Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is Probably Better Than We Give It Credit For

Imagine: It’s 2013. You’re Tetsurou Araki, the famed director behind Death Note and Highschool of the Dead. Now, you and WIT Studio, the offspring of Production I.G., have blown the minds of anime fans new and old with an adaptation of Hajime Isayama’s manga, Attack on Titan.

The problem: You adapted too much of what was already written and there’s not nearly enough content to make a second season immediately. People are frothing at the mouth for more and you want to give it to them. That’s when a script by Ichirou Ookouchi and Hiroshi Seko catches your eye.

It’s similar to Attack on Titan, but only on the most surface level. It’s about humans surviving in walled cities against a horde of monsters with a specific weak spot. However, the setting, technology, aesthetic, and philosophy behind the action are a beast of their own. There’s something here. An opportunity to do what Attack on Titan did, with the same people, unconstrained by the wait for source material.

From director Tetsurou Araki and WIT Studio, with music by Hiroyuki Sawano, this is Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, the anime that was meant to surpass Attack on Titan.

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A Thunderous Start

The world has been torn apart by a virus turning humans into “Kabane,” zombies whose sole weakness is their glowing heart encased in a cage of iron. The inhabitants of Hinomoto Island, in the middle of an industrial revolution, have closed themselves behind giant walled cities, connected by the railroad. They transport between the cities via fortified trains.

Ikoma is a young mechanic who performs maintenance on the trains, but who is on the cusp of inventing a powerful gun capable of piercing the iron cage easier than what traditional rifles are capable of. He is a man of science who is tired of the fear of Kabane turning people into savages. He also wants to make amends for his cowardice, which he blames for his sister’s death.

One night, after defying authorities, he finds himself in a cell on the night that a train comes flying into the station, overrun with Kabane. The city is descended upon by the monsters, and Ikoma escapes, rushing home to grab his weapon. He completes the gun and even kills a Kabane, but finds that he’s been bitten. Using what he knows about the virus, he stops it from reaching his brain, saving his life.

However, the virus remains in his body and he becomes a Kabaneri: half-human, half-Kabane. As the armored train known as the Koutetsujou departs from the city, Ikoma aids in its safe escape alongside another just like him, a young but powerful girl named Mumei. Faced with the prejudice of those aboard the train, Ikoma has to prove that he is an ally while being trained how to be a Kabaneri by Mumei.

The first four episodes of Kabaneri are very close to perfection. The first episode is one of my favorite premiere episodes ever. At the time it came out, it was almost a case study in how Araki’s directing, specifically combined with Sawano’s score, produced powerful moments that resonate with audiences like nothing else. One school of thought might suggest that this is a detracting factor, painting the style as predictable, but I think it simply shows the creators’ grasp of timing and drama.

It would be impossible to further elaborate on the plot without discussing the artwork, which is a key factor in the storytelling’s ability to create such powerful scenes. The animation, notably effects animation and the level of detail, is reminiscent of Titan for certain, but the character designs and artwork feel distinct. You don’t have to go far to find critics who have praised the shading and character detail. The style hasn’t been seen to quite this degree since the great films and OVAs of the 80s and 90s.

This is primarily thanks to Haruhiko Mikimoto, the character designer for Gunbuster, Macross 7, and the upcoming Gundam: Hathaway trilogy. comparing Noriko from Gunbuster and Mumei from Kabaneri, you can see that his style has retained a lot of that classic charm that has been replaced with newer schools of character design in recent years.

A common theme you will see throughout this review is that the art and its role in conveying narrative here is a huge component of why I love this show. It’s paramount that you understand that the art is not merely something that compensates for other flaws. To me, it is an equally valid method of storytelling, akin to an actor’s physical acting in live-action.

Kabaneri‘s dramatic irony can irritate, and it’s by design. The first arc hinges entirely on Ikoma’s ability to convince the entire train and especially its leader, that he is not an enemy. He has to do this without even 100% understanding what he is himself. Mumei helps train him to fight, but she’s not too concerned with what others think about her. And because she is so fearless, she’s not the most helpful in considering Ikoma’s struggle.

This isn’t a flaw. Well… it is, but it’s an intentional one that makes Mumei interesting. From the moment she appears in the story, she’s a monster-killing machine, limited only by her depleted stamina upon going full beast mode for too long. She’s used to prejudice and misunderstanding, but she’s also strong enough that she doesn’t have to care.

