Koutetsujuou no Kabaneri or Kabaneri of the Iron fortress is probably my pick for the most impressive show this season in terms of it’s enormous production value. It is based on a manga series and novel the adaptation is being handled by Wit Studio who have skyrocketed in popularity lately since producing, probably ,the best know entry-level anime this decade , Attack on Titan. Followed by the less critically acclaimed but still popular Owari no Seraph. You can definitely feel the influence of those shows in Kabaneri, however it still it’s very own thing with a completely different tone and visual style.
“As the world is in the middle of an industrial revolution, a monster appears that cannot be defeated unless its heart, which is protected by a layer of iron, is pierced. By infecting humans with its bite, the monster can create aggressive and undead creatures known as Kabane. On the island Hinomoto, located in the far east, people have built stations to shelter themselves from these creatures. People access the station, as well as transport wares between them, with the help of a locomotive running on steam, called Hayajiro. Ikoma, a boy who lives in the Aragane station and helps to build Hayajiro, creates his own weapon called Tsuranukizutsu in order to defeat the creatures. One day, as he waits for an opportunity to use his weapon, he meets a girl named Mumei, who is excused from the mandatory Kabane inspection. During the night, Ikoma meets Mumei again as he sees Hayajiro going out of control. The staff on the locomotive has turned into the creatures. The station, now under attack by Kabane, is the opportunity Ikoma has been looking for.”
Although explosively popular in the States and western world, zombies as a plot device in anime has just recently started picking up. There was even a time where , Highschool of the Dead , was the only mainstream zombie anime in existence. If you accept it at face value it is a rather simple zombie story , although the only time I’ve ever seen steampunk zombies done well. If you switch off your critical thinking and ignore the irrationalities and plot-points you’re guaranteed to have a good time.
It’s not a very shallow show , but , it’s not as deep as you think it is. The philosophies of humanity and how it shouldn’t be ruled by fear , carry over from Attack on Titan fairly heavily and even there they really weren’t as deep as the writers thought.
The feudal class system conflicts really irritated me , they felt forced and held back the story's’ pace. I think since this was done quite well in Attack on Titan they decided to have it carry over both series but in Attack on Titan it made far more sense , the world was at peace and not in constant threat from zombies and there was already a natural divide built by the walls. I also think since the story has quite a few inspirations from Feudal Japan they implemented this key theme from Akira Kurosawa movies.
It’s common knowledge that Studio Wit have gotten sound-design down to science , ask the most casual of Otaku to hum you the Attack on Titan theme song and I’m sure they’ll be willing and able to oblige. The soundtrack is everything it needs to be : touching , intense , fierce. Though their use of music to make you feel has become a bit formulaic : intense action , shuddering frames , screaming , loud music. But goddamn is it still as intense.
We have an opening from the amazing Egoist , creators of the Psycho Pass opening songs.
The sounds from the machinery are all engrossing , chugging trains , clanging pipes , the rush and whistle of a gun all help form the world around us.
The animation , not even the art-style, but the animation is quite literally top of the line. With the enormous budget this show received it is the very top of the line of what modern HD animation can achieve.
The world is incredibly gritty and rough , brought to live by the awe-inspiring backgrounds and settings. The landscape shots of a burned earth with shambling zombies flickering like embers in the night is breath-taking. You can totally imagine yourself living surrounded by all this machinery , the animation on all the steampunk is done to an incredible level of detail.
The world is steampunk but carries vibes of a faux Muromachi era feudal Japan and these two blend really well. Who doesn’t want to see samurai toting around steam-guns ?
The direction is , of course , great but not particularly experimental, nothing wrong with that since I appreciate the dedication of delivering a solid entertaining experience rather than a soul changing one. The use of degrading art to create tension when coupled with , the mentioned above , amazing soundtrack drive the overwhelming moments of emotion into overdrive.
The combat is still as fast and entrancing as it was in Attack on Titan , though without the 3d maneuver gear it's far more limited to the ground. The gore bothered me quite a lot however , the rest of the world feels reasonably grounded in reality but the blood flows like cool aid from a garden hose.
The character designs carry the easily recognisable , Studi Wit , art-style. Though I prefer them to the designs of Attack on Titan or Seraph since rather than just being HD there’s clear inspiration from the semi-feudal setting.Without accusing the artist of plagiarism it reminds of how Miyazaki designed the characters in Princess Mononoke.
The zombies are visceral and terrifying with a grey and orange colour scheme that matches the world and separates them from western style zombies.
Our MC , Ikoma , is entertaining and fits the gritty world well , he’s not a 100% hero and that’s good. He’s likeable enough and has a lot more depth than most characters this season , despite that he still is at heart the main character of an anime aimed at teenagers so a lot of obnoxious cliche show up.
The side characters fill their roles well , the tsundere bad-ass , the best friend , the noble girl etc… But the archetypes are entertaining ones and as I said this show doesn’t ever boast all that much depth.
Here is my biggest gripe and it’s something that is prevalent all through the show. The irrationality of the adults to make the teenagers seem intelligent by comparison, it was done in Attack on Titan and it’s been done in teen anime for decades. It’s base fan-servicing that’s even more insulting than the occasional panty-shot since it tries to play itself like an crucial part of the writing. It’s purpose is to make the teenagers watching feel as though , they too can be like their favorite characters and helps them empathise on issues they have with adults.This borderline , power fantasy , not only locks out the adult audience but creates another wall of disbelief as if zombies and steampunk weren’t enough.
Despite my rant above , I’m still going to recommend Kabaneri of the Iron fortress. It’s grand in scale , it’s intense ,it’s dark , the soundtrack is fantastic and the animation is the peak of modern animation. Just get ready to put up with some annoyances , cliches and don’t think too hard about the story.
It's odd being such a popular series you’d think that a second season was instantly guaranteed. Attack on Titan came out in 2013 and the anticipated second season is scheduled to come out 2017. Keep in mind the scale of these shows when you start guessing dates for Kabaneri.