Review/discussion about: Koutetsujou no Kabaneri
Koutetsujou no Kabaneri has, as you may know, a lot of trains.
I’ve always wanted to ride a train myself. Not a subway or one of those speedy bullet ones. A traditional train with coal that fuels the engine and an old-timey design that hearkens back to 1800’s America.
There’s just something about sitting alone, putting the window up, and taking in the countryside as it rolls on by. Maybe I’m drinking some cocoa from a teacup or clacking away on my laptop. Either way, I hope to someday cross this dream of mine off my bucket list.
Kabaneri is not quite as relaxing – and not nearly as wishful.
Kabaneri stars Ikoma, a train engineer whose biggest hobby is investigating better ways to fend off the Kabane, zombie-like monsters that feast on the blood and flesh of humans. One day, a girl by the name of Mumei arrives at the city-state he calls home. And, following an unfortunate invasion of the Kabane, he, her, and many others find themselves traveling for Kongokaku, the main capital, to escape the menacing monsters.
To Kabaneri’s credit, its first four episodes are very solid in their construction.
These episodes establish the setting and premise. Individualized habitats, the rules surrounding the Kabane (what getting bitten means, their heart cages, etc.). The importance of transportation, the suicide bags and weapons. The acrobatic fighting easily sets up what the show aims to be: a cool, gritty, and action-packed romp where humans struggle to survive.
These episodes introduce the steampunk motif. Massive metal trains carry goods and protect people. Pressurized, mechanical guns slow down the Kabane (or, in Ikoma’s case, completely shreds them open). The master key, the cogged machinery, and the winding railroad tracks. While steampunk is not a new concept, its combination with the zombies and the survival-horror makes it all a more complete package.
These episodes create the necessary dynamics between the characters. Ikoma and Takumi’s friendship. Mumei’s “mentoring” of Ikoma and her dissonance with the humans. Kurusu’s loyalty to Ayame and his distrust of Ikoma. The proper relationships are both created and tested, allowing for Kabaneri to have meaningful developments for them later.
These episodes start the anime’s most important theme: fear. Yes, it can get pretty heavy-handed – people way overreacting, anti-logic when Mumei and Ikoma have clearly demonstrated their intent. But fear becomes a staple of the show. Especially when Takumi fears what Ikoma has become in that split second or the pandemonium that ensues when people start to not believe anybody whatsoever.
The rest of the anime is not like a train that moves steadily onwards and reaches its destination in one piece. No. Instead, it turns into a boat at sea, punctured continually and taking on water at a faster and faster rate until the whole ship sinks.
Following the first four episodes, the next three episodes focus on a small mini-arc with a crane and a new enemy as well as a stretch of downtime for the wearied heroes.
In regards to the mini-arc, the show starts to misstep. Despite how much Mumei has helped, and how they would be nowhere without her, the people aboard still view her as a nuisance. Sure, her saying it was nice that the kid’s dog died is pretty mean, but it starts to get old hearing every human view her as vile.
Worse still, a new mega-monster, codenamed the “Black Shadow,” arrives. It technically acts as a prelude to the Nue (the horse-like, giant Kabane creature with wings) that appear later. But, transitioning from small, individualized enemies to a behemoth that cannot be reliably killed except through turret-fire makes it seem as though the anime ran out of (contextually) coherent ideas for the Kabane. (It also calls into question why the Kabane don’t just always coagulate together.)
The anime also does not help itself when it mishandles both Enoku’s involvement (the former “ear” of Mumei’s infamous “brother”) and Mumei’s own backstory.
The seventh episode, where the whole crew reaches Shitori Station and basically takes the day off, turns its tonal crank in the complete opposite direction. To be fair, this episode highlights how not all is lost around the world despite the atrocities seen thus far. Yet the tonal shift from brutal and horrifying to cutesy and lighthearted (and then back to the former for the remainder of the season) does not strike that execution chord.
The ship’s already starting to go under. But wait. The absolute worst aspect of Kabaneri now arrives (which is easily guessed): Biba.
For the last five episodes, it is almost nothing else besides Biba this and Biba that. The show may as well have changed its title from Koutetsujou no Kabaneri to Captain Biba Single-Handedly Sinks the Ship.
