Behind the Titanic Success of “Attack On Titan”
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Birds glide through a sunny blue sky, reflected in the bright green of a child’s wide-eyed stare. The townspeople have gathered together in silence, staring at something that has yet to be revealed. Towering stone walls loom, and dread builds as an enormous hand grips the top. The sinewy head of a creature slowly comes to peer over the wall, engulfing the horrified onlookers in a vast shadow. A child's somber voice is heard, narrating all that is to come. “On that day, humanity received a grim reminder: We lived in fear of the Titans, and were disgraced to live in these cages we called walls.” With this, “Attack on Titan” reels viewers in with the very first scene.
Those green eyes belong to the series’s protagonist Eren Yeager (Yūki Kaji) and these first moments take place on the day of his great loss. Adapted from Hajime Isayama’s ongoing manga of the same name, “Attack on Titan” is set in a world where the threat of Titans, humongous humanoids with a hunger for flesh, has forced humans to live behind a series of three walls. After 100 years of peaceful living, the outermost wall is breached, and humanity is faced with great terror once again. Provoked by the destruction of his hometown and the death of his mother, Eren vows to kill all the Titans.
Season one follows 15-year-old Eren and his two friends Armin Arlert (Marina Inoue) and Mikasa Ackerman (Yui Ishikawa) after the loss of their homes and families. In an effort to avenge their lost loved ones, they train to become members of the Survey Corps, the only military regiment bold enough to venture beyond the walls and face the Titans. Though the first season seems to lack any sort of depth aside from freeing humanity from the Titans’ predatory rule, the following three seasons shockingly become centered around more complex themes such as racism, government corruption, and the subjectiveness of morality during war.
Though popular, when the anime first came out in 2013, critics labeled the show as catching, but ultimately nothing new. An angry and loud teenage boy furiously chasing a dream—that’s the plot of almost every shonen anime to exist. The characters were likable but lacked significant depth. From the onset, much is left intentionally vague. Little is revealed about the Titans’ behavior, much less where they came from, or what happened to the rest of civilization. The goal of the show seemed too simple, and questions of morality were never raised. Given the premise of humanity vs. the unfeeling monsters that hunt them, there's no question of who one should root for, right?
This could not be further from the way that things panned out. The flesh-eating Titans, strangely enough, are among the least monstrous things in this show. As the show progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that nothing is as it truly seems. Time and time again, expectations are subverted, mysteries unraveled, and with every question answered, countless more arise. Isayama skillfully weaves a tale full of intrigue and uncertainty. With each season, the scope of the characters’ aims widens. Endless buildup culminates in a plot twist so large that fans joke the genre changed after season three.
The success of “Attack On Titan” can be attributed to many things. Its insightful social and political commentary and intricate plot riddled with gut-wrenching twists and turns provide for an addicting and enthralling series. Its gruesome and intense action scenes are incredibly animated, filled with an astounding amount of detail and precision. From the very first episode, the colorful and unique art style has made it more aesthetically appealing, in contrast to a dark and bloody storyline.
The production value only serves to heighten the shocking betrayals, glorious triumphs, and crushing losses of the show. The animation has remained consistently phenomenal, highlighting the riveting action scenes and striking character designs. The Titans are truly repulsive, and the soldiers inspire awe as they soar through the air to fight. The voice actors consistently deliver convincing and emotional performances. The musical score is one of the best in anime, inspiring feelings ranging from patriotism to tear-jerking sorrow for the comrades lost along the way.
Initially, “Attack On Titan” was hardly mainstream or revered. That changed as the show progressed, causing its popularity to skyrocket, and garnering positive attention outside of Japan, particularly in the States. It’s fairly clear why the transition from season one to its following seasons boosted its popularity: once its creator began getting more obvious with the show’s underlying themes, the series started becoming more and more relevant.
Unless you read the manga, it’s hard to see the political undertones in season one, which are anything but subtle as the show progresses. What used to be a show about a boy wanting to avenge his lost loved ones becomes deep commentary about the competing conceptions of good and evil.
Set during a period of war between three different sides, the show focuses on one principal idea: no side is inherently “good.” All three are committing horrific atrocities, and yet all sides have their justification. By providing backstories for complex and well-developed characters on all sides, Isayama easily throws viewers into a meticulously planned out world that evokes some sympathy for everyone, and nobody at the same time. Still, at the end of the day, each side contributes to innocent deaths. Though it’s tempting to root for your favorite character, it’s equally important to remember that their actions aren’t any more justifiable than those of the people they’re fighting against.
Season four was a game changer for the show. Viewers have practically grown up with Eren and the scouts, making the dramatic changes all the more shocking. The boy who was once labeled as a forgettable protagonist has transformed into an indisputable antihero. Characters once viewed as antagonists are thoroughly humanized. Isayama has always been liberal with the number of character deaths, and season four takes it to another level. Though viewers are largely divided on whether they stand in support of everyone’s actions, there is an almost unanimous consensus that the tremendous character development is one of the highlights of the series.
A single chapter of the manga remains, and readers still have no clue as to what the end will be. No one is truly worried though, as Isayama is a master of intricate long-term writing. The seemingly insignificant details scattered through years of the series always eventually come together, filling plot holes and leaving fans wondering how they never saw it coming.
Freedom is a concept that has long enthralled the human psyche, and it’s a major theme in the series. From Eren’s constant monologues, to the recurring motif of birds, to the “wings of freedom” adorning the back of the Scouts’ uniform, it is an ever-present idea. As the characters have been literally trapped within the walls, living like livestock for the Titans, this fixation on freedom makes a lot of sense. But long after circumstances change, the same struggles remain. Just as we grapple with the concepts of liberty, freedom, and equality in the real world, the show deeply examines them, making sure to portray a variety of perspectives. As we draw near to the bitter end, we find ourselves closer to answering an age-old question, and perhaps the series’s most important takeaway: what does it mean to be free?