Director: Tetsurō Araki
Writer: Yasuko Kobayashi
English publisher: Funimation (USA)
Genre: Shonen, dark fantasy, post-apocalyptic
Recommended for: Mature teens aged 17+ and adults
Release date: June 3, 2014 (DVD release)
Updated 4/17/23: The writer has retracted her opinion on Bryce Papenbrook’s impressions of young Eren Yeager as she now feels it was an unfair statement written from the perspective of an inexperienced anime viewer.
Known as Shingeki no Kyojin in Japan, Attack on Titan first rocked the entertainment scene with its debut in the Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine. Since the initial release of its critically-acclaimed manga, the series has launched into numerous outlets, including light novels, additional manga spinoffs, and even a potential live-action drama.
In 2013, Attack on Titan premiered its animated adaptation to Japanese audiences. A successful reception later, the series found itself online for streaming with subtitles available. Now that the English dub has been recorded and released, Attack on Titan is on sale in DVD format to American, European, and Australian audiences.
Let’s delve into part one of this nightmarish, adrenaline-laced tale of survival and brutality. How does the English dub hold up? Does the plot ride tall on idealistic ingenuity, or fall prey to bloody eye candy? Most importantly, is this a franchise worthy of its titan-sized acclaim?
One hundred years ago, the titans appeared. These monolithic monsters roamed the world, devouring men, women, and children alike with a mindless, incomprehensible desire. To protect themselves from the looming threat of extinction, humanity erected a city of 50-meter-high walls. This successfully kept the titans at bay, and for one hundred years an uneasy peace reigned…
They say that one must use fire to fight fire. Perhaps that’s why young Eren Yeagar has such titan-sized dreams. Born within the walls, having never seen a titan face-to-face, this spirited youth wastes no breath in announcing his aspirations to others, whether that means lecturing the wall patrol for slacking at their work, or fighting off a band of bullies who are beating up his friend.
But Eren’s greatest dream is to join the Survey Corps—a group of elite soldiers who ride outside the walls via horseback and do battle with the titans. Eren believes that the land beyond the walls is humanity’s birthright, and that, so long as humans sit within the walls like cattle in a pen, there will be no future—no true living—for anyone. Of course, such rebellious talk is dangerous, as traveling outside the walls is considered a crime punishable by the government, as well as an act of sacrilege by those of the Wall Cult, who deem the walls a gift from on high. Even Eren’s own family is quick to harass him when his adopted sister, Mikasa, brings up his ambitions at dinner one evening.
That same evening, the ground rumbles with the force of an earthquake. The people barricaded within the walls can only watch in terror as the muscled face of an enormous titan looms over the parapet. Moments later, the wall is ripped from top to bottom, and an army of titans enter the city to begin wreaking havoc.
Eren watches in helpless horror as a titan drags his mother from the wreckage of their home and eats her alive. With over 10,000 humans killed in the attack, Eren, Mikasa, and their childhood friend, Armin, are among the fortunate few to find safety behind the secondary ring of protective walls. Vowing to wipe out every last titan from the face of the earth, Eren enlists in the army and soon discovers that titans aren’t the only enemy of humanity.
Eren’s drive to change the world around him is courageous, not to mention inspirational. He’s quick to rebuke other’s lack of respect for the Survey Corps, and even goes so far as to lecture a group of drunken guards about being unprepared and unfit for duty. When he lands in the top ten graduating cadets, Eren turns down a much-coveted, luxurious position in the Military Police in order to join the dangerous Survey Corps. “The world beyond the walls is my birthright,” he says, and when he dares to take a stand to change humanity’s fate, he instills others with courage and gives them the strength to take stands of their own.
