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Reaper's Reviews: 'Attack on Titan'

Ilan is a huge fan of anime and video games since he can remember himself. He is also an aspiring author who wishes to write fantasy novels.

Attack on Titan, Production I.G/Wit studio. 2013.

Attack on Titan, Production I.G/Wit studio. 2013.

AOT Review

Original title: Shingeki no Kyojin
Production: Production I.G/Wit Studio
Genre: Action/Drama/Horror
Length: 25 episodes + 3 OVAs
Release: April 7, 2013 - September 29, 2013
Source: Manga

Back in 2013, Attack on Titan joined the likes of Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop, Dragon Ball Z and Death Note among others, in the short list of anime that skyrocketed the popularity and coverage of the medium. It was one of those shows that even people who don’t normally watch anime watched.

New fans of the early 2010s were introduced to the anime medium in part thanks to this show. Titan became a modern classic, a permanent gateway anime and an internet phenomenon for the entire year thanks to its gripping narrative, hilarious memes surrounding the show and one of the best anime openings to come out since the start of the millennium.

And it was Titan that helped rekindle my love for anime the first time I lost interest in the medium. Now that was all the way back in 2013, and since then I’ve known periods of time when I just took breaks from watching anime. But recently, my love for the medium has returned, stronger than ever. And I decided to rewatch one of my favorite anime before my latest hiatus to see how is it holding up.

And damn, it’s still as great as ever.

Attack on Titan, Production I.G. 2013.

Attack on Titan, Production I.G. 2013.

Setting & Story

A century ago, humanity was pushed to the verge of extinction with the sudden appearance of gigantic and mindless humanoid beings known as Titans, who prey on human flesh despite not actually requiring it to sustain themselves. As a last resort against the Titans, humanity relocates behind three enormous walls and remains in relative peace for the next hundred years…

Of course, that doesn’t last, as a Titan whose height dwarfs the walls breaks a hole within the outer wall, allowing dozens of smaller Titans to come into a human settlement for the first time in decades and launch a terrifying massacre on countless humans, forcing humanity to relocate even deeper into the walls.

And if you think that’s the end of it, our main protagonist Eren Yaeger finds first-hand just how truly monstrous those Titans are when one of them devours his own mother in one of the most shocking and heartbreaking scenes in anime. From here on out, Eren, alongside his childhood friends Mikasa and Armin, swears vengeance upon the Titans and joins the human military.

This is basically the background and summary of the first couple episodes, setting up Attack on Titan’s bleak and merciless narrative. And I should already point out that if you look for a cheerful and lighthearted show, this is definitely not for you.

Attack on Titan is ruthless in its approach, depicting the vicious reign of the titular monsters with very little implications. Humanity is desperate to not win - but survive, the living hell that is hiding behind the walls as humanitarian beings scratch the walls every single day.

The show delves very deeply into the “what if” scenario of mankind losing their dominance in the food chain, and uses it to ask philosophical questions of moral ambiguity such as the inherent instinct to betray one another to save one’s own skin or how far will you go to destroy those you perceive as enemies.

This is hardly a new topic in storytelling, but Titan does it with emotional heft and bold answering that few can match. Tough decisions and inhumane actions are responded with a sense of necessity that comes to question the morality of both the higher ups and the common grunts, not to mention the viewers themselves.

The story remains engaging and gripping through strong writing and clever planning, as well as brutal U-turns and a thick atmosphere. It starts really strong with brisk pacing and breathless drama.

However, the show’s pacing proves to be one of Titan’s biggest problems. The show has a tendency to drag out its two big arcs for 2-4 episodes too long. Confrontations and conversations waste too much time on still frames and lesser dialogues or monologues with little progress to the actual plot, and some life-or-death situations feel the need to focus on one’s inner thoughts for one minute too many.

This issue also bleeds to the short recaps at the beginning of each episode, which can eat up over 3 minutes of an episode’s running time - and that without including the opening and ending themes.

It makes me believe that due to lack of enough manga material back when the show first aired, coupled with the need to fill in 25 episodes, the producers and animators attempted to paddle a bit so they could at least finish one story arc and keep the next one to a sequel.

