Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 12 of
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress ?
It may seem like we've barely pulled out of the station, but Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress has already reached the end of the line. For this season, anyway. There may be more Kabaneri in our future, depending on sales and the availability of the staff at Studio Wit, but this season ends on a barely conclusive climax that simply closes the door it (perhaps foolishly) opened in episode 8 with the introduction of Biba. The road ahead is long and filled with zombies, but at least the human threat has been eliminated, taking our gang's original destination, the capitol, down with him. Everything ahead is a mystery as the train tracks extend into the wilderness. But season two or no season two, at least Mumei is finally free.
In a complete reversal on my expectations, Kabaneri did actually allow Mumei to save herself and commit to a choice of her own free will, even if Ikoma had to come drag her out of that zombie-butterfly-horse-wad first. (By the end, she's the one carrying him, and she even gets to throw his limp body like a linebacker to safety, which left me laughing out loud.) Overall, Ikoma's rush to the rescue was totally worth it, because the stunts he had to pull just to reach her were absolutely bananas, and Studio Wit animated the ever-loving stuffing out of this final act. Kabaneri's last episode is 100% theatrical quality breathtaking, drop-dead gorgeous from start to finish. Surpassing even the heights of its first episode, this conclusion can finally embrace Tetsuro Araki's full strengths as an action director and also employ the show's strong-but-mostly-sidelined musical score to soaring heights of tension and emotional catharsis. There were definitely moments where I felt like I was watching something Sunrise, Production I.G., or even Studio Ghibli had produced for the big screen rather than the last episode of a TV series. Even with the shortcut-filled episodes in the leadup to the end, Studio Wit must have absolutely killed themselves to complete this jaw-dropping season finale. It's a staggering aesthetic achievement for any fan of glorious spectacle. I can not say enough good things about how lovingly made Kabaneri's swan song is as a tiny piece of cinema. Bravo, Araki and crew. Take a bow and then for heaven's sake, take a rest!
On a story level, there's only so much Kabaneri could have done to pull back from the Guilty Crown-esque direction it was trickling toward (that's a nice familiar Guyver-suit you've got there, Ikoma). It was always going to be a somewhat silly finale that shoved the zombie threat to the sidelines in favor of that old rusty “humans are the real monsters!” chestnut. But despite a few silly contrivances shoved around this episode's edges to give the good guys their happy ending, we still got a slick and serviceable wrap-up to the Biba War, and I left feeling satisfied that our main cast got to keep their dignity against all odds.
Of course Ikoma was willing to sacrifice his life to save Mumei, but Mumei also managed to do the same for him. If she hadn't used the last of her strength to take hold of Ikoma's precious river-stone, a seemingly pointless gesture to protect a useless object, Ikoma would not have snapped out of his zombification at the last second to stop Biba. (He hears it fall into the water and fights back against his kabane transformation to deal one last blow before rushing to her side.) At the same time, the show grants Mumei the right to dispatch her bad big brother herself, and even Biba seems to have a change of heart, using the last of his strength to inject his rival with the antidote. As all three characters saved one another in genuinely unexpected ways, Ikoma's faith in other people was cemented as his true strength, something even survival-of-the-fittest Biba had to respect, acknowledging himself as the real coward. Yeah, it's still corny and unsatisfyingly rushed considering how little we know about Biba. (He was a kabaneri the whole time?!) At the same time, there was a genuine effort to tell a story with meaningful character arcs, and even with Biba as the weak link in this trio, this ending holds together fine for such an initially shaky third act. (Ayame and her crew remain awesome as always, even if they don't have dynamic arcs or much to do in general. I am surprised and pleased that Ayame and Ikoma turned out to not have a romantic relationship at all, giving the princess her own role to play outside of the expected "leg of a love triangle.")
So was Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress a trainwreck after all? No, I'd say it was more like a train-flip, not just because Ikoma literally flips a train in the most stupidly amazing part of the finale, (and then it EXPLODES! Hooray!) but also because Kabaneri's greatest weaknesses came not from derailing completely, but changing junctions too fast and too often for the limited length of track it had ahead. Araki and Okouchi just wanted to tell a much bigger story than they ever had time for, and Biba's half-formed saga would have been better saved for a second season all its own. Reckless ambition is an admirable flaw even when it's a crippling one, and I really enjoyed my time with Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress even in its worst moments. It's still the kind of anime you can show just about anyone with no caveats (except an aversion to gore) and have a good time, even if it's too flawed to really be anyone's favorite. Here's to season two of Attack on Ti—I mean Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress! I'd be pretty happy with either one, but I can't imagine Wit having the resources for both.
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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