Every step towards acceptance ends up being one step forward, two steps back. Ikoma saves the train, but his abilities terrify people. They come to an arrangement, but Mumei is difficult and doesn’t respect authority. Things calm down, and then misunderstandings arise over discoveries about Kabaneri and how they work, which come as a surprise to both Ikoma and the rest of the passengers.

It’s the kind of entertainment that can be both entertaining for the struggles placed upon the main characters while being irritating for the same reasons. It depends on who you are. But no matter your feelings on the buildup, the payoff makes it all worth it. The battles are excellent and bring the entire cast together to kill a stronger breed of Kabane that gives Ikoma the chance to prove himself once and for all.

I love the characters and though – like with Attack on Titan – some are far more memorable than others, every named character has a clear function, a memorable design, and enough memorable moments to earn your appreciation. For instance, Sukari is a cynical and cheeky asshole, Yukina is a skilled mechanic and the one driving the train, and Kajika is typically watching over and protecting the children.

Then there’s Takumi who is Ikoma’s best friend and a ride-or-die bro and boy, I didn’t appreciate him enough the first time watching this show. Ben Diskin did a great job in the role and his chemistry with Ikoma offers a cute bromance that shines just right in the moments it needs to. Special mention to the simply fascinating character Suzuki, who is an Englishman voiced by a Japanese-speaking American man named Maxwell Powers in the Japanese version.

Kurusu is one of the most rewarding characters to follow through the story. He is an honorable bodyguard as well as Ikoma’s chief aggressor. Ikoma has to prove himself to Kurusu the most because he is the lawman who will kill him without hesitation. Seeing that dynamic turn from one of hatred to something more nuanced, with an underlying respect for the other, was fun to watch. Ultimately though, Kurusu is a big dork with a crush on his boss.

Speaking of which, Ayame is one of my favorites. She begins as simply the daughter of a powerful lord but finds herself thrust into the leadership position. Constantly getting talked down to by her advisors, none of whom trust the Kabaneri, she has to work hard to build up her confidence and work to benefit the lives of all of the passengers aboard the train, whose lives she is responsible for. The result is an incredibly badass and brave character who – either because of the artwork or Kathleen McInerney’s performance – was electrifying in every scene.

And then there’s Mumei, who may very well be the heart and soul of the show. For all her skill, she could easily live a fulfilling, happy life among people if not for her status as a Kabaneri forcing her into a life of battle. It’s not as though she complains per se. After all, it’s a life she volunteered for, but Ikoma sees innocence in her that he wants to save so he can make amends for the sister he lost.

When it comes to sub or dub, frequent readers will note that I only mention dubs when I’m either issuing a strong warning or a recommendation. There’s little in-between. Here, I’m gonna recommend watching the English dub which is not what I expected. When I first heard it in trailers for Funimation’s release I must have dismissed it, but I think I prefer it.

ADR Direction was done by Suzanne Goldfish, who also directed the dubs for Sailor Moon (and Crystal), Bleach, Bungo Stray Dogs, and Tiger and Bunny, among others. The casting was appropriate and the script handled the dramatic scriptwriting of Kabaneri a lot better than the dub for Attack on Titan could have dreamed. The melodrama of some anime can be hard to translate to English while keeping the dialog sounding natural but this dub impressed me.

It says something then that I had more issues with the direction of the follow-up film which I will discuss later. As the film was picked up by Netflix as opposed to Crunchyroll who nabbed the series rights from Amazon, the dub for the film was directed by Bob Buchholz. I have more issues with the dialog in the film, but that could just be tied to the quality of the film’s writing itself. Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, shall we?

I mistakenly thought that the first six episodes were all the same arc described above but in fact, it was only four episodes. Episodes five and six were the beginning of what some might call the descent of the show’s quality, either because of a giant CGI monster or some character choices.

There’s nothing wrong with these episodes. At most, they are an amuse-bouche to the second arc’s conflicts featuring a new freaky beast for the cast to overcome. My only gripe is that it feels a bit early for the characters to defeat a threat so much larger than the previous Kabane. Like, the escalation from Kabane to sword-wielding Kabane makes sense, but jumping from that to Kaiju?

Around here, the introduction of a mysterious character named Enoku tells the audience that Mumei has ties to a powerful group tied to the government and that they have high expectations of her. This is the first instance where Mumei is shown to have a fear of being perceived as weak, leading to her recklessness thereafter.

