One of the most depressing shows I have watched is also one of the greatest. Attack on Titan is many things at once: an anime, a look at human nature, a horrifying tale of defeat.
From the outside, it might just seem like any other anime show centering around kids with cool skills. But if you’d like to know what this show is really about and why it’s so popular, allow me to explain.
Hi! So, Attack On Titan. All I know about this show is that there’s a Body Worlds Exhibit-looking dude who is always creeping over a wall. He’s terrifying.
He sure is!
So what’s the deal? What’s going on?
The show tells the story of the citizens hiding within a three-tiered, walled-off community that protects them from the Titans that live outside of it. Though at the start of the show there hadn’t been an attack since the one one hundred years ago that nearly wiped out all of humanity, the threat still very much looms right outside their gates.
So, that big guy by the wall is a Titan?
He’s what the citizens call a Colossal Titan. They’re the toughest breed of Titan they’ve encountered yet, and he comes in to demolish a part of a wall to let all other Titans in.
What are Titans anyway?
They’re gigantic, humanoid-looking creatures that seem to have no other desire but to eat people.
Not really, actually. The Titans don’t have digestive tracts (or sexual organs, btw).
No sex. I know, I know. Seeing two gangly, awkward humanoid creatures going at it would probably be kind of hilarious. But, hey, check the Internet. You never know...
Er, yeah, maybe. Moving on...
Moving on...because they don’t have digestive tracts, they eventually spit the humans up like hairballs, leaving their slimy corpses all over town for their friends and families to clean up.
Quite. Imagine living through the terror of one of these attacks just to have to scoop up goopy bodies with faces you recognize, if there’s any of it left.
Yuck. So the city’s walls are to keep the Titans out?
Yep. They have three walls circling around each other, the innermost of which is where the royal family lives. Their other form of defense is the military, where a lot of the Attack on Titan story takes place.
The show is mostly focused on Eren, a young boy who had to watch as his mother was brutally chomped on by a Titan with long hair. In a permanent fit of rage, Eren decides to dedicate his life to the military to get revenge. He’s dead set on it, and his childhood friends make a pact with him to join. So off Eren, Mikasa and Armin go to join The Survey Corps, which is the roughest sect of the military you can join.
What’re they all about?
The military is broken into a few groups. There are the soldiers who are tasked with defending the royal family within the innermost wall. They have the cushiest lifestyle, so everyone wants to be qualified enough to join their ranks. Then there’s the group that protects the other walls and their civilians.
And then there’s the Scout Regiment, or Survey Corps. They go out into enemy territory, outside the protection of the walls, where Titans roam around freely. It’s the most dangerous of the three military organizations, and you’ll usually find them walking around downtrodden, sullen, and rapidly depleting in numbers. Most people think it’s crazy of anyone to join the Scout Regiment, and they’re rarely even welcomed home with open arms. People are frustrated; frustrated at losing so many loved ones, at constant defeat.
In fact, a large section of the community believes that because some soldiers venture outside of the walls, they’re actually inviting more Titans in. In their minds, not only are they going out and dying for nothing while spending taxpayer money, they’re increasing the already-outstanding threat to their lives.
So why do people join?
A sense of duty? Or they’re so lost in grief over losing a loved one to a Titan that they join to get revenge, like Eren did? So, basically, a sense of duty.
Over time, the show demonstrates the necessity and benefit, however miniscule, of the Scout Regiment and their efforts. The alternative is so much worse, whether the people realize that or not.
Cadets who get placed in these ranks are traditionally not skilled enough to have been afforded the luxury of kicking back with the royal family, so they fight where they can.
Better to get involved, and feel like you’re protecting your family, than to sit back and wait for death.
Yep. And that sense of duty comes with a lot of other emotions that the characters struggle with. They struggle to be brave, and they struggle to be strong.
When they fail, they internalize it to such a degree that it might even be debilitating. Other characters use it as further motivation to push forward and better themselves, which is admirable.
If you’re not growing, what are you doing?
Truth. That’s a big burden to shoulder, though.
Of course it is. On the flipside, there are people—or, more accurately, assholes—who don’t seem to understand the bigger picture, and get caught up on what they see as nuisances that are a result of the situation humanity is in. Instead of contributing, or instead of growing, they sit around and bitch and moan.
What? Why would that guy say or even think that??
Well, because he’s an asshole. He doesn’t understand everyone else’s efforts, why people had to be evacuated and let in through his walls, eating his precious food and taking up his precious space.
He doesn’t understand that the outer wall suffered a major attack with major losses. All he sees is that those people are now trampling all over his space, giving him more work. And, sure, different people cope differently. When you’re constantly living around and thinking about death, it’s no surprise that some emotional struggle will occur, too. It’s a struggle to come to terms with it. Many people have to harden their shells to cope, and not everyone understands that reaction.
