Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress — Iron Oxide [Review]
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress review

Anime Info:

  • Genre: Action / Drama / Fantasy
  • Studio: Wit Studio
  • Director: Tetsuro Araki
  • Episodes: 12
  • Original Run: April 8 - July 1, 2016

In the first part of my “redeem myself for giving Shingeki no Bahamut: Genesis a 6/10” series of Spring 2016 anime reviews, I tackle something Wit Studio churned out from the carcass of its slowly decomposing reputation. Okay, that’s an exaggeration for the sake of humor, but there’s some legitimate concern due to the wait for the second season of Attack on Titan. I was fine with Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress at first—excited even—but I later saw why this show got a good bit of hate from a lot of people.

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is Japanese steampunk zombie apocalypse. I’m not that apprehensive about zombie fiction and I quite like steampunk—my favorite video game of all time is Arcanum. In terms of the whole steam weaponry this show makes use of, I quite like the motif. The Railway Rifle is my favorite weapon in Fallout 4, and the guns here match that. Suffice to say, I like a lot of things about this show, which does help in cushioning the blow of everything wrong with it.

This show does indeed look cool, but it’s also divisive. People are advised to watch this with the rule of cool in mind, but the plot holes and dead ends may also put a stop to that. You can look at fan reviews online right now and be inundated by those who hate it simply because it’s an Attack on Titan clone. Perhaps they’re right in some regard, but it’s also like saying that Log Horizon is bad because it’s a Sword Art Online clone.

NOTE: As this is intended as a full review of this title, there are spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Story

The story follows a framework that its predecessors have laid down over the years, and its plot has been made mostly solid as a result. Most of the zombie crisis tropes are there and are given a good twist and turn to make the show more unique. The setting on its own is already well worth the watch, especially if you happen to be into both Japanese culture and steampunk.

But as you go deeper, that’s where Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress‘s own problems start to become more apparent. What really got me is how they start playing the “people are dumb” card to an annoying extent, leading main characters to make some monumentally stupid mistakes that are indeed fitting in such a show, but then aren’t punished enough for messing up.

For example, in episode 5, when Mumei ran off to brute-force a solution to the survivors’ problems solely with her combat prowess but then fails quite badly, there should be more of a consequence to her actions other than just a proverbial “tisk tisk” and a wag of the finger. While it’s not that big of a deal in the long run, it’s still what makes the story not allow this series to stand out more in the crowd. The ending of the show further hits this point home.

Screenshot from Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress

Don’t look at me like that. You’re lucky you didn’t get put in a cage for the shit you pull off.

While the finish is indeed strong, Mumei becoming human once again while still retaining much of her ability to fight may rub some the wrong way. For me, it’s not as much as she could still fight despite no longer being kabaneri, but that she’s still alive and made human once again without grave consequences to Ikoma. While Ikoma had to suffer by getting injected with the black blood to have enough power to face Biba, he ends up winning and turns back to human as well.

And they live happily ever after. Pfft~

Never mind all the people who died and turned into kabane during the struggle; they’re an afterthought. It’s fine to show the characters looking ahead to the future, but there should at least be a hint of mourning and mortification for all that’s lost during the struggle. There should be a show of what needed to be sacrificed in order to get that far, but we see everyone becoming friends and all is now right with the world. Also, the kabane are no longer a threat, right?

It’s granted that with only 12 episodes, there’s not much room for the story to take a few steps back. Perhaps that’s my problem with 12-episode shows in general, which is why I first gave Shingeki no Bahamut: Genesis a 6/10. The single season format calls for abbreviated storytelling that calls for much trimming and corner-cutting to fit both the budget and the limited time frame. The challenge is then to present a good enough story with momentum courtesy of gratuitous action. Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress does indeed fulfill this, albeit not without its holes.

Then again, I could be completely wrong with this perception since FLCL, one of the best anime series ever made, is just six episodes long.

Characters

Most of the character designs are quite alright. While Ikoma does stick out a bit, that’s just because he’s the protagonist, and he’s balanced out by Mumei’s cuteness. However, as the series progresses, all the main characters do is shout in the middle of struggle while the supporting characters do work. Perhaps the one thing in the story that saves it from fully collapsing onto itself is how the supporting cast does what they’re supposed to do—support.

The standout among them is Yukina, the train driver. It’s not just me popping a boner for those back muscles; it’s me appreciating that a female supporting character is allowed to show strength and competence in her own way. There are also the other supporting characters that aren’t simply cardboard cutouts but do have their own personalities and roles, although there’s that token gaijin character with the weird accent.

Screenshot from Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress

The back muscles that made the whole world gasp.

