This Author Kills More Darlings Than George R.R. Martin
Attack on Titan is anime with the drama of Tolstoy or Mad Men, the adolescent awakening of The Hunger Games, and less regard for human life than Game of Thrones.
The marauding, man-eating Titans are mutated, androgynous beasts that have no need to feed but love to kill. With their glazed eyes, overly realistic maws, and infantile way of running, the Titans are beyond comic: They are grotesque, uncanny valley evil that kill off characters with a George R.R. Martin-like speed.
You should really pay attention to Attack on Titan. Not just because it’s the best-selling manga in Japan, not just because it had a second season announced for the anime adaptation, and not just because it is now in development as a live-action movie. Instead, this is damn good piece of storytelling that explores relevant issues, while having less regard for human life (or your emotional fragility) than Game of Thrones and Snowpiercer combined.
Originally published as a manga, Attack on Titan takes many tropes of the robot mecha genre and places them into a low fantasy setting with incredible effectiveness. This apocalyptic future is not as Orwellian and cybernetic as other series, instead showing a grim reality in which humanity has been eliminated except for a last stronghold of mankind: a walled country with three tiers and multiple cities within its fold.
Seemingly built in central Europe, it is a world where most ethnicities have been killed off—most notably, only one Asian remains within the walled city—and all that exists outside the protection of Wall Maria are the Titans. The city manages to hold off the beasts for 100 years, only for monsters taller, stronger, and more intelligent than the basic beasts to tear holes in mankind’s first line of defense. Our hero Eren Jaeger and adopted sister Mikasa Ackerman are two of the people in the tiny, medieval village besieged by the new breed of Titan. When they see their mother snapped and eaten by a monster they become consumed with an anti-Titan rage that sends them into the military alongside best friend Armin.
Like Gundam or Neon Genesis Evangelion humanity face their threat head on with devices ranging from steam-propelled steel cabling and butcher knives to people discovering they can actually become Titans if they draw blood from certain pressure points. Here, the battle between good and evil is morally gray, full of political intrigue, philosophical concepts and a great deal of casualties.
But Attack on Titan is perhaps the most brutal butcher of cast members you will ever see, and it also has a mastery of human emotions few other animations can lay claim to. When it wants you to hurt, it twists your gut with all the dramatic irony, cringe-inducing agony and physical violence it possibly can. Characters you have grown to love are murdered in seconds, screaming and bleeding, and their corpses are shown to you time after time, episode after episode, mangled and maltreated by friend and foe alike.
The animation is beautifully rendered and the storytelling top notch even if the pacing is, at times, erratic. It has an almost Tolstoy-esque feel, big battles and dramatic moments mixed in with long periods of discussion and analysis. Some have critiqued its literal translation of the manga as problematic, as quick-to-skim inner monologues become torpid flashbacks on screen, but the long meditative breaks, like in Mad Men, only serve to drive home the beautifully crafted moments of true terror and tragedy which come round with no warning.
It is also a show loaded with complex female characters. Mikasa, who was almost sold into sex slavery as a child, is the most adept fighter in the entire city, and shows a strangely matriarchal devotion to half-brother Eren, mixed with post-traumatic detachment from the world and real, impassioned leadership.
Among the other cadets who become lead characters there are several women: the sarcastic but incredibly perceptive Annie Leonhart; Sasha Braus, who is an intelligent improviser in battle but completely ruled by her love of food; the Titan researcher Zoe Hange; and the skilled scout and warrior Petra Rall. Season 2 also promises some of the supporting women, like the snarky Ymir and the altruistic Krista, will get to shine.
But Attack on Titan deserves to be respected as more than just another beautiful, easy Netflix binge. (Although Season 1 is ready to be consumed and you definitely should give over the first cold days of autumn to watching it.) It has become a political allegory all over Asia.
In Hong Kong’s most recent pro-Democracy protest against China a version of the show’s most iconic Titan, painted with the symbols of the Republic of China, towered over the crowd. The parallels Hong Kong readers find between the encroaching Titans and China have made it a huge success there. It has also caused uproar from some when artist Hajime Isayama admitted to basing a character off of Yoshifuru Akiyama, a general in the Imperial Japanese Army often deemed a war criminal. Some believe it’s an insensitive callback to events like the Port Arthur Massacre, while others see it as a harmless aesthetic similarity.
But what Attack on Titan does best, and why it’s a great show to watch, is that it really does capture something very special about the millennial condition. In the same way as, say, Battle Royale or The Hunger Games does, Attack on Titan places adolescents in the middle of a hero-less war between corrupt political entities and brutal warfare with morally gray barbarians. It is a fascinating look at how bleak and hopeless changing the world can seem to the young, especially when violence usually results in your death and trying to be a supporter of the system means colluding with corruption.
By placing the enemy not as other victims of the same system like in The Hunger Games but instead as alien creatures, the show wrestles with questions about warfare and the human. The Titans are humanoid, and as the story continues the myth of these barbaric, otherworldly creatures becomes harder to believe and their connection to humanity harder to ignore. Any group believed to be a threat to society can find something not far from reality in the belief survival relies on the elimination of the exoticized, villainized enemy.
Attack on Titan’s star is on the rise again. So watch it now. It’ll make for an excellent prologue to Mockingjay, at the very least, preparing you for how bloody even fictional wars can be. But don’t watch it anywhere it’s not acceptable to gasp and cry, because that’s going to be happening a lot.