Honestly, 3 fewer episodes, bringing to the common 22-episode season, could have improved the anime considerately. Granted, the show makes up for it thanks to its engrossing narrative and intriguing world.

Attack on Titan’s world is a fairly interesting one, even if a lot of questions about it are left hanging. Mankind’s society and military structure inside the Walls is shined upon through the series with themes of inequality and greed dripping from the corners. Its grim realism sets it apart from many other fantasy anime and the story never shies away from showing how devastating are the series’ events to the fragile and declining lifestyle inside the Walls.

You have the rich citizens who take control over the inner Walls, the merchants who live off the limited supplies, and heretic monks who worship the Walls as goddesses. While on the other hand you the struggling military whose members are dwindling, and the poor souls who were left homeless due to the Titan attack in the beginning. It’s fascinating to watch how all those pieces interact with each other, and it’s a thing the series does very well.

And outside the Walls, we have lands swarming with Titans, and seemingly abandoned settlements… Which are sadly not touched upon too much. But you can’t get everything, I guess.

The ending is what you’d expect from a first season. All things considered, it’s not the worst way to end the series and at the very least it concludes the story arc in the best way it could.

Attack on Titan, Production I.G/Wit studio. 2013.

Attack on Titan, Production I.G/Wit studio. 2013.

The Characters

A big portion of Attack on Titan’s story is experienced through the eyes of our main protagonist Eren and his friends Mikasa and Armin. Arguably, they are the show’s weakest aspect alongside its aforementioned pacing problems.

Eren falls into the classical revenge-driven protagonist archetype and comes off as rather annoying to watch at times. He’s loud, rude and hot-blooded, making him somewhat hard to relate to, but I will admit that as the series went on he did get better. He is a flawed person whose mistakes and misjudging do cost him a fairly high price while his ideals are torn apart by the horrific reality he’s in, so at the very least he’s refreshing to watch in comparison to wish-fulfilling flawless heroes in other series like Sword Art Online.

Mikasa is Eren’s adoptive sister who also happens to be one of the strongest soldiers in humanity’s small arsenal. Mikasa is presented as an ultimate badass who can easily kill Titans that even some of the elite warriors struggle with, and is often pictured as flawless... unless Eren is in trouble, during which Mikasa’s obsession with him becomes apparent and she loses her composure. While she is definitely a badass, Mikasa does come across as somewhat generic, but I do appreciate the inclusion of a powerful, independent and non-sexualized female lead when other shows prefer to regress them to token fanservice.

Armin completes the trio off, and is probably the best-written and developed out of them. Debuting as a weak and reluctant boy who depends on his friends for help, Armin feels reminiscent of the older definition of anti-hero, lacking charisma or courage. However, as the show progresses and his intellect becomes apparent, Armin begins playing a more active role in shaping humanity’s strategies and options, becoming a lighter version of Lelouch or Light as if were.

Those three do grow with time, but neither of them is particularly interesting, witty or charismatic enough to carry the series by themselves. And this is where Titan showcases an excellent supporting cast.

The supporting cast for Titan is huge and several of its members do not see the end of the series, but the majority of them present quirky, complex and even conflicted personalities and duties that far outshine any of the protagonists.

From Eren’s fellow trainees to members of the highly skilled Scouts Regiment, to some high-ranking officers, Attack on Titan has a strong and diverse cast of human, flawed characters with struggles and tough decisions that will make both the character and the viewer question whether or not it was worth it.

I would argue that a couple of them are developed far better than Eren, and I found them to be more engaging as personalities. The prime example being the character of Jean, a fellow trainee who starts off as a selfish and somewhat generic rival character but slowly grows more mature and insightful, as well as becoming a cynical yet charismatic man after seeing the Titans’ destruction first-hand.

I also found myself particularly invested in the characters that belong to the higher ranks of the military. High-ranking officers like Dot Pixis and Erwin Smith are hardened veterans who witnessed so many deaths and tragedies and become well aware that victory - or even survival - won’t happen without sacrifices.

