Review: Attack on Titan

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The breakout anime hit of 2013, Attack on Titan (or Shingeki no Kyojin, to the more intense fans) is a dark-fantasy action series, pitting the remnants of humanity against a race of unintelligible man-eating giants dubbed ‘titans’.

Set in a 19th Century-ish Mitteleuropa, the last humans survive inside a massive walled city, with successive lines of defence dividing its citizens into their respective social strata.  After surviving a horrific titan attack that breaches the supposedly impenetrable outer wall and leaves hundreds dead, three friends enlist in the army, determined to stop the same thing happening again.  The most committed is Eren Jager; hot-headed, idealistic and chasing his own personal revenge.  Yet, with the titans drawing ever nearer, he is about to learn the bitter truth about life on the battlefield.

For a fair few of you reading this, Attack on Titan may be yesterday’s news by now, but it might surprise you to know that I never bothered to watch it first time round.  Many were immediately pulled in by the first episode, with its hellish vision of the titan attack being somewhat bleaker and more graphic than your average shonen action adaptation, but I was not completely sold, mainly due to my first impression of the main characters.  Introduced as young teenagers, Eren, and his friends Mikasa and Armin, struck me as no more than the usual shonen fighting series protagonists and, having seen glimpses of the combat to come in the opening crawl, my immediate thought was “oh, here we go, Teen Attack Force Z saves the world, again” and I just wasn’t in the mood.  The second episode did little to change my mind, so that was that.

I remained ambivalent despite the plaudits heaped upon the show in the coming months (perhaps growing even more so), but, when I was looking for something untaxing to watch while I was on holiday, I finally gave in.  And I’m very glad that I did.

With hindsight, I should really have given it another episode or two, as the series quickly begins to distinguish itself from the norm, and the brutality of its opening is no mere flash in the pan.  Attack on Titan soon establishes a hard, unforgiving world marked by an ever-present, looming sense of dread in the background, where the next incursion is never far away and humanity is not particularly adept at fighting back.  Watching their attempts, however, is a joy to behold.

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In a way, this series is the ideal anime production for its time.  I have seen it praised for the quality of its animation, but the budget clearly wasn’t massive and the usual cost-saving measures (off-model characters, reused footage, talking heads, etc.) are clearly in evidence if you stop to look for them.  The difference here is not only that the team behind AoT knew how to spend the money where it counted, but also that the nature of the action allows it to transfer extremely well to animation using the current technology.

Action scenes revolve around human armies engaging the titans using ‘Manoeuvre Gear’, a system of gas-powered grappling cables that enables a person to swing, Spiderman-style, between buildings, allowing them to dodge the titans’ attacks and reach their one weak point on the back of the neck.  Typically, this all happens at great speed, allowing the viewer to concentrate on the nicely hand-animated central figures, while endless rows of cheap, 3D CGI background buildings hurtle past unremarked in the periphery.  Not only is it exciting to watch, but it’s impressive slight of hand too.

Characters are not massively complicated, but the series does enough to subvert expectation that things remain interesting.  Conventional logic dictates that Eren should be the hero and Mikasa his love-interest to be saved, but, despite his obvious fighting spirit, Eren proves surprisingly inept in actual combat and it is Mikasa who repeatedly has to come to his aid.  The show even invites us to question Eren’s very sanity, his burning desire occasionally lending him the air of a suicidal fanatic, rather than the knight in shining armour.

Similarly, the story doesn’t break any especially fresh ground, but it’s told with such sheer gusto that it’s hard to complain.  To go into things in any detail would be difficult, as the plot relies heavily on unexpected twists, but the first half of the series (once it gets going) manages that rare trick of creating a rollercoaster-like narrative, where every time the end-credits roll around, you’re filled with an insatiable thirst to know what happens next.

Not to say there aren’t still issues, however.  Things do level-off slightly into the second half, where pacing problems become more noticeable, the repeated teasing about a mysterious McGuffin starts to border on unintentional comedy and any audience members versed in Scooby Doo will likely have guessed a certain key-plot point well in advance of its (admittedly still powerful) reveal.

Nevertheless, while it may not be life-changing, I do feel that Attack on Titan is a remarkable piece of work.  Accessible for newcomers and exciting enough to stir the old guard, I’m convinced this show has genuinely raised the bar for action anime.  I only hope that the series which follow can learn something from its example.

Attack on Titan is available to stream for free from Crunchyroll and will be available to buy on UK DVD and Blu-Ray from September 15th.

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