[Synopsis]: Twenty years ago, the Kabane inexplicably appeared – undead, humanoid monsters possessing an infectious bite and an iron cage around their hearts. Their aggressive and resilient nature quickly pushed humanity to the brink, forcing them to flee behind the walls of fortress-esque stations connected by a network of rails and ironclad locomotives. When the walls of Aragane station are breached by an out of control train and it is overrun by Kabane, a young engineer named Ikoma (Hatanaka Tasuku) is forced to fight for his life and has a chance encounter with Mumei (Senbongi Sayaka), a girl who is neither Kabane nor entirely human.
Perhaps Kabaneri’s most overwhelming weakness was its frustrating cast of characters and their individual characterization. Though there are a handful of outlying characters that are introduced later in the show, Kabaneri focuses primarily upon the crew of the Koutetsujou – the titular, armored train that hails from the Aragane station. There are several characters of at least some import within the crew however whatever convictions or goals they have are ultimately pretty dismissible due to plot revolving so heavily around the Kabaneri Ikoma and Mumei.
Ikoma is quite a mixed bag in that, he possesses a number of traits that feel over-typical of a protagonist such as his stereotypical revenge story and never-back-down personality however he also exhibits a few refreshing characteristics. His guilt ridden conscience in both abandoning his sister to the Kabane years ago as well as his station’s abandonment of other people speaks well to his initial cynicism and underlying anger. These traits back up his otherwise conventional quality of facing his problems head on and at least gives the viewer something to chew on when the story starts out. Unfortunately for Ikoma, whatever interesting ideologies or quirks he at first possesses are quickly forgotten for the most part as the show blunders forward and he receives very little in terms of meaningful development.
Mumei is a different story altogether and has her own unique set of problems. Kabaneri attempts to establish her as a young and arrogant girl who slowly, over the course of her journey, opens up to others however this is executed rather ineffectively. Her propensity for changing her personality from scene to scene makes her feel very inconsistent as she switches constantly from impulsive to sincere to uncooperative. Mumei at her core represents what is probably the biggest singular issue within the cast which is their staggering lack of communication. Many issues that arise within the plot are almost solely to blame on Mumei’s own failure to communicate either what she is doing or what important information she knows. This results in the many dilemmas and developments born out of this miscommunication to feel frustrating and avoidable and many of the cast members are guilty of this beyond Mumei. People act how they want when they want and fail to convey themselves properly despite being contextualized as intelligent people.
The rest of the cast doesn’t offer much in order to make up for Kabaneri’s lackluster protagonists. The show initially paints the elders and nobility of the Aragane station as hardheaded and superstitious in order to develop an ‘Us versus Them’ scenario where we can more easily sympathize with Ikoma’s plight. This leaves them feeling one-dimensional and unhelpful before they eventually fade into the show’s backdrop. The antagonist is similarly problematic in that, though his reasons and goals have some legitimacy about them, Kabaneri does a horrific job in conveying what they are to the viewer and he ultimately appears cartoonishly evil in how he behaves – manipulating children and scheming genocide.
With the advent of Kabaneri, the show marks Wit Studio’s third stab at the post-apocalyptic monster story after Shingeki no Kyojin and Owari no Seraph. Given the studio’s familiarity with the premise, especially of the former, Kabaneri’s visuals are its singular worthwhile attribute. The first episode does well in exhibiting the kind of steampunk atmosphere and art style used by the show and with a couple flashy action sequences, promises impressive quality going forward. What’s more is that the quality is pretty consistent and between the feudal, steampunk environment and the action animation, the show is visually pretty entertaining to watch.
Were it not for Kabaneri’s generally frustrating cast and lack of compelling characters, the story would certainly represent its biggest issue. After their station is overrun with Kabane, Ikoma and Mumei as well as the remaining nobility and the rest of its residents flee on the Koutetsujou in hopes of making it safely to another station. Though its first episode is rather exciting and compelling, the plot slows to a crawl and stagnates significantly afterwards. Kabaneri doesn’t visit more than 3 or 4 locations and despite the constant action and conflict the show itself is rather uneventful. Combine this with the show’s other issues of poorly implemented plot devices, a generally predicable progression of events, plot contrivances, and a cast full of infuriating characters and the show as a whole becomes uninteresting and disappointing.
The Kabaneri – the half-human, half-Kabane hybrids capable of inhuman strength and speed are effectively the heart of the show as they are integral to the plot and an important trait of it’s main characters. The way their abilities are executed however presents an additional problem for the show. The Kabane, outside of their zombie-esque ability to ‘turn’ other people, are defined by their resilience – to the point that Ikoma’s development of a pressurized gun capable of punching through the iron cage surrounding their heart is a notable development and achievement.
When Mumei is then shown capable of dispatching entire groups of them almost effortlessly it sacrifices some of the tension of the show in exchange for a cinematic experience. Ikoma often exhibits the Kabaneri’s regenerative properties as well and as he pulls through each near-death experience, his and Mumei’s own fortitude further weakens the show’s tension.
In a similar way, the Kabane themselves too are characterized problematically. What is initially kind of a refreshing zombie design turns into something more as each episode reveals more and more features of the Kabane. As we learn more about them, what they are capable of grows steadily more and more outlandish and by the end of the show it is hard to say what the Kabane can and can’t do. This uncertain characteristic makes them feel too flexible to the situation as if they would become capable of whatever the story wanted them to be or what ever would be most theatrically pleasing.
While the presence of Sawano Hiroyuki is typically reason-alone enough to pick up a show, his appearance here does very little to alleviate Kabaneri’s problematic elements. While the soundtrack is exactly what you would expect out of him, it delivers only the most typical attributes of his style – many of the songs sounding completely indistinguishable from one another and collectively more akin to a continuous bridge than anything else. Barring the intermittent use of a few insert songs, the soundtrack was rather forgettable though fans of Sawano’s music should enjoy it just fine.
[Final Thoughts and Rating]:
Kabaneri is a visually exhilarating experience littered with poor writing and bad characters. The plot was slow to arrive at any interesting events, the cast was frustrating in how they conversed and dealt with one another, and the latter half of the show exacerbated the issues it had run into early on.
I gave Kabaneri a 4 because it suffered from numerous issues with its only beneficial trait being its flashy, visual presentation. The characters acted like idiots giving way to frustrating developments and foreseeable outcomes. The story was poorly written and involved far too many awkward plot contrivances to actually evoke any of the drama or tension it was aiming for.
I would recommend Kabaneri primarily based upon its subject matter of post-apocalyptic human versus monster survival. It’s quite similar to other shows that share a comparable premise to it and those that enjoyed those shows will likely be entertained by Kabaneri as well. While it leaves a lot to be desired in the writing and character departments, its a pretty decent action show if your aim is to sit back and enjoy the explosions.