Review: Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) Season One

by sketchyfeminist

"Can I come in?" Screencap of a skinless titan in the first episode of Attack on Titan.

“Can I come in?” Screencap of a skinless titan in the first episode of Attack on Titan.

Hey, it’s been a while!

Blah blah excuses blah blah life stuff.

Anyway, let’s talk Attack on Titan.

Hanging out at the various Internet fandom hubs that I do, I had been hearing a lot lately about how Attack on Titan is the best thing since bread became sliced bread and then that sliced bread became toast with butter and jam. (Or cinnamon sugar. I strongly recommend toast with butter and cinnamon sugar.)

So, when the Boyfriend and I were trying to decide on an anime to watch together, I was all, “Hey, Attack on Titan. That seems like the In thing to do right now. And also I will finally be able to understand the slash pairings I keep coming across on fanfiction sites.” So we watched it. And now I am reviewing it. Note that I am reviewing the anime as it is available on Netflix (which means no retrospective or extras), and that I have not read the manga.

Minor SPOILERS ahead.

Attack on Titan
Directed by Tetsurō Araki
Based on the manga by Hajime Isayama

The Deal: Humanity lives behind walls. Titans live outside the walls. Titans are naked, junkless, sometimes skinless giants who eat humans. Sometimes they encroach within the walls in order to eat more humans. Eren Yeager is a young man who joins the Scout Regiment (the branch of the military that scouts beyond the walls) in order to fight titans. Many titans are fought, and many humans are eaten.

Verdict: It is very good.

For me, Attack on Titan's biggest success is that it is a very well-executed version of what it is. Structurally, it’s like a lot of other shōnen titles in that it is the coming-of-age story of a young man, series protagonist Eren Yeager, who discovers a Mysterious Power, becomes the Last Hope of Mankind, and goes around fighting things and getting stronger. So, on that very basic, structural level, this reminds me of stuff I’ve seen. Think your Narutos, your Bleaches, your Katekyō Hitman Reborn!s.[*]

Of course, Shingeki no Kyojin takes the classic action shōnen plot structure and mixes it up with giant zombies (face it: in the current zombie climate, you knew they were coming) and a realistic take on the horrors of war.

So, there’s that.

Whenever I start a new anime, especially a shōnen title, I get nervous. You see, I have my own spinoff of the “Bechdel Test” that I apply to media. Let’s call it the Sketchy Test, which sounds terrible, but that’s what I named this blog, so whatever. To apply this Sketchy Test to a piece of media, I ask myself, “Does this make me feel sad about being a woman?” If the answer is yes (Naruto, James Cameron’s Avatar, most Alan Moore comics, all Frank Miller comics), then that piece of media fails the test. Now, this has nowhere near the broad applicability of the Bechdel Test, which is based upon something kind of objective that you can kind of measure. (Are women talking to each other? About something not a dude?) My version is more subjective, but it works for me.

Sidebar: Attack on Titan passes the actual Bechdel test by like the third episode, which is pretty impressive for a shōnen show.

The problem I have with the representation of women in a lot of shōnen shows is that, even when they seem strong or talented or important at first (Sakura in Naruto, Bianchi in Reborn!), they can get relegated to a kind of emotional support cheerleader role pretty quickly. Or they can start off as emotional support cheerleaders (Kyoko and Haru in Reborn!). Or they can seem strong at first and end up playing the damsel in distress role (Rukia in Bleach). And, within the shōnen genre, all of these things are just A LOT MORE COMMON than the presence of important female characters (especially in the central cast) who learn stuff and do stuff and level up alongside their male counterparts. Like, SO MUCH MORE COMMON. Because boys are the ones who do stuff, and the reason to have a “strong” female character in the first place is often so that the male hero has (a romantically/sexually desirable) someone who can be properly impressed by him when he surpasses her in every possible way. Excuse me while I catch my breath from that rant. (Yes, I know it’s a written rant. So what?)

With Attack on Titan, so far I am both nervous and tentatively hopeful about representation of women.

The Good: All of the characterization is really strong. As are all the character designs. All the characters, men and women, have distinct personalities. They also all look distinct from one another, with different facial features–hairlines, noses, eyes, height, etc. This isn’t one of those times when you have to depend on hair color to recognize who’s who. Even with the female characters! (You get extra chocolate chips in your cookies for that, Attack on Titan.)

Also, there are enough female characters that it’s actually kind of important for me to be able to tell them apart. (Premium belgian dark chocolate chips. These are high-quality chips we’re talking about here.)

