Over the past year or so, Amazon has increasingly stepped up the quality of offerings on their Prime Video service. Along with an array of Emmy award-winning shows, a smattering of anime series can also be found on Prime, all ripe for the watching. Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is produced by Wit Studio, the production juggernaut that did the anime adaptation of popular manga Attack on Titan.
Let’s get this out of the way first. The premise of Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is dumb. Massively dumb. It sounds ripped right out of a Walking Dead/Snowpiercer crossover fanfic. The setting is an alternate reality steampunk Japan, where a virus transforms the dead into relentless creatures (called “kabane”) that crave human flesh. What’s left of humanity cowers in fortresses with humongous walls, and the only means of travel is a rail system equipped with gigantic trains capable of transporting people and supplies from fortress to fortress. And yet, despite the bizarre premise and some bizarre character choices along the way, the damn show works.
Kabaneri throws a bunch of stuff at you at once and expects that something within its mishmash of action, horror, gore and political posturing will stick. Maybe it’s the sight of the never-ending hordes of undead ruthlessly attacking a barreling train, their bodies crunching under the might of steam and steel. Maybe it’s the near-suicidal bravery of the infantrymen on the train, tasked with battling those scores of undead with steam-powered guns. Maybe it’s the sight of samurai deftly slashing down the undead with their katanas. Maybe it’s the plight of the simple villagers who, after their own fortress is overrun, travel on the train in a desperate attempt to find a new place to live.
All zombie stories teeter on the premise of high stakes, but the stakes on Kabaneri are even higher because the kabane are exceptionally hard to kill. With the traditional zombie, the corpse is just a reanimated lump of soft flesh and bone, slow-moving, driven by compulsion and hunger, and can be dispatched with a bullet to the brain. With kabane, the transformation from human to monster is almost instantaneous, and the virus imparts the corpse with frightening speed and gray-tinged, impenetrable skin fractured with golden, glowing veins. Far from being mindless, the kabane, some of them anyway, are capable of rational thought and strategy, and some can even swordfight. The only way to stop a kabane is to destroy its heart, but that's protected by a cage of iron. Normal bullets won’t make a dent in a kabane’s body, so all mechanical weapons need a steam-powered boost. And, if a victim’s situation is desperate - as in they’ve already been bitten and will transform at any moment - they have the option of killing themselves (and protecting those around them) thanks to a convenient sack of gunpowder and shrapnel called a suicide bag. Place the bomb over your heart and pull the drawstring.
Exceedingly high stakes.
Ikoma, one of the main protagonists of the series, is pretty dang tired of his hopeless life, and he’s decided to do something about it. He is one of the steamsmiths who works at Aragane Station, helping to keep the visiting trains in tip-top condition. Like everyone else in this bleak world, Ikoma has lost family to the kabane, in this case his little sister. Fueled by vengeance and desperation, Ikoma works on developing a new type of kabane-killing weapon which he believes to be more efficient than steam-propelled bullets. The weapon is a retooled rivet gun, capable of firing a bolt directly into a kabane’s caged heart. The only drawback to this weapon is that you have to get really close to a kabane in order to fire the bolt with enough force. We’re talking placing the gun directly on the kabane’s chest. A swarm of kabane soon overruns the station, and Ikoma is caught between three scenarios: test his prototype, get eaten by kabane, or use a suicide bag. He chooses to test the gun, but, naturally, he gets bitten. Ikoma, in his first badass moment of many badass moments, stops the infection from spreading to his brain by riveting strips of iron around his shoulder and his neck. He’s not fully human anymore, but neither is he a kabane. He’s now a mixture of both: a kabaneri.
Kabaneri gain the strength and speed of a kabane but still retain their humanity, and Ikoma is the least prepared person in the world to become one of these kabane/human hybrids. His knowledge of hand-to-hand combat is pretty much nil, and becoming a kabaneri is a death sentence. Kabaneri, without fail, eventually transform into kabane, which fosters a lot of mistrust between Ikoma and his friends and colleagues. Ikoma has to juggle his newly found powers with a newly found sense of alienation, and in an environment where banding together is the only means of survival, being an outcast is terrifying.
Ikoma doesn’t have to walk his kabaneri path alone. Mumei, a young kabaneri, is sent to Aragane Station as a guest of the fortress’s ruling family. She became a kabaneri willingly, in a controlled environment, because she wished to become strong enough to fight the kabane up close. She takes a liking to Ikoma, or just feels sorry for him, and walks him through the kabaneri crash course. Without Mumei’s guidance, Ikoma would most likely be caught in a swarm of kabane and get ripped apart. Yeah, this is yet another example of the Trinity Syndrome, where a female character is more than capable of being the protagonist but instead, she spends her time showing the clueless male protagonist the ropes so that he can be the one to save the day. But Mumei escapes the common pitfall of the Trinity trope, the problem of the female character having nothing to do once her male student surpasses her, thanks to having a character arc that is solely her own and not influenced by her friendship with Ikoma at all. Mumei arguably shares the co-protagonist role with Ikoma.
