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Kabaneri Of The Iron Fortress Season 1 Essential Edition Blu-ray Anime Review

10 min read
Trains, zombies, and an intriguing setting in an alternate past combined with top-notch animation. How could I not get hooked?

Trains, zombies, and an intriguing setting in an alternate past combined with top-notch animation. How could I not get hooked?

What They Say:
The world is overrun with Kabane, zombie-like creatures with an appetite for human flesh. While the last of humanity has retreated into fortress-like stations connected by armored trains, there are a few that remain as hopeful as Ikoma. Although he services the trains for a living, Ikoma has created a new weapon that he believes could defeat the Kabane.

The Review:
The audio presentation for this release brings us the original Japanese language track in stereo while the English mix gets a 5.1 bump, both of which are encoded using the Dolby TrueHD lossless codec. The show works a good mix of action into nearly every episode so that it comes alive regularly with some really good sequences, particularly anything involving the trains as that’s a kind of dorky sweet spot for me. There’s a good richness to it that works and an impact with some of the physicality of it and the action in general. The swordplay and other weapons provide a bit more impact to it all and the kind of disturbing sounds that get mixed in with what the kabane are like only add to the whole. Dialogue is pretty straightforward with what it does here and has some decent moments where it steps it up a bit more thanks to various actions taking place but overall both tacks are solidly designed with a clean and clear presentation.

Originally airing in 2016, the transfer for this TV series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 in 1080p using the AVC codec. The twelve episodes are spread across two discs in a nine/three format. Animated by Wit Studio, it has exactly what I was looking for out of it with high-quality animation and design work with a real richness and detail to it with great fluidity. This is one of those shows that stands out really well for its design work as there’s a lot of detail to the backgrounds and the characters along with a really rich color palette. The end result is something that just shines on the screen, large or small, that has a great quality about it. The encoding is spot on with colors holding up solidly, darker areas without noise or break-up, and the very fluid sequences just standing out beautifully. I really loved the look of the show and the encoding brings it to life wonderfully.

The packaging for this release comes in a standard sized Blu-ray case as this edition eliminates the DVDs from it. The front cover works a familiar key visual piece of artwork with the main cast together all bunched up in action poses while the flames of civilization are behind them, giving it a bit more weight with an indistinct look to it all. This being an Essentials edition, it just adds a simple grey stripe along the top with that on it so it doesn’t make too much of an impact but fits in with the overall design. The back cover has a little more key visual artwork along the top while near the bottom we get a decent strip of small shots from the show. The premise is well-covered with what to expect and a clean look at the episode count and what extras are on it. The technical grid breaks down both formats accurately so you know how the show is put together. While there are no show related inserts with the release we do get artwork on the reverse side that shows off several characters spread across it with some other promotional material from the Japanese side.

The menu design of this release works the clip formats fairly well as we get a range of good location visuals playing across it. They set the tone nicely but it’s something that gets obscured in a decent way with the logo taking up almost half the real estate in its large form. It’s an interesting way to do it that kind of works but left me wishing for it to be more of a darker piece with action moments playing out to give it a more exciting feeling. The navigation strip along the bottom is standard design for a Funimation release but it gives it a bit of an earthy tone and design rather than just a solid color, which is a nice change of pace.

The extras for this release are simple with the clean versions of the opening and closing sequences as well as the Japanese promos.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
The arrival of Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress was a complicated thing because it was an original work coming from a very popular production team that had worked on Attack on Titan. People wanted more Attack on Titan but there was going to be a gap before more could be done so they opted to produce something on their own. The bigger problem for many was that it ended up one of the early streaming shows on Amazon Prime Video which cut a good chunk of the audience away, which is unfortunate. The series is one that may be a good bit of style over substance but there are times where the style can win out and make it work even when the substance is fairly straightforward and not all that deep.

The series takes place in the wake of the industrial revolution but in a world where things have gone wrong. A virus hit that is essentially a zombie virus where the dead are a mindless horde that are intense and powerful as they scour the land. They’re not the lumbering dead we usually see in Western productions and there’s a few quirks along the way, where they can orchestrate together into a larger form and some of those with great skill retain part of that to become dangerous warriors. These creatures, called the kabane, are spread throughout the land and the main defense is that most cities have walled themselves off and connect through steam engine railway systems. These massive engines bring people and warriors between the station-cities and are the main way to get about. The mixture of pre-industrial revolution costuming and world design coupled with the high walls and the steam engines makes for a really intriguing visual, one made all the more engaging because of how good Wit Studio is.

