Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 3 of
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress ?
Three episodes into Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, and this show still has an amazingly consistent grasp on that cinematic blockbuster flavor. From the pacing to the editing to the cinematography and sound design, it's hard for me to think of another anime series that has so perfectly replicated the tone and feel of watching a Hollywood tentpole with such effortless impact. Ikoma and Mumei even have a "flirt-fight" training sequence in this episode, where they trade quips at first and end up swapping tragic character development stories by the end! I can practically smell the stale popcorn in my lap! Most importantly, like all great blockbusters, Kabaneri's not afraid to take things a little bit stupid with a whole lot of style.
By now, the show's early ruminations on class warfare and how fear is used to control the poor have shed most of their potential for political edge and just devolved into painfully direct echoes of Attack on Titan's more universal themes, because all the refugees on the Kotetsujyo train have been made equal in their rail-ride across the wasteland. Sure, the grumpy bushi who shot Ikoma, Kurusu, tries to assert his authority over the other refugees with his big ol' rifle, but nobody really seems to care about his posturing, not even the camera as it refuses to give him much to do except worry about Lady Ayame. Speaking of Ikoma's obvious princess love interest, she mostly just uses her authority to assert that all people are now equal aboard the train, even if they're half-zombie. So if Titan's passionate rants are still fresh on your mind, all that stuff about embracing fear to conquer it and accepting your own savage nature in a cruel world so you can survive long enough to appreciate what's left of your humanity, you've already heard what Kabaneri has to say. All that's left now is to enjoy how the show chooses to spread that message. (Surprise to no one: through LOTS OF YELLING!)
While Mumei does her darndest to stand out with her hyper-competent combat abilities and capricious personality, and I'm definitely interested to learn more about her, Ikoma once again steals the show for me. Even when he's delivering something as rote and unsurprising as a "dead sister" backstory, Kabaneri's protagonist bleeds personal conviction with every word, thanks not only to a stellar performance from fresh-voiced relative unknown Tasuku Hatanaka, but also a surprising amount of sincerity and sensitivity from the writer behind his words. It's unclear whether Ikoma is speaking for head writer Ichiro Okouchi or director Tetsuro Araki, but the specificity with which Ikoma talks about his feelings and beliefs really seems like it's coming from a more personal place than most anime every-heroes. (If I had to guess based on what I've seen/heard from them in interviews, I'd absolutely say Araki is the one pouring himself into that character. The show's tendency to have fun picking at Ikoma's nerdy flaws as much as it praises his bravery also gives me that impression.)
It's a good thing that Ikoma and Mumei already have such compelling chemistry, because there's not much else going on in this episode overall. It's the calm before the storm, and Araki plays up the waiting thunder well. The train makes a couple uneventful stops to refill the water tank and hold a prayer ceremony for the dead left behind, we learn a little more about the Kabaneri (yes, apparently the secret to becoming a super-half-zombie is just to choke yourself to death before the virus reaches your brain), and spend just enough time indulging the relative safety to be surprised when the show ends with a double-twist bombshell. Twist #1: Kabane might be able to give birth, as Mumei's horrified reaction to killing a pregnant Kabane foreshadows. Twist #2: Kabaneri work on vampire rules, and Ikoma is starting to feel that overpowering thirst for blood.
That's where Kabaneri's little-bit-stupid-with-a-lot-of-style factor really kicks in. Ayame is every bit the naive but strong-hearted princess archetype, not nearly as compelling as Mumei, but she's given just enough conflict with Ikoma in this episode for us to see the potential chemistry between them. You definitely feel that slight sizzle when Ikoma tries to hide his sister's memento from Ayame by pretending that he's scared of hurting her with his super-sexy half-zombie strength, and she reacts with a weird mix of gratitude and compassion. It's so awkward and adorable that I almost forgot what kind of show I was watching, and then Ikoma's raging bloodlust kicked in, Ayame was on the floor, he was slobbering for her jugular, and instead of laughing my ass off like I probably should at this sudden reveal that Ikoma had suddenly become the nerdiest cast member of Vampire Knight, I was genuinely scared for both of them!
So yeah, the Kabaneri are basically just vampires. It's kinda stupid. But the show plays it all off so well that I'm still on the edge of my seat dying to know what's going to happen, eager to learn about all the cool supporting characters still biding their time in the background (most of them are non-harem-cliché-based women, which is awesome), and most of all excited to see what kind of ridiculous spectacle Tetsuro Araki can turn out when he has all his restraints removed. For now, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress still has my heart: pregnant zombies, not-vampires, and all.
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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