The Spring 2016 Anime Preview Guide
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
How would you rate episode 1 of
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress ?
What is this?
On the island of Hinomoto, everyone lives in fear of the Kabane. These black-hearted undead with bones of steel wander the overworld outside the nation's walled station-cities, where the gulf between poor and rich is not unlike the conditions under Japan's Tokugawa shogunate, as the "bushi" rule the lower classes with an iron fist and all resources are controlled by train lines run by powerful families. Ikoma is a lowly mechanic who's spent years studying Kabane remains in the hopes of creating a weapon more effective than the ones couriers have been using on those giant Hayajiro trains. Fatalities are common on every train trip, and even if they arrive safely, attendants have to be checked over for bite marks, often getting executed on the spot if the contagious "curse" is found on their bodies (which also helps put the fearful poor in their place.) Ikoma suspects that just one bite from the Kabane is not a death sentence, which definitely comes in handy when the next train rolls into town engulfed in flames and covered in victorious Kabane. If Ikoma wants to stop the Kabane virus from spreading and destroying the few station-cities that remain, he'll have to master his ingenious new weapon and start making more friends in high places. Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is an original anime work and can be found streaming on Amazon Prime on Thursdays.
How was the first episode?
The director for this new post-apocalyptic steampunk series is Tetsuro Araki, the same man responsible for adapting Attack on Titan and High School of the Dead. The influence of both of those – especially the former – is clear to the point of being inescapable, as many aspects of both the setting and story have a similar look and vibe. However, Kabaneri has one thing in its favor that neither of his prior zombie (or zombie-like) projects have had: a serious budget.
Or at least it certainly looks like it anyway, as this is a movie-grade visual and animation effort. The richness of its animation dazzles, whether in the action scenes or simpler scenes of everyday activity. The visual aesthetic has a grittier texture which makes this feel like a much older (maybe early 2000s?) production, and a strong steampunk flavor mixes with distinct Japanese clothing styles; the guard characters being called “bushi” (as in the first part of “bushido”) also struck me as interesting. The zombies, with their glowing orange veins, are suitably monstrous and intimidating, and action scenes have a kick to them on a level with AoT. And bloody? Oh, yes, it can get quite intensely graphic, although not relentlessly so.
Story-wise, the episode is a little more typical of a classic post-apocalyptic set-up, only this time with heavily-armored trains providing the transportation between scattered outposts. A lowly technician may have developed a brand-new weapon for fighting the difficult-to-kill zombies (if only he can survive having been bitten!) and a girl shows the capability to behead a zombie with a spiked sandal. (This is a lot cooler in execution than it sounds.) She seems to have an interest in him, and there's also a princess-like noblewoman involved. All seem like they will be major characters. Where the story might go with this is hard to tell at this point, but it seems sure to encompass the harsh, unforgiving sentiment of series like Attack on Titan, where the higher-ups swiftly and thoughtlessly make decisions that could doom entire populaces.
I have found precious little to get truly excited about this season, but if this series maintains a production quality level even close to what this first episode achieves, then I may have to break down and get Amazon Prime (I borrowed a friend's account for this review) just so I can watch it. Calling it AoT v2.0 would probably be accurate, but this definitely seems like a more polished version, and I don't see that as a bad thing at all.
The hype's been pretty serious around Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress. And with good reason - not only is it directed by the same guy who handled Death Note and Attack on Titan, but it pretty much looks exactly like Attack on Titan Mark Two. Even distribution services seem to be getting in on the hype, with Amazon snatching this one up seemingly on the basis of its possible Titan-esque mass market appeal. Many people have pretty high expectations for this one.
And at least as far as this episode goes, I'm guessing their expectations will be rewarded. Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress really is Attack on Titan, from its zombie hordes and humans living behind walls down to its protagonist's complaints about humanity “losing to fear” by refusing to fight. If you liked Attack on Titan and want more of a show like it, watch this. You will have no regrets.
Of course, being another Attack on Titan also comes with its own various dangers. I'll be honest - I think Tetsuro Araki is the most successful bad director working in anime, and this show features all the same questionable hallmarks of his style. Araki only operates in one emotional mode, “AHHHH,” and that remains true all throughout this episode. It's certainly propulsive, but if you're expecting subtlety or at least tone modulation, well, I'm not sure why you're watching this. The same speedlines, the same constantly yelling characters, the same butt-kicker and dying-coward characterization paradigm - heck, both of the first episodes of his last two shows even featured a mother bloodily dying in front of their screaming children. I would not expect much nuance or emotional resonance in Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress.
