If you’ve ever perused the anime section of your streaming services, you’ll recognize this one. Even more than Fullmetal Alchemist, it’s one of the most popular series in the world. It’s billed as dark fantasy, and they’re not kidding about the dark part, but I found it to more often have a science fictional attitude. For example, the protagonists make progress by systematically studying their enemy, and fight against them using technology. And many of the events often pay at least lip service to thermodynamic realities. But there’s no denying that it often veers into fantasy.
About a century before the events in the story, something happened in the world, and a civilization finds itself behind walls, walls apparently designed to protect humanity against large humanoid creatures called “Titans”. There are three main concentric walls surrounding a good amount of country, with the seat of government in the innermost wall. There are also a number of gateway cities surrounded by their own walls. The technology of this society seems roughly equivalent to ours in the 1800s, with exceptions.
The main thing about the Titans is that they eat humans. And although they appear to have disturbingly human faces on their large awkwardly formed bodies, they seem to be mostly mindless. They can detect humans and are drawn to them. Although the Titans desire to eat humans, it’s not for reasons of nourishment, as they don’t digest the humans, but eventually vomit out the remains. The Titans get their energy from sunlight, which makes them mostly dormant at night. No one knows what they are or where they come from.
Titans are very hard to kill. They are able to rapidly recover from any injury, regrowing limbs or other body parts that are destroyed. Their only vulnerability appears to be at the nape of the neck. When that area is sufficiently destroyed, they die and rapidly disintegrate. As a result, soldiers who fight them use something called ODM (omni-directional mobility) gear, which allows them to move around in a manner very similar to Spider-Man, swinging between buildings and trees, and using blades to attack the Titans. However, when the soldiers are in open fields, their ODM gear is of very limited value.
While the ODM gear gives the soldiers something of a fighting chance, the Titans are a fearsome enemy. In any encounter, the soldiers will typically suffer appalling losses. One of the first scenes is a group of scouts returning from outside of the wall with signs of battle trauma on their faces. We learn in the series that this is a very typical scenario.
At the start of the story, Eren Yeagar is a boy living near the outer wall. His close friend Armin has read about aspects of the wider world, giving Eren a hunger to see that world. So he chafes at being a prisoner inside the walls, and disdains anyone who simply wants to stay comfortable within them. He dreams of being a scout, one of the soldiers who explore outside the walls, despite the stark casualty rates associated with that service. Eren has anger management issues, and so gets in a lot of fights, often ones he can’t win. His friend and adopted sister, Mikasa, frequently has to protect him. Mikasa is a talented fighter and fanatically devoted to Eren. The story focuses on these three characters, although like a lot of anime, the series features a large community of characters.
At the beginning of the series, two new Titans show up, very different from the others. One, called the Colossus Titan, is taller than the walls, and the other is called the Armored Titan. These new Titans appear to act with intelligence. They are able to breach the outer wall, resulting in a large portion of humanity dying, with surviving refugees scrambling to take refuge behind the second wall. One of the casualties is Eren’s mother. He watches as a Titan eats her. This engenders a boundless hatred in him for the Titans. The result is that he and his friend enlist in the military to fight against them.
It’s difficult to go much further without getting into spoilers. In many ways, this series feels a lot like the old TV series Lost. Similar to that show, the situation at the beginning of Attack on Titan is filled with mystery, and the answers come maddeningly slow. Who are the Titans? Where do they come from? As the story progresses, we slowly learn more about them, and discover that the story and world we’re watching are very different from our initial impressions.
I mentioned above that this series is dark. And it is at multiple levels. It definitely isn’t suitable for anyone squeamish about blood, gore, violence, or crude language, nor for anyone who doesn’t want to see impossible ethical quandaries. The story is never far from outright horror. I’m not a fan of the horror genre, mainly because the message is often that bad things are going to happen and nothing can be done about it. That appears to be the message the world is sending the characters in this story.
The difference here is that many of the characters simply reject that message and fight anyway. And through agonizing sacrifice, they gradually begin to take back their world. It makes the few victories in the series, when they come, intensely satisfying.
But caution is warranted, because the series isn’t over, although the manga on which it’s based is reportedly complete. There are four seasons, but only the first half of the fourth and final season has been released so far. The final half is scheduled to come out in 2022. Things are looking pretty bleak at the midpoint of season four, with no guarantee that this time there will be an inspiring rebound. But then a good storyteller like Hajime Isayama, the author and artist of the manga, wouldn’t have it any other way at this point in the story.
As noted above, the main character, Eren, has serious anger management issues, and so isn’t particularly likeable. I almost gave up on the series at the beginning due to that. There’s also a lot of seemingly nonsensical things that happen early on. But the cast of characters gradually increases, making Eren just one of many to empathize with. And the nonsensical events eventually get explained, although some of the explanations don’t happen until well into the third season.
All of which is to say, if the premise sounds interesting, don’t give up on the series too early. I’d power through at least the first eight episodes before giving up.
Have you watched the show? If so, what did you think? (Note: if your answer involves spoilers, please give a warning for anyone who doesn’t want to read them.)