Armin is an incredibly meek character and knows the value of quiet strength. When cornered and beaten up by a pack of bullies, Armin refuses to strike back, saying that, in not doing so, he’s the true victor. While not as physically strong as his friends, Armin works to overcome his setbacks, joining the Survey Corps with Eren in order to strengthen himself and no longer “be a burden” to others. His gentle spirit allows him to be forgiving, as when a soldier is needlessly cruel to Eren. “Ignore him. He’s probably just hungry,” he tells Eren. Armin’s willingness to forgive has a dumbfounding impact on those around him.
Courage is a notable theme throughout Attack on Titan. Everyone is terrified, but some choose to take that fear and fight against it. Others cower behind walls or inside buildings, even though it means the death of those depending on their aid. Jean Kirstein is one such character originally bent on graduating into the Military Police and having the easy life, but when duty calls him to face titans head-on, he’s forced to find his courage. At first, he believes himself incompetent as a leader, and blames himself for the deaths of comrades under his command. Holed up in a cellar, a squad member consoles him, “I don’t think you’re a good leader because you’re strong. I think you’re a good leader because you know what it is to be weak. You’re one of us. You’re scared out of your mind, just like we all are. It makes you alert and sympathetic.” By the battle’s end, Jean proves himself a courageous and capable leader.
Mikasa, Eren, and Armin form a tight bond built on friendship and selflessness. Mikasa honors her promise to Eren’s mother by keeping him safe and following him into the ranks of the Survey Corps. “I swear, I’ll never leave your side,” she vows to Eren, and even though she’s overbearing at times, it’s clear Mikasa is doing it out of love. Though she’s suffered incomprehensible horrors in her childhood, Mikasa is an emotionally strong person, full of tremendous courage and unafraid to face the titans that threaten her homeland. When a group of greedy merchants forbid the city’s citizen’s from escaping during a titan attack, Mikasa is quick to put them in their place and save the innocents. After Eren is seemingly killed, she puts aside her own suffering in order to keep the others calm and maps out a battle strategy for overcoming the titans within the walls. When Armin admits he’ll kill himself rather than be eaten alive by titans, Mikasa throws away the blade in his hands, assuring him, “I will not leave you behind.”
Looking back over the death of his mother, Eren finds himself filled with guilt and acknowledges his shortcomings as a son, “Why was I such a brat? Why did I always fight her? I never said ‘I love you.’ Now I’ll never get the chance.”
Even while surrounded by the primeval terrors of the titans and power-hungry, selfish men, many characters stand out as lights in the darkness and dare to challenge conformity. “This world’s cruel… but it’s also beautiful,” thinks Mikasa, as she reflects over her time spent with Eren. Elsewhere, Eren dares others to fight for the things they hold dear, “My duty is to make false hope real. The only way to live… is to fight!” Even General Levi—a seemingly cold soldier with a disgust for unclean things—doesn’t hesitate to hold a dying man’s bloody hand and offer him words of hope as he passes away. “My men didn’t die to pave our retreat,” he tells his commanding officer.
To the honorable, human life is the most precious thing of all. “They’re all people. They have dreams and names,” someone reminds Eren during the start of a deadly mission. “They’re not pawns. They’re people. Make sure their deaths mean something.” Both major and minor characters give their lives in the line of duty, often while protecting their friends; one leader is killed while dragging a comrade from the jaws of a titan.
A preacher/prophet is shown marching through the streets, praising the walls as a gift from on high and condemning those who are foolish enough to try and venture outside. It is later revealed that he is part of a larger religion known as the Wall Cult. Thus far in the show, the actual cult and its beliefs are vague at best. It’s apparent that going beyond the walls is considered defying the will of god.
