Reviewby Jacob Hope Chapman, Jun 12th 2014
Attack on Titan
BD+DVD - Part 1 [Limited Edition]
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.
Attack on Titan has been the kind of success every writer, producer, and company wants to have on their plate. Sure, otaku brushfires like Sword Art Online are nice, and tapping into unexpected markets with hits like Free! must be soul-warming, but few manga and anime have had the reach and scope of Attack on Titan, from its blockbuster sales, rabid fandom, critical affection, and mainstream pervasiveness in Japan and to a smaller extent, western shores. The manga has produced untold spinoffs from prequels to comedy spoofs, and in the wake of its successful anime adaptation, advertisers selling everything from razors to cars, and of course all kinds of food, have borrowed its characters and images to endorse their products. It's not an Evangelion-sized smash, few things are, but it's frighteningly close.
Needless to say, many would love to know the secret of what makes Titan so endearing to such large audiences. How do you distill that lightning in a bottle? Still others may be on the fence, averse to the noxious enthusiasm and hype that sensations like Titan generate, but curious to the potential discovery of something that really is Special. Is Attack on Titan a valuable work of fiction outside all the crazy memes and marketing? The answer to the first question is that no one knows the answer, but we can do our best to suss it out by trying to answer the second question, and exploring the value of Attack on Titan as a narrative. What's still worth watching about this story with such exploitative content, widely published plot twists, and notoriously offbeat pacing? (For this set alone: episodes 1 and 2 cover a few months of story. Episodes 3 and 4 cover five years. Episodes 5-13 cover a single day.
On the bare surface, the premise alone would seem to be the Special Thing about Attack on Titan. Despite being based in low fantasy like successful thematic relatives Berserk or Game of Thrones, Titan mutates its swords against monsters roots into something that's never quite been seen before. If originality is its own reward, Titan's evolved swords and monsters are a treasure chest of visual novelty. Tiny warriors zip around like flies stabbing and stinging at gargantuan not-quite-human bodies to avoid being eaten (with little success) and the immediate visceral response is seat-edge investment followed by horror when the monster that looks almost-like-us-but-not-quite pops the real humans, insignificant bugs, into its mouth and moves on without a care. It's not just that Titans are big scary monsters that hunt and eat people. They are frightening, but they're also a little funny, and this adds to their appeal. Dull-eyed ten-story naked zombies that casually chew on people can be terrifying, but after wearing out the conceit a few times, it becomes silly, and the Titans become snuggly mascots for Pizza Hut alongside bringers of doomsday for all mankind. What was once uniquely menacing becomes a joke, and if this was all there was to Attack on Titan, it wouldn't have so many fans and critics slavering for more. The Titans themselves are the hook, the face on the poster that draws in fresh eyes to enjoy the story, but they can't carry it on their own.
Attack on Titan's vaunted plot twists are not the Special Thing either, although they are numerous and rewarding. Attack on Titan is a story of secrets: where did the Titans come from? Why do they want to kill us? What is in Dr. Jaeger's ever-teased basement? Questions are constantly thrown out, stored for later, and then buried under more questions. When answers finally arrive, they've often been foreshadowed to death so the viewers have guessed them before they take hold in the main plot, which needless to say makes us all feel very proud of ourselves. Author Hajime Isayama seems aware of this and has never made the twists themselves the point. Getting those two answers to eight questions is exciting, but it never means much for humanity's survival. More information seeps in episode by episode, but when it comes to the war between Man and Titan, it's only ever two steps forward and three steps back.
The Special Thing about Attack on Titan has never been the twisted concept or twisting plot, unique and super-watchable though they may be. The hidden treasure at the bottom of Attack on Titan's chest is the new face it puts on humanity. It changes the way we look at familiar fantasy heroes by putting humanity itself in an unheard-of position: the very bottom of the food chain. It's not only that Titans eat humans, it's that they eat only humans, and the baser world turns around us, unsympathetic to our extinction. The direction is deliberate in hammering home this theme. The camera focuses in on the game animals who wander freely beyond the walls as the Titans stomp past them to break in and consume more humans. It lingers on the geese and crows humans once cooked or harassed as they fly over the walls or peck coldly at discarded corpses of women and children. Every animal on the earth is more free than humans are, and even despite this shift in paradigm, humans are not united in their struggle. They still turn on one another over religion, class, and the survival of self over the survival of hundreds.
