(For the love of God, do not read if you haven’t finished the anime version of Shingeki no Kyojin. I am about to spoil everything. I won’t spoil anything past the anime though, so if you haven’t read the manga, you’re safe.)
Ah Shingeki, how I love thee; let me count the ways.
Because this show finished before I had started this blog, I never got a chance to write about how wonderful I think it is, “wonderful” being but one of a long list of glowing adjectives I could attach to this show. How about “harrowing?” “Exhausting?” “Terrifying?” “Gorgeous?” “Sexy?” (especially “sexy). All of these fit the bill in my book. In fact, trying to find a place to start is a bit of a challenge in itself, which is likely why this opening paragraph has gone on so long. Sorry.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? In Episode 1, there is a scene in which a character is given the chance to do battle with one of the titular Titans. The stakes are high; Hannes, the character in question, is the only thing standing between two powerless children, their injured mother, and a hungry, grinning Titan.
That Titan? Yeah. That guy scared the ever-loving shit outta me.
Now, let me clarify – I am a total wuss. I don’t see scary movies, and the closest I come to experiencing horror is Stephen King novels. With that in mind, I understand why this image was probably more impactful to me than it was to most. But it did have an impact – so much so that I kept seeing that grinning, jaundiced face all throughout that night. Episode 1 of Attack on Titan literally made me lose sleep. And that, in my book, is damn good television.
And what about Hannes? The Laws of Anime Badassery dictate that he should have died a glorious, sacrificial death, his life paid as the price for saving Eren and his family. But that didn’t happen – no, instead, Hannes chickened out. He lost his nerve. He was just as scared as I was, and he chose the option that would preserve his own life instead of the one that was heroic. Hannes is a way, way more interesting character than he has any right to be.
This speaks to one of my favorite elements of Shingeki no Kyojin. It’s packed to the gills with characters – so many characters. Not just characters, enormous groups of characters. You’ve got the Training Corps. You’ve got the Survey Corps. Within the Survey Corps, you’ve got Levi and his squad of elite Titan-killers. You’ve got the Garrison, with it’s own elite soldiers and notable personalities. You’ve got the Military Police – a delicious group of characters, due to the fact that simply belonging to the MPs alone is a sly shorthand that speaks to the strength of that individual’s morals.
What’s so beautiful about Shingeki however, is that even in this enormous melting-pot of personalities, every single individual character is clearly defined. Shingeki’s detractors like to cite the characters as one of the weaker elements, and if you’re among them, you’re probably already rolling your eyes; bear with me, here. I think I have a pretty good case. Let’s look at a couple characters – the bit-i-est of the bit characters, the bottom of the B-Team barrel, so I can show you what I mean.
Meet Connie Springer; he’s a member of the Training Corps, and a Top Ten graduate – in other words, a Military Police candidate. However, he mostly exists in the show for laughs. He’s dumb, he looks like a goof, and even his fighting style errs on the side of slapstick wackiness (he’s been seen body-checking Titans in the head, and deftly slipping out of their hands like a cheeky little monkey). Not exactly Hamlet, is what I’m saying. However, there are a few moments in the mid-season episodes where we see this “comic relief” doofus in a very different light. The events of the show have had an effect on him.
We get to learn a bit about what makes this guy tick. We learn that he’s not only a laughing stock as a character in the show, but he’s a laughing stock in his own life. He’s mocked in his home village, and joining the Military Police would earn him the respect that he’s craved his whole life. And yet, faced with the chance to earn that respect, he throws it away to do the right thing and join the Survey Corps. Connie Springer is a way, way more interesting character than he has any right to be.
How about Riko Brzenska? I was immediately attracted to her simply by the steely demeanor gleaming behind those lovely Shingeki-style megane, though I will admit to having a bias towards both tsunderes and glasses. At first, she behaves very much like your garden variety Strong Female Character, her no-nonsense attitude constantly poo-pooing the risky tactics that could turn the tide of battle in the Good Guy’s favor. In any other show, she should exist as a road-block – a hurdle for the characters to surmount so we can get to the awesome part where Eren goes beast mode and starts punching heads off. But because Riko is a way, way more interesting character than she has any right to be, that’s not the case.
