Reviewby Jacob Chapman, Apr 18th 2014
Attack on Titan
Episodes 1-5 (English Dub)
In an age now lost to mankind's memory, monsters shaped like giant people, but with no discernible intelligence, appeared over the mountains and started feasting on humans. To protect themselves from the creatures they named Titans, mankind erected three walls, each dozens of yards high, sealing all survivors inside for 100 years until their complacent, teeming cities felt secure from the man-eating Titans. One boy among the fattened throngs, Eren Jaeger, finds himself restless about humanity's future. He dreams of a life of adventure, joining the military's scouting regiment, being praised as a hero, and seeing the world outside the walls. He wonders how long humanity will choose safety in a sweaty, overpopulated cistern over freedom in the open seas beyond the walls. But then, in a flash, the choice is taken from everyone.
Mankind's 100 years of safety come to an abrupt end when a Colossal Titan with no skin, larger than any seen before, towers over the outermost wall and in one swift kick, exposes Eren's city to the waiting Titans. Eren, his two friends Armin and Mikasa, and a handful of refugees escape while the Titans gobble up the countless lives left behind. His family and dreams taken from him, Eren swears revenge, immediately enlisting as a trainee in the anti-Titan defense corps. But for Eren, Armin, Mikasa, and the many young trainees alongside them, ending their renewed war against a monstrous enemy will be harder than they anticipated, and more bizarre and impossible than they could have ever imagined.
The first 100 minutes of Attack on Titan are a nifty microcosm of what makes this fresh year-old megahit so special. It's not that the first five episodes tell a story unto itself: the story is only beginning. However, it's safe to say that by the conclusion of episode 5, you're either completely hooked or you're never going to be. Author Hajime Isayama's world overflows with helpless rage, meaningless sacrifice and mankind's desperate struggle to find meaning or justice in a world of inexplicable cruelty. It takes only 100 minutes to see how this off-putting pile of harsh offal can inspire so much passion in a massive audience known mostly for seeking stories of inspiring heroism. It's Attack on Titan's decision to blend optimism and brutality with just the right timing that makes it so powerful, and this bottled lightning strikes first in the journey from episode 1 to episode 5.
In the first two episodes, we learn that humanity now faces a pointless extinction at the (human-shaped) hands of monsters, but we aren't given the luxury of just swallowing down the statistic and calling it dour fantasy. We face the titans through the eyes of characters with striking personalities, grand dreams, and crippling flaws, and in such great numbers that it's impossible not to relate to someone in the cast. This collection of likable faces, most importantly those of the three main characters, makes the terror of people being eaten alive resonate with an impact no apocalyptic assault on screaming masses could imitate. We need a reprieve from all the adrenaline, so episodes 3 and 4 dial back down to explore the human element. We see child victims of the tragedy grow stronger and wiser as they butt heads with each other in the pursuit of a promising future, a chance to prove themselves, or even the desire for revenge. We're given levity, budding friendships and the flicker of hope that these ragtag kids can really take back what was lost. It is only after reinforcing our beliefs in human perseverance, courage, and teamwork that Attack on Titan lands its first big heart-stopping system shock in episode 5, so devastating that it makes us question what hope any characters have of survival, much less any kind of happy future. The show weaves an enthralling contrast between fervent affirmation of the endurance of the human spirit and the harsh realities of a world that takes life indiscriminately, and without mercy. There is always hope and there is always despair. It's anyone's guess as to which fate will claim any one of Titan's many lovable characters.
Even five episodes in, Attack on Titan has established itself as a work with unique ideas told through a powerful voice. Most importantly, it's exhilarating to watch, and accessible to anyone with a fairly strong stomach. However, enough has been made of Attack on Titan's strong writing and commanding tone, so this review in particular will be focused on Funimation's handling of the English dub, set to air on Cartoon Network's Toonami block this May. Attack on Titan is that rare anime with the potential for mainstream appeal, akin to predecessors like Cowboy Bebop, Fullmetal Alchemist, and perhaps the recent Space Dandy. Therefore, there's a lot riding on a successful dub that will bring out the best of its material, and already a healthy fanbase eager to hear the show's Euro-centric cast and story brought to life in English. (Admittedly, the series' characters would probably be speaking German instead, but it's all Western Europe anyway, right?)