However, Attack on Titan is not out to punish its heroes or viewers for being human. It does exactly the opposite, and this is the fire at its heart that has set off so many others and makes a powerful emotional statement larger than all the novelty and plot twists. Enter the story's deserving hero, Eren Jaeger. Eren is almost deliberately not a "likable" protagonist, even by 15-year-old boy standards. He's violent and impulsive, but not very strong like his best friend Mikasa, the paragon of human physical superiority. He's stubbornly opinionated, but not very smart like his best friend Armin, the paragon of superior human intellect. He's a child at the bottom of the food chain, with no real talents or tools for survival, but very quickly he becomes "humanity's last hope." It's not just because Eren possesses a handy macguffin that he wins this position. The seemingly unexceptional Eren inspires friends, enemies, and eventually his whole species, because he still believes in his feelings, hopes, and dreams; even when he doesn't have the reason or the power to fight for those things, he will fight simply because he has them. He reminds humanity that this, not simple "survival," is the value they add to an unfeeling world, and they can't afford to endanger from within or let the Titans take it away from them. Eren is the heart of humanity, and humanity is a Special Thing that deserves to not only survive, but thrive. If you are weak or irrational or untalented, your life still has value because you are human, and you are part of that single voice that struggles against the bleak world of eat or be eaten.
This phenomenon spreads throughout Titan's entire cast, making them all immensely likable, from the spontaneous dorks like Sasha and Connie to the hardened dynamos like Annie and Levi, even though most of these characters have tiny scenes and spare lines. The audience is on their side because they are part of this brotherhood of humanity that we've unwittingly adopted. Most of the pacing problems in Attack on Titan are actually caused by this brazen worship of basic human ambition and emotion above all else. Emotional highs are reveled in as if they are first-person experiences, like Armin's slow-built personal epiphany in episode 10 that culminates in a literal explosion that is not disruptive as most explosions would be, but leaves him awash with peace (and bone dust.) Events are delayed so that we can get every character's personal opinion and reaction to them, whether that be from the POV of a no-name character facing and accepting his own death, or mild foreshadowing that will only pay off much later from otherwise mysterious characters like Annie or Ymir. Attack on Titan's pacing is unusual, but its time is never wasted. Time is just spent liberally on that Special Thing most important to the story: listening for a human heartbeat at the bottom of the food chain. This rare focus makes Attack on Titan not only a well-written, fun action show, but a phenomenon that deserves all the hearts it has captured.
Of course, none of this would be worth anything without strong visual direction, which Attack on Titan has in spades. The distracting budget limitations of its initial TV airing seem all but forgotten in the home video release, with refined animation and textures that make the show's gristle glimmer. The art design at its core isn't perfect. Characters' blocky outlines stand out from the background distractingly, giving its intended harshness a "cut-out" effect that can seem flat and comic book-like, but for the most part, Titan is a great-looking show that makes up for its few odd design choices with the outstanding and theatrical direction of Tetsuro Araki, who is fast making his mark as a master of adapting silent manga to loud living color in a way that commands attention.
This is due in no small part to the audio component of Attack on Titan, which easily outshines even the solid visuals. The theme song is so fitting and memorable it fast became a meme, and the rest of the show's score tailors brass, synth, and ominous choruses perfectly to every mood the show swings through. The vocal performances are a challenge well-conquered in both English and Japanese, resulting in a dramatic force of a show with more screaming per episode than any other in recent memory that miraculously avoids falling into embarrassing hysterics. (The dub has already been reviewed in minute detail here. It's largely an excellent endeavor, but the adaptive script does fall into needless overwriting sometimes.) All are blended together in the most secretly subtle part of the Attack on Titan experience: a smart and immersive sound mix, available in 5.1 surround for the dubbed version.
Speaking of the home release, Funimation's Collector's Edition is packed with goodies, but packed peculiarly. The blu-ray/DVD combo comes in a fold-out digi-book package with the book attached to the center, but no outer sleeve to keep the covers protected and aligned, (as on the similar Conqueror of Shamballa set for instance,) and the four pins, two necklaces, and lenticular card that come along with it come loose. They're delightful extras, but it's a shame there's no place for them in the minimalist packaging. On-disc extras include two english commentaries, a making-of special, and some tragically un-funny chibi cartoon shorts (Japanese-language only.) As an unfortunate side effect of the blu-ray's subtitle-language locking, the eyecatches with worldbuilding info during the episodes are not subtitled or translated into English while watching the show, so for all that bonus info, viewers will have to go to the eyecatch gallery on-disc.
Funi's release is crammed with goodies for good cause, as Attack on Titan continues gaining monstrous popularity around the internet, and more and more fans join the brotherhood of humanity that Attack on Titan embraces in all its shades: proud, primal, beautiful and ugly. The fight for survival is only halfway over, and then the wait for season 2 begins. Like its protagonist, Attack on Titan is far from perfect, but the passion it inspires in others is undeniable, just for daring to be what it is, without apology or hesitation. As it plows forward in its twists, turns, and character revelations, the army of fans behind it will follow, and it's safe to say this is going to be a show worth following even to a bitter end.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Unique and powerful fantasy concept, well-placed story twists that build on each other, vast and emotionally sincere cast of characters, outstanding aural presentation alongside good visuals, great gory popcorn fun with thick juicy brains underneath
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