Attack on Titan The Final Season
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Attack on Titan The Final Season ?
“Isn't war a terrible thing?”
After seven long years of feverish anticipation, agonizing gaps between seasons, and — most recently — a total changeup of the show's production studio and creative team, we have at last arrived at the beginning of the end. Now under the stewardship of MAPPA, Attack on Titan The Final Season is set to finish the journey that Eren Yeager and his friends began all those years ago when the Colossal Titan first arrived in that fateful thunderclap. When we last saw the remaining survivors of the war between the soldiers of Paradis and the enigmatic Titan forces, they were reckoning with a series of Earth-shattering revelations about the origins of their enemy and the secrets of Paradis that have been hidden from all but a select few for generations, and how all of their world's conflict can be traced back to the nation of Marley, which lies across the sea.
We learned of how the ancient race of Eldians have been beaten down and forced into lives as Marley's political scapegoats, supposedly being punished for the crime of using the power of the Titans to wage war and commit genocide. We saw how Eren's father, Grisha, originally came to Paradis as a criminal to be executed, only to start a new life on Marley's “penal colony”, and eventually passing along the stolen power of the Founding Titan to his unwitting son. The Beast Titan was revealed to be Grisha's firstborn son and Eren's half-brother, Zeke, who has decided to live as a loyal soldier of the Marleyan army. And while decades of lies and propaganda have convinced the Marleyans that the Eldians are subhuman monsters deserving only of punishment and scorn, and only useful as weapons to be used up and discarded on the battlefield, the citizens of Paradis Island have been blinded to their lost culture, and to the existence of a world beyond their island's borders. Now that the truth has been revealed, our heroes have embarked on a mission to take down Marley once and for all.
This is where Attack on Titan The Final Season takes a swerve that many stories of long-running conflict and warfare do, and it's always a tricky one: “The Other Side of the Sea” sees AoT switching sides, dropping us right into the middle of another Marleyan war, except this time our point-of-view is placed firmly on the perspective of the Marleyan soldiers themselves. Given how successfully the past three seasons of AoT have managed to bolster its audience's animosity and distrust of the Marleyan infiltrators, it's a pretty bold move to begin this final season by abandoning our usual gang of heroes completely and asking us to empathize with the ostensible villains of the story. The disorientation is two-fold, too, because on top of all of the exposition that comes from opening right in the middle of the Marleyan's final push against the Middle Eastern Alliance at the Battle of Fort Slava, we also have to contend with the fact that there's been a four-year time-skip in between last season's finale and now. So, in addition to wondering where the hell we are, and who the hell we're watching on screen, we're also going to be wondering about what this leap forward in time means for the heroes we already know.
That will have to wait until later, though. For now, we're with the Marleyans, and more specifically, the Warrior Candidates. Falco seems to be our leading man, given that his face is what is plastered all over this season's advertising material, and he is joined by Udo, Zofia, and Gabi. All of them are children, all of them are Eldians, and all of them are competing with one another even as they fight alongside each other, in order to determine who will be chosen to inherit the power of the Armored Titan. They're a likeable bunch, especially Falco and Gabi, the former of whom demonstrates real compassion for the element on the battlefield (even as they decry the Eldians as untouchable devils). Gabi is a force to be reckoned with all on her own. Brash, arrogant, and determined to inherit the Armored Titan mantle, she takes it upon herself to walk out into No Man's Land with nothing but her underclothes on her back and a bundle of grenades posing as a helpless civilian, and she manages to take out an entire enemy train with the scheme.
This first half of the episode does a remarkably solid job of introducing this new cast of characters, along with digging further into the complicated themes that have earned Attack on Titan so much skeptical criticism over the years, especially as the truth about the Eldians came to light in Season 3. The way the show appropriates the imagery and lexicon of real-world atrocities, specifically from WWII and the Holocaust, continues to be a murky proposition at best, but so far AoT is still presenting its war-torn world and politically indoctrinated young characters in a light that makes absolute sense, at least to me. The dehumanization and abuse of the Eldians is only ever presented as the result of deliberately misleading propaganda and centuries' worth of institutionalized bigotry, and the way “The Other Side of the Sea” presents the consequences of nationalism-driven warfare is stark and grim.
