Of all the prejudices being thrown around this season, I’ve never been able to understand why many have rendered Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress as ‘dumb’. An easy criticism keeps coming up, that when we’ve got zombies and characters acting irrationally, we’re got a poorly-written show. Not only does this miss the point of how irrationality is used in fiction; it ignores the context of every ‘irrational’ event that happens. Foolishness is in fact a massive part of what makes Kabaneri such a potentially engaging show.
The opening of Kabaneri is a gritty introduction to the dysfunctional state of humanity in the apocalypse. Their iron trains are supposed to ward off the Kabane, but they end up aiming their guns with more solidarity at their own men than they do at the monsters piling onto their one chance at safe mobility. The same happens inside their city walls – they shoot an innocent man out of paranoia and fear, but such sacrifices are all for nothing, as their front line fails to keep a Kabane-infested train from penetrating, in a scene of fantastic irony, the walls they think will protect them.
The loss of a train leads to the loss of a civilization, emphasizing how the Iron Fortress of the show’s title is not referential to a city, a la Attack on Titan’s walled stronghold, but the trains we spend the vast majority of the show on board – one trained named ‘Iron Fortress’ in particular, as if the point wasn’t clear enough. But many viewers stopped considering any ‘meaning’ for scenes like the above, and started considering the show ‘dumb’, purely because the destruction of the city was caused by an irrational action. An iron prejudice is invoked – if something happens out of irrationality, it’s ‘bad writing’.
This is pure nonsense. Even if letting the train in was completely irrational, it would still tie in perfectly with the point made throughout the episode that this city deserves what it gets; that a house divided against itself cannot stand. The world and characters we begin our story with are meant to be rife with flaws, and irrationality is obviously one of them. But the letting-in of the train was in fact rather rational in the perspective of these guards, if we pay attention to the scene and the rest of the series following it. Those manning the bridge remark as the train approaches, and stops, that it’s right on time. Had it been waylaid by Kabane, you’d expect a delay
On top of that, since the majority of our cast have no idea later on that a Kabane could be skilled with a sword, we can strongly infer that these guards didn’t believe that the Kabane could manage to take over a train, drive it to a city’s bridge, and stop at the right point. Their mistake of letting in the Kabane therefore resulted from ignorance and eagerness; they desire to get the train in quickly once they’re sure it wasn’t waylaid at all, a desire that exhibits a want for community, but their lack of information regarding the capabilities of their foe is the biggest factor in their downfall.
This issue of a lack of information extends into the second complaint Kabaneri has received – the complete inability of some people to take the series seriously once it introduced a few motorbikes. Perhaps these people had been taking an unhinged view of the show ever since they misunderstood the train scene or other meaningfully ‘irrational’ aspects of the story, turning the show into a comedy in how they choose to look at everything at a sideways glance for the sake of making funny comments, rather that considering the serious implications of Biba’s technology as they’re asked to.
We see at the start of the show, and throughout, that many are at a disadvantage to Mumei because of how little they know about the Kabane. The existence of Kabaneri themselves isn’t even made common knowledge, stressing how the project Biba’s running is pretty taboo. But the nail is the coffin is that whereas Ikoma, our protagonist, gives away the designs of his weapons through Ayame and shares them among the Koutetsujou, Biba’s men have long-range power and short-range mobility that isn’t available to anyone else. Their information on the Kabane, and the tools they use to beat them, are hoarded for themselves at the cost of those they ‘protect’, like a Diamond tier League of Legends player who calls everyone else ‘noobs’ and never shares his superior understanding of the game with them. It’s obvious how well this fits in and builds upon our understanding of Biba as a faux-hero. You may not like the character that builds, and that’s fine, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a fully-functioning logic of character development here.
