If I’m being honest, I’m pretty well out of the loop when it comes to modern anime. The last time I was seriously invested in the medium was just over a decade ago, where my girlfriend at the time’s anime obsession incited me to explore a range of anime titles. Since then, I’ve mostly lost track of the genre – the last “new” series I can remember watching, Samurai Champloo, came out in 2004. It’s testament to the influence of Attack on Titan, then, that I’ve been hearing about this series from all fronts – even for someone largely oblivious to new anime, it’s unavoidable.
Watching the first thirteen episodes, it’s not hard to see why. (Note: the first thirteen episodes are found on the Blu-Ray/DVD that was recently released in Australia; the full season is currently available to stream – free and legally, for now – through Madman’s AnimeLab, but this review is based on only the first half of the season). Attack on Titan is like an anime version of the now-ubiquitous Game of Thrones TV series, a darkly furious – and very gory – take on the failures of feudal hierarchies in wartime.
The series is set in a world that closely resembles a nineteenth-century European country, populated with towns protected by towering stone walls and, of course, the titular Titans. They are gigantic, human-like creatures, naked but sexless, possessing little motivation but an unquenchable thirst for human blood. Their design falls squarely – and disturbingly – in the Uncanny Valley. A friend of mine – and noted anime nerd – Yen Nguyen, described the series as the product of “someone seeing Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Children” and deciding to make a world where that image could be a reality” and it’s a perfect description. Like Goya’s masterpiece, the series is defined by a primal, existential horror (with an underlying edge of black comedy).
That horror extends its tendrils into the hegemonic kingdom that reigns over this world; these leaders are as defined by cowardice and selfishness and cruelty as any of the characters from Game of Thrones. Soldiers are sent to their deaths en masse – in one chilling example, simply to thin the population – while the aristocracy gorges themselves with little sympathy for their sacrifice (the parallels between their greed and the Titans’ appetite is ever-present, but thankfully never underlined). This is a violent realm where the most powerful literally hole themselves away from danger behind metres of solid stone.
Within this horrible world we follow three protagonists, each with a suitable grim backstory. At its centre is Eren Yeager (Yûki Kaji), possibly the angriest protagonist ever, who commits himself to revenge after watching his mother devoured by a Titan. Joining the ranks of the anti-Titan infantry (called the Survey Corps) alongside him are childhood friend Armin (Marina Inoue) and adoptive sister Mikasa (Yui Ishikawa), who was taken in by Yeager’s after – this should come as no surprise by this point – her own parents were brutally murdered in front of her.
In case you haven’t worked it out already, this is a terribly violent universe, where our heroes must fight a seemingly hopeless battle against terrifying Titans, armed only with (admittedly very cool) “Vertical Maneuvering Equipment” that allows them to target the Titan’s only weak spot (the back of the neck). The focus of the series is on such confrontations, with an off-kilter pacing skipping past years of training to spend five episodes on a day-long battle. The pacing contributes to an apropos sense of unease, but also sacrifices connection with characters outside the main trio – there’s a high bodycount here, but unlike Game of Thrones, you’re very aware of who’s wearing impenetrable plot armour.
The series held my interest largely off the back of its dark, angry universe for most of its episodes, but I admit I found my interest waning in the final episodes. When an unexpected secret is revealed, it should shift the storyline up a gear. Instead, it stalls; just as narrative momentum is building, the show spends two full episodes devoted to what seems like a five minute argument. The odd pacing that was a strength of earlier episodes becomes a weakness as time slows impossibly.
This criticism only applies to the last few episodes, and I’m optimistic that Attack on Titan will overcome these teething problems as it shifts into the second half of its first season. Certainly, the universe it has sketched is murderously compelling enough to forgive a bout of poor pacing.