Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress (Anime) Review

Attack on trains.

Attack on Titan took the anime world by storm in 2013. To this day, I can’t really figure out why. Sure, it’s an easy-to-grasp, harmless diversion that anyone can watch and understand. But there’s nothing truly compelling about it. Teenagers scream, giants smash things, and everyone spouts vaguely nationalistic slogans. Aside from some pretty fight sequences, it’s a bog-standard, uneventful little trifle.

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Yet people love it enough to want more of the same. That’s where Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress comes in. Throughout the twelve episodes, the whole show reeks of a stop-gap production. From the subject matter, to the tonal execution, to the retained staff, the whole thing feels like a filler between seasons of Wit Studio’s megahit. It was only made, I would say, to buy time until Eren Jaeger and pals return crying and screaming to television.

The great irony, then, is that Kabaneri is a better show than Attack on Titan could ever hope to be.

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In Kabaneri, young engineer Ikoma has developed a new weapon that he calls the “piercing gun.” He’s done this to take on the zombie-like monstrosities known as “kabane,” who have laid siege to presumably the entire world. But when he goes to test his new invention, a kabane bites him and infects him with the virus. He’s able to keep the virus under control, but his peers worry that he’ll snap and start massacring them at a moment’s notice. Before long, though, his home is raided by kabane. This forces him and everyone around him to board a giant train and hightail it away from the station.

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Yes, for the first large chunk of the series, Kabaneri is a steampunk zombie thriller on trains. That concept is about as ridiculous as it sounds. Zombies climb the train and get shot off, get run over by the train, and are otherwise dispatched in all sorts of dumb, campy ways. Meanwhile, Ikoma has to earn the trust of everyone around him while also commiserating with another infected survivor named Mumei.

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It’s with Mumei that Kabaneri’s biggest problems start. At the beginning of the show, she’s a strong-willed warrior. In the middle episodes, she’s a smiling girlfriend trope. Near the climax, she’s a near totally useless waif. Her characterization is all over the place, which is the first sign that Kabaneri doesn’t exactly know where it’s going.

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The second sign is that Kabaneri swings wildly between genres and plotlines. It doesn’t know if it wants to be a zombie thriller, a political drama, a “giant thing punches giant thing” anime, a psychological horror yarn, or a riveting actioner. This, of course, means that it tries to be all of those things at once, with varying degrees of success. There’s some legitimately great horror that happens, only to be bookended by half-baked conspiracy monologues. The groundwork for interesting character development gets laid, only for it to be undercut by quick and cheap deaths. Don’t even get me started on Biba, the joke of an antagonist who takes seven whole episodes just to show up. Kabaneri is all over the place with tone and pacing, such that it frustrates and bores  as often as it entertains and thrills

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But when it does entertain, boy, does Kabaneri ever do a great job. For every ill-conceived twist, there’s a scene where motorcyclists fire machine guns at zombies, or where zombies stack onto each other to form an even bigger zombie. Because while Kabaneri is far from what I’d call a great show, it certainly is a fun one for the most part. When a climactic moment involves your protagonist literally punching a train, you’re doing something right.

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See, where Kabaneri trumps Attack on Titan is that it’s fun to watch and relatively fast-paced. It’s a carnival of dumb fun from beginning to end. If you turn off your brain and treat it as such, you’ll be able to enjoy the action and suspense while ignoring the poor characterization and tonal incongruity. Plus, the whole thing is very pretty, with the fluid animation style lending itself very well to Haruhiko Mikimoto’s gorgeous artwork.

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That sense of frenetic fun at the expense of everything else ends up being both a gift and a curse for this series, though. On the one hand, it’s show with a downright moronic villain, a painful identity crisis, and an execution that’s an obvious rip-off of a popular series. On the other? A guy kills zombies with what’s basically a bolt gun, and a girl backflips off zombies’ heads before blowing their brains out. It’s all silly, dumb, pretty fun, and if you treat it like that, you’ll have a good time. If you treat it like a serious, cerebral anime, you’ll probably lose a few brain cells.

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Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress ultimately outdoes the show it’s aping. While it isn’t a great show, it’s one that’s pretty fun to watch, all told. It has a novel-enough twist on Attack on Titan’s formula to work, and executes it with stylish, campy panache. If you’re looking for something fun and brainless to spend a few hours on, there are definitely worse shows out there.