Like the Military Police, belonging the Garrison is a form of character shorthand for the audience. The Garrison soldiers are believed to be weak and cowardly – not strong enough to join the Military Police and not courageous enough to join the Survey Corps. And yet, Riko is introduced to us as one of the Garrison’s elite – one of the top soldiers in humanity’s least potent fighting force. There’s an eyebrow-raiser, to be sure. Furthermore, just like Connie, we get to learn a bit more about Riko; she’s not stonewalling Eren and company because she’s a jerk – she’s doing it because she deeply values the lives her fellow soldiers. She displays this facet of her character through a monologue in which she personally names several of her comrades, soldiers who we’ll never see or get to know. This speech, to me, sums up this point of mine quite nicely.
Jean. Marco. Bertolt. Reiner. Connie. Sasha. Christa. Ymir. In any other show, these could be the characters in Riko’s speech, disposable cannon fodder for Eren and Co. to occasionally lament on the way to their next shounen-style action sequence… but they’re not. The show takes the time to let you get to know the “cannon fodder.” Almost every background loser has a face, a name, a personality, a goal… hell, does anybody remember Daz? God, I love that guy.
You want to know why? Because Daz is that guy. He’s that sniveling, groveling coward in almost every anime action show that’s constantly there to remind the heroes (or the audience) how hopeless the fight is, how meaningless their sacrifices are in the face of their superior enemies. That guy is always there to throw out a snarky comment from within the middle of an anonymous crowd. The difference with Shingeki though is that that guy has a name. And that name is Daz. You probably don’t remember him; he doesn’t have much of an impact other than being a whiny coward. In fact, that’s the only thing he does. But I challenge you, next time you marathon Titan (c’mon, you know you will), listen and pay attention to when some asshole is complaining off in the background… because nine times out of ten, that asshole is Daz.
Why am I making such a big deal about this? Well, because most shows wouldn’t make the effort to give that guy a name and a face. Why should they? It’s just some bit role. Some anonymous voice destined to be punished with death for their cowardice and lack of faith. And yet, Shingeki wants you to feel the weight of that voice. The show wants you to be painfully aware of it, and of the fact that it could be extinguished at any moment. AoT wants you to know that guy‘s name. It wants you to know that that guy has dreams, hopes, fears, aspirations, even a family.
I’ve read a lot of reviews about this show; a common thread among them is that one of Shingeki‘s greatest strengths is the tangible sense of dread permeating every episode. You get the feeling that your favorite character is going to die at any second. And yet… the body count for named characters is actually pretty low by the end of the series. Not even Daz dies (though he kind of disappears after the first half of the season, so who knows?). See, it sounds to me like people are phrasing the show’s strengths wrong. It’s not necessarily something unique to Shingeki, though it’s something that the show does very well; Attack on Titan simply compels you to care about it’s characters.
Granted, it’s a bit easier to demand the attention of an audience when the ultimate stakes of death are on the line. However, going back to Connie for a moment, is that character all of a sudden un-relatable when you throw him into, say, a sports anime? Shingeki offers that character some unique circumstances (such as the military branch choice), but the overall arc is still a strong one, man-eating Titans or not.
Now, I’ve given a lot of attention to the supporting players, but what does that mean for the main cast? Well for starters, I probably love Mikasa more than I’ve ever loved a real person.
Just kidding (maybe). All joking aside though, Mikasa is a genuinely fascinating character, one that’s both a product of the time that she was created in, as well as something very fresh and new. Mainstream anime catches a lot of flack for it’s problematic handling of female characters, and often for good reason. Mikasa could be considered one of those problem characters; despite the fact that she’s arguably the most physically capable individual in the show, she has a crippling emotional dependency on a male, Eren, to the point that she actively pursues her own death upon receiving word of his demise. Yeesh.
