Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 6 of
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress ?
When we last left Mumei and Ikoma, they had just gotten buried under twenty tons of rubble, after completely failing to clear a path for the Kotetsujyo train to escape. Geez, what a bunch of screw-ups. Can't those two get anything right?
Well, that's the train gang's rationale for their new plan to just plow through the felled crane and leave their half-zombie bodyguards behind, marking about the 3,475th time that Kabaneri's peanut gallery has been comically eager to jump to savage conclusions. It's a common through line in most horror or disaster stories that people get a thousand times more stupid and hasty when they're scared, especially in large numbers. Both Attack on Titan and Kabaneri exist in the dead center of the gap between horror and disaster movies, so it's no surprise that both series feature mankind at its most herd-like and panicky, but Kabaneri adds another notable trait to its crowd's hivemind behavior. When its people are scared, they get a thousand times meaner too, latching onto the glaring flaws in their fellow man so they can excuse themselves for sacrificing "weak links" for the good of the group. The train's loudest voices don't just want to leave Ikoma and Mumei behind in a desperate bid for survival, they want to rationalize this decision with cruel, defensive rhetoric. "We should leave them behind because they failed their mission. In fact, they failed so hard that we all might die for their mistakes. They deserve to die, and we do not." I think this tendency of Kabaneri's mob to toss anyone who stands out too much under the train is the key reason they draw more anger from audiences than the slightly nicer mobs in Attack on Titan, but I also think their attitude is central to Kabaneri's strongest emerging theme.
After five episodes of gruesome action and shameless histrionics, this is Kabaneri's first true slowdown episode, where the animation takes a noticeable hit. (There are still some great action sequences in this episode, but cutbacks are way more noticeable, especially when Ikoma gets swarmed by Kabane in the collapsed tunnel and sways back n' forth like a muppet between frequent fadeouts.) On the flip side, the story is given room to lay more track for its characters and ideas, giving our brains something to wrap around while our eyes take a rest. So now that everyone has time to breathe and speak their minds, we're getting a much stronger look into the heart of Kabaneri as a survival adventure. Who does this show deem "worthy" of survival and why?
By the feudal system established in the first episode, the "strong" are most worthy of survival, whether that means being rich, high-borne, or physically powerful. That goes a long way to explaining why the show's mob often tries to blame victims for their physical or mental weakness as justification for their deaths. They're not just being mean, they're falling back on the rules of the world they've been taught to believe, in an effort to justify the deaths around them in some way and keep themselves sane. It's kinda weird to see harsh utilitarianism paired with religious beliefs (like stopping the train to pray for the dead and the belief that zombification is a supernatural curse) as self-destructive ways of thinking. One is extremely callous and objectivist, while the other is rooted in faith in a higher law. I guess the most obvious reason they're connected in Kabaneri is that Tetsuro Araki and/or Ichiro Okouchi dislikes both worldviews, but then again, religion and utilitarianism have gone hand in hand in societies ruled by class many times throughout history.
Anyway, Mumei clearly doesn't share the mob's religious beliefs (although she eventually joined in episode 4's prayer ritual as a gesture of good faith), and she seems to have no place in civilized feudal society, but her life philosophy is basically the same. She believes that she deserves to live because she's strong enough to ensure her own survival, which leads her to panic first when Ikoma sacrifices the well-being of the train to save her, and then lapse into a frenzy when she finds herself pinned under rubble and helpless to escape the ensuing death-by-blood-starvation. When Ikoma asks whether they turn into kabane or die if they don't drink blood, Mumei doesn't have an answer for him, but she does say that her comrades died from being bitten, and she was never bitten because she's so strong. So if she was never bitten, how did she become a kabaneri in the first place? We get a few hints from her childhood flashback, as her beloved peasant village is being razed by zombies and one man turns his sword on baby Mumei as if she was the enemy. Her mother dies protecting her, but if Mumei was already kabaneri-fied as a child, I'm beginning to wonder if that was her biological mother or just a convenient red herring. Maybe Mumei was born from a kabane's corpse after all? Fortunately, before she can succumb to her terrible fate, Ikoma gives Mumei some of his own blood supply in a not-at-all-suggestive shot, before turning to hold off the kabane. Before he gets to chest-blasting zombies though, he leaves Mumei with one conviction-shattering question: "If the weak die and the strong survive, how does anyone ever get to be strong in the first place?"
