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February 28, 2014

Let’s discuss Attack on Titan (Part 1).

This is what I get for jumping on the bandwagon late.  No, scratch that.  It’s more like I watched the bandwagon zoom past, went the opposite direction, jumped into a well, sat inside it for a few months, and then poked my head out as soon as I realized I’d seen a bandwagon in the first place.

Some months back, my brother was asking me if Attack on Titan was any good, seeing as how he hadn’t watched an episode of Naruto in two years and wanted to get back into the anime fold.  I told him that -- as far as I knew -- reactions were mixed; some people say it’s amazing, and others think it’s overrated (or just not very good).  I hadn’t seen it for myself, but when my bro found out that it was on Netflix -- thanks to Funimation, apparently -- he proposed that we watch it together.  How’d it go?  Well, I’ll just say this: we had multi-hour marathon sessions to blast through all twenty-five episodes of the first season over the course of a few days.  And we were both chanting “just one more episode”.

So yeah.  Attack on Titan?  It’s pretty friggin’ good.  But now there’s a problem: I’m gonna have a hell of a time getting back into The Walking Dead -- because everything it does, Attack on Titan does better. 

But that should be a given; seriously, have you heard the theme song?

Oh, right.  SPOILERS INCOMING for BOTH shows.  I almost forgot, because I’m so excited to be able to embed the theme song after the jump.  Also, have you seen some of the mashups?  I’m personally a fan of Attack on Ramsay, for obvious reasons.  Man, I want 3D Maneuver Gear challenges in the next season of Hell’s Kitchen.


Now, let me be fair.  I’m not the first or only one to draw the comparison between AoT and TWD, and I doubt I’ll be the last.  I saw it mentioned offhandedly somewhere on the internet before I started watching the show, and, well, it’s become one of those things you can’t un-see after you do.  Even if it wasn’t going up against one of AMC’s golden boys, you could still argue that AoT is pretty much a zombie story…except this time, the zombies are HUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGE!  But even that “minor” change in the formula makes for some massive ripples, and a show that’s overall very effective.  I don’t know when we’ll be getting more episodes, but I’m legitimately excited for more.

Distressingly enough, that’s a lot more than I can say about TWD.

I’ve been watching the show for, what, two seasons?  Like I’ve said before, I jumped into the series somewhere around the start of Season 2’s second half.  And I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every episode since -- and as much as I want to give the show the benefit of the doubt, and time for it to “find its groove” so it can be the show it’s destined to be, my patience has long since run thin.  When it’s almost time for a new episode of TWD, I don’t go “All right, let’s see what happens next!”  I go “All right, here we go again…”  That’s not the way I should feel about a show I’m tuning into with undue faithfulness, but here we are.


With all that in mind, I don’t want to use this post just as an excuse to harp on TWD.  This is a positive post, where I get to -- and want to -- talk about the things that AoT does oh so right.  It should go without saying that all of this is in my opinion; I could be wrong about a few things, and what I say might not line up with what you who’s reading this might think.  (I’m pretty sure I’ve angered a couple of Walking Dead fans already, to the point of risking an assault by a mob full of rhinos and halberds.)  But this show’s got some real juice, and I want to highlight those interesting bits however I can -- even if it means drawing the occasional comparison to TWD.  So let’s be cool about this, okay?  I want this to be a happy place.

All right, what’s the story behind AoT condensed into a single paragraph?  It goes something like this: for more than a century, humankind has been tortured and assaulted by the Titans, grotesque and often-inadvertently-hilarious giants shrouded in mystery, whose sole purpose in life is to smash junk and eat humans.  Said humans live their lives in a false sense of security, hiding behind a string of massive walls -- at least until that day, when a colossal Titan smashes through the wall and brings in its buddies to wreak havoc.  In the midst, our main character Eren Yeager watches as his mother gets eaten alive, scarring him for life -- but rather than breaking down, it drives him to join the military, get strong enough to kill all the Titans, and give humanity the chance to see the world beyond its walls.  Horrific brutality/awesomeness ensues.    
Did you know that people also compare this show to Pacific Rim?  It’s a justifiable connection.


Okay, so what’s so good about this show?  How has AoT so deftly sliced at the napes of fan’s necks and 3D Maneuvered into their hearts?  Well, I say we take this step by step, and try to figure out what’s in the show’s basement.

Those words make a lot more sense if you’ve seen the show.

1) Eren Yeager.
It should probably go without saying that Eren is the centerpiece of this show, and not just because he’s got some serious face-time in the opening.  He IS this show.  He makes it what it is.  I’m not just saying that because I’ve been harping on this point for years now; I’m saying it because he’s a character as well as a proof of concept.


