Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
Episodes 4-5

by Jacob Chapman,

How would you rate episode 4 of
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress ?

How would you rate episode 5 of
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress ?

The climax of last week's Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress episode gave us a perfect little moment that really sums up what the show is all about. It was a scene that screamed both "Well that was really dumb" and "Wow that looks really awesome", the essence of Kabaneri's appeal. I'll get to that scene in a minute, but first, Ikoma and Mumei have to face the music after their off-putting behavior in episode 3.

After Mumei slaughtered a pregnant-woman-turned-Kabane without showing enough remorse to put her human companions at ease, and Ikoma turned his zombie fangs on Lady Ayame after being overwhelmed by bloodlust, the antsy humans aboard the Kotetsujyo decide that the risk of having two Kabaneri on board isn't worth whatever protection they might provide. Of course, the moment they decide to venture outside and uncouple Ikoma and Mumei's car from the train, a giant horde of Kabane descends upon them! As we've seen hinted since episode one, you don't have to be a Kabaneri to retain bits and bobs of your humanity after being turned, and this particular pack of zombies has a dual-wielding samurai in their midst. The iron train becomes his all-you-can-eat-buffet, as he consumes one human shish kebab after another, clearing a path for less talented zombies to chomp on the leftovers. It's exactly as ridiculous-yet-incredible as it sounds, but the real showstopping scene comes a little bit later.

Basically, one of Lady Ayame's bodyguards gets swarmed by Kabane, and he decides he's not going to go down like a chump in front of his princess. He grabs a suicide bag (tiny pack of explosives activated by pressing it against your chest and pulling the activation string) and draws all the zombies in the train car to him before yanking it out in a blaze of glory. There's just one problem: Bodyguard-kun blew himself up while leaning against several barrels of gunpowder, which rips a giant hole in the side of the cabin from floor to ceiling. The more I thought about this moment, the less sense it made. The guy had to know he was leaning up against those gunpowder barrels, because otherwise, killing himself in the thick of a zombie horde wouldn't destroy them at the same time, and he promised the princess an explosive sacrifice with his last words. At the same time, if he knew that's what he was doing, surely he would also realize that he wasn't just going to blow up the zombies, he was going to blow open the train car and expose it to even more zombies. The show does seem to realize that this bushi's decision was moronic, as everyone gapes with confusion at the giant hole where a wall of steel used to be, but why did he do it in the first place? Just wanted to show off?

It doesn't matter, because the real reason for this dumb decision was to give us some amazing dramatic lighting for the final battle against the zombie-samurai. Ayame rises, angelic, to the top of the train car to offer Ikoma her blood, and samurai-Kabane looks up at the red spray above him in a terrific shot that enhances both the danger she's put herself in and the desperate thirst that Kabane must feel for fresh blood. It also gives her manservant Kurusu the chance to shine as he continues to fight the zombie even after getting kebab'd in battle. In the end, Ikoma drinks Ayame's blood, in yet another stupid-yet-awesome moment that seems to suggest a Kabaneri's esophagus leads straight into his ribcage, and plummets into the train car to annihilate the zombie-samurai with his badass steam gun. The day is saved! Everyone agrees to donate their blood to the Kabaneri so they can defend the train! Someone's baby starts smiling and laughing despite all the noise and chaos, because even that baby knows something incredibly rad just happened.

While this pattern is not universal, the 4th episode of any given anime series usually marks a "transition point," where the story shifts from one act to another by slowing the pace and conserving the animation. Sometimes that's episode 3 or 5 instead, but most of the time, it's episode 4. (That's why so many people use the 3-episode rule for trying out anime: episode 4 of any given series is usually a cooling-off point.) But Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress shows no signs of cooling off, and while the first half of its 4th episode is the tamest and quietest the show has ever been, it goes right back to its usual intense insanity in the second half. If anything, Kabaneri's 4th episode could be considered transitionary for a different reason. Episodes 1-3 employed crazy action and histrionics in service of worldbuilding and character development, while episode 4 mostly revolves around establishing one plot point: the humans go from distrusting the Kabaneri to trusting them. Simple but necessary.

However, episode 5 finally gives us the deeper look into Mumei's character that viewers have been waiting for, without putting the brakes on Kabaneri's nonstop action. When the Kotetsujyo finally pulls into Yashiro Station, they're disappointed to find that the Kabaneri have beaten them there, leaving only a few terrified survivors who describe a "black smoke" that came over the wall, leading to a city-wide massacre by Kabane in pitch darkness. While Ikoma makes plans to remove a crumpled watchtower that has blocked the railway ahead, Mumei reunites with one of her comrades from a mysterious past war who was hiding out in Yashiro, and that's when things get really juicy.

Seeing this former comrade crippled (he lost a leg) seems to really screw with Mumei's head. Apparently, they were both sent out on a top-secret mission by their Master, who Mumei also refers to as her brother, but because he's lost his leg, her comrade cannot return. Any injury, blemish, or failure by a servant makes them completely disposable to this Master, and since this mysterious figure is also family to Mumei, his harsh pragmatic philosophy has formed how she sees all human relationships. She's apparently hesitating to carry out whatever mission she was assigned, choosing instead to protect the Kotetsujyo because she feels like she must fulfill some purpose to be worth the cost of her own life. This revelation paints everything Mumei has done in a new light: her rudeness, expediency, and difficulty expressing empathy even when she feels very deeply, make complete sense now. (Her sincere efforts to comfort a child who lost his dog in the last Kabane attack by telling him "At least he died peacefully before he could be thrown away for being injured" are rewarded with horror, and she doesn't really seem to understand why.)

After being unexpectedly confronted with her past, Mumei's pragmatic instincts kick into overdrive, as she goes against Ikoma's roundabout plan to sneak around the Kabane when clearing the tracks and just plows right into their nest to clear them all out. The fight scene that follows is impressive as always, and this time, you can really feel Mumei's sense of accomplishment as the guys follow behind her to see the boiler room cleaned out perfectly. Unfortunately, the "black smoke" lingering in the depths of the city turned out not to be smoke at all.

Yeah, it's actually a giant Ghibli-esque shadow monster made up entirely of Kabane bodies smushed into one being. Every time I think this show has reached peak extreme showstopper, it ups the ante. As everyone's jaw drops at the titanic zombie-glob headed their way, Mumei goes from satisfaction at feeling useful to despondent defensiveness. "I can just fight them too!" she tepidly offers, before getting shut down by an enraged glare from Ikoma. She continues to pick away at the ocean of zombies ascending the tower, but her fighting spirit has clearly been diminished from her reckless failure. Fortunately, Ikoma believes in second chances, so he leaps out to rescue Mumei right before a cave-in separates them from the rest of the crew.

Now that our two leads are trapped in a mine together, odds are pretty high that next week's Kabaneri episode will be a backstory-palooza, but I'm already happy with the direction Mumei's character has taken. Her utilitarian upbringing juxtaposed with Ikoma's frustration at his human limitations could make for a really interesting dynamic if the show sticks the landing with their chemistry. Despite its goofier trappings and melodramatic twists, Kabaneri is turning into a more thoughtfully-written action show than I expected.

Rating: A

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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