Edited by The Davoo
So I just finished watching Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, and it was a preeeetty good time; I’d give it a six… hundred and seventy five, out of a thousand.
I can’t say it had much in the way of an interesting story or characters, or that much of it made a whole lot of sense–but that’s kind of okay, ‘cause it had a lot of other stuff going for it: Heart-stoppingly beautiful character designs by Haruhiko Mikimoto animated with a level of detail that his designs would’ve gotten in a late-80s OVA series, fantastically choreographed action scenes–lots of stuff that’s just straight-up badass on a conceptual level. Like, I don’t really need any context to know that a guy bolting huge pieces of iron onto his chest while screaming over epic Hiroyuki Sawano music is awesome; it’s pretty fucking awesome just by itself.
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is like an artbook. There’s countless individual frames of Mumei’s face just looking adorable that I wanna print out and pin up on my wall, and just stare at for an amount of time which long exceeds my memory of even having seen the show.
I can easily understand why a lot of people wouldn’t like the show if those aren’t the kinds of things that they value. If Mumei’s opening scene didn’t make you want to dedicate your life to following her, or if the prospect of super-powered human-zombie hybrids and samurai fighting against giant zombies with swords doesn’t excite you then, well, you might need to look somewhere else.
What does confuse me, however, is the huge negative reaction that I’ve been seeing to this show’s trajectory. Namely, a lot of people claiming that, for one or more of any myriad reasons, the show got dumb. That’s where you lost me.
Kabaneri was always dumb. The premise is dumb and makes no sense, the story and characters are openly, unabashedly cliche, the monsters, the weapons, everything is dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb and stupid. If your problem with this show is that it got dumb, then all I have to ask is: what the hell did you expect?
So the show is set in samurai times, but on the cusp of an industrial revolution, so we’ve got trains and guns, and also steampunk stuff–cause nothing looks cooler and more satisfying in animation than huge puffs of steam billowing out of weapons. There’s a zombie apocalypse, but the zombies are super strong, and they’ve got glowing weak spots protected by an iron cage. Why does that make any sense? Because, as I just said, nothing looks cooler than a huge amount of steam billowing out of a weapon–especially if every shot has be by fired at point-blank range. This is what they mean when TV Tropes people invoke the, “rule of cool;” the rules of this universe are literally defined by what will look the coolest in animation.
I’m willing to bet there was a production meeting for this show where someone said, “we want there to be lots of big explosions of blood and gore. What can you think of which would create the biggest, most satisfying explosion of blood and gore?” “Well, how about driving a massive fucking train through a horde of zombies?” “Yeah, that works.”
“We also wanna have people fighting the zombies up close and personal, but there’s a limit to what we can do if those people are bound by the laws of physics and logic.” “Well, if we introduce a race of super-powered zombie people, then we can pretty much animate whatever our imaginations can conjure.” “Yeah, that works too.”
Now, I’m not saying that Kabaneri couldn’t have possibly had a better story or more interesting characters and still have been exactly as badass as it was–I mean, you can look at anything Gainax has ever made and see that the rule of cool can be paired exquisitely with excellent storytelling; but I do have to wonder how anyone made it three episodes into this show and thought that it had any priorities other than animating cool shit. By the end of Gurren Lagann episode three, Kamina had already been through a whole character arc and Simon was balls deep into one. By the end of Kill la Kill episode three, Ryuko and Satsuki were in the midst of a big-deal ideological conflict. By the end of Kabaneri episode three, we were finding out that the main characters have to drink human blood in order to keep their powers going, and Mumei was stabbing a pregnant woman to death because her unborn baby was infected with a zombie virus. The priorities were pretty different.
I don’t think it’s wrong to dislike Kabaneri for the fact that its story and characters are dumb, and I don’t think it’s wrong to want every show to have some depth and intrigue to it, and to hope that what you’re getting is going to be more like Brotherhood and less like Akame ga Kill. But I really do have to wonder if a lot of audiences are going into stuff with way too high of expectations and missing the forest for the trees when it comes to a show like this.
When the first episode of Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress came out, my biggest concern was the question of how they were going to keep this show interesting. When you’ve got a show that seems to be banking everything on over-the-top action sequences and rule-of-cool setting design, then there’s really only two ways you can keep it hyped up over the course of the show; either you can continually up the ante on each action scene, making every scenario even crazier and more exciting than the last; or you can try to have a plot with some emotional stakes to it which keeps the viewer invested in the characters.
My biggest fear with Kabaneri was that it was going to try and go for the latter, because as of episode one, I really didn’t think the show could pull that off. There just wasn’t enough depth to the setting or characters that I could imagine a story comprised of anything other than boring, hammy political conflicts and random asspulls–which is what I felt like I got out of Attack on Titan. If the narrative wasn’t going to be interesting either way, then trying to force a narrative into the show was just going to make it boring. Better then to focus on what the show does well, and just have lots of kick ass actions scenes and keep Mumei on screen for as long as possible.
For the first half and some change, that’s exactly what I got–and it was good. Every episode would introduce some new, crazy facet of the setting in order to make the action even more intense than before. Now the kabane can use weapons and have higher resistance to bullets! Now they can morph into giant kabane monster balls that you have to fight with a canon! Now the kabaneri can be injected with special blood that makes them turn into super-monsters which can apparently shoot laser beams when they’re in trouble!