One thing I do like with the main cast is the gradual begrudging respect Ikoma and Kurusu develop for each other as they eventually learn to cooperate in order to fight back the kabane. I’m cool with that kind of character development; I like it when seemingly conflicting personalities start learning how to work together for the common cause, despite misgivings about each other. In this case, those misgivings are mostly one-sided as it’s Kurusu’s mistrust for Ikoma’s newly-acquired Kabaneri nature.

The kabane themselves are cool in my book due to having a glaring weakness that can’t be exploited without the appropriate equipment, which is a fairly thoughtful design that explains most of the struggle. The nature of the kabaneri—a human infected by the kabane but was able to keep it from going into the grain—is explained well enough when Ikoma figured out for himself how to not become a full kabane. It also shows how Ikoma is a brilliant observer and engineer, at least during the start of the series. Unfortunately, he becomes dumber and more irrational as the show progresses, which is quite common in this genre.

Viewers then see how the kabaneri slowly earn the people’s trust, as well as how Ikoma adapts to his new abilities. Then there’s that whole thing with the black and white blood in the latter part of the show, which is kind of like a deus ex machina of sorts. The survivors needed a way to fight the really big baddies, as well as the major antagonists who made me lose the plot a bit.

Screenshot from Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress episode 1

Have you ever been poked like that to the throat? That actually hurts pretty bad.

I scratch my head at Biba; not only does he have a stupid name (yes, I know the kanji means “beautiful horse”), but his motivations are due to daddy issues. Mind you, they’re pretty serious daddy issues, but both his character design and his motives are rather transparent to the audience—we know he’s the main baddie all along even before it was revealed. Once again, there’s no time to develop him as a villain and sell to us his motivation for doing what he did.

In the end, he meets his demise at the hands of Mumei—the one who trusted him the most but was then betrayed by him. Perhaps that’s what makes him actually detestable as he was traumatized by betrayal, yet he’s also not above betraying others as well.

Direction

The strong points of Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress are the art direction, visual design, and fight choreography. The setting is gorgeous and makes this show worth taking a look at (at least for me). The animation isn’t bad either, with no obvious flaws that I’m aware of as of this writing that could’ve ruined the fight scenes. However, it seems that Wit Studio had its shit together when it comes to orchestrating good action sequences in a show like this.

To make action in this genre, the key is to get as many characters involved without making them step out of their own bounds. Everyone has a role to play and they should work together to solve whatever crisis is at hand. Some character development by the way of rising to the occasion could also help make these fight scenes meaningful and not just be action for action’s sake. As far as I see it, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress does all that by the book.

Screenshot from Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress

Maybe I was wrong in saying he acts dumb later on. He kinda acts dumb right off the bat, but at least he has some heart.

But perhaps that’s also what’s wrong with this show—it’s all by the book. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing in that while it has been a worthwhile watch for Spring 2016, there’s not much else that makes it stand out in the grand scheme of things. Maybe it can make it in a top 20 list for the whole of 2016, but that’s about it. It was fun while it lasted, but there’s that thought in the back of the mind that maybe we could’ve gotten Attack on Titan season two sooner without this.

Final Score

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
6 out of 10
Pros
  • Interesting twist on zombies
  • Japanese steampunk setting
  • Solid animation and art direction
  • Strong supporting characters (especially Yukina)
  • Good action and fight choreography
  • Fairly strong finish
Cons
  • It's "Tetsuro Araki: Lite Edition"
  • Ultimately stale main characters
  • Questionable plot points
  • No lasting consequences for drastic actions
  • Too happy of an ending, considering the circumstances
Summary

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress started fairly strong due to how it portrayed both desperation and courage among the survivors, but it then went flat as it gained momentum. Its thematic and aesthetic strength wasn't enough to hide all of its narrative and characterization weaknesses. It's fine that most of the archetypes are taken from predecessors since all that's needed is flawless execution, but the characters and story are far from airtight.

Perhaps it was more of a technical exercise than anything else. Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress does indeed look good and is a fairly solid Tetsuro Araki product in a more compact package, and it shows a level of mastery in this sub-genre. But perhaps all that time and energy could've been put into something more substantial, like releasing the second season of Attack on Titan.

Three things set Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress back. First is how this gorgeous Japanese steampunk setting could've been more than just a vehicle for an Attack on Titan clone. Second is how things unfold, wherein stupidity is rewarded and not punished. Third is how everything looks and feels like "Diet Tetsuro Araki" while we should be getting full-on Tetsuro Araki.

The fight against the kabane is not as much about rising to the occasion as it is being bolstered by plot armor. While it's true that it need not be realistic and that it's all about "dumb fun," it need not be so dumb as to insult the viewers' intelligence.

Then again, it's hard to be subtle and gradual when you only have 12 episodes to work a story of such scale with. However, the difference between this and Shingeki no Bahamut: Genesis is that this wasn't designed to have a second season, and I don't expect it to have one anytime soon.

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