Questionable humanity: A Review of Attack on Titan Season 1

I having been feeling the need to exercise my thinking muscles lately and just finished watching the anime series “Attack on Titan,” which is an adaptation of a manga series by the same name. I really enjoyed the show, hence, a review.

A century before the story there appeared in the world titans, which are tall (ranging from four to sixty meters) humanoid figures, usually masculine in shape but lacking in genitalia, that are attracted to areas with high population densities, breaking into towns and eating as many humans as they can get their hands on. Thus far, it appears that the titans are instinctive and unthinking, impossible to communicate with and difficult to bring down since the only way to kill them is to cut into a small spot at the base of the titan’s neck. Titans do not need humans as food and nothing is known about their energy sources or how they communication or where they came from. The titans appeared and multiplied, driving the remnants of humanity behind three concentric sets of walls, Maria, Rose, and Sina, which are commonly thought to have been sent by God to protect humanity.

Human society militarized to confront the threat of the Titans and recruits are divided between the Scout Regiment, which operates beyond the walls, the Garrison Regiment, which mans the cannons on the walls, and the Military Police, which is a position of luxury and privilege. The military provides both internal and external security, as well as enforcing the will of the Monarchy that rules over this new kingdom. In addition to rifles and cannon, all soldiers are trained in the use of 3-D Maneuvering devices that use gas-powered launchers to fire pegs attached to wires in every direction, quickly pulling the wielder in its wake. In enclosed spaces, this gives the soldiers an opening to get around behind the titan and strike at its neck. The device give the human soldiers a chance against titans, it does not give them an edge.

The story opens when Eren Yeager’s hometown in the Shiganshina on Wall Maria is attacked in an apocalyptic event when a sixty meter tall titan appears at the wall and breaks it open, allowing a horde of smaller titans in. Almost everyone in the city is slaughtered and the main characters, Eren, Mikasa Ackerman (Eren’s foster sister), and Armin Arlert (his friend), just children, are forced to flee with the survivors behind Wall Rose. The influx of population into the smaller wall circuit causes famine and social unrest, while our protagonists sign up to join the military with the goal of destroying all the titans.

Each character deals with the training and war against the titans in his or her own way. Eren is an implacable enemy, aggressive but lacking in sense. Mikasa is, for reasons learned in the show, completely dedicated to Eren, but is a much better fighter. Armin is a genius, but the weakest of the three. These characters are the fulcrum upon which the story rests, but they are joined by a larger cast of characters from their cadet corps and future comrades-in-arms as elements within the military buck the innate conservatism of the political apparatus in order to try to win the conflict with the titans rather than waiting, huddled within the walls.

Fair warning, the following portion of the review will include spoilers.

There are a lot of things I like about “Attack on Titan,” including the visuals, the world premise, and the message about fighting together as a team against implacable, incommunicable threat. Nevertheless, I grew to dislike the main character for reasons that make him perfect for the role he comes to fill as a human who can become a titan. Eren has anger issues, but right from the outset he struggles to hold himself back or control his emotions, throwing himself into conflicts without heed for the consequences. In a sense this is also proves his greatest virtue since he is utterly and foolishly fearless, which wins Mikasa for him as a devoted companion. Fortunately for Eren, Mikasa is also around to protect him a good amount of the time. The lack of control and rage issues also makes it appropriate for Eren to be the questionably-human titan, though, so far, the show has not fully grappled with Eren’s acceptance that he is one of the monsters he loathes for having killed his mother.

Instead, it has broached this topic by way of his reluctance to become a titan and the fear felt by everyone around him, which further isolates Eren from humanity. The trope of realizing someone is different and then metastasizing and calcifying that difference through isolating the other, even if the reaction is completely natural, is well done, if banal on the most basic level. Where “Attack on Titan” succeeds is in surrounding Eren with characters who work to overcome the fear and try to understand Eren, encouraging him to retain his humanity even while the government wants to turn him into a pariah. The high casualty count built into the world further challenges Eren to understand what he can and cannot do because the people who come to treat him as an actual human keep dying.

I don’t like Eren, though. He has just one speed and for all of his flailing, is a passive actor, with the world happening to him (becoming a titan excepted). It is possible to pity the guy, though he would probably get mad and try to punch you, but Eren’s plight both serves as a microcosm of the challenges faced by humanity and the struggle of controlling the one power he has thrust upon him, typically, by someone else. Mikasa is a talented fighter and Armin is one of the (seemingly few) humans dedicated to the combination of long-range creative thinking and science that they hope will find a solution to the titan problem; in contrast, Eren is a blunt instrument, fine in small doses, but boring and passive.

It is somewhat rare for me to really like the principle character. Instead, I tend to latch on to the supporting characters. In “Attack on Titan,” that mostly means that I like Mikasa and then grow to like Captain Levi, who is basically a super-charged version of Mikasa. Levi, in particular, borders on being a Mary Sue in that he is the best warrior on the human side, but I enjoy his dour nature nonetheless, and on the opposite side of the spectrum, I’ve come to appreciate the intellectual Armin, who balances out the violence of Mikasa and Levi. There is a sense throughout the show that one of the challenges humans face is how to overcome the urge to rely on individualism and thereby to utilize everyone’s strengths and protect everyone’s weaknesses, but that this relatively simply concept is incredibly difficult to achieve–particularly since even as soldiers fight in teams, each person is fundamentally alone.

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