Enter, The Antagonist

After the halfway point, people were beginning to have second thoughts about the show’s quality. Granted, a much smaller number of people had issues before that point too. However, that was mostly because, somehow, in a show about zombies, the concept of somewhat smarter zombies that could remember how to use weapons was “too much.”

Granted, the world of Kabaneri can be inconsistent in its rules and worldbuilding. For instance, the Kabane themselves are introduced as monsters that can only be killed once the iron cage around their heart is broken, but cutting off their head is shown to be equally effective. It isn’t as though their heads regenerate, and if bites are the only method of transmission, then they should absolutely cut their heads off more.

Additionally, Ikoma’s “jet bullets” are revolutionary and allow them to pierce the iron cage easier. Through Ayame’s meeting with one town’s government, it’s implied that they are sharing the plans for the bullets in exchange for provisions. However, when the Karikatashu makes their appearance, they are seemingly able to pierce the iron cage with normal bullets easily, and only a few members of that organization are Kabaneri, so strength isn’t a factor.

It’s things like these that can make it hard to get immersed. Granted, the first thing is a minor gripe, as not every character would be strong enough to sever heads with a single swing. However, the second leads to contradictions in how information is presented. When the difference between a normal gun and one of Ikoma’s is barely noticeable, it makes Ikoma’s achievements seem minor.

Going into the second half, things begin a bit more relaxed. The characters rest in Shitori Station and the show takes a welcome opportunity to breathe. Ikoma and Mumei spend time together and the former doubles down on his intent to fight harder so that Mumei can retire from a life of battle and truly live. Just then, the arrival of Mumei’s “big bro” changes the entire series.

Biba Amatori is the reason many people completely lost faith in the show. At first, he appears simply as the calm and composed leader of the Karikatashu, the elite Kabane-slayers of the government. However, some key scenes hint at tension between Biba and his father, the Shogun.

The tension rises as the sudden arrival of Kabane forces the Karikatashu into action, revealing a level of efficiency not previously seen by any but the main characters. However, Ikoma doesn’t trust Biba and resents him for teaching Mumei that only the strong survive in this world.

Animation by Tatsurou Kawano

As Biba’s grudge against the Shogun takes shape, their path becomes the same as that of the Koutetsujou, and it’s clear Biba intends to use the main characters to get into the capital. Rewatching it all, I think I was more interested in the plot this time around, but Biba’s character truly is what kills what could have been a solid conclusion.

Biba talks too much. There’s already plenty to find interesting about his character from his aesthetic and the presence he has on-screen. Unfortunately, the script does him no favors. The idea of “strong live, weak die” is an overused concept that was done better in shows like Akame Ga Kill that were even edgier. Worse yet, it both overcomplicates and oversimplifies his arc.

Everything that made Biba interesting was made clear as soon as he talked about how he was betrayed by the Shogun. Something happened in the past and Biba hasn’t forgiven his father. So he trained the strongest warriors in the nation and made them believe that only that strength could save them. Then he decided to enact his revenge.

So it’s a simple revenge story, but then that feels slightly disconnected from the story of the Kabane, don’t you think? So the script supposes that Biba views Kabane more favorably than humans. He doesn’t trust people anymore. He was screwed over because human fear and superstition cause them to be cowardly and abandon others. So why bother saving the world when it won’t give anything back.

Whether you think it’s overcomplicated or oversimplified, Biba’s constant yammering about “strength above all else” lacks nuance and feels edgy for the sake of feeling edgy. He believes his mission is justice but his actions betray that justice and that’s great. That’s a flaw that makes a compelling villain. It’s enough to make him interesting. Unfortunately, he talks too much and elaborates his philosophy in ways that make him feel one-dimensional.

Worse yet, the flashbacks and explanations about the Shogun and his relationship with Biba are laughable. I think I had to rewind three times during one scene just to try and figure out what the hell was going on that caused such a divide between them.

The best thing about the finale is Ikoma. At his lowest point, he finds the strength within to pick himself up, and his character design undergoes the single most badass transformation I’ve ever seen. His design reflects the kind of cool that you’d expect from Shonen back in like the 90’s and it’s glorious.

The action raises the stakes as new forms of Kabane are introduced, namely mutations within Kabaneri that turn them into unstoppable killing machines. The choreography and action design are at the top of their game and the potential of the powers raises to incredible heights, including powerful psychic blasts.

Animation by Tatsurou Kawano

But nothing quite tops the swagger with which Ikoma rushes into the final arena of the show, blasting his way through Kabane and the Karikatashu with the intent of finding Mumei. It all ends on a high note, despite every annoyance that reduced my enjoyment.

