Saturday 16 July 2016

Anime REVIEW: Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress

Many will have found the wait for Attack on Titan season two long and agonising, but animators Studio Wit haven’t been taking that downtime lightly. Director Tetsurō Araki teamed up with Code Geass writer Ichirō Ōkouchi to produce Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress (Kōtetsujō no Kabaneri) – an original 12-episode series that combines zombies, samurais and steam trains into one explosive package. As well as being part of Fuji TV’s prestigious Noitamina programming block, Kabaneri also saw Amazon enter into the world of anime simulcasting – with the series streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime around the world.

Zombies now boarding platform one

Set during Japan’s industrial revolution, the world has been savaged by mysterious virus – transforming humans into bloodthirsty zombies known as the Kabane. To defend themselves, humanity have built fortified stations to take shelter in, travelling between them using heavily armoured steam trains. When a Kabane-infected train crashes into Argane station and overrun the city, young engineer Ikoma takes it as an opportunity to test his latest invention – a gun that can pierce through a Kabane’s glowing heart. The weapon is a success, but in the fight Ikoma finds himself infected by the virus. However Ikoma is successfully able to prevent the virus from reaching his brain, transforming him into a Kabaneri – a hybrid with the mind of a human and the strength of the Kabane.

Allying himself with the other survivors of the station, Ikoma boards the Kotetsujo and departs to find shelter elsewhere. Among his allies include Argane Station governor Ayame Yomogawa, Bushi (samurai) Kurusu and Mumei – a mysterious girl who appeared at the station during the attack reveals herself to also be a Kabaneri.


After wrapping up the first season to enormous fanfare, it’s abundantly clear that the team at Studio Wit still had Attack on Titan on their minds. The setting may be different and the threat to humanity not so giant-sized, but conceptually Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress immediately screams “Attack on Titan rip-off”. However it has been said that it was indeed the intention to create a similar show where Wit were free to complete take the reins on, not bound by any sort of source material. The initial parallels to Attack on Titan are all too obvious, which can definitely work against the show when faced with a viewer who is familiar with both. However stick with it and Kabaneri’s unique charms begin to blossom – the setting feels far fresher and the characters and their interactions considerably stronger. Most importantly Kabaneri feels like it has progression, whereas Titan would often leave viewers on tenterhooks only to ruin its flow with ill-timed transitions or flashbacks. For a while it genuinely looked like Kabaneri had the potential to surpass its predecessor.

The best one

But then everything went horribly wrong, and the show didn’t have any idea what to do with itself. Suddenly normal zombies weren’t enough, and they could also merge together into giant creatures able to shoot laser beams. These weren’t even deemed interesting enough to be the main focus either, with the introduction of Biba – an unbelievably cliché villain with an incredibly shallow motive, marking Kabaneri’s downfall. It began to feel like Kabaneri’s apocalyptic survival setting was merely a backdrop to the kind of story period anime is littered with. This was then all but confirmed when the final episodes’ credits rolled without not only a finite ending, but not even a hint of how exactly the Kabane came about.

How to ruin your anime in six episodes or less

This sudden nosedive had a huge impact on the characters as well, who until that point were really helping the show to shine. Ikoma was a fantastic protagonist, gifted with amazing abilities but constantly relying on his brain and humanity to win. With Biba’s arrival, he moved further and further into the realms of “generic screaming anime hero” until he turned up in the last episode with a new haircut and a thick suit of plot armour. The show had two strong female leads between Ayame and Mumei, with the former taking up a great leadership stance and the latter dominating the action sequences. The second half of the series has Ayame pushed to the sidelines and Mumei manipulated again and again, crushing her character in the most frustrating of ways. The only thing consistent in Kabaneri is its great portrayal of the general public, constantly thrust into situations they can’t even comprehend yet still making the most of their lives in the short moments of quiet.

However if there’s one thing everyone should be watching Kabaneri for, it’s the art style. This show is near-cinematic in quality, boasting extremely high production values and echoing the distinct aesthetic of classic 80s shows. This look comes as no surprise with the news that the characters were designed by the legendary Haruhiko Mikimoto – the man behind the casts of The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Gunbuster, Megazone 23 and more. Even when the plot is spiralling downward, Kabaneri’s visuals never falter – the action sequences glisten with energy and CGI is used tactfully. With only a handful of projects under their belt, Studio Wit have shown themselves as a force to be reckoned with when it comes to style. If there’s anything to explain how criminally short this series was, its most likely that had it been any longer we would have got a very different (and not anywhere near as good) looking show.

A Black Fog Beast

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress started out feeling like an Attack on Titan clone, began evolving into something that could potentially surpass it and then crashed and burned at the final hurdle. Somehow it managed to do all of this over the space of only 12 episodes, which is exactly where all the problems lie – it simply isn’t long enough. Rather than be able to progress the scenario and ideas it set up in its early episodes, it instead delves headfirst into a cliché villain plot that comes at the expense of all the best characters. With only two compilation movies stated to be on the horizon and no signs of a proper second season, you have to wonder if Kabaneri was just meant as a stop gap (albeit a great looking one) until more Titan rolls around. This show deserved better, so one can only hope that this show won’t be forgotten once the Titan hype returns in full force.

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