Everything Is A Remix, as the touted video series suggests. Not unlike how favorite music finds itself warped into a virtually endless number of permutations, bound by the creativity of the remix artist. There are even times when some actually surpass the radio friendly original. But very often, some works find themselves coming up short. Often bearing the idiosyncracies of the remixer, and not enough to connect on levels that the original might have. Which is often what many condemn as a culture of rehashed filler, often forgetting that some of the most notable works in any medium are but well-executed paeans to other successful creations. This is a long way of saying that for all the bluster and excitement over Tetsuro Araki’s expensive Kotetsujou No Kabaneri (Kabaneri Of The Iron Fortress), is closer in execution to a soulless dancefloor killer 7″, than a populist blockbuster.
Written by Code Geass’s Ichiro Okouchi, and helmed by none other than Tetsuro Araki, Kabaneri is the largely noisy saga of a small population of steampunk latter-edo era nobles and peasants as they struggle to survive a ferocious existential threat. The threat coming in the form of virtually unstoppable zombielikes known as Kabaneri. A threat that has forced much of Japan to forge communities of high-walled steel, all bound together via a sophisticated (and potentially fatally flawed) locomotive transportation system. During a stop over in Aragane Station, Ayame of the noble family, Yomogawa is only around her father’s station long enough to witness it be overrun by an onslaught of Kabane. Losing her father in the scramble, the remaining survivors pack themselves into the Hayajiro Kotetsujou, and are soon rocketing off toward what they hope will mean safety. And along for the ride, are both an enterprising Steamsmith in the all-heart Ikoma, and mysterious young newcomer, Mumei. Drawn together by fates both cosmic, and plotted, the pair are soon seen as potential fissures within this rolling community. You see, the two are both infected by the same virus that has nearly decimated the world outside, complete with glowing hearts and an inability to be easily fell. Even so, the two have found ways to live with it, retaining humanity in ways that have averted seemingly all who have come into contact with the monstrous mass. And perhaps even possessing abilities that could lead the Aragane survivors to safety.
Now, considering that mouthful, about how much of this can we consider to be news? The setting has distinct possibilities for sure, but a great deal of what fills in the blanks plays like a vinyl record of Araki’s Greatest Hits. Everything from the zombies, to the walled cities, to the swordplay, thundering soundtrack, and bishounen complication, the show is more a game of, “What did Araki enjoy most about his previous works?” Even as the show decides to take a breather from all the action with a matsuri episode, there’s never a feeling like we’ve experienced a proper journey. Which could speak loudly to a show that so badly wishes to be a feature film, but is hampered with the kind of required acumen, energy, and patience (oh, and heaven forbid a budget) to function as a televised saga. What we end of getting between arguments about the treatment of our enhanced heroes, or of those deemed to be weak, the show has many philosophical targets, but never fully hones in on what it wants from within all the rabble and fire. There are even characters brought in late in the game that feel grafted in from a completely different series/aesthetic.
All the while, there are also hints of class struggles, rumination on humanity’s endless grappling with matters of faith in each other, exploitation, and revenge. But it as a twelve episode series offers very little breathing space for themes and characters to breathe. Even when they have great potential. Ikoma, makes for a surprisingly engrossing “Uppity Shonen Hero” type. His unerring wish to not only better help humanity in crisis, and later his desire to save Mumei from her plight, have moments of bittersweet complication. He’s never completely vindicated at every turn, and is often smacked down for his naivete. While Mume, makes for a duration of the series, a decent counterbalance for him by having chosen this fate, and is well under way toward becoming something potentially dangerous. Sure, she’s your typical moe icon with a heart of gold and killer skills, but there is plenty of potential for effective back and forth between these two, as well as with the rest of the cast, many of whom work well. Especially the young noble, Ayame. A character that one could easily see becoming the show’s heart and soul. But again, they are undercut by the seemingly endless collage of machine noise and horrendous screaming. The show’s lack of modulation ends up hurting the whole, while one might keep pining for a better treatment come the announced future feature films. It’s a format that might better help Kabane better tune sharply into what makes the ensemble occasionally work.
And it’s true. There are moments here that are capable of rousing even the most jaded. From well-executed escapes, to even an AoT like run in with a “hybrid” mass of monsters, the show does feature several effective showstoppers. On a presentation level, about 85% of the series comes complete with some stunning animation and color, which begins to falter hard come latter episodes. But the scenes that work evoke some of the most visually striking stuff this side of either the early 00s, or even feature film anime of the latter 1980s. And make sure to watch it with the largest screen, and best sound system possible, as Hiroyuki Sawano (of Kill La Kill, and AoT fame) breaks out some of his most overpowering material to date. But admittedly, the largest draw for me was the new character design work by Macross legend, Haruhiko Mikimoto, who’s work here goes a long way toward helping create this strange aura that can at times feel distracting, but is no less refreshing in the current era. Again, problems become very apparent come episode 9, where not only is the animation starting to cut corners wildly, but the story feels truncated. We are never given the proper dramatic fuel to help propel us emotionally into the climax. So when it all comes to a classically rushed final act, more of it feels perfunctory than satisfying.
So when the series has its great opportunity to turn something familiar, yet grand, it is with great resignation that one says here that even when faced with this not quite as daunting task, Kabaneri never seems willing to break free from formula. This is made all the more painful once we are introduced to these new characters that ultimately split up our protagonists, push them to their lowest points, and resort to Fantasy Saga Climax No.4: Win Your Friend Back With Love. There are hints throughout that it might be headed in this direction early on, but for it to stick so hard to formula does nothing to help the series be more than merely a romp. There is spectacle to be had for sure, but there is also potential for a great deal more. It’s reheated leftovers with some spice, but it’s still the same old song. And these tired dance moves are doing nothing for my back.
Kotetsujou No Kabaneri is now streamable on Amazon!