Tetsurō Araki is one of my favorite anime directors working today, as evidenced by my previous article about him. Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is his latest anime.
His mastery of action directing and inclinations towards darker storytelling guarantees that pretty much anything he works on will be on my watchlist. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I love everything he works on, Guilty Crown being the first that comes to mind. The stories that Araki works with tend to be a bit too…unhinged would be a way to describe it, and that sort of summarizes my conflicting feelings about his latest work: Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress.
As the Industrial Revolution reaches its peak, humanity is attacked by a plague of zombie-like creatures called Kabane that can only be defeated by piercing their iron-hard ribcages and destroying their hearts. To combat this scourge, humanity has erected huge walled fortresses connected by railways to keep the Kabane out. As the plot opens, a swarm of Kabane manage to invade the hometown of our main character, Ikoma, and now he and the other residents of his town must evacuate to the train known as the Kotetsujyo before they are infected by the Kabane.
To tackle the obvious question right away: yes, there are quite a few similarities to Attack on Titan, Araki’s previous megahit. Walled cities, invading monsters, scout legions, and some other spoiler-related material all draw some striking similarities. However, I do think that there is enough original content in Kabaneri to ward off criticism of being an AoT clone. The pacing is pretty solid and evenly-paced for the most part, though the first few episodes are a bit tedious, and the battles are more exhilarating and hype-building rather than dark and depressing, though they definitely have that in bulk as well.
They also do a fairly solid job of crafting the tone and setting for the series, and the extremely grim and volatile mood of the story definitely keeps everyone on edge, though sometimes to a slightly unreasonable degree. However, there’s only so much sloppy narrative and deus ex machina I can take in a single series, and some of the big plot points in Kabaneri are so poorly handled that they literally come out of nowhere just so that they can have that one really cool-looking scene, and it’s incredibly infuriating to see so little care given to the story sometimes.
Despite this, the characters do stand on their own pretty well, though none of their arcs are entirely stable.
Ikoma is actually a pretty solid character to get behind, being fairly strong-willed and forward thinking. He definitely has a lot more of a strategic mind to him than other lead heroes in a zombie apocalypse scenario, and him being able to think his way out of a situation is pretty exciting to watch. However, his character isn’t entirely consistent in that regard, and by the end of the series he’s basically a walking tank who destroys narrative stakes with the flick of his wrist, and a lot of the stuff he able to do in the final episode almost completely ruins the overall story.
A good portion of the cast is also fun to follow, especially Mumei, a young girl who finds a kindred spirit in Ikoma with the burdens that they bear in life, and I was kind of surprised at some points where main characters are killed off in well-constructed scenes that don’t feel too obvious. The middle section of this series really does excel at character development and lessening the tension that built up from episode one. However, there is also an unnecessary level of aggression and anger present at the beginning of the series. I understand that it is a zombie apocalypse scenario so trust is very hard to come by, but this series often goes to extremes that make it almost too annoying to watch, as a lot of the characters turn out to be cartoonishly mean-spirited at times.
The animation by Wit Studios is definitely a standout in comparison to the rest of this season, though there are still a lot of inconsistencies and faulty design elements.
The action definitely deserves praise for being high-impact and incredibly exhilarating, with well-above average combat choreography littered throughout, and I do like a lot of the character designs, though they are a bit inconsistent. However, as “cool” as it might seem, I don’t really think the steampunk aesthetic works all that well here, though I’m not a huge fan of the steampunk look in the first place. There’s also quite a large serving of obvious CG, but considering how much action is in this series, I’m tempted to let it slide.
As for the soundtrack, we are joined once again by the modern legend Hiroyuki Sawano (Attack on Titan, Kill la Kill), and his work is definitely the most consistently solid throughout the series. Sawano is the absolute master when it comes to building up hype and excitement for darker action series, and his work definitely excels here. To be honest, though, this isn’t his best work either, and some of the tracks feel like work that he’s already done before. Still, this is one of the best soundtracks to come out this year, and the music often serves as the focal point for some of the biggest scenes in the series.
In the end, I find myself struggling with whether Kabaneri is worth recommending or not.
While it definitely has a handle on hype-building and intense action scenes, the plot is so flimsy and borderline broken at times that I find it difficult to take seriously at all. However, I will admit that I did have fun with this series, and if not for the last episode it might’ve been one of my favorites from the season. If you like big-budget action stories with endearing characters and could care less about a tight and complex plot, then you’ll enjoy this series just fine.
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is currently available for streaming on Amazon Video if you have an Amazon Prime membership, and has been licensed for physical distribution by Crunchyroll.
Final Score: 6/10