Attack on Titan has enjoyed massive popularity since launch, both in its native Japan as well as in the West. Its original premise is both terrifying and ridiculous. What’s all the fuss about?
The best way this writer can articulate the premise of Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan is to compare it to the likes of Godzilla and other Japanese ‘kaiju’ films. The anime takes place in a fantasy world where humanity is hopelessly insignificant in the wake of a new apex predator, the Titans; colossal, humanoid monsters who exist for no reason other than to eat humans in violent and bloody spectacle. Nobody knows where the Titans came from, and most of the remnants of humanity survive behind the protection of three giant walls: Wall Maria, Wall Rose, and Wall Sina, built “by the Gods” to keep the Titans out. For the last hundred years people have lived under the shadow and safety of these walls without incident — until the first episode of the series, when the skinless Colossal Titan appears.
“On that day, humanity remembered. The fear of being controlled by them. The humiliation of being imprisoned.”
These are the opening words of Attack on Titan’s protagonist, Eren Yeager. He is a helpless onlooker as his home is destroyed, Wall Maria falls, and the Titans overrun his town. Eren watches in horror as his mother is eaten alive by a Titan, and is forced to flee with his adopted sister Mikasa and childhood friend Armin. These events leave Eren with a single burning goal: kill all Titans. A year later the three friends join the military in hopes of fighting back against the Titans and reclaiming the world for humanity, and the main story of Attack on Titan begins.
Anime has always been an acquired taste for Western audiences and rarely breaks through into the mainstream. Attack on Titan seems to appeal to both experienced and first-time viewers of the genre. It has many different points of entry for different kinds of fans: a captivating world, filled with morally dubious and complex characters, and an evolving mystery. There’s heart racing action as the soldiers fly using the (undeniably ridiculous) Omni-Directional Mobility Gear (ODM) whilst the choral soundtrack fills you with a sense of hope and victory — or dread and despair as the humans are torn to shreds.
The Titans wear an almost blissful look on their faces as they kill and it’s here that Hajime Isayama’s art shines; his heavy, sketchy line art makes the Titans deformed yet familiar. They smile; but it’s unnaturally wide, showing unsettling rows of teeth, and their jaws unhinge and snap down on their prey.
In many ways, it’s easy to compare the Titans with their western counterparts: zombies. They seem mindless and insensate, they swarm and outnumber, they’re near-unkillable, and they have driven humanity to the brink of extinction. In this, Attack on Titan could perhaps be called a kaiju/zombie hybrid.
Hajime Isayama’s art emphasises the desperation in his characters’ faces, the raw emotion of watching a comrade be eaten or the realisation that the same will happen to them. There is a moment where an entire cavalry of the survey corps — a branch of the military dedicated to fighting back against the Titans and reclaiming lost land — comes back with nearly every soldier dead. The crowds look on and ask: did their deaths contribute to humanity’s victory? Or did they give their lives for nothing? This is meaty stuff, and Hajime Isayama does an excellent job of portraying the desperation and hopelessness of his characters in this scene — as well as the horror of the Titans. However, it is the work of animator and director Tetsurō Araki that brings the explosive action to life, making it flow at break-neck speed and ensuring that the combat sequences are never dull.
Attack on Titan’s story is a slow burn. The simplified goal of the narrative is to learn the truth about the Titans and overthrow their reign, which the audience learns is connected to whatever Eren’s father had stored away in his cellar. Three seasons in, we’ve only just reached this point. That may turn some viewers away, but the drama is so fast-paced with such intense bursts of action that hours disappear when you’re watching. Each episode bleeds into the next, always contributing to an overarching story. If it takes four episodes to establish the mechanics of the world and its players, then the fifth shows you what it’s like to live in this world, and the build-up pays off. Each arc ends with a cliff-hanger or twist to reel you back in. It’s engrossing; you don’t want to stop. The speed at which you can blitz through episodes makes Netflix a natural home for the series. It was one of the first anime to be released on the service; the series’ success on its initial broadcast and later popularity on specialist anime streaming services like Crunchyroll made it an attractive prospect for the more mainstream distributor.
