Friday 8 April 2016

First Impressions: Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress

While Attack on Titan fans are undoubtedly still waiting for season two with baited breathe, they’ll have to sadly wait a little longer as Studio Wit return this anime season with a series of their own design. Promising industrial revolution era swordsman, guns, trains and zombies, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress (Kōtetsujō no Kabaneri) was almost instantly tipped to be one of the “must-watch” shows of the season. Its draw has even managed to get Amazon Prime fully on board with the anime streaming game, with the series being a surprise simulcast for them in certain parts of the world.

On the island of Himoto, everyone lives in fear of the Kanbare – zombie-like creatures that can infect you with a single scratch or bite. With the cities walled off and the resources controlled by train lines owned by the rich, the “bushi” rule over the poor with an iron fist. Ikowa may simply be a mechanic, but he’s spent years studying the Kanbare and developing a more effective weapon against them. He also suspects that infection may not mean an instant death. His theory and developments are put to the test when the next train into town arrives engulfed in flames and swarming with Kanbare, poised to bring panic and chaos along with them.

Director Tetsuro Araki clearly had such a good time doing Attack on Titan that he’s gone and essentially remade it, this time also having the opportunity to throw in all his favourite things into the mix (if an interview prior to Kabaneri’s release is anything to believed). The setting may have changed and the monsters might not be giant-sized anymore, but at times Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress feels like Attack on Titan in everything but name only. From the introduction of a pecking order that will clearly play an important part in the show to the hot-blooded protagonist who’s sworn to fight back against these strange creatures, anyone who’s seen Attack on Titan will find the way this episode plays out all too familiar. The similarities mean Kabaneri is playing a dangerous game by stepping on the toes of giants, but manages to get away with it here by providing the same levels of thrills that got audiences instantly captivated to Titan.

In just over 20 minutes this episode manages to do quite an impressive amount of world-building, setting the scene nicely while providing a sufficient introduction to the main characters. Ikoma bursts onto the scene as an engaging and refreshing protagonist – equal parts shounen action hero and industrial/scientific nerd like any good steampunk hero should be. His plans to test out his new weapon might seem overly convoluted and his handling of the Kanbane virus unbelievable, but you have to admire the sheer gumption and badassery he’s able to display in such a short time. On the other end of the spectrum you have Mumei – a beautiful aristocrat who swiftly turns from someone who doesn’t feel like she fits in the show to proving her mettle in a particularly impressive sequence.

Attack on Titan was certainly no slouch when it came to the visual side of things, but Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress somehow manages to push the limits of Studio Wit even further. Adopting a style very distinct of high quality anime produced in the 1980s, if Kabaneri can keep this level of quality up throughout its run it’ll come out looking more like a high-budget movie effort than just a television series. Between the rich backgrounds, distinct character designs and excellent animation there’s little here that isn’t some treat for the eyes. Even the night time scenes are lit up by either the blazing fires or the pulsing orange veins of the swarming Kabane.

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress’ obvious parallels to Attack on Titan may prove it to be divisive among viewers, but the most important thing both shows have in common is that they both know how to make an entrance. As well as proving to be a visual delight, Kabaneri’s first episode offers suspense, world-building, interesting characters and most importantly thrills when everything predictably hits the fan. This is another strong beginning for a studio that still has very few titles under its belt, and between its Titan-links and Amazon Prime status may prove another modern anime series reaching out to a broader audience.

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