But in most cases, people don’t understand the very tough decisions the higher-ups have to make in this war, and the therefore harsh consequences that would result in any decision either way.
And this leads to a lot of the human vs. human conflicts on the show: the class differences, and the political goals that sometimes get in the way of actual progress.
Oh, god, as if they needed more shit?
I know, right? Just like in real life, things play out very differently for the rich than the poor. Villages by the mountains versus those by prosperous cities, for instance, weren’t informed of a Titan attack as quickly because they were deemed less of a priority.
How do they even take on these Titans if they’re as gigantic as you say they are? Er, how gigantic did you say they are?
Up to about 50ft! But the show counts them in meters, and you’ll hear military members shout out their estimate to each other frequently to assess a battlefield situation. It adds a serious edge to already-exciting battles.
People who join the military need to be trained to use omni-directional mobility gear that lets them grapple between buildings and trees to get a height advantage on the Titans.
The Titans are these large, kind of sluggish beasts and you’ll see humans zipping and flying around them, flipping in the air to perform some really acrobatic moves and land a decent strike. There’s lots of yelling as commands are quickly changed, because nothing ever goes according to plan. It’s almost always chaos. Cannons are firing off from a distance and Titans, with their ear-to-ear and toothy grins, try to swat at anything and everything that moves.
The goal for the military is to swing around behind the Titans and swipe at the back of their necks, which they have discovered to be their only weak spot on an otherwise incredibly tough exterior that manages to heal itself, no less.
That sounds tricky!
It is! Units often need to work together just to take down one Titan, perhaps one distracting it while the other does the swinging around. Some Titans are more clever than others, which makes it even trickier. But, in general, these are at least 10-feet-tall giants with super strength, healing powers and literal thick skin (I’m sure they don’t mind the insults either, as they’re thick-headed, too).
Every episode is fast paced. It’s action scene after action scene. In much the same way that Game of Thrones often portrays (or used to) action and story progression in a way that seems to pummel its viewers into the ground with drama, Attack on Titan frequently hits dramatic entries in its story without much breathing room. The first episode hits the ground running, with blood and guts and immediate shifts in tone. Titans snatch people up, pulling them by their faces, breaking their bodies. Often when the Titans attack, you get the feeling that humanity—even the military—is completely powerless against them. It really is humiliating, which is a consistent theme throughout the show. Locked in their walled cages, powerless against the Titan attacks, barely a moment to rest.
In every battle, lots of people die. Even when the military manages to push out the remaining Titans or, as becomes more likely as the show goes on, manages to at least evacuate enough civilians through the other walls, it always still feels like a failure.
You’ve lost your community, your homes, and a whole hell of a lot of loved ones.
For 100 years, after the first Titan attack that nearly wiped out all of humanity, people have depended on the wall to keep Titans out. And they had lived in peace up until then. Until now, of course.
This sounds like a bummer of a show.
In many ways it is. It’s tragic. Almost every episode is tragic, actually. But, hey, hardship builds character, and that’s exactly what makes this show so good. You see young kids grow and learn and turn into reliable adults who can support one another. It’s an amazing transition to see. Some of the scrappiest, most scared kids end up being the ones that bring plans together. At some point, everyone has to step up. It’s inspiring.
Perhaps the most badass of them all is Mikasa. She’s fiercely loyal, and a fantastic fighter. One of the best in her class. She is not to be trifled with.
So the show is good because of the character arcs?
Not just that. It’s good because of the unique and truly terrifying conflict at the heart of the story. People live in constant fear and apprehension, trapped in what is essentially a cage. They never know when a Titan attack will hit, and they are never even close to being prepared. They can almost never be. Their lives and lifestyles are at the mercy of these gigantic, terrifying creatures that brutally devour their population for no apparent reason.
I mean, heck, if they at least ate the humans for sustenance that’d feel somewhat more justified, but, to them, it mostly seems like terror for the sake of terror. There they are, going about their lives planting crops and heading to the market to buy a damn loaf of bread and all of a sudden their child is ripped from their arms and their head squeezed between some giant’s teeth.
The show pulls no punches. It often gets quite violent. You really feel how terrifying these things are. You feel the bloodlust.
So the show is good because it’s violent?!
The show is good because of what it portrays. Conflict, struggle, and rise. And the show is also good because just like the civilians and the military within it, we as the audience kind of have no idea what’s going on. It all unravels for us in the same way it does for them. And the discoveries they make start to shed light on just how deep the Titan history goes, and how many twists and turns are involved.
I of course won’t spoil anything but I will say this: damned if the way the story progresses isn’t fascinating while maintaining its mystery. I find myself craving to know more, wanting to practically jump into its world and find out for myself.
That’s that video game blood.
Hell yeah it is. I AM THE HERO. I WILL SINGLE-HANDEDLY RESOLVE ALL ISSUES AND SAVE ALL PEOPLES. AND CATS.
Just watch the show.