Attack on Titan / Shingeki no Kyojin – Between Monstrous and Human

Attack on TitanAttack on Titan - Shingeki no Kyojin anime poster (Known as Shingeki no Kyojin in Japanese) is certainly the most popular anime of the Summer and Spring 2013 anime seasons, and also the best selling one. Based on a manga, we have an action show where people die by the bucketloads. A hundred years ago titans appeared, huge monstrosities that forced humanity to wall itself within a huge state-wall, and now they live under siege. Our protagonist, Eren Jaeger, is a determinator determined on killing those titans, after they break into the small section he lives in, and he loses his parents.
Let’s be honest – everyone loves action shows, well drawn action shows. Everyone likes bloody, grim and gritty settings. It’s easy to understand why people like this show. In this show, humans are helpless, and they are killed by titans left and right. The show has definite themes of helplessness and being cattle.

One thing a show’s ending is useful for is presenting the show’s themes, or at least presenting themes that you can look back rethink the whole show through the lens of. The lens I chose for this post is the one pushed quite heavily toward the end of the show, but which had been present throughout – the distance, or the tension between becoming a monster and being human. The question is usually raised in the manner of “Are you willing to turn into a monster in order to defeat monsters?” or in the same way that Code Geass had raised its question – “How much are you willing to sacrifice in order to win?”

(This is a Things I Like post, it’s not a review, but more a discussion of the show and of ideas that have risen in my mind as I’ve watched it. There will be spoilers of every single large plot-twist in the show’s first season.)

After Eren’s family is killed by titans, he and his adopted sister, Mikasa Ackerman join the military. The day they finish their three years of training, calamity strikes in the form of a titan who can create holes in the walls for other titans to enter through, the titan to blame for Eren’s family dying. Eren after a short while is apparently eaten by a titan, which leads to a sequence that I found quite fascinating – we have a flashback scene to Mikasa and Eren’s childhood, and how they’ve met.

How did they meet? Mikasa’s family had been murdered by people who wanted to kidnap Mikasa and her mother and sell them for their oriental heritage. While Eren’s father went to call the police force, Eren went and found the kidnappers. He had killed three of them, and as he was caught by the 4th, Mikasa had been given an instructional message by him and killed the 4th. How old had our characters been? About 9 years old, it seems.

The reason this scene was so interesting to me is that I’ve often held that determinators, our “heroes” in most shows are not very far from being psychopathic murdering machines. The point had been made numerous times that Dungeons and Dragons parties, including the Paladins, are basically ambulatory genocides, killing hundreds if not thousands upon thousands of entities. We’ve become inured to violence as watchers of modern media, and while this show does have bucketloads of violence and gives us the feeling that it matters, to have kids go out and kill their oppressors gives you a good view of why this is something that should be discussed, that should make you take notice. Of special note were the words used by Eren to convince Mikasa to kill the 4th kidnapper, and what she had said to herself:

Fight! You must fight! If you win, you live. If you lose, you die. If you don’t fight, you can’t win!

Followed by Mikasa’s lines:

That moment I remembered, I’ve seen this scene before [Where Eren is choked by the 4th kidnapper], Over and over again. It was always happening right in front of me, but I was pretending not to see it; that’s right, this world is merciless.

Female Titan eats Eren Yeager - Shingeki no Kyojin / Attack on Titan

Gobble them up – it’s a dark world we live in.

And her lines are accompanied by images of a spider eating a moth, or her father bringing home a duck he shot down. This serves for showing us the world is naturally cruel, and being humane is a human conceit, which she and Eren abandon, that being “merciless” is not an act of evil, but merely the natural order. Furthermore, Eren’s lines are the quintessential lines of all shounen heroes – you can’t win if you don’t fight, and if you don’t fight, you lose, and if you lose, you die. So you must fight. The examples in Mikasa’s memories are all of zero sum games, where one eats the other. For someone to win, someone else must die. For their survival, they must kill.
This paints Eren and Mikasa as quite outside the normal frame of reference, and the show keeps bringing it up later on. Sadly, while I hoped there’d be more discussion of the repercussions of their actions, there is none. Around episode 13 Eren stands trial, and his past of killing other humans as a young child is brought up, I expected we’ll actually have some discussion at that point, but the issue is dropped after about 20 seconds, which made me sad.

