Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is the clear example of the dangers of overhyping an anime based on its first few episodes, especially when said anime is an original series.
There are many reasons as to why Kabaneri gained a lot of (well-deserved) popularity in its first few episodes. For one, everything looked exactly like the hit series Attack on Titan. Not only is Kabaneri by the same studio and same staff as Attack on Titan (and you can tell by the animation, scenery and soundtrack), but the theme of the series is also survival. Kabaneri of the Iron Fotress just added some trains, a traditional Japan-steampunk aesthetic and changed Titans for zombie-like creatures. The resemblances between the two were so obvious that Kabaneri was never able to get rid of the “it’s just a copy” commentary. Some claimed this was just part of the promotion for Season 2 of Attack on Titan and refused to watch what they considered to be a copy, while Kabaneri fans thought this was actually better than Attack on Titan. The comparison between the two is a topic that has been exploited since the first episode came out, and while I’m sure many people are already tired of it, the truth is that a review that didn’t mention this fact would be lacking. I mean:
“Survival” and “Apocalypse” are always very ambitious themes that need time to develop in order for them to make sense. In that regard, Kabaneri was doomed from the moment it was announced to be only 12 episodes. The finale of the series was actually quite ambiguous, giving us a somehow conclusive ending when it comes to the characters and their conflicts, but also leaving the door open for a possible sequel because, well, Kabane are sill out there. Kabaneri ‘s plot is more of an idea than an actual story, and it never did anything innovative with the themes it presented. The reason for watching Kabaneri soon became more about the entertainment and satisfying visuals than about getting any sort of resolution to its plot points.
Because of that, Kabaneri has even been compared to Guilty Crown: it’s more about the package than the actual content. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many anime are released every season with the sole purpose of entertaining the viewers and make some cash. However, Kabaneri was a very big production with an ambitious plot that ended up raising the bar too high from the beginning, making the second half nothing but disappointing. The turning point was the introduction of Biba, who was probably the most bland, uninteresting villain to come out from this season. Biba had no motive. If anything, it was the typical pointless ‘revenge’ motive. He believes that the strong will survive, and the weak will die. This is an ideology that has been represented many times in anime, but there are many different ways to execute it. For example, Assassination Classroom did a great job with Asano-sensei. But to have the main villain slaughter an entire village of innocent civilians (from a world in which humanity is at risk of extinction) just to prove a point is just bad writing. The series was no longer about fighting Kabane, but about fighting a stupid human who had somehow earned a big army of followers.
The introduction of Biba also meant the downfall of Mumei. Next to the main character Ikoma, Mumei was one of the most likable characters of the series, even competing with Re:Zero‘s Emilia for the title of “Best Girl of the Season”. Mumei was introduced as a badass young girl who was a great fighter and didn’t care for the law or even other people’s emotions. As her “brother” Biba had taught her, emotions make you weak and should never be a factor in battle. As a kid (can you believe she’s only 12?!), Mumei was easy to manipulate, especially by someone whom she idolized, but it was still very frustrating to see how much she kept screwing up for the sake of creating conflict. Ikoma had a different journey. He started out being pretty cool as main character who designed and build special gear to fight the Kabane, but then he started yelling too much and becoming less relevant only to come back for the finale with a new haircut and lots of plot armor on him.
The problem with Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is that it started as one thing, but quickly turned into something else entirely, and for the worse. Kabane learning to use weapons could be accepted (it’s not that rare in the zombie genre), but then they introduced those strange(titan-like) formations known as “Fused Colony”. And don’t even get me started on the laser beams! The series was no longer about surviving the Kabane, but about fighting a bland villain who had somehow earned a big army of followers and whose actions made no sense whatsoever. Episodes 1-4 were a promising start, 5-8 saw a decrease in the quality of the writing, and episode 9 was the beginning of weekly complains from viewers. Maybe it would have worked better with 25 episodes, maybe Biba was just a mistake. Whatever it was, I’ll just assume that Episode 4 was the finale of a mini series. Those who actually enjoyed the series will at least be able to watch some more Kabane in the two recently announced compilation movies.