Even disregarding that the Hunters are a group that come out of nowhere, Biba screams plot problems and writing issues.
Biba kills Enoku (who was, in turn, trying to kill Biba) and smiles? Ikoma now has a personal vendetta against the pink-haired pretty boy that would rival any known nemeses.
The Kabane got too boring? Here comes Biba with a super-drug that turns Kabaneri into unstable monstrosities.
Biba is a conniving miscreant that always gets away with his plans, even when his own father literally proclaims out loud that he knows his son is up to something? Well, of course, because he’s Biba.
But the biggest buffoonery that Biba brings? His laughable logic.
With Biba around, the anime tries to heavily push its other, less nuanced strong-versus-weak theme. Admittedly, it fits Biba’s arrogance, but it makes next to no sense. He claims that the weak are weak because they don’t try to fight back. That killing a bunch of helpless civilians is “…the world of fairness and equality that we’ve been striving for.” That “human cowardice breeds war.” (Quotes are his words.)
To achieve his ends, he kills hundreds, thousands of people. But them already surviving, fighting back by creating cities and guns and means of transportation, prove that they are strong. Plus, Biba putting them all in such a vile situation of his own volition goes against his argument. Him forcing the issue proves his words wrong – it is unfair what he is doing, and he himself, not cowardice, is breeding this war.
And it is this combination of Biba and his new theme that is the show’s downfall. Where once the anime was focused on the Kabane and fear, it devolves into the Biba show, featuring his monologues on strength and his various actions that are nothing short of inane.
Fear does make the occasional cameo, like when the residents of Kongokaku turn on one another, but it is clear that Kabaneri shifts its focus in an oh-so-wrong way. (Not to mention everybody forgot that Mumei was the catalyst to Shitori Station’s Kabane invasion. And that Takumi died. And that everything is perfectly fine even though all of Kongokaku was decimated.)
The list of issues that Biba creates, while not infinite, are too many to display. Suffice it to say that, whenever Biba is on-screen (and he is on-screen a lot in these last five episodes), he only brings the show down further.
And so, despite how strong the story started, it wavers in the middle, only to have Biba single-handedly puncture more holes into this ship than anything or anyone else did, sending the whole fortress into a watery grave.
While Kabaneri’s story more or less devolves into a mess, its art and its animation remain high in quality throughout its run.
Specifically, the character designs have a throwback aesthetic that reminds the audience of a somewhat older look. Their crisp facial features (eyes, shading) aid in this reminder. The various accessories (both mechanical and traditional), the magma-like ley-lines. The accentuated colors (blues, reds, and pinks contrast with the dreary greys, browns, blacks, and greens). The changing outfits. And don’t forget the bulging back muscles. All give Kabaneri’s character designs further praise.
Not to be outdone, the lighting and backdrops add to the experience. From daylight that dazzles to moonlight that haunts, the anime maximizes its characters and its events through effective light usage. As for the backgrounds, their scale, including wide shots of forested terrains and burning villages, combined with the lighting, create expansive, detailed locations.
Speaking of scale, the anime only relies on CG artistry for two notable purposes: the trains and the Black Shadow monster. The former gets the job done in that it looks like a metallic, sturdy locomotive. The latter, while not quite as threatening as the creators were perhaps going for, keeps from being too distracting.
And actual animation remains high and consistent throughout its run. Mumei’s segments in particular – with her flipping, running, and battling – are the more obvious examples of where the show shines animation-wise. But its eye, hair, and extremity movements, such as when Ikoma chokes himself nearly to death or when Ayame-sama offers up her blood as a contract, highlight Kabaneri’s attention to animated detail.
Like the story, the cast of Kabaneri do not start off on the wrong foot. They start to trip over their own feet the further along they walk. Except for Biba. He does not even know how to move his legs properly.
Ikoma is driven by a sense of pride. At a young age, he and his sister would often play together, but, when the Kabane came, he left her behind to save himself. He vowed to never run away again, hoping to become a person that his sister could be proud of.
This motivation of his leads him to the creation of a new weapon to fight the Kabane – as well as him getting bitten and turning into a Kabaneri. From there, he demonstrates his will, perseverance, and focus, through training by Mumei, taking bite after bite, and declaring his hatred for the Kabane.
