Reviewby Theron Martin, Oct 24th 2013
Attack on Titan
For a century the surviving remnants of humankind have lived behind three concentric rings of immense walls which protect them against titans, marauding giant humanoids who seem to have no purpose other than to eat humans. Young Eren is dissatisfied with this, as he feels he is living in a cage and that humanity has grown too complacent. He is proven right when his town, which borders the outermost wall, is attacked and overrun by titans, who (among other people) eat his mother. This drives him to join the military, with whip-smart friend Armin and very capable adopted sister Mikasa in tow, with the ultimate goal of joining the Survey Corps, which forays out on dangerous missions to bring the fight to titans and assess humanity's hope of regaining lost territory from the titans. First, though, the second-ring city of Trost must be defended when the same immense, skinless titan who broke the gate at the outer ring years earlier appears and does the same there. As casualties mount during the desperate defense of Trost, a completely unexpected new hope emerges: a risky but powerful new weapon which could allow humanity to finally start taking the offensive if only it has the courage and trust necessary to exploit it. As Eren and company discover when they foray out with the Survey Corps, though, hitherto-unanticipated forces exist out in titan territory, and the biggest and most threatening of those may have everything to do with humanity's newest weapon.
Whether or not this series based on Hajime Isayama's original manga deserves to be considered among the best titles of 2013 is a heavily debatable point. What is not debatable, though, is that Attack on Titan is the biggest anime hit of 2013 in fandom on both sides of the Pacific. Exactly why it is a hit is evident from the first episode, as the titans make a powerful impression from the moment of their first appearance, an impression that persists even 24 episodes later. As a result, the series delivers an intense, visceral, and graphic thrill ride, one whose impact is only muted slightly by some significant recurring problems.
One of the two most prominent of those problems is the pacing. The series has an annoying tendency to massively drag out scenes and sequences of events in a fashion reminiscent of long-running shonen series like Naruto or Bleach. By no means is this a constant problem, as when the series wants to do so it can really zing, but it starts happening with the flashback episode in the midst of the Trost arc and becomes a more common problem in the second half arc involving the Survey Corps foraying outside the walls into the abandoned outer ring. By the end of the series the story gives the definite sense that it could have easily accomplished what it was trying to do in 22-23 episodes instead of 25. (The recap episode 13.5 is not being counted here.) Based on the series' last scene, director Tetsuro Araki (of Death Note, High School of the Dead, and Guilty Crown fame) clearly was aiming to finish the animated material at a certain point, so the “stretch things out” approach was apparently chosen instead of the “insert filler” approach as the lesser of two sins, but it definitely bogs the series down.
The other major recurring problem is the tendency of the series to over-emote. Granted, this is also a common problem in hot-blooded shonen action series, but it gets magnified here because the content conveys plenty well enough the kind of feelings that viewers are supposed to read from the characters. Shots of terrified and horrified faces or characters suffering from anxiety and PTSD carry enough power that sparing use is easily enough to get the point across, and the titans pose plenty enough threat factor on their own that viewers do not constantly need to be reminded that we should be terrified of them; in fact, the inherent, awful creepiness of the titans, with those mindless, hideous grins, places them among the all-time-great anime monsters. Araki seems to not quite comprehend that it is possible to over-throttle intensity in emotional reactions to the point of annoyance, but his works have never been known for their subtlety.
One problem mentioned in my earlier review of the first quarter does get partly sorted out as the series progresses: the lack of adequate character development. Attack on Titan is still hardly a shining example of well-realized characters, but we do eventually get to see that Eren does have emotions beyond just anger and that some of the other characters – especially Armin and Jean – are respectable in their ability to advance forward and strategize despite their intense fears. Some side characters also develop into interesting and likable characters, too – at least until they get eaten or mangled by the titans, anyway. (Getting closely-attached to anyone beyond the central trio and a couple of other characters who appear later on is not a wise idea.) The one disappointment on this front is the series' handling of Mikasa. We learn that she is the last living person of Asian descent, and that coupled with some things shown in the flashback episode makes her a potentially interesting character, but that potential gets wasted; those flashback elements have yet to be revisited by the series' end and she never seems to progress beyond being fiercely loyal towards/protective of Eren. Even her bad-assery gets subsumed by the emergence of popular hotshot Levi about halfway through the series, leaving her without a clear role beyond being Eren's number-one groupie.
