Following the emergence of the Kabane, zombie-like creatures created by a sort of seemingly infectious virus that spreads to humans, most of humanity has retreated behind large walls and built ‘stations’. These citadels are relatively isolated, and the only way to communicate and transport much-needed goods between stations is through the use of massive fortified trains. Unfortunately, these transportation lines are fraught with danger as the Kabane are eager for human flesh and often attack them.
Ikoma is a steam engine engineer, and a lower-class individual living behind the fortified lines of one of a dwindling number of stations. He has dedicated substantial time to attempt to create a steam gun powerful enough to blow through the extra-durable hearts of the Kabane. However, his tinkering has yet to come to achieve fruition, and more stations are taken over rapidly. Unfortunately, he may be running out of time at this rate as the Kabane continue to spread.
What is this? This is a series blog, where we’ll provide informal and brief hot takes after each episode in a given anime series. We’ll be updating this every week after each episode, so please check back for more thoughts!
Episode 5: Inescapable Darkness
Airing May 12th, 2016
Keeping up with the previous episode, this week’s “Inescapable Darkness” introduced a new way for the Kabane to destroy the humans that is somehow more terrifying than previous methods. The Koutetsujo arrives at the Yatsuhiro station only to find that it has already been overrun by Kabane. With no way to go around without losing several days and with limited supplies, the crew has no choice but to attempt to go through the station. Unfortunately, a metal tower has collapsed on the tracks, leading to two problems: the issue of moving the tower, and the concern over how the Kabane seemingly melted a metallic structure. The answers to both of these prove to be quite interesting, as you might imagine.
As to why the tower somehow melted, the answer seems to lie in a mysterious “black smoke” that enveloped the station shortly before it fell. Needless to say, Ikoma and company find out shortly what the survivors mean by “black smoke”. As the series progresses, Kabaneri likes to add more reasons to fear the Kabane, and given the already dramatic appearance and behavior of the creatures, this compounding makes them considerably more dangerous enemies. As a show that relies quite a bit on tension and heavy action, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress benefits substantially when it manages to raise the stakes. This is something it seems to be quite adept at doing. It’s definitely not just the Kabane themselves that are used as a mechanism for building tension, however; the characters play a big part as well. The danger cast members that are not Kabaneri face in these situations feels real and pressing, and a huge amount of tension comes from this fact.
From a character development perspective, the main focus of this episode was on Mumei. For the first time, Kabaneri is beginning to hint at more of the “big picture” of conflict for the humans as the person Mumei refers to as “big brother” seems to be more complicated than previously indicated. It’s her relationship to him that seems to shape much of Mumei’s actions, and her worry that she might not be good enough for him causes her to behave quite irrationally this episode. However, learning at least part of the information about Mumei’s affiliations helps shed a light on her personality a nit more than before. Her sense of being her brother’s “claw” is a huge reasons for her aggressive bordering on suicidal behavior in the face of Kabaneri. Due to her meetup with an associate of her brother who was discarded, Mumei’s concerns about her theoretical inferiority rise to the surface more than ever before, and her actions quickly but her and the others in even more danger.
Obviously, in my opinion Mumei’s development was the best part of this episode. The hints at greater forces at work and an explanation for some of her behavior was quite appreciated. Of course, her irrational behavior is frustratingly deadly for the crew of the Koutetsujo in a horror movie-esque “No! Do NOT go down that hallway, you idiot!” kind of way. That being said, the intensity of the series managed to cover any minor annoyances I might have had with Mumei (note: and she’s definitely my favorite). It was also nice to see that the villagers on the train have moved past the whole “Kabaneri are going to stab us in the backs” bit at last.
In one line: The Koutetsujo finds itself in another fearsome roadblock, and Mumei gets some excellent development.
Episode 4: Flowing Blood
Airing May 5th, 2016
Due to the continued alarm from the villagers concerning the Kabaneri, it was only a matter of time before things got out of hand, and the previous episode paved the way for this breaking point. After Mumei killed the pregnant woman-turned Kabane and Ikoma accidentally attacked Ayame, the villagers’ fears are further aroused. Naturally, the already fearful and superstitious inhabitants of the Kotetsujo want the Kabaneri gone, and some of the villagers protest Ayame’s handling of the situation until she gives them the master key to the train. The men now in charge decide to switch routes to go through the dangerous mountains in order to reach the capital faster with their limited supplies.
As you can imagine, this goes south quickly as no-one now running the train has the skills or the wherewithal to control it or plan effectively. Once in the mountains, the train is attacked by Kabane, including one particular one with a high sword fighting ability known as a Wazatori. The introduction of a new type of Kabane was particularly effective not only because of the increased threat even to Kabaneri but because of the excellent design and chilling animation Wit Studio provided for the new enemy. The attack on the train was also interesting because it served as a perfect example of how the trains get overrun on the tracks. The Kotetsujo quickly suffers substantial casualties from Kabane, and would have easily fallen if not for the particular individuals on board.
