ANIME & MANGA - Review
15:00 - 1st November 2014, by David West

Attack On Titan Part 1: Episodes 1-13

In a time when the last remnants of mankind have been forced to retreat into a walled city in the face of the implacable and insatiable Titans, Eren Jaeger longs to take the fight to the foe and experience the world that lies beyond the walls that keep humanity safe. After the Titans breach the outermost of the three walls that protect the citizens, leading to mass panic and huge casualties on the human side, Eren and his friends Armin and Misaka join the military as cadets. Eren is determined to land a spot in the Survey Corps (the most prestigious but dangerous posting) driven by a burning need for revenge against the enemy driving mankind inexorably towards extinction.

The anime adaptation of Hajime Isayama’s best-selling manga might well be the most eagerly anticipated release of 2014 here in the UK. At the helm is Tetsuro Araki, who previously brought another massively successful manga to the screen with Death Note and who proved he can handle gore and horror with High School Of The Dead. And there is no shortage of blood and carnage in Attack On Titan. The Titans exist only to devour humans, and while the series is not exceptionally explicit – the camera never lingers too long on the Titans’ victims as they are devoured – the violence is visceral and unsettling. The Titans are genuinely horrifying, all the more so for their sheer ghastly banality. They are huge, nude, genital-less humanoids, awkward in their movements and often smiling vacantly as they go about their gruesome business of slaughter. Whatever nightmare corner they emerged from in Isayama’s mind must be a dark place indeed.

Araki’s direction of the battle sequences is superb. The humans fight their towering enemies using the Three Dimensional Manoeuvring Gear – a device that lets the user catapult themselves into the air in order to attack the Titans’ sole weak spot on the back of their necks. The scenes of the characters hurtling through the city are brilliantly rendered, throwing the viewer into the thick of the action and conveying both the thrill and fear of travelling at speed in a hostile environment. The Three Dimensional Manoeuvring Gear requires some considerable suspension of disbelief – besides the question of how the user aims the grappling hooks, in reality anything that put that much sudden pressure on the spine would result in an instant broken back.
As skilfully as he handles the action, Araki is on less solid ground when it comes to dialogue and interpersonal relationships. There are attempts at comedy when Eren and co are in boot camp, but these scenes feel at odds with the overall pitch black mood and are clumsy and forced. Much more convincing are the scenes of characters reacting to the horror that confronts them when the Titans attack. Admittedly, in some of these instances, Araki risks overplaying his hand by letting the shots run long, but it is such a departure to see an action series where the characters are overwhelmed, emotionally and psychologically, by the violence around them that these sequences really pack a hefty punch to the gut. And it’s easy to sympathise with the cadets as their minds threaten to shut down in sheer terror.

Eren Jaeger (his last name seems to be derived from the German for ‘hunter’) is a prickly proposition as the central character. He’s angry, all the time. It’s not without good cause – seeing the people you care about become Titan chow would make anyone mad – but it means the heart of the series is a teenage bundle of rage and hate. The other two main characters are Armin, who’s not very tough but is incredibly smart, and Misaka, who is devoted to staying by Eren’s side. Judging by the architecture of the town and the abundance of western names, the series has a European setting. Misaka is the last person of Japanese descent left in the walled city and, tellingly, is far and away the toughest, most physically capable of all the cadets training to fight the Titans. The script makes it clear there is something inherently special about Misaka because she’s Japanese. Make of that what you will.
Of the supporting cast, the drill sergeant who trains Eren, Armin and Misaka is a stereotype straight from Full Metal Jacket, yelling at the cadets and calling them worthless maggots from the offset. The other cadets are given plenty of personality to make them interesting, but this is very much George R.R. Martin territory where just because someone seems important, that doesn’t meet they’re safe. Flashbacks are a recurring storytelling device, filling in either character details for the leads or revealing events hitherto unseen but important in the plot. The script often uses internal monologues to bring the characters’ motivations and thoughts to the surface. This can be a clumsy way of transferring information, but you’ll be too distracted by the bloodshed and chaos to care.

The best of the animation is in the Titan battles and the shots that follow the soldiers as they careen through the air. There is some use of still frames but not so extensively that it becomes distracting. Clearly the budget was focussed on the scenes that would generate maximum visual impact. The English dub cast is a strong one. Bryce Papenbrook is suitably intense as Eren, Trina Nishimura is cool and commanding as Misaka, while the supporting players all scream and wail in fear as the situation demands.

While Attack On Titan is never going to be in the running for Feel Good Series Of The Year, the combination of horror, action and fantasy makes for a breathtaking, gut-wrenching experience. If you’re squeamish about a show in which bad things happen to good people, Eren’s adventures will likely leave you scarred for life. A titanic, thrilling smash.
SCORE: 4/5
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