmen-samurai thrown in, alongside some survival elements as well. At least for the first half of the show, but we get to that later.

In what appears to be 19th-century Japan, a vicious zombie break forces mankind behind settlements surrounded by walls while the only means of transportation exists in the form of massive, armored trains. I’m not exactly sure how humanity managed to build such impressive constructions while 60% of it becomes snacks to literal hundreds of thousands undead, but at least the show doesn’t dwell on it at all, so I guess that’s fine.

Said zombies are referred to as “Kabane”; they are agile, brutal, obviously cannibalistic and some of them even display levels of intelligence uncommon in most zombie literature or television. They attack in massive hordes and no living human is spared by them, and killing them is so difficult that it’s better to just try your luck and run away.

Our main narrative - at least initially - follows Ikoma, a mechanic of the titular train “the Iron Fortress” who during an outbreak in his home settlement is bitten; but instead of panicking and becoming a mindless monster he manages to - rather nonchalantly - choke himself so he could stop the Kabane infection from reaching his mind. With that, he becomes what is known as “Kabaneri”; a human-Kabane hybrid. Oh, and turns out he’s not the only one, as another passenger on the Iron Fortress called Mumei is a Kabaneri as well.

Kabaneri starts off promising enough (you'll read that a few times here) with intense atmosphere and dire situation of human settlements surviving against hordes of man-eating monstrosities. Before I’ll continue, yes; the show does have some similarities with fellow Wit-produced series Attack on Titan, and considering the staff involved I won’t be surprised to know that Titan influenced Kabaneri.

Unfortunately, the entire thing feels like a hollowed, carbon-copy of the usual “humanity is on the brink of extinction and fighting against a superior species” concept; the series tries to play on the usual zombie/survival tropes and has some spectacular scenes… But it never truly reaches the heights of its own ambitions. Not even close.

The first half of the show is surprisingly an engaging piece of storytelling, cliches and hammy one-liners notwithstanding. Aside from a somewhat unique backdrop - that of a constantly moving train - it follows a similar routine for stories of the zombie genre: survivors form a group, travel together, clash with the zombies, potentially a redshirt dies, and repeat.

That said, it was genuinely terrifying at times, and even poignant in nature, a prime example being a scene in which Mumei kills an infected woman, only to discover said woman was pregnant. Even if the signs were there from the start, it didn’t take the powerful emotions that scene evoked, showing just how deadly the Kabane threat was, and how sorrowful it could be.

But any potential that this show had is thrown out the window by episode 8, after the introduction of an all-new villain - despite the show not needing one - that shifts the story from horror-survival on a train to revenge-political dispute between father and son that lacks any build-up or tension and feels more like an excuse for some frenzy action and dramatic monologues.

Honestly, to me it feels Kabaneri wanted to be that epic narrative about loss, redemption and immorality, but just never had the time to develop beyond basic elements. The first few episodes flow in a relatively good pacing that allows for decent - if cookie-cutter - development to the characters (but we’ll get to that later) and some world-building.

But the show’s final 6 episodes feel rushed and compressed, as if the entire thing was cut down from a 20-episode story arc. Things happen, but mostly because the plot demands it. Chaos ensues, revolutions burn cities down and countless lives are lost, but everything escalates so quickly that it deprives the viewer from caring about the occurring storm.

It happens just because that’s how it’s supposed to happen. And on top of that, the main villain’s revenge plot lacks emotion or depth, being a soulless imitation of other, better revenge plots like Gungrave, Code Geass, Gankutsuou or indeed, even Wit’s own Attack on Titan.

I could see this change in tone and theme work if the show was at least twice its eventual length, but with so little precious time it had, Kabaneri traded its mildly engaging action-zombie story with a dull and cliched revenge plot riddled with poor screenplay and bland villain.

And if you think the characters make up for this… You have no idea, my sweet summer child.

The Characters

Similar to both the story and the setting, the characters of Kabaneri have some interesting moments here and there, but in the end they feel somewhat derivative with the exception of one character, Mumei.

