Attack on Titan – Horror Has A New (Grinning) Face

So, I’m late to the party, again. Attack on Titan has been a thing for at least eighteen months now. Never one to be accused of jumping on a bandwagon, I’ve only just now started watching it (via Netflix) and… oh my goodness! Was there ever a show to grab you in a vice-like grip of terror, wonder and horrifying absurdity? No, I honestly don’t think there was. But there is now.

I’m six episodes in and find the whole thing utterly mesmerising. Somehow, it connects with me on an almost pure animalistic emotional level and bypasses the more rational parts of my brain almost completely. Do human beings possess a deep-seated racial fear of being stalked by forty-foot tall naked zombies? Perhaps they do – some residual fear of dinosaurs, perhaps, mixed with a weird Freudian aversion to nudity. Who knows? Whatever the reason, this ridiculous anime about the last remnants of humanity huddling together in a single gigantic settlement behind massive walls that still don’t manage to be high enough to keep their clothing-averse idiot-grinning giant predators at bay manages to be thoroughly engaging, tremendously exciting and utterly terrifying in more or less equal measure.

That's not good, really, is it?

That’s not good, really, is it?

What follows is spoilerish (for the first six episodes).

The first episode sets the tone. In it, we are introduced to the main character Eren and an (older?) girl who lives with him (Mikasa), as well as their bookish friend, Armin. We are also introduced to the world these characters inhabit which appears at first to be renaissance/pre-Industrial Revolution era Europe with its tudor-esque architecture. That world is fleshed out in effective economical fashion, as the necessary character introductions are interspersed with scenes of the Scout Regiment’s foray into the world beyond the walls that protect humanity and later scenes of them returning, their mission failed and many of their number dead, missing or horribly injured. The meeting between the Scout force leader and a mother of one of their fallen comrades gives an early indication that, for all its characters’ typical anime cuteness, this is not going to be light-hearted fare. And so it proves…

Eren is a feisty youngster who views the walls that protect him and the rest of humanity from a danger that mostly exists in the abstract as a constriction rather than a blessing.  While Eren’s father has secrets that he promises to divulge to his son once he gets back from the interior, Eren reveals that he wants to join the Scout Regiment (despite having witnessed their ignominious return), from which ambition Eren’s mother is determined to dissuade him. Mother and son argue and you think (or at least I did) that you’re watching the setting out of a certain type of anime hero’s character path and then it all goes to hell.

The last ten minutes or so of the first episode are insane. Events spiral out of control frighteningly quickly and the show gives us horror after horror after horror, all rendered in some of the most beautiful and startlingly kinetic animation I’ve seen in a long long while. Once the event that renders Eren’s argument with his mother almost entirely moot happens, you finally understand what type of show you’re watching. ‘Predictable’ and ‘safe’ – these are words that you simply cannot apply to Attack on Titan.

The second episode widens the scope of the action very successfully. We find out that the district overrun in the first episode is part of a much larger walled settlement. We also find out that it has been deliberately constructed to concentrate the titans’ attacks on that specific spot. We see the panic and desperation of a large scale evacuation in the face of an implacable foe. There is nothing cosy about this. It is harrowing, disturbing stuff and calls to mind my teenage imaginings upon reading War of the Worlds or, if you’re into Warhammer 40,000, Dan Abnett’s exceptional siege novel Necropolis. We are also not spared the hierarchical nature of the human world ofAttack on Titan, in which refugees are despised as weak and those with food and resources feel entitled to lord it over those who do not. It is, at times, very uncomfortable viewing, not least because it reminds us far too pointedly of the inequalities and injustices of the real world.

The third and fourth episodes see a 5 year leap forward. Our heroes have grown up somewhat and have entered training in the army.  It is an unexpected, but not unwelcome, change of tack and, for a brief moment or two, I allowed myself to entertain the possibility that the show was going to settle down into a more traditional all-friends-together-against-the-big-enemy type of anime show with characters conforming to certain anime archetypes (including the always-hungry girl – what the hell is that about, anyway?). And then the ending to episode four hits and, dammit, the show does it again. It takes what you were getting comfortable with and scrunches it up into a big ball and hits you on the head with it. This continues into episode five which provides several jaw-dropping moments in quick succession. It is insane, disturbing, absolutely riveting stuff.

Attack on Titan, then, is an anime I will definitely be sticking with. At times, the animation is breathtaking. Fight sequences between titans and zip-line wielding soldiers are presented as exhilarating, swooping flights into action. (Or, as is the case with episode five, heartbreaking tragedy.) The architectural solidity of the setting is absolutely essential to maintaining the authenticity of the story and the designers have done an incredible job here.  Walls are high and thick, and when they are smashed down, the resulting devastation is satisfyingly huge. The crowning achievement, though, is the design of the titans themselves. Put bluntly, on paper giant-naked-smiling-sexless-cannibal really shouldn’t work. Realised, however, that concept has been mined for every single one of its disturbing, unsettling possibilities. The sight of a titan ungainly running towards a crowd of humans like an overexcited toddler, an idiot smile plastered on its huge face takes absurdity into new realms of horror. One of the most memorable moments of the first episode is one in which a soldier, desperate to regain his honour, runs towards a titan with the intention of taking it down only to pause in mid-charge as he realises just what it is that he is facing. The animators fade out the surrounding scenery around him leaving him alone in a darkness that represents not only the shadow the titan casts over him but also the sheer futility of even thinking of taking it on. That sense of hopelessness is what makes the price of heroism in the show so ridiculously high and the show itself so utterly compelling. The titans may be a weird absurd concept but they are played absolutely straight and the result is a threat which is nightmarishly relentless and the cornerstone on which a truly unique and incredibly involving anime series is built. Whatever else Attack on Titan is, it is bloody terrifying. And I love it. 🙂

He doesn't want to be your friend.

He doesn’t want to be your friend.