One thing that fascinates us about zombies is the absence of humanity—from both the dead and the living. This begets moral ambiguity, and upheaval of societal norms. For some, zombies may be overused but for me? I’m terrified of them. Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress sometimes feeds into my obsessions with the undead. And sometimes, not so much.
SPOILER ALERT for Episodes 1 through 6 of Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress. There will be no explicit spoilers for Episode 7 which aired two days ago.
I’ve seen my fair share of zombie apocalypse stories, and the one thing I look for in all zombies (and undead/zombie-like creatures) is their behavior. As far as ‘zombies’ go, the movie 28 Days Later has some of the scariest. The undead in that 2002 version of the zombie apocalypse truly frightened me for being inexplicably fast, and vicious. The transformation from human to Infected takes mere seconds to complete, and the quick loss of human sensibilities to nothing more than apparent blind rage and bloodlust was particularly anxiety inducing for me.
Kabaneri—currently airing as part of the Spring 2016 anime season—follows survivors in an ongoing zombie (known as the Kabane) apocalypse, set in a steampunk re-imagining of feudal Japan. The survivors live at fortified stations, connected to each other via a railway system. And among them are Kabaneri—beings who exist as neither human nor Kabane, but something in between. They have bodies of the Kabane but with fully functioning human minds.
It’s this last thing that twists the zombie apocalypse genre some, which the anime cleverly focuses on, and rightly so. But what I found really intriguing were the Kabane themselves. They are as insanely fast as the infected in 28 Days Later. That was enough to get me hooked when I started the series.
The show is now over halfway through its season, and in that time, has pulled a few instances that have been frightful, especially in the first couple of episodes. The close up shots of the undead running wild remind me a lot of 28 Days Later, actually. The unwavering barrage of attacks are heart thumping.
But I noticed something else which had me excited when watching those first few episodes—the Kabane seemed to have a relatively high level of intelligence. Enough to make what looked like conscious decisions, mock fearful villagers and heed extraneous factors, which is not something typical to zombie portrayals. Initially, that was what made Kabaneri so damned scary.
The prospect of a show exploring a version of the undead with so much of their mental capacities in tact was exciting. My hope was that Kabaneri could weave a really great narrative around this. Like 28 Days Later, I hoped it could encompass all the things zombie apocalypse stories excel at—acute commentary on what makes us human, how rapidly society and morality break down, how those without a strong moral compass become worse when there’s no social structure to keep them in check, and how humans can be even scarier than the undead.
What the first six aired episodes of Kabaneri have predominantly shown, however, is that the series is somewhat campy. Learned behavior explains the sword wielding abilities of a Kabane in Episode 4, “Flowing Blood”. A giant ‘Smoke Monster’ of a Kabane fused colony takes center stage in Episode 6, “Gathering Light”. This was an interesting display of organizational behavior to create something extreme. Is it thrilling? Yes. Scary? Insofar as giant monsters chasing anyone for a ‘WTF’ moment can be, sure. Legitimately bone-chilling, however? No. Not particularly. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this campy flavor to the show, and it’s unsurprising given how it presented itself from the beginning, with its propensity for bad-ass characters, over-the-top action and gravity defying acrobatics.
My issue with Kabaneri is that it tries to balance its outrageous action by exploring themes common in serious portrayals of zombie apocalypse narratives, but it doesn’t quite manage to do the latter effectively. While it’s true horrible things happen to various people in Kabaneri, and humans are quick to turn violent out of fear, so many of the scenes feel rushed, and are touched on ever so lightly, without truly questioning consequences of certain sequences and actions. It’s the lite version of all those heavy themes, when I think I’m supposed to be taking the characters’ plight seriously. So far, I just haven’t been able to do so.
I know, the series is only just over its halfway point. Something can change drastically, particularly as the Kabaneri are the wild cards of the series. It may yet still turn out to be a brilliant twist on the zombie apocalypse genre, and I suspect that’s likely what will happen. The show already has a great setting in its steampunk aesthetics leading to limitations on how the characters fight. It also has a hell of a lot of fun behind it. Even if the series remains heavily action-based, it’s quite entertaining with some cool ideas.
But humans are truly terrifying when they cannot be distinguished from the undead. With Kabaneri, this line has the utmost potential to be blurred for its two central Kabaneri characters. The show’s already hinting at this, but I can only be hopeful the rest of the series follows through. If it does, it’d be one hell of a scare.