In Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke, Susan J. Napier contends that one of the dominant themes in anime is that of “apocalypse,” i.e., titles that depict the end of the world, and its related human drama, often with stunning and disturbing imagery and spectacle. Napier includes Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion as examples, but also points out that even the beloved Hayao Miyazaki included apocalyptic themes and imagery in movies like Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke.
Apocalyptic themes can be found in more recent titles, as well, including Ergo Proxy, Darker Than Black, Claymore, and Angel Beats. However, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen an anime so apocalyptically minded as Attack on Titan, at least since I first saw Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion.
It’s been a century since humanity was reduced to a quasi-feudal state of existence by the attack of giant humanoids called “titans.” Humanity’s final remnants now live behind a series of giant walls, and society has returned to a semblance of normalcy, though titans are still reported to exist beyond the walls. That all changes when the outermost wall is breached by a giant titan, allowing a flood of titans into the city that quickly lay waste and devour everyone in sight.
One of the few survivors is Eren Jaeger, a young man forced to watch helplessly as a titan consumes his mother. Driven nearly mad with grief, Eren enlists in the military to avenge his mother and annihilate the titans. Along with his foster sister and best friend, Eren ends up in the Survey Corps, an elite group of soldiers that roams beyond the walls in order to find the titans’ source — and hopefully, the key to defeating them. Eren’s mission becomes a wee bit complicated, though, when he discovers that he is capable of turning into a powerful titan himself.
Seen by some as a potential weapon and by most as a freak and a threat, Eren must learn to control his titan abilities and determine how much of his humanity he’s willing to sacrifice in order to save humanity as a whole.
Make no mistake: Attack on Titan is gruesome and disturbing. After all, its villains are giant, naked humanoids that lumber about and devour every human in sight — and a lot of devouring occurs. There’s something intensely horrific about seeing a grotesquely grinning giant scrabbling about on all fours, trying to snap up everyone within range. However, Attack on Titan is ultimately an incredibly intense experience that is more than mere gore and grotesquery.
When Eren and his fellow soldiers take on the titans, the action sequences are some of the best I’ve seen animated in a long time, as the humans use special steampunk-looking equipment to fly, rappel, climb, and zip around the lumbering monstrosities in order to trip them up or attack their weak spot. Imagine that scene in The Empire Strikes Back where the rebels take on the lumbering AT-AT walkers on Hoth — only make it ten times more frenetic, and replace the walkers with naked giants.
But the series never forgets the horror of the titans, and the psychological toll they take on their victims. Many are driven mad by the mere sight of the titans, and much of the series’ drama comes from Eren et al. trying to keep it together and (barely) resisting the urge to succumb to nihilism and despair. Piling on the tension, the series — which is based on Hajime Isayama’s acclaimed manga — takes a page from George R.R. Martin’s playbook, and isn’t afraid of letting titans devour or maim established or promising characters. Eren, in particular, experiences some pretty rough treatment that stands in stark contrast to his heroic apsirations. It all makes for some compelling stuff with actual stakes because nobody is safe. That, and characters often have to do the unthinkable simply to survive. When I first started binge-watching the series on Crunchyroll, I spent many an episode on the edge of my set, or with my jaw on the ground (and my stomach turning all the while).
However, the series will no doubt prove frustrating for many. For all of its thrilling action sequences, Attack on Titan is incredibly heavy on the exposition, and will often throw in a lengthy (and usually emotionally tortured) discussion right in the middle of the action. In a later episode, for example, Eren and his comrades engage in an intense discussion concerning the necessity and challenge of following the proper chain of command that spans nearly the entire episode. It’s rather ridiculous, and is made all the moreso by Eren’s sullenness (he’s almost as bad as Shinji Ikari at times) — and the fact that they have it on horseback while frantically trying to outrun a titan is the icing on the cake.
Indeed, the pacing is the series’ biggest flaw, as it swerves from breakneck aerial battles (which often contain the bulk of the series’ emotional oomph) to lengthy dialog scenes replete with a flashback (or three). It’s annoying because the exposition so often feels redundant. Attack on Titan holds its cards very close, and while this is probably because it’s based on a manga that is still ongoing, and they don’t want to risk outpacing the source material, it can result in surprisingly little resolution or revelation. Little hints regarding the titans’ true nature, and Eren’s relationship to them, appear here and there, and are rarely developed. Rather, they’re used as cliffhanger material. Suffice to say, the second season of Attack on Titan — which (hopefully) is all but a sure thing at this point — is going to have a lot of revealing to do.
In addition, the series’ characters are a mixed bag. Attack on Titan features a huge cast, and to its credit, it does try and given them all distinct personalities. However, Eren rarely transcends being the Shinji type, and the person closest to him — his foster sister Mikasa — is definitely the Rei Ayanami type. (However, Mikasa does have a few wonderfully bad-ass moments, especially in the season finale.) I appreciated the series’ attempts to communicate the unique challenges faced by both the officers (who are forced to make horrific decisions in the battle against the titans) and the rank and file (who are forced to bear the brunt of those decisions). Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Attack on Titan, for all of its exciting action sequences and whatnot, never lets you forget that. It never lets its characters off the hook, nor its viewers.
In the end, though, Attack on Titan is a visceral title unlike anything I’ve experienced from anime in quite some time. I’ve watched other recent series that came close — e.g., Deadman Wonderland, Psycho-Pass — but in the end, nothing compares. It’s not for everyone, and especially not for those with weak stomachs, but it features a unique concept, lots of background detail and world-building (I never got to the series’ portrayal of social inequality and political corruption), enough mystery to (usually) sustain the constant cliffhangers, excellent action, and some of the creepiest and most affecting monsters you can imagine. At its best, Attack on Titan is a gripping series… though not necessarily one I’d want to watch right after eating dinner.