Kabaneri Of The Iron Fortress (Cert 15)
4 Discs DVD/Blu-ray Combo (Distributor: Manga Entertainment) Running time: 274 minutes approx
Well, this is something you rarely see these days – an original anime TV series! No prior manga, video game, or light novel source to be found here, Kabaneri Of The Iron Fortress is freshly made from scratch, the only real hook to it being that it comes from Studio Wit and director Tetsuro Araki, hot off the success of the mighty Attack On Titan.
Indeed some might cruelly – but with some validity – suggest this show is basically AOT meets Korean film Snowpiercer as humanity seeks sanctuary on a huge train and there are attacking monsters but there is more to it than that. The location for this adventure is a pseudo-medieval European influence world with steampunk technology will also draw the AOT comparisons, but it’s not like other shows aren’t also guilty of this.
The advanced technology is explained as the story is set during an industrial revolution where a mysterious virus spreads to pandemic levels, turning humans into zombie-like creatures called kabane. To save the rest of humanity, the island of Himono has built quarantined fortresses called stations, transport between which is possible by hayajiro, reinforced steam locomotives.
An invasion of Aragane Station by kabane forces a mass exodus of the people by train, led by sole surviving royalty Ayame Yomogawa fleeing to the safe haven of Kongokaku where the Shogunate resides. Among the refugees is steam engineer Ikoma, who has invented a piercing gun that can kill kabane in one blow, but is bitten during a scuffle, only just managing to stop the virus from reaching his brain.
Ikoma is the nominal hero of this tale and cut from the other shonen protagonist cloth of being the talented nerdy downtrodden type but the only one capable of saving the day. Bespectacled and boasting a shaggy haircut, Ikoma should be the comic sidekick but his righteousness and respect for humanity makes him the lone voice of reason during the widespread paranoia caused by the kabane.
Keeping his infection secret is hard when it manifests itself during bouts of temper or desperation, improving his fighting prowess tenfold, thought Ikoma remains human and insists as much. Luckily – and that term is used loosely – another passenger, the diminutive but fearsome Mumei shares a similar infection mark like Ikoma’s, revealing they are both Kabaneri – between human and kabane.
The first half of the story is where the Snowpiercer comparisons are found, focusing on the train journey and the trials of Mumei and Ikoma trying to win the trust of the other passengers and the soldiers, headed by Ayame’s bodyguard Kurusu, yet are also expected to do their bit in defending the train against kabane attacks. Fortunately, Ayame and many of the other passengers aren’t so easily swayed into discrimination and trust Ikoma and Mumei not to eat them.
Being on a moving train doesn’t limit the scope of drama or the action, providing some exciting and very bloody battles as the sprightly zombies infiltrate the travelling fortress. They might be blood driven creatures but there are no slouches and certainly not dumb, aware that biting humans to convert them into kabane only strengthens their numbers, hence their continued widespread persistence being a terrible trait.
Most frightening of all is the Black Fog beast otherwise known as Nue, a composite of thousands of kabane to form a gigantic beast at the core of which is something definitely will incur calls of ripping off AOT. Similarly the steam powered weapons used by Ikoma and Mumei look startlingly like the ones used by Eren and co. in AOT, backpacks with dual extending leads for the user to wield their guns.
Sadly, this is the most blatant example of borrowing from an existing property, made all the more unfortunate because of the Studio Wit connection, but really, writer Ichiro Okouchi should take the blame for this. The second half of the show has Okouchi channel his earlier works like Code Geass and Guilty Crown, switching to political intrigue and betrayal with the arrival of Mumei’s older brother Biba.
Assuming the role of human antagonist, Biba’s presence brings about not just a change in direction for the story but also a change in personality in Mumei. Whereas before she was always headstrong and didn’t suffer fools gladly, Mumei suddenly becomes a naïve, almost childlike acolyte of her brother, creating a rift with Ikoma and the others. This is explained in a flashback so we understand the history there but it comes across as hasty given how feisty Mumei was before.
One of the problems of a single cour series is the need to cram so much content into such little time and it becomes apparent when watching this show in marathon form that there is plenty of room for many elements of the story to be expanded upon. Given the time, we could have delved a little more into how the kabane virus first broke, how the trains and stations were developed and explore some of the backstories of some of the other characters.
However, the plus side is that there is never a dull moment, whether it is action, gore, or drama. If the story does prove bothersome, the visuals will compensate as Studio Wit have outdone themselves with one of the best looking shows of the year. Every frame is rich with verve and detail in the artwork, from the intricacies of the steampunk designs to the lovingly rendered backgrounds and set pieces for that fully immersive experience.
It is unfortunate that Kabaneri Of The Iron Fortress will be judged by the studio behind the production rather than what it offers as a tightly crafted, fast paced, action packed, thrill ride. Granted, it borrows a little from the AOT aesthetic but if every derivative Gundam clone gets a pass this one can too.
A feature film is due in 2019 so get onboard now at this first stop in a potentially great new anime franchise.
English Language 5.1 True HD
Japanese Language 2.0 True HD
Disc 2 Only:
Textless Opening Song – “Kabaneri Of The Iron Fortress”
Textless Closing Song – “ninelie”
Rating – ****
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