A titan's leering face

“I will kill them all!”: Thoughts on Attack on Titan

I’ve recently rewatched the first season of Attack on Titan, the anime adaptation of the popular shōnen manga series. I originally watched these a few months after they were aired in Japan (and subsequently fan-subbed for international consumption). The series has appeared on Netflix UK with its official English dub and subtitles. As is traditional, the subs aren’t quite as sharp as the original fansubs and the dub… well, dubbing anime always loses something in translation.

On first watch Attack on Titan proved compelling viewing, at least once the usual backstory and cryptic foreshadowing had been accomplished. Here’s the short version for the uninitiated: a hundred years ago a species of creatures called titans appeared and began to feed on humanity. Up to a hundred times the mass of the average human being, the titans made short work of their diminutive foes. Humanity collectively retreated behind a nested set of titan-proof walls that enclosed arable land, farms, resource-rich mines, towns, cities and industrial bases. As of the time the series starts there has been effective peace-by-exclusion for a century, although the military reconnaissance units that venture beyond the walls rarely fare well.

The core cast comprises Eren, adoptive sister Mikami and their best friend Armin. These three make a fairly traditional shōnen cast. Eren is hot-headed and struggles to think either clearly or far in advance, but his powerful drive allows him to best many obstacles (his catchphrase “I will kill them all!” also prompts derisory laughter on-screen, for what that’s worth). Mikami is Eren’s inverse, appearing almost emotionally inert but in total control of herself and her abilities. Even as a child other children fear and respect her martial abilities and strength. She’s also “an Asian” – Attack on Titan appears loosely set in a Russo-European milieu based during the early modern period – and is probably among the last of her bloodline. Finally we have Armin: physically weak, intellectually brilliant and lacking in confidence. So you have the hothead and two natural geniuses. This is a pretty standard setup in shōnen manga and anime in my admittedly limited experience (to my shame I have watched an inordinate amount of Naruto and Bleach in the past). The hothead, of course, is the protagonist. The trope of a powerful will trumping innate ability or masterful training is a recurrent one in shōnen fiction.

Back to the story. The peace at the series’ outset is shattered with the appearance of a truly vast titan, taller even than the defensive walls, which kicks a hole in the wall at its weakest point – the gate – allowing smaller titans entrance. This accomplished, the vast titan disappears amidst the chaos. Our trio manage to survive the titan assault on the defenceless civilians within this perimeter city, although Eren and Mikami fail to save their mother (Mikami’s adoptive mother) and witness her grisly demise at the hands of a titan. Their childhood innocence thus shattered, we see the trio embark on military careers, largely pulled along by Eren’s drive. “I will kill them all!”

 


 

The titans themselves I find both fascinating and horrifying in a deep-rooted and powerful way. Without wanting to exoticise cultural differences too much I’ve generally found more disturbing and terrifying ideas in Japanese horror and popular culture (films, video games, anime etc) than in Western works in comparable genres. A fine and easily accessible example is the short manga The Enigma of Amigara Fault. It’s tremendous body horror but also hooks in to something fundamental at the heart of human psychology: a desire to find our place. I find psychological roots and visually evocative fantastical realisation a compelling combination and Japanese media tends to deliver on that better than Western media (with some notable exceptions, of course, such as some of Cronenberg and Del Toro’s films).

” Most titans also wear perpetually disturbing expressions: there’s a sense of blank jollity about them, whether they’re standing around, reaching for a human or devouring one. Their wide, toothsome smiles and eyes have a hint of amusement about them – but exhibit none of the hunger, callousness, desire or malice that might, somehow, make their actions comprehensible to people. They are quite horrible.

It’s probably this horror element that’s led to Attack on Titan working so well for me – and it continues to do so on a second viewing, despite knowing how events are going to play out. That said the large supporting cast and high body count mean that, almost a year and a half on, I’m constantly surprised by what’s in the details.

 


 

Whilst re-watching Attack on Titan I’ve also been contemplating some of the assumptions that I and others have about it and “anime” (usually referring to shōnen anime, which represents the bulk of what makes it to the West via fansubbers and official markets) in general, as well as the cultural assumptions that underpin any piece of work coming from a certain set of traditions. I’m not the right person to try and explore this in depth – I’m largely ignorant of Japanese culture and society and find Western weeaboo tendencies discomforting – but there’s a sort of melodramatic campness to shōnen anime that can be both irritating and interesting. It’s irritating because characters spend a large amount of time managing to act out based on their emotional state but not resolve any emotional problems in so doing. It’s interesting because you see these same patterns played out time and again in different pieces of fiction, which begs the question why.

