Reviewby James Beckett,
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
Season 1 BD/DVD
In an alternate version of feudal Japan, where the flesh-hungry undead known as Kabane have overrun the world, humanity survives in city-sized stations connected by massive steam-powered locomotives. Ikoma is one of the many desperate orphans of the Kabane's viscious onslaught, and he has spent his life trying to develop weapons that will help put the zombified demons for good. One day, his fearlessness is rewarded with an infectious bite from one of the undead. Instead of being transformed into a Kabane though, Ikoma is miraculously able to maintain his humanity while keeping the supernatural strength and speed of the Kabane. As his own station lies in ruins after a massive Kabane invasion, Ikoma meets another creature like him, a preternaturally lethal young girl named Mumei who explains that they are beings that exist between humankind and the Kabane: Kabaneri. As they flee to safety with the other human survivors on the train called Kotetsujo, Ikoma, Mumei, and the rest of their allies must find a way to take back their land and destroy the Kabane once and for all.
The comparisons between Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress and Attack on Titan were inveitable from the get-go, and not just because both projects were animated by Studio Wit and spearheaded by director Tetsuro Araki. Even though this 2016 action-horror title isn't based on a pre-existing manga, it still owes plenty of thematic and stylistic influences to the studio's breakout hit from just a few years prior. Both feature vengeance-driven young male protagonists, who use their skills as half-human-half-monster to gain the upper hand on an enemy that threatens to destroy mankind. Both series utilize fantasy steampunk technology to create iconic weapons and tools, and both series pour every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears into Araki's signature loud and violent style.
Yet there is a stronger Japanese cultural influence in Kabaneri that goes a long way in setting the series apart. This industrially infused version of feudal Japan is visually arresting throughout the series' run. The period-apprpriate costumes and intricately gritty technology imbue Kabaneri with a strong sense of aesthetic identity that stays consistently engaging even when other elements of the show's writing and production falter. The whole show feels like Princess Mononoke by way of Dawn of the Dead, with a healthy dash of steampunk thrown in for good measure. Coupled with the show's perpetually stellar direction, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is often gorgeous to behold. The action beats are fluid, frenetic, and fun, and the more quiet moments are given the heightened detail and lush visual direction they need to sing. Given that the series wraps up in only twelve episodes, that leaves less time to waste on slide-show animation or bottle-episodes. Those budgetary measures do still come into play, but they're thankfully not distracting enough to warrant much complaint.
The other elements of the show also differ heavily from the Titan-in-the-room, though not always in positive ways. The plot, themes, and cast of characters are much more streamlined and straightforward than its most obvious influence. There is little mystery or intrigue to be found in the conflict between the humans, the Kabane, and the Kabaneri; it's a clearer tale of decent people trying to survive against an unthinking and unfeeling horde of undead. Even when a Big Bad Villain does eventually show up, he serves as a fairly obvious representation of humanity's worst instincts and ideologies, to contrast how Ikoma's group represent the empathy and willpower needed to remain human in world where humanity is constantly threatened. In that way, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress owes its storytelling more to traditional zombie fiction than Attack on Titan. Instead of trying to tackle themes of moral ambiguity, this series is content to stay on the shallow end of the thematic pool, using its plot and characters mostly to whip the show along from one setpiece to the next.
While simplicity isn't a bad thing on its own, it does result in a mixed bag of quality when it comes to Kabaneri's narrative. Ikoma and Mumei do make for compelling protagonists; they receive the lion's share of character development this season, and they share an adorably familial chemistry that works well. Ikoma's heroic determination stems less from mindless revenge-lust and more from his natural desire to help people, which keeps him relatable as things get crazier and crazier around him. Mumei is more of a cipher for much of the season, but she's great at killing Kabane in entertaining ways, and she eventually grows to be the heart of the show, going through the most affecting arc of the season as she grapples with the rift between her human side and the part of her that has been trained to kill as a Kabaneri.
As far as the cast of characters go, nearly everyone is likable and effective in their roles, but only in a purely functional way. Ayame is the stalwart but compassionate leader, Kurusu is the stoic samurai, Takumi is Ikoma's affable best friend, etc. Even the eventual main villain of the series just spouts cliche one liners and stares forlornly into the distance. None of these character are bad exactly, but they remain static throughout the series, and none of them can ever quite keep up the pace or energy in the same way that Ikoma and Mumei do. The same could be said for Hiroyuki Sawano's score, which is perfectly fine, but nowhere near as memorable as his work on other series, including Attack on Titan.
Funimation's Blu-Ray/DVD release for Kabaneri is a bare-bones affair, albeit an interesting one - the dub for this show was produced by Crunchyroll via Studiopolis, which makes it a Funimation release without a Funimation dub. Outside of trailers, textless theme songs, and the standard and high-definition transfers of the show, the only other content this set has to offer is that aforementioned Studiopolis English dub, which is another element that varies in quality. Robbie Daymond and Janice Kawaye do solid work as Ikoma and Mumei, with Kawaye impressively managing to nail the balance between hardened badass and young naive girl. The rest of the performers are incredibly inconsistent though, with characters like Ayame (Veronica Taylor) and Kurusu (Jamieson K Price) sounding alternately flat and cheesily over-the-top, as if they were plucked out of a cornier production. Roger Craig Smith does what he can with Biba, who simply isn't a compelling villain; while he never manages to be sound truly threatening, there is a laconic quality to his performances that makes the character interesting at least. None of these inconsistencies ruin the English dub, but they do make it the lesser of the two aural experiences.
Watching Kabaneri of the Iron Fortess is an experience akin to taking a ride on the Kotetsujo itself: The series zips along from station to station, providing some insanely visceral hyperviolent action, all while never stopping too long to ponder over what's happening. It's pure entertainment all the way through, a worthy successor to Attack on Titan in spectacle at least, and a standout achievement for Studio Wit. It's writing is occasionally sloppy and thinly plotted, but it's hard to mind while you're watching Kabane get sliced and diced in so many creative ways. If you're in need of slickly-produced action, and you don't mind a fair bit of dumbness to go along with your fun, then Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is well worth checking out.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B
+ Gorgeous production values take full advantage of the show's setting, killer fluid action, fast pacing keeps boredom at bay
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