You know I usually I don’t do longer analytical posts of newly finished show but I saw a video a few days ago talking about why Koutetsujou no Kabaneri was a good time despite how a ton of people on the internet said it went way downhill, and I feel the need to speak up as well. If you haven’t seen the show and want spoiler free recommendation to watch or not watch, my answer is yes, you should absolutely watch it, now let’s dig into the show in more detail. There will be spoilers ahead.
So the argument presented in the video that got me to write this post was as follows: Koutetsujou no Kabaneri was never about making a great story is was about showing you a bunch of awesome shit and making sure you had a good time, so it seems weird to complain about the weak story elements. I’m grossly oversimplifying and cutting the argument down of course but that was the main thrust of the video. And I have mixed feelings about this. Because I don’t this video’s argument is wrong per se, I just have a different perspective. Because in the video part of the argument is that all the plot elements that come into play in the second half of the show, which is what most people seem to be ragging on, are present early on and are predictable as fuck. I agree with this part of the argument but I don’t a lot of the things people are complaining about were ever bad nor do I think the story doesn’t really matter. This brings me to the director of Koutetsujou no Kabaneri, Tetsuro Araki.
Araki has worked on some of the biggest shows in the anime industry, he directed Death Note, Shingeki no Kyojin, High School of the Dead and now Koutetsujou no Kabaneri. However despite his rather impressive resume I’m not much a fan of Araki. My impression of Araki is that he is phenomenal at crafting big hype moments, at making mind-blowing action scenes or building up tension so high that eating a chip can become hype as fuck, this is Araki’s strong suit and it’s a great strong suit to have, in my opinion him being good at big dramatic hype moments is what has made his biggest hits so damn popular. However, I also feel like Araki is pretty bad at telling stories. In Shingeki no Kyojin and Death Note in particular I felt like Araki mangled the pacing of the show by throwing us into the action right away and then being forced to get slow as fuck to get all the setting and plot details to catch up to the big action scenes. This could just be a fault of the source material as well, I don’t know, but Araki’s shows tend to get a lot weaker when slower, plot driven episodes take center stage. This presents a problem for me because I am a story guy, like don’t get wrong I dig the hype moments and I’ll take a good hype moment over a mediocre story any day, my favorite scene in Shingeki no Kyojin was when giant Eren threw giant Annie over a huge building and then crashed through the building to keep the fight going for instance, but ultimately stories are more interesting to me than just big moments.
This is why I think High School of the Dead might be Araki’s best work, because it doesn’t need a story at all, it’s basic zombie fare with better action and hilariously over the top fanservice. To some people that makes High School of the Dead low hanging fruit, but I always loved High School of the Dead though because it has great, memorable moments as it moves from one action set piece to the next with story that is simple and easily understood, really it’s more of placeholder than anything. High School of the Dead is a show where the big ridiculous moments and drama (and of course fanservice) are king, and in my mind that what Araki is great at and the show never suffers from slow, plot driven episodes, which is what he’s not so great at. This is why I understand why so many people think the second half of Koutetsujou no Kabaneri is bad, regardless of their actual reasoning, what details they take issue with and so on, Araki has always been weaker when it comes to plot to me and it’s not at all unreasonable to expect the same of Koutetsujou no Kabaneri. Even the guy who made the video I’ve been mentioning thought it went downhill in the second half even though it was still a good time.
But this is where I disagree, because I don’t think anything went downhill. In fact my main complaint is that the show wasn’t given enough time to properly flesh itself out. Because while the show had plenty of hype moments it also had excellent story elements which, if further explored, could have made for a really impressive story. For example one thing I found myself questioning was why did the pregnant woman from episode three take so long to turn into a Kabane when Ikoma was going to be turned super fast. But then I remembered that Ikoma’s sister took a long time to turn, and then they brought up that only female Kabaneri can become Fused Colonies and it got me thinking about how the show has what it takes to make total sense of the Kabane virus. See because men and women can have different symptoms or be affected differently by the same disease or condition all the time in the real world, you easily apply the same logic to the Kabane virus and if given the time work out how it functions exactly it could be very interesting. Likewise Ikoma’s and Biba’s technology makes sense, while also being awesome steampunk shit. In the video the guy making the argument I’ve been referencing was saying that all kinds of aspects of the show was just about making it cooler, and I don’t disagree so much as I think he’s not giving the show enough credit. Sure coating swords in the metal of Kabane heart cages to make the blade stronger is there so we can watch someone sword fight with uber zombies, but it also makes sense as a scientific-technology concept and it could potentially be applied to other shit the same way that Ikoma’s jet bullets could be fired from his steampunk pressure gun or the more traditional steam rifles all the bushi used. Speaking of Ikoma’s gun, in retrospect it reminds a lot of the fat nerd from High School of the Dead and his improvised nail gun, like they have the exact same shorter, snub-nosed look and the fat guy and Ikoma take the same stance when using them, no joke, go compare them it’s awesome.