But let’s start with our designated lead, Ikoma; he is a young “steamsmith” - an individual who works in maintaining trains - who harbors a deep-seated hatred for the Kabane due to them killing his sister. Due to circumstances involving erotic strangling, Ikoma becomes a Kabaneri.

Honestly, there is not much to write about Ikoma, as he’s rather boring. He’s not different from countless other “justice seeking” protagonists, coming off as a loud, uncharismatic and even pathetic butt-monkey to almost everyone around him despite the he is supposed to be a powerful half-zombie hybrid of sorts. He’s rather disposable, and it never felt he grew beyond what his archetype demands.

Our second main character is Mumei, and arguably the show’s only interesting character and one of its strongest aspects, mainly because she has a fairly decent character arc even when the show kicks into its second story arc, not counting her hidden big brother complex.

She starts off as the show’s resident badass warrior with skills far beyond anyone else on the Iron Fortress despite being twelve (the FBI is watching you); what I like about her character is that she’s both cocky and arrogant at times thanks to her skills and knowledge, but said flaws tend to harm her when she gets too confident.

She’s strong but not invincible, and despite her ruthless worldview of “survival of the fittest”, is presented as a kind and loving person who just found herself stuck in a bloody situation with no escape. And as I said, she’s... really the only character worth talking about.

The rest of the cast stick to usual archetypes: you have the fat best friend, the female friend who may or may not love Ikoma, the kind and gentle noblewoman who serves as a reluctant leader and may or may not love Ikoma, the stoic and serious bodyguard to said noblewoman who may or may not love her, a second and gentler bodyguard, a smug blonde ally, a beautiful Amazon of a driver, and an eccentric engineer.

And not one of them really stands out beyond a trait or two, not even the noblewoman Ayame, who is arguably the show’s third most important character. There isn’t much of a substance to them beyond roles in the overall narrative.

And then we have Biba.

Biba is the closest thing the show has to a main antagonist, and he debuts halfway through the series. And he’s essentially the centerpiece of the show’s problems during its final episodes, ruthlessly taking over the plot with his own little tale of vengeance against his father, while also being described as Mumei’s adoptive brother.

There is just nothing particularly noticeable about him, from his backstory to his actions to his personality and mindset. He’s a generic villain character without any depth to him. He has a slick and handsome appearance, but reeks of the usual “badass alert” aura when characters lack any standout traits. His only saving grace is that he’s voiced by Mamoru Miyano in the Japanese dub, and by Roger Craig Smith in the English dub.

Animation & Art

The animation is a part where I feel I can finally give the show some actual praise because a) it’s animated by Wit studio, and b) it’s directed by Tetsuro Araki. On top of that, one of the (somewhat few) advantages of being a 12-episode series is that the overall budget per episode is obviously higher.

Kabaneri looks fantastic, a definite step-up from Wit’s previous works at the time, with incredibly detailed backgrounds, delightful usage of both shading and lighting, dark visuals and often fluid animation and stylish action that mixes swords, acrobatics, pressure guns and a very high body count.

There is some usage of CGI animation across the series, most notably the titular Iron Fortress and some unique variations of the Kabane, but it doesn’t seem too out of place, and I think it blends with the series’ artwork well enough.

The character designs have a unique retro style to them, like something that was drawn a decade or two before the series’ time, with rounder facial expressions and eye design. And I think it fits perfectly with the overall aesthetics of the show and its alternate universe, steampunk presentation.

Personally I’m a little surprised that the overall presentation of the series feels somewhat subtler in comparison to Araki’s previous works, but it still packs his usual bombastic cinematography and stylish utilization of colors. As I said in my Attack on Titan review, the guy knows how to direct his action and make even the smaller scenes feel epic.

Audio & Sound

Kabaneri’s sound department is another highpoint for the series. The soundtrack was composed by Hiroyuki Sawano, the guy behind the music of Kill la Kill, Attack on Titan and Guilty Crown, the last two being the works of series director Araki, so there is some history here.

Overall, as expected from Sawano, Kabaneri’s aural part is top-notch, with his usual rocky tunes, electronic touch, J-pop music and powerful vocal performance from his occasional partner Aimer singing Sawano’s signature usage of gratitius English.