(Incidentally, I’d make a distinction between this repeated calling on and failure to resolve personal emotional conflict versus the common tendency in ongoing shōnen manga to pad out storylines. This sort of thing is at its worst in ongoing anime based on manga because the anime tends to be produced more quickly than the source manga. Once the anime has caught up with the existing canonical manga material, creative teams often resort to inventing their own stories to pad out the gap between canonical story arcs, as well as padding out episodes with flashbacks such that the actual story barely advances at all – delaying the inevitable point at which it’s necessary for them to resort to the former tactic.

I think I finally stopped watching Bleach, a series I’d imagine being targeted at boys of 15-18, during a run of the former. Knowing that whatever was done to defeat whichever powerful enemies appeared would be inevitably forgotten a few months down the line was damaging to the tension of consequence, and I was frankly sick of convincing myelf otherwise. Both Bleach and Naruto (another extremely popular series but aimed at a slightly younger audience) were replete with both kinds of padding, with entire episodes often composed of flashbacks enclosed by one or two lines of dialogue between two characters squaring up to fight each other. I think on one occasion I saw three episodes on the trot that were set up like this: the first containing backstory for one character, the second containing backstory for their opponent, and the third containing some backstory that reframed what came before followed by the first punch or two. This felt a little as if Lost had decided the island storyline was over-represented and decided instead to offer the viewer even more tortuously dull flashbacks concerning characters you didn’t care about.

Attack on Titan‘s first series isn’t particularly guilty of these problems – yet – although I’ve so far spotted at least one flashback within a flashback, which is a bad sign.)

Eren is a classic example of these unresolved, repeatedly demonstrated emotional problems. He spends half his time balling up his fists and fixing the middle distance with a rage-filled gaze, swearing to destroy the titans whilst completely failing to see what’s immediately in front of him and the big picture. The series does work with this trope to some extent, with Eren’s slowly growing maturity demonstrated by moments of clarity and revelation, and his inevitable protagonist superpower seemingly part-bound to his dominant emotional state. His juxtaposition with Mikami, whilst riddled with stereotypes, is also pleasing – she’s considerably more competent and intelligent than he is. Still, I can see why the series’ approach to human emotion is going to be a huge turn-off to viewers more used to subtler approaches – and, to be honest, there’s probably more emotional nuance in an episode of Emmerdale than in the average shōnen anime.

All this contributes towards my dislike of dubbed anime. Arguments are often made that dubbed translations must artificially expand or contract lines of dialogue, inherently skewing the translation, whereas subtitles retain more of the original nuance. True or not, it’s hearing the awful emotional squawking in juvenile English that really puts me off. If I’m completely honest with myself, reading it in English whilst hearing it in a language I don’t understand makes it less embarrassing an experience.

Still, is there something more to this than the broad strokes of melodrama? I can’t shake the feeling that there is. As I noted above I’m not the right person to write with any authority on this, but I suspect that part of one explanation is that whilst shōnen fiction is full of action, adventure and peril, it is also targeted at a teenage male audience who are still themselves maturing and learning their place in the world. The emotional outbursts of characters in Attack on Titan are usually tied to some core aspect of their character and development, and characters talk a great deal about loyalty – to friends, superiors or institutions – when they’re not learning the hard way about how capricious and cruel the world and the people in it can be. The former might be rooted in supposedly highly structured Japanese society, and the latter in recent Japanese history (which has seen more turmoil and upset than most, but not all, Western nations with significant international cultural output).

Shōnen anime is not something anyone should base serious cultural analysis on, let alone just one recent example and some fuzzy memories of two others, any more than British culture could be understood by watching only The Thick of ItTrumpton or – god forbid – The Only Way Is Essex. Still, they do suggest some of the neuroses, assumptions and other aspects of ‘national character’ that drive and underpin cultural self-perception.

I’m afraid I’ll have to unball my fists and lower my rage-gaze at this point because I don’t have any grand conclusions to draw from Attack on Titan. It is, ultimately, a slick big-budget anime series that I enjoy watching thanks to its brilliantly animated and fast-paced action scenes and some genuinely disturbing horror elements. Still, contemplating the cultural conventions that stand out to me because they are unusual or different adds another layer of enjoyment. I should probably follow all of this up by reading a book on Japanese youth culture or something.

 


 

(A small aside: Jonathan McCalmont recently wrote about 2004 Japanese film 2×5. One quote stuck with me:

“Cinema originating in cultures with low-levels of emotional disclosure is far more subtle in its emotional topography and so audiences are forced to pay closer attention and approach scenes in different ways in order to catch the poses that might allow them to infer the presence of an internal state or collective vibe. The subtlety of character beats in Japanese film also explains its long-standing relationship with a European art house tradition in which directors seek to deliberately attenuate their characterisation in a bid to create characters that seem more complex and ambiguous.”

