Thursday, December 22, 2016

Vamp or Not? Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is a 2016 anime series directed by Tetsurō Araki and it is steampunk in tone and setting. Ian contacted me and suggested it as a “Vamp or Not?” and it was a good call.

The primary creature within the series are the kabane and, on the surface, these fit the mould of the zombie and we have essentially a z-apocalypse in a feudal Japan that was just passing into the industrial revolution. This has led to walled cities (or stations) linked by a railway line with travel between the outposts by steam train only.

So, zombies then? Well it isn’t that simple. Whilst most in the series think of the kabane as a curse, it is recognised by some in the series that a virus is to blame. The virus is virulent being passed by bite (and later through blood), takes control of the host, killing it to rise as an undead carrier. These kabane then seek out the non-infected, attacking them aggressively, feasting on the flesh and passing on the plague. Survivors of attacks, who don’t appear bitten, are quarantined for three days to ensure that they aren’t infected. So far, so zombie.

However there are some differences. The kabane can only be killed by losing their heads or being stabbed in the heart – the heart leading us more towards vampires. The heart is protected by a glowing iron shield and the steam guns of the bushi (soldiers) and swords have a hard time penetrating it. In fact, someone who is definitely bitten is expected to use a suicide device that destroys their heart before they turn. This iron heart, along with “Veins” and eyes all glow in a wonderfully stylised way. We also notice that some of the kabane seem to develop fangs and some later are shown to have learnt how to use swords effectively. Blood can be used to draw the kabane.

If we were to concentrate solely on the kabane then we would recognise that (beyond the steampunk element) we have a core that resembles the vampires developed by Richard Matheson in I am Legend, which then fed in to the zombie genre via Romero/Russo. In short we might have edged towards zompires. However the show is called kabaneri and not kabane. In the first episode we meet a steamsmith called Ikoma (Tasuku Hatanaka). As well as working on locomotives that come into his station he is secretly developing a steam gun (or more properly the ammunition) that can penetrate the kabane’s heart with a single shot. He is also studying the kabane as a species.

Ikoma infected by black blood
When the station is attacked he proves his ammunition works but is bitten in the process. He manages to stop the spread of the virus to his head by iron braces that block his carotid arteries. He then transforms into something between human and kabane. Mumei (Sayaka Senbongi), a young girl similarly transformed, tells him they are kabaneri. They are artificially produced (we get her back story later) and keep their memories and personalities – though they live with the fear of eventually becoming kabane. Male kabaneri are very rare, it transpires, but both sexes heal quickly (though they do not regenerate and therefore lost limbs are forever lost) and both need to drink blood to survive.

the Black Smoke
Later we see the “black smoke” a hive of kabane that becomes a creature in its own right. The heart of the black smoke (which again must be destroyed to stop it) is a female kabaneri who has been treated with so called black blood. A male kabaneri, so treated, would just become more powerful and burn out quickly. Both could be cured by being injected with white blood. These blood serums have been developed by scientists in the employ of the show’s primary villain.

apocalypse, streampunk style
And this is the crux of any issue around the show. The animation is excellent but the plot is thin. It is essentially a steampunk apocalypse and whilst we known that there is a virus at the core it doesn’t explain why the undead have glowing iron parts, we must take that on trust, and it doesn’t even attempt a pseudoscience explanation around the serums – they just are. The main villain’s motivations are almost puerile and struggle to withstand scrutiny. That said the fighting is excellent and the action engaging. But is it Vamp?

If there were just the kabane then I think we’d lean towards zompires but the kabaneri are definitely vampire. They are stronger and faster than humans, they need blood to survive and they are derived from something that produces the undead. The imdb page is here.


Stephen Phillips said...

I have never really understood the difference between vampires and the creatures now called zombies - not to be confused with actual zombies, the undead slaves of a sorcerer - because both involve dead people rising, feeding on the living and turning their victims into creatures like themselves. To me, modern zombies ARE vampires, just without the symbolic trappings. Take away crosses, garlic and blood drinking and there's not much of a distinction. As the expert, how do you determine the difference? If this seems facetious, it's not. I genuinely do not understand how to tell which is which sometimes.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hey Stephen. thanks for the comment and I didn't think it facetious at all.

Staying with the definition of a zombie being the one of the modern (Romero) type, the differences are indeed slim in places. This type of zombie was popularised (at least) in Night of the Living Dead - and they weren't termed as zombies in that but as ghouls. However Romero (and John Russo, who co-wrote the screenplay) have said they were at least part inspired by Richard Matheson and his novel I am Legend; a vampire novel... so zombies would seem to be in part derived from the vampire genre.

Its interesting that you mention "To me, modern zombies ARE vampires, just without the symbolic trappings" as the I am Legend novel (and if you haven't read it, I highly recommend it) did have the trappings of (fear of) mirrors, crosses, garlic - but gave a secular and scientific reasoning for it.

I do think they evolved into a genre in their own right and there are some differences (but it isn't hard and fast, and counter-examples can always be found).

Vampires tend to not be physically corrupted/rotten (at least after feeding) - zombies will consistently rot.

A lot of vampire stories tend to use a variant of the sunlight trope - most zombie films do not.

Most vampire stories have the vampire develop fangs - zombies rarely do.

The rules around turning can be convoluted for vampires (this is definitely not hard and fast) - zombie films tend to have a bite and turn policy. This, in turn (pardon the pun) means that vampires tend to be portrayed as fewer in number, rather than exponentially spreading zombie population but again there are examples of zombies who don't increase their numbers and vampires who do.

Some people build a case that vampires stick to drinking blood, zombies eat flesh but that really is a thin one and there are plenty of flesh eating vampire examples.

To me the biggest one is vampires are shown as sentient thinking creatures who can rationalise and plan - zombies are shown as unthinking and driven solely by instinct. Again this can be challenged depending on the film.

So... not so easy... hence I do, where the distinction is very grey in a particular vehicle, use the term zompire.

Also I do tend to be more liberal with interpretation of the vampire at times (for instance I have been repeatedly challenged for calling the energy vampires in the centre of the TV series Heartless vampires... surely they are succubi (as sex is a primary feeding method) but they are, in my mind, vampires as there is little distinction within that vehicle.)

I hope that explains my thinking but I do believe there to be merit in your position that "modern zombies ARE vampires"