Looking back on Koutetsujou No Kabaneri as a complete series is a really strange experience. Mostly because, on the whole, it’s a really exciting premise, and a pretty good show, that is held back by some odd decisions on the creative end. As I’ve said before, it isn’t anything story or world breaking, but that’s also one of the problems. The world is only really explored as far as the plot needs, and this world begs to be explored more fully.
Before I get into the downsides, though, I do want to praise Studio Wit for the stellar animation this series has. Every single second, every frame, is just beautiful. The whole thing looks like a stunning work of art put into motion. Koutetsujou, on that front, is a rousing success.
The character designs are all very distinct and amazing. The action sequences are breath taking. The camera angles are masterful. Hell, even the lighting is perfectly done. Most notable, to me anyway, is that when the camera pans, it looks and feels like a properly panning camera, as if the entire thing was being shot as a live action film.
Koutetsujou is a treat for the eyes, without a doubt, and the ears as well, as the soundtrack just nails it. Not just with the incidental scores, either, but with the big background song moments. This is a soundtrack I would love to own, as it blends the horror and hope of the world setting brilliantly.
Also worthy of note is the voice acting. Every one brings their A game, from the most minor of background characters to the leads. The voice crew for Koutetsujou really does deserve massive applause for the amazing work they do with this show. From a purely vocal standpoint, every actor straight up nailed their characters, and the emotions that needed to be conveyed.
It is also very impressive how much character building happens over the course of the series, with only two notable exceptions. Granted, they are very important exceptions, but I’ll get to them soon enough. The rest of the cast, and even the background characters, have their own arcs and development that occurs in natural, unforced ways.
Ayame goes from pampered, spoiled princess to tough as nails leader through a series of believable and relatable experiences. She relies on her own judgement, but also listens to her advisor and takes their opinions seriously. I’ve said before how the series was full of BAMF ladies, and Ayame tops that list with an extremely satisfying character arc that lets her be her own person from start to finish. She even saves the day on more than one occasion.
Of course, you guys are already very familiar with my deep and abiding love of Yukina. I have a very deep seated weakness for tough, smart, fearless women, and Yukina hit that point hard. She even got character development over the course of the series, done in small, insightful moments that never overplayed or diminished her bad ass level.
The same goes for Kajika, who despite being a skilled steam smith, took it upon herself to care for the orphans, organize the refugees, and in general, be the backbone of the Kotetsujyo. All of which lead to her powerful moment over Takumi’s death being completely believable and not the slightest bit out of character.
Not that the guys suffered any, either. Takumi was, without a doubt, the heart of the show. His death was powerful, painful, and emotionally devastating to the viewer as much as it was to the crew of the Kotetsujyo. Yet, even in that death, his character continued to grow, showing how courageous and selfless he had become. It’s masterful writing.
The same goes for Sukari, who starts the show as a pain in the ass, but develops over the series to be, well, still a pain in the ass, but a very selfless and loyal friend. Hell, even his pain in the ass side was completely relatable, and explored in just a few words, in a single scene.
I could go on and on over these characters, and how well written and developed they were. Kurusu goes from arrogant Bushi who cares more about honor than anything, to a genuine hero willing to do whatever it took to save others. Kibito was a constant, always the wise voice, the calming influence, who would fuck people up if he had to. Of all the secondary characters, he had the least amount of development, simply because he started out already awesome. There wasn’t much to improve on.
No, I didn’t forget Mumei, but her character development and story arc are tied very closely to the plot, making it hard to talk about one without touching on the other. While her development as a character was wonderful and she earns her place as another of Koutetsujou’s bad ass ladies, the plot itself is where things kinda start to fall apart. Mostly because the the show doesn’t feel like a cohesive series, so much as it does two very different and separate arcs crammed together into 12 episodes. As a result, Mumei’s character arc suffers somewhat.
And most of that failure falls on Ikoma and Biba, two of the most under developed characters ever. Mumei just sort of suffers the backlash of how badly those two were executed.
Note, I say executed. Both of them were very well thought out. That shows in many of the scenes through out the series. The problem is that the character development and inner workings are mostly inferred, and not very clearly.
Let’s take Ikoma. He’s a very generic hero character, who at the start of the series, develops a new type of gun and ammo that can drastically tip the balance in the ongoing war against the Kabane. This is only very briefly touched on again, but is mostly just forgotten about, kind of denying his character the whole motivation he originally had.
What’s his new motivation? Why, to save Mumei, who is never even presented as someone who really needs saving until the last couple of episodes, making Ikoma’s motives look more self serving that altruistic. Between those two points, he’s just sort of there, declaring to every one in earshot that he will save the world, which he then can’t do, obviously, leading to him needing to be saved himself every time he turns around.
Which I’m not exaggerating. He had to be saved from himself when he tried to bite Ayame. He had to be saved from himself, by Ayame, when they fought the Wazatori. He had to be saved by the crew after he got buried alive trying to save Mumei, who wouldn’t have needed saving if she hadn’t let someone she knew better than to trust whisper in her ear. That was really the first instance of Mumei behaving in a way the plot needed, but Ikoma’s actions were even less helpful at that point. Hell, even Kurusu had to basically Jedi mind trick Ikoma into getting off his ass at the end.
Point is, for a character who makes big declarations, Ikoma was pretty useless. Outside of the Kabaneri aspect of the show, the entire series wouldn’t have been terribly different without him there, which isn’t a very good thing for your protagonist.
However, in the last couple episodes, Ikoma got his groove back, accepted that he was full of shit, and risked his own life for his ideals. So, he still got some character development, just not as much as the rest of the cast.
Which was still better than what Biba got.