*SPOILER WARNING* Eren has the ability to transform into a titan at will by biting into his hand. It’s implied that his father endowed Eren with these special abilities. Though the details are left unstated, it appears to be the work of science. At times, Eren is overcome by his animalistic rage and can’t distinguish friend from foe in this state. *END OF SPOILERS*
Attack on Titan features violence as primeval as its giant monsters. Titans ignore wildlife, but devour humans mindlessly—not out of hunger, but out of mad desire. Everyone from civilians to soldiers are snatched up in the titans’ giant fists and devoured. Though the actual chomp is often off-screen, the aftermath is shown in nasty, visceral detail. Legs dangle from a titan’s bloody mouth as it gnaws on a soldier’s remains. A named character has his head bit off, and horrified characters are often shown dangling head-first from the titans’ jaws before they are fully devoured. Perhaps the most graphic moment is the death of Eren’s mother. The titan presumably snaps her back before biting her in half (off-screen); blood droplets spray through the air like red flower petals as Eren screams and looks on in helpless terror.
Limbs are at just as great a risk in this adrenaline-laced anime. Eren loses both an arm and a leg to a titan’s teeth; we see the severed limb fall to the ground far below. A crow pecks at severed arms and legs strewn about the city. One soldier slices off his own leg when it becomes trapped in a titan’s jaws. When a squad of the Survey Corps return to the city, a soldier gives a wrapped bundle to a grieving mother; it turns out to be her dead son’s arm.
Titans are—not surprisingly—just as brutal to their own kind. One unfortunate titan finds itself being feasted upon as it fights; the battle ends with it losing both arms at the stumps, with half its ribcage gnawed to the bone. Other titans are brutally stomped to death (accompanied by large blood sprays and vague images of red, tearing flesh) or have their heads knocked clean off. One titan rips out of another’s back, sending out a large spray of blood. Titans are able to regrow severed body parts, however, even when canon-fire blasts them apart.
Blood flows liberally, to the point where it’s used as a texturizer in the show’s opening and even as a part of the logo’s design. Spatters on the street are common. Titans are slain by slicing out a triangular portion of their napes. This occurs multiple times throughout the show, and these strikes—like any other blow—are always accompanied by a generous spray of blood. Soldiers are often shown battered and bloodied. No amount of realism is spared here, though gore and innards are (mercifully) never shown.
Citizens and soldiers alike are flung through the air and crushed by rocks and debris. The titans create havoc whenever they arrive, destroying walls, houses, cannons, and other obstacles in their way.
Not to be outdone by the animalistic titans, humans are often just as brutal. A flashback into one character’s past shows the death of her parents at the hands of human traffickers. Her father is stabbed in the stomach with a knife and her mother is struck in the back of the neck with an ax; she’s shown falling in slow motion as blood sprays and is later seen with a pool of blood around her head. Later, a boy tracks down the murderers and does them in, stabbing the first unsuspecting criminal with a knife to the chest and mercilessly plunging the dagger repeatedly into the other one until he dies. The girl does the final man in by stabbing him in the back (and through the heart) with the knife; the blown isn’t shown, but the carcass and the protruding weapon is revealed shortly afterward.
Some soldiers border on hysteria after their first encounters with titans. Two consider suicide rather than facing the prospect of being eaten alive. One sticks a loaded rifle in his mouth and pulls the trigger; the aftermath isn’t shown, but blood spatters on a horrified onlooker’s face and the bookshelf behind her.
Carnage and death are as common as breathing in this show. After a brutal battle within the walls, survivors walk the streets, identifying the dead. One carcass—hardly identifiable after being undiscovered for two days—belongs to a named character. Characters discover a nasty wad of red goop—titan vomit—and explain that titans purge themselves when they’ve had their fill; human forms are distinguishable within the red mass.
One of the more disturbing scenes shows a character waking up within a titan’s stomach, surrounded by the bodies (dismembered or otherwise) of his fallen comrades. A whimpering girl is digested before his eyes. Elsewhere, Armin attempts to cut a character out of the back of a titan’s neck; he stabs the blade in but gets no farther.
A character has a flashback in which his father injects him with a syringe. The entire scene is shaky and nightmarish, backed by the character’s confused pleas and cries.
