Screen Time [National Anime Day]: Attack on Titan (Season One)

Though anime traces its origins back to around 1917, its characteristic visual style first rose to prominence in the sixties through the works of animator Osamu Tezuka and developed a worldwide audience throughout the second half of the 20th century through its focus on the detail of settings and use of dynamic camera effects. To celebrate and appreciate this distinct style of animation, 15 April has been designated National Anime Day, giving anime fans the world over a chance to voice their admiration through conventions, cosplay, or a general sharing of their memories and experiences of anime.

Season One

Air Date: 7 April 2013 to present
UK Distributor: Netflix, et al
Original Network: MBS/NHK General TV
Stars: Bryce Papenbrook, Josh Grelle, Trina Nishimura, Jessica Calvello, Lauren Landa, Matthew Mercer, and R Bruce Elliott

The Background:
Attack on Titan began life as a Japanese manga written and illustrated by Hajime Isayama and has been published in Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine since September 2009. Drawing from personal experiences regarding the fear of strangers you cannot communicate with, the isolated and enclosed nature of Japanese culture, and the Muv-Luv visual novel series (âge/5pb, 2003 to 2016), Attack on Titan was very well received, selling over 100 million copies by the end of 2019 and quickly etching itself into worldwide popular culture. As a result of the manga’s popularity, Attack on Titan has been adapted into videogames, live-action movies, and an ongoing anime. The anime was produced by Wit Studio and Production I.G, directed by Tetsurō Araki, and dubbed into English by FUNimation Entertainment. Like the manga, the anime was received generally positively, with critics praising the storyline, animation, and music but criticising the crudeness or the titular Titans and the bleakness of the story’s tone.

The Plot:
For a hundred years, the last vestiges of humanity has lived in cities surrounded by enormous walls that protect them from gigantic man-eating humanoids referred to as Titans. After his mother is devoured by a Titan before his eyes, Eren Yeager (Papenbrook) vows to join the Titan-hunting Scout Regiment alongside his friends Mikasa Ackerman (Nishimura) and Armin Arlert (Grelle) and rid the world of the Titans once and for all.

The Review:
In a world where we are literally swamped with all kinds of bat-shit crazy ideas for manga, anime, and videogames, Attack on Titan offers what can only be described as a “unique” premise: one day, about a hundred years ago, the gigantic cannibalistic Titans simply showed up and started eating humans left, right, and centre. They appeared seemingly out of nowhere and decimated humanity, driving them behind fifty-foot high walls and to the point of near extinction. Since then, humanity has lived in relative peace, training generations of soldiers to battle the nigh-indestructible Titans and scout out new areas for expansion and the acquisition of resources. The titular Titans are gruesome, disturbing creatures; ranging in height from around three to fifteen meters tall, they vary in appearance from constantly-grinning or alarmingly stoic-faced naked humanoids, to twisted, frenetic freaks and skinless, steam-emitting monstrosities. Deceptively fast and light despite their enormous size, the Titans are superhumanly strong and constantly regenerate from any injury unless attacked at their one weak point at the base of the neck. The Titans generally attack without reason or mercy, devouring humans not for sustenance but, apparently, simply out of some kind of base instinct (though more intelligent Titans do exist).

Horrific, intelligent Titan variants pose a real threat to humanity’s survival.

The Colossal Titan (which is so huge that it can peer over the walls that keep humanity safe from the Titans) systematically destroys the weakest part of Wall Maria to allow its brethren to enter the outer area of the city. This act alone earns the Colossal Titan (and the Titans in general) Eren’s hatred as it directly leads to the death of his mother and kick-starts his entire crusade to hunt down and destroy all of the Titans. Later in the season, Eren and Squad Levi encounter a skinless Female Titan that specifically targets Eren and is capable of hardening its skin at will and is smart enough to cover its neck when under attack. Similarly, the Armoured Titan is not only highly resistant to the army’s anti-Titan cannons but methodically picks and choose its targets, unlike the horrific Abnormals, which run and skitter around in an unhinged frenzy.

The Titans are practically unstoppable and have driven humanity to near extinction.

Honestly, one of the best parts of Attack on Titan is the Titans themselves; they are horrific creatures that are cold, unmoved, and seemingly unstoppable. Just one Titan is capable of swatting attackers right out of the air, stomping on them, or chomping down on them in the apparent blink of an eye. Often, two or three Titans are seen as a significant threat to the populace and those trained to protect them but, other times, soldiers (specifically the army’s more highly-skilled individuals) will be able to cut Titans down almost effortlessly and, yet, the Titans continue on regardless and it is stated at one point that humanity has never, in a hundred years, scored anything close to a significant victory until the episode “Primal Desire: The Struggle for Trost, Part 9” (Koizuka, 2013).

The O.D.M. allows the characters to perform superhuman feats.

