Attack on Titan is one of the best shows of 2013, even when it also threatens to undo that achievement. It has all the ambition and scope I feared had been lost to anime in favor of pandering to fetishes, but it's also riddled with errors in judgment and story construction that I can't turn a blind eye to. Still, it's great to see a show willing to take real risks with its material and to have moonshot ambition in its blood, even when it ends up in the gutter occasionally.
So much of Titan is so good, so focused, and so intense in its delivery and execution that I had a hard time believing it would ever step wrong. And even when it does step wrong — in my eyes, anyway — it works overtime to get back on track. I suspect a lot of what seem like missteps now will seem more like part of the grand plan in an inevitable future season, but banking on what's to come as a way to vindicate what we have now always strikes me as foolish. I can only go on what I see in front of me, and what we have is great and troubled at the same time. But great enough, I'd say, that it's not to be counted out.
No question exists that the premise for Titan, and much of its deployment, is inventive and brilliant. Some time in the future, mankind came under attach by the "Titans" — giant, humaniform monsters ranging anywhere from three to fifteen meters in height, some even taller. They seem to have no intelligence, no purpose, no design: they roam, they destroy, and they kill — mostly by devouring human beings. An embattled mankind, reduced to a 19th-century level of technology, retreated into a series of city-states protected by three great concentric walls, sending out specially equipped teams to fight the Titans. But mankind has made little progress in the century since, and in fact the tide seems to be shifting against them.
It's against this backdrop that young Eren Jager (and his adoptive sister Mikasa) loses his mother when a massive Titan, bigger and stronger than any before witnessed, breaches the walls of his city and leads a Titan army through. Eren is galvanized by this incident, and resolves to join the army to set things right. He's joined by Mikasa, and a meek childhood friend, Armin, with whom he's shared a dream of seeing the rest of the world that lies behind the walls that both keep them safe and keep them prisoner.
Eren's training consists of teaching him how to use a sort of pneumatic grappling-hook system that allows him and his fellow soldiers to get the jump on Titans. Their only weak spot is the backs of their necks, and so to fight properly Eren and his teams have to rappel swiftly through treetops and across roofs — a clever shout-out to both Spider-Man and the ninja-movie tropes of the same flavor.
What's heartening is how all this stuff, clever as it is, takes a backseat to the psychology of the characters and a close examination of the mechanics of the setting. E.g., the harshness of the training is actually a good complement for both Eren's and Mikasa's personalities: they're already hard-nosed on the inside, which makes them stand in stark contrast to some of the other recruits, who are mostly in it to get a shot at a cushy job. (The show has a smart sense for all the ways corruption and graft have riddled this world, and doesn't shy away from showing them.)
Most correct, and most compelling, is how Titan doesn't shy away from showing the terrible psychological and physical cost of fighting these battles. Some of this is society-wide — the deaths of thousands in one battle is good news for the survivors, since it means that much more food to go around — but most of the time it's focused on individual cases. Eren is hardly the least monomaniacal, or least damaged, of the bunch: his own sister has a detached quality about her which helps make her into a more efficient fighter. Some of their commanders and fellow officers are the sorts of pathological damage cases for whom the army is one of the few places they could effectively channel their psychoses into something productive — e.g., Hange, the female soldier who conducts sickening, Mengele-esque experiments on the Titans, and longs to do the same to Eren (ha, ha). It's all garish and lurid in a good way.
Two bullets to the feet
Now we come to the problems I have with the show, of which I feel there are two. Discussing both of them will involve spoilers, so proceed at your own risk.
The first problem — the biggest and most obvious one — involves how the show shifts direction in a crucial way about one-third of the way through. During a battle, Eren is devoured by a Titan, and discovers that he can transform into one of them himself. (A reason for this is not given, but it is strongly implied his father experimented on him to make this possible.) In this way he's able to battle other Titans for the sake of his friends — albeit at the cost of losing most of his reasoning for the duration of the fight.
Part of why I balked at this is not because it was one fantasy element too many in a story already driven by them. It's because it threatened to turn the story into a different and potentially less interesting one. It changes the story from one about survival at all costs — a people-centric story — to one that is a more plot- and mystery-centric story, e.g., a J.J. Abrams creation. The problem with making a show about such a thing is that solving a puzzle is far less interesting than watching a person be themselves. The latter is endless; the former is finite. The way I put this to a friend was, if you start off by giving me Saving Private Ryan, it's kind of a letdown to turn it into The Amazing Colossal Man, isn't it?