Language is frequent and consists of pretty much everything under the f-word itself. Fifty-five uses of d***, forty-three uses of h*** (as a swear word), fifteen uses of bast***, ten uses of “son of a b****” (and spelled out “SOB” twice), two uses of sh**, one use of bi***, and five uses each of p*** and a**, with bada**, jacka**, smarta**, and a**hole being used once each. That’s about eleven curse words an episode.
The word “hell” is used frequently as a reference to hell itself, such as “This is hell,” or “We’re standing at the gates of hell.” Several exclamations and horrified whispers of “Oh God” occur, though “Oh my God” is only exclaimed once.
As a child, one character is kidnapped by human traffickers. The criminals discuss her unique, and rare, cultural background, as well as her unfortunate young age, while talking about her marketability. “Perverts in the capital go for that sort of thing,” says one, assuring his accomplice that she’ll sell.
The titans are completely naked and depicted as very human-like. They have bare backsides, which reveals a rather human-like buttocks; however, as is stated in the show, titans lack reproductive organs so nothing of that nature is ever shown.
A character comments that, “Being eaten by a titan wouldn’t be so bad… if it was a sexy, lady one.”
Characters develop crushes on one another and blush as they try to express their feelings, but romance is, thus far, not taken beyond that level.
Guards are shown drunk and tipsy. Characters are occasionally shown drinking wine casually.
Other Negative Content
Attack on Titan is a psychologically dark anime. A feeling of dread hangs over the characters and their world, and the story is merciless enough to make no character “off limits” for the death toll. Many scenes, particularly the death of Eren’s mother and the flashback to Mikasa’s past, are gritty and agonizing to watch. Characters are often in a state of abysmal shock, and crying, pleading, and screaming are as common as bloody moments of brutality. The body count is high, and an enormous amount of casualties happen off-screen. It’s said that over 10,000 people died during the first titan raid, and an even more devastating amount were “sent to their deaths” after the army drafted them to curb over-population; less than 200 survived.
Eren is very much dominated by revenge, and his rage becomes nigh animalistic at times. “Get up so I can kill you again and again!” he roars as he mercilessly stomps a titan into the ground. “I’ll kill them all—every last one!”
Also, Sasha steals food on a regular basis to satisfy her enormous appetite—not exactly something to encourage.
A story lives or dies by its ability to entertain. Attack on Titan opens with a terrifyingly ominous moment of suspense, backed by an eerie soundtrack with sound effects cryptically silent. “And just like that, everything changed,” narrates Eren, as the muscled head of the colossal titan rears over the wall. “At that terrible moment, in our hearts, we knew: ‘home’ was a pen… and humanity, cattle.”
Whether in visual, literary, or theatrical format, this is an opening line that sells, quickly sucking the viewer into the abysmal terror and pulse-pounding thrill ride that is to come. And that thrill ride is just as vividly visceral as it is visually beautiful.
Members of the Survey Corps glide through forests via grapple-like gears; the result is a visual rollercoaster, rather reminiscent of Spider-Man, as soldiers soar above city streets, under awnings, around towers, up walls, and hit the rooftops running. It’s an animated wonder to behold, and the franchise’s unique cell-shaded style—bordered by thick black lines—certainly makes for some interesting graphical choices, giving Attack on Titan its own unique look within the anime genre.
This franchise has been called “The Walking Dead of Japan” for a reason. Attack on Titan is a story of survival and brutality, where the last remnants of mankind constantly live in the shadow of fear… where death is a red, roaring abyss, raked with three-foot canines, reeking of decay, and dripping with blood. Other times—even more unnerving—it’s the unflinching, titan-sized grin spread lazily across a muscled, skin-less face, marking the moment of impending death for some helpless soul. Neither life nor limb is safe, and every character seems eligible for the loss of one or the other (sometimes it’s both).
