Anime is not something I really admit to watching much, like German dungeon porn, videos of Lego on Youtube and Michael Bay films. It’s not that I find all anime embarrassing, it’s just that as far as I can tell the signal-to-noise is such that it is really hard to find any good ones. I’ve tried a fair few and the only anime series I can wholeheartedly recommend are Berserk and Neon Genesis Evangelion. What’s strange is that these two series are not just good, they are amazing: astonishingly good, mature, sophisticated stories. On the strength of these two series I will continue to dabble in anime looking for other gems – and occasionally it pays off and I find something like Attack on Titan.
So it turns out that Attack on Titan is one of the biggest anime successes of recent times, and is possibly even getting the live action film treatment as a result, but I went in to it with fairly low expectations, something along the lines of ‘those giant skinless people look quite ace, I hope the inevitable gang of cliched anime children don’t ruin everything’. And sure, the cliched anime children are all there: the silent ninja girl, the wimpy clever kid, the other silent ninja guy, and so on. And they aren’t great – I suppose it is worth getting that out there right away, the characters are not especially interesting, likable or well-written – the star of the show, a moon-eyed angry infant named Eren is certainly no Guts (from Berserk), but he’s OK. And I quite like the quiet ninja types, because I relate to them on a personal level.
The name ‘Attack on Titan’ refers to the fact that humanity is besieged by giant naked Titans and that there is an attack involved in some way. It’s not really clear if it means that the Titans are attacking, or that humans are attacking back, or if someone is attacking while literally being on a Titan (as they are so large). But it has nothing to do with the moon of Saturn, as was my original belief. Attack on Titan is more fantasy than sci-fi, or perhaps it counts as steampunk (remember steampunk?). There is more than a dash of Evangelion about things as well, although the less you know about the story going in to the show the better it will be: not because every revelation is a thrilling twist, but because the setting is so inherently unusual and unexplained that the mystery is actually quite interesting. Trying to figure out what is going is quite a lot of fun, with the show dropping little teasers and hints in a way that is quite unusual.
The Titans are a pretty scary enemy to face, and I think this is one thing the show does very well – they are an unusual looking menace, and the idea that they eat humans for fun, with a childish, moronic glee (rather than for any nutritional value) is quite gross. They are surely inspired by Francisco Goya’s image of Saturn devouring his son, a gloomy painting of the Titan Cronus eating his children. This image is pretty much encapsulates the horror in the show, a big mad naked guy eating folk.
The gang of anime children that are destined to Attack/be Attacked On use special steampunk Spider-Man equipment and swords, darting around in some fantastically animated action sequences. The show is beautiful to look at, even though the character design is a bit too anime for my tastes (seriously if your eyes are that huge you will need to wear goggles while riding a horse, otherwise you are going to collecting bugs). It’s your basic Harry Potter/Ender’s Game/Special child goes to badass school setup, although the constant threat of people getting eaten does give it a bit of an edge. I won’t comment too much on the tactics used, I’m sure lots of alternatives to the Spider-Man technique were tested, but I still can’t help but feel that the humans take some unnecessary risks, especially when scouting on horseback. And there is the fact that the silent ninja types could really be used to better effect considering how freaking lethal they appear to be. Towards the end of the series especially this discrepancy becomes confusing – surely you can just get the human buzzsaw guy to go and deal with this? All attack together? Some rather scrappy strategy all round.
As enjoyable as the show was to watch, there was one thing more than any other that keeps it from being in the same league as Berserk or Evangelion, and that’s the filler. At first I hardly noticed, but after a while it became increasingly obvious that there were conversations or even whole episodes dropped in to pad the series out a bit. In these episodes nothing much happens except for one extremely long conversation that serves no real purpose. Usually someone doubts themself and has to make a decision. The most ridiculous was probably the conversation held while waiting for a cannon to reload – ‘it will take about 12 seconds to reload’ says one kid, ‘so we need to make our decision fast’. They then proceed to chat away for ages with no apparent sense of urgency. After a while I was just hoping that a cannon ball would suddenly smack into one of their heads, if only to cut short all the pontificating. I’m not sure if all the inner monologues are supposed to be happening simultaneously or something, but sheesh, get on with it, do something! It was like those bits in a computer game where you have to make a choice to progress the plot, except you go to get a cup of tea instead and come back ten minutes later to find everyone still desperately awaiting your reply.
Overall, a really enjoyable show and with the potential to get even better as the mystery continues to be revealed in the second series. Drawing inspiration from Greek myths, Evangelion and Spider-Man is pretty inspired and if it wasn’t for cliched characters, some baffling tactical decisions and the lack of any editing during painful conversation scenes it would be up there with the best of them.