That said, one of the things Titan gets absolutely right after introducing this element is how it works overtime to weave it back into the story in a way that does the rest of the story justice, too. Eren's power does not make him a hero; rather, it makes him an object of fear and mistrust, and there's a debate about whether he should be sent to the front so he can die in action or simply be dissected in a lab somewhere. What's more, we learn that Eren is not the only one who can do this, and that not everyone else who can transform may have motives as noble as his. (There's also the fact that each transformation threatens to sap Eren of his humanity a bit more, something else which seems wholly correct.)
The second problem is smaller in scope, but bothered me far more because of how much of a miscalculation it is, and how ultimately useless it turns out to be. It involves a flashback scene showing how Mikasa came to be adopted by Eren's family; she was kidnapped by slave traders, and Eren — then still barely in his teens — murdered her kidnappers with all the zeal of a junior commando in training. It's a grotesque scene, but for all the wrong reasons: what it wants to say about Eren, and what it ends up saying, are at utter odds with each other. It doesn't make Eren look like a determined young man who will do anything to defend Mikasa; it makes him look like a budding sociopath who never had to be systematically indoctrinated into the difficult task of murdering another human being. It plays like a cheap revenge fantasy, and it has no place in a story that is allegedly about the costs and consequences of defending human life. There are any number of other, better ways to have handled this scene, and the show somehow managed to pick one of the sleaziest. It doesn't even work as a way to establish that Eren threatens to lose that much more of his humanity every time he transforms into a Titan, because that's an experience that would sap the humanity of most any person. There's an attempt to back-reference the murder during the tribunal to determine what to do with Eren, as evidence that he's a real monster, but it's a mere throwaway.
What's even worse about this scene is that, the more I think about it, how totally superfluous it is. We already know Eren will do anything to protect the people he love, and we already have sympathy for both Eren and Mikasa. We don't need to have that particular nail pounded even more flat than it already is. The idea that we need an explanation for "how they got this way" is pure armchair psychology, and bad storytelling besides; what's more important is not where they came from but where they're going. Besides, wasn't the trauma of watching Eren's mother devoured alive in front of him motivation enough? Do we really need a second, backup set of motivations, like an airliner with failsafe redundancy?
The beginning of even greater things, one hopes
Yet for every one of these glaring errors in judgment, Attack on Titan gets at least two other things right. I may have cringed at Eren's big secret being revealed, but the show goes a long way towards restoring my trust in how it plans to handle that material — so much so that by the end of the first season, I was genuinely anticipating a second one, and actively formulating theories about where things could end up. (I have my own theses about Eren's powers, what's in the basement, the origins of the Titans, etc., but I will save them for another time.)
Another creative decision that is nailed from the beginning is the show's look and feel, courtesy of Wit Studio and Production I.G. In an era where more and more anime feel like they're being spit out of the same big-eyes-small-mouth factory, Titan goes for a rough, bold, deep-field look that's properly reminiscent of the wide-gauge epic fantasy filmmaking that seems to have inspired it most directly. Red, brown, and black dominate the color schemes; the characters are all drawn with thick, powerful lines that give them a visual energy even when they're just standing there; and the battle scenes — especially when Titan Eren is locked in combat — are among the very best of any show, anywhere. Props are also due to composer Hiroyuki Sawano (Sengoku Basara, Kill la Kill), whose propulsive score deserves a listen on its own, as soon as I can scare up the $35 to buy it.
What we have so far of Titan also works remarkably hard to examine its world with a critical eye, to show how human weakness and frailty is part and parcel of all aspects of it. There is as much craven selfishness as there is courage in both the armed forces and in the general populace, and that rings true: courage is the exception in human history, not the rule, and we do ourselves no favors pretending otherwise. But it doesn't wallow wholesale in this. I admired a moment when Eren and his comrades, beaten and weak, return from a failed Titan-scouting mission and are bombarded with the jeers and resentment of the townspeople who feel their missions are just a waste of good resources. Then he catches the eye of two young kids — mirrors of his younger self, it seems — who think the fact they're busting their butts for the rest of them is just the coolest thing ever.
In the past, I've been divided between which would be better: a show that takes no risks, but delivers such solid and competent entertainment that it's hard to find fault with it, and a show that shoots for the moon but ends up in the gutter. It's become clearer to me now that it's not a matter of one or the other. Titan earns its place as a must-see not just because of what it attempts but how it attempts it — and maybe also because it is able to wrest victory over and over again from those attempts, even when it feels like it can't. There's not many shows I can credit with having that kind of ambition. That makes it worth sticking around for, and returning to.