Thanks to an amazing title sequence and an imagination-capturing low fantasy world, Attack on Titan has been one of this season's most popular anime. Five weeks ago, I even proclaimed it one of the five anime you should be watching.
Unfortunately, despite all it has going for it—and it certainly has some amazing aspects, no doubt—it is a series that has failed so far to live up to its own potential.
Perhaps the greatest star of Attack on Titan is not a character but the world in which the story exists. In a world filled with the mysterious titans—who seem to have no goal or motivation other than killing humans—all of mankind hides behind three great walls in an attempt to survive. Moreover, the way humanity attempts to fight back against the titans—by making the average soldier into a sword-swinging Spider-Man proxy—simply excites the imagination.
But just like Berserk, Attack on Titan keeps its story more or less tense and grounded by showing the mortality not only of the random grunts in the background but also of the supporting cast. Everything is filled with constant tension as the question seems to be not “if your favorite character will die” but “when your favorite character will die.”
One of the three main leads in Attack on Titan, Mikasa is clearly the break-out character of the series. While Armin is the thinker and Eren the leader, Mikasa is the one-man army of the group. She is calm, skilled, and intelligent—and the only one of the three who seemingly has no problem slaughtering titans left and right.
But behind the calm veneer is a deep and interesting character. Every moment she's on screen is captivating—whether that's exploring her back story, watching her confront a selfish merchant, or discovering exactly how she reacts to encountering her greatest fears.
[This section contains major spoilers, skip to the next section to avoid them] Attack on Titan spends its first five episodes focusing almost fully on Eren. Then, at the end of the fifth episode, we see him lose a leg and an arm before being swallowed by a titan. And then we wait and ponder. “Did the creators of the show really kill the main character only five episodes into the story? No, of course not.” But then one episode passes, then another and another. His death is played completely straight even though it’s almost impossible to believe.
It takes nearly three full episodes before we find out what happened to him—a horrible, agonizing wait for a cliffhanger to be resolved. As a critic, I respect the creators for sticking to their guns and being fully committed to the bluff that the main character was, in fact, dead. But as a viewer, I hated it. Each week I tuned in to see how exactly he survived (because, let's face it, shows never kill off the main character before the final climax) and was instead shown some other character's backstory or watched as the plot followed some characters I wasn't nearly as invested in. Basically I was shown everything except what I wanted to know. It was maddening.
Attack on Titan brilliantly sets up tense situation after tense situation and then spoils them by indulging in endless inner monologues. This is one of the pitfalls of adapting a manga into an anime. On the page, stream-of-consciousness angst flows as fast as you can read. However, in an anime, the same passage slows down to the speed of talk—turning a one-minute exploration of a character’s thoughts into a ten-minute digression. These moments are the bane of Attack on Titan. And worse, they are as frequent as they are tension-killing.
Many of the show's conversations have the same effect as the inner monologues for the same reason. In manga form, they seem to be covered in a matter of seconds, but in an anime they become long and drawn out—making you wonder how the characters were really in any danger if they could afford to talk for twenty minutes about what to do.
But the conversations and inner monologues are not the only problem with pacing. The overall pace of the first half of the show is odd as well. While the first four episodes are somewhat standalone stories from different points in the main characters’ young lives, from the fifth episode on, the series suddenly changes into a serialized epic with no end in sight.
So, if you enjoyed the first few episodes of the show, each week you'll find yourself waiting for the end of the arc so you can get on to the next adventure—only to discover that there are full episodes of nothing but angsty conversation padding out the episode count.
It seems that the first few episodes would have been better served as flashback episodes interspersed throughout the “Battle of Trost” arc like how the Mikasa origin episode was used. Instead, by putting these episodes at the beginning, it sets a false pace for the viewers and makes the major arc seem even longer and more drawn out than it would have on its own.
In the end, the first half of Attack on Titan has the potential to be great, but fails somewhat in the execution. The world is captivating and the characters are excellently developed, but the show's pace is a major thorn in its own side. So while I have been enjoying much of what Attack on Titan has to offer, I find watching it week to week, cliffhanger to cliffhanger, to be nearly unbearable.
However, while the first half has its mistakes, there is nothing to say that the second half won't learn from them. Join us here at Kotaku East in 12 weeks when we look at the second half of Attack on Titan.