Monday, November 25, 2013

Attack on Titan (TV) (2013)

Attack on Titan

In the world of Attack on Titan (or Shingeki no Kyojin, lit. "Advancing Giants"), humanity has been decimated by the emergence of "Titans," giant humanoid creatures of unknown origins, who seemingly exist solely to eat human beings. The remnants of humankind have taken to living within a system of walls meant to keep the Titans out. Soldiers are trained to defend cities within the walls against Titans, and some humans are also dispatched to explore outside the walls, but even the most highly trained are basically resigned to the reality that any encounter with Titans is going to end horrifically for the human forces.

The tone for this anime, based on an ongoing manga by Hajime Isayama, seems set at the end of the first episode, when some Titans very suddenly breech the walls, and, in the ensuing unopposed massacre, devour significant characters in graphic fashion. The violence on this show is typically sudden and graphic, the humans typically powerless to prevent it. The indiscriminate carnage, and the disturbingly humanlike gleeful visages of the otherwise unknowable Titans inflicting it, is unsettling yet, at the same time, exhilarating. The characters are not especially interesting enough for viewers to feel invested in them, but still the sense that everyone is fair game to be chewed in half at any moment is enough to keep one glued to the TV screen, if only in dark anticipation of who is going to die next and how.

Also exhilarating are the action sequences that show off the human soldiers' special maneuvering equipment—a gas-powered harness with grappling hooks—which allows the wearer to swing through urban areas at high speed. Think Spider-Man with a motor, and with hands free to wield swords. The show makes heavy use of mostly CG-animated scenes of the camera chasing the characters as they maneuver between and above buildings at breakneck speeds in order to strike at their towering foes (or, at least as often, to retreat or rescue). The cost of animating these sequences is offset, however, by the show's reliance on pans across mostly still images for less involved moments. That even includes still images of characters having conversations without anybody's mouth moving. It's a worthy compromise, certainly, but it's just goofy how drastically the show shifts back and forth between looking awesome and looking absurdly cheap.

What's most unfortunate about Attack on Titan is that the series kind of peaks with the end of the fifth episode (of 25), before it somewhat backs down from its own promises of fearless and unrelenting gruesomeness, becoming instead a disappointingly fairly conventional shonen action story, laced with a few horror elements. There is still the occasional shocking death, but there are also characters who seem superhumanly skilled and invincible, and there are even characters who come back to life via ridiculous plot twists. There are fight scenes where the heroes get knocked down, then have to draw on some vague inner strength/rage/resolve in order to, essentially, enter their "power up" mode, whereupon they overwhelm the enemy. The pace of the show is also slower than its first few episodes might suggest, and things quickly start to drag whenever there are no Titans around. Too much time is consumed conveying what cliche bureaucratic tools the humans' leaders are. Worst of all are the slapstick comedic elements—the eccentric scientist character, for example, who irrepressibly geeks out at any chance to study the Titans—which just seem horribly out of place in a series where the main characters regularly witness their comrades getting eaten alive. Or, no, maybe worst of all is the plot twist where humanity finds its secret weapon in the form of a human-controlled Titan to fight against the other Titans. One of the more compelling aspects of Attack on Titan is the asymmetrical nature of the combat between the monstrous Titans and the puny humans swinging around with their gear, so when that gives way to Titan-versus-Titan slugfests, I lose interest in the proceedings.

As the Attack on Titan manga is still ongoing, without a complete story ready for adaptation, this is another one of those cases where the anime simply ends unresolved. The story's shortcomings are such that I can't really see myself going out of my way to pick up the manga to see what happens next. I can't say I understand how this property has become such a runaway phenomenon (maybe because the anime was handled by the same director, Tetsuro Araki, as Death Note?), but I found the show entertaining enough, through its 25 episodes, to be worthwhile—broadly conventional, yet still able, by its extreme nature, to surprise on occasion, or at least consistently captivate with its dangled potential to shock.

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