Zombie stories typically follow one of two patterns: the zombies overrun humanity, turning most of the world into a reanimated graveyard or the undead are defeated, but only at great cost. However, a little-known Japanese anime series titled Kabaneri no Koutetsujou, or Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress in English, breaks these patterns. The story is set in Hinomoto – a fictional country analogous to Japan- and the zombies are referreed to as “Kabane” (“undead corpses”). The Kabane cannot be killed by regular means because their hearts are protected by an iron cage, and cutting the head off is the only way to kill them. The monsters are much faster and stronger than average humans though, so in Hinomoto’s nascent Industrial Age, fighting the Kabane in close quarters is futile.
Kabane spread their variant zombie virus through blood transmission through an open wound which will turn ahuman into an undead zombie in less than three days, or through bite which will transform the human into a Kabane within minutes. Thus everyone – civilian, soldier, and noble – carries a suicide charge on their belt that is capable of piercing the iron cage around a Kabane’s heart at close range, but also allows the newly infected to die as humans and not have their bodies come back to live a monstrous “life.”
Due to the Kabane plague, humanity has retreated into fortified cities known as stations and the only safe method of transportation for people and goods across a zombie-infested land is on enormous trains called "hayajiro" (one of which is called "Koutetsujou" or "Iron Fortress") and even they are vulnerable. Those traveling by hayajiro must be inspected for wounds or bites when they enter a station, particularly if the train has just roared through a horde of Kabane. Anyone found with an injury is quarantined for three days, and those who run from inspection are shot.
It is this scenario that is played out in the series that sounds eerily familiar, as the real world is gripped by a much less deadly pandemic. But it becomes particularly interesting when one considers the differing philosophies of the series’ antagonist, Biba Amatori, and its protagonist, Ikoma. The son of Hinomoto’s shogun, Biba has come to hate mankind for its propensity to give into fear. Having faced the Kabane before, only for his father to abandon him and his men to an unspeakably horrible death, Biba decides that humanity must be eradicated due to its willingness to accede to terror.
Although Ikoma also despises mankind’s tendency toward fear, he does not believe humanity must be expunged. Having lost his younger sister to the Kabane when their station fell, Ikoma blames his own fear for her death. This leads him to the conclusion that the Kabane, not humanity, must be destroyed. The two men’s opposing views of fear lead them to treat those around them – and the threat of the Kabane – very differently.
“May Karma Smile Upon Him.”
Twenty years before the anime storyline begins, the Kabane invade Hinomoto. Shogun Okimasa Amatori, Biba’s father, orders his people to retreat into the stations to keep themselves free of the disease. But the dreadful threat of the undead is such that the Amatori eventually loses his mind, taking out his terror on Biba. During his fits of panic he beats his son bloody, only to blame fear for his actions when he comes to himself later on.
After enduring the Kabane assault for ten years, the Shogun sends an army of 400,000 men against the zombies, placing a twelve-year-old Biba at its head. He likely did this not only to use his son as a rallying point but also to dispose of his heir, as Shogun Amatori’s madness is implied to have expanded to include all those who could possibly betray him. Though still terrified of the undead, he has come to consider his subjects and even his own son as more immediate enemies.
Biba’s success against the bloodthirsty monsters only seals his fate. His father cuts the supply lines to the army, leaving them to be murdered by the ever-increasing hordes. A shell-shocked Biba thereupon takes the remnants of his forces and forms a group of men specifically trained to fight and kill the Kabane called the “Hunters”, while simultaneously plotting vengeance upon his father for his betrayal. He chooses to accomplish this, in part, by having scientists under his command turn him and others into something believed to be impossible: a Kabaneri or “corpse person,” who will have the strength and stamina of a Kabane yet retain the mind of a human.
In seeking his revenge, Biba embraces an insanity similar to his father’s. He keeps no close friends, and treats his most loyal followers as expendable tools carrying out his will. His father’s betrayal cuts so deeply that he forms no true attachments to anyone, including the young Kabaneri girl he allows to call him “brother.” While he is not anxious about the Kabane, he dreads men, women, and children, having seen blind terror lead them to evil actions.
