Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 10 of
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress ?
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is often a rollercoaster ride, but this week's episode really became a contrast in extremes, as equal parts good writing and bad writing forced the show to eat its own tail with gusto. At least it's an improvement over last week.
Bringing the show up is Ikoma, who once again steals the spotlight with his endearing personality, strong vocal performance, and intellect-driven combat style. As the Kotetsujyo crew is rounded up like livestock to provide blood for Biba's kabane colony in preparation for the coup against his father, Ikoma spends all his time scheming up a mutiny of his own. Whether he's scratching out notes on the floor of his cage, having a heart-to-heart with Takumi on the night before the escape plan, or shouting "Mumei and Kurusu are way tougher than you!" at an enemy combatant, Ikoma's scenes are always the best scenes. His winning combination of vulnerability and aptitude still makes him stand out even when the show around him struggles, and I found myself cheering Ikoma on from his tiny cage at the back of the train all the way to his confrontation with Biba at the front.
Ayame's no slouch in the cast either, as she maintains her resolve enough to get Biba to spill his not-so-tragic backstory. Surprise to no one, this bishounen basketcase has a buttload of daddy issues, because his father tricked him into leading a suicide campaign against the kabane at the tender age of 12. (Say, that's Mumei's age! Hmmm...) Putting the pieces together, it seems clear that Biba believes his father left him to die because he thought he was weak, leading to his severe survival of the fittest philosophy and vendetta to prove himself mightier than the shogun who abandoned him. It's a solid motivation for a baddie of Biba's stripes, but it would be much better if they'd found a more graceful way to deliver his story than just dumping a monologue in front of the audience. Oh well.
And speaking of "oh well," Mumei tragically brings the show down hard when her character assassination gets sealed in this episode with an eye-rolling "magical mind-control drug" twist. The only consolation at this point is that it could have been much worse. Mumei doesn't make excuses for her brother's villainy or go back to being his faithful little soldier, but because of her actions over the last two episodes, she's not privy to the crew's rebellion plan either. So she spends most of the episode waffling aimlessly over the train asking questions, while the medication and blood supply that keeps her from turning full kabane is steadily depleted. It's depressing to see Mumei being demeaned like this, but at least I could still sympathize with her plight: completely distrusted by both sides, forced to feebly cling to whatever roots she has left, pleading with her brother for answers or mercy and getting neither. Ultimately, she decides that she can't take orders from him anymore even at the cost of her own life. Poor Mumei. She's trying to do the right thing.
But then Biba pulled that magical mind-control drug out of his rectum, and I realized that if they weren't going to assassinate Mumei's character from the inside, they'd just do it from the outside. Bending her to Biba's will with a stupid out-of-nowhere plot device is slightly better than betraying her integrity as a character, but not by much. If Biba had this option all along, why wouldn't he use it on all of his servants? What are this drug's limits? Does it only work on Kabaneri? It sure doesn't make Mumei act like a kabane at all, it just turns her into a robot. Seems like that would work on anybody, so why wouldn't Biba use it on the Kotetsujyo crew themselves? On that note, why doesn't he use it on some of his other Hunters? At least consider using it on the guy who sliced a refugee's arm off for daring to offer more blood to their cause, because that reckless idiot is probably more useful as a robot.
Kabaneri's recent animation downturn is evident in this episode's abuse of even more panned stills, but it's better than things were last week, with a couple turns of solid action choreography and visually arresting shots when Ikoma finds himself in his darkest hour at the very end. Poor Takumi got a little too much screentime in this episode not to be headed for a messy finish, so of course he takes a bullet for his buddy when their mission fails at the last second. Once again, Ikoma saves the overwrought scene with his heartfelt reaction, gaping at Biba as he holds his dying friend and asks only "What the hell is wrong with you?" When he rushes the villain in a vengeful death charge, you can see the sadness holding him back; he's still too weighed down with grief to be threatening. Likewise, when Ikoma gets his arm blown off and his keepsake stone bounces across the floor, it could have been another silly misfire, but Takumi, still clinging to life, reaches out to clutch the stone and adds just a little tender humanity to the ridiculous scene. It's those little details that keep Takumi's sacrifice from being just another obvious checkbox on this episode's list of cliches.
Then the cliche cherry drifted gently down onto the cliche sundae when Mumei appeared, eyes lifeless, arms limp, to stick Ikoma like a kebab and toss him off the train. I would say this episode was an exercise in extremes, but Kabaneri is extreme pretty much every week. It's more accurate to say that this episode reminded me of all the things I first loved about Kabaneri, while unfortunately reinforcing lots of the new things I don't like about it. I think it's safe to say that Biba's arrival will definitely be seen as this show's "jump the shark" moment in retrospect, but it hasn't jumped from good to bad for me just yet. Kabaneri has just gone from "great entertainment" to "good entertainment," and I can only hope future episodes don't drag Mumei's tired brainwashing schtick out further than the audience's patience.
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Jake has been an anime fan since childhood, and likes to chat about cartoons, pop culture, and visual novel dev on Twitter.
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