The Amazon Prime era begins with a considerable bang.
I could go a considerable number of different ways with this post, but let’s start with the basics – Koutetsujou no Kabaneri is very good. There are a lot of semi-connected factors that play in to how this series might be judged, but on the most fundamental level it’s a rip-rousing action spectacle. I mean, I have absolutely no idea why something like this would be on NoitaminA if Fuji TV is making any pretense about NoitaminA having a meaningful identity, but I guess we’re at the point where it’s best to look at it as just another timeslot.
That Koutetsujou is a NoitaminA show is mainly relevant because it marks the beginning of an exclusivity arrangement between the Block and Amazon Prime. I think it can be assumed that Amazon paid more for streaming rights to this series than is usual, and perhaps more than we’ve ever seen for a TV anime – we don’t know (they certainly have what should be a viable commercial vehicle with this series). What we also don’t know is what impact this partnership will have on anime long-term, except that it will likely change it in profound ways – I lean towards the positive, though as convincing a case can be made that this is a disaster in the making or that it’s going to save the medium. Stay tuned.
As for Koutetsujou no Kabaneri in and of itself, it’s not altogether different than what you would expect from a Wit series directed by Araki Tetsurou and written by Okouchi Ichiro. It looks really good and it’s really, really loud and violent. Both these guys are masters of excess to say the least and they don’t disappoint here – if spectacle and bombast is your thing you won’t be disappointed. Both these guys are capable of more – Okouchi wrote Planetes and Araki directed Death Note – but I think they both realize what brings in the big checks and they’re sticking with it. And Wit (as long as they don’t run into production crises) is reliable to produce great-looking anime.
Another thing one can’t ignore is that there are some pretty obvious similarities to Araki-sensei’s Shingeki no Kyoujin. The faces of the Kabane – the monsters of this piece – have a distinctly titan look. The humans live in walled towns to survive, and present a greater threat to each other in many ways than the monsters do. It’s kind of the elephant in the room, though as the premiere progresses the differences become more obvious. For starters the kabane are human-sized, and really more like zombies than anything. If they bite you you’re infected and doomed (or are you?), though these are zombies with a twist – they have an iron cage around their hearts which must be breached if one is to kill them.
On balance I think this is a pretty interesting premise, and the execution in the premiere is excellent. It’s breathless and exhilarating from start to finish, with some great action set pieces and a couple of genuinely scary moments (the humans are way scarier than the kabane). It’ also nice to see Hatanaka Tasaku get another crack at a lead role after his splendid turn in Ushio & Tora, and he plays the protagonist Ikoma here. Ikoma is one of the grunts who support the armed forces which serve as a sort of combination of the Recon Corps and a Central American death squad. The villages – walled outposts holding out against the zombie hordes supplied by armored trains – seem to be part of a feudal system that’s re-taken control of Japan in the post-apocalypse (the setting for this episode looked an awful lot like Fushimi Inari).
Ikoma is an intriguing mix of geek and psychotic, as he proves in his response to being bitten after a zombie train breaches the village walls. Of the other characters there’s not much to go on, though the uber-moe ninja Mumei (Senbongi Sayaka) is clearly going to be a major player. I do have some concerns here, starting with the fact that both Araki and Okouchi are guys who seem to have trouble sustaining a strong start all the way to the finish. But there’s a lot to like in Kouetsujou no Kabanri, and it’s a series that would be worth following closely even it didn’t represent a potentially crucial nexus point in the history of anime.