Welp, guess I better review the heavyweight.
Attack on Titan arrived at the head of quite the hype train this spring, based on both praise from manga readers and this impressive PV. Its OP inspired countless parodies, its sales were enormous, its cultural penetration extended far beyond the reach most anime could dream of. With good reason – most anime essentially self-marginalize themselves through overt anime-ism aesthetic choices that cut off significant potential markets. Titan does not do this – it’s an unapologetic action blockbuster with an evocative western aesthetic and a fundamentally compelling premise. Humans live in a massive renaissance-era walled city, titans try to break in, humans fight using sweet spiderman-esque maneuvering gear, action ensues. Let’s start with those strengths.
First, the setting and aesthetic are solid. The mangaka is clearly a worldbuilding geek in the best way – the rules of the world are laid out in practical and confident fashion (I particularly liked the little details they fit into each mid-episode break), making it enjoyable to see the scope of the story expand to reveal details of titan-world life one episode at a time. The visual aesthetic is also distinctive and strong in a variety of ways. The character design is most prominent here – the use of thick, prominent black lines for profiles and outlines makes the characters pop in a very effective way, and the variety of facial structures is a welcome relief in light of anime’s usual sameface issues, making for a much greater degree of varying expressiveness throughout the cast. After the character design comes the city design, which is arresting both at peace and at war. The architecture tends to repeat itself across larger city shots, but on an individual level the designs are quite solid, and manage to feel “lived in” in a way that really helps sell the “we must defend our homes” tenor of the early episodes. Finally, the titan designs themselves are clear standouts – their grotesque menagerie of facial and structural designs, as well as the bizarre way the various aberrant titans move, makes for unnerving (and admittedly sometimes hilarious) monsters. The dopey ghoulishness of the creatures somehow makes the horrors of the story hit that much harder.
Second, as I said, the premise is a great setup for what this show is trying to do. Normally I don’t really focus on premise or plot in reviews (“plot is details,” etc), but this is certainly an intelligent mixture of variables. It’s essentially the “bunker down” segment of most zombie movies, except imagined as an entire fraught society. I feel the show could have done better to establish the feel of being caged animals (Eren mainly just tells us this, which isn’t good storytelling), but the setup is definitely evocative, and leads naturally into the ways this show draws on war film tropes and beats. Which all pulls together in the show’s premier feature…
The action setpieces. I have a number of issues with Titan’s director, but the man certainly knows how to frame an action scene. Sequences like the one that ends the PV crop up like delicious candy once or twice every few episodes, becoming more frequent in the show’s far superior second half. They’re fun, they’re visceral, they’re basically pure popcorn. And the show’s blockbuster status is also most apparent here – many episodes feature fairly limited animation, but when it comes to these moments, the show splurges in the best possibly way. If spinning badasses and blood are what you’re here for, you won’t be disappointed.
That said, Titan also has a number of frustrating issues that definitely hamper the experience. The first of these to appear is likely the most controversial – the direction. Though the action scenes are generally solid (if somewhat weightless, which is probably intentional), the dramatic scenes fair far less well – and the reasons why can pretty much be summed up by everyone’s favorite moment from Death Note, also a product of this director. The show has a very tenuous grasp on the idea of subtlety, and many of its emotional turns are played at full volume, complete with manic expressions, blaring music, speed lines, and “epic” camera angles. This pretty much as a rule goes beyond a standard emotional sell and into the realm of melodrama – that is, the investment the show builds up naturally in the viewer does not correlate to the extreme level of intensity the direction and acting affect.
This problem is exemplified in the first episode, when a returning soldier is asked by a passing woman about the fate of her son. Instead of answering her, the soldier motions to his companion, saying “it’s her, Moses’ mother. Bring it here.” The soldier rummages for something in his cart, slowly brings it over, hands it to the mother. The mother looks at the bloody, obscured object, looks up at the soldier. Looks down. Begins unwrapping it. It’s a hand! “That’s all we could save.” She breaks down, and then slowly asks if he was at least useful – leading to this questionable moment where the soldier epically declares that her son died for nothing as the camera shakes and speed lines drive in the tremendousness of the moment. It doesn’t convey grief. It doesn’t convey horror. It pretty much only conveys “intensity.”
The show just doesn’t follow the rules of dramatic immersion. It plays tragic scenes as epic, it plays cathartic scenes as epic, it plays… well, you get the picture. This problem actually comes up less often as the series progresses, but it’s tremendously immersion-breaking whenever it does, and seems to speak to an unwillingness to let the show’s drama speak for itself, without tricks designed to sell you on it. It could also be a result of too-faithful adherence to the manga – whereas a dramatic pose in a manga panel can easily be swept by in a moment, when that pose is held for the full seconds of a spoken line, it can easily verge into self-parody. Either way, it deals tremendous damage to the show’s weight as a horror piece – and though the show is primarily action, that action is routinely and expressly underpinned by a sought-for sense of horror and anxiety, particularly in the first establishing episodes where this problem is so prevalent. When building dramatic tension or expressing serious emotions, less is almost always more – and this director strongly disagrees, to the detriment of the show overall.
