Several hundred years ago, humans were nearly exterminated by titans. Titans are typically several stories tall, seem to have no intelligence, devour human beings and, worst of all, seem to do it for the pleasure rather than as a food source. A small percentage of humanity survived by walling themselves in a city protected by extremely high walls, even taller than the biggest of titans. Flash forward to the present and the city has not seen a titan in over 100 years. Teenage boy Eren and his foster sister Mikasa witness something horrific as the city walls are destroyed by a colossal titan that appears out of thin air. As the smaller titans flood the city, the two kids watch in horror as their mother is eaten alive. Eren vows that he will murder every single titan and take revenge for all of mankind.
Based on the popular manga series by Hajime Isayama, Attack on Titan is simply one of the few anime series to come out roughly every several years that rises above the mediocrity and becomes something quite memorable. Director Tetsuro Araki, who directed the prominent anime adaptations of Death Note (2006) and High School of the Dead (2010), once again ventures into dark territory with this series. In the likes of Death Note, High School of the Dead, and Code Geass (2006) before it, Attack on Titan is simply a series that is highly distinctive in terms of its premise, easing us as viewers into a world of fear, violence, terror, and even shades of darwinistic thinking. This develops the series as a very genuine and frightful look into the sociological and psychological ramifications that develop within a civilization that is on the brink of utter destruction. It is for these reasons alone that Attack on Titan is undeniably one of the best anime series to come about in quite some time.
While the action segments within Attack on Titan is perhaps one of the major reasons the series has garnered a lot of warranted attention, I found the series to be more befitting towards its appreciable exploration on the human aspect of the unknown and the fear that stems from it. The idea of "Titans" roaming the landscape in search of human flesh for no apparent reason other than they simply like to "eat" humans, is surprisingly effective considering that the mystery of their true purpose is kept hidden, for the most part, from us as the audience as well as the characters themselves. This is intensely magnified considering that the humans within the series are essentially losing the battle against the titans, with death easily becoming a daily, as well as common, occurrence for them. The series delivers an adequate response towards the idea of absolute hopelessness, a feeling that is acutely felt by the audience through the characters and the dire situations they find themselves in. This sense of despair throughout the series is at times rather heavy-handed though, as prominent characters die rather unexpectedly in the most brutish of ways, but it is due to this approach that makes Attack on Titan an entirely suspenseful and unpredictable series.
Of course, the fear of the unknown is an innate human response that often leads to devastating conclusions. Throughout our own human history, such a response has led to death, war, and destruction, with Attack on Titan certainly focusing on this but also showcasing the inner turmoil that arises within a civilization as well. Whether this is viewed in the social hierarchy that exists between the individuals living closer to the outer walls to those that are living within the inner walls, to that of the upper class essentially kicking out refugees seeking sanctuary and telling them reclaim their providences by their own hands, the series is also reflective on the human cruelty that we commit against one another as well. I found the medieval setting of the series to be rather appropriate considering such an approach, especially since classism was a prominent part of that time period, almost to the point of being ridiculously inhuman. Social darwinism is definitely an aspect of the series that elevates more into the realm of social commentary more so than simply being a minor element of the series as whole. It gets us to think about the moral and immoral responses we undergo in times of extreme anxiety and where the line between living and dying is getting exceedingly thinner.
The series focus mainly on three main characters - Eren, Mikasa, and Armin - all who are varied in their philosophy regarding the titans as well as how they interpret the situation of humanity as a whole. Eren, who witnessed first hand the vicious murder of own mother, is seen as an individual whose sole purpose is to utterly annihilate the titans from the face of existence. Mikasa is the more level headed and reserved individual, usually seen as very protective of Eren and many times is the only one to lead him away from his destructive attitude towards a more productive one. We finally have Armin, who is the often timid but tactically sound member of the group, proving his worth as a strategic field tactician despite his frail physical appearance. The narrative does an adequate job in developing these characters based upon their painful pasts, with their trauma being viewed as the catalyst towards their decisions through a majority of the episodes. It becomes quite apparent why each character has chosen the profession they are in, with their childhood memories continually haunting them but also further developing their sense of friendship and loyalty to one another.
The narrative builds itself upon the emotional and physical reactions that the human characters experience as they confront the titans, creatures who increasingly appear in the most bizarre forms as the series progresses. I found the narrative to be surprisingly effective in having us as the audience sympathize with the plight of the characters, where the characters emotional responses to the their situations are brutally honest in their portrayal. We feel for them when their family and friends are violently murdered - often times right in front of their own eyes - with many of the characters emotionally breaking down, committing suicide, or simply struggling to live for a few moments longer before they get devoured by a titan. The series plays upon this shock value, but never feels completely exaggerated to the point of being absurd, rather it elicits a sense of dread as we never know who will perish next or what horrible titan will suddenly appear. We see Eren and his comrades as simple human beings striving to survive, nothing more and nothing less, which establishes characterization that is highly relatable to the each viewer.
I found Attack on Titan to live up to many of its expectations as an anime adaptation, offering up a world filled with unpredictability, horror, and even some commentary on human behavior. While it is not a series for everyone - the content is rather unsettling and gory at times - its intuitive ability to bring about a sense of longing dread within practically each episode is what makes it work out incredibly well as a suspense-filled thriller that rarely deviates from its intended focus. Araki does a wonderful job in enveloping us into a foreign but very familiar world, having us even question our own moral standing given some of the situations that develop throughout the series. Attack on Titan may not be for everybody, but it does indeed solidify itself as a noteworthy series for the questions it raises as well as its aptness in separating itself from many of the other contemporary works within the medium of anime.