I’ve made a point not to look at any reactions to this week’s episode of Attack on Titan before posting, but if I’m going to guess, it’d be that it’s the least well-received episode by the bulk of the audience. Because it was easily my favorite, and at the way things seem to be going with this show I more or less expect to be in the minority no matter what I say. I’ve enjoyed the first five episodes a lot – especially the premiere – but not on the same level as I did this one.
It would be tempting to make a smart-ass remark and attribute that to the relative lack of Eren – and I won’t deny it was a factor – but it goes a lot deeper than that. To start with, for the first time I really felt Shingeki no Kyojin on a human scale (apart from the moment in the first episode when Eren’s mother said “Don’t leave…”). The first five eps were a thrill ride, but given the type of things that were happening I really shouldn’t have been laughing nearly as often as I did. There was simply no time to breathe, and the events played out with such bombast and in such a preposterous way that I felt very little emotional connection to them. For the first time most of this ep was spent with people talking rather than shouting, and the moments of intense action were intermittent rather than non-stop. There was enough time to digest what was happening – intellectually and emotionally. And in my view, that’s a good thing.
I also liked the fact that we got a chance at last to get beneath the wafer-thin characterization of Mikasa and Armin. I had hopes for Armin as a potentially compelling main character – not so much because of anything he’s done, but because we know so little about him that at least the possibility existed that there might be more to him, and I’m not sure I saw that with Eren or Mikasa. I don’t know that this episode changed that definitively, but it at least began to expose the character a little. He’s weak physically – we know that – and he’s smart. But what compels Armin, apart from the facile explanations we’ve been given? How does he feel about depending on Eren and Mikasa to protect him? Finally we began to get some answers to those questions, especially the latter – he has a long way to go before he’s really interesting, but given the limited options for interesting major characters so far, a lot depends on Armin getting there.
As for Mikasa, this was obviously a crucial episode. Basically, up to this point she’s been a robot – a seemingly emotionless girl who’s a serious badass and absolutely committed to protecting Eren at all costs. There were suggestions that his family had taken her in after a tragedy, but not the nature of it – and with no clues from the character as to why she felt the way she did about Eren, nothing to latch onto as a viewer. I’m not crazy about character flashback episodes as a rule, but this one was handled well. If any character ever needed humanizing it’s Mikasa, and seeing her frightened and terrorized certainly helps that cause. And given what happened, it’s now perfectly understandable why she feels so strongly about Eren – he was strong when she wasn’t, and he saved her from a terrible fate. I still find him pretty hard to take, but this was about the right dose. I won’t be counting the minutes until whatever trick Isayama-sensei uses to bring him back to life is revealed, though, if I’m to be honest.
That flashback was important for many reasons, plot-wise as well as character (not least in that in showing us Eren’s father, it reminds us to wonder just what’s happened to him). There was one very big bombshell dropped – this world is sometime in our distant future. We know this because Mikasa’s kidnappers discuss how she might have extra value because she’s an “Oriental” – a member of an extinct race of humans from ancient times, when there were many such races. If anything this only strengthens my instinctual feeling that the Titans are directly connected to humans – created by humans, perhaps, or somehow from them. And the evidence only mounts that humans might be the true villans of this piece, not Titans. The implication is certainly that a slave market exists – we can imagine what Mikasa was to be marketed as – and in “present” times we see the escaping Trost civilians endangered because a wealthy merchant has blocked the exit trying to escape with his fat cart o’ gold (or whatever’s inside it – slaves, for all we know). Mikasa puts a stop to that of course – though she stays her blade long enough for the merchant to surrender the case.
Mikasa’s revelatory moment was when she stared at Eren being throttled by the last surviving kidnapper and realized that “The world is a merciless place” – or rather, that she’d known it all along. That tells you a lot about who she is, and it’s interesting that Armin had almost the identical realization in the present – that he hadn’t just descended into Hell, but that the World had been Hell all along. This somber, tragic mood is what I thought might be the prevailing wind in Shingeki no Kyojin, but this was really the first episode where the relentless sensory onslaught paused often enough for that feeling to sink in. It’s not as though Mikasa and Armin (or Eren for that matter) have suddenly become compelling characters or that the series has overnight become as compelling a character drama as it is a mystery/thriller – but it’s a start. In anime as in cooking, it’s usually best to have different flavors play off each other rather than overwhelm the senses with one. I don’t expect Attack on Titan to abandon it’s blistering action and violence and become a sober reflection on tragedy, nor would I want it to, but more episodes like this one would be a welcome contrast and make those runaway train eps that much more effective.