The second issue with Titan is the most readily apparent, and one even those who enjoy the show (myself included) generally accept as a given – the pacing. Early on, the show moves quickly, establishing the premise through a series of dramatic scenes and then filling out the cast through a well-handled training arc that makes great use of the show’s war film roots. This leads directly into the Trost arc, which starts off with the strong mixture of horror and action that exemplifies the show at its best, and then… slows down. Tremendously so. Single, simple conversations and problems (We need to convince him not to shoot us! Eren needs to wake up!) stretch to fill entire episodes, and simple emotional turns become tremendous screen-time impasses. The stretch of episodes from 9 to 13 encompass enough content for perhaps three well-paced episodes, with scenes themselves not only stretching, but actual conflicts (such as Eren being woken up by Armin, a conflict already lacking in tangible weight – that is, the conflict is not a series of definable variables the audience can follow, it is simply waiting for the narrative to allow Eren to wake up) repeating in separate circumstances. The show never again goes through a stretch as dramatically debilitating as that, but problems of pacing do crop up throughout, and the show overall feels like a lean 20 episodes bloated to 25. The slow pans and dramatic builds that fill out this episode count also strongly contribute to the issues of direction and dramatic tension, resulting in a less-gripping show overall. And this flaw couldn’t be more damaging than in such a committed action show.
Finally, the last major issue I’d take with the show is its writing. The larger beats of the story work well (though the choice to “kill” and revive Eren certainly lowers dramatic tension from there on), but on the individual level, both the show’s characters and thematics are fairly threadbare. Admittedly, this might not be the most reasonable complaint to level at an action show, but it certainly hurts immersion. Eren in particular is a big, glaring shounen hero stuck in a world that’s simply more complex and interesting than his level of character writing should really be applied to. The Titans killed people he cares about, and he wants to go outside the walls, so he will kill them all. He does not work well with others. He’s largely driven by emotion. That pretty much covers it – though the show later makes him compromise by trusting in his squadmates (which is its own whole can of worms, actually – the show tries to make a thematic conflict out of soldiers coming to grips with following orders, which struck me as just inherently ludicrous), this ultimately doesn’t actually result in growth for him. He remains the classic headstrong protagonist to the last.
Fortunately, some of the side characters fare much better, though their growth only really begins to take form in the show’s last, best act. Jean and Armin in particular both run through a sharp series of formative character turns, and their perspective and maturity at the end compared to the start is extremely satisfying to see. Additionally, though the side characters beyond these two are all fairly static, many are also just fundamentally entertaining – the scouting corps personalities introduced in the second half (again, I can’t stress enough how much this show improves in its second half) are all both distinctive and great drivers of the plot.
As far as the show’s thematics go, the show takes a great deal of time trying to decide what it’s actually about. Early on, Mikasa’s backstory hints at the concept of killing simply being a fact of nature – survival of the fittest as moral directive. This crops up lightly throughout, and is associated fairly strongly with eating as a visual motif, but isn’t really explored beyond that. Shortly after that, the charismatic Captain Pixis plays off the natural fear of the masses to lead a counterassault against the Titans. Throughout this and the second half, the complacency of those not immediately affected by the Titans is regularly brought up, though never really discussed. Finally, in the show’s last quarter, it begins to seriously focus on one solid thread – the idea of the “greater good,” and the horrors required of soldiers for the sake of victory.
This is definitely a solid theme, but the show’s handling of it is mixed at best. On the good side, Armin’s gradual understanding of the grim calculations of war is one of the last act’s best strengths – it’s portrayed as a series of dawning calculations across a number of relevant episodes, and is strongly tied to his overall character growth. This perspective is mirrored by characters like Commander Erwin, who pretty much serves as a powerful one-man articulation of the burden of leadership. On the negative side, the show also indulges in moments that significantly undercut the seriousness of this idea. Eren is one of the worst offenders here – in addition to his almost disobeying orders simply because he didn’t like them (an absurd conflict the show actually stretches out across a full episode), he also later expresses tremendous hesitation when ordered to attack a former friend who is… currently killing hundreds of people in titan form. The show plays these moments as legitimate conflicts, but the level of simplistic sentimentality required to even see Eren’s position as an argument just left me in awe as a viewer. And this childlike sentimentality extends to other moments, such as when soldiers express misgivings about leaving behind dead bodies… in order to not have all the living soldiers get eaten by titans. Where is the conflict in that? Though the show regularly pulls on war story tropes, its juvenile approach to this thematic thread makes a number of points difficult to take seriously as drama. Hopefully the show’s further seasons will push this thread in a more believable direction, but it currently reads as a question completely out of sync with the brink-of-extinction world the characters inhabit.
Hm. That’s a lot of negative to go out on, but I feel that’s mainly because the show’s strengths are just self-evident, and don’t need to be sold. It has a solid premise. It has an interesting world, and a strong visual aesthetic to complement it. The action scenes are impressive, both in their direction and animation. Though the show has a number of problems that I think definitely weaken it, it still succeeds in its prime goal – providing entertaining popcorn. Outside of perhaps the direction, none of Titan’s problems are fundamental – and going forward, I’m hopeful the second season will be able to address my complaints of pacing and thematics, problems which were already beginning to be addressed in this first season’s second half. Overall, though I wouldn’t unabashedly recommend it due to the combination of these issues and its somewhat limited ambitions, I’d consider it generally a success as an action piece. In the absence of those problems, I’d rate it about as high as pure action shows go on my scale – an 8/10, the same score I assigned to Baccano and Code Geass. Given those issues, I’m rating it a 6/10 (Solid), and am looking forward to seeing it continue to improve in the second season. Either way, if you’re looking for a nicely realized world and some lovingly animated action sequences, it’s definitely a solid pick.