On the other other hand, if you are looking for straight, loud blood and guts, this first episode sure is a polished spectacle. The colors are rich and varied, the backgrounds are beautiful, the animation is solid (no huge action highlights, but plenty of strong character animation), and the character designs are distinctive and remarkably detailed. Kabaneri has a level of shading you rarely see in television anime, though it's inconsistent - some shots feel richly shaded and filtered, others are pretty standard. On top of that, I would not expect this level of polish to last; not only do most shows rarely maintain the quality of a standout first episode (Rage of Bahamut comes to mind), but Wit Studio in particular are known for production disasters, with Attack on Titan itself standing as one of the bigger production breakdowns of recent times. I might not shell out for Amazon Prime just yet if you're hoping this will stay near movie-grade the whole way through.
All told, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is a polished and propulsive action premiere. Its storytelling is actually much more graceful than Attack on Titan; we get a bunch of worldbuilding conveyed incidentally throughout this episode, and we've already hit two major zombie attacks by the time the credits arrive. It's loud and bloody and abrasive, but that's exactly what it's trying to be. Kabaneri's premiere is solid action blockbuster material, and I really hope the production can hold together.
Not long after Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress was announced, director Tetsuro Araki remarked that he finally had a project he could fill with "all of his favorite things." Based on Kabaneri's first episode, those favorite things would appear to be steampunk, late Edo period culture, steampunk, zombies, and steampunk.
He would also really like to be the guy who came up with Attack on Titan.
The similarities between Attack on Titan and Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress are so blatant, so glaring, and so impossible to ignore that it's almost not worth repeating them here. That's the first thing that absolutely everyone will notice about this show, and that's a dangerous weakness to have because it also means that could be the last thing anyone will notice about this show. But after sitting through its full first episode, I can't join the (justified) camp of Titan-lovers (or Titan-haters!) who might write off Kabaneri as a soulless plea for attention. I meant what I said earlier about Tetsuro Araki desperately wishing he had come up with Attack on Titan himself; Kabaneri is clearly his beloved baby, and he doesn't really seem to care if he's stepping on the toes of giants to make it while their bodies are still warm.
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress plays out less like a mishmash of ideas from Titan that Araki hopes will strike twice and more like a mutated remix of Titan with his own very different ideas just underneath the same coat of paint. It's like he read Attack on Titan, loved it, but then spent the whole time directing season one while whispering to himself "Man, you know what I would have done?" and then didn't wait to do it the very second he had the opportunity. Is that disrespectful? Maybe. Is it unwise? Probably. Will people respond to it poorly because its inspiration is so painfully obvious? It's a definite risk! But Tetsuro Araki doesn't seem to care, because this is easily the most passionate, cinematic, and uncompromised shot of Pure Id I've seen from him as a director. For better or worse, this is a proud and happy Araki at his most Unleashed.
While the script is being handled primarily by Code Geass graduate Ichiro Okouchi (whose shaky rap sheet is cause for concern), nothing about Kabaneri reminds me of the laborious Guilty Crown. In fact, very little of Kabaneri's first episode is spent on story details at all, as the script in general takes a major back seat to spectacular direction. Araki marinates in the elaborate setting he's created like he's making his own TV-sized Princess Mononoke, and Ikoma, the only character who gets much to do between scenes of action and steampunk porn, is immediately memorable as a protagonist worlds apart from AoT's Eren. He looks like a grimdark upgrade of Jean from Nadia and acts as an anime version of Jeff Goldblum from Independence Day. He's half-nerd and half-action hero in a truly Hollywood way, and the story he's leading is as big-screen as it gets. Every shot is audacious and elaborate, every twist is delivered with the volume cranked to 11, and if something didn't get you gasping or laughing (or both) by the end of the episode, you might want to check your pulse. (Of course, that joke doesn't even work because the Kabane are the most outrageously lively zombies I've ever seen.)
The strength of the show's writing has yet to be tested, but every moment of Kabaneri's premiere is exhilarating, meticulous, immersive, and shamelessly insane. Even when you're well aware of where each idea was snatched from, and even when the stupidity of its aesthetic overkill begins to swallow your senses, it's almost impossible not to be sucked into such fiery showmanship.
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