Opposing the Titans are the city’s military; trained in the use of Omni-Directional Mobility Gear (O.D.M.), these guys are able to fly all over the place thanks to the O.D.M.’s gas-powered grapple hooks. Once mastered, the O.D.M. pretty much turns every character into Peter Parker/Spider-Man as they swing, fly, and rappel all over the place with superhuman skill and ease, attacking Titans with their swords and yet, despite all their skill and extraordinary physical prowess, they are still splattered into mush or devoured by the hundreds in seemingly every campaign, willingly throwing their lives away even when escape would be a far better proposition. Attack on Titan centres around three human characters: Eren (the hot-headed, idealistic protagonist), Mikasa (Eren’s stoic, but highly skilled adopted sister and self-appointed bodyguard), and Armin (their childhood friend who is more of an academic than a fighter). Of the three, Eren is easily the most relatable and interesting; wracked with guilt after never appreciating his mother and haunted by fragmented memories of his father, he is driven by an unrelenting desire to succeed in the military, join the Scout Regiment, and experience life beyond the walls of the city to hunt down and destroy every Titan he finds. Eren is quite the flawed character; despite his bravado and commitment to his mission, he struggles to master the O.D.M. gear, is far less capable at battling the Titans than Mikasa or Captain Levi (Mercer), the military’s most decorated and powerful soldier, and isn’t as well-read as Armin.

Somehow, Eren is able to transform into the Attack Titan to take the fight to the Titans.

However, his heart cannot be denied; in the face of a Titan assault in “First Battle: The Struggle for Trost, Part 1” (Ezaki, 2013), Eren immediately takes command and leads the charge against the Titans. Briefly paralyzed with fear in the face of the Titans’ awesome power, he barely hesitates to sacrifice himself to save Armin from being swallowed by the Bearded Titan, apparently dying in the process. Luckily, however, Eren later resurfaces in his own Titan form, the Attack Titan, apparently mysteriously having the innate ability to transform into a Titan when injured and with a clear, defined goal. At first, and sporadically throughout the season, Eren cannot fully control this transformation and struggles to understand it; understandably, it causes a lot of fear and mistrust amongst his fellow soldiers, who constantly treat him either with respect and awe or terror and hatred, and his superiors constantly flip-flop on whether to use his powers to aid them or simply execute him.

Levi is the army’s most formidable soldier and a decorated Titan killer.

Eventually, Eren is assigned to Squad Levi and the direct scrutiny of Captain Levi, a stoic but superhumanly capable soldier who is equal to the strength of a hundred fully-trained soldiers. Levi is the anime’s standard detached, bad-ass character, slicing up even the near-unstoppable Female Titan in a whirlwind of blades and fully prepared to sacrifice his entire regiment (comprised of the army’s best and longest-living Titan hunters, it must be said) to protect Eren.

Though stoic, Mikasa has a natural aptitude for combat.

Levi’s demeanour is largely mirrored by Mikasa, a damaged young girl whose entire family was slaughtered before her eyes until she was saved by Eren, the two of them killing her attackers in a mindless fury. Since then, Mikasa has attached herself to Eren, following him everywhere, even to military school and out into the 104th Regiment. Though not quite as stoic as Levi, Mikasa is nevertheless capable of killing entire swarms of Titans all by herself through some innate physical prowess that is never really explained. It’s hinted numerous times throughout the season that Mikasa’s feelings towards Eren border on something more than friends and family but both are quick to either brush off this suggestion or are far too focused on the far more prominent threat of destroying the Titans.

Armin is the weakest and most annoying of the three protagonists.

Finally, there’s Armin, easily the weakest and most annoying character of the three. Many episodes either grind to a halt or entirely focus on one of the three debating the merits of teamwork, humanity, or reliving their memories and feelings through long-winded internal (or external) monologues or flashbacks but never is this more annoying when the focus is placed on Armin. The weakest link of his regiment, Armin’s prowess lies more in academics, strategy, philosophy, and introspective analysis; he’s quick to give in to despair (though, to be fair, so are a large number of the anime’s soldiers and characters in the face of the Titans’ inexorable threat) and to stand useless and in fearful awe in the midst of a heated battle where untold numbers of his friends and peers are decimated by the Titans to incessantly monologue about his shortcomings or the bravery of others.

Hange Zoë is easily the worst and most annoying character of the season.

Still, as annoying as Armin is, he’s got nothing on Hange Zoë (Calvello), a military scientist who is so incredibly obsessed with the Titans that she has been driven to what appears to be near insanity. Loud, obnoxious, and exploding into a crazed frenzy at the drop of a hat, Zoë wants nothing more than to study and investigate the Titans, growing uncomfortably close to captive Titans and disconcertingly obsessed with Eren and his unique physiology. Though her experiments and studies have uncovered numerous helpful insights into the Titan’s composition and nature (and has led to the creation of numerous weapons to bring them down or kill them), her character is largely both uncomfortable and annoying at the same time as she often cares more for the well-being of the Titans than her fellow humans.

Many of the supporting characters are easily forgotten until they suddenly die.