The Less Good: Except for one squad captain, all the people in positions of power are men. All the high-muckety-muck political leaders are men. Of course, this series is going for realism, and sometimes realism looks a lot like sexism. Because reasons. Then again, this begs the question: how can giant maneating zombies[**] be the central conceit of a show, but the very presence of a female general might require too much suspension of disbelief? This is one of those “I don’t really take issue with the show itself, but this seems symptomatic of a larger problem” moments.

The Hopeful-But-Nervous: Mikasa. Mikasa makes me hopeful but nervous. Mikasa graduates from giant-zombie-fighting bootcamp at the top of her class, which makes me nervous because that kind of power (amazing skills and abilities) often gets overshadowed in anime by the all-important Indomitable Will of our male hero protagonist, who accomplishes stuff via abstract, bullheaded means like ‘trying hard’ and ‘wanting a lot’.[***] And of course, the ever-popular ‘training’.

So, Mikasa makes me nervous because she seems like the kind of character who starts out really cool but ends up relegated to a support role after realizing the protagonist’s greatness.

Except, Mikasa starts out obsessively supporting the protagonist. Mikasa is Eren’s adoptive sister, and her world seriously revolves around him. In a determined and single-minded way that everyone seems to recognize is Not Normal, even if no one has out-and-out called it unhealthy yet. (Eren whines, but that’s just because he feels smothered. And because he’s a whiner who doesn’t appreciate his sister.) So, if Mikasa stays fairly central to the anime–instead of just being conveniently forgotten or killed off–and if she gets an arc of her own, it may very well be the arc of her learning to live her life outside of Eren’s orbit. Which would be pretty cool.

And difficult to accomplish, as Eren’s pretty important right now for plot reasons, and a lot of his fellow soldiers are having to come to terms with the fact that their lives have to revolve around him. Honestly? I think that this situation would make Mikasa’s coming into her own all the more interesting. So here’s hoping I get to see that in Season 2, which, according to the Internet, will probably not come out for another few years.

But really, it could go either way.

My Favorite Character: Probably Armin, the blond, big-eyed crybaby. Armin spends a lot of his time early on whinging about how Eren and Mikasa are so much stronger than he is and how he only has useless book-smarts, so he’s a burden to them. In a kind of awesome move, his two besties eventually straight up tell him that they depend on his book-smarts because he’s the only one of the three of them who can strategize. From that moment on, whenever Eren and Mikasa are in a tight spot, if Armin is anywhere nearby, they will just kind of stare at him blankly and wait for instructions. Which makes me laugh so hard. So maybe it’s less that Armin is my favorite character and more that the three of them together are my favorite grouping of characters. I love how upfront Mikasa and Eren are about not being able to think for themselves. And how accurate their assessment is. Because seriously, they are so bad at planning. Poor Armin. He has opened a door he can now never close. Be careful what you wish for, Armin.

My favorite quote from watching this with the Boyfriend: Some character was telling another character about how Eren, Mikasa and Armin had good odds of survival because Mikasa was a great fighter, Armin was a great thinker and Eren was in possession of an indomitable will. At which point Mac yelled at the screen, “If only they were the same person!”

The Selling Point: What Attack on Titan really has going for it is a nuanced portrayal of the horrors of war. This is a story about trauma, and not an anime for the faint of heart. If you want all of your anime characters to stay alive, this is not the title for you.

Final Thoughts [AND MORE SPOILERS]: Even though certain classic shōnen elements are in play, Attack on Titan fights its own generic formula as much as it depends on it. The main character is a brash hothead with a lot of willpower, but in some moments, skill (embodied in characters like Mikasa and Levi) or strategy (Armin, Erwin) is more important than willpower. The thing I love best about this title, thematically, is that its only consistent lesson is that there are no easy answers. Even though Eren is learning lessons and growing and changing in true protagonist fashion, those lessons are never clear-cut.

For example, in one episode Eren ‘learns’ to trust his comrades rather than fight alone, only to have the entire mission fail. And yet, at other points in the series, Eren going it alone is also not a good option. Later, characters ‘learn’ to sacrifice their humanity for the greater good, and end up with a Pyrrhic victory. As fan-favorite Captain Levi tells our hero, “no one knows” what is going to happen. There is no clear recipe for success.

I appreciate that, in a genre so often focused on the rush of fighting and winning, this war-themed title looks more closely at the importance of accepting the unknown, and living without regrets.

***

[*] I love Katekyō Hitman Reborn!, though I would be hard-pressed to explain why I love it. I mean, it’s kind of full of gender essentialism (not much of a selling point) and toddler mafiosi (which–why?).

[**] OK, so they might not be zombies. Just giant shambling dead-eyed people eaters. I say: close enough.

[***] See: why Captain Kirk has no special powers, but can overcome mind control that affects everybody else who is not Captain Kirk.

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