Flash forward to the latter half of the show, after Eren transforms into a titan, he’s quite literally showing us the adage of “You must turn into a monster in order to fight monsters,” as his monstrous form is the new hope for humanity, which had never won a decisive victory, or even managed to drive back the titans from a territory they had invaded, until titan-Eren appears. A monster? He even lashes out at Mikasa and nearly kills her.

Furthermore, we have Erwin, the commander of the corps Eren is in use Eren as bait, sacrifice many of his soldiers, in a gambit to find a spy – someone else who can turn into a titan. He must sacrifice his soldiers, and he doesn’t know whether anything will come out of it, which it doesn’t in the first instance. Those who cannot make sacrifices, those who aren’t willing to drive forward at all costs, can’t hope to save humanity, can’t hope to win. Human lives aren’t inconsequential, and we see the grim faces of Erwin and his second-in-command Levi as they lose their underlings and some of their friends, but still they drive forward. We have Armin, Mikasa and Eren’s childhood friend explain to us – they have to forsake their humanity, to turn into monsters, in order to fight monsters and hope to prevail.

Armin Arlert - Shingeki no Kyojin / Attack on Titan

Terror and helplessness – a common face in this show.

Armin is an interesting case study, he is weak, but smart. As children, Eren and Mikasa often had to save him from bullies. He often explains to us what the higher ups are planning, or the titans in human-form, for he can see all their plans. In the latter half of the show, he says you must be willing to throw away your humanity, and that Annie, their friend who can turn into the female titan, had surely been able to do so, but will Eren be able to? It’s interesting, because for being so helpless seeming, so vulnerable, Armin is willing to sacrifice his friends if it’s the most logical plan.
He’s also wrong about Annie, mind. Annie didn’t kill him and Jean because they were her friends as cadets, after she appeared in her female titan form she saw his face and let him live, even as she squashed other soldiers as flies. She even said to him after he lured her into a trap in the penultimate episode of the show “I’m glad I could’ve been a good person to you.” – to me Annie, and her humanity, and how emotional and vulnerable she seemed as she laughed (hysterically, sadly?) before turning into a titan for the final form, had been the most interesting character of the show, and I hope we’ll still get to meet her and learn more about her.

Eren though? Eren served us as the child-killer who forsake his humanity and told Mikasa to forsake hers in order to survive. Eren literally became a monster, shedding his humanity behind. Eren could be heard several times saying he’ll kill all the titans, and the humans who can turn into titans, and honestly, has some issues. And yet, in the end, we had him not kill his friend – he reclaimed his “humanity”, but as some other people would say, he ran away from responsibility, and acted selfishly. He’d let everyone die so as to cover his sensibilities, which is another form of monstrous.

In this scarcity driven community, people act like wolves to one another – the titans are more like natural animals who just kill, whereas humans prey on others. Monsters in human skins, which is further helped along as a theme with the fact that there are literal monsters hiding amongst us, monsters who can kill us, and destroy humanity as a whole.
The final few seconds of the show leaves us with a cliffhanger that is the opposite idea – while there are monsters within us, we’re also trapped, surrounded by the monsters without – the titans are everywhere, even our safe haven’s walls have titans within.

When we talk about the show as a show, I really like the production values – I like the animation style in general, and the OST is just great. This show had episodes with better soundtracks than most shows manage during their whole run, with tracks that I can only describe as epic. The original opening is one that I find especially worthy of mention, and while others loved the second opening, I can’t say I cared for it myself. Another proof of the show’s popularity is how often people had released new versions of the first OP, marked as “Attack on X”.
Also note just how fitting the first OP is – freedom is a big theme.

Plot wise though, I have some issues. The show definitely knows the two most important phases of the show are its first few episodes and its last few episodes – the first few drive attention and excitement, and the last few episodes dictate how a show will be remembered. Shingeki no Kyojin had very exciting and fast moving first few episodes, and the last few episodes were filled with the themes of the show and very good-looking action sequences. The problem is what had happened in between. We’ve had many episodes which covered too short of a time-frame. Almost nothing happened. My excitement for the show dwindled, as I watched people stand and stare at one another for untold minutes.
Furthermore, we’ve had minutes of recaps, a common ploy by endlessly running shows who fear catching up to the manga, but not something I can excuse in a single 25 episode show – they should’ve planned better.