Hot-blooded doesn’t even begin to describe this guy (and by the season’s end, he takes it to its logical extreme).  We get to see his progression as a character over 25 episodes, from a child who saw his mother eaten alive in a brutal Titan attack on that day, to a trainee with military aspirations, all the way to a member of the scouting party.  It’s true that he does change as a result of his myriad experiences, but that fire in his belly -- that need to survive, and fight, and make his ideal, Titan-free world -- is there pretty much from the first minute on.  Granted there are more aspects to his character, in the sense that he can be surprisingly polite, dutiful, and (get this) actually knows how to smile, but it’s that inner heat that makes him a joy to watch.

That said, AoT plays it smarter than that.  It’s not just a matter of the show screaming “BEING HOT-BLOODED SOLVES EVERYTHING!”  It helps in a number of cases, yes, but it’s laid the groundwork early for some no-doubt dizzying twists later on.  Besides that, the show -- and Eren -- seems to be out to prove that that passion can be awe-inspiring…but it’s just as likely to be horrifying.  That hot blood goes hand-in-hand with a maelstrom of rage, and you know it’s only a matter of time before someone ends up getting hurt in a big way.

This is not the face of a well-adjusted man.


I’ll get back to this another time.  But for now, let’s switch gears.

2) A strong core trio.
I guess it was somewhere around the middle of the season when I had a thought: the minds behind this show must be big Zelda fans.


The three main characters in this show are Eren, Mikasa, and Armin -- and each one of them embodies an aspect of the Triforce.  Leading man Eren embodies courage, as you’d expect; cool combat expert Mikasa embodies power; their fledgling friend Armin embodies wisdom.  They’re the ultimate soldier split into thirds, giving them each some aspect that makes them almost-superhuman…but the tradeoff is that each of them has a deficit in another aspect.  Eren has courage (and some power), but as you’d expect he’s not the most tactical-minded or far-seeing -- a fault that gets several new comrades slaughtered during an operation because he followed orders when he had the leeway to cut loose.  Also, he believed too strongly in “the power of friendship” -- another way that AoT takes a dump on conventions.

Meanwhile, you’ve got Armin, the brains of the outfit.  He has wisdom (and some courage; he’s proven himself surprisingly resilient MANY times), but it’s been said again and again that he doesn’t have the combat skill or raw force that his comrades do -- to the point where I’m having trouble remembering if he’s made a single onscreen Titan kill. 


Mikasa, on the other hand, is an interesting case.  With her skill and battle-savvy, she’s clearly got that power going for her as well as a sharp mind.  Despite that, her courage is on shaky ground; she’s no coward, but the thing that’s interesting is that she’s probably not relying on her courage as much as she is relying on -- and even trying to duplicate -- Eren’s courage.  She gives a rallying speech when she thinks that Eren’s dead, but there’s no heat behind her words; she’s cold about it, and likely just doing it because that’s what Eren would have done.  Beyond that, when she actually does summon up some passion, it tends to be a very bad thing that could get her killed…assuming she doesn’t lose the will to fight.  Her calmness in most situations makes her something very near alien, to the point where, even if there are people that respect her strength, the only ones that really accept her are Eren and Armin.

Whatever the case, all three of these characters are supremely exciting to watch.  I like seeing Eren flare up for the cause.  I like seeing Armin -- despite his almost-perpetual state of being terrified -- use his head to get himself and his comrades out of a sticky situation.  I like seeing Mikasa do…well, pretty much anything.  I like it when she gets the others to calm down, I like seeing her blame loud noises on another girl’s farting, I like seeing her slice and dice Titans, and I especially like seeing her completely lose her shit.  She and her comrades have an emotional range -- a variability that lets them take on different actions in accordance with the situation, AND the style to solve any problems in their own unique way. 


It’s almost as if I actually care about these characters.  But that’s impossible, right?

3) A just-as-strong supporting cast.
Okay.  So a while back, you may have seen that I have a problem with TWD -- that in spite of being on-board for several seasons, I couldn’t bring myself to point out a favorite character.  I did eventually after (too much) deliberation, and settled on Carol -- and then the show booted her right the hell out of the group.  Thankfully she came back in a recent episode, but it just felt like pure spite to send her packing to begin with.  A trick of the fates.

I have a similar problem with AoT, but for a completely different reason.  A good reason.  The problem in terms of TWD is that while the cast has their defining characteristics, when all’s said and done they feel like they’re part of some writhing mass of tired, sweaty survivalists -- like you could send Rick, or Daryl, or Glenn out on a mission, and they’d all handle it in the same way with the only difference being their weapon of choice…and then they’d come back to the camp to A) be tired some more, B) argue with others, C) lament over how bad things have gotten, or D) pretend like there’s some hope left for the show their world.

To pare it down for AoT, the problem is that I like everyone.


