Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress

4 out of 5

Directed by: Tetsurō Araki

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: from Wit Studios, the story of a steampunk-dusted land o’er which a virus has suddenly, and unexplainedly, unleashed itself, turning humans into shambling, stumbling, human-devouring monsters, countered only by humans who have somehow managed to subsume the virus and control it…

No, I don’t think it’s by accident that Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress – described above – sounds similar to Attack on Titan; the DNA of Wit Studios’ emotive character designs, ace choreographed action, and loose-limbed creepy Titans are repeated in Kabaneri, with the latter represented by the ‘kabane,’ nigh-invincible zombie-esque creatures who transform others via bite to pick up the chase of their once fellow man.  But instead of it feeling like more of the same, Kabaneri comes across as an improvement on almost all fronts, learning the lesson of exhaustion that resulted from Titan’s need to remain always-on, re-upping antes with excessive twists and requiring its cast to always teeter on the edge of shrieking dramatics.

To be fair, though – especially considering how much I enjoy Titan, overall – this is more manageable maybe simply because Kabaneri is presented as a contained story.  There’s not as much need to tease out mysteries for season-ending cliffhangers, and writer Ichirō Ōkouchi could focus on characters we know are important instead of circling around a ballooning cast.  That doesn’t mean we don’t end with plenty of potential for continuing, but an original story – i.e. no source manga – means no required pacing obligations, and you can go for broke as is.  So all of the intense action that Wit pumped in to Attack on Titan’s many action scenes can be distilled down to key sequences in Kabaneri, which are equally intense, but with a more palpable sense of threat since our lead and side characters – including Ikoma and Mumei, humans bonded with the kabane virus and dubbed kabaneri, and Ayame, de facto leader of the group that’s boarded the armored train Kōtetsujō on its way to one of the last bastions of supposed safety, Kongokaku – are afforded the time and actual moments of quiet to give their roles more depth and humanity.

The twelve episodes of the season veritably fly by, with the Kōtetsujō hiccuping from one roadblock to the next, Ikoma learning more about his Kabaneri powers along the way, and that runtime interestingly ends up being one of the sole issues with the series: that’s it’s kind of not enough time.  While I’ve praised the shift in focus of the show, two things end up happening alongside that: the rules of Kabaneri are kept murky to the point of seeming somewhat conflicting, and it’s hard to get a sense of distance of the Kōtetsujō’s travels, making its travails start to blend together.  One thing that works well with Attack on Titan’s intensity is that every inch gained truly feels like a struggle; every foot traveled outside of the cities is a war.  In Kabaneri, we’re told we’re traveling from point A to B, and occasionally we get out and witness a fight, but it can seem like we’re witnessing the events of a single night; one long, protracted battle.  It’s a strange juggle that, at 12 episodes, isn’t a bad thing, but there’s definitely an ideal version of the series that’s either compressed further, or extended a bit more.