Watching Kabaneri, I can’t help but think of Mad Max: Fury Road – another simple action story that was elevated by its execution. But that’s not the similarity I’m struck by. Rather, what’s interesting is that both stories are driven less by their main protagonists, and more by their badass companions. In Mad Max we have Furiosa, and in Kabaneri we have Mumei. Not only does she steal the show, but she also carries it, single-handedly making Kabaneri the most rewarding watch of this anime season.
This is not to say the rest of the show is meritless. So far I’ve been entertained by episodes with minimal Mumei, riding on the pure adrenaline of J-pop and zombie hoards. But now that things have quieted down, we’re reminded of how dull or otherwise annoying a lot of our cast can be. Our conductor has yet to show a shred of emotion, the princess is rather self-riotous, and our samurai guy (Kurursu) loves to create conflict where it’s not necessary. Even our hero, Ikoma, has reverted to a rather generic anime protagonist, shouting about how he’ll “destroy all the Kabane!”
But just when Kabaneri runs the risk of being boring, and the plot slows down, Mumei descends upon us and rescues the episode. It’s as if she’s the antidote to anime tropes and clichés. For instance, Ikoma decides to tell her “a common story,” about how his sister died and he now has a vendetta against the creatures that killed her. But Mumei’s having none of that, doing little to hide her boredom throughout the speech. And when Ikoma is done being dramatic, Mumei confirms that yes, it is “a common story.”
The whole scene reminds me of One Punch Man, when Genos is telling Saitama all about his tragic past, and Saitama is visibly agitated. “Shorten it to twenty words or less!” And Mumei must feel the same way, surrounded by one-note characters, and stuck in a train car with a typical shounen hero. Aside from being an affective zombie slayer, she feels almost out of place in this show. Over the course of the episode, she shows genuine mean-spiritedness, aggression, joy, and deep remorse, putting her well above the rest of the cast. I’m particularly struck by her wide, watery eyes at the end, when she realizes that she just killed an unborn baby.
This whole scene at the end, set to dramatic piano playing, is a wonderful showcase of Kabaneri’s strengths. Leading up to this scene, it would appear our problems are resolved, and people have accepted the Kabaneri. But then Mumei slays a passenger turned Kabani. And meanwhile, Ikoma has gone bloodthirsty and is attacking our princess, as the piano playing reaches a fever pitch. What makes this scene so affective is that the episode was otherwise quiet, building up tension throughout. Also, the sequence taps into the inherent fun of watching things fall apart. There’s something satisfying about seeing everything turn to shit.
But more than that, this show is about Mumei. Sure, there is an extent to which she’s a Mary Sue, given how poised and powerful she is. But she remains interesting regardless. She is effective not simply because she’s powerful, but because she has a low tolerance for bullshit, coupled with a functioning level of empathy. Also, she’s somewhat ruthless. This anime is basically about the one character with commonsense trying to keep a train full of stupid people alive. And if you watch it that way, it’s actually a rather fascinating story.
Episode Three Score: 8.0