The key factor of Hajime Isayama's artwork that MAPPA has done well in preserving is how sunken-in and shell-shocked everyone looks, especially the frightened foot soldiers. We see trembling suicide bombers, half-broken bodies strewn about everywhere, and the utter chaos that comes part and parcel with the kind of battles that Marley is engaging in, which are clearly modeled off of the meat-grinder of WWI's trench warfare. In fact, outside of the stone-cold visages that the Titan Warriors Zeke and Reiner have adopted, the only other “calm” looking faces that we see are those of the completely neutralized Eldians that have been strapped into parachute harnesses to be used as Titan Bombs. Then again, AoT also has to contend with the fundamental paradox that has plagued all war-based media since the beginning of time, especially those that have been enshrined in popular culture. Namely, for as much as AoT seems to be earnestly trying to depict the destructive and permanently scarring consequences of war on the likes of its blind zealots and child soldiers, it is also going to great lengths to make watching these battles badass as all get out.
Whatever production issues MAPPA may be struggling with given the franchise's notoriously grueling production schedules, “The Other Side of the Sea” is a pitch-perfect reintroduction into Attack on Titan's particular brand of action-horror spectacle. The new Titan forms we get to see here, Jaw and Cart, are pretty cool additions to AoT's repertoire of disgusting kaiju-mecha hybrids, but the show really cuts loose once Reiner arrives and transforms into the Armored Titan, laying waste to the remains of Fort Slava. The Titans have pretty much become entirely computer-generated creatures at this point, but I think MAPPA's use of CG is actually an improvement over the inconsistent and sometimes clunky looking shifts between 2D and 3D Titan models that Studio WiT practiced in Seasons 1-3.
One appreciable difference I think I can spot between MAPPA and WiT's style, outside of the slightly rounder looking character faces, is that MAPPA's color palette strikes me as more subdued on first glance. At least here, I think this works in the show's favor because the CG Titans don't look quite so uncanny when their shading is better blended with the 2D backgrounds. The way the Titans move seems much more on point as well; some cuts of Reiner's attack even reminded me a little of the climactic action you might see in one of Studio Khara's Evangelion films. It is not quite on par with theatrical film levels of quality, but that I am even making the comparison at all speaks to what MAPPA has accomplished here.
I normally don't care too much about spoilers, but Attack on Titan is one series where I have managed almost completely to stick with only what has come up in the animated series. Outside of some character deaths I got wind of thanks to Twitter Osmosis, I have no idea where this story is taking us, and I couldn't be more excited to find out. Attack on Titan is a show that has only improved as its story has become darker, stranger, and more complex, and based on this premiere alone, I would venture to guess that the darkest and strangest tales are yet to come.
Odds and Ends
• This season's new OP uses "My War", by a band called Shinsei Kamattechan. I don't know if I'm sold on the crazy number of filters and colors used in the animation, and the show definitely isn't being shy about its historical influences with some of the imagery, but I really dig the song – it's weird, and I like weird music a whole lot. The ED is much simpler, more abstract with its visuals, but Yuki Andō's song, “Shock”, is lovely.
• It really is impressive how well this episode retains AoT's general sense of style, pacing, and direction. Aside from the aforementioned changes I noticed, the only other artistic quibble I might raise is that I wasn't completely sure about the proportions of the kids' bodies and faces. Maybe it's because I'm not sure what their precise ages are meant to be, and I could just be imagining it, but the thought kept popping up whenever they were on screen.
• The Beast Titan still looks a bit funky in motion, but I suspect that is at least partially by design, since its oddly lanky frame and more human features are bound to read as uncanny, even compared to the other Titans.
• Manga fans: A lot of viewers are bound to be like me, and only familiar with the animated material, so please keep that in mind in the forum discussions.
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