Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 9 of
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress ?
Community score: 3.3
Well, it finally happened. After eight straight episodes of crisply paced action-adventure, as consistently entertaining as anime ever gets, Kabaneri tried to top itself a little too hard and hopped the tracks with an awkward squeal. The show hasn't totally derailed by any means, and it can easily recover from this sillier swerve with the right follow-through, but for an anime that usually errs on the side of so-dumb-it's-cool, episode 9 makes the mistake of dorking it up too much and too fast.
To make a short story even shorter, the Kotetsujyo pulls into a station on their way to the capitol that refuses to grant Biba's Hunters passage, because they're loyal to the shogun and don't trust this so-called "Liberator." However, they're willing to hear him out first, since he's traveling with innocent refugees. So of course they all sit down for a reasonable negotiation and--oh, it's zombie-apocalypse-o-clock, well never mind then, brace yourself for ten tons of death and mayhem immediately!
Within the episode's first five minutes, Biba releases the horde of kabane in his train-trunk on the city, resulting in an unholy massacre that left me mouthing "why" in slow motion. Hey, something about this episode needed to be slow, because the speed with which it gets bored trying to set up its block tower before just knocking it over and raining hellfire down upon the pieces is astounding. We're not allowed to appreciate this conflict at all before it's resolved with traumatic force. This is Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, so I'm not asking for amazing introspective depth and worldbuilding here, but the amount of potential investment the show wastes by shooting first and asking questions later is staggering. There are so many valid questions! What is this city like and how do its people think? How are Ikoma and Ayame feeling about their new alliance putting them on the outs with neighboring stations? How does Mumei's position alongside Biba change her relationship with all the refugees who were just beginning to like her?
We'll never know! One second, we're being told that the station's magistrates don't trust Biba (but no details on why, lest we spoil the reason his father disowned him), and the next, Biba's crew has released a horde of kabane on the city while their leader slaughters the entire conference room! There's no emotional resonance attached to this betrayal because it all happened so fast that we don't have any grasp on how it affects our actual main characters, who spend the entire episode gaping on the sidelines. It's not a bad idea for Biba to show his hand like this at some point. He's a Super Evil Dude, and you gotta go big or go home with that archetype. But this was absolutely bizarre timing, and the noticeable downturn in animation (enjoy all the panned stills!) doesn't help distract from such a huge disruption in this simple story's flow. The story has now changed completely without properly setting up the shift. Even though the Kotetsujyo's crew did basically nothing in this entire episode and even though their antagonist was only introduced one episode ago, our heroes are at the mercy of a fully bwa-ha-mode Biba as he marches on the capitol to show up his dear old dad (for reasons we still don't know).
I hate to say it, but we needed another full episode of two-faced bullshit from Biba to make this revolution work. More specifically, we needed more interactions between our heroes and his Hunters to really build conflict on a more personal level, before just changing everyone's role from Obvious McBadguy's passengers to his hostages. When Ikoma screams Biba's name with his face in the dirt at the end of this episode, it doesn't feel personal, but it probably should, right? Much more importantly, while most of this episode's missteps can still be repaired in future episodes, the disservice it does for Mumei's character can't really be taken back. The tense conversation she had with Ikoma last episode was setting up a clear choice between two sides, but this episode rips that choice away from her. Mumei won't have the opportunity to decide her own values now, because one side just revoked his sympathy card through a massive cartoony slaughter. If Mumei doesn't automatically side with the Kotetsujyo crew after this, it will completely diminish her character to "rescuable object" status, as her unbreakable brother-ties become a cheap plot device instead of a source of character conflict we can believe in. At the same time, if she does automatically side with Ikoma, then there was no point in setting up the choice between worlds to begin with! Either way, shutting down the potential for character conflict in favor of a big bad guy showpiece, before the audience was even ready for it? Bad Move. I loved how shamelessly evil Biba was last episode, but it seems going big isn't always the right answer. Everything in moderation.
Anyway, after we all recover from the writhing wad of WTF that just wheeled by, Kabaneri decides to double down on its Titan references. Unfortunately, the end result reminded me a lot more of Witchblade, as Biba's sexy left hand lady becomes a Kabaneri-shifter in the style of AoT's Titan-shifters, puppeting a kabane colony from the inside to bash out the backside of the city so the Kotetsujyo can pass through. Of course she doesn't survive the experiment, but she does get some molten veiny boob armor to somersault around in before Biba puts her out of her misery. Kabaneri has thrown a lot of ridiculous ideas against the wall, but this doomed-femme-fatale-in-Witchblade-goo-armor was the first one to strike me as tired and lame. That sums up this episode's problem in general. The zombie carnage wasn't a well-timed surprise for once, it was just ineffectively abrupt. The screaming and anguish didn't add adrenaline to the experience, it just seemed like background noise to a tragedy that came out of nowhere. For the first time, the steampunk zombie apocalypse felt lame instead of stupidly amazing.
Twenty minutes of off-kilter execution can be disastrous for a show relying almost entirely on thrill ride mechanics, but I still have faith in Kabaneri to recover before the final curtain. Heck, I still like Biba's unvarnished Pure Evil schtick, even if this episode chose to blow his load too early. It's all a matter of timing, and this week, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress was finally Too Much for me.
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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