11:00 - 2nd March 2016, by David West

Attack On Titan

Japan’s filmmakers have a patchy record when it comes to adapting anime and manga into live action movies. The challenges they face are many – manga artists are limited only by their imaginations and talent, anime characters can defy gravity without expensive special effects and, most important of all, a manga or anime can unfold its story over a much, much longer time period than any feature film.

Even just season one of the Attack On Titan anime has a running time of 600 minutes, versus 98 minutes for this movie, the first of two. Inevitably that means chopping and changing the story to create a plot that resolves much faster than the source material. Rather than try to squash the anime’s storyline into two films, director Shinji Higuchi and screenwriters Yusuke Watanabe and Tomohiro Machiyama have chosen to create something entirely new for the AOT movie. That’s a brave choice, but one unlikely to sit well with fans of the franchise.

The basic premise is the same – the last remnants of humanity live inside a walled city to protect them from the ravenous man-eating titans that stalk the land outside. That’s pretty much where the similarities to Hajime Isayama’s creation end. The world building is completely different. The original is set in a European locale, where Mikasa is the only Japanese character and technology is far less advanced than our own. The anime has a hint of steampunk about it, with the Omni-Directional Movement Gear powered by gas canisters; otherwise characters have to travel on horseback.

In contrast, the movie is set in the aftermath of a global nuclear conflict and the city is littered with the remains of crashed helicopters and unexploded bombs. The horses of the anime are replaced by trucks and tanks. And everyone is Japanese. There is no Survey Corps at the beginning of the tale, and the military police who control the city are dressed in Nazi-style uniforms. Despite that very provocative design choice, the script offers no exploration or critique of fascism. It’s almost as though the design department thought, ‘The Third Reich had cool outfits, let’s copy those,’ with no thought at all for everything they connote.

The film has a very different colour palette to the anime, favouring a washed out blue / grey look, particularly when the titans are on screen. The bright, vivid style of the anime helped to accentuate the notion that the titans were aberrations that could strike at any moment, rampaging through the city in the middle of a sunny day. The movie’s muted visuals suggest a more conventional horror approach, washing out the colour and joy from the world.

Some characters share familiar names with their manga / anime counterparts, but their personalities and motivations have changed and there are several new faces unique to the film. Eren (Haruma Miura) is still the protagonist, but the furiously angry young man of the anime is replaced by someone who seems like a spoiled brat at the outset, someone who can’t hold down a job because it’s all so dull. Eren’s best friends are Armin (Kanata Hongou) and Mikasa (Kizo Mizohara), but the latter in particular is unrecognizable from the manga. Armin’s principal role is to either provide or receive exposition. Amongst the new characters, the most prominent is Shikishima (Hiroki Hasegawa), the most skilled titan slayer in the Survey Corps. It’s tempting to compare him to Levi from the manga, but where Levi is cool and calculating, Shikishima is smug and sneering, and at the halfway mark it is not at all clear what motivates him.

After a colossal titan breaches the outer wall of the city, the titans shamble inside to unleash a tide of bloodshed. This is the most effective sequence in the entire film, and surprisingly gory as the giants chomp and chew on the locals. In the aftermath of the attack, Eren enrols in the newly formed Survey Corps and two years later joins a mission to attempt to plug the hole in the outer wall.

Director Higuchi has plenty of experience with tokusatsu special effects from working on the Gamera series and Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. The best sequences in AOT use the time-honoured tradition of actors stomping through miniature sets. However, the blending of elements is not always seamless and the sequences of the Survey Corps members using their Omni-Directional Movement Gear never come close to the excitement and intensity of the anime.

The later action scenes never quite match up to that initial onslaught and are there are some jarring shifts in tone. One sequence sees burly Survey Corps member Sannagi (Satoru Matsuo) throw a huge titan over his shoulder using a judo technique, which looks ridiculous. There are a handful of gaping plot holes too – on the mission to plug the breach in the outer wall, deep inside titan territory, why is no one on watch during the night, allowing the titans to sneak up on the Survey Corps? The technology is another issue. In the manga, it made some sort of sense to fight the titans with swords. But the movie is set in a world of tanks and, crucially, really big bombs. Swords no longer seem quite so state of the art. There is a suggestion that the titans are the product of the nuclear war, which reinforces the sense that the AOT movie wants to be Godzilla, although the titans lack the iconic impact of the King Of The Monsters.

It’s hard to see how any filmmaker could have condensed AOT down into two feature films without leaving out a lot of material, but Shinji Higuchi’s radically reworked movie may enrage fans. The film works best when it ramps up the horror and carnage, but the script stumbles with weak characters. Not the titanic triumph it should have been.
SCORE: 2.5/5
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