Attack on Titan
Attack on Titan. Odds are good you don’t even need to have watched the show to know about it, and to have heard plenty about it, which is quite remarkable in some respects.
Like the lovechild of Pacific Rim and HP Lovecraft, Attack on Titan is the biggest media franchise out of Japan since the late 90s and the heyday of PokeMon, DragonBall Z and Sailor Moon. While you’ve had a number of successful anime over the last few years, Attack on Titan has reached a level of mainstream popularity unseen in anime in years. The manga is not only almost single handedly responsible for reviving the struggling manga industry, it’s outselling even mainstream comics like Batman and Superman here in the USA. You can’t go to a convention without it dozens of Attack on Titan cosplayers, while a merchandising empire has seen everything from video games to car commercials. And of course, you have the anime series, whose English dub has been the crown jewel in the revived Toonami lineup. Tonight is the season finale, so I’m finally reviewing the biggest anime phenomenon in recent memory, Attack on Titan.
So does Attack on Titan measure up to the massive hype, or will it fail to stand up to my scrutiny? This, my dear readers, is my review of Attack on Titan.
One hundred years in the past, the Titans appeared. These giant humanoid creatures are seemingly immortal, nearly indestructible, and exist for the sole purpose of devouring human beings. Pushed to the brink of extinction, what remained of humanity retreated behind a country-sized multi-walled city, where for the last century, humanity has lived in peace – until now, when even larger Titans breach one of the walls, once more putting the fate of humanity in the balance.
It’s this turn of events that sees childhood friends Eren, Armin and Mikasa join the military, both to escape the past, and idealistically, to do what they can to give mankind a future free of the Titans – even if mankind has to become monsters themselves in order to do so.
That combination of creative world-building and near universal theme work has no doubt been a driving factor behind Attack On Titan’s astonishing success. Set in a vaguely medieval/steampunk world, a lot of the overall setting is either left vague initially, of a slow mystery at this point – even the question if it’s a fantasy world, some far fallen future Earth, or an alternate past is mostly left to interpretation at this point. What Attack on Titan does flesh out though is wildly creative, such as the military whose main combat tactics involve use of compressed air powered jetpacks allowing soldiers to fly on tethers.
In addition to offering a vaguely medieval/steampunk setting, the series’ underlying conflict between humanity and the Titans, these vaguely human-looking cannibalistic monsters that can’t be reasoned with, or even understood, and desire only to devour humanity, serve as the perfect black-and-white battle ready to be branded with whatever symbolism you desire – the number of varying political subtext ascribed to Attack on Titan is truly dizzying. Even disregarding that, the series taps into that primal Lovecraftian fear, of humanity losing our spot at the top of the food chain to terrifying monsters we can’t understand, and struggling to survive, much less counterattack.
Just as an added bonus, for an anime, there is very little to any of the typical anime trappings, ranging from harems to fan service, so part of why it has such mass appeal could well be the simple fact they didn’t weigh it down by pandering to the hardcore otaku demographic. One wonders if that could be why that same demographic disparages Attack on Titan as ‘overrated’, but I digress.
The story being very character driven, it’s a good thing that Attack on Titan has one of the most memorable casts in recent anime history. Much of the show revolves around that same Power Trio of Eren, Armin and Mikasa, and the backstories, motives and relationships behind each of them, and Eren and Mikasa have both rightfully become household names among even casual anime fans because of it. You’ve also got a supporting cast of dozens, ranging from food-crazed Sasha (aka, Potato Girl) to smart-mouthed Jean, and Attack on Titan takes the time to flesh them out over the course of the series.
Which brings us to one of Attack on Titan’s signatures – taking those well-rounded and interesting supporting characters and then putting them through hell, killing off many with brutal efficiency that would give George RR Martin pause. It’s when you watch that a character who you watched develop over the last arc or two get unceremoniously ripped in half between the teeth of a Titan that the grim stakes of the series hits home. As much as Attack on Titan is about the quest to save humanity or uncover the mystery of behind the Titans, on a smaller level, it’s like any good war drama – we watch the cast of wide-eyed recruits over time either end up dead or as grizzled veterans one wrong move away from a grave, and no character is safe.
Oddly enough though, Attack on Titan avoids the Grimderp pitfall, despite going to some nightmarishly dark places, largely because despite the horrors the cast faces, they remain driven, motivated, and even optimistic to do what they can to fight back, and despite setbacks, the plan remains to turn the tide against the Titans.
Visually, the show is often spell-binding, especially during the well-detailed battle scenes, and even during slower parts of the show, Attack on Titan is always great to look at. There is an immense level of detail given to the art in the series, to the point each of the characters, even the various Titans and crowds of people, is given a unique design right down to the noses. Visual aesthetic aside, the show also boasts a great soundtrack, especially the first theme song.
As a whole however, it’s easy to see why Attack on Titan has been such the hit that it has become. The slow-burn story of humanity’s choice to become cannon fodder or simply fodder for legions of walking abominations is as compelling and creative as it is enjoyable. It stars one of the best ensemble casts to hit anime in years, and its willingness to develop them just long enough that you miss them when they get mercilessly killed off. Visually, it’s a clear labor of love, with a lot of thought and attention having clearly gone into a world that even at its bleakest you just can’t look away. All those factors, when brought together, have resulted in perhaps the first true breakout international smash hit seen in anime in more than a decade. For good reason: Attack on Titan is probably the best anime in more than a decade too.
The second season is set to premiere next year sometime in the spring, but for now, if you want to see Attack on Titan for yourself, it’s still broadcasting on Toonami, and can be watched online at Funimation, Crunchyroll and Netflix. Attack on Titan is the rare work of fiction that doesn’t just measure up to the hype, but leaves the hype entirely in its shadow.