There’s still quite a bit of mystery to Kabaneri, especially centering around Mumei. If anything, the series up to this point has helped create suspense relating to Mumei’s purpose due to her actions and occasional references to her origins and goals. The looming approach of the capital as the Kotetsujo continues along its path has been set up excellently as a future story that will hopefully deliver as well as the series has been thus far. However, the reason future events are so intriguing is because the show is presently engaging. Seeing how the villagers’ perceptions of the Kabaneri have shifted in both directions periodically sets the stage for similar confrontations with different groups of people. This is especially apparent in some of the main members of the cast who are not Kabaneri, such as Ayame, and Kurusu, and Ikoma’s friend Takumi. Kurusu in particular has quite a back and forth relationship with the Kabane as a slightly overzealous protector for Ayame.
On the subject of Kurusu, however, I think it’s important to mention this particular episode’s strength: the fights with the Kabane and Kurusu’s duel with the Wazatori. The fluidity of fights in Kabaneri is practically unparalleled in any other series, and combined with breathtaking orchestral compositions (including an insert song with vocals that played this episode), it makes for amazing action sequences. Kurusu’s fight in particular was incredibly suspenseful as his lack of special Kabaneri abilities was only able to be made up for by his years of samurai training.
In one line: Kabaneri’s fourth episode leads to more trouble for our travelers, and thus more action.
Episode 3: Prayer Offer
Airing April 28th, 2016
Relative to the previous episodes, Kabaneri was slow this week, which basically means that everyone didn’t die this time. Now that the series has established a baseline in its introductory episodes for the tone and pacing of the show, the real challenge is maintaining the narrative quality from the first two entries. After narrowly escaping Aragane Station aboard the Kotetsujo, the surviving crew and townspeople are faced with a very limited and increasingly small area of safety, one that could collapse at any time. These fears create tensions where there really shouldn’t be any (if scared humans were ever logical), and the story this episode focuses heavily on how the group is dealing with the survival crisis.
Mumei’s stunning (albeit unsurprising) announcement at the end of last episode about being a Kabaneri has created more questions than it answered, most of which concern what exactly Kabaneri are and can do. While the audience might wonder about the answers to these questions out of curiosity, the villagers want to know out of fear. In fact, it might be better to say that they’d rather not know the answers and would just like Mumei and Ikoma off their train. Kabaneri does a good job plot-wise of creating the dynamic of the timidly aggressive mob mentality of the survivors on the train who fear what they don’t understand. Narratively, the villagers come off as pretty dumb (after all, these people they want to drive off just saved their lives), but that’s expected considering the fearful situation they are in as well as the likely general ignorance of anything outside of their small worlds.
In reality, quite a bit of this episode was setup for more to come down the road. That being said, it’s probably some of the more dynamic and engaging setup episodes of a series in recent times. Mumei’s playful and abrasive personality is explored in how she reacts to the villagers, and Ikoma’s past is explored in more detail. Ikoma, much like most of the protagonists in violent series such as Kabaneri, suffered the tragedy of losing a family member to the Kabane early in his life. However, the show is aware of this and it is pointed out by Mumei as being expected considering the environment they live in. Kabaneri has thus far been a series that, as I mentioned last episode, is very good at taking things that have been done before and doing them better. It’s not Ikoma’s backstory in and of itself but instead the way the show presents it that makes him work as a character. The excellent soundtrack and dramatic visuals mixed with the more nuanced reaction Ikoma has to his experiences creates a more engaging and developed character than industry norm for the audience to identify with.
As I said before, while this episode is setup, it is significantly more aggressive and dynamic than expected. The setup is told not through a series of conversations but through the actions of the cast. Kurusu and the villagers’ attempted uses of force on the Kabaneri, Mumei and Ikoma’s sparring practice, and Ayame’s dramatic way of trying to reassure the villagers of Mumei and Ikoma’s good intentions all serve as excellent examples of adding characterization and depth without having to slow down too substantially on the suspense or action. While the episode ends on a large cliffhanger, I definitely enjoyed what it had to offer and look forward to next week.
In one line: Kabaneri sets up for future episodes dynamically while aboard the Kotetsujo.
Episode 2: Never-ending Darkness
Airing April 21st, 2016
Kabaneri returned this week with a bang after a brief delay. Following his completion of the super-powered steam gun and survival from the injury he sustained when fighting the Kabane, Ikoma quickly heads to the Kotetsujo train along with the other survivors to attempt to escape from the falling city. If you expected the escape from Aragane Station to be as violent and intense as the initial invasion of last episode was, then fortunately the extended wait was definitely worth it.