He has some nice moments, like when he used Mumei’s grapple-and-throw technique against the Wazatori or when he remade his persona with drug-injection and body-amplification. Yet most of his time is spent defeating Biba and protecting Mumei, both of which he is not too successful at.
And therein lays Ikoma’s biggest problem. Kabaneri doesn’t make enough of an effort to create a bond between Ikoma and his sister and Ikoma and Mumei. Especially when this parallel is the one they were going for when Takumi asks Ikoma about it. Ikoma says it is a voice telling him to help Mumei, or that maybe it is God. Takumi tells him he’s doing it because that’s simply who he is. All a bunch of vague non-answers.
Episode six, where he fends off the Kabane from a trapped Mumei, is perhaps his strongest scene. Here, he protects Mumei and simultaneously explains his argument about weakness and not accepting fate. Unfortunately, because Biba shows up shortly after, his actions and his words mean nothing to the ignorant Mumei.
The show tries to go a different route. Namely, Ikoma declares he will turn Mumei back into a human again. Yet the jump in goals holds no prior basis – it was always about killing the Kabane not saving the Kabaneri. Plus, said goal isn’t even resolved come the end of the season let alone strived for.
Same goes for Ikoma’s “relationship” with Biba. He hates the guy. That’s it. Ikoma may go after Biba for manipulating Mumei, but Ikoma’s anger suddenly bursting into existence is not well-reasoned. One hates the weak and the other hates people who hate the weak. Yeah. (Ikoma and Biba not having their own quarrel does not help either.)
Mumei is similar. She’s clearly skilled at dealing with the Kabane given her flippant attitude and acrobatic maneuvers. Boosted further by her Kabaneri characteristic which, expectedly, makes the others wary, scared of her person.
Mumei does not particularly mind, though. She simply does what she wants, knowing that nobody can really stop her.
Early on, Mumei is this stalwart, scary siren. When the show hits the halfway mark, it finally starts to delve into her a bit more. A feeling of isolation that drives her to do everything solo. A past filled with the death of her friends. A fear of turning into one of the Kabane.
Once Biba arrives, however, her naivete shines. Opening the gates to let the Kabane in and refusing to listen to Ikoma highlight this trait well enough.
Kabaneri reveals where it comes from. As a child, her mother died to save her daughter. Luckily, Biba arrived then, but, rather than reaching out a hand, he gave her the means to fight back. Which she did, killing the man that murdered her mother. From then on, she trusted in Biba and his words. To the point that she became a Kabaneri herself.
These details appear as she sits on the side since Biba effectively steals any spotlight. Similar to Ikoma, her relationship with Biba is not explored beyond this small flashback, leaving her adoration for the man as questionable.
At this point, the anime attempts to mature her. The deaths of innocents and reminiscing of previous actions (specifically killing the pregnant-woman-turned-Kabane and the mother-daughter-double-suicide) lead her to rebel against Biba.
Rebelling fails, and, from then on, she exists to be saved by Ikoma and nothing more. She maintains part of her mind when it’s revealed that she purposely missed stabbing Ikoma in the heart. But she does not fight back on her own. Besides, of course, by dropping Ikoma’s precious stone. An event meant to be meaningful but comes off as silly.
Granted, Ikoma protecting Mumei was his whole character purpose, so Mumei saving herself was out of the question. They get at this path when she lands the ultimate killing blow against Biba. A moving-on move. But when she was defined as a powerful person then devolved into a weak-willed individual, her transformation is less a change for the better and more a breakdown of what made her worthwhile to begin with.
Especially when her issues are caused by Biba, Kabaneri’s joke of a character.
He’s alluded to a bit as this grand defender of man and defeater of Kabane. And he demonstrates his reputation during his first small scuffle. Afterwards, fame gives way to villainy as he mercilessly seeks to achieve his one true goal: revenge against his father.
Biba betrays others, kills hundreds, and tosses aside those close to him without remorse. He figures that most people are weak and that a father who feared him and left him to rot are reason enough to see his dream become reality.