With all its primeval horror and violent confrontations, you’d think Attack on Titan would fall prey to cheap, bloody entertainment. Yes, Attack on Titan packs a pretty traumatic punch—everything from a young boy watching his mother be viciously eaten, to a soldier watching her comrade calmly take his own life—and blood spills at most opportunities. That being said, though, the show’s titans are genuinely terrifying, and their primeval qualities add a lot of fear and emotional tension to the series. It’s bloody, but it feels bloody for a good reason, and it forces viewers to genuinely fear for these characters’ safety. Attack on Titan is a franchise you’ll watch while simultaneously gripping your couch cushion in suspense.
Characterization is something to appreciate here. There’s a wide diversity in the cast, with each on-screen player bringing something fresh to the story. No character is useless, and even those who appear to have story-altering deficiencies later prove themselves through other outlets; Armin is perhaps the best example here, as he spends the majority of the show crying and screaming as titans devour his squad. Just when he begins to feel like a stock character, meant to make the other mains look “stronger,” Armin is revealed to possess powerful literary and strategic skills that are not only useful throughout the story, but also help further the plot. Even characters who, at first glance, appear to be nothing significant beyond comedy reliefs, turn out to be dimensional characters who use their humorous tendencies to add freshness to the show.
Most of the time, Attack on Titan doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand. Characters are developed without secondary characters telling the viewer what to think about them. General Levi’s introduction is especially impressive in this regard. We watch the little guy take out a duo of titans without once batting a cold, ruthless eye. Following the kill, the camera zooms in on Levi’s blood-soaked hand as he mutters, “Ugh… disgusting” and proceeds to wipe his blade and hands off. Directly afterwards, he kneels at a dying comrade’s bleeding side and proceeds to hold his blood-soaked hand as the man passes away. Again, the camera zooms in on the clasped hands, and deliberately shows a bead of blood drip down the back of the general’s hand. This scene is a powerful characterization moment for Levi, especially as he’s later shown to be rather uncaring and harsh. It’s also not accompanied by some third-party character looking on and saying, “Look at General Levi holding that dying man’s bloody hand, even though he hates getting dirty. How kind and noble!” or even just the breathless utterance of “General Levi…” that’s so often used to convey a moment of deep respect or emotion in anime. Attack on Titan shows its viewers all of the pieces to the characterization puzzle, but is respectful enough to let those viewers put the pieces into the puzzle themselves without the director’s supervision.
The English dubbing is rather solid. For the most part, voices suit their character’s roles, though there are undoubtedly going to be purists who swear by the superiority of the original Japanese voice-over. There’s a bit of nonconformity to be heard, in that Attack on Titan doesn’t fall back on traditional anime yells, grunts, and gasps. Instead we get blood-curdling screams, choking death rattles, and growling, teeth-grinding snarls of rage. It’s deliciously uncomfortable to listen to at times and adds a haunting, palpable realism to the show. There were also several moments where the dialogue was unclear to me, and I had to re-watch the scene in order to catch what was said.
Attack on Titan is an attention-snatcher. From the beginning of its nightmarish opening, this show simply doesn’t stop. The pacing isn’t so relentless that the viewer has absolutely no time to breathe, but once the tension begins to mount there’s no looking away from the TV screen. This reviewer had to watch the entire first part in one sitting.
That being said, Attack on Titan isn’t flawless. Story-telling often falls back on repetition—from the verbatim re-stating of key themes, to problem/solution repeats. For example: (1) Eren makes a decision, (2) Armin makes the same decision in order to grow stronger, and (3) Mikasa makes the same decision because Eren made the decision and she must follow and protect him (as she continuously emphasizes). There’s a bit of a similar pattern with the courage/fear cycle. (1) Characters are afraid of titans, (2) Eren/Mikasa/[insert brave character] gives speech or makes statement about breaking conformity and overcoming fear, (3) listeners are emboldened to fight or make difficult decision. Rinse and repeat.
There’s also a rather consistent reliance on deus ex machina. Titan-sized problems are often resolved with titan-sized solutions (sometimes literally) that spring from the realm of “previously-unknown.” To be fair, though, these interventions usually take place only after characters have meticulously exhausted their own mental and physical resources, and the root of the deus ex machina is almost always foreshadowed in some way.
