Sunday, May 7, 2017

[Anime] Attack on Titan

Note: I have not read the manga.  My praise or criticisms could very well be modified by future information, but for now I write on what I have experienced.  Also stole a few screenshots from S2.

Attack on Titan is a series that requires no introduction; like or hate it, it is one of the most spectacularly successful anime to ever be released.  As such it is subjected to constant criticism and pointed hatred.  The process that contemporary popular series go through in the anime community is so reliable that I facetiously suggest that there must be predetermined stages:
  • Denial: The initial hype begins and long-time anime viewers refuse to believe that it will last, citing the overall mediocrity of the series.
  • Anger: The enthusiasm continues to build among the larger fanbase, which only intensifies the disgust from the elite.  After all, why isn’t their favorite show this popular?
  • Arguing: In an attempt to curtail the mounting worship the dissenters become more vocal with their criticisms.  Both sides begin to polarize, settling into the Love It or Hate It camps.
  • Depression: Finally, it sinks in that the series isn’t going anywhere, and that people will continue to like it no matter how many times it is compared negatively to Cowboy Bebop.  Clearly anime is going downhill.
  • Acceptance: Given time, the situation cools down and it becomes acceptable to say that in spite of your clearly superior standards, you did sort of enjoy watching it…but only just a little…
I write this review several years after the first season completed, as the second season continues to air.  Attack on Titan as a dark action-drama is still the standard by which similar series are judged.  I would argue that this is for good reason, and that there are many elements which have not been equaled since.  This does not excuse its flaws, which are significant, but if you’re just in it for the ride, Attack on Titan does deliver.

The Good:
What forms the solid foundation of Attack on Titan are its mysteries.  From the beginning, there are the all-important questions: what are the Titans and where did they come from?  They have completely ruined human civilization, forcing the traumatized survivors to huddle behind their equally-inexplicable walls, and yet humanity still has no answer for their existence.  The mystery only deepens with more details: Titans are lighter than they should be for their size, they lack any method of reproduction, they only hunt humans but do not actually require them for sustenance, and are unaffected by all harm except to the nape of their neck.  These problems are presented to us organically and create an air of confused urgency: the answer may be out there, and it may be the salvation of mankind, but it may just as well yield nothing.

This brings us to the titans themselves.  Their presentation is one that straddles the mindlessness of zombies and the vitality of predators, with just a hint of the insane in their behavior.  They are deranged idiots, so closely resembling us yet so alien at the same time.  Without knowing why they do what they do, their actions are unpredictable and therefore all the more terrifying.

On top of this, the titans are horrifying for one other reason: they eat us.  This fate, the fate of succumbing to a creature larger and stronger than us, to in turn be devoured, is the most primal of fears.  Some of Attack on Titan’s greatest, and most disturbing, scenes are when people are caught and see the mouth opening in front of them.  In that moment intelligence, bravery, and virtue evaporate in the face of unbounded terror.  People scream, they beg, they flail…and then they die.  This inevitability, taken together with their cryptic nature, is what causes the titans to be such compelling monsters despite their patently ridiculous appearance and behavior.

Seemed like a nice place to live

Appreciable detail is also given to the overall world.  There is a clear geography, consistent architecture, some history, and of course the iconic 3D maneuvering gear.  We are often given small glimpses into the logistics of the army as well, such as refilling gas canisters or loading up supply carts for different groups.  These operations are usually supplemented by small vignettes in the middle of each episode, adding a further sense that the details of the world continue deeper.

Finally, there’s the hype.  There isn’t much to say here: the direction is bombastic, but when it comes to Attack on Titan it works.  The sheer scale of the action coupled with the operatic vocal music and intensity of the imagery comes together to create moments that are simply satisfying.

Our three deep and exciting heroes
The Bad:
Attack on Titan is great when it stays in the realm of action, but when it ventures into the human sphere it degenerates into pure melodrama.  The directing style that serves it so well in combat is simply ridiculous when used for human interactions.  Every character, when saying something of importance, MUST SHOUT IT AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS  The camera will zoom in uncomfortably, and the audience is given the sense that somebody is screaming directly in our face.  There is not even the slightest shred of subtlety.

This also applies to the characters themselves, who have no depth to speak of.  Eren is our good old powered-by-youth male protagonist, Mikasa takes on the emotionally-blank girl role that seems to be necessary since NGE, and Armin’s job is to whine.  These people exist solely to fuel the action; they never have a development that doesn’t involve advancing the plot toward more titans.  Any sort of resolution, such as Mikasa ending up with Eren, will likely be part of the denouement as a way of giving fans what they want in the end.  The side characters are also forgettable, with no real function except to feed into our main trio or become titan fodder.

Because of these weaknesses, the parts of the series between the major action moments tend to drag.  After a while it becomes obvious that nothing interesting is going to happen when only humans are talking on screen, and we must content ourselves to waiting until the next titan encounter.  This is made worse because the mysteries I praised at the beginning of the review are never given closure, so many of the conversations boil down to, “Well, we still don’t know anything.  BUT WE’RE REALLY EMOTIONAL ABOUT IT.”  Strangely, I am more forgiving with regards to Attack on Titan for its lack of closure, a point I am normally a stickler on.  I have no defensible reason for this lapse in rigor, but I felt placated knowing that the story was continuing.

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