Attack On Titan At It’s Best: Small Victories In Humanity’s Final Hour

Attack on Titan is…. inconsistent. I really want to love this show, I want it to be a masterpiece. I don’t think any reasonable person actively wants a show to be bad, they might not care whether it’s good or not but who doesn’t want a show to be great?

And Attack on Titan has a great starting point, with it’s fantastic premise the sky is the limit. For as much as I praise ACCA, it’s premise is not exactly enticing. It’s set up is somewhat boring and the show thrives primarily on the execution of it’s themes within it’s setting, now I think it’s premise is necessary to execute on those themes but it doesn’t lend itself well to mainstream appeal.

Attack on Titan obviously does, I mean who doesn’t want to see humanity fighting for it’s very existence against massive humanoid monsters, that’s fucking awesome! So where the show falls down for me is the execution of it’s themes and ideas. It doesn’t deliver on what it promises on a consistent enough basis or at a high enough quality threshold for me to truly marvel at it. I enjoy the show but I don’t love it.

Yet I found myself drawn to the season 2 premier and then, despite not having enjoyed the first episode, it’s follow up. Because Attack on Titan has managed to deliver on occasion. Unlike many other ultra popular anime the show has actually managed to deliver on it’s own massive hype on more than one occasion. Unlike some other shows which present a cool premise and nothing else or quickly run out of steam after a good start, the show has managed to be consistently decent whilst occasionally hitting the heights its premise allows.

And thankfully season 2’s second episode did manage to deliver for me, so much so that it might be my favorite episode of the show period. To explain why that is I’m going to go through what makes the show enjoyable, what drags it down and then what makes it great when it is in fact great.

It Has Mass Appeal For A Reason

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The show has a propensity to kick ass in a pretty universally appealing way. It’s not like Jojo where one’s enjoyment is somewhat linked to buying into the absurdity of it all or any number of shows where it’s important to care individually about the characters for the action to be meaningful and interesting.  I mean fighting against extinction, for one’s life is a pretty universal fear, it’s why we love zombies so much. When nearly everyone has some base level of interest in a show you’ll have a fairly large audience.

Then, with an already established large potential audience, it pulls out something very important when trying to create a popular series, great action. Again I’m going to make the zombie comparison with AMC’s The Walking Dead, cable televisions most popular show ever. What made it so that another show on the same station, Mad Men, a show that is adored critically, consistently pulled in 7 times less average viewers than the roughly 14 million The Walking Dead did? Action. Mad Men has little to none so it doesn’t appeal to the common man who just wants some easy entertainment. This doesn’t mean said entertainment can’t be good, The Walking Dead’s first few seasons are some of TV’s finest, but just that that is not necessarily the reason most of it’s viewers tune in.

This is true in Anime as well, MAL’s top 5 shows by members all have both a cool premise and lots of action. I’m not going to comment on each shows individual quality but one cannot deny their popularity.

On top of this innate appeal Attack on Titan’s action is not limited to any specific character like I said before. We know that every on screen death leaves humanity one step closer to annihilation, especially when it’s one of the limited few who can operate the vertical maneuver equipment and thus fight back against the Titans. Because of this, regardless of how much development any one character gets before dying, their loss has an inherent weight behind it.

This coupled with the fact that the action is generally just pretty cool to watch, makes the show very easy to digest entertainment. This is just what makes the show fun to watch, Sword Art Online is also what I’d call “light entertainment” but it’s generally accepted as not being very good.

This brings us to why the show often leaves me wanting, it’s negative aspects.

Characters I Don’t Care About

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When I say that knowing the characters does not really affect the shows action I mean that. But the show, perhaps unfortunately, is not a non stop flow of action. It does take some downtime to let us know it’s characters. Remember that time they all cleaned a fucking house?

This is not to say I have an inherent problem with taking some time getting to know characters in any given show, I think it’s a very important aspect in creating a consistently great show, but Attack on Titan’s characters are usually A: Not very interesting or B: Only given development right before they die. Trying to get me to care about these characters in such a shallow manner only serves to draw attention to how they are less characters than they are plot points. Seriously, outside of Petra, name one character whom Annie kills whilst in Titan form. I know that I can’t.

