From a consumer point-of-view, I’m always a little sceptical of staggered releases of television/anime series, where one season is broken up into two (or more) physical releases; on the surface, it seems like straight-up profiteering. But just as the The Deathly Hallows and many of its cinematic antecdents turned their bifurcated releases into artistic strength, Attack on Titan benefits artistically from its (apparently arbitrary) separation into two halves.
The first thirteen episodes of Attack on Titan’s first season established a fundamentally violent universe where human existence is characterised by fear of those titular titans, grotesque (and often goofy) giants who invade this world’s feudal towns and consumes the inhabitants therein. The chief strength of these episodes was the world-building – there’s something resonant about this medieval setting and its lingering scent of death. However, I found myself somewhat disenchanted by the last few episodes, which dragged out a substantial plot revelation – that the always-indignant Eren Yeager could transform into a Titan himself – into tedious, circular arguments and a whole lot of yelling.
The subsequent dozen episodes use this established world to present a deeper narrative and largely bypass this sort of tiresome debate. The first half-dozen episodes shift focus to a scout expedition that aims to answer questions about the nature of the titans and Eren’s thus-far unexplained ability to transform. These questions are never satisfactorily answered – that’s for an eventual second season, no doubt – but this expedition improves upon the already impressive action sequences of the first half of the season.
Part of it is the setting, as the scouts’ titan encounters occur exclusively outside the city walls (the city is a great setting, sure, but with so many conflicts set in this urban environment they’d become a tad samey), but it’s mostly just that the action is impressively staged, choreographed and storyboarded. These scouts are masters with the “ODM” (omni-directional mobility) gear compared to the trainees of Collection 1, and their mastery facilitates kinetic setpieces that outshine any live-action Hollywood film. The animation is truly spectacular throughout, only occasionally marred by false-looking 3D models. I particularly appreciated the gruesome physicality of titan-on-titan battles, with bones snapping and tendons flapping.
The focus on a smaller set of named characters is a bonus, too. The mortality rate is inevitably high in a show like this – outside of our trio of plot-armoured protagonists, of course – but the deaths in the second half of the season have a real impact absent in the slaughter of the first half. The fact that the action is more purposeful, in service of unravelling the aforementioned questions as opposed to merely defending one’s home, also ensures that I was engaged throughout.
The show’s attempts to provide explicit political allegories are overly simplistic; essentially, anyone not in the military is portrayed as deeply selfish and immoral: the merchants are greedy, the rules are cloistered and unsympathetic to their people’s suffering, cultists are crazy and civilians are disrespectful of the military’s sacrifices. These elements aren’t avoided entirely in episodes fourteen to twenty-five, but they’re given less emphasis in favour of the aforementioned exhilarating action and an intertwined web of mysteries and questions (I won’t go into detail here, for fear of spoilers).
Thankfully, the show’s implicit politics are slightly more nuanced. The way the show approaches Yeager’s titan form is reminiscent of Neon Genesis: Evangelion, treating it as much a burden as a boon. His transformations put mankind back on an evening playing field, of sorts, with the titans, but this is quickly dismantled by an ‘abnormal’ female titan that demonstrates intelligence and soon outclasses Yeager and his scout compatriots alike. Yeager is regularly presented with the conflict of whether to transform or not, and whichever decision he makes inevitably leads to death and suffering. As an arms race allegory, it’s potent and mercifully avoids the moralising found in the merchants’ and cultists’ bickering.
Attack on Titan – Collection 2 takes the framework put in place in Collection 1 and expands upon it with thrilling action and a considered thematic approach alike. It’s not perfect – the English dub leaves a lot to be desired (particularly in the case of Armin) and the mid-battle conversations tend to strain credibility (a common feature in action-packed anime, admittedly) – but it’s an unexpected improvement on an already impressive first half.