Those who have disregarded the above scenes as ‘silly’ simply haven’t chosen to accept the wider narrative of the story, what really contrasts Ikoma to Biba, and how everything fits together. But for some people it’s the bigger picture – the idea that the undead, being mindless creatures, instill a mindlessness into the show’s plotting. They can spring up whenever the show ‘needs to advance the plot’, so they’re just an all-too-obvious device for advancing the action, right? Why can’t they just be humans, anyway?
If the Kabane feel like they’re everywhere, and can spring up any time, that’s the point. It’s a standard horror principle, and a standard aspect of monstrosity – the sense of it being infinitely larger than itself, occupying all the space around you and corrupting it. Remember Alien Isolation’s critical acclaim? The alien in that game just felt not like it could pop up at any time, but that it would. It will. It’s always going to come for you. We see the same in Grendel, who stopped the people he was terrorizing from using all the land around them in the epic poem Beowulf. There’s a whole scene after his defeat where the warriors realize ‘oh shit we can ride horses and shit!’ and do so. Until the monster is defeated, we can only expect the inevitable return of it to whatever sanctuary we put up. It imprisons us from the wider world. And if we get bitten by it, it imprisons our humanity too, or completely chokes it up until there’s nothing left.
Human soldiers have leadership, direction, objectives. The monster just corrupts, and keeps trying to penetrate deeper and deeper into the human world and the human heart and mind until it’s consumed all we have and are. The zombie is dead, but enduring. It’s a mark of the living loss of humanity, the absence of all the things we associate with ourselves – choice, restraint, love.
That’s why we need them to be zombies. That’s why we like zombie stories. And that’s why Biba’s relationship with them should resonate so well as tantamount to the absolute loss of his own humanity, and the irony that he’s considered a leader of humans just because he kills things quickly. And that’s why Ikoma should stand out so much better as the hero, as we get a better insight into why he’s the hero the more we see of Biba’s abhumanity and inhumanity.
Every element of a story becomes poorly-rendered for you if you don’t draw any connections with it, don’t think about it all, and just switch straight away to thinking of it as artifice in order to evaluate it. You choose to lose immersion before you give the logic of the story a chance. When a character does something dumb, you need to ask why. Relate it to everything they’ve done before – find a reason in their conscious or subconscious thinking. Or find the implications of what they’ve done later in the narative. If the monsters are braindead, compare them to the characters who apparently have brains. Are they so different? Is Ikoma’s absolute desire to kill the Kabane any different than the Kabane’s desire to kill humans themselves? And isn’t he veering away from that initial and flawed goal, to realize that the the real threat to humanity is humanity itself?
That sounds ‘cliche’, sure, but that’s only because this narrative has always been pretty monolithic in reaching that point. From Beowulf to Frankenstein to the present, the monsters we hate have been a way of reflecting to audiences what’s wrong with mankind and what makes them worse. What matters is how Kabaneri has reached that point.
If you honestly don’t enjoy Biba, cool. If you honestly don’t enjoy any of the characters, or zombies, cool. But don’t profess that the show itself is ‘dumb’. Respect that what you dislike can be disliked because it’s wrought exactly how it should be, or better. Or present a reading of the show that connects it all together in a way that argues that there is a logical disconnect. I haven’t seen that: I’ve seen people disregard looking at the show’s design at all because they think it’s dumb, and I’ve seen every instigation of seeing it dumb come from a lack of context, circular logic, and a refusal to accept the validity of this kind of narrative in the face of its literary history.
It’s easy to toss away something because you think it works on irrationality. Harder to appreciate how that irrationality works, and how irrationality has been working in our stories forever. Why did Orpheus look back? Why did Adam eat of the fruit? The fundamental narratives of mankind have a lot more to do with how stupid we are than how smart we’ve become, and part of the intelligence of Kabaneri is in pointing out that exact stupidity. No matter what defenses we put up, we’ll be the ones whose fault it is that the monsters got in. No matter how hard we fight our monsters, they’ll always be men alongside us who are more on the side of the enemy.
Humanity sucks, you know?