Synopsis: Koutetsujou no Kabaneri is an anime-original series that shows how the initially weak-willed protagonist, Ikoma, grows as a character while fighting off hordes of zombies from attacking his friends and other villagers aboard the Iron Fortress, a steam-powered locomotive.
This is the type of story that everyone wanted after the Attack on Titan craze struck anime fans as something that invoked deep emotions through its characters, but also contained high-powered, well-animated action sequences that made the anime stand out from others. With similar kinds of expectations to meet, Koutetsujou no Kabaneri steamrolled into the scene, attempting to become the next anime to take on that role and to give fans a new incarnation of that same sort of story to live vicariously through. This show, being created by nearly the same core team as Attack on Titan, was automatically seen as a hit among fans across the globe, and with the unique setting and art style, backed up by Hiroyuki Sawano‘s OST, there was no stopping the hype train. But if all of this was the case, then why was there a complete turnaround on the general community’s view of the show? Why has a show that was on a track for nothing but success, suddenly become the bane of nearly everyone that has finished the show?
It’s because the show went completely off the rails, and not necessarily in the best of ways.
How the series started is severely different from what it eventually became. The unique character designs blended well with the absolutely jaw-dropping and fast-paced action sequences and, while this reflected the good intentions of the show, it became clear as the show continued that it was not possible for the staff to keep up the level of quality produced thus far. This quality drop resulted in what I call “Wit Stills”, which isn’t as much about animation of action as it is about using the camera to pan over a still image to convey the illusion of action.
Even though these panning background images are still outstanding works of art, they simply cannot produce the same impact as the intense action scenes from before. Sawano’s blaring soundtrack was masterfully interwoven with the action to produce an intense amount of drama and tension, but when those action scenes became nearly non-existent and replaced by “Wit Stills”, that same soundtrack ended up sounding more out-of-place and awkward than before, despite the OST never actually dropping in quality. This is far from what caused the downfall of the series though and was only a minor complaint in the grand scheme of the show, as the rest of the presentation was solid enough to make up for it.
The anime’s biggest pitfall, the writing and character progression, ended up being a major complaint of many by the end of the season. Ikoma’s backstory, taking on the Kabane to both enact revenge for his sister slain by them and to defend those that he wants to protect, gave the writers a lot of room to carry out the cool action scenes and allowed for a wide diversity in how they could be displayed. While a simple character growth story isn’t exactly the most original concept for an action anime, it’s a tried-and-true way to give the story a solid foundation to build upon, whether that’s done through animation or story-telling. Where this ended up going wrong, however, was in the second half of the anime, when the main “villain”, Biba, introduced himself into the show.
The problems I had with the “villain”, and I find myself hard-pressed to call him a villain because his motivations were poorly conveyed, weren’t necessarily the acts that he carried out within the story, but what those actions had done to take the show into a different direction. The first half was incredibly focused on having lots of fast-paced action sequences to produce an adventure-thriller vibe where the viewers were always asked the question, “What kind of trouble will happen on the Iron Fortress, and how will our characters deal with it?”. The situations the characters encounter deal with several issues happening within the world of Koutetsujou no Kabaneri, such as Ayame coping with the fact that she couldn’t live up to the villagers expectations of the strong leader that her father was, or how the villagers struggled to deal with two half-Kabane (Kabaneri) on the train, despite all of them almost dying to a similar breed of zombies only a few days earlier. Watching these situations play out was the pinnacle of the show, and the characters had completely tangible reactions to those situations.
The second half of the show, however, decided to break from the formula, and instead, substituted these character-challenging scenarios with something much more standard, a plot revolving around conquering a crazed villain that wanted only the strong to survive.
Ironically, while the villain’s intentions were to make the strong survive, the writing of the show seemed keen on reducing the characters to their most vulnerable roles with no precedent for doing so, with Mumei being the only exception because of her young age and could be easily manipulated by Biba, her savior and role model. For example, Ayame started off as a character in the leadership role that knew nothing about how to lead anyone, but as Ikoma, Mumei, and the other crew members found their own roles on the train, she also finds her role to lead the people on the train to safety through the sheer strength and willpower provided by the people supporting her. This brings her to a point where even she is not afraid to take up arms and fight the Kabane herself. Unfortunately, this is one of the few scenes that allows her character to truly shine, as she later becomes a mere puppet for Biba’s plans and a figure of power for her guards to constantly need to protect, sometimes not even playing a major role despite that she is possibly one of the last political figures to survive in this world.
This outline of “display awesome character, reduce awesome character to nothing because of Biba” became a trend for the series in the second half, resulting in many more insulting and degrading situations for many of the characters in the show. Mumei’s character was the most problematically handled as she went from a bad-ass fighter to Biba’s powerless pawn that needed saving by Ikoma, although a certain event that occurred with one of the side characters was by far the worst instance of this, as it was completely unnecessary and served no purpose in the story besides to shock the viewers. Of course, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that these scenarios could be justified by saying it was purposefully done to show how weak these characters actually were and may explain why Biba decided to eventually give up on converting them to his side. Although if this was the case, it would directly conflict with his attempt to work with them as potential fighters earlier on in the show.
By the end of the series, many viewers were upset at how it ended, but in reality, once the second half of the show unmasked itself, I realized I had seen this type of story done several times before and could easily predict what sort of steps this show would take to resolve itself. Maybe this explains why I didn’t really hate the ending, although I found it as disappointing as everyone else seemed to. If the show could have maintained the high animation quality with the same plot direction as the first few episodes, then I think this could have been a very different show, perhaps even one that would have been a stand-out from other shows like it. This may have been a huge success if the first few episodes instead became a short film, as it would still be the action-filled, steampunk show that it desired to become without the fluff of the airing series. As it stands though, I imagine this show will be left by the wayside despite having a solid first few episodes. Just as steam-powered trains became an obsolete and outdated thing of the past, this show will soon follow in the same path as those trains and will only be remembered as a stepping stone to something greater.
Verdict: The first few episodes of this show are pretty good, yet the rest of the show couldn’t hold up to those same standards. If you want to watch it because you want to, go for it, otherwise you can either pass on the show or just watch the first four episodes if you’re really curious.
Alternatively, go find some action videos/gifs and play the OST to them; it’ll probably give about the same feeling as watching the show.