This episodic structure allows the introduction and development of characters to come across organically as the world opens up. The ‘battle of Trost District’ arc, which spans episodes five to thirteen, is a good example: Titans have broken through a segment of Wall Rose, to the town of Trost, and we see how each of our three main characters (particularly Eren) respond to this repeat in history. Dedicating several episodes to a single conflict adds weight to both the triumphant highs and the crushing lows. As the battle begins, the Colossal Titan from the first episode makes a return. Eren, confident he’s not the same scared child from his past, is ready to face his nemesis. But viewers expecting the protagonist to single-handedly beat back the Titan invasion and win the day will be disappointed. The series’ world is a cruel one, and no one is safe from harm — not even our main characters.
Attack on Titan’s characters are some of its biggest assets. They’re interesting and complex, and this is especially true of its three leads: Eren, Mikasa, and Armin, who each bring something unique. What Armin lacks in physical attributes he makes up for in strategy and tactical intelligence. Mikasa is a stoic badass who slays the Titans with relative ease, a difficult feat within the show’s universe. She is warm towards Eren, acting as his self-appointed protector. Eren himself is brash and self-assured but, despite all his talk, he is naive about how his world really works. He’s neither special nor particularly strong, despite his role as the ‘hero’.
It’s no surprise in a setting as bleak as this that Attack on Titan deals with some heavy themes, particularly the cost of war, post-traumatic stress, and patriotism. Patriotism is especially relevant to the show: every child is brought up to consider it an honour to join the military in the service of humanity. In practice, however, few people are willing to risk more than joining the military police who garrison the innermost city, the furthest from the Titans. It is established very early on that citizens and elites expect soldiers to be willing to die for them. Even superiors in the military will abandon their troops when faced with possible death. Meanwhile, soldiers trapped with Titans crashing at their doors choose to kill themselves rather than be eaten.
This is arguably one of the biggest factors that turns people off. This show is depressing, and doesn’t spare you from getting a good look at some of the worst aspects of war, which won’t be for everyone. The violence is sometimes graphic, to the point that Attack on Titan could be considered horror. The tonal whiplash between soul-crushing moments and action-packed ones can be jarring as well. It’s a rollercoaster, and not everyone will want to ride.
However, this is also why Attack on Titan is worth watching. Despite the bleakness, its heroes push forward, determined to survive. No matter how hopeless the situation, they can still choose action over grief. In Mikasa’s words: “If I can’t beat them, I die. If I win, I get to live.” Every step taken is one closer to a world humanity can reclaim. This theme of hope throughout the series is what makes every minor and major victory resonate. You empathise with their suffering and cheer with every Titan killed.
Comradery is another noticeable theme throughout the series. The 104th cadet corps are a tightly-bonded group, forged by their victories and losses. Their small character moments bring them to life. When Jean rallies his comrades he starts showing the makings of a leader, paving the way for developments later. Ymir’s love for Christa and their adorable interactions bring some much-needed lightness. Sasha’s antics stealing food are both amusing and a reminder that, in a world like this, poverty and food shortages would be common in smaller towns, giving both her personality and the show’s world more heft. There’s always something deeper going on, even in moments that might be written off for comedy. In quieter episodes, the cadets spend their time on mundane tasks, such as cleaning out an old fort. These calm moments can feel alien in such a violent world, but they serve as a much needed breather, giving the viewer time to think about the greater questions the show poses and also for the relationships between characters to develop.
Attack on Titan’s mystery is both its most compelling and its most potentially frustrating element. Where did the Titans come from? How can they be defeated? What’s in the basement? All of these questions are set up in the first episode, yet when the credits roll at the end of the first season, none of them have been answered. Even three seasons later, there are still mysteries left unsolved. If you’re not interested in that kind of storytelling or just don’t have the patience for such drawn-out arcs, Attack on Titan may not be for you. However, viewers who like to pick up on every hint that’s dropped and piece together the clues woven into the story will be in their element. When the answers come, it’s especially gratifying; not least because each one is further evidence that every twist has been planned from the beginning. This is a show that rewards you for paying attention.
Attack on Titan works hard to get you invested in its world, its characters and its narrative. It’s horrifying in places, tender in others, and strikes a good balance between its lows and highs. If you’ve never seen it, you have the chance to experience its whole unfolding mystery for the first time. This writer envies you that.