Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 11 of
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress ?
In a surprise (to no one) twist, Ikoma survived his perilous plummet into the ocean! Now he's got a new haircut, no glasses, and a bitchin' gun on his arm, but is he a bad enough dude to save Mumei from zombification?
Well, let's back up for a second first. Once again, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress has shifted tones on us, meshing two prior flavors together into one horrible chimera right before its story ends. From episodes 1-8-ish, Kabaneri was dumb but fun, because it played to its strengths and kept things exciting without taking itself too seriously. From episodes 8-10-ish, the show verged dangerously close to just dumb and bad, as production values decreased and its cartoonishly evil threats became imbued with a little too much hyperviolent pathos, while a game of idiot ball kicked off between characters the audience had come to root for.
So finally, in episode 11, Kabaneri settles on the tone many anime fans thought it would embrace from the beginning. It has now become dumb and bad but fun, an eclectic mix of ineptitude and entertainment that underachieves its own potential but overshoots the mark as a compulsively watchable experience that never overstays its welcome. It's so hard to believe that we're already at the end of this story, it kind of seems like a strength and a weakness at the same time. On the one hand, it all went by so fast that I already wish there were more. On the other hand, this too-rabid pacing is just another tragically avoidable flaw in Kabaneri's slaw. Feelings on this final result are bound to be divisive, but for my part, if I wasn't going to get a "good" show in the end, I'm glad I got one that was memorable every week of its run, for better or worse.
Anyway, as sharper eyes than mine noticed at the end of the previous episode, Mumei's supposedly fatal stab to Ikoma's heart was off-center on purpose, which means she's still conscious inside her own head while her body moves under Biba's will. Ikoma's role in this episode is actually the least interesting part for once, a typical "end of Act 2" lowest point where he bawls out all his feelings and regrets before getting just the right motivation to vault himself into Act 3—Mumei saved his life on purpose, and now he must do the same for her. While it's still a shame that Mumei's character was reduced to a despairing victim for the show's climax, when such a cliché fate could have easily been avoided, I feel a little better about the decision to zombify her body but not her brain. Mumei's dignity and agency haven't been destroyed by her victimhood, and her ability to save Ikoma by making it look like she killed him will probably save the entire Kotetsujyo in the end.
She also gets a heartening internal monologue right before Biba transforms her into a colony to raze the capitol. By her own admission, Mumei subscribed to Biba's survival-of-the-fittest philosophy out of her own fear of loss. Due to the poverty she grew up in, Mumei saw so many people die that by the time she lost her own mother, her heart was too weak to risk connecting to another person again. This gives us our one (and probably only) insight into the minds of Biba's hunters; they're willing to sacrifice their lives for him because they see him as invincible. Chances are pretty good that all these guys lost their families to the shogun's tyranny or the social inequality he caused, leaving them with nothing left to live for except the promise of glory from serving an unstoppably strong master. This also means that Mumei has fallen even deeper into despair after daring to open up again and only being rewarded with more loss. Takumi is gone, Ikoma is gone, and so many other refugees died alongside them. "The butterflies have come for them all. Now they come for me." Unable to either maintain connections with others or return to her harsh pragmatic beliefs, Mumei has finally given up on life, and the show did a great job of helping me understand why. (This also makes the whole mind-control thing doubly unnecessary, because this character resolution would be much more powerful if Mumei had sacrificed herself through her own decisions instead. Oh well.)
Continuing this opposite day scenario where the weakest characters in the show get the best material this week, Biba finally exacts sweet revenge on his dear old dad, and I can't believe I'm saying this, but it's a very thoughtful turn of events under the surface. Unfortunately, we don't care about Biba like the other characters, so it's harder to appreciate his big, loud take on poetic justice as anything but yet another massacre. The short version is that Biba, desperate to become the opposite of his father, just ends up turning into his dear old dad anyway. It all started when the shogun first tried to have him killed, as a child in his own bedroom. As the confused little prince looked up at the parent who had nearly disemboweled him, his dad stammered "It was not me who tried to kill you. It was fear." Indeed, the only thing the shogun seems to fear is fear itself, building his capitol on an anti-intellectual philosophy that reinforces the status quo through violence, terrified that any uncertainty or public dissemination of knowledge will crumble his empire. All other cities require visitors with bite marks to be quarantined for three days before entering. The shogun's totalitarian capitol requires all new visitors to be quarantined, bites or no bites.
Of course, trust is the very opposite of fear, giving poor Biba no chance of a fulfilling relationship with his father from the very beginning. Holding the rest of the Kotetsujyo hostage, he forces Ayame to bring him to the shogun as a captured prisoner and goads his dad into executing him by his own hand. Third time's the charm, right? But the second the shogun grasps the hilt of Biba's sword to finish the job, his fate is sealed. The prick of a needle embedded in the handle spreads the kabane virus into his blood, sending the capitol into an uproar as Biba stokes the fires of fear with a proclamation that anybody could be a kabane, and the "curse" lies dormant everywhere! As the shogun's own men mow him down and the city falls into chaos, Biba assures his father that "It was not me who killed you. It was fear." By embracing the knowledge his father mistrusted, studying and isolating the virus, Biba was able to surpass him in strength. At the same time, his continued persecution of the poor and weak, mistrust of his own subordinates, and rejection of community in favor of power makes him just like his dear old dad. Just having knowledge and ambition wasn't enough. Biba is still missing the quality that truly makes Ikoma a hero: compassion for all people, weak or strong.
It's probably the most clever and well-thought-out bit of writing in the entire show, but its rushed and bombastic execution makes it difficult to appreciate. On paper, it's a sharp and impactful character arc. In execution, it's just more blood and screaming with a questionably poignant shot of Biba alone on the throne that doesn't really work unless you get off on breaking stories down into little pieces like me. As always, Kabaneri is an exercise in contradictory extremes.
Fortunately, this show's core appeal has nothing to do with clever writing, and next week, we get to see Mumei's giant-smoke-horse-kabaneri face off against Ikoma's whatever-the-hell-he's-about-to-turn-into. This show is about to go out with a big stupid bang, and I'm eager to see what's left over when the ashes come raining down.
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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