Before discussing the aural aspect of the presentation, it should excite fans to know that the version of Attack on Titan set to air on US TV features the improved character animation and gussied-up art from the Japanese DVD and Blu-ray release of the show. The length and pacing of episodes isn't any different, but the many cosmetic changes are a treat and an upgrade for a show that has occasionally struggled under its own ambition. The dubbed episodes feature improved detail work on some vista shots, along with shinier metallic weaponry and slimier Titan insides. Faces and bodies have also been re-drawn in any previously off-model shots, and most enjoyably: several scenes with cutaways to reaction shots have been replaced with fully animated action.
Visually, Attack on Titan is much prettier than it was before, but the strongest aspect of its english dub is how ugly it allows itself to be. Presented with a story fueled by full-throated gristle, Funimation's dubbing team have wisely decided against archetypal "anime character" voice direction, where everyone has perfect enunciation and even gasps or shouts in melodic, clean, choir-boy "head voice." ADR director Mike McFarland jerks every voice from principals to extras down through the chest to the bottom of their guts, resulting in hellish bowel-screams and breathless spit-filled ravings.
It's not only what McFarland and his actors choose to put in, but also what they choose not to remove that makes this dub rattle your eardrums around. Most anime, even the ones filled with wailing and battle cries, remove the "flavor" of throat-cracks, half-swallowed words, and barked-up saliva that can cloud enunciation. This is the right choice in many cases, because it can be distracting, unintentionally humorous, or well, just plain ugly. Titan's dub leaves in a ton of the dirty stuff, from Captain Verman's shaky broken shouting to some haunting words from Eren that sound like they're being delivered from lungs filled with blood. The result can be uncomfortable to listen to, so much so that it can verge on comical, as in Armin's violent wailing in episode 5, but this is how it was always meant to be. The lack of emotional or vocal restraint dominates the listening experience, and thanks to strong material and deft direction, it never comes across as misguided or cheesy: just honest.
Individually speaking, it's difficult to pick a standout voice in the cast, because the show has been cast so impeccably, with everyone down to the smallest parts bringing out the best in their characters. Roles are filled by not only the familiar stable of Funimation voice actors, but a smattering of LA talents like Matthew Mercer as Levi, Ashly Burch as Sasha, and Bryce Papenbrook as Eren. Clear efforts have been made to cast against expectations and outside of familiarity in a spread reminiscent of Funi's approach to the Fullmetal Alchemist dub, with arguably even more perfect results. Josh Grelle's Armin captures his feminine, dandelion fragility without taking it too far into camp, instead granting him that spark of masculinity and strength of will that makes him complex and lovable. While the dub realizes that Armin needs dignity to make his character shine, it wisely strips away all dignity from Sasha through the manic voice of Ash Burch, who brings good comic timing and her trademark "noxious charm" to the character, making Sasha genuinely funny in a garish way uncommon for female characters in anime, (but very welcome!) There are too many characters to praise, but from Annie's world-weary grain to Connie's brick-brained enthusiasm, the cast gets everything right.
Well, almost everything. The dub's only Achilles heel is unfortunately on the foot it steps out on, and it's primarily a hindrance for mainstream audiences rather than anime fans. Longtime viewers of anime dubs may be used to adults unconvincingly voicing young children, and easily forget to notice when it isn't quite working, but in the case of young Eren, Bryce Papenbrook's falsetto rings false. He's a perfect choice for the part of grown Eren, as evidenced by the wash of relief the viewer experiences when hearing his adult voice for the first time and seeing how pitch-perfectly he captures that character, but unfortunately, Attack on Titan's first two episodes are told from a child's perspective, and as child Eren, Papenbrook seems forced, shrill, and off-putting. It's perhaps easier for dub-familiar viewers to accept, but it still jars heavily against all the incredibly natural-sounding voices surrounding him, and could very well be a point of contention with those new to anime, right out of the gate. In the case of Fullmetal Alchemist, we had two episodes with Vic Mignogna's fine teen Edward voice before briefly having to accept his unconvincing child Edward voice in episode 3, at which point we were already sold on the story. Attack on Titan is in the reverse situation with an awkward protagonist voice leading its charge, and it might be a sticking point for getting into the show. Everything else is so vocally on point, (including Papenbrook's Eren, once he grows up,) that one can only hope it won't be a deterrent.
