Attack on Titan

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.)

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32 thoughts on “Attack on Titan

  1. I’ve heard about this show. A lot of people tell me it’s amazing. Somehow, though, I got the wrong idea of what the show is about. I thought it was set in the future, with a colony on Titan (i.e. Saturn’s moon) being attacked by giant mutants.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually had the same misconception multiple times. The title does seem to imply that it takes place on the Saturn moon. It’s a weird translation of the Japanese title, which is reportedly more directly translated as “The Advancing Giants”. At a minimum, they could have called it “Attack on the Titans”. I occasionally wonder if the title was cleverly designed to encourage geeks like us to look more closely.

      But the show really is amazing. Similar to Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, I think there are some story techniques here worth studying.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. There’s no connection with the Greek versions, other than the name. Or at least, none yet. We still have half a season left, so who knows. I wonder if the name “Titan” is something translated, or if it appears in the original Japanese. (Someone who watches the sub version might know.) Japan has its own mythological giants, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re called “oni” or something like that in the original.

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          1. (FWIW, I meant connected in the influence sense, not the narrative sense.) If it’s a translation, even subs might not have the original term. It might have been translated just like the title. It would be interesting to hear what the Japanese dialog is, maybe one could pick out “oni” or “titan” or whatever.

            At least some anime can be interesting with nouns. In Fairy Tail the spells have apparently English names since I hear the English in the Japanese dialog track. (e.g. “Fire Dragon Wing Attack” or “Ice Make Nova Bomb” — “make” spells are a class of spell) I suspect it’s like how Harry Potter and other western fantasy often uses Latin or Greek. It sounds cool. Yet is often pretty random. It’s possible they just picked a word that sounded cool and had “giant” connotations, both in the definition and in etymology.

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          2. Sorry, I did mean the sub watchers might have noticed whether it was in the audio. But definitely, a lot of western words get used, just as our stuff has eastern terms. I watched a little of the sub of Captain Harlock, and noticed that “Captain Harlock” was actually articulated.

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      1. “The Advancing Giants” “War on the Titans” would be better English titles?

        Anyway, I have a new iPhone (dropping a phone multiple times on concrete eventually results in failure) and free Apple TV. And this show is on the service!!!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t know if they’d be better from a marketing standpoint, but they’d probably more accurately reflect the story. Of course, it’s not uncommon for a lot of poetic license to be taken in titles.

          On Apple TV, cool! This series seems to be everywhere, to varying extents. I watched the first season on Netflix, and the rest on Funimation.

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    1. p.s. I do agree most arguments for a god creator work just as well for a simulation creator. (FWIW, I think the simulation hypothesis might be suspect on resource grounds, though.)

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    2. I can see that. I actually have two series now that I have to watch for new releases (this one and Legends of the Galactic Heroes), although this one should be over with next year.

      What made you think of the god / simulation argument?

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  2. I think you did a great job describing this show, very clear and concise review. I agree with the comparison to Lost, this is very much plot/reveal driven and intentionally obtuse mysteries. Looking back, I am happy I stopped watching Lost after season 1.

    I hope I don’t spoil too much, but I see Attack on Titan as one interesting variation of the Japanese Mecha theme, of being embedded inside a body that you try to control while it carries you away.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. In some ways, I’m glad I didn’t watch this until it’s almost over. Other than the first season, I watched Lost as it came out and that was six years of frustration. Although watching it afterward seems like it would be a very different experience.

      That is a spoiler, albeit an early one, and you gave a warning. And since my reply goes further, I’ll give more of a warning. SPOILER ALERT!

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      I agree it is mecha. The Japanese seems to have an endless fascination with this concept. It’s sort of like a reverse homunculus, with humans being the ghost in the machine. AoT takes the evolution beyond Neon Genesis Evangelion, which started with organic mecha. Given the discussion in season 4 about technology making Titans obsolete, I wonder if we’ll see an actual steampunk mecha before it’s over with.

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  3. Yeah, good description.
    Fun to watch, if you’re not squeamish.
    An outlandish plot though. Almost as if the manga/anime artists merely wanted a reason to draw massive amounts of horrific gore.
    The early years, before the walls, must have been sheer terror.

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  4. I think a lot of what you’re feeling in this series is a difference in background between us Westerners and the Buddhist east in general, Japan in particular.

    In the West we are practically all ethical Christians in the Pauline/Augustine sense. This goes double if we are compassionate believers in human rights and equality and is completely independent of our church-going habits. This Christianity/modern-equivalents is focused on the eternal and confounds perfection with unchanging essences. Obviously there’s a dovetail with Plato and his unchanging Forms.

