Reviewby Theron Martin,
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
20 years ago, the people of Hinomoto retreated into fortress-like train stations in fear of the kabane, zombie-like creatures who spread their disease through their bites. Their speed, mindless strength, and hearts enclosed in steel cages made them frightful opponents, so passengers on the armored trains traveling between these strongholds are zealously screened for any sign of infection. All those efforts prove for naught when a train that's been completely overrun by kabane crashes into technician Ikoma's home station, but at least he has his experimental new steam-power bolt gun, which can pierce a kabane's heart cage. Though it succeeds in killing his enemy, he gets infected in the process, saving himself only through extreme, experimental measures. He later learns that he has become a Kabaneri, a person who straddles the line between human and kabane, and he isn't the only one amongst the passengers on Kotetsujo, the armored train that carries refugees away from his station; a girl named Mumei, who shows devastating strength against the kabane, shares his curse. But even with the two of them protecting the train, can its passengers survive the journey, especially when they don't trust each other and their greatest enemy might not even be the kabane?
Film compilations of anime series aren't that unusual; a number of series have gotten them over the years, from Blue Gender and Kiddy Grade back in the day to Madoka Magica and Overlord more recently. However, U.S. theatrical screenings for them as special events are far more rare. This offering from the director and studio behind Attack on Titan also represents Crunchyroll's first foray into the realm of special anime theatrical events, territory that has been delegated to Fathom Events in the past. Typically, Funimation or Aniplex has used Fathom to showcase content, but Crunchyroll is definitely planting its own flag with this endeavor. While the event is simple enough – both compilation movies were shown with a 10 minute intermission and some brief framing commentary by two of their representatives – the result was a totally competent success, so their stated goal of showcasing one title each season seems realistic.
Whether or not this was the best title to start with is another story, as there were only about a dozen people at the screening I attended in Indianapolis. Of course, the intimidating length of this offering could also be a factor; excluding the intermission and introduction, the two movies together have a running time of just over 3½ hours. The other potential reason for limited attendance could be that this property simply wasn't anywhere near as big a hit as other contemporary competitors like the Sword Art Online movie. It's a curious choice to use as an experiment in any case.
The pair of movies distill the entirety of the 12-episode series into roughly 215 minutes of animation, with the first movie constituting the first six episodes and the second movie covering the second six. This didn't require big cuts to the story, since once openers and closers are factored out, only 30-40 minutes of animation actually had to be excised. Several of the original episodes play out completely intact, and scenes that were cut were generally innocuous enough that their absence is hard to notice. (One scene where Biba explains his motives to Ayame is greatly trimmed, for instance.) As a result, I can't see anyone who is entirely new to the franchise having any trouble following these movies. For those who have seen the TV series, the big draws are a new opening scene, a brief new scene for the end of the first movie, and a greatly expanded epilogue, which is immensely more satisfying than the end of the TV series. I was amazed at how much meaning and character development was added to the story simply through the inclusion of these couple extra minutes, which round out one key relationship and provide a greater sense of closure for both characters involved.
Putting Kabaneri's animation on the big screen highlights some of the big, cool action sequences, but it also makes the points where the animation resorts to stills all the more glaring. If any attempt was made to spruce up the TV animation for this, then it doesn't show at all. The animation shortcuts and the moments where it slides off-model are much more frequent in the second movie than the first, which sometimes wastes the fairly sharp character and background designs. Every bit of the graphic violence is still on display, although the series mercifully pulls its punches on showing the worst content. Still, if you can't normally tolerate zombie apocalypse fare, then you probably shouldn't be checking these movies out.
The story being told is also much stronger and more compelling in the first movie, when the focus is entirely on the Kotetsujo's passengers and crew surviving their current circumstances. Good pacing and wise editing choices in that first film maintain a fairly high level of tension and intensity throughout, and while there may not be an abundance of character development, there's enough to maintain interest. In other words, it's classic Zombie Apocalypse Survival fare.
The story starts to take a nosedive early in the second movie, about the time Biba shows up. Up front, he's just too stereotypical and predictable in his actions, but the bigger problem comes from his ill-conceived motives. For a supposedly smart guy, he seems to be forgetting some massive consequences to his plans. His actions play a little better if you interpret the theme of the series as “even when the chips are down, mankind can find great ways to screw itself over,” but the overall story doesn't feel embittered and nihilistic enough for that conclusion. Perhaps some of the edits hurt more here, but I remember having a similar impression of him when watching the TV series last year. This time around, I was also struck much more with the resemblance of certain scenes to others in Guilty Crown – unsurprising, given that the two have the same director and writer.
The musical score, which is entirely carried over from the TV series version, remains a strong point, especially in its dramatic symphonic numbers, though there are a few too many moments where the story goes silent. The movies were only available in subtitled form, and the only thing that stood out about the Japanese voice acting was that Tasuku Hatanaka's performance of Ikoma occasionally slips in consistency.
Overall, the compilation movies do a respectable job of representing the franchise, enough that I would recommend the movies over the TV series version. Unfortunately, the actual story being told still has some issues in its second half. A bit more character development would have also been welcome, but the series has very little superfluous content as it is. As entries in its genre go, Kabaneri comes out decent, but it feels like it had the potential to be better.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Vastly improved epilogue, some neat action sequences
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