As many viewers noted from the key visuals for the show, Mumei doesn’t remain in the obviously fake dainty appearance she maintains while in a kimono. Following last episode’s razor-sandals scene, Mumei quickly donned her fighting outfit and got in on the action. To me, Mumei seems to be the show-stealing character, and the writers behind Kabaneriobviously had some fun crafting her. The primary fighting scenes of the episode featured Mumei on the forefront, and the smooth animation mixed with choice selections for camera angles made for intense and entertaining battles. Mumei herself is simultaneously energetic and mysterious, leaving quite a bit of opportunity for more quality characterization and development down the road.
The main (and interesting) moral dilemma in Kabaneri seems to be the manner of survival for humans. The potential of infection and the stigma surrounding all things Kabane creates numerous related moral crises surrounding the value of life. To Ikoma, the constant fear of Kabane seems to make the humans unreasonably aggressive towards each other and frequently does more harm than good. Kabaneri makes a good case for this argument as many humans repeatedly die unnecessarily due to the fears of others, and yet Aragane Station for all its trouble still falls swiftly to the Kabane. In fact, even when humanity’s greatest chance of survival appears, fear seems to create conflict when there really shouldn’t be any. As I mentioned earlier, Ikoma managed to survive and prevented his body from being taken over by the Kabane, but as many viewers surmised, his body underwent permanent changes. With all the insane checking of passengers by the Bushi, his body’s distinct Kabane-like features are quickly discovered and put him in a bad situation.
Well all of this may be easy to compare with similar themes from other series, one thing in particular really has struck me about Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress in these first two episodes. The series really excels at taking bits of ideas that have been done before and not only mixes them in a unique and interesting way but also just straight up handles them in a manner far superior to other anime series. The staff behind the show clearly know what they are doing and are being provided with the resources to maximize their abilities. It’s easy to say that Kabaneri has potential greatness, but it is nice to be able to say that it has already lived up to some of that potential so early on.
In one line: Excellent suspense continues, along with amazing Mumei action!
Episode 1: Frightened Corpse
Airing April 7th, 2016
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress definitely has a serious lineup of staff behind it, including director Tetsuro Araki (Attack on Titan, Death Note) writer Ichiro Okouchi (Code Geass), and music from famed composer Hiroyuki Sawano (Blue Exorcist, Attack on Titan). It also is part of Fuji TV’s prestigious noitaminA animation television programming block. That being said, an all-star staff and likely high budget does not necessarily mean an amazing end production, so I still entered fairly skeptical of what I was about to watch. Fortunately though, Kabaneri had a very exhilarating and intense episode that most definitely did not disappoint.
The first few minutes of this episode served as a violent and tense introduction to the post-apocalyptic steampunk world of Kabanerithrough one of the trains’ journey past a station that had been taken over by Kabane. If there’s one thing that can be almost objectively stated about the series from this first episode, it’s that Kabaneri is excellent at drawing in audiences through a combined usage of dramatic action, intense emotions, and extremely potent music, and the beginning sequence is a quality combination of these strengths. However, it’s worth mentioning that despite the fact that much of the narrative’s direction and storytelling is very engaging, the story in this first episode is fairly predictable and there are a couple of minor plot holes that might bother you. That being said, I felt that the directing and general tension of the episode made it easy to suspend my disbelief for the most part so these moments did not affect my enjoyment much as the dynamic action and suspense kept me drawn in the entire episode as Ikoma’s situation worsened.
The aesthetic of the series is a mixture of a ton of steampunk and Edo-period Japan. Obviously, the trains and steam/lead weapons are the former, and then what essentially is the nobility represents the latter. The use of the conflicting styles both created a beautiful and interesting design and managed to aid in the world building by highlighting the distinct positions of those in power versus the others. The color palette felt reminiscent of Attack on Titan, but the addition of Edo-period traditional Japanese clothing and architecture mixed in with the familiar steampunk was jarring and at the same time effective. At the very least, it’s a fun mixture that sets up for an entertaining performance. While several members of the nobility seem to be highlighted as important (and interesting) characters, engineer and blatant main character Ikoma manages to stand out on his own initially for his cleverness and slight distinction from regular hot-blooded protagonists by mixing in a bit of the ingenuity often saved for side characters in similar series.
The bottom line is that Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress seems to be a very promising addition to the lineup of anime this season with its thrilling take on ‘zombies’, trains, and an interesting mixture of Edo period Japan with steampunk. Although there were occasional moments where suspension of disbelief was required, the vast majority of the episode kept me thoroughly engaged to the point where I didn’t mind. The key to this series will lie (of course) in how it goes from here, so be sure to check back next week.
In one line: Kabaneri starts off with one of the strongest premieres in recent memory.
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is produced by Wit Studio and is airing during the Spring 2016 anime season. With an all-star team of director Tetsuro Araki (Attack on Titan, Death Note) writer Ichiro Okouchi (Code Geass), and music from famed composer Hiroyuki Sawano (Blue Exorcist, Attack on Titan) among others, the series is currently airing in Fuji TV’s noitaminA block of programming and is available for streaming in the United States on Amazon Prime Video. The series is an original anime project and will run for twelve episodes.