Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 8 of
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress ?
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress knows what the people want, and the people want Zombie Hunters on Motorcycles. Yes, the only way to follow a happy funtime festival episode like last week's is with the most high-octane, high-stakes insanity the show has yet seen, and episode 8 delivers the goods with gusto.
We know from the very instant he shows up onscreen that Big Brother Biba is one Bad Bishounen. There's absolutely zero chance this JRPG reject is anything other than pure evil, but I feel like most other anime would try to fool us into thinking he was somehow well-intentioned for at least a few episodes first. You know, the whole "he's polite and pretty and Mumei likes him, so he can't be all bad right?" smokescreen that never fools anybody. But once again, Kabaneri knows what the people want, so it's not interested in wasting our time by suggesting that this so-called "Liberator" might not be all bad. Despite his ethereal beauty, this fallen prince has termites in his smile from the episode's first scene to its last, and the real intrigue comes from watching him tear our heroes' group apart in pursuit of his own mysterious agenda.
Even though we know Biba and his Kabane Hunters are up to no good, the locals completely worship them for their legendary exploits when they roll into town, and then Biba graciously offers the Kotetsujyo crew his protection for their journey to Kongokaku, demonstrating his team's power beforehand by clearing out a horde of zombies that were trying to scale the walls. Unfortunately, the subtitles didn't make it entirely clear whether the kabane hordes they were taking out were lured there by Biba himself or a small group of locals trying to assassinate him. (We just see a horse dying from exhaustion after dragging three dead human bodies across the countryside, cruel bait to draw faraway kabane to the walls.) I'm going to operate under the assumption that Biba was the baitmaster because it makes slightly more sense, but there is definitely a cabal of dissenters out to assassinate him on the battlefield, so whatever The Liberator's plans may be, he hasn't done a great job of keeping them secret.
In fact, who should be among this group of assassins than Enoku, the forsaken soldier we met back in episode 5! He tells his master that he only joined the assassins to find his way back to the Hunters and begs to be taken back despite his handicap, since he could now be of service by exterminating Biba's enemies. It's here that we finally catch a glimpse of Biba's true character, but before that, we should jump back in time to a moment that had Ikoma at least thinking he might be a decent guy.
Obviously, Ikoma's first instinct upon meeting Mumei's Other Brother is to lash out at him for raising Mumei under such a horrible dogma. It's a serious faux pas to insult The Liberator in front of all his fans, but Ikoma still stands out from other shonen scrub-tagonists by not letting his distrust of the guy get in the way of doing the right thing. When Biba goes in for repairs on his train's busted engine, Ikoma volunteers to help him, and this is before The Hunters even volunteer to take the Kotetsujyo with them! But it's after Biba starts putting the moves on Ayame and insults her by telling her that she cannot help repair the train because she would get dirty. Ikoma has every reason to let his distaste for this jerk drive him away from the situation, but he steps in to help repair the train anyway, and he even gives Biba a second chance to explain his beliefs. The Liberator calmly clarifies that he doesn't believe the weak should die to protect the strong, but that the weak will die without the strong to protect them, and Ikoma is just okay enough with that philosophy to cut the guy a little slack.
But all that goes out the window when Ikoma sees Biba skewer his former comrade with a smile, after Enoku spends his last words asking the guy for help. Biba clearly believes that the "weak" are only useful insofar as they can serve some purpose to him, and if a formerly strong ally has become too weak to do the job he's chosen for them, he'll dispose of them with glee. Unfortunately, Ikoma was the only person close enough to this fight to hear the truth, and all the rest of his friends are confused at his anger over Biba defeating some bloodthirsty assassin.
Just when you thought Biba couldn't get any slimier, Mumei shares a backstory that makes him even worse. In the instant her mother died to protect her from an angry villager, Biba showed up on his princely steed to "save" her...by tossing her a sword and telling her to take revenge. Old-timer anime fans will immediately recognize this as an homage to the infamous un-rescue scene between a cruel commander and his devoted lady-soldier from Berserk, but I also think it's worth pointing out its similarity to a scene from Attack on Titan. In Titan, Mikasa is urged to save herself by killing her captor for very different reasons. Her rescuer, Eren, was smaller and weaker than her and could only kill two of her kidnappers before being nearly killed himself. In rescuing both herself and the equally powerless Eren, Mikasa found new strength as a protective figure for her future family. Mumei's situation is completely different. Biba not only had all the power in the world to save her and chose to "test" her as a future tool instead, he's probably the reason her village was destroyed in the first place! Now Mumei is shackled to a life of kill-or-be-killed, relying on her monstrous master's approval to validate her own strength. She even had herself turned into a kabane by choice, purely out of fear that she wouldn't be "strong enough" for him to keep around otherwise. She actually journeyed to Aragane Station to steal the Kotetsujyo's master key for Biba--
We already have a full understanding of the depths of Biba's douche-ness, but we still don't have any clue what his mission could be, so every little hint helps. Why does he want to steal the Kotetsujyo of all things? Let's see: Biba was disowned by his father the Shogun, he has access to unforeseen levels of technology like motorcycles and kabaneri creation, and he's transporting live kabane in his own train, possibly using them to fuel some unknown abominable force. I'm going to take a gamble on his mission being "destroy and reunite the country with kabane hordes, create a master race of kabaneri subservient to him that can vampirize dissenters, and overthrow his father." Whatever his scheme may be, as he terrorizes his would-be assassins in the kabane chamber, Ikoma and Mumei have an emotional confrontation atop the train, and everyone watches with fear and distrust, the stakes and spectacle shoot up higher than they've ever been before.
Constructing an entire episode around a new character is always risky, but when that character is a villain as despicable (and handsome!) as Biba, the payoff can inject new levels of excitement into an already exciting package. My enthusiasm for Kabaneri was waning slightly last week, but this episode shot us right back into the intrigue and delivered all its nasty little twists just right. I'm more stoked than ever to see where this crazy train is going.
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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