And I mean, the question I have to posit to anyone who doesn’t approve of these things is: why not? Do we really need a justification for why a virus that gives people superpowers and makes them live off of blood and is only limited by wearing something around their neck can also be turned into a super-virus that makes it so they can shoot lasers? Can it really be called a logical leap when nothing about it was logical in the first place?
The last five episodes inevitably introduced a dramatic plotline to the series–and I say inevitably for several reasons. Firstly, that there was no way they were going to keep up the obscene level of animation quality of those first few episodes for the entire show. If they weren’t going to be able to animate a constantly escalating level of threat for twelve whole episodes, then inevitably there would need to be a conflict which can be communicated through dialog. Secondly, that the show was going to need some kind of ending. Maybe it would’ve been cooler if they found some way to actually eliminate all of the kabane and really ramped up the action stakes to the maximum, and if this was One Punch Man, then that’s exactly what would’ve happened. Kabaneri was a relatively small-scale story from start to finish, and the second half didn’t have nearly the production polish that the first half did, so instead we got a conflict which was introduced so it could be resolved.
I get why people don’t like this. Biba was a weird villain with motivations that weren’t spelled out clearly enough to completely make sense, and it’s a little too obvious that his entire existence is just so that the series can have an antagonist that can give Ikoma a girl to save and a bad guy to kill. The second half of Kabaneri isn’t as good as the first half; but, again, it seems to me like all of this stuff was inevitable.
As soon as we learned about Mumei’s brother and the fact that she’d never been bitten by the kabane before, and then saw her recognizing the girl at the heart of the black cloud, the rest of the show was pretty much set in stone. Mumei’s brother was gonna be the antagonist, Mumei’s loyalty to him was going to be her downfall, his ideologies were going to clash with Ikoma as they both have different philosophies about how to reach the same goal, and Ikoma was going to have to save her after she got turned into a kabane monster. If you didn’t get all that by the time they introduced the idea of the white blood, then you might not have been paying attention.
None of this came out of nowhere. We didn’t know about the exact way that kabaneri transformation works until later into the show, because that’s when the characters who knew about it entered the story–but it’s not like it wasn’t obvious that this was going to be a major plot point from the second we heard about Mumei’s fear of being weak. We could probably figure out from the way that pretty much every military leader in this world seemed to be horribly corrupt aside from the one who’s a cute girl, that there was going to be some kind of major political power play going on later. Again, yes, Biba’s actual motivations and actions are pretty weird*, but I don’t think it would make a gigantic difference in what the show actually is if they’d been more clear.
*[Biba wanted to tear down the walls so that everyone would be forced to fight the kabane, instead of huddling up in order to protect those who couldn’t fight. His idea was “either you get strong and fight [the kabane] or you die.” They didn’t make that clear enough, but you can put it together pretty easily.
The reason he injected Ikoma with the white blood in the last ep was to weaken him. Biba was too much of a coward to use the black blood on himself, so instead he tried to make Ikoma human so that he could kill him. That’s why he tells Ikoma that he killed a coward afterwards.]
The second half of Kabaneri didn’t surprise or disappoint me, because I didn’t expect anything other than what I got. It’s not as good as the first half, but it’s not bad. It still has some pretty cool action scenes, ideas, and character moments. It was still a pretty good artbook in parts like where Ikoma makes his big transformation into like a half-Guyver and blasts an entire fucking train off the rails, or when Mumei turns into a giant Princess Mononoke thing. Of course, it could have been better–the first half could’ve been better–but it also could’ve been so, so, so much worse.
What bothers me about Kabaneri’s critical reception is neither the fact that a lot of people don’t like it, nor the fact that there’s a lot of elements to it which I think are worth celebrating; it’s mostly just the fact that people are acting so surprised that they didn’t get the next FMA: Brotherhood out of it. I feel like everyone has in their heads this mythical idea of the perfect anime that starts out hype and cool, and then develops a huge cast of memorable, lovable characters, and a winding narrative full of epic twists and reveals and emotional character moments, but also badass action scenes and hype, and it’s dark, but not grimdark, and funny, but not goofy, and it’s only just convoluted enough that you can kind of look past it–and I really think that we only got that show once, and we got it because it was a re-adaptation of a show which had already proven such a massive worldwide success that they would’ve been crazier not to make it all over again. And as much as I appreciate Brotherhood and how well it captures the seemingly worldwide shared idea of what a perfect adventure story should be, I also think there’s a million other kinds of stories which are maybe not so perfect, but are worth telling anyways.
Kabaneri was fine. It was dumb, but it wasn’t broken. It didn’t ask you to accept a plotline which was completely at ends with the rules of its own universe, or to enjoy watching your favorite character get sexually assaulted, or to sit through the same goddamn light novel trash that you’ve seen a hundred times before, or to buy into the logic of a scenario that literally doesn’t make any sense even in context. It’s a cool action show that doesn’t bore you to tears with too much rote dialog and convoluted bullshit–it just gets in, does what it needs to do, and gets out. It also has an actual American actor playing an American character who is fluent in both English and Japanese, and it didn’t even really need him; and that’s something which I can appreciate.