Several hundred years ago, humans were nearly exterminated by giants. Giants are typically several stories tall, seem to have no intelligence, devour human beings and, worst of all, seem to do it for the pleasure rather than as a food source. A small percentage of humanity survived by enclosing themselves in a city protected by extremely high walls, even taller than the biggest of giants. Flash forward to the present and the city has not seen a giant in over 100 years. Teenage boy Eren and his foster sister Mikasa witness something horrific as the city walls are destroyed by a super giant that appears out of thin air. As the smaller giants flood the city, the two kids watch in horror as their mother is eaten alive. Eren vows that he will murder every single giant and take revenge for all of mankind.
"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."
Before we get started into the meat of the review, I have a few points to go over. First, this title was known about over a year in advance, the manga doing so well that an anime translation was inevitable. I was reading the blogs and article how this show was going to be different. The artwork looked hellish and dangerous, two things that really are not staples of Japanese animation these days. I'm all for cute girls facing hardships but when I want a show about the end of the world, I want the cast to look like they're facing the end of the world. Both Crunchyroll and Funimation recognised that this was going to be a brutalising show, not the usual stock and trade from Japan. Except for some territories, CR gave it a wide release (with some territories already being catered to by other companies) and Funimation are doing their usual trick (collectors editions for everyone!). Couple that with a very aggressive campaign by the publisher of the English edition of the manga, Kodansha USA, and the title hit our smart devices and computers like an avalanche. That the story actually lived to that avalanche is something that rests squarely on the director, Tetsurō Araki and the studio creating it: WIT Studio (note: check out our interview with WIT Studio). Finally, the efforts of Funimation to get AoT on Toonami are to be commended. Anyone who has written about the English speaking anime industry for a while will tell you that getting anime on TV in any time slot is hard to do and if you do, your job is that bit easier.
"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."
Set in a quasi-German state surrounded by three walls and infested with behemoths intent on eating them, AoT works perfectly because of its siege mentality. You're locked in with the team of Eren, Mikasa and Armin, hoping to survive the night. Each episodes wipes out more and more of the cast, meaning nobody is safe. This makes the story the focus for the most part, not how much you like a character. So when Eren joins the Corps in the start, he brings Mikasa with him along with Armin and finds both allies within the new recruits: Sasha, Marco and others and people who he butts heads with. He can't understand how people see the Corps as a means of social advancement. The future of humanity is on the line, so what parties you get invited to won't matter much if the walls are all breached. As they train, we already know that the Survey Corps members get routinely slaughtered. But still they go into the fray, with an almost fatalistic view. They don't want to die, but they have no choice but to stand and fight. The nobles despise them because of their popularity with the peasants. So the lyrics of the famous song from Bob Dylan sprinkled here seem appropriate, I feel.
Central to the whole thing is the three main characters. Eren is a driven young man, bent on getting pure, simple vengeance on the Titans who murdered his mother. He doesn't see it as one animal eating another, he sees it as a crime against his kin. All the other people orbit around him but he's not the most important person here, even he can see that. Armin seems like a timid soul and yes, he is somewhat cowardly when the real fight brings about mid way through the first seven episodes. But these points don't detract from him coming into himself and rallying himself and others to greater feats later on. If there is any real driving force, it's Mikasa. Outwardly cold and emotionless, she has had her family killed in front of her and had part of her adopted family taken from her. Eren is the only person left who knows what she was really like before all this and he would never quit to save her and she feels the same. So she follows him into the hell of training for and then actually killing the Titans. A lot of the mayhem and blood she wades through is to help Eren and Armin but she forms complex bonds with Sasha, Connie and others as she becomes more of a leader in the squad. Resourceful to a fault, she rallies the troopers by talking down to them and challenging their commitment when it looks grim for the squad at one point. The three friends separately probably would be killed in the defense of the city but combined, they push themselves and others to greater feats. They're all damaged, true, but at least now they're damaged together.
The animation on show showcases the story and characters in different ways. The grotesque, obscene way the Titans smile and their gleeful devourment of the people below make them real Grimm Brothers characters, with neither logic nor reason being their calling cards. The stillness before they strike followed by the level of violence are amazing. The fusing of the Spielbergian adventuresome nature of the Vertical Maneuvering Equipment and how the Corps use them against the Titans throws the camera into wild, speedy angles and directions, using our excitement to lift what could be a slog to watch. The harsh lines drawn into characters when they panic or engage in combat might seem like overkill but they don't feel like an afterthought but a concerted effort by the show's makers. The non-combat animation doesn't stretch all that much but then it's trying to build story and tension not adrenaline. All in all, a lot of 80's films had similar setups so I completely buy AoT and its strengths and faults. So while Bob Dylan might inform the tone of the Survey Corps and its lot in life, the construction of the plot, setting and manners are a potent mix of Paul Verhoeven, Spielberg and Lucas. If this doesn't get remade into a Western movie at some point, I throw my hat at the whole thing. While the director of this worked on Guilty Crown, I couldn't see a better example of night and day in execution (pardon the pun). I didn't care for Guilty Crown but here, the director is going full out to impress and entertain us.
The cherry on top of this 80's vibe are the opening and closing themes on the first 13 episodes. "Utsukushiki Zankoku Na Sekai" by Yoko Hikasa is a quiet mournful ballad which feels like something Duran Duran or others might have written. But if we're talking about adrenaline and 80's films, the opening theme Linked Horizon's "Guren no Yumiya" is a pulse pounding, call to arms. Mixing German and Japanese lyrics together, the song raises an army of fist pumps and people will be ready to follow the adventures of the Survey Corps into hell and back again. The opening animation tells you it's going to be a trip like that too. Finally, the chorus with its choir chants takes you to that rarefied air that power ballads like Final Countdown and Flash! by Queen push their listeners. It is pitch perfect to where the show is going to take you.
I have read that the series has a rather cheerful view of the military and that is true, the civilians rarely do get featured except to thank the Survey Corps or get eaten (not a lot of range there but actors got to eat). I am not a fan of the overtly enthusiastic "Oo-rah! *Fill in whichever country you root for*" cheerleading that goes on in print and film. More often than not, you're cheering foreign policy rather than the people in the uniform. However, within the context of the story in AoT, I root for the Survey Corps because they are doing their job of protecting their people together that they are sustaining the same losses as the civilians. The Titans don't look like they can be negotiated into not eating people. Warriors make war, peacemakers construct peace. For Eren and his friends, the ends do justify the means. Where the show doesn't really work is the sense of geography. We know that the country the show is set in is large but we don't really get a sense until Wall Maria collapses and the population flees and starts to get hemmed in. But how big was the world beforehand? Were there any oceans? Mikasa's parents are described as Asian but every other name is slightly Germanic. Are we on Earth? So far, we don't have any answers therefore when we see the Survey Corps coming back from an expedition outside the walls, we don't know how far they went or how long. These, however, are minor points.
All these things aside, 2013 was AoT's year. It was all people could talk even the people who didn't watch it. Despite the cries from the producers that the season was self contained, the rumours of a second season have not been dampened. Far from it, with forty plus manga volumes published both here and Japan, simulcasts of the latest manga chapters, the announcement of a live action Japanese film plus some animated films, Attack On Titan have the potential to start the kind of standalone franchises that Japan has been dreaming of since Ghost in the Shell finished on TV. Neither Japanese in its construction not Western in its telling, AoT, at long last, is the right kind of show to get people into anime again. Bloody, gory, patriotic, pacifist, quick footed, self confident, it is the best thing on disc at the moment for sheer visceral treat. With any luck, 2015 might its year again.