Rounding out the cast are a number of expendable soldiers and civilians; sure, most of them have names and character traits but it’s largely pointless to remember them or grow too attached as they are liable to either get splattered into a bloody mess, eaten alive, horribly dismembered, or found as little more than a bloodied and mutilated corpse. Often, another character would lament their comrade’s fate and I would find myself struggling to remember who they were, what they did, or when they last appeared. Interestingly, the city is made up of varying classes, each of which experience life within the walls differently and views the military, and the Titans, in different ways: many criticise the need for expensive military ventures and pursuits, others are living comfortably deep within Wall Sina, while those in the outer areas live relatively underprivileged lives. Like a lot of post-apocalyptic narratives, I have many questions regarding the world of Attack on Titan; I’ve looked into the series and researched it a little bit to get some answers regarding the history of this world and how the walls and city were erected but, in the context of season one, we get very little information regarding how the city was built and how they survive.

I have many questions about the city, its society, and the lore of this world.

For some reason, currency and wealth is still a thing within the city; many of the wealthier citizens are frustrated at their “taxes” paying for what amount to little more than suicide missions against the Titans and the Royal Family live in opulence within Wall Sina. Equally, there is a lot of mention of rations and finite resources; every time Titans breach the walls and cause a mass evacuation, food and supplies are strained so badly that it is often seen as a good thing when hundreds of soldiers are killed by Titans so that the city’s resources can last a bit longer. I have many questions regarding this: shouldn’t the city just be entirely focused on training soldiers, fortifying their defences, and building a military society rather than giving people the option of living passive lives? Why is money and wealth a thing? How can money really mean anything in this type of world? Where do the resources come from? How were all these houses built, to say nothing of the walls that protect the city? How do the citizens even have the means to build anything with such finite resources? Why aren’t the soldiers, especially the veterans, better at killing Titans when the creatures are largely predictable, have a well-known weak spot, and seem so cumbersome and slow despite their surprising speed and daunting strength?

Eren isn’t the only one who can transform into a Titan, raising many questions for season two.

These questions are generally disregarded in season one and, for the most part, it works; despite characters knowing a lot about the Titans’ physiology, the creatures and their origins are a complete mystery to the characters and they are constantly forced to learn as they go and endure horrific losses to gain slivers of new information about them. How Eren, and others, are able to spontaneously produce Titan bodies is left obscure and the motivations of the Titans’ cannibalistic ways are up for debate at this point. The season ends, however, not only with the knowledge that Eren is not unique as Annie Leonhart (Landa) is revealed to not only be a traitor to the humans but also capable of transforming into a Titan herself, but also that gigantic Titans are encased within the walls of the city, ending the season on a massive cliff-hanger as we’re faced with the knowledge that human-to-Titan individuals are more commonplace than first thought and that there is more to the history of this world than we, and the characters, are aware.

The Summary:
I had heard a lot about Attack on Titan for quite some time; I am not, by my own admission, the most well-read anime fan as I find a lot of the most popular anime films and series to be dense almost to the point of being impenetrable and with so many episodes (most of them being filler or padding) that I just don’t have the time or patience to fully invest my energy and effort.

There are so many monologues! It really grinds the pace and action to a halt.

However, when I saw Attack on Titan was on Netflix, I figured I’d watch a few episodes and see if it hooked me. Within three episodes, I was interested enough to carry on but, by around episode fifteen, the series had started to lose me. I quite liked Eren’s flawed character and the constant life and war lessons he was forced to learn through numerous encounters with the Titans and characters like Mikasa and Levi helped make the anime exciting and engaging when it was actually focused on action rather than constantly slowing the plot down with endless monologues and prattling on and on (often, inexplicably, when characters are moving at high speeds) about teamwork, friendship, and the futility (or glory) of war.

Attack on Titan excels whenever Titans are onscreen or the action picks up.

Attack on Titan excels when it focuses on the Titans and the action-packed assaults against them; seeing Eren and his fellow soldiers swing and fly all over the place, either being crushed, devoured, or successfully cutting down the creatures is exciting and gorgeous to behold and really showcases the detail and intricacies of the anime’s smooth and slick animation. Sadly, though, entire episodes can go by without the merest hint of action or appearances by the titular Titans; while this can lead to some interesting character development, more often than not episodes drag their runtime out focusing on characters who quickly die, strategies that immediately fail, or retreading the same ground about Eren, Mikasa, and Armin’s characters and backstory.

Some flashbacks and slower moments help flesh out the main characters.

Occasionally, our protagonists will learn and grow as characters, which is nice to see, but often they’ll learn a lesson or some self-confidence in one episode only to immediately have to relearn this again in the next (or subsequent) episode. It makes for a disjointed pace and gives me far too much time to think about the rules of this world and questioning how their society even works much less proves so unreliably effective against the Titans even with years of experience in fighting them. As a result, despite the massive cliff-hanger at the end of the season and what I’ve read of how the plot develops later on, I can’t see myself coming back to Attack on Titan again. At least, not the anime, anyway.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

What are your thoughts on Attack on Titan? Did you enjoy the series or, like me, did you have issues with its plot, pacing, and content despite its interesting premise, creatures, and characters? Did you ever read the manga; if so, do you prefer it to the anime? Perhaps you prefer the live-action films, or the Attack on Titan videogames; if so, which is your favourite and why? Which character, or Titan, is your favourite? Do you also find Zoë and Armin annoying characters? How are you celebrating National Anime Day today? Whatever you think about Attack on Titan, or anime in general, please do leave a comment below.

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