One of the complaints I heard about Attack on Titan before this series even started is that it was pretty stingy on actually revealing anything. Well, we got through 25 episodes and based on what we’ve seen in the anime, I think that’s a pretty fair assessment. Certainly there were moments when the mythology was jerked ahead by a nugget of new information, but in a sense it seems to me that looking back, it’s surprising how little actually happened in 25 episodes which packed in so much action.
Taking stock of where things stand at the end, I think the biggest change is really that the status quo has been overturned, likely in a pretty big way – and that would be true even if it weren’t for that little surprise after the ED credits. In fact I think one might almost argue that was Erwin’s ultimate goal here, as much if not more than capturing Annie alive. It was a huge gamble, no doubt, but despite his lack of military success what’s set Erwin apart from the other human leadership (apart from Pixis) is his ability to think large and willingness to make shocking sacrifices for the greater good. In this case that was up to and including his own life, which I think he was quite prepared to surrender in exchange for blowing the cover off the facade of Stohess.
Of course, capturing Annie alive would have been more than just a nice little bonus. It was the nominal point of the operation and would have yielded immediate and tangible benefits that would have secured the future of the Recon Corps without a doubt. If there was one most galling frustration about the lack of resolution here for me, it’s that we were never told what drove Annie to do what she did. I suspect that’s because doing so would have revealed most of the major mystery of the story itself – just why this conspiracy exists in the first place – but these little teaser flashbacks about her father and some horrible thing he did just didn’t do a whole lot for me.
I feel there’s an implication here of a major contradiction in the series itself, namely that the mystery is more interesting that the conflict that will surely follow it’s uncovering. That leaves the incentive to drag and drag its reveal, because the author knows that in doing so he sucks the life out of his story. It’s like one of those TV shows where two platonic friends forever tease that they might get together romantically, and it’s the tease that ends up driving the show. Eventually they do the deed, and usually all the life goes out of the series after they do. Either they settle down happily and the narrative is effectively over, or it degrades into an on again-off again soap opera that quickly loses its appeal. The writers know this and drag the moment out for as long as they can, but they know that it’s the price to be paid for the premise they’ve chosen – sooner or later they have to give the audience what it’s waiting for.
As usual, the finale of Shingeki is about as subtle as a kick in the nuts, but still makes a pretty big impact (though not as big as a kick in the nuts). You have the church full of wall-worshippers, turned into pudding by Annie’s falling form (social commentary noted). These scenes of devastation and death are classic Araki-Isayama sledgehammer savagery, but they’re important so that we understand just what Erwin’s strategy has unleashed on the innocents of Stohess. It all comes down to the issue of making sacrifices that Erwin keeps harping on. It also points up just how much was lost when Eren hesitated at the moment of truth yet again, allowing Annie to freeze herself inside what’s for now an unbreakable cocoon after she loses her battle to Eren at last.
In the aftermath of the carnage we get a trial, where the Governor (Ishizuka Unshou, a big name in a little role) confronts Erwin about the price paid for his adventurism. This sequence felt as if it could have used a lot more time, to be honest – it seemed as if he and the Survey Corps were let off the hook way too easily, based on the information we have at our disposal. For all the sound and fury of the finale, somehow the moments that stood out as significant were ones that were quietly sneaked in: the eyecatch story about the miner and the foundations of Wall Sina. And a very strange moment when Jean pauses while leaving the room where Eren is recuperating from his wounds, in Mikasa’s company (my read on that was Jean thinking, “You’re just not worth it” about Eren, but that’s just a guess). It seems as if most of the complaints from manga readers about the finale surround the fact that a bunch of conversation between Eren and Armin was changed to Eren and Mikasa, which is sort of humorous to me. In fact I see their point, of course, because between Eren’s constant winging and Mikasa’s vapid adoration, these two are pretty much incapable of having an interesting conversation at this point.
Ultimately, it’s largely this lack of real character interest that prevents me from classifying Attack on Titan as a truly elite series. I did grow to like Armin, Jean and Erwin – and Annie has potential for the mystery behind her if nothing else. But the lack of meaningful relationships in the show limits how much emotional impact it makes on me. The frustrations in the stalling and prevaricating on the conspiracy are frustrating, too, but that’s a back-handed compliment – it’s only because the premise is so ingenious and compelling that I care enough to be irritated. There are also some pacing concerns, and I think the anime produced some clunkers (mostly the eternal “Trost” loop) in pursuit of making the timing work to end where it did. These are the perils of adapting manga that are works in progress, and in truth this series would have been best if it had been something like Hyouka in terms of odd format – 21 episodes.
Whatever one might feel about this series itself, it can’t be denied that it’s an extraordinary phenomenon in anime terms. When all is said and done there will be other anime that have outsold AoT in raw numbers of dics, but my feeling is that this show has connected with a broader demographic range than any anime since Evangelion. In all my time as a serious anime fan, Shingeki no Kyoujin is the only show that I’ve seen reach the consciousness of large numbers of people who normally ignore anime. This is the show that’s cracked the non-traditional demographics in a big way. On top of that – as any visit to Comiket or a major doujin fair would tell you – it’s also managed to appeal to every major subset of anime fans, no small feat in and of itself.
The question of just why that is is an interesting one, but probably one that necessitates a long post dedicated entirely to the issue. Obviously the balls-to-the-wall action and sheer dramatic volume of the show are part of the draw, but there’s clearly something a lot deeper here. It seems that people connect to the core premise of Shingeki in a very elemental way, anime fans and muggles alike. The notion of humanity in a cage, possibly of its own design, is a highly compelling one (the montage of the Canada Geese soaring over Wall Sina as Armin and Jean – the two most thoughtful members of the main cast – watched was well done, if not especially subtle).
It’s clearly the premise of Attack on Titan that draws people in, because less so than for any similarly successful anime in recent years this show relies little on character. In looking at most other commercial blockbuster anime of the last half-decade, nearly all of them have a strong component of fetishizing at least one character that capture the imagination of the fanbase. The fact that this isn’t true here is, I think, another reason why this series has a broader demographic reach than the likes of the Monogatari franchise or Madoka Magica, to the point where it’s become culturally relevant to the general public both in Japan and abroad.
As to the question of what the future holds for the show, Isayama-sensei noted in an interview last week that he’d like to finish the manga in 20 volumes (currently, there are 11). It seems as if it’ll be two years or so before the manga reaches the point where the anime can directly continue this timeline, but this franchise is such a cash cow that I can’t see the money people sitting on their hands. We have the live-action film due, and I’m dead-certain we’ll see anime fill that two-year gap – most likely side-stories or prequels in OVA or movie form, or perhaps a TV series based on the gag manga set in high school. You simply can’t apply the normal rules to Shingeki no Kyoujin – this is not merely a franchise, but a cultural phenomenon of once-in-a-decade proportions for anime. I certainly don’t see it as exceptional enough to merit that in terms of writing or execution, but it is damn good – and compared to most commercial blockbuster anime, a freaking masterpiece. If this is the show that helps to spark an overall uptick in popularity for anime as a whole, that can only be seen as a very good thing.