Melodrama is a much more noticeable issue. Crying, screaming, flailing, and wailing are just as common as your usual turn-of-the-mill dialogue. While this melodrama can lend itself well—and justifiably—to devastating moments, it’s otherwise painful to watch (and listen to). Scenes out of context seem especially melodramatic, meaning that, in the flow of the show, it’s a tad less flagrant.
Musically, Attack on Titan is gifted. A lack of overtly-prominent anthems do hurt its consistency a bit, but also ensure that variety and freshness are kept closest to heart. The opening theme is an auditory treat, making it one of the few show openers you won’t mind watching again and again. Occasionally, Japanese songs are sneaked into the mix mid-show, but these surprisingly flow quite well, sometimes offering an eerie quality to the moment. Choir is used during key, story-telling points to generate some truly heart-wrenching or spine-chilling emotions.
With the advent, and popularity, of shows like The Walking Dead that focus on humankind’s survival during the apocalypse, you might say that Attack on Titan is a product of its time. Perhaps that’s one reason why the show is so popular right now—because it is timely, not only in its public interest, but also in its themes.
Numerous media critics have drawn parallels between Attack on Titan’s namesake creatures and their symbolism—human injustice, greed, and war. “Titans aren’t our only foe,” intones Eren when his own society threatens to turn on him. “We will be our own downfall.” And there’s a lot of weighty truth in those statements. Attack on Titan isn’t afraid to go beyond the metaphorical walls of philosophy, asking hard questions about what determines a man from a monster, whether sacrificing human lives is ever justified, and if we—humankind—are so preoccupied with false peace and security that we fail to realize we’re living inside our own idealistic walls… while colossal terrors—terrors we refuse to overcome, atrocities we try to ignore—lurk just outside. It’s indisputable that the philosophical viewer will find as much to chew on in this series as the titans do.
So, does Attack on Titan deserve its colossal acclaim? That’s heavily a matter of perspective, and I don’t say that just to dodge the question. Attack on Titan is a visually-enthralling, philosophically-driven, adrenaline-pumping story of mythological proportions. That being said, it’s quite easy to visualize the show as a melodramatic, repetitious trauma-fest with a penchant for downright nightmarish concepts. Some will argue that the key concept is unoriginal, and that Eren isn’t the first anime hero to be endowed with seemingly dangerous powers by his father and told that learning to control them is the key to saving his homeland.
And that’s not to mention that if the sight of blood makes you squeamish, you might want to opt out of this one. Attack on Titan is never gory, but blood flows freely, and the horrified screams of helpless characters makes that violence seem all the more disturbing. This reviewer can’t remember being so unnerved by animation since she saw Watership Down as a teenager. Attack on Titan is a mature franchise for a mature audience (older teens 17+ and adults). It’s certainly not a series to babysit the kids with.
For the discerning Christian, Attack on Titan may be a deal-breaker due to content alone. This is easily an R-rated animation, mainly because of all that red stuff, but also because this is a psychologically dark franchise that isn’t afraid to get you a little squeamish. That, and there’s quite a few four-letter words to go around—enough to pack eleven into each episode—which could easily be a profanity count higher than you’re willing to pay. Attack on Titan is just as unflinching in dishing out its morals, to be sure, but you’ll have to sit through a lot of visual and auditory carnage—probably some discomfort, too—in order to get to them.
Sie Sind Das Essen Und Wir Sind Die Jager!
[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00FXB8RRO,B00KU3Y2VK]
The Bottom Line
Attack on Titan is a visually-enthralling, philosophically-driven, adrenaline-pumping story of mythological proportions. That being said, it’s quite easy to visualize the show as a melodramatic, repetitious trauma-fest with a penchant for downright nightmarish concepts. Especially for the Christian viewer, much depends upon individual perspective and convictions.