I mentioned at one point that I am a reverse-Anime-convert: I grew up on anime, but grew out of it. The modern anime stories and concepts (and character designs) don’t appeal to me, but even then I’ve heard hype about this one: Attack on Titan, a manga by Hajime Isayama which has been adapted to an anime TV series. I’ve just been watching Series/Season 1, so this review is based on only that.
If you haven’t heard of Attack on Titan, the initial premise is simple, intriguing and at the same time disturbing: It is a world that humanity is driven to the brink of extinction by the unexplained appearance of Titans, a race of unintelligent man-eating giants ranging from three to fifteen meters tall. The human race now survives within a city with three concentric protective curtain walls, which at the start of the story have managed to keep the Titans out for over 100 years. The main protagonist is Eren Yeager, an emotionally unstable boy with a penchant for shouting, along with his adopted sister Mikasa Ackerman and childhood friend boy genius Armin Arlert; the trio was forced to flee their part of the city when Titans managed to breach the protective wall and laid waste to everything inside, including the rather graphic devouring of Eren’s mom. The story follows their subsequent enlisting in the military, their battles against the Titans, and gradual revelation of the truth about their world.
Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first: Like most high quality Japanese anime, the production values are top-notched. The animations are exceptional, the fight scenes are dynamic, and the music quite unique (like the setting itself, the various theme songs use a lot of German in them). You can’t argue that this isn’t a high quality product.
What about the show overall? Well I have to admit it’s somewhat difficult to peg. I believe it’s rated as PG-13 on Netflix, but gawd I don’t know if I would let a 13-year-old watch this. The gore and violence are dialed all the way up to eleven, with graphic scenes of deaths, dismemberments and mutilations, and no one is safe… Game of Thrones has nothing on it! This show has a tendency to introduce a lot of support characters, spend just enough time for you to start liking them, then BOOM, kill them in graphic and disturbing ways.
As an example, Petra Ral (pictured) looks like your average likeable pretty-girl anime heroine, with a warm and caring personality along with the ability to kick ass (only female member of the Elite Tactical Team with 10 solo Titan kills, 48 Team kills). When she first showed up we see her looking after our hero Eren, helping him acclimate to the squad and encouraging him along. During the expedition she briefly showed off her exceptional skills that belie her soft appearance. This is a very likeable character that an audience can easily relate to, and root for. Then without warning, poor Petra gets kicked by that Bitch Titan and splattered against a tree trunk.
Ouch. Not a good way to go. And they showed her corpse a few times afterwards.
The number of deaths and casualties in every battle scene is both horrific and staggering, and the sheer hopelessness causes a lot of despair not only among the characters, but often makes the series difficult to watch for viewers. The Titans themselves are designed to be gross and gruesome, generally looking like gigantic naked male humans with repulsive features; add that to their mindlessness and taste for human flesh, and you have an enemy that will really trigger anyone’s innate xenophobia. Yeah, you would want to kill them too, so it’s especially frustrating to see so many deaths when trying to take down the Titans. That said, the anime actually toned down the alien eerieness of the Titans compared to the original manga; the Titans in the live-action film version are arguably closer to the manga’s.
Between the ultra-violence and gore, the show can get a bit “talky”. Often between characters as they express their despair, but also quite a bit of internal monologue and exposition. The series does need the “down-time” to space out the battle scenes, but sometimes it feels like they lose too much momentum with far too much dialogue. Also if you’re wondering, no there is no sex in this show. Not even a little bit to titulate, unless you enjoy seeing the naked Titans… in which case I can’t help you.
Evidently Attack on Titan riled up some controversy back in 2013 or so, because of the political allegories it may or may not be presenting. As I noted above, the Titans were designed to be inhuman, repulsive, mindless yet immensely powerful; they will eventually destroy you if you don’t fight, but even if you do fight you can’t win without suffering heavy losses. Some in Japan, Taiwan and even Hong Kong see Titans as an emergent China, whereas fans in other Asian countries see Titans as a newly aggressive and rearming Japan. One commentator noted that the manga was trying to glorify war, how the heroes can beat unbeatable odds, and trying to encourage a new generation of Japanese youths to enlist — I don’t know, he may be right, but with all the gore and despair showed, I sure didn’t find it very glorious! There are also quite a bit of political intrigue in the story, bringing into question ugly human instincts such as selfishness and greed, even in the face of racial annihilation. Beyond that, as the series unfolds we can see some very strong images of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in the story, which certainly don’t make the manga easier to read. If you think Star Trek Online exists in a crapsack world? Oh boy, have I got a vacation destination for you!
Would I recommend this? Yes, yes I would. I kinda compare Attack on Titan to a car crash. A horrific, violent, gut-wrenching car crash with a lot of casualties, something you can’t look away from because you want to know what caused it and how this gets sorted out…. and while you wait for it to get sorted out, you’re vainly hoping more people don’t end up dying. It’s that kind of a mess, it’s pretty depressing, and it’s hard to forget. Watch it but don’t expect it to be fun.