Attack on Titan is a cartoon about people trying not to get eaten by scary monsters, while also trying to kill said monsters. But, it’s anime, so that’s enough to base an entire series on.
I’ll make a confession – I like anime. I watched a lot of anime in the early 2000s, but most of that was from the 90s, which, sadly, was the last time anime was good. I gorged myself on series like Escaflowne, Now and Then, Here and There, Initial D, Trigun and, of course, Cowboy Bebop (the untouchable gold standard in anime series), and then I just stopped. I figured that I’d grown out of all of it, but 2013’s Attack on Titan confirmed for me that I wasn’t too old for anime — the genre was just crap for the last decade or so.
Titan starts by dropping us into a seemingly idyllic, pan-Western-European-styled, Victorian-Era-esque world where all that remains of humanity lives in a giant walled city because a bunch of scary monsters ate everyone else a hundred years prior. Said monsters, the titans, are basically just really ugly, giant, naked, genital-less humanoid creatures with evil-clown perma-grins on their faces that roam around outside the walls eating humans just for the hell of it – oh, and they’re incredibly hard to kill. Lucky for all that remains of mankind there are nice, sturdy, hundred-foot, stone walls to protect them from the titans, and as such the last hundred years have been pretty good for everyone inside the walls. Of course, everything goes all pear-shaped and disaster strikes – a mysterious, giant, skinless titan whacks a hole in the wall, and all sorts of other smaller titans flood in to help themselves to a human buffet. Amidst this Golden Corral of human flesh, eager young whippersnapper Eren Jaeger (which, as
German class Pacific Rim taught us, means “hunter”) watches as his mother is horribly eaten by a scary, smiling monster, and then vows revenge on all the evil creatures. Joined by his adoptive sister, Mikasa (literally the last Asian person alive in this world – no, seriously) who plays the series’ cool-headed badass as well as Eren’s protector, and Armin, who’s a super-clever kid with a bowl-cut and pretty little value on the battlefield, Eren sets out to join the army and fight back against the titan horde.
But wait, how do “ye olde timey” people with muskets and cannons fight a bunch of giant monsters?! Fortunately for humanity they’ve got some steampunk in their pocket, and here it’s in the form of “3D Maneuver Gear” which (I’ll spare you the formal explanation) allows for sword-wielding soldiers to sling around the city like industrial-era-Spiderman and get within slashing range of the back of the titan’s necks, which is their only, super-inconvenient, weakness. Whilst in grappling-hook-bondage-gear boot camp, Eren and his two buddies learn all about how little mankind actually knows about mankind’s greatest threat and the inept ways used to fight them (this will surely end well). There’s the whole rainbow of characters-you-meet-in-boot-camp that are introduced here, but I’ll skip explanation of them, because around episode five all hell breaks loose yet again. In what are the series’s greatest moments, the kids you watched suffer through boot camp are slaughtered wholesale as the titans make their way into the city again. The number of characters killed is nothing short of staggering and it made me incredibly happy, thinking: “wow, look at Attack on Titan, bucking tradition like that, killing everyone, good for them”. The battle rages for whole episodes, featuring the kind of physics-bending, excessive monologuing and bloodshed that brought me to anime in the first place — it’s wonderful. Around the end of the battle, however, Attack on Titan ceases its charge into originality and digs its heels back into anime cliché. A human-piloted “rogue titan” shows up and starts wrecking shop on the marauding titans, saving the remainder of our heroes and steering the show safely into “anime expectation harbor”. Of course, “anime expectation harbor” is a safe, familiar place where a single character with a tremendous gift becomes the unlikely savior of their people, blah blah blah, and they have to learn their power and how to deal with the overwhelming responsibility of said gift, and so on, so on… basically, it’s been done, a lot.
The episodes that follow the epic battle take a markedly different tone (including a way-less-badass opening song) as our heroes end up joining the “Recon Corps” (or the Survey Corps, depending on your translation) and setting out to take the fight to the titans (Ohhhhh… Attack ON Titan, I get it). The series proceeds to make less sense from this point on, as the Recon Corps seem to have incredibly convoluted missions coupled with an apparently huge budget, and the plots begins swirling into a pattern of:
“We have a great plan!”
“Aha! But we expected that! Here’s our backup plan!”
“Well, we have a contingency plan for that, too!”
(they end up improvising anyway)
The series then falls into another television trap that I had hoped it was above – its heroes are invincible. Despite the massive slaughter of the boot camp class, the kids who made it through the first dozen episodes are now the primary cast, and any new characters that are introduced past the midpoint of the season are pretty much just redshirts. I’d also like to take a moment to point out that the world this takes place in makes absolutely ZERO sense from a logistics/infrastructure standpoint and that only becomes more and more glaring as the series continues — however, it’s forgivable, because really, no one cares how they’re producing food while trapped in a walled metropolis, so long as we somehow have compressed-air-powered, dual-sword-wielding flying-ninja-teens with hip-mounted spear guns.
By the end of season one, the series has repeated the aforementioned “best laid plans” pattern twice (in just the final half of the season) but ends with a lot of fun chaos and destruction. It, predictably, leaves the viewer with more questions than answers in the last five minutes and sets up the theme of season two, which, regardless of tone, will probably follow the same pattern as the last half of season one. Fortunately for Attack on Titan, no one really cares: it may not be amazing television, but it’s still good anime, and the viewers will be there – I know I will. Because, even though we’re just trading humans reluctantly piloting giant robots for a human reluctantly piloting a giant monster, it’s still different enough to qualify as a breath of fresh air. On a final positive note, the manga that the series is based upon is reported to have a set story arc with an ending on the near horizon, which means that, hopefully, Titan will not end up falling into the Pokemon/Naruto-pit where a berjillion episodes are produced due to popularity and the series just meanders on until the end of time.
Attack on Titan, season one, is available on Netflix to watch, say, if you have the flu and want to storm through twenty-five episodes of something incredibly fast — because once you skip the “previously on”, the obligatory anime two-minute opening and closing sequences, the mid-episode “commercial buffer” and the “next time on” there’s barely twenty minutes of episode to actually watch. It’s probably not going to convert anyone over the age of twenty-five to anime if they aren’t already amenable to the idea, but if you’re a jaded old fan like me, you’ll probably find something to enjoy in the glossy presentation, goofy technology and super-duper violent battles.