Attack on Titan has a mission statement. That mission is to feed you tiny little rays of hope in the bleakest of surroundings, because it is there that they will shine the brightest. It then blots those rays out, so that the despair and helplessness you feel is that much more harrowing. Attack on Titan is shockingly, barbarically and sadistically cruel.
The world, while clearly a creation of fantasy, is based on Medieval-European aesthetics with a little steampunk thrown in. It is set one-hundred years after the Titans appeared. Apart from underground, no one knows where the menace came from or how they came to be. They emerged from beneath the very earth and went on a killing spree, driven by the desire to eat humans. It is their one goal in existence. Eating humans does not nourish or sustain them. They do not kill to survive. They simply exist to kill.
The human population was reduced to a sliver of what it was before the emergence. The remnants of humanity built three walls to protect themselves. The closer you were to the outer wall, the lower your stature in society. The rich and the elite are housed within the inner ring, the professionals and traders in the middle. Farmers and labourers on the front line. As in real life, when the levees break, the poor are the first to die.
This is where our story picks up. Young Eren has unresolved wanderlust. He hates being cooped up within the walls of the city. He wants to break out and spread his wings. His adopted sister, Carla, keeps his feet on the ground. She has seen the world at its worst and will do anything to protect him, repaying their parents for the kindness they showed her. Armin is a scholar who cannot defend himself and constantly beats himself up over having to rely on his friends to take care of him. These three friends form the triangle of relationships that will make up most of the character development.
Eren’s plans for freedom however, are shattered after the first Titan attack of their young lives claims Eren and Carla’s mother. Eren swears revenge and joins the Scouts, a military regiment designed to combat the Titans directly and take back the land that humanity has lost. If you want to know what a great job Attack on Titan’s writer Hajime Isayama has done cultivating an atmosphere of hopelessness and despair, then we start with the Scouts.
We are introduced to them as they are coming back from a failed campaign to reclaim some farmland lost beyond the walls. As they slowly walk back through the gate their heads are hanging and their eyes are wide with fright. A mother is presented with the arm of her son as the only thing that remains of him after an encounter with a Titan. The commanding officer drops to his knees as he confesses to her that all was for nought. Her son died for nothing. No ground was won and no intelligence was gathered. It is a sobering tragedy.
The series, all the way throughout, is constantly letting us know that even for those who have been hand-picked and trained to fight the Titan menace, the thought of facing them is just too much. The prospect of entering combat with one of them is a sentence of slow, gruesome, degrading death. The titans crush you in hand and eat you like a piece of messy barbecue. They have rows and rows of teeth, but they don’t need to chew. They can swallow you whole. There is one scene where we are treated to a first-hand account of what it is like to be taken like an oral capsule by a monster. To sit in the digestive acid of a grotesque creature with only the floating body parts of your former comrades for company.
This level of despair though, would look ridiculous if the Titans weren’t so convincingly terrifying. And my god, did the artists and animators do the work of their lives on that. Easily the most iconic monsters of our generation, the Titans are the most twisted depiction of humanity since George A Romero popularised the zombie. They stand at fifteen meters in height. They look like adults but grin like idiot children. Their faces have the blissful expression of the delusional drug addict. They stand naked, exposing their lack of genitals. They are giant man-babies that are vulnerable, emasculated and are capable of terrible destruction. No wonder they’re terrifying; they push all the right psychological buttons. And that’s before you start asking some of the more bizarre questions their design arises. Some of them have beards. Some don’t. Do the titans shave? With massive razors and tubes of shaving foam?
Seeing them appear over the wall for the first time is a truly chilling experience. No wonder the world inside the walls is filled with endless screaming. That is probably the worst part of the Attack on Titan experience. Being forced to put up with endless amounts of melodramatic delivery that wouldn’t sound out of place on a hardcore punk album. Fortunately, voice acting veterans such as Matthew Mercer add gravelly gravitas to counter balance it.
The plot is stretched out infuriatingly thin at times too. Questions are posed a quarter of the way through the season and we still have to wait until season two before they even attempt to answer them. It is kept ticking along though with plentiful amounts of deceit, betrayal and death.
Ultimately though, Attack on Titan is at its best when depicting humanity as a powder keg. That is what the walled city functions as. It keeps mankind in claustrophobically close quarters. The constant aggravation of being trapped inside a tiny box with millions of neighbours brings out the worst in people. Their city is driven by irrational anger and fear, the same anger and fear that keeps the citizens obediently caged. Meanwhile, the impetuous youth yearns to break free and lashes out accordingly. It is an environment where cruelty and maliciousness breeds and is rewarded. The strong victimise the weak and the powerful prey on the helpless. That’s why the Titans exist. They are mankind’s punishment for its malevolent and cannibalistic nature. And until they can learn to overcome these flaws, the Titan’s will keep on coming. That’s my theory anyway. We’ll have to wait for next year for our answer.
Creator: Hajime Isayama
Scr: Hajime Isayama
Cast: Bryce Papenbrook, Matthew Mercer, Jessica Cavanagh
Prd: Shin Furukawa, Teppei Nojima
Runtime: 20 Minutes
Attack on Titan is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.