The difference between Mikasa and other characters like her, however, is that her dependency does not prevent her from having a sense of agency in her own life. Her reliance on Eren doesn’t turn her into a some whiny crybaby – having lost not one, but two mothers in her lifetime, Mikasa has honed herself, through her own will, into something of an alpha mom, determined to protect what’s left of her family unit at all costs.
That’s not to say that Mikasa’s feelings for Eren aren’t romantic; there’s a particularly scrumptious moment toward the end of the series in which she exhibits some unmistakeable, borderline yandere-level jealousy towards Annie. At the end of the day however, writer Isayama Hajime manages to achieve a very successful balance with Mikasa, one that many writers of female characters are unable to maintain. Mikasa is physically dominant to borderline masculine levels (the running gag propagated by the author himself is that she’s rocking a set of washboard abs), but not at the expense of her inherently feminine, motherly instincts.
Mikasa isn’t the only female presence worth mentioning in AoT either, not by a long shot. In fact, I think anime fans in the future will look back on this show as having been extremely progressive. It’s pretty remarkable for a show with nary a panty shot in sight to achieve such enormous levels of popularity in Japan, but Shingeki has done so with flying colors, to say nothing of it’s success stateside. The closest we get to a typically cutesy anime character is Petra, and even she is fiercely competent, having played a pivotal role in one of the coolest fights in the entire show. However, like Mikasa, being a badass does not prevent her from admiring and having feelings for a man.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Annie Leonhart, as well. I find it very interesting that the closest thing we see to a naked female body in Attack on Titan is Annie’s Female Titan; rather than appearing sexy, the Female Titan is a grotesque bundle of muscle and sinew. Does it reflect on Isayama that he chooses to portray the bare female form as a source of destruction and misery? I wouldn’t presume too much about the guy, but it’s clear from interviews that he’s given that he’s got a few screws loose. Considering that the women in Shingeki are these powerful, competent, but also destructive forces of nature, I’d be willing to bet that one of those screws has something to do with the women in his life.
What Isayama is saying about gender in the AoT universe, then, is that the shape of one’s body is secondary to the personality traits that he sees as inherently male or female. Mikasa has got rock-hard abs, but only out of a desire to be a fiercely protective lioness mom. Petra and Krista are tough, but also kind and nurturing. Even Annie betrays a sense of coyness and innocence in her infamous laughter scene, a scene that Isayama has admitted was meant to capture the sense of relief that a child feels when caught in a lie that they no longer have to keep telling. Whether these traits are, indeed, feminine traits are another debate, but the subtext is certainly there.
I’ve got one more anecdote to share. There’s an old film called Olympia, a German film directed by Leni Riefenstahl, the woman who would later go on to direct Triumph of the Wills, an infamous piece of Nazi propaganda.
Olympia is a film about the 1936 Olympic games. Riefenstahl’s intent with the piece was to glorify the amazing feats made capable by the human body (and not just Germans!), and it’s most famous sequence is a scene featuring the Olympic divers. The sequence begins normally enough, with the divers lining up at the diving board and performing their graceful leaps into the pool. However, as the scene progresses, the way that it’s edited begins to change. Riefenstahl begins to remove shots of the pool, until the only thing that remains are shots of human beings leaping and soaring through the air.
Maybe it’s because of the show’s overt German influences, but this sequence from Olympia leapt to my mind the first time I saw the AoT opening. Something about those final moments, in which the human soldiers spring into the air row by row, despite the fact that none of them have engaged their 3D Maneuver gear, evocated that same feeling that I felt from Olympia. Notice too that as the opening comes to a close, shots of the buildings and the ground are cut, leaving only images of the soldiers soaring in the sky.
The diving board scene in Olympia is about the transcendence of human limits, about leaving the diving board behind and daring to fly. Shingeki no Kyojin may not have a diving board, but it does have a set of Walls… and a cast of characters that’s been a joy to watch as they struggle to transcend them.
And by the way… Happy New Year!
Attack on Titan images via Crunchyroll