Biba, who couldn’t be saved by the performances of Roger Craig Smith or Mamoru Miyano, still manages to give Ikoma the final fight that I wanted and salvages the conclusion further. When it doesn’t try to overexplain itself, the action of the show speaks volumes.

I think that Araki’s greatest talent is his ability to take small moments, objects, or actions, and hold the spotlight on those things for a little bit so that, when we see them again, they take on more powerful or personal meaning. It’s the little things, like Ayame turning the master key to activate the train, the sharing of blood between humans and Kabaneri, or Ikoma’s sharing of weapons with the people of the Koutetsujou and by extension, all of Hinomoto.

It isn’t perfect, but this attention to the small moments says a lot about how Araki sees storytelling and it’s awesome. Its narrative is designed to emphasize visuals to do what we want all great media to do: offer moments that stick in our minds long after we’ve stopped watching. It’s one part of what made Attack on Titan so great and it’s what elevates Kabaneri above what so many would dismiss it as.

The Movie | The Battle for Unato

Two compilation movies later, Kabaneri returned with a movie: The Battle of Unato, in 2019. By this point, Crunchyroll snatched the rights for the first season from Amazon, putting it and its English dub in a place where more people could enjoy it. However, the movie was still a no show and got picked up by Netflix, because they couldn’t just let CR have all of it.

The movie is far too short. And given the care put into the parts I liked, I feel like it was meant to be longer. It feels like a 2-hour film with an hour cut out. The characters find themselves in the city of Unato, in a joint operation to clear the Kabane at the abandoned Unato castle and clear a path through the mountain pass, allowing for easier traversal throughout the country.

It’s a cool premise, perfect for many climactic battles, especially with how ominous and striking Unato castle looks. The strange blue light emitted from its highest point sets the mind alight with speculation about what’s inside. However, to get to the battle the story rushes through a poorly paced buildup.

Between how Biba was handled to the tension between different factions in the film, human conflict just isn’t this series’ strong suit. After the first fight, two knuckleheads from another group participating in the operation just start giving Ikoma shit and it feels so forced.

Something weird is happening at Unato, and a strange force is messing with Ikoma and Mumei’s moods. The former is easily irritable and is becoming more violent, which makes it hard for him to convince anyone to let him investigate what’s happening. Meanwhile, Mumei is trying to build up the courage to give Ikoma a gift because she’s finally just admitted that she has a crush on him.

The villain, Kageyuki, is pretty awesome. His backstory is neat and his design as well as the fights he’s in are very pretty to watch. However, every new character could have benefitted from more time to fulfill their potential. As it is, the drama with Mumei feels rushed. And yet, the resolution is incredibly satisfying… somehow.

I think that describes the whole movie. It has a super satisfying third act to a film we didn’t get. Once the actual Battle of Unato starts, the story returns to what I expected and want from this series. The limiting factor was time, and perhaps, some backtracking.

Ikoma no longer has his awesome hairstyle from the end of season one, which I thought should have been the permanent style. Additionally, some new members of the Koutetsujou’s crew from the end of the series are absent. Given the time gap, they likely left, or maybe the creators thought they would have made the cast feel bloated. Either way, I get the impression that there’s more going on in this world that I would have liked to see more of.

The movie is weaker than the series, and to those who already dislike the show, that’s not gonna be a good sign. I’m disappointed that the show couldn’t live up to its potential but more importantly, I’m sad that it hasn’t gotten a true sequel because I truly believe it deserves one.

The closest to a continuation was a mobile game with an incredible animated opening that was set after the events of the show, but as of the time of writing, the servers will be shut down this month. It’s a shame too because this opening only made me want a full sequel even more.

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is a project that undoubtedly takes the full attention of a studio’s A-Team to bring to life. Now that WIT is no longer working on Attack on Titan, I hope that the team will find the time to reconvene and help this series reach the highs I know it can. Perhaps with a better script, a clearer focus, and the same love that fueled the original, it could be truly incredible.

But as of right now, it’s simply good. And it’s probably better than you remember.

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is available for legal streaming through Crunchyroll. The movie, The Battle of Unato, is available for legal streaming through Netflix.

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What did you think of Kabaneri? Was it a disappointment or was it just what the world needed before Attack on Titan returned? Leave a comment below and tell me what you think.

Thanks for reading and as always, I’ll see you next time!

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