When they announced the Shingeki no Kyojin anime, my first thought was nah, that’ll never look right. I wasn’t a manga reader – no hipster points for me there – but Titans got mentioned quite a bit before the anime, so I’d seen the distinctive art style. Based on that, I thought that the uncanny way of making the Titans look odd by drawing their faces in a jarringly realistic – yet ugly – way that derives from traditions of horror manga simply wouldn’t translate well to the screen. Anime after all by necessity simplifies manga designs, and having recently finished MÄR, my impressions on that front were not favourable.
But I was being premature in coming to this conclusion – which struck me when I saw that animation was being taken care of by Production I.G., who since Stand Alone Complex and especially with Seirei no Moribito have impressed me by putting out some of the most amazing animation ever seen in weekly production. Strictly speaking, the animation studio is Wit, but unless I.G. later decide on a complete transformation, Wit is basically a subdivision of that studio incorporating a merger with a manga publisher. And I.G. once again have pulled out the stops and made something fluid, beautiful and highly distinctive. And any fears those creepy faces wouldn’t translate well? Dispelled within instants, as the high level of detailing made them just as uncanny to look at in animated form. That said, the one famous sequence of a Titan doing a silly run down a street and kicking an unfortunate human away was so terrible that it has been correctly ridiculed, and really should have been re-done.
What, then, has made Titans the smash hit of the season, the next big thing in anime all over the world and certain to have a continuation within the next few seasons? Well, in my view it has done that unique thing that anime does so well – started with a stupid, exaggerated, crazy premise and then developed it so far, so sincerely and with such earnest characters that it forces you to ultimately take it seriously.
Attack on Titan managed to simultaneously stand out as something quite strange and different in anime and recall many familiar tropes. Of course, giants – and giant robots – are nothing new in anime. Nor are they unusual in wider media – the Jack the Giant Killer film only recently attempted to revive the old fairy tale. But Attack on Titan draws on old mythology to create a tense, Germanic world where humanity exists in tenuous safety from giants (as one fansub group insisted on pointing out, more accurately Ettin / Eoten / Jötunn than the Titans of Greek Myth, being lumbering, man-eating monsters) behind huge walls. There is a direct link here with the mythology of giants being kept outside huge walls, as can be seen in a browse of the complex mythology of Gog and Magog in Abrahamic religions, especially when conflated with Gogmagog. But these are not common elements in anime, and what Titans did so well was to meld the old stories – primarily the Norse myths – with a dark, early steam-age Germanic setting and distinctly anime high-action combat scenes. The result is a strange but instantly recognisable setting with weird but familiar monsters that functions as a remarkable set of allegories – reportedly, youths in
have even found it resonates with their fear of their closed community being
invaded by monolithic Mainland China.
Why it works, though, is that the human element is not forgotten. The story opens in a prologue to the main action, where our main character Eren Jaeger is given reason to truly hate the Titans. With his childhood friends – delicate but highly intelligent Armin and fiercely protective and highly capable only-half-Asian-in-the-known-world Mikasa, he goes through a terrible ordeal, but it is one that shapes the course of the rest of their lives. Once old enough (yes, sadly their cute kiddy designs are left behind, leaving me similar regrets to Tales of Graces), they join the ‘survey corps’ and begin to train to fight the Titans. But a series of strange memories marks Eren as something special, and he brings a unique weapon to humanity’s arsenal. No sooner is it revealed, though, than it becomes obvious he is not alone in it, and the abnormal Titans who don’t act like dumb animals may have their own secrets, too – but how is Eren involved? What did his father do to him?
The pace is slow, overall. In terms of the greater story, not a whole lot actually happened in the 25 episodes of this season. A lot of major battles took place, and many lives were lost, but generally the show was good at putting distractions in the way of the pursuit of the real plot. Eren knows that he needs to investigate the basement of his old home, but difficult training, invasions, trials, an enemy with the same power as him and long scenes of internal conflict mean that we really need another few seasons to actually get anywhere. Luckily, unlike what happened with possibly the show’s closest kin in terms of mood and aesthetic, Claymore, it’s certain that this adaptation has been successful enough to warrant a continuation – and soon.
Plus, as seen in a recent trip to Japan, the show is very easy to provide merchandise for, because it happily bridges serious and daft. You can have fearsome realistic busts and cutesy, silly Colossal Titan Nendoroids. I enjoyed a coffee mug that as you drink reveals the Colossal Titan peering over the wall at you, and a T-shirt with his face printed inside so that you can pull the whole thing up over your head to have his face there. The Body Worlds-inspired fleshy aesthetic of the enemy Titans is instantly recognisable, as are some of the weirder normal Titans. And the series also easily tapped the fangirl market, with shelves and shelves of yaoi already available over there – though I have to say this whole Levi x Eren thing is a bit…unlikely to me (maybe I identify too much with Eren), and I’m sad pretty lil’ Armin seems to be mostly ignored there! C’mon EruAru!
Titans didn’t do everything right, but what it did was so compelling and entertaining that I was happily swept along.