If Japanese cinema has historically demonstrated such subtle ’emotional topography’, perhaps the melodrama and emotional acting out widely exhibited in media aimed at teenagers is an extreme response to this? I know, I know: go pick up that book, Shaun.)

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Comments
6 Responses to ““I will kill them all!”: Thoughts on Attack on Titan”
  1. Jonathan M says:

    Hi Shaun :-)

    5×2 is actually a French film… it just happens to be rather obtuse!

    I remember reading somewhere that the Japanese written language is so complex that Japanese people often lack the linguistic skill to read a newspaper before they enter their teens. I’m not sure if that’s true but I wonder if something similar isn’t going on in their culture as Japanese films aimed at an adult audience are nothing like the simplistic and melodramatic stuff you find in works like Attack on Titan, which are quite explicitly aimed at kids and young adults.

    I also suspect that it may have something to do with the fact that Japanese film has its roots in a time when Japanese culture was more emotionally reserved than it is now whereas anime is (a few notable exceptions aside) an almost entirely post-WWII phenomenon.

    I dunno… you’d have to ask a Japanese person :-)

  2. Shaun CG says:

    Oh bugger, that’s embarrassing! I saved the quote in my notes then evidently forgot the context of the surrounding writing. Thanks for the correction. :)

    It is a bit embarrassing to quiz Japanese friends on one particular part of Japanese culture – all the more so when that part is aimed at young men, whereas my Japanese friends are all women. But next time I see one of them I probably will ask the question.

  3. Great piece of writing.

    The show is pure shite though.

    Having said that though, I have now watched some Gurren Lagan, Sword Art Online and a tiny bit of Kill La Kill and I can see why Attack on Titan is viewed postively.

  4. Shaun CG says:

    Haha, thank you! I suspected I wouldn’t be disabusing you of your opinion, but your comments did drive me to revisit this and think about it a little deeper.

    I’m not familiar with Gurren Lagan, Sword Art Online or Kill La Kill myself. My more devoted dabblings with TV anime largely ended some years ago, and I’ve not watched much new material since.

    If you would like to check out some anime that I genuinely regard as good, then I’d suggest Dennou Coil (a great piece of SF focused on augmented reality and aimed, perhaps most surprisingly, at a precocious ‘tween’ audience), FLCL (a batshit coming of age story which can be ‘very Japanese’ but also captures the feeling of being a teenager surprisingly well – considering that it features giant robots bursting out of foreheads and space pirates twatting people with bass guitars), and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (I like pretty much all of the GITS material but Innocence is my favourite).

    I didn’t get on with it myself, but you might find Jormungand interesting. It basically concerns the escapades of an arms dealer and her crew, but does a number of interesting things: its protagonist is emotionally inert rather than melodramatic; the character the show really revolves around (aforementioned arms dealer) is a powerful and commanding woman who is never reduced to or undermined by her femininity; and the show’s setting does an okay job of reflecting the political ambiguity and the moral vacancy of, well, being an arms dealer.

    I found the show a bit dull overall, and it can’t resist moments of absurd action despite its realpolitik concept (e.g. occasional gunfights with guys stood out in the open and not getting shot, although most of the show’s action does make significant concessions to realism). Still, I really liked many elements of it and wish I had found it more engaging.

  5. Jonathan M says:

    I suspect that your female Japanese friends would be deeply unimpressed :-) I get the impression that anime is very much a niche interest and asking them about a TV series that revolves around teenagers getting eaten by enormous naked men is probably on a par with asking them for advice on where to buy the sharpest katana.

    Having said that… seeing as we’re on an anime recommending kick, I recommend Eden of the East, Paranoia Agent and Watamote. Watamote is an excrutiating sitcom all about social anxiety, Paranoia Agent is a psychological thriller and Eden of the East is a vaguely cyberpunky adventure series about inter-generational conflict and artificial intelligence.

  6. Shaun CG says:

    Haha, well they’ve been fairly polite and friendly on the topic so far – perhaps because when I have asked in the past I’ve talked about the more interesting stuff rather than shounen bilge. So asking about Attack on Titan might be tricky! ;)

    I also get the impression that anime is somewhat niche (partly the juvenile approach of so much of it, also because of what I’ve heard about various production companies struggling for cash / audiences), but the fact that – like manga – there are distinct genres for more demographics than are imaginable in a European or US context does suggest that watching anime is somewhat common universally, at least at some part of someone’s life as a young adult. That’s complete supposition of course, but Gundam does have more cultural currency in Japan than Mickey Mouse does, right?

    Thanks for the recommendations; I shall definitely look into those.