It’s a good soundtrack, but I would argue that it’s far from his best. It has some really stellar scores and pieces like the charming “Grenzlinie”, but it’s not as memorable or fresh as some of his previous work, which is a slight shame, but even Sawano’s weaker works are pleasant for the ears.

The opening theme aptly titled “Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress” was done by the highly acclaimed Supercell-offshoot Egoist and has granted quite the following… But personally it didn’t do much to me. Yes, I know how much popular it is, but it just felt somewhat disjointed and messy to me. And I can’t adjust to the opening’s need to begin with Ikoma proclaiming himself to be a Kabaneri; by episode 4 is has outstayed its welcome.

The ending theme “Ninelie” by Aimer was somewhat better, and I loved the slow build-up it had as the lyrics became more and more intense. But the real standout piece of the entire soundtrack is a song called “Through My Blood”, which serves as the ending theme for the 11th episode, and words cannot describe how awesome it is.

The English dub was handled by Funimation and in my eyes it certainly improves the show, with some strong performances by Jamieson Price, Veronica Taylor, Robbie Daymond (who certainly helped making Ikoma a more tolerable protagonist) and Ben Diskin just to name a few.

You also have the aforementioned Roger Craig Smith as Biba who as I said earlier is probably the only good thing about the character, and to seal off the deal you have Janice Kawaye as Mumei who does a very impressive work with the character considering she’s voicing a girl three decades younger than her.

Final Verdict

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is a show with a very promising concept that quickly devolves into a messy and aimless series that attempts to do too many things over the course of a very short running time. Its somewhat refreshing take on zombie literature is thrown out the window by the time the show hits its halfway mark, replacing it with a generic revenge action flick that is not even about the characters we met in the first episode.

Sure, it has its moments of urgency and drama, but those are far and few between when the show fills the screen with thin characters and an inspired script. The overall story arc of the series is rushed and compressed, in particular the final 6 or 7 episodes where there is so much chaos and ridiculous excuses for action that you basically lose almost any investment you had in Kabaneri.

At the very least, it’s a visual spectacle with some beautifully animated action scenes and gorgeous art direction filled with detailed backgrounds, alongside Sawano’s intense score, even if the latter is not his best work; so if you’ll ever give it a watch, at least you’ll have your eyes and ears pleased. And to top it all, you have Mumei, who basically carries the entire series on her own and is a genuinely interesting character.

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is a disappointing series that had so much potential to be something truly great. Maybe if it was twice the length it could have been a much better show with better sense of progression and flow into it. But as it stands, it’s a beautifully animated series that is let down by horrendous pacing and a script that doesn’t do it justice.

The Good:

  • Interesting concept that starts off nicely enough; first episodes are nothing special but still fairly engaging
  • Mumei is a genuinely good character, the series should have increased her focus on her
  • Top-notch production values by studio Wit and a solid soundtrack by Hiroyuki Sawano, even if it wasn't his best

The Bad:

  • Story quickly shifts focus and tone to deal with a bland villain in his revenge quest with a very cliched screenplay
  • Other than Mumei, there are no truly interesting characters including Ikoma himself; they all fall into cookie-cutter roles
  • Final episodes feel overly rushed and compressed

& The Ugly:

  • Mumei is only 12, you disgusting lowlifes!

Alternate Recommendations

No, I'm not recommending Attack on Titan to you guys, mostly because that would be a little too obvious and I feel that people who are interested about Kabaneri have already watched Titan.

So let's go in the predictable yet unpredictable route and recommend Tetsuro Araki's OTHER zombie anime Highschool of the Dead; it's far more light-hearted in tone and alongside that sillier, but it's probably the most fun you'll ever have with a zombie-centered series. Just be aware that this show has a lot of fanservice.

And my second recommendation is... God Eater, which I haven't seen yet so it'll be a bland one, but from what I've heard, it's a spectacularly-looking series with an interesting setting and similar concepts to Kabaneri... down to some familiar problems. But oh well, if you somehow enjoyed Kabaneri, you may give this one a watch, too.

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