We are given very few interesting characters to work with. Outside of Eren, who is OK as a protagonist, we are only ever given characters that work as complimentary to more interesting protagonists or antagonists that we never get. Annie is decent but we know shes not the leader of the titans or anything like that, with a whole army of them outside the walls and that massive one that breaks them, she never even seems like the main threat, even within her own season. Mikasa is given adequate characterization for a supporting character but she’s very much complementary to Eren. Levi is a pretty good supporting character as well but once again, mostly works in a complementary capacity. He’s meant to be this pseudo-mythical figure, one who’s titan slaying skills are so badass that they can scarcely be believed, so when we see those skills on display at infrequent and brief moments, it’s a gratifying experience.

My favorite show, Psycho-Pass, is a fine example of how to do this correctly. I doubt many people would argue that it’s characters, in particular Makishima are it’s biggest strength, regardless of how highly they rate the show. Each of Psycho-Pass’ supporting cast is given ample time to endear themselves to the audience. They all serve not only to enrich our view of the main cast but also our view of their fellow supporting characters as well. Masaoka and Ginoza’s relationship is for the most part separate to the main plot of the show, but serves to enhance both of their characters making everything that happens to them all the more engaging. And one could equate Rikako to Annie, an antagonist that does a fair amount of damage but is ultimately not the foes main threat. This is before one even gets to talking about how great the main cast is in their own right.

Take this comparison directly to Attack on Titans characters starting with Mikasa. She’s shown to have a history with Eren which, while not especially great, provides suitable motivation for her to be around Eren even this far into the future. So what else does she do? Who else does she interact with in a way that enhances their character? She doesn’t. She’s the best of the cadets when it comes to academics and is great at killing titans. Well Levi and Hange do both those things spades better than she does. She exists mostly to prop up Eren. The only other character she has a meaningful relationship with is Armin but fuck Armin.

Mikasa serves to enhance a main character that in truth isn’t all that interesting. If Akane or Kogami were as un-interesting as Eren then the strength of the supporting cast would be rendered moot. I think it’s indicative of this that my favorite episodes in the series have a distinct lack of Eren. With characters not being this shows strength any down time tends to be severely uninteresting, I’d rather see these guys be eaten than sit down with them to eat.

Annie is let down by the fact that she has already been outdone in power level and as such never really feels like she should’ve been a season closing villain. If they can’t defeat her there’s no way in hell they defeat that colossal titan who we see in the first episode. If you handled it like Rikkako from Psycho-Pass where we always know she’s not our heroes ultimate foil and that Makishima is always in the background pulling the strings, we would get this sense of building tension as we wait for Makishima to finally be confronted. When Annie is defeated we are just sort of left like “Well what’s next?” It’s all just a bit lackluster.

However with Season 2 seemingly intent on bringing some of the cadets to life by going out to their villages I eagerly await to see if they can do something as great as they did with Sasha’s quote on quote “homecoming”.

Outright Stupidity

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This show wants me to take it seriously. Very seriously. And I’d be willing to do so. But sometimes the sheer stupidity of characters and plot elements just make that impossible. It doesn’t have constantly idiotic things running throughout the show but when it does have stupid stuff it’s very apparent and very immersion shattering.

I’m not talking about the the Titan’s spastic running form or things like that, while a bit stupid I could get over that. I’m talking about characters doing things to service the plot. Or more accurately not doing things. For instance how no one noticed that Annie was the blonde titan astounds me. I mean are you expecting me to believe not one single person recognized that ass? Because I don’t. When Titan designs are so close to their human forms there’s no point in having our characters not recognize them, if we can recognize a person we’ve known for a few hours they sure as hell should recognize the person they’ve know for a lot longer.

It serves to create distance between the audience and the characters we’re meant to relate to and reminds us that we’re watching a show, this is certainly not the only example of this type of idiocy but is certainly the most egregious.

What really gets me is when the plot stretches my immersion to the point of breaking with it’s stupidity. If you want me to take a show seriously you can’t have Eren, as a child, take down 2 fully grown men and murder the shit out of them. You can’t have that scene with Sasha eating the potato, I understand the intent of a comedic tension break but it’s just too stupid, and I’m Irish so I don’t take the potato lightly. I don’t believe that any character is stupid or stubborn enough to do that if they are going to join the cadets.

The big one for me however is a more recent one. The walls are made of Titans. WHAT?! This nearly broke my sense of immersion beyond repair, it’s unfathomably stupid for a number of reasons.