I suspect it might be that the show is adapted from a still-ongoing manga, which is being released quite slowly. Like I cover in my piece on Naruto, I suspect some of the faults had been introduced as a result of the adaptation. For instance, one of the things that greatly bothered me with the show is over-acting and over-directing, or put more simply – melodrama, drama which hadn’t been earned. We have the camera quickly switching between dramatic angles of someone talking, showing him from the bottom up, as he speechifies, something that is obviously planned in a movie, but the attention is even more drawn to it in a drawn show where there’s no camera-work involved. Armin’s speech in order to save Eren from being executed on sight after transforming into a titan had been overacted as well. All the lined had been shouted, all the lines exaggerated. I suspect this had been done in order to draw more time out of the show, and also to make us care for characters we didn’t receive enough time to care for.

This show had a lot of combat-time, and very little time for characters to actually be seen as characters we can grow and like. We can sympathize with their fear, their sorrow over lost friends, their desire to get through the day, but we have very few moments where we can actually see them at ease, and connect to them on that level.

Conclusion: This had been a fun action show. It is well animated, has an amazing soundtrack, and has a good heap of grit and blood thrown all over the show. The show’s pacing is poor, in an attempt to pad the show, I wish they’d have simply cut out about 6-7 episodes, if not even more, and had what we experienced feel like a gut-punch, rather than a long drawn out affair. The characterization of characters is lacking, and the two scenes I found most interesting didn’t get expanded on nearly as much as I’d like. I love action shows, and this one started great, but somewhere along the way it failed me by wasting my time, rather than budgeting its time better according to the source material. Nothing can kill an action show as quickly as non-action. Nothing can kill drama as quickly as melodrama. This show is still a solid way to pass the time, but it wouldn’t have taken a lot to make it more than solid. 6.3/10 half-eaten soldiers.

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3 comments on “Attack on Titan / Shingeki no Kyojin – Between Monstrous and Human

  1. Artemis says:

    Likewise, I’m definitely in two minds about this series. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the ride for the most part, and I think you’re certainly right when you say that the problem isn’t in the beginning or the ending but rather lies smack in the middle.

    On the plus side, Shingeki no Kyojin has a truly epic soundtrack, some gorgeous animation (when the series bothers to show it off instead of throwing around awkward still frames for no apparent reason), and a pretty cool mix of characters.
    On the other hand, I never did get properly used to the thick outlines used for the character designs, which struck me as an odd way to go since it seems to create a more cartoonish vibe, when nearly everything about this anime is supposed to be grim and bloody. That’s a minor issue though – more significantly, the scripting often came across as stilted to me, like maybe whoever was in charge of the writing forgot that you can’t just take all the lines from a manga and expect a conversation to flow smoothly when it’s transferred onto screen.
    Said scripting wasn’t helped along by the fact that at least in the first half of the series (not so much the second, fortunately), nearly every character apparently had to yell their lines about 80% of the time. This got better in later episodes, as did most of the the fairly horrendous pacing issues, but I still have to look at the overall picture and think to myself, “yeah, there were some fairly big problems there.”

    • Guy says:

      (I hope you’ll excuse me, I edited some enters into your comment to increase readability.)

      I for one think the dark lines, the “Half-done” feel actually contributes to the primal nature, to keeping things gritty. Unclean, unshaped, malshaped, half-shaped. I actually think dark lines that one finds jarring are very much at home when it comes to gritty. But I’ve noticed, now that Coppelion is airing, that many people just don’t care for them at all.

      Yeah, the yelled lines made me sad. That’s one area where I don’t want things to feel half-baked, ha! And yeah, I think part of the shouted lines was merely used to buy time, to help pad the show. Well that, and the thing I outlined in my SAO article – they tried to make us care for the characters, perhaps? But if they did try to make us care for the characters via the shouted-lines, then I can say it backfired for me and others as well from what I’ve read, as it only made the situation feel ridiculous, like a farce, rather than make me take it seriously.

  2. […] dollar question, what do I think of it? I actually thought Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan) was a darn good 16 episode series, which unfortunately was stretched to fit 25 episodes. Araki’s style is very loud, […]

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