Likewise I feel that Biba and his group were a lot more compelling than most people give them credit for. Sure what he did is fucked up and is by normal standards crazy, but to me he had a very clear logic behind him and I totally get why his men followed in in his insanity. See Biba both literally and figuratively gets backstabbed by the Shogun, his father. This is the inciting incident for him turning into a madman and it makes perfect sense. So get this, you’re twelve and your dad sends you to command a crazy dangerous mission, and against all odds you are doing a good job, then he cuts off the supplies and leaves you to die. I’d be more surprised by someone who didn’t crack at all in those circumstances or who didn’t want revenge. And it’s why it makes sense that Biba and his men would go so overboard in the show, they’ve all been left to die and they all feel betrayed and bitter, get a group of people like that together and you have a recipe for disaster. Not to mention I get why they think differently from everyone else, most people are cowering behind the walls actively avoiding Kabane, Biba and his men are dedicating everything they have to fighting Kabane, their lives are utterly consumed by violence in a dog-eat-dog world where the weak inevitably die off, that it’s all they know. This is why one of Biba’s men can cut a dude’s arm off and not be at all troubled by it, this is why Biba and his men can level cities and wipe out hordes of helpless innocents and not bat an eye, they no longer have any concept of social norms or peace because those things are meaningless to them and their everyday lives. Likewise they have been numbed to violence so where everyone else see tragedy when Biba wrecks a city, he and his men see another day at the proverbial office and are not troubled.
Biba and his men have even more weight lent to their actions by their ideals. Because Biba and Ikoma have almost exactly the same ideals save that Ikoma doesn’t think the strong survive and the weak die. Both of them want the bushi to stop cowering in fear and fight, to stop killing other people in their fright, like what happened in episode one, to man up and take the fight to the Kabane. However Ikoma sees the value of the cities as a way to keep the weak safe, Biba sees the cities as what’s holding humanity back and encouraging fear and weakness among the bushi so he’s setting out to destroy them, and get back at the Shogun while he’s at it. Basically the main point I want to make is that I find Koutetsujou no Kabaneri very impressive because it has Araki’s signature hype moments but also has competent storytelling and excellent story elements even if it doesn’t have enough time to flesh them all out in the level of detail I would like and thus do not live up to their full potential for me. This isn’t to say the show has no problems or has elements that don’t make sense. Like how come Ikoma and Horobi get blueish-purple psychic powers when they take the black blood, how does that have anything to do with the Kabane? But Koutetsujou no Kabaneri leaps over the these problems in a heartbeat both by being one of the best examples of storytelling on Araki’s apart, the slower episodes were actually decent in Koutetsujou no Kabaneri, and having some of the best hype moments and music of anything I’ve seen in some time. And for the record this show shits all over Shingeki no Koyjin, so that’s worth some points in my book.
In my opinion this is a must watch show, it’s not the savior of anime, one of the greatest things of all time or even one of may top ten favorites, but all the same I think it something everyone has to see at least once, if for no other reason than to form your own opinion. For me, I see the work where Araki improved his directing and compensated for his usual weaknesses which is impressive, and I dug the show the entire way through. Like I said my biggest complaint against the show is that there wasn’t enough of it, which is really just another way of me saying what we had was so good I want more of it, which I feel is high praise. Anyway I hope you enjoyed the read, if you’re feeling up to it I’d love to hear your thoughts on the show, and I’ll see you in the next one.