This apprehension is what leads him to believe that human beings are incurable cowards who must be “freed from fear.” Biba allows hordes of Kabane into Iwato Station, which is on the way to the capital of Hinomoto, the home station of Kongokaku. Although the Shogun anticipates his son’s treachery, Biba is able to exact his revenge. He turns his father into a Kabane before the assembled bodyguards and nobles, then shoots him dead while the frantic man pleads for his life. Biba then lets the Kabane into Kongokaku, where they proceed to infect and/or devour the citizens.
Thus, despite his claims, Biba allows his fear to control him as much as – perhaps more so than – his father did. He is the embodiment of the karma he invokes, which states that a person’s actions determine the nature of their next existence. Both Biba and his father’s actions determine their places in the world of the living and the undead. The Shogun dies a Kabane, and Biba’s status as a “corpse person” reflects the death of his soul to the terror of other human beings. Fear rules them in both their existences, whether or not they know or admit to it.
“I Will Never Run Again!”
Kabaneri’s protagonist, the young engineer Ikoma, stands in direct contrast to both Biba and his Shogun father. Five years before the series begins, Ikoma lived in a station with his younger sister Hatsune. When the Kabane overran their station, the brother and sister followed the escape protocols: grab what can be carried, run to a defensible position, and hope the hayajiro arrives and does not pull out before all the survivors are aboard.
But as they ran Hatsune fell behind. When Ikoma turned to call to her, he was in time to see a Kabane catch and bite her in the throat, infecting and thus killing her. Desperate to save the only family he had left, Ikoma ran onward to beg the other people of the station for help, but in their panic they simply pushed him aside. He went back alone, where he repeatedly apologized to his sister’s corpse, only to realize she was about to become a Kabane. He had to use his own suicide bag on her to prevent her from coming back as a monster.
Five years later, in the first episode of the series, Ikoma is living in Aragane Station, working on a hayajiro. In between his shifts maintaining and repairing the giant trains, he picks up Kabane body parts carried into the station by them so that he can use them to design a gun that will pierce the iron cage over a Kabane’s heart. Mocked for his desire to save humanity by his fellow engineers, he nevertheless persists in his cause, stating that men cannot give in to fear and forget their pride in their nature as human beings. But when he risks his life to defend a frightened man running from inspection, Ikoma’s illicit activities are discovered and he is jailed.
That night, a Kabane-infested hayajiro slams into Aragane Station. As the zombies invade and the people panic, Ikoma escapes prison and lures a Kabane to his workshop so he can field test the weapon, where it proves to be extremely effective. Ecstatic at first, Ikoma’s joy turns to fear as he finds he was bitten in the fight. Rather than panic he works to beat the infection, accidentally becoming a Kabaneri in the process.
In contrast to Biba, Ikoma does not falter in his chosen mission. Even when the other survivors shoot him off of the "Koutetsujou" hayajiro out of fear, Ikoma fights his way through the horde to activate the release that will allow the hayajiro and its human passengers to escape to safety. When the crew relents and accepts him aboard, he helps them invent other weapons that will allow them to kill the Kabane. Having conquered his own fear, he helps others overcome their terror of the undead monsters that threaten them all, proving that the Kabane are not the only enemy man can defeat if he puts his mind to it.
It has been said that “all we have to fear is fear itself.” Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress takes a unique approach to a genre that typically thrives on expansive horror. Inchoate fear is evidenced by blind, senseless panic. It is rarely, if ever, connected with the calculated actions of men like Biba Amatori and his father, who allow their dread to drive their every decision while maintaining the appearance of a calm, rational approach to the situation.
As the real world trembles before a much less deadly virus, perhaps we ought to examine our fear of it more closely. It would be good, too, to heed Ikoma’s warning about forgetting one’s pride in one’s humanity and shared brotherhood with other men because of naked terror. For if fear is the enemy, what does allowing it free reign say of the man who capitulates to it, rather than face it down?
Photo Credit- wallur.com