At first glance, they might appear to be too stoic or emotionless, but it’s the subtle hints of their doubts and regrets that make for incredibly human and believable people. War is absolute hell, and sometimes you need to shut down your emotions to provide the best solutions, even if you might never be able to calm your soul, and in this reviewer’s opinion, those two characters nail the feeling Attack on Titan is trying to convey.

You also have soldiers like Zoe Hange, the eccentric Titan expert who has… bizarre practices to study Titans, and simply steals the show with her over-the-top personality and large ham. It's hard to be down when Hange's around.

And of course, it’ll be a waste not to mention fan-favorite Levi; Erwin’s second-in-command and considered to be humanity’s strongest and most skilled warrior, Levi is a composed, blunt and terrifying man who more than lives up to his reputation. He may appear as the typical “resident badass” of the show at first, but there is definitely more to him than just some insane feats that I wouldn’t mind being explored more in the future.

Attack on Titan, Production I.G/Wit studio. 2013.

Attack on Titan, Production I.G/Wit studio. 2013.

Animation & Art

Attack on Titan was the debut production of Studio Wit, originally an offshoot of the mighty Production I.G. studio, who also helped produce the show. From what I understand the majority of the show was produced by Wit, with I.G. being more in an overseer or assistant role. And for a debut production, Attack on Titan is freaking amazing… Depending on which scene we’re talking about.

When the show jumps to the action it’s easily one of the most exciting-looking and kinetic anime of recent years, competing with shows that come out even nowadays. Scenes involving a device called the 3D Maneuver Gear are some of the most fluid scenes I’ve ever seen in a television show, with hyperactive leaps, frenzy camera work and energetic clashes, all animated smoothly and gorgeously. And the show blends CGI with 2D animations very well in and outside those scenes.

However, outside action scenes, the show does tend to skimp on its budget, which is understandable… But very noticeable. It’s rather common to have two or more characters discuss a plan or an incident and have the screen taken over by very little animation or even still frames. It makes the animation feel immensely sparse at times, with tiring info dumps thrown in for good measure.

If this practice wasn’t so repetitive, I’d probably gloss over it barring a single mention, but it’s an issue that haunts the series since episode 1, and tends to drag out scenes or conversations, with the standout being the overly prolonged scene of the 104th graduation corp members preparing to fend off Titans so they can retrieve gas for their 3D Maneuver Gears.

I do think Attack on Titan’s visual direction and artwork make up for it, however. Titan’s landscapes and architecture are a wondrous sight to behold. There is an almost painting feeling coming from them with bright skies and gentle clouds, giving a slight contrast to the grittier character models and dark atmosphere.

The characters themselves feel like they were taken straight out the manga, but gifted with far more refinement and polish; they are all outlined by varying thickness of black, covered with striking shading, and possess some gorgeously drawn eyes. Yes, seriously.

I would say that another downside is that the Titans are a bit of hit and miss in terms of overall presentation, as their simple yet terrifying design is somewhat undermined by some questionable additions like Titans with adorable moe eyes or goofy-moving monsters that look like they’re trying too hard to show off their figure.

And of course, we have the masterfully bombastic direction of Tetsuro Araki, who is best known for his work on Death Note and Highschool of the Dead. And the man sure knows how to inject dramatic flair to even the blandest of situations, with epic bows and deadpan facial expressions, not to mention the mind-blowing aforementioned action sequences. Araki’s direction is a distinctive one and it gives his works a unique visual personality.

Attack on Titan, Production I.G/Wit studio. 2013.

Attack on Titan, Production I.G/Wit studio. 2013.

Audio & Sound

The music for Attack on Titan was composed by Hiroyuki Sawano, a rather new composer who began his anime work in 2006 and got a serious boost to his reputation through Kill la Kill- let me just say that the soundtrack of this show is bloody fantastic.

Sawano’s score aims for the dramatic flair and emotional punch while being fairly experimental, using a mixture of orchestral music and mesmerizing vocals, not to mention throwing in some J-rock tunes and synth music. Yes, there is also a very good chunk of “Engrish” lyrics, but I actually loved this addition.