    In the Buddhist world, this isn’t the case. While Christian ideals/human rights/equality/etc are gaining strength over here, they are not the cultural background. Instead, traditional virtues are acceptance and flux. The good East Asian, especially in the past, demonstrates his virtue and wisdom not by attempting to impose some eternal solution onto his problems, but bending, adapting and accepting the problems. Fillial piety is immensely important, and it is also fundamentally an acceptance of family as it is, even when it is bad.

    To be honest, I’d be surprised if the series doesn’t end with the characters making peace with their doom or, at least, learning to accept most of what torments them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting. You could be right. I did read somewhere where Isayama listed Stephen King’s “The Mist” as one of his influences, which might not bode well for a happy ending.

      That said, I haven’t seen that much fatalism in most of the anime I’ve watched. Or its influence is very subtle. Much of what I’ve watched has been shonen (aimed at teenage males). Seinen (aimed at adult men) might be more likely to reflect that cultural background.

      One big difference I have noticed is that antagonists in anime tend to be presented in a much more sympathetic manner than in western fiction. We typically get insights into the antagonist’s motivations and background. And even the vilest villains often have sympathetic moments. The whole good vs evil dichotomy doesn’t appear to be that much of a thing, which I do suspect reflects the cultural differences you’re describing.

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      1. That’s true about villains in Japanese fiction. Honestly I think Korean movies take that to an even greater extent. EVERYONE gets tragic backstories in Korean cinema.

        Btw, I didn’t mean fatalism so much as acceptance. One Punch Man is a pretty good example, and that’s a very goofy series very much aimed at teenage boys.

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          1. It seems a very western mode of thought to see the world as a place one can change to suit one’s desires. Most older cultures are more stoic and accepting. Probably the voice of experience. 🙂

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          2. The key is in knowing what can be changed and what can’t. We’re often not as good at judging that as we think. I’m in management, and I frequently encounter sentiments like, “We just have to accept that we can’t do X”. The problem is I also frequently observe when we try to do X anyway, that sentiment turns out to be wrong.

            So I’m in the camp that doesn’t want to go gentle into that good night.

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          3. Very much agreed about knowing the difference.

            I think a lot of the difference in background comes down to population density. East Asia has, for millennia now, had much higher population densities than the West. This, I believe, explains the greater emphasis on getting along and accepting roles since rabble rousers have so much opportuntity to cause trouble in the East. In the West, traditionally, we can just kick the trouble makers out into the neighboring empty river valley and be done with them.

            This is why, I think, Westerners tend to see East Asians as passive and domesticated (which is not based on nothing) and East Asians tend to see Westerners as ego-maniacal (which is also not based on nothing).

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          4. I recently read somewhere that the population densities might come from the types of soil available, when various agricultural techniques were developed (much earlier in the east than in the west), and the resulting predictability of agricultural yields.

            It’s likely what gives countries like China a long autocratic tradition, since the more consistent agricultural yields, and the resulting predictable taxable incomes, allowed for a more developed bureaucracy much earlier. In the east, bureaucracies have much deeper cultural roots than in the west, where they’re only viewed as a necessary evil of the modern world.

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          5. That’s definitely part of it. Rice is, if you have the right climate, just a very high-yield crop.

            And you are correct about the bureaucracy. In the modern world we are generally subject to democracy and bureaucracy. The democracies without bureaucracies tended to collapse when they got too big and the bureaucracies without democracy tended to ultra-conservatism. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first modern, rich states, followed in the wake of Marco Polo.

            I was actually doing some research on the 과거 (ghwa-geo) test in Korea for my Korean Education History class. This was the system of imperial examinations that got you into the bureaucracy. In Korea this test dates from the Three Kingdoms period at least, and potentially as far back as Wiman Joseon.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiman_Joseon

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Kingdoms_of_Korea

            In China it’s even older, going back to the pre-imperial Spring and Autumn Period.

            Anyway, I mention this because in the late 19th century, the US was looking into making a civil service exam. The political opposition based their argument around the idea that “we don’t want to be Chinese.”

            So clearly, people in the past shared your view.

            Liked by 1 person

          6. Interesting. Thanks!

            I’m not anti-Chinese (in terms of people or culture) by any stretch, although it is fair to say I’m anti-authoritarian, and I’m not a Stoic. My views lean more Epicurean.

            Liked by 1 person

          7. Hahaha, understood.

            That said, I think it’s very easy to overestimate how much power the East Asian despots really have/had. That bureaucracy is a difficult horse to break in many cases!

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