Friday, October 17, 2014

Attack on Titan Review

Today I’d like to review an anime and manga series I’ve been following.  It’s called Attack on Titan (English translation is rough, the raw translation is closer “Advancing Titan) and it is a very popular series in both Japan and in Western countries alike.

The premise of the series is that a new form of creature, known as titans, have appeared and begin to devour human beings.  Titans range from 3 meters to 15 meters, although unique ones can reach up to 60 meters.

In response to the threat, humanity raised up a massive set of three 50 meter walls (although it is doubtful human beings did that; more on that later).  Humans have lived behind the walls for roughly 100 years at the beginning of the story.  For a depiction of the scale of the walls, check out this map.

So the start of the story (and I will reference both anime and manga since there is little difference between them so far) has our protagonist Eren Yeager, his adopted sister Mikasa Ackerman, and his friend Armin Arlert live in Shinganshina District, the southernmost city behind the walls.  In fact, the city actually extends just outside the Wall with a gate to the outside world and another gate to the main area between the outermost wall (Wall Maria) and the middle wall (Wall Rose).

They witness a colossal Titan, measuring over 60 meters, appear outside the outer gate as it peaks over the wall.  It then proceeds to kick in the gate, killing many people due to the sheer force of the debris that flies out, and letting in all the titans that are just on the other side of the wall.

In the ensuing chaos, Eren, who is 10 years old at the time, witnesses his own mother get eaten by titan as a soldier takes him and Mikasa to safety.  This sets up his motivation to join the military and join the Survey Corps (the group dedicated to leaving the walls and attempting to take back the land where Titans now dominate), as well as Mikasa’s motivation to protect Eren at all costs (a promise she makes to Eren’s mother shortly before she is eaten).

Five years later, Eren is a newly graduated cadet of the military corp and ready to join the Survey (or Recon) Corps, although he ranked 5th in his class and thus qualified to work for the Military Police in the innermost walls, where the elite and the wealthy live.  On the day of or after his graduation, the Colossal Titan appears again and this time batters the gate at the city of Trost, the southernmost city of Wall Rose (the area between Rose and Maria has been abandoned due to the breached gates in Shinganshina).

During the Battle of Trost, where the Garrison (military branch whose chief duty is defense of the Walls) and the newly graduated cadets face off against the Titans as they try and evacuate the civilians.  Things don’t go well for Eren as he loses his leg within the first five minutes of his deployment and then gets swallowed whole while saving his friend Armin.

But Eren is something more than a mere human.  He is a Titan Shifter, a power he did not know about.  Inside the Titan’s belly, he inadvertently transforms into a 15 meter Titan, killing the Titan who swallowed him in the process.  What follows is the Garrison using Eren to retake Trost by sealing the breached gate with his Titan strength.  And the story carries on from there.

The story is very well done and the elements seem to be well thought out by the manga’s creator, Hajime Isayama, definitely has framed out the world and the story, for the most part.  He knows the nature of the Titans and he indicates that he does have an ending in mind for it.

The main, over-arching story is the mystery surrounding the Titans.  Nearly every conflict, every trial always comes back to them.  They are theorizes to have been humans once, but some kind of scientific process has turned them into cannibalistic giants.  This mystery is slowly revealed as well where at the beginning of the story we see humanity just accepting things as they are but then they gradually start to try and learn more and more about them.

Though the main focus of the story is Eren and how he is probably humanity’s only hope for survival, as a protagonist he is a weak person.  He has yet to really stand out as a soldier or a Titan in the battlefield.  He is a rash person who lets his emotions dictate his actions, the primary of which is rage.  And as a Titan he gets incredibly scary, even attempting to devour another Titan shifter at one point and declaring that he will slowly and painfully kill the Titan shifters responsible for the breach of Shinganshina (they were Titan shifters as well).

Through the course of the story, he is more like a bargaining chip, bait, and a trump card for the military.  He has been kidnapped three times by different factions who wish to use Eren and his abilities for their own purposes.

In other words, he’s not a very good warrior or hero.  But I think that is what makes him all the more relatable as a person.  He is just kid who is a victim of circumstances he has yet to truly understand.

A major theme of the series is how far would you be willing to go in order to save humanity from what is essentially an Apex predator, now that humanity is no longer the top of the food chain.  Armin, Eren’s close friend, states that in order to defeat monsters, you have to become one yourself.  This is reflected in the actions of the leader of the Survey Corps, Erwin, and within the royalty like Lord Rod Reiss, who seems to be doing terrible things in order to save humanity.

Meanwhile, we find out that the initial attack in the beginning of the story was a directed attack from Titan Shifters who live outside the walls.  They represent how far Eren himself could fall as they have seemingly abandoned their humanity entirely and only pose as humans in order to blend in (and possibly avoid becoming a Titan permanently).

Another theme is how should humanity’s leaders act in the face of such an enemy.  Lately in the manga, the Aristocrats and other leaders are depicted as self-serving and corrupt.  This is hinted at in the anime, but only briefly.  The Military Police branch consists of the top 10 graduates from each cadet class, though they are probably the least effectual soldiers against the Titans.  Instead they tend to patrol the inner city with muskets and investigate human crimes.

There is also some nice nods to what human ingenuity is like when faced with hellish circumstances.  Humanity has developed a special kind of technology that they outfit with themselves to maneuver in three dimensions.  This is because the Titans’ only weakness in the nap of their neck.  All other injuries only regenerate in a short amount of time (eyes come back in about one minute, for example).  As such, humans need to move around in all three dimensions in order to get to the kill spot with a sword.

All in all, this is an awesome story.  Set in a rich, fantasy land with European characters and only a few East Asian ones, Isayama really does a good job of depicting a late Medieval/Victorian culture instead of a traditional Japanese one.  My one complaint is that the two apparently Oriental characters (I think that Levi is meant to be East Asian to some degree) are the two soldiers who are total badasses while the white people are only moderately good to terrible.  This is typical of most Japanese based entertainment though, so I don’t really hold it against him.

Check out the anime or manga series if you get a chance.  It is definitely worth it.