Reviewing the first thirteen episodes of Attack on Titan (which is what makes up Part 1 of the Blu-Ray/DVD combo on offer from FUNimation) isn’t easy for me. As a single set, it plays out unevenly and ends pretty frustratingly, finally pulling back to reveal the fact that what you’ve just watched is merely the first page of the preface of a much larger story. It’s not done in a way that I would call pleasurable to watch; the front half of the set is so overloaded with thrills that the second half feels almost mummified in the success of the prior episodes.
What I’m hinting at is... it gets a bit boring.
But as an anime, I actually think that Attack on Titan is quite wonderful. Were we to spend too much time criticizing the way the creative team here loses hold of the momentum they gain early on, we might forget how wonderful that first ride actually felt, which would be nothing short of criminal. Not to mention that the animation is interesting (even when you can feel the budget stretching), the direction is unique and compelling, and the design is a mix of elements that feels familiar at first, but turns out to be incredibly new.
Giants, am I right? Who knew how cool giants could be! And the way characters travel--a sort of auto-zip-lining that is usually done with a sword in at least one hand--it’s just so damned cool.
Set in an alternate timeline, in a period that feels like the 18th Century--or somewhere thereabouts--Attack on Titan is the story of the last remaining human outpost on Earth, so we think. It’s surrounded by tall stone walls, and besieged by mindless giants who show up without warning to snatch up our human heroes and gobble them down by the handful. If all this sounds like something out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, well, yeah, it does. The visuals even have a rustic, bavarian feel, with the lead character, Eren Jaegar, constantly flashing back to a childhood that might take place in Hyrule, if you only squint a little.
But things that start sunny go dark rather quickly. Things take a turn and what follows is, by and large, soaked in a sense of foreboding and horror that never lets up, but also never really veers into camp.
Attack on Titan has no desire to give you a chuckle. It makes Death Note, which gets a shout-out on the front of the show’s packaging, seem like a sit-com in comparison. But it’s horror done well; the stakes are established early on, as lead characters see their family and friends brutally dispatched before their eyes, and then the show moves on without lingering as much as you might expect. It’s all pretty riveting to watch, without feeling gratuitous or salacious...relative to the rest of anime landscape, that is. People are still routinely ripped to pieces, and one shot of a corpse-filled giant’s stomach is especially affecting.
Like every modern mainstream release, you’ve got your choice of subbed or dubbed if you pick up this set. They’re actually quite different; the subtitles are more concise and straightforward, while the dubbing script tries to get a bit fancier--but comes off feeling awkward and cumbersome. Should you want to use this to show a friend how cool anime is, you’d better hope they’ve caught on before the narrative shifts focus from Eren to his friend Armin, the nerdy sidekick character. Armin is at first shy, nervous, and easily damaged by seeing battle up close. For some reason, this means that he has to convey panic by speaking like a robot, and he produces dialogue that is completely at odds with the persona he comes out of.
At one point, Armin concludes a long, dramatic speech in defense of his best friend with this hum-dinger of a line: “For humanity’s glory, in what little time I have left to live, I will advocate his strategic value!” While I imagine it was intended to portray a complicated mix of nerdiness, old-timey earnestness, and soldierly respect--he is addressing a captain or commander of some sort--it ends up just sounding like a mouthful of sounds that aggressively betrays everything about the context of the scene. There are many moments like this where the script feels over-engineered to the point of dishonesty, actively ignoring what is happening in the very sequence it is supposed to be serving.
Some sort of final judgement?
Well, it’s Attack on Titan. It’s your best bet at convincing an uninitiated would-be fan that anime is still a premiere place where creative people are trying interesting, far-out stuff, building compelling universes that demand exploring. The visuals range from cool to jaw-dropping and are more often than not truly inspired. Sometimes it lands with a thud, sure--but you only hear those thuds because it is falls from great heights.
And who says Part 2 won’t be even better?
Alexei Bochenek is a lifelong tech nerd and film buff based in Los Angeles. He writes for various online publications and edits the Los Angeles events website LALookout.com. Follow his Twitter: @alexeigb.