The weird thing about Biba is that, as a writer, I can see everything they put into the character. I get what drives him, why he does what he does, how he sees the world, all of it really. As a viewer, though, I also see how poorly they conveyed that to the audience. Biba comes across as a lunatic who creates rampant destruction for no real reason, because his reasons are not made clear until the very tail end of the final episode, and even then, not well.
As a character, Biba was the biggest disappointment of the series. A tragic, tortured man, unable to escape the grief and pain of his childhood, no longer even fully human, obsessed with ending the tyranny and corruption of a selfish government that thought nothing of sacrificing anyone they wanted to maintain their illusory grip on transient power. Such a rich, complex, compelling character for the naive Ikoma to grapple with.
Instead, we got a guy who goes around blowing shit up, with all that other, really good stuff, only inferred in little moments, making it hard to really understand or care about the character. Which is a shame, as I feel very strongly Biba could have been one of the most memorable anime villains of all time in different circumstances.
A lot of this comes own to the plot. I’ve said before how the intense, lightening fast pacing of the show ended up shortchanging some of the characters. Biba and Ikoma, obviously, but also Mumei, who sometimes had to act according to plot logic. Had the show been 24 episodes instead of 12, I think this might have all been a lot different, allowing both Bba and Ikoma to develop in better, more understandable ways. The only thing that really saves Mumei from her plot logic decisions is that the writers really did their very best to give her in world, and in character, reasons for doing the things she did. It doesn’t always work, but I give points for a valiant effort to cover the plot needs with character development.
Another reason I think this show would have benefited from an extra 12 episodes was the almost whiplash inducing turn we took half way through. The first half of the series is an intense struggle to survive against an impossible enemy, as the crew searches for someplace they can feel safe. The second half has Biba and suddenly turns into a battle against an actual enemy that can be defeated, shoving the Kabane and all the mysteries of the Kabaneri off to the side.
Of course, I remember how Blue Gender basically did the same thing, and it did have 24 episodes, so that might not have saved Koutetsujou, but I can’t help feeling as if it wouldn’t have hurt it so badly as the 12 episode format had.
Basically, I see as spending the first 12 on the Kotetsujyo trying to reach a safe harbor, and finding lost stations that shouldn’t have fallen, hinting towards Biba’s actions, as well as damaged tracks forcing them to double back and take ever more dangerous routes in their effort to reach Kongokaku. At every turn, they are harried by Kabane, a dwindling food and water supply, and rising tensions among the crew. Do it as a slow burn, with the existence of the Kabaneri just adding fuel to the fire, as Ikoma spends this part of the series trying to understand just what he’s become, what a Kabaneri is, and what the Kabane actually are.
Then, still a ways away from Kongokaku, have them encounter Biba, who is moving in a separate direction. You could split things up a bit this way, by having Mumei and Ikoma travel with him, learn about him, and slowly reveal his plan to change the world, while the Kotetsujyo crew begins to realize that getting rid of the two Kabaneri wasn’t the best idea as they struggle to survive. Then, when they link back up, have Ikoma, who has almost drank the Kool Aid Biba is selling, encourages the Kotetsujyo to stick with Biba, leading to the big finish we got.
It still works, just at a slightly slower pace, but with more room for character development that makes both Ikoma and Biba less a cypher and more like real people.
Hindsight is easy, though, and I admit I don’t know what limits Studio Wit was working under, so this may really be the best possible offering they could put out there. It isn’t anything to be ashamed of, either, as the pros heavily outweigh the cons.
Despite some flaws, and bumps, Koutetsujou is a beautiful, rich, intense and worthy journey to be a part of. Even with the extremely under explained dues ex ending it got. Rather than a show you can turn your brain off to enjoy, I actively encourage people to turn their brain on, as most of the really cool stuff with the characters and plot happens in the subtext.
You guys know I love me some subtext.
Now, with all that said, there are two other things I want to address. The first is something I mentioned some time back about how this show made me feel weird in regards to my own zombie fiction. Which, by the way, looks to have possibly found a new publisher after the collapse of my previous one, Booktrope.
As briefly as I can, without giving anything away, the reason Koutetsujou makes me feel weird is that, about five or six years ago, I started writing a series with a zombie apocalypse as the backdrop. I had no plan in mind when I started writing, just a character I really liked. As the first book unfolded, there were a few things that happened that surprised even me.
The first was an intelligent zombie that had no desire to eat or hurt anyone, kinda like a Kabaneri before I ever saw a Kabaneri. The second was the arrival of giant zombies, similar too, but not the same as the fused colony. The sixth book in the series even uses a train as a major element of the plot.
I’m pretty familiar with the idea of synchronicity. Despite the fact that for a couple of years, these books were self published and available in Japan, I don’t think the writers at Studio Wit were cribbing ideas. I seriously doubt they ever even heard of my work, much less read it. What I am saying is that it made me feel weird to see similar ideas and thoughts being presented in an anime series.
Life is weird, guys. These things happen, and while it was weird, I loved it. Frankly, I love weird stuff in general. I’m the kinda guy who loses hours watching videos on You Tube about unexplained disappearances and the like. Weird is kinda where I live.
The second big thing I want to talk about briefly is that I won’t be covering any of the summer 2016 anime shows. The reasons for this go back to my girlfriends health problems. I’ll explain what’s new there in a separate post, but for the next couple of months, I’m going to be very busy taking care of her, so my already limited time is just stretched too thin.
I do plan to jump back into anime recaps when the fall season rolls around, though. So, look for me to be back in a few months, still giving my overly long recaps and talking about what I like and don’t like right in the middle of it.
I want to thank everyone who visits here, reads my recaps, and shares them with their friends, or even just likes my posts. I appreciate you guys more than I can say, and I look forward to jumping back into the wild and crazy world of anime as soon as possible.
So, as always, see ya then!