If you’ve been (im)patiently awaiting Attack on Titan’s second season (which is due April 2017), then may I humbly suggest watching Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress to help tide you over? Both series are cut from the same cloth in terms of setting, storyline, and tone. Not surprisingly, they were created by the same studio and director.
There are times when you can’t help wondering why Wit Studio and Tetsurō Araki even bothered making Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress in the first place, considering just how similar it gets to Attack on Titan. Maybe they wanted to ensure they still knew how to animate steampunk warriors fighting human-devouring monsters in a feudal setting while waiting for Hajime Isayama to complete the Attack on Titan manga. Or maybe they just know what they’re good at, because as redundant as Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress feels at times, it’s still very entertaining.
The series is set in a country resembling 19th century Japan. A mysterious virus has swept through the nation, turning countless humans into kabane, nigh-unstoppable zombie-like creatures that swarm the countryside devouring everyone in their path. The few remaining humans live in giant walled stations and travel via armored trains protected by steampunk samurai.
Following the death of his sister, who was killed by kabane when they were children, Ikoma has devoted his life to developing a weapon that can easily destroy the monsters. He’s able to successfully test this weapon when his station is overrun by kabane, but is bitten in the chaos. Ordinarily, this would mean death, or worse, becoming a kabane himself. However, Ikoma manages to resist the virus and instead, becomes a human/kabane hybrid called a kabaneri.
Ikoma manages to escape with a handful of survivors including a princess, her samurai bodyguards, and most importantly, a young but incredibly skilled warrior named Mumei who is also a kabaneri. Together, they begin a perilous journey by train to the nation’s capital for shelter. However, not only must they battle the horrifying kabane horde, but also a growing sense of fear and paranoia directed at Ikoma and Mumei, who are considered monsters themselves.
Does any of this sound familiar?
If I seem overly dismissive of Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, then consider this: as similar, and even derivative, as Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress felt at times, I was rarely not entertained by it. The twelve-episode series moves at a brisk pace that rarely lets up. Indeed, I got so caught up in the action during my first viewing that I breezed through three or four episodes in no time.
While nowhere near as grim or nihilistic as Attack on Titan, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress nevertheless has a pretty dark tone — which also helps hold your interest. This is especially true during early episodes, which skillfully introduce the kabane threat and portrays Ikoma’s struggles with his monstrous dual nature. The series’ opening sequence effectively introduces both the world and the stakes at play: we see kabane swarm an armored train while its defenders desperately fight them off. (In one particularly shocking scene, a man bitten by a kabane must commit suicide with a small explosive device before he risks infecting his comrades. It’s quickly made obvious this is a pretty common occurrence in the series’ world.)
Animation-wise, Wit Studio does an excellent job. There’s plenty of CGI, as is the case with most modern anime titles, but it’s well-integrated. And just like Attack on Titan, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress boasts some impressive action sequences. Because of their kabaneri nature, both Mumei and Ikoma possess superhuman speed and strength, and the animators love to show that off with one physics-defying feat after another. (And if Attack on Titan’s character designs bugged you, then you’ll probably like the more “traditional” designs in Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress.)
Ultimately, if Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress possesses one real weakness, it’s not an overt similarity to Attack on Titan. Rather, it’s the storyline’s second half, which introduces the series’ primary human villain and their complex plot to overthrow the government using horrific medical experiments and shadowy conspiracies. But compared to the simple, existential — and very intense — threat posed by the kabane, the “overthrow” plot feels like writer Ichirō Ōkouchi (Space Dandy, Valvrave the Liberator) over-complicated things a bit too much.
In the end, I was able to overlook the similarities between Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress and Attack on Titan, and judge the former on its own merits. Perhaps the ultimate compliment I can pay Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is that, as the surviving characters steamed off to an uncertain fate in the series finale, I found myself sufficiently intrigued to want several more episodes — if only to see their further adventures and survival in the kabane-filled wasteland.