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Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress (2016) [Episodes 1-3]

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.

Powering the drama is the developing relationship between two Japanese teens, our hero, Ikoma – an archetypal manga geek, engineer and inventor – and Mumei, a perky, pigtailed and thoroughly babelicious psycho-ronin, who enjoys carving up the kabane with her pair of swords, blasting them with her powerful double-barrelled steam-pistol or, occasionally, slicing their faces in two with the metal heels of her sandals.

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.

Meanwhile, the kabane have invaded the city, and the humans retreat, to organise – as Mumei provides a diversion – an escape aboard another hayajiro – the Kotetsujyo (‘Iron Fortress’) – bound for the last refuge of Kongokaku. Ikoma, judged to be a kabane, is thrown from the train but is eventually rescued by Mumei and the two become the focus for fear, suspicion and hatred among the remaining humans aboard the Kotetsujyo.

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.

Mumei explains to the frightened train crew and passengers that this has transformed them into kabaneri, a human-kabane hybrid, possessed of the strength of a kabane but the morals of a human. They duly go about proving themselves but the superstition-bound locals are unconvinced until Ayame, daughter of the local governor who has become leader of the survivors following the death of her father, stops her charges from attacking, and Mumei and Ikoma agree to spend the journey locked in the train’s boiler car.

However, this uneasy truce looks unlikely to hold, for as the journey goes on and the kabane attack, the kabaneri are forced to fight, which tires them into unconsciousness. Unfortunately, when they get tired, the kabaneri need to feed, and no prizes for guessing what they need to feed on…

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.

Characterisation is, thus far (only up to Episode 3 at time of writing), reasonable by anime standards, centring on the “geek gets bossed by skilled female counterpart” theme which is a staple of the genre, but playing with our sympathies, in this case forcing us to align with two vampiric heroes who may end up eating the people they are trying to save if everyone is not very careful.

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

Mark Brandon is a writer and animation geek based in London. Mark has been a fan of all things animated since he can remember, and a writer since he could put pen to paper. He has worn many hats, including journalist, recruiter, managing director, illustrator, club DJ, brand director and management consultant, but prefers his writer hat. He has completed two novels - one at age 9 and the other at age 40 - but not published either, perhaps due to too much hat-juggling.