Kabaneri and the Art of the Dumb ShowPosted: September 11, 2016
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress ended last season, with the general consensus being that it was anywhere from mildly to extremely disappointing. When it ended, two of the bigger names in the Anime Youtube community put out videos on it. One was from Gigguk, which largely echoed the general issues people had with the show, primarily in the second half. The other was from Digibro, who questioned the argument that the second half was bad due to being dumb since the show had always been that way.
While my personal thoughts on the show align more with Gigguk’s, Digibro’s is the more interesting idea to talk about. Though that may just be because amusingly dumb shows are some of my favorite things to watch, and yet I hated Kabaneri.
There are two types of dumb shows: ones that are amusing due to their sheer absurdity, and ones that do stuff that you find really cool – typically visually – but has no real depth when it comes to almost anything else. Kabaneri is obviously the latter, but the thing with both types is that the shows ride a very fine line. What is cool or funny to one person can very easily be incredibly stupid to another.
A lot of it has to do with expectations and perspective; if you go into a show expecting depth and you don’t get it, you’re going to feel burned. Whereas if you just wanted to see some crazy shit happen – whether it be to find it cool or laugh at it – you’ll probably leave pretty satisfied. The problem that Kabaneri had is that it didn’t telegraph clearly enough at the start that it was going just for the cool factor. In fact, it was done so poorly I’m still not entirely convinced that the show was trying to be intentionally shallow.
There are too many little nods in the direction and writing that there’s potential depth that is going to be explored further on. Ayame’s responses to Ikoma’s actions in the first episode make you think that the she’s going to develop a better understanding of how the class system is broken and strive to fix it, which the show does seem to try to go for as it goes on. There are lots of hints about where Mumei is from and what she is, which we do learn, but Biba and his story don’t end up being compelling at all, which is also another aspect that the show seemed to be trying to get you to care about.
All of these little sprinklings of possible threads to be expanded upon and aspects that the show seems to want you to take seriously, but you can’t. It’s not too surprising that people got pissed off by the end when it turned out the show failed to deliver on what it had potentially promised. People aren’t entirely correct when they say the show “got dumb”, rather it confirmed to the show was going to squander those little sprinkles of potential the show had laid out. These types of dumb shows are supposed to be shallow, yes, but you can’t pretend you’re anything else. Otherwise people are going to be pissed when they expect possible depth but get none.
Admittedly, perspective and expectations play a part in more than just dumb shows. For example, a show called New Game is airing this season which I’m enjoying quite a bit since I expected lighthearted comedy fueled by the silly antics and mannerisms of some cute girls. Yet when I was looking around for others’ thoughts on the season, there were a decent amount of people that didn’t seem too thrilled with it. And the reason they gave wasn’t not liking the comedy or not finding the girls cute, it was almost always about it not focusing enough on game design.
While I’d argue that the promo images, synopsis, and first episode make the show’s intent pretty clear, the point is how your enjoyment of a show is dependent on what you either expect or want from it. The more clearly a show can convey what it’s trying to do, the less likely people are going to be disappointed. Of course there’s then the matter of how well it actually manages to do what it’s going for, but still.
This applies almost tenfold to dumb shows, because people are a lot less likely to be amused by it if they don’t think the shallow aspects are intentional.
You need, for example, to have a scene near the start of the show like this:
Which is then followed by the mecha basically going Super Saiyan and committing seppuku in order to power up.
It also helps to have a character with a name like “L-Elf”, which is near impossible for Japanese-speakers to say, then have everyone (try to) say it as much as possible along with Jun Fukuyama screaming it almost every line of his dialogue.
Really the whole reason I even decided to write this was so I could have an excuse to tell people to watch Valvrave. It’s a fucking masterpiece.
Though it’s not the only recent dumb show that broadcasted its intent pretty clearly. Dance with Devils was set in stone in the first episode when the theatrical singing happened and you knew you were in for a corny musical. Cross Ange‘s first episode had a scene where a shitload of cops showed up to arrest a single baby, and carried it off in what can only be described as a literal baby cage. Based on the size and structure of it, there’s no other purpose it could possibly serve. The characters also spend each episode preview making fun of the very show they’re in.
Cross Ange is, by the way, also a masterpiece.
Maybe it’s just easier to get across the “intentionally dumb” intent through absurdity rather than coolness, but there’s not actually a whole lot that seems intentionally dumb in Kabaneri‘s first episode. It plays out like almost any other of Tetsuo Araki’s directed works, which are all also taken seriously. He actually may have been his own undoing seeing how many similarities can be drawn between Kabaneri and Attack on Titan‘s first episode. Can you really blame people for expecting the same style of show?
If I had to take a guess, I’d say the guy can’t actually tell the difference between awesome coolness and dumb coolness. This is the guy that gave us the incredibly over-the-top directing of the potato chip scene in Death Note, after all.
The thing about dumb shows that gets often overlooked is that you can’t just do absolutely anything and have it work. It’s a lot harder than you’d think at first glance. You need to be creative enough to come up with all the insane stuff that happens, but it also needs to not be horrendously jarring and pulling you out of the show.
That’s the ultimate problem with Kabaneri: nothing it does is really all that awesome. Sure there’s some neat action in the first few episodes, but by the time you hit the fourth episode it was like everyone decided nothing needed to be properly set up.
As a concept, a zombie-human hybrid thing that shoots energy beams out of its mouth is fun enough, but when the only things that have really been established in the show so far are: weird hivemind zombies, steampunk stuff, and feudal era swords and and martial arts, it just comes off as way too weird. When Ikoma cuts his hair for the final confrontation, the jackass leaves the weird fringe part that covers one of his eyes completely alone.
Even disregarding the scenes that are trying to be cool, the show ends with characters becoming mindbogglingly stupid. Mumei is literally lied to by Biba multiple times and she still instantly believes him when he says he won’t harm anyone on the train. Not to mention we were never even given context for why Mumei trusts him so much until afterwards (which still didn’t amount to much), before that it was just vague lines about their past.
Ikoma’s motivations end up boiling down to “because I’m the main character”. There was setup for his protectiveness of Mumei being fueled by something that happened to his sister, but it never gets explored at all. They even start to bring up this angle, just to then immediately throw it out the window.
This was Kabaneri‘s ultimate downfall. You can’t do this kind of stuff even in dumb shows. Your audience should be laughing or cheering, not sighing and slouching further into their seat.
Take a cue from something like Dragon Ball Z. If you want to be both dumb and cool, you need to not only crank up the action to eleven, but have a setting and story that at least somewhat backs up the crazy shit that happens.
There is ultimately a lesson to be learned from Kabaneri’s failure as a viewer, though.
It’s to watch Valvrave and Cross Ange instead.