What I particularly like about the soundtrack is how it constantly shifts itself, even within the individual tracks themselves, providing a rich experience that reacts to what’s happening on the screen. One moment you have Eren and friends reflecting on their lives and thinking how well things go, before it all goes downhill as the music aims to punch your guts out.

And honestly, it’s overall a very high-quality soundtrack that I can listen to for hours without context, with two of my favorite tracks being the rather pop-like “Reluctant Heroes” which serves as a theme for Levi, and the genuinely heartbreaking “Omake Pfadlib” which is one of the few tracks that can make me eye-teary. Oh, and “Call Your Name”. Just another example of beautiful music.

Honestly, there is no need to introduce the show’s first opening “Guren no Yumiya” which is just as epic and dramatic as you’d expect. However, I’m probably in the very small camp of people who also like the show’s second opening, “Jiyuu no Tsubasa”, sometimes even more than the first opening. I also enjoy the minimal inclusion of German into the openings, giving them a unique, foreign flavour that I don’t see much in other anime openings.

The first ending “Utsukushiki Zankoku na Sekai” is a melancholic song that is not bad but not particularly memorable, but I really love the second ending “Great Escape” and especially its first seconds.

Now as for the English performances, it’s a solid production by Funimation. It won’t change your opinion if you dislike dubs, but it’s a pretty good one with the energy and strength to carry the show and characters.

You have Bryce Papenbrook as Eren, Trina Nishimura as Mikasa, Josh Grelle as Armin, Mike McFarland as Jean (who also voiced another Jean in Fullmetal Alchemist), Matt Mercer as Levi and Jessica Calvello as Zoe Hange, alongside Robert McCollum, David Matranga, Lauren Landa and Ashly Burch.

Really, it’s a very good cast and their performances are often on-spot, with a decent balance between drama, ham and emotion.

Attack on Titan, Production I.G/Wit studio. 2013.

Attack on Titan, Production I.G/Wit studio. 2013.

Overall Rating

In my opinion, Attack on Titan is an anime that deserves a big portion of the hype and popularity it received all the way back during its original airing in mid-2013. It’s by no means perfect, but it holds up pretty damn well thanks to its strong script and breathtaking art direction.

Its story is an engrossing one that breaks away from typical shounen anime by presenting more grounded characters dipped in gritty realism and a thick atmosphere that keeps you on a hook. Unfortunately, it also suffers from a somewhat meandering middle act and a tendency to waste too much of its running time on dragged-out scenes and tedious opening recaps.

But even with those issues, few shows can claim to have such an interesting story and setting as Attack on Titan, with fantastic world-building, complex and multi-layered social relationships, memorable soundtrack and human characters that make the series a cut above its peers.

While its ending leaves a lot of questions unanswered that way too much time to get resolved, Titan concludes its first season in a somewhat satisfying way and it definitely deserves your precious time with its intriguing premise and tight writing, all pumped up with the masterfully explosive direction and animation by Tetsuro Araki and studio Wit.

The Good:

  • Engrossing narrative with high-stakes and difficult questions and situations that delves deep into human nature and never sugar coats the horrors of war
  • Strong supporting cast filled with morally complex and ambiguous characters, far outshine the main characters
  • Breathtaking art direction and superb direction that brings about some of the best animated action sequences of the decade
  • Soundtrack is incredible, rich and epic

The Bad:

  • Story tends to drag itself too much, especially in the middle act where it stretches for way too long, needs to tone down its paddling
  • The main trio is not particularly interesting as characters, pale in comparison to the supporting characters
  • Animation outside action scenes tends to be minimal and sparse, overuses still-frames

& The Ugly:

  • The manga's artwork

Alternate Recommendations

If you enjoyed Attack on Titan and you're looking for similar shows, maybe try watching Berserk - both the 1997 TV series and the 2010s movie trilogy; while Berserk lacks the high budget action of Titan, it's the quintessential dark fantasy anime, with a similarly dark tone and gritty artwork, that will do you just well. Just... don't look for an ending.

My second recommendation is for Akame ga- Ha ha, just joking. It's for a show called Knights of Sidonia, which I haven't watched myself yet, but I heard fairly good things on it and that it has similar themes to Titan.

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