We all come into this world equally weak. Are we all just expected to get stronger by ourselves, from birth? Do mothers keep babies alive just because they're strong enough to do it? Mumei's mother almost certainly was not stronger than her, but if she hadn't stepped in, Mumei still might not have survived. Even at its most brutal, human society is not all about survival of the fittest. Ikoma and Mumei don't "deserve" to be left behind just because they failed in a moment of weakness, and it's not necessarily even the smartest choice, as Ayame asserts to the turncoat train crew. Yes, they could be sacrificing themselves foolishly to rescue their weak links here, but they could also be weakening themselves by sacrificing two people who could be instrumental in keeping them alive later.
While Mumei thinks back to her mother's sacrifice, we get a little extra time to process Ikoma's point of view. It's safe to say at this point that Ikoma and Ayame are being painted as the only righteous people in the show; whatever they believe at any given time is "right" from the perspective of Kabaneri's sadistic gods, Araki and Okouchi. But for being such a violent, sophomoric, and twisted story, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress has a surprisingly tender perspective on the law of the jungle. Mumei's mental breakdown over not being strong enough is old hat for the tough girl lead in action-adventure stories, but it would usually be followed by the hero either reassuring her that she was strong and must believe in herself, or else he'd say she wasn't strong, but that's okay, because he could be strong for her when she reached her limit. Ikoma does neither of these things. He tells Mumei, "Yeah, you're weak. I'm weak. We're both weak. So what? You don't give up when you realize that you're weak. That's never an excuse to just accept it." Ikoma doesn't promise to keep her alive or protect her, although he'll certainly try. He just says they don't have to let their weakness keep them from fighting to their last breath, and I found that incredibly refreshing.
Unlike Mumei, Ikoma's pursuit of strength (and knowledge) doesn't have a set goal. Mumei's always looking at the timer on her weapon, saying that she's strong enough to do this in a specific number of seconds and feeling either vindicated or disappointed when that doesn't happen. When she feels herself becoming too weak, she goes to sleep until she's recovered. She relies on the belief that she's "strong enough" to keep herself alive, but Ikoma's never considered an upper limit for the number of people he wants to protect. He burns himself out every single time he can and sometimes it's not enough, but at the same time, he never accepts that his strength and knowledge are "enough" even when he succeeds. You can't put an upper limit on what Ikoma's capable of, because he's going to keep bursting through every ceiling in front of him until one of them literally kills him. Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress believes that the secret to survival is never accepting your fate, no matter how strong or weak you are, and that a little firework that flies high shines brighter than a big sparkler that fizzles away. Of course, there's still a catch: Ikoma's belief system relies heavily on the support of other people to keep his indomitable little candle from burning itself out, and even though he has powerful protective instincts (the only time he ever "gave up" was when he was trying to protect the people on the train from himself as he kabane-fied), Ikoma has absolutely terrible people skills. I guess it'll be Ayame's job to help him with that.
Anyway, once the Kotetsujyo crew decides to do the right thing, eventually fetching Ikoma and Mumei to lift the crane and defend the train, it's just one big boss fight until the credits. The giant CG Ghibli-monster is known as a "fused colony," and like any video game obstacle, it's got a great big "hit me" spot right in the middle, so all they need to do is blast away zombie bodies with a cannon (so they can rain down on the cars and give the rest of the cast something to do) until the heart is exposed and then KABLOOIE! The biggest zombie explosion of them all! So episode 6 ends by returning to the show's strengths: senseless, wanton, nerdy violence. But Kabaneri's refusal to take itself too seriously just makes its more thoughtful material all the more satisfying, and I'm glad we got such a solid balance of action and character writing at this midway point. My optimism for this blockbuster remains high. Full steam ahead to the second half!
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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