Plus, Ikoma never surpasses Mumei’s fighting skills. He knows just enough to not get himself killed, and even as a kabaneri, he ultimately decides to rely more on his own brand-new superweapon than his super strength. He’s eager to give his weapon some extensive field-testing. Not everyone’s going to be a kabaneri, and, even with his alienation from his former friends, Ikoma is still driven to protect them. A new superweapon just might give humanity a chance against the kabane, and Ikoma’s not giving up his piercing gun for kabaneri powers. Not yet.
Mumei isn’t the only female character who can count as a co-protagonist either. Aragane Station, like all fortresses in the realm, is led by a ruling family. In this case, the Yomogawas. Ayame is the eldest daughter of this clan, and when her father inevitably dies while fighting off the kabane horde that overruns the fortress, she inherits the leadership of Aragane Station and what’s left of the station’s population. Ayame, young and untested, is tasked with finding her people a new place to live. She orders them aboard the gigantic locomotive known as the Koutetsujo, and they embark on a journey as refugees. Ayame struggles with leadership, as some don’t wish to acknowledge her authority because of her gender. It’s no real wonder why she feels a kinship to Ikoma. Both experience distrust from former friends and both find strength in confiding with each other. Without Ayame’s help and influence, Ikoma would’ve been tossed off the train as soon as his kabaneri status became known.
But perhaps the best female character in this whole show is Yukina. Since the train left the station so quickly and since so many of the train’s crew were lost to the kabane, Yukina becomes the train’s default engineer. Yukina is capable and reliable, with unwavering loyalty to Ayame, which is a good thing. You do want to stay in the good graces of the person in charge of keeping the train moving. She is one of the show’s secondary characters, but her character design makes her definitely stand out among the show’s cast. She looks like she should be a train engineer in a steampunk universe:
Her design is pretty beefy as far as female anime characters go. She’s not dressed to titillate. She’s in coveralls because that makes sense for an engineer who works at the head of the locomotive. She’s practical and pragmatic, with her mind on her job. And when there’s a trainful of refugees barrelling across a zombie-infested landscape, you don’t want to have someone at the helm who’s easily distracted. In short, Yukina is amazing and the best secondary character in the show.
The series is peppered with these great details. Overall the animation is gorgeously detailed, and the way the series portrays scale is amazing. The trains are impressively huge, and when a train cuts a thin swathe through the swarms of kabane, there’s a sense of triumph, even if that feeling is woefully temporary. The kabane hordes are particularly effective, especially during night scenes and the kabane’s glowing eyes and glowing bodies pierce through the darkness.
Perhaps the one major misstep in this series is the antagonist who shows up in the second half. Yes, even with the scores of undead lurking everywhere, the series has to show that humanity’s greatest threat is within itself. This comes in the form of Biba Tenshin, a kabaneri who is the leader of a small group of elite kabaneri. See, he believes that the kabane aren’t a threat at all, but an inevitable part of evolution, a plague which will offer the planet a clean slate to start over with kabaneri at the top of the ladder. Humanity, as a whole, is too weak to even attempt to battle the kabane, so they should be left to die. The future, Biba believes, is with the kabaneri, but not every human deserves to be saved, only those who wish to become stronger. And naturally, he wants Ikoma to join him or die.
Yep, Biba’s decided to start a war in the middle of the zombie apocalypse.
Good luck with that.
It’s here where the narrative begins to fall apart. The squabbles between the various factions of humans and kabaneri (plus the far-fetched possibility of a cure for the virus) aren’t nearly as engaging as the initial kabane attacks. While it’s during this political posturing that Ayame comes into her own as a leader, one can’t help but think that everyone should just stop fighting among themselves, face the kabane head on, and perhaps try to figure out if that possible virus cure actually works. Then again, the series makes this compelling argument that humans are selfish creatures who want to make it all about them, even when the world is ending.
Maybe Biba’s plan isn’t so far-fetched after all.
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is a polarizing title. Mention it to an anime fan and they’ll most likely dismiss it as a poor Attack on Titan clone, from the people who made Attack on Titan, and will say that you’re better off watching Attack on Titan instead. But the show has earned a solid 4.5 star rating on Amazon Prime. So, why the discrepancy? Blame it on unrealistic expectations. Those anime fans who have already watched Attack on Titan will notice the similarities between the two titles. Replace the ravenous giants from Titan with zombies, and you have Kabaneri. It doesn’t feel new to them, but for those whose knowledge of anime is a bit more limited, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is a fitting introduction to the medium. It’s action-packed, it’s gory, the animation is stunning, and once you get past the Walking Dead/Snowpiercer elevator pitch, the show is pretty engaging. It also avoids one of the pitfalls of many anime shows, the dreaded “adapted from another source” problem. Instead of being based on a currently running manga (like Attack on Titan), Kabaneri is a self-contained story, told in 12 episodes. There aren’t any filler episodes because the show ran out of plot while waiting for the manga to catch up.
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is well worth the time it takes to watch it, and here’s hoping Amazon Prime continues to offer even more unique titles which challenge the anime norm.