  1. If they can build the walls out of Titans then how is dealing with them so difficult?
  2. Why would you build the walls out of Titans? You’re just asking for something to go wrong, if you didn’t have time, build new walls under the protection of the Titan walls then demolish the old ones.
  3. How did the wall Titans survive for the hundreds of years? Do they not need to eat? If so why do Titans risk their lives to eat humans? (Edit: after some fact checking it turns out Titans don’t actually need to eat, which raises plenty more questions but sure whatever)
  4. And this is the one I simply can’t wrap my head around, HOW IS A WALL WITH A LIVING TITAN IN IT STRUCTURALLY VIABLE?!

I didn’t have to think very hard to come up with numbers 1-3 and I didn’t think at all for number 4, it was the first question I had when I saw that Titan’s head pop out of the concrete. Plenty of shows may have logical inconsistencies if one tries to find them but if I’m thinking about it while I’m in the middle of watching your show, you’ve done something wrong.

Small Victories In Humanity’s Final Hour

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Despite these grievances I have with the show, despite me describing it as mostly “light entertainment”, I still haven’t given up on Attack on Titan just yet. Because sometimes it pulls through and when it does the show can be fan-fucking-tastic. If not for the aforementioned episode 2 of the second season I might have given up on the show ever rising above it’s general mediocrity, especially with the wall-Titan bullshit the season started off with.

So what made this episode great and why is Attack On Titan at it’s best when it focuses on the elements prevalent in it?

Maybe I’m just evil but I thoroughly enjoy when the humans are losing the fight against the titans. I feel it really gets across the hopelessness of the situation humanity is in, the chances of it surviving are slim to none given the circumstances and no magic basement key bullshit will convince me otherwise. I guess I’m saying that when people are getting slaughtered in droves Attack On Titan feels it’s most realistic and thus I’m able to take it as seriously as it wants me to.

My favorite episode (and mini arc) of the first season is the Battle of Trost. Seeing all the cadets get psyched up ready to fight the Titans and then get thoroughly obliterated was a little surprising to me. It was great, I was expecting the cadets to rise to the challenge and defeat the Titans against the odds like they would in most Shonen action series, with potentially one or two casualties to add an artificial feeling of struggle to the whole thing. But they don’t, the show portrays this battle as it would really go down, a lot of the cadets get killed, most of them are ineffectual, all hope is lost. Even when Eren (as a Titan) plugs up the wall there’s this sense that it’s only delaying the inevitable, like humanity bought a lotto ticket, scratched it and won a free lotto ticket.

It is a great representation of what to me felt like what the show was all about. Small victories in humanity’s last hour. It’s about never saying die, not giving up despite the hopeless situation, not letting our humanity slip away before the Titans pry it from our cold, dead bodies.

That last one there, that’s what made “I’m Home” great for me. It encapsulated what the series is about. Sasha gets some background, which is nice, it gives me a bit of reason to care about her character. When she goes into the village where the girl and her mother, whom is in the process of being ingested, are the only 2 remaining this theme really struck home. The girl said that the villagers left her mother behind because they knew her legs were bad and that she’s slow them down or wouldn’t make it, and so she stayed behind with her mother whom she loves.

The villagers who left this mother and daughter behind are, in a sense, already dead. They have lost their sense of humanity prioritizing basic survival instincts over helping their fellow man. If everyone becomes like that, humanity will be long extinct before the last human draws his or her final breath.

So when Sasha goes charging in with the saving of others lives her prerogative, we are relieved to see that humanity is alive and kicking even if it’s just her. Even in the face of impending death she prioritizes the life of a girl, one who is fairly likely to die young in the current world, over her own because she still believes humanity can prevail.  Saving this girl is a small victory in a war that has taken many lives, even in the episode, the second best Titan slayer out there meets his demise, which only serves to inch humankind closer to demise, Sasha saving this girl is a thin silver lining.

This episode is great because it is Attack on Titan at heart, Sasha is Attack on Titan at heart. We all want to believe we’d be Sasha in that situation, both alive and fighting back, we want to believe our humanity cannot be so easily stripped from us, that we can rise above our animal instincts. Sasha’s father tells her “You’re everything I’d hoped you’d be” and she’s everything we hope we’d be too.

 

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Thanks fro reading,

Psychime

 

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