The series spends the first half of it essentially on the run in a way that really keeps the energy up well when watched in marathon form. We’re introduced to one group that works a particular train that’s going between stations as part of the outlying areas are falling to the kabane. This introduces us to Ayame, a member of the Yomogawa family whose father isn’t going to last long and will end up putting her into a bit of a position of power as events go forward. The time spent at this initial station has them exploring some of how the rank and file soldiers handle things, where a bit by a kabane means that person must commit suicide so as to not infect others and a panic is easily set of just on the idea that someone may be infected. This is also where we’re introduced to our lead, Ikoma, a steam smith in the station who with his friend Takumi have a decent sense of justice and right that doesn’t quite fight in this survival of the fittest world.

Ikoma’s also a bit different in that he ends up bitten in an incident near the start but works a solution that keeps him from being a kabane, instead becoming something called a kabaneri. There are few of these in the overall service and most tend to be women. They’re skilled killers and the inclusion of on in a young woman named Mumei plays into the larger storyline. Kabaneri are an in-between thing that are neither human nor kabane which leads to distrust or fear from humans and no difference from kabane that just want to kill anything not like them. What helps Ikoma stay alive early on is Ayame to some degree but also his creation in the form of an air/steam powered piercing gun that’s quite good at killing kabane. With that opening series station getting overrun and it turning into chaos, that sets up several episodes of riding the train, showcasing the survival methods humanity employs, and some of the social structure of it all which again is reinforcing by many a strong over the weak have a right to live. It’s all familiar and one can throw some easy Snowpiercer nods its way but it’s not really looking to make a big political statement or social statement here. Those are simply some additional trappings to fill in a few gaps while the main focus is on the action.

And really, that works very well. Having grown up in a “train family” with my father being a model railroad enthusiast going back decades, I was surrounded by a lot of stuff that’s brought to life in a neat way here with the tracks, the structures, the roundhouses, and just the feeling of how an overpowered armored rail would run. I love the design of the cities with all the buildings clustered inside, some of the green spaces, and the use of the rail through part of it and the walls themselves that help to protect it. It’s easy to make a lot of Attack on Titan parallels but I think that does a disservice to the show. It’s working a different approach to how this functions and it feels like it’s more thought out than Attack on Titan in a lot of ways while also dealing with a very different threat. There’s such detail, such great color design, that these feel like rich and engaging places you want to know more about and that’s before getting into the characters that inhabit them.

Naturally, the show has to raise the stakes as it progresses and that comes in the form of another group that’s known as the Hunters. Lead by Biba, the eldest son of the shogunate, they’ve been cleansing various lands and are well respected and admired for what they’re accomplishing out there even as there’s a sense that the kabane are really winning. Biba’s the type that has an ulterior motive that he’s able to hide from many because of his charismatic way, which Ikoma sees through, and that personality helps to really bond his soldiers to his cause. He’s got good reason to have cause as his backstory reveals some real tragedy, but it’s another instance where we get the idea that our biggest enemy is ourselves when it comes to the real threat of the world. Which in concept and in general I do agree with but it makes for some clunky storytelling when you have situations like this playing out as it turns the enemy, the kabane, into a secondary problem.

In Summary:
I went into this show originally with little expectations beyond enjoying the animation as Wit Studio has largely delighted with just about all of their projects since they got underway. Going through it again a year later late at night proved to be a fun experience once again as it just clicks well for me. It may not have the depth of story and character that I want but it’s the kind of series that I really, really, enjoy because it’s playing to the simplicity of a zombie virus outbreak. Placing it in this alternate historical setting just as the industrial revolution gets underway gives it some really great creative moments with how cities are designed, the rail aspect, and just the feel of it with the tone. The characters are all fairly standard fare pieces in that they’re archetypes without a lot of depth but the story doesn’t really require it – in fact, when the show slows down a bit and digs into the human side of events and politics it ends up slowing down too much. The first half works better for me but the series as a whole marathoned over a day makes for some great viewing. It’s definitely binge-worthy.

Japanese Dolby TrueHD 2.0 Language, English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, Clean Opening, Clean Closing, Promos

Content Grade: B+
Audio Grade: A-
Video Grade: A
Packaging Grade: B+
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B-

Released By: Funimation
Release Date: July 23rd, 2019
MSRP: $29.98
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.

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