I was walking around in Kiba yesterday. It’s very much a working-class commuter neighborhood, about as far from the bright lights of Akihabara or Shibuya and their countless tourists as it’s possible to get in Tokyo. I glanced down a little alley and saw a signboard in front of a barber shop, and whose face should be staring back at me but that of the Armored Titan, drawn in chalk? You know you’ve achieved cross-over success when you see an anime used to hype a barbershop in Kiba, and Shingeki no Kyojin looks poised to be one of the biggest mainstream hits in recent anime history. The BD/DVD pre-sales are excellent, and just about every volume of the manga is charting simultaneously. Attack on Titan is on the verge of passing into phenomenon status.
It would be interesting to delve deeper into the psychology of that and what it says about marketing anime in the 2010’s, but that’s the subject of another post – and as always, there’s plenty going on in the series to keep everyone busy. What Shingeki lacks in character subtlety it makes up for in plot overload – between the perpetually evolving mystery/conspiracy plot and the simultaneously manic action plot, things never really slow down long enough to get boring (and on the downside, rarely long enough to allow a character to have more than a superficial moment). I get the sense that Isayama-sensei isn’t fundamentally all that interested in turning this series into a character study – the cast is there to move the plot perpetually forward, not to think too much along the way.
As expected, the titan-attacking titan turned out to be Eren – or, at the very least, had Eren inside its stomach (and it had Eren’s eyes too). Just exactly how all that came down is still unsettled – presumably Eren’s dreams about strange injections from his father have something to do with it – but the reveal itself is certainly the banner headline this week. Both in terms of the plot itself and the construction of the narrative itself it’s a game-changer – Eren is back, and presumably will continue to be the center of the story. The fact that a human could somehow control or become – whichever almost doesn’t matter – a titan changes the balance of power in a very strategic way, if it can be harnessed, as we saw quite clearly this week. Heck, Eren even grew back his missing arm and leg. It’s no surprise that he’s seemingly going to be tagged as an enemy by the human authorities, but given that I’m more than confident that those authorities are spectacularly corrupt at the very least and possibly far worse, he should wear that lack a badge of honor.
In point of fact, Ishiyama has given us one character who does think too much along the way, and that’s Armin. Like everyone else his emotional crises are very much of the subtle as a sledgehammer variety – “I’m useless, so why should you listen to me?” is certainly a trope but it’s rare you actually hear a character say it out loud. Still, Armin stands out in this cast as someone who’s only weapon is his brain, and it was nice to see him prove useful at last (notwithstanding Mikasa’s comment that his intuition had already saved she and Eren once). It was he who seized on the idea of using the Eren-titan as an ally, and he who drafted the plan the use the antique weapons found inside the supply depot as a way to take out the seven mini-titans loitering around the gas supplies (have we always known there were so many size classes of titans, even little chihuahua ones? I don’t remember being told that before). From a plot standpoint this seems to be his role – to act as a stand-in for the audience, and to pause while the JoJo-esque raging is happening all around him and ask what’s actually going on.
I thought the reactions of Mikasa and Armin to Eren turning up inside a titan’s belly were interesting. Mikasa was simply overcome with emotion at seeing him – it really does seem as if her sole purpose in life is repaying him for the debt she sees herself as owing him (and the whole being in love with him thing). Armin eventually allows himself a few tears too, but even here he can’t himself thinking about what’s happened. Armin is the one who’s likely going to ask the questions we should all be asking – just WTF is going on here? Mikasa is too busy being relieved to care, I think. There’s also the vital question of just how much of this experience Eren is going to remember, if any, and whether (please say yes) his personality is going to be different for having undergone it.
As for the rest of the cast, some like Connie and Sasha (it’s very disconcerting that Kobayashi Yuu is using her exact Outa Shou voice here) still seem ticketed either for titan-feed or comic relief (“I’ll spank you for that later.”). But it’s just possible that Jean may be carving out a niche for himself as a meaningful character. What we haven’t really seen yet is someone who seems well suited to actually lead. Eren has the rousing speech down but even setting aside the recent twist he’s basically a lone wolf type, and a jerk most of the time. Mikasa is cartoonishly skilled but not especially interested in other people besides Eren and Armin, and Armin himself may have the brains for it but not the confidence – and physically weak soldiers rarely make strong leaders in combat situations. Jean fits the reluctant leader trope, first of all – he’s a cynic, and with good reason – and while he’s competent he’s not superpowered physically. Maybe he’s enough of a regular guy to understand the psychology of the soliders under him, and smart enough to make good decisions when presented with a set of tactical variables. It might be a reach, but I’m still looking for a character to really identify with here, and maybe there’s a chance he could be one.