Written by Sarah Latch
Steampunk is often thought of from a Western lens, with black tea and stiff upper lips. However, this mindset ignores a wealth of inspiration in Asia. This neglect means that Asian steampunks yearning for representation need to forge their own works. In April 2016, animation group Wit Studio did just that, by releasing anime Kotetsujo no Kabaneri, or Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress. Wit Studio breaks off from the standard civilized, elegant image of steampunk many have. Instead, they plunge the viewer into a violent, brutal zombie apocalypse with heavy emphasis on the “punk.” Anyone believing that animation is simply for children will think twice after the first few bloody minutes of episode one.
The island of Hinomoto has fallen to the Kabane: hordes of the undead with glowing veins and impenetrable, ironclad hearts. The survivors hide in walled stations-cities laced with train tracks. The only method of travel between them is by armored steam trains called Hayajiro. Hayajiro engineer Ikoma is on the verge of creating a steam powered gun strong enough to pierce a Kabane’s heart. However, before he can perfect it, an overrun Hayajiro crashes through the wall of his city. Kabane flood inside, sending the people desperately running to the safety of the Hayajiro Kotetsujo.
Ikoma rushes to his workshop to retrieve his gun, fends off a Kabane and successfully kills it with his invention. Unfortunately, the Kabane leaves an infected bite wound in his arm. Ikoma is able to cut off the undead virus’s circulation and barely escapes death. However, the virus is still in his blood, and he finds himself transformed into a superhuman half-zombie Kabaneri. With the help of a fellow Kabaneri – the combat-experienced Mumei – Ikoma boards the Kotetsujo and swears to protect the survivors. What follows is heart-pounding action, tragic losses, heartwarming character development and all the undead carnage the zombie apocalypse genre celebrates.
Kabaneri was a monster hit in Japan, and adored by anime fans all over the globe. It ranked high in polls throughout its twelve-episode run. It sits in the top 150 most popular anime on MyAnimeList (out of literally hundreds of works). A PC and mobile game will sell in 2017. Mumei joined the famed Nendoroid figures. The characters were even used to advertise a blood drive. Kabaneri turned into the beginnings a franchise in less than a year. This is exceptional, as steampunk is a niche genre in Japan, just like in the West. It was able to stand on its own with just twelve episodes, but why?
Anime art style
The biggest reason for Kabaneri’s viewership is likely its art style. Kabaneri‘s animation style is detailed and mature, as befitting a story in a retro-futuristic past. It hearkens back to the style of eighties and nineties, when anime was created with cel animation, not computer animation. The character’s eyes have detailed irises and dark pupils. Their hair is thicker and more voluminous. The highlights and shading are more pronounced, almost creating a chiaroscuro effect. This is in complete contrast with the thinner hair, simpler, cuter eye designs and softer shading of other modern anime. The level of detail goes beyond the characters as well. The backgrounds and props look just as beautiful. The style gives Kabaneri a lot of character and makes every frame a painting. Kabaneri‘s beauty is enough to draw in crowds of viewers and introduce them to a whole new steampunk world.
This artistic style means that the steampunk technology looks gorgeous, and Wit Studio takes every opportunity to show it off. Large portions of the story take place on the Kotetsujo. As a result, the animators show off all the pipes, steam clouds, levers, boilers and gauges a steampunk could want. The characters showcase a wide variety of steampunk weapons, from Ikoma’s homebrew gun to a steam powered bow.
As important as technology is to steampunk, another important staple is the characters that use it. Kabaneri delivers with a variety of memorable characters. All walks of life populate the Kotetsujo. There are Kabaneri such as the playful yet mysterious Mumei, engineers such as the stoic, skilled Yukina, soldiers such as the rightfully wary stick-in-the-mud Kurusu and nobility such as the ladylike and assertive Ayame.
Alongside their personalities, the characters all have excellent Japanese-influenced designs. The designs are just as diverse as the cast. Yukina has her pink hair, goggles and uniform (removed to reveal a tank top and muscles when she gets serious). Ayame has her formal shirt, skirt and long ponytail. The attention to detail is impressive. Foreign engineer Suzuki – a minor character – is even voiced by a foreign actor fluent in Japanese. As a result, he has a realistic accent. However, Suzuki does fall into the cliché of substituting random words for English. The results range from fitting to jarring (sometimes in the same sentence).
For all its visual merit, however, Kabaneri’s plot is average at best. The first arcing conflict is ignorant survivors ungrateful for the Kabaneri’s help. They forget that they’re only alive because of Ikoma, as he lowered the bridge leading out of their collapsing city. This is after he was shot off the train by a cautious Kurusu. The second is a villain introduced halfway (who won’t be spoiled here). Their motivations seem petty or not clear enough to fully grasp. New, crazy Kabane types – such as the sword-wielding Wazatori and the Black Smoke conglomerates – appear out of nowhere.
However, Kabaneri doesn’t need a nuanced, complex plotline. At one point in the show, the Koutetsujou gets a working cannon mounted on top. The idea sounds crazy, and it is. However, ideas such as these encapsulate what the show is all about. So what Kabaneri seems silly? Viewers don’t watch it for incredible writing or powerful drama, just zombies. It does action first and foremost, with excellent choreography and animation. Said crazy Kabane work to keep the show interesting and creative with its fight scenes. Kabaneri is a solid popcorn show fueled by the Rule of Cool, and that’s all the viewers need it to be. Of course, that’s assuming they have strong enough stomachs to eat popcorn while watching a zombie show.
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is available with English subtitles on Amazon Prime.