Mark Brandon investigates Amazon Prime's first foray into anime simulcasts. [MILD SPOILERS]
It's, well, sometime during the Industrial Revolution (apparently) in a parallel universe Shogunate Japan. The terrified populace lives in fortress cities surrounded by deep moats spanned by huge drawbridges across which roll the Hayajiro – immense armoured trains which are their only link to the outside world.
What terrifies them is that outside their cities swarm the Kabane, feral zombies with glowing orange eyes whose only desire is to feed. Get bitten by one, as with most zombies, and you become one. The virus will consume you quickly, turning your heart into a blazing sore of lava which quickly infects your limbs and, finally, your brain.
As with all things steampunk, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress embeds an often-anachronistic mix of technology – the mega-trains, the clunky steam-rifles wielded by the bushi who defend the cities from the zombie plague – within a profoundly archaic social structure, in this case feudal Japanese society, allowing exploration of such grand themes as superstition, honour and sacrifice as the plot gets rolling down the track.
Kabaneri bursts from the fevered imagination of Tetsuro Araki, the genius behind Wit Studio’s 2013 smash-hit series Attack on Titan, and it shares a number of themes with its illustrious forbear.
Ikoma, an engineer and budding weaponsmith in the fortified city of Aragane, is given a chance to prove his mettle when a runaway hayajiro piloted by zombies crashes the gate. He has developed a harpoon-gun capable of bursting through the armoured shell around a kabane’s heart, which is proving an insurmountable advantage to the zombie horde against the inferior weapons of the bushi, but has not yet tested his latest version. Alas, while killing a marauding kabane and proving his weapon’s effectiveness, Ikoma is bitten. He manages to stop it, but knows the bite will be a death-sentence when the bushi see it.
Ikoma and Mumei have two things in common. First, they are both orphans, Ikoma wracked with guilt after leaving his sister to the kabane, and Mumei having also lost her family, we know not how. Mumei’s glib and heartless response to Ikoma’s revelation of sibling abandonment – “It’s a common story, the weak die and the strong live” – is more comforting than it might appear, simply part of Mumei’s attempt to strengthen the bond forged by their second commonality: they have both been bitten by kabane, yet not turned.
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is an engaging blend of standard steampunk tropes – steam trains, steam weapons, fortified cities – providing plenty of opportunity for graphical indulgence in the architectural and engineering detail which gives steampunk its distinctive charm. The animation is dynamic, with lots of martial arts action and buckets of blood, guts and gore as the unholy appetites of the relentless kabane see them variously decapitated, impaled and blasted apart. CG is not much in evidence, with movement sometimes suffering as a result but the overall effect is pleasingly hand-drawn, which seems appropriate given the pseudo-historical setting.
For fans of steampunk anime who don’t mind a bit of blood and the odd scene which would cross the line in a Western production – pregnant woman turns zombie, gets impaled by two swords, for instance – Kabaneri is a must-see. At this stage it feels unlikely, despite its apocalyptic setting, that it will match the glacial nihilism of Attack on Titan, but Tetsuro Araki’s ongoing determination to pit frail humanity against seemingly impossible odds has, at first blush, produced another winner.
KABANERI OF THE IRON FORTRESS is currently Screening on FUJI TV in Japan and is available Streaming on AMAZON PRIME VIDEO to Members in the US and UK Try Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial Amazon UK Prime Trial