What the series does do well, however, it does very well indeed. Although the skinless giant titan has become the series' intimidating iconic image, the smaller titans are far more disturbing. Despite their oft-pudgy bodies and faces clearly modeled on normal people (one titan was supposedly modeled after a prominent MMA fighter), they exude a mindless menace which makes them creepier than any zombie, and the Aberrants – ones which exhibit swifter movement capabilities or abnormal behavior – can be terrifying even when one charges forward with an awkward gait. And while the series does reveal some details about the peculiar nature of the titans, it does not even begin to explain where they came from, why they exist, or why they all seem to be male, so they are still mysterious, too. Later in the series a female titan pops up who is menacing in her own right because her sleeker form demonstrates intelligence and actual fighting skill rather than just savagery. In each case the grisly mayhem that they inflict on humans also makes this one of the year's most graphic titles.
Not all of the cool factor in the series is limited to the titans, though. The 3D Maneuvering Gear used by the soldiers allows them to make movements so reminiscent of Spider-Man that the Marvel Comics character must have been at least a peripheral inspiration. This allows for some impressive examples of movement through a cityscape (or, later on, a forest) and spectacular combat action sequences, samples of which can be seen in the animation of the opener. Later battles between titans also provide an exciting punch. Also watch for some nifty tactical maneuvers, such as the “shooting out of the lift” scene alluded to in the opener, although as the series repeatedly proves, quality tactics often do not stand up well when titans are involved.
Although the plot of the series is usually straightforward, it also delivers some quality surprises. Exactly how Eren gets out of a certain-death predicament is a game-changer of a plot twist, and a few other goods ones pop up over time, too. The identity of the female titan who appears later on is more predictable for those who are paying attention to details, but not everything about her and her circumstances is, nor is the probable nature of the special titans. Who does and does not die cannot always be accurately predicted, either. And while the series seems, until its last few seconds, like it has come to a proper stopping point at its end, it pulls off one heck of a cliffhanger, and from a completely unexpected direction, in its very last scene.
The general artistry of the series is also sharp despite some flaws in its technical merits. Rendering style favors thick lines and earth tone color schemes; scenes with vibrant colors are limited, though the effort by Wit Studio (an offshoot of Production I.G) does an impressive job of making even browns stand out. The character designs go to great lengths to make each human and titan look distinct without resorting too often to common visual archetypes or abnormal hairdos, hair colors, or clothing styles. They also do quite a convincing job of aging characters from the first couple of episodes to the main time setting, too. Architectural and clothing styles mostly conform to late Reformation era Europe except for the highly-cosplayable military uniforms. Animation is typically very good, but in several places (especially in the first few episodes, where production was supposedly behind schedule) the series resorts too much to stills. Prurient fan service is nonexistent – no scene even close to it comes up, in fact – but the graphic content is very strong. This is definitely not a title for younger audiences or the easily-squeamish.
The soundtrack makes nearly as much of an impression as the visuals, as it favors heavy, dramatic sounds that are often fully orchestrated and/or supported by a vocal chorus for key events and moodier pieces for less intense scenes. First half opener “Guren no Yamiya” does a spectacular job of selling the series, but second half opener “Jiyuu no Tsubasa” is hardly a shabby replacement. The gentler and more melodic first half closer is replaced by a more up-tempo rock closer in the second half, both of which are equally good.
Overall, Attack on Titan carries such a strong impact that one can easily overlook its flaws and revel its sheer, overwhelming entertainment value; the way it all comes together to create such an engrossing production is why its Overall grade is higher than the rest of its scores. At the time of this writing nothing has yet been announced about whether or not the series will receive a sequel (and whether or not enough source material currently exists for a new season is certainly in question), but given its popularity the idea that this franchise will not continue is almost inconceivable. Do not be surprised if this one also eventually makes an appearance on American TV as well, as its intensity, style, and lack of specific Japanese cultural elements makes it more accessible than most. Western anime fans have long pondered what the next big “gateway” title might be, and this one has everything it needs to be it.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Creepily effective monsters, spectacular action sequences, numerous surprises and twists, great openers.
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