That really is the optimal situation to be in, isn’t it?  You could either go for a cop-out so you can say everyone in the cast is your favorite, or you could pick one guy at random and leave it at that.  I don’t want to do anything so haphazard, though, because there’s plenty to like about the cast, even if (admittedly) some of them deserve more screen time precisely because I’m itching to see more of them.  I want to see more of the offbeat potato-girl Sasha.  I want to see more of the stalwart and reliable Reiner.  I want to see more of shaved-head speedster Conny (incidentally my brother’s favorite). 

If I absolutely had to make a top three list, it would probably include Armin, and Eren would hang around a dubious 3rd or 4th place slot.  But if you ask me, the MVP of this show is Jean, a guy who in some 25 episodes has given me more than any given character of TWD.  He started out as a self-serving ass looking to game the system for his safety and benefit, but has consistently proven himself reliable and skilled, consistently shown that he’s a worthy part of the team, and consistently moved beyond his original persona/outlook to become a dependable (if reluctant) comrade.  If AoT is building up audience expectations and has planned to kill Jean off from the outset -- long AFTER people have gotten attached to them -- then I’d better start stockpiling tissues, aromatherapy candles, and be ready to play certain sad songs on a continuous loop.


Don’t die, Jean.  You absolutely must not die.   

4) The Titans.
Again, I’m not the first to say this, and I won’t be the last.  But I think that for the most part -- in most circumstances -- we can agree that zombies aren’t really that big a threat.  Not even scary, in some cases.  Remember the primer Dead Rising gave us: “Zombies are stupid and slow.”  It’s true that if they get their hands on you it’s a one-hit KO, and they’re more dangerous when they’re in massive hordes.  Even so, someone who plays it smart -- someone who spends day after day living with zombies, especially -- has very little to worry about unless the plot decides to make the zombies suddenly a threat again.  Or arbitrarily make its “hardened survivors” stupider. 

I still don’t know how a group of four managed to drive on a single straight and empty road right into a massive mob in the first half of Season 4, or how Carl somehow managed to walk backward into the grasp of a zombie in the next half-season.  I would have figured he knew better by that point…but then again, this is the same person that led a zombie back to the farm so it could kill Dale, so maybe I’ve just given him too much credit.


I know that the point of zombie fiction isn’t about the zombies, per se.  It’s more about making a statement -- about the human condition, about how society can break down so easily, about how we can lose everything in an instant, about how people err toward animosity and chaos when they’re left to their devices, about the will to survive and the depths we’ll go to get what we want…and yes, those are all legitimate story beats. 

There’s potential in each of them, to the point where zombie fiction is just an excuse to make claims about humanity with occasional punctuation by gore.  The problem is that zombie fiction, by and large, makes the same claims over and over again.  So what if society can crumple?  Isn’t that pretty much a given?  What does this story have to say that others haven’t said before?  Or if you’re in it for the gore, how can you make each skirmish worth a damn?

And that’s where the Titans come in.


They are a legitimate threat.  They are horrific.  They are in a position where -- if not for the walls stopping them -- they could easily wreak havoc on society at large.  (It’s worth noting, though, that even if they can and already have put humanity on the ropes, there’s still a fully-established and realized, if guarded, civilization in AoT’s canon.)  It’s very true that some of the Titans are a bit more…er, animated than others, but by and large their presence helps make for more than just an excuse for some gore.  Remember, virtually every member of the main and supporting cast is a soldier trained specifically to kill Titans with a fighting style that fuses Spider-Man with one of the Ninja Turtles -- and it’s still an even match AT BEST.   

And that’s how it should be.  The Titans are almost insufferably powerful -- they’re not just big and strong and numerous, but have little more going through their heads than murderous instincts, have variants in their ranks with even greater abilities, can only be killed with a slash to the back of the neck, and can regenerate themselves indefinitely until they’re dealt a lethal blow.  So when people are afraid of them, I believe it.  I buy into them being a threat, because people are reacting the way they should.  They can’t just waltz through forests with Titans on leashes, or offhandedly kill them with utter disinterest, or get yet another headshot or yet another decapitation.  The Titans have to be dealt with, both in militant terms and in societal terms. 

But you don’t need me to tell you that.  That’s what this series shows you in almost every episode. 


And the way it does that is…wait, how many words have I written so far?  Like, three thousand?  Well hey, that’s pretty low for me.  Maybe I can wrap this up in a reasonable amount of space.

Or maybe the file I’m looking at has about 1.6132 times more words after this.

…You know, sometimes I don’t mean to write so much.  These things just kind of happen when I get on a roll.  Anyway, I guess I’ll cut it off for now, because there’s something very important I have to say.  Something that maybe -- just maybe -- might actually be…what’s the word I’m looking for?  Oh, right, good.  Something written by me is actually good.  I’m as surprised as you are.

Till next time, then.  Look forward to Part 2 -- because you DON’T want to miss my final point.



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