The dub soars high on perfect casting and skilled direction, but then there's the third, too-often neglected element: adaptive scripting. (There's also sound mixing, but that garners less notice. The mix on the dub is great, though! Nobody's weirdly hot on mic or anything, and convolution is applied perfectly to convey the giant outside spaces that all the soldiers shout across.) The bad news for sub purists is that nearly every spoken line differs from the exact translation. Funimation is not known for literal dub scripting, and there's none to be found here. The good news for everyone else is that the adaptive choices are good ones that cut down information repetition, eliminate potential awkward pauses, and enrich expository narration. There's no weird language choices or gross loss of intent in the changes here, just smart writing in the interest of making the story play as naturally as possible in English, and it absolutely does. This means fan-favorite quotes have and will continue to be transmuted into different phrasing, and they'll just have to get used to it when new fans rattle off different Levi quips than the ones they once saw in subtitles.
For comparison, the first line of the show:
Japanese subtitles: "That day, humanity received a grim reminder... of the terror of being ruled by Them... of the humiliation of being kept in a cage."
English dub: "And just like that, everything changed. At that terrible moment, in our hearts, we knew... "home" was a pen... and humanity, cattle."
It's the same information, but it's been altered to achieve a different tone. The original line is more passive and poetic, while the dub approach is more urgent and menacing. Both have their merits, so it's just interesting to see what choices the adaptive writers adopt in different situations. 90% of the time, these are in line with the original material. There is a potentially divisive 10% however, that should be addressed.
Once again, the small pitfalls the script falls into are on its first step, but this time they'll only be apparent to ardent fans and not the fresh-faced viewer. Basically, Eren, Armin, and Mikasa are inadvertently re-characterized through their adaptive dialogue, and while it mostly affects scenes in the first two episodes, the sprain is still felt anew in episode 5, which indicates that these slight changes to their characters will follow them throughout the dub.
The differences are slight, but certainly affect intent:
Sub Armin: "You know what I said is true. That's why you're hitting me instead of arguing! Doesn't that just mean you admit I win?" (candor)
Dub Armin: "You resort to violence because your brain's the size of a walnut! So pummel me all you want! I've already won." (condescension)
Sub Mikasa: "If Armin is a weakling, so are we. We didn't run from the Titans on our own two feet." (honesty)
Dub Mikasa: "Have you looked in the mirror lately? All of us are parasites. [...] Don't take your shortcomings out on [Armin.]" (derision)
Sub Eren: "Why does everyone treat you like you're crazy when you say you want to go outside [the walls]?" (frustration)
Dub Eren: "Why's it gotta be this way? Why can't people just let us dream?" (self-aware soliloquizing)
Sub Eren 2: "Why did I waste my final minutes with her having some stupid argument? Now she's gone...she's never coming back!" (blunt anger, blunt sorrow)
Dub Eren 2: "Why was I always such a brat? Why did I always fight her? And I never said 'I love you!' Now I'll never get to! Never!" (articulate and overwrought self-awareness)
In spurts and peeps, our heroes have become more snarky, detached and genre-savvy than they used to be. American audiences do love their detached quippy antiheroes! Unfortunately, that's just not who these three kids are supposed to be. Mikasa is not sarcastic, in fact she's disturbingly blunt. Armin is not arrogant, in fact he struggles with horrible self-loathing. Eren is definitely not self-reflective or eloquent by any stretch of the imagination. These three are painfully sincere characters, and the homogeneity of lines like these isn't just untrue to the original intent, it makes them all sound like one another. This becomes even more apparent when episode 3 begins and the syntax and dialogue choices shift heavily back to faithfulness: it was obviously written by a different person. The writer for ep. 4 is unclear, but the adaptive voice dominating 1 and 2 is clearly back in 5. Viewers should not be able to distinguish this so clearly in one viewing. Maintaining original intent is the best way to avoid that. However, to new Titan fans and less picky old ones, the mild snideness and verbosity might be welcome, as a version of these characters unto itself in a standalone dub. Either way, it's a minor gripe, and you can judge from the sample lines above how much it might affect your viewing experience.
It's not flawless, but Attack on Titan's dub is raw in the best way, successful at yanking out heartstrings and more impressively, maintaining the show's healthy sense of humor. It's ultimately more interesting for its peccadillos, and the end result is one of the strongest dubs heard in many years, especially considering that it's in its infancy in these first five episodes. The drill sergeant scene that kicks off episode 3 in particular is so perfect, you'd swear it was originally scripted to be in English. (On the whole, the dub ramps up from good to great in quality once the characters grow up and join the military.) So if you've missed the phenomenon up to this point, the english version headed for Toonami is a great way to start.
Overall (dub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Perfect casting, commanding performances, and improved visuals in time for the US broadcast
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