Unfortunately for Biba, he is just not a captivating enemy. He does not actually do any of the dirty work, letting Horobi and his other lackeys do it instead. His riding-on-a-horse-with-dad flashback is the anime’s extremely meager attempt at trying to make the murder of his father sympathetic. And he can only seem to spout monologues filled with superfluous, eye-rolling words on weakness.
The show had fear in mind for Biba, like when Horobi almost killed him or when he dueled against Ikoma. Kabaneri’s story relies on a theme of fear, so seeing it briefly in his character created a glimmer of hope.
Hope that was quickly dashed. His “acceptance” that Mumei found a “coward” (his word) and his final gunshot that saves Ikoma end his character on weirdness and frustration. Crushed beneath a bunch of heavy rocks. Exactly where he belongs: flattened and forgotten.
Kabaneri picks itself up again with the different parts of its music.
The opening track takes the crown. It starts off charged, then quickly goes reserved, refusing to show its hand right away. It builds and builds until it jumps with the chant, creating a hyped and rocking tune that continues until the ending choir bit.
The ending track is not as stellar, but its soft singing and subtle vibe contrast well with the brutal content of the show itself. Its latter half does get louder, but the vocalists and the emotion offset the switching tone. Sadly, the ED, unlike its OP counterpart, is not that memorable of a piece.
The soundtrack from Hiroyuki Sawano has his signature resounding sound. While not his best (that goes to a reminiscent yet stronger anime), and while some of the tracks are off-putting (“JAnoPAN” comes to mind), it still passes. The OST adds to the action and the tension through its loudness, its drops, and its pacing. The heaviness and the hype are there, too (as are the non-Japanese lyrics). Especially the track where the female vocalist hits her notes solo.
(Side note: Not even the OST is safe from Biba’s reign. One of the tracks is literally titled “VIVALABIBA.” Made me laugh out loud when I read it. What an anime.)
Sound-effects are also top-notch. The pressurized steam releasing from canisters. Kabane hearts exploding to chimes. Their train barreling down the tracks. In short, the show not only looks the part but sounds the part as well.
And while the voice-acting performances are not notable, the Kabane and their ghoulish screams add to the horror that their kind induce.
Some of my readers may know that I loathe infallible characters. I cannot stand them.
As such, Biba shoots right up near the top of the list of dumbest and least liked characters I have ever had to endure. And that’s all I’ll say about him; he doesn’t deserve any more attention.
I did like Mumei in the beginning when she was fun and strong, but, the further the anime progressed, the more she got on my nerves. Yes, not-going-to-name-him manipulated her mind her whole life. But that does not mean I am not allowed to find her actions both questionable and annoying.
Ikoma was cool at the start, too, like when he was ticked off at the others onboard for leaving him behind, wanting them to remember who it was that saved their hides. Yet he, too, slowly fell into uncool territory. Especially when his motivations moved away from his sister and fighting the Kabaneri to protecting Mumei.
It’s a shame. The concept – fighting against zombies with steampunk gear – is radical. Mumei flipping through the air, shooting her guns and hurling spears, is awesome. The hybrid Kabaneri idea, while not necessarily unique, is interesting.
Unfortunately, so much of the show is off-putting – especially in the last two-thirds of the season – that it makes it difficult to like it in its entirety.
Koutetsujou no Kabaneri has art that shines and music that glistens, but the rest of it is a dull experience. The story devolves into a one-man rodeo, the characters’ lack purpose, and a lot of its coolness is lost amidst the frustrating turn most of its moving parts take. The show is not exactly a regrettable watch, but it’s not going on any bucket lists anytime soon.
Story: Bad, a train-like ship that stays afloat for a third of the trip, starts taking on water midway through, and sinks completely thanks to its captain, Biba
Animation: Great, nice character designs, nice art, and above-average actual animation
Characters: Bad, Ikoma and Mumei start off strong but are led astray by Biba’s incredible penchant for incompetence
Sound: Fine, good OP, okay ED, okay OST, good sound-effects, okay VA performances
Enjoyment: Bad, Mumei could be cool, and the Kabane premise is interesting, but Biba’s presence ruins so much of the entertainment
Final Score: 4/10
Thanks for taking the time to read my review. If you want, take part in the discussion below! :3