Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 7 of
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress ?
Alright, that's enough of all that gore and screaming. It's high time Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress lightened things up. How about a festival episode? Yeah! Let's celebrate Tanabata, zombie apocalypse or no zombie apocalypse! Now if you heard that and your undead steampunk heart sank down a little bit in your undead steampunk chest, your tastes might line up a little more closely with mine. I came here to see blood and pathos, dammit! What's all this nonsense about holidays and camaraderie? But if Kabaneri was going to take a breather episode, this is a pretty good way to do it, taking time out to sow more seeds for the thickening plot and endear us to the train's many passengers.
After the Kotetsujyo pulls into a completely zombie-free station for once, the gang decides they need to unwind and try to forget about all the trauma they've just endured. Kajika demonstrates her fearsome bartering skills. Yukina and Sukari flirt shamelessly. Suzuki graces us with more of his fantastic Engrish. (Or would that be Japanglish? Voice actor Maxwell Powers's English is understandably flawless, so it's more his wonky Japanese pronunciation that has everyone so tickled.) The jokes throughout this lighthearted departure are actually pretty good, more reminiscent of the kind of tonal gradation American audiences are comfortable with from Hollywood tentpoles than the wilder tonal swings you might expect from Araki's work. (My favorite gag is Ikoma's shout of "Terrible form!" when booting a wannabe-bushi from the town's munitions shop. I guess he's taking those swordsmanship lessons from Kurusu to heart!)
Instead of just being a lower-animation levity break to pad out Kabaneri's runtime, episode 7 allows us to see the show's cast in a more positive light, now that they're not clawing and barking at each other in a desperate bid for survival. The characters may just be simple familiar archetypes, but their humanity always shines through in heartening ways, and this episode gets to double down on those valuable moments. We see how much Takumi has grown from a meek dork who prefers to keep his head down to a spirited guy who's not afraid to belly-bounce a bully who's waving a sword at innocent people. We get a glimpse at how Yukina's ambitions have blossomed after going from neglected apprentice to the strongest engineer on the train, as she dreams of owning her own Hayajiro train someday. There's even a passing moment of sadness when Sukari tells a young boy that his father must have died on the train that crashed into Aragane Station. Before we can condemn him for breaking the kid's heart, he reveals his own bitterness over having the truth about his own lost family hidden from him for too long, and we can understand his choice even if we don't agree. All these tiny moments add up in the long run to fleshing out a cast that could have too easily lapsed into an anime stereotype checklist or pure zombie fodder. They're not very complicated people because their story has more heightened demands, but Kabaneri's characters do feel like people, which allows this breather episode to succeed where it could have fallen flat.
Of course, the greatest burden of character writing falls on our two leads, so it's only fitting that they get this episode's central scene when Mumei decides to open up to her new brother-figure a little more. The bond between them has most firmly cemented into a sibling relationship rather than the romantic ties Ikoma is building up with Ayame (which is good, because Mumei's apparently 12, deceptively older appearance notwithstanding). This becomes all the more obvious when Ikoma coaxes Mumei into revealing her old name, Hodsumi, in the days before she was adopted by her villainous other-brother. Ikoma says that Hodsumi's name suggests her mother's desire for her to grow up well-fed on delicious rice, which has gone all but extinct now that the paddies are overrun with kabane. Yes, the both of them can "survive" on blood, but as he makes clear with his Tanabata wish, Ikoma isn't interested in just surviving. He wants to find a way to turn them both human again and take back the rice paddies, so Mumei can have the life her mother always wanted for her. His intentions are completely noble and quite touching, but I can't help but wonder how much Ikoma is projecting his inability to protect his own sister onto Mumei, especially because her ties to that "lost" loved one might be more direct than even he suspected. But even if it is foreshadowing a potentially cheesetastic soap opera twist, Ikoma and Mumei's shared moment is just casual and sweet enough to be endearing in a show that usually relies on much more ridiculous emotions. They're the most lovable members of an all-around lovable crew, and after their adorable Tanabata celebration, I'm rooting for all of them to succeed much more now than I was before.
Now that we have a fuller picture of the Kotetsujyo crew as the "good guys" despite their shortcomings, it's time to meet the bad guys of the burgeoning human conflict when Mumei's brother rolls into town with his Hunters. Big brother Biba is not only the leader of an elite squad of kabane killers (aka Attack on Titan riff #63), he's also the son of the Shogun himself! I get the feeling this show's brief ruminations on class warfare are about to creep back into the picture.
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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