Big Trouble

Trained to freeze the enemy with their icy stares


Attack on Titan - 2015
Written by Yusuke Watanabe & Tomohiro Machiyama
From the Comic by Hajime Isayama
Directed by Shinji Higuchi
With Haruma Miura, Kiko Mizuhara & Kanata Hongo

This iteration of Attack on Titan is the live action adaptation of the Japanese animated series which was adapted from a Japanese comic series.  What that means is that there's a huge, built-in audience of geeks who are just waiting to bitch about it on the internet.  What THAT means is that the feedback is going to be tainted with the stink of nerd sweat, potentially driving away the rest of us who don't actually care whether Attack on Titan matches the expectations of Best Buy employees and other hardcore fans.  I came to Attack on Titan looking for an evening's worth of entertainment, and that was what I got.  If and when I decide I'm interested in a story told over weeks, then perhaps I will check out the animated series, but that will be another story.

Attack on Titan actually reminds me somewhat of the popular teen apocalypse fiction we've seen recently in American films.  The tale concerns three young people living in the outer ring of a thrice-walled city 100 years after the "titans" devastated civilization.  Their story is pretty heavily rooted in standard Japanese youth tropes with frequent gravitas-revealing posing and overwrought melodrama in shades from silent suffering to violent rage.  Now me, I don't have a problem with this because I accept certain likelihoods when I watch Japanese action cinema, but it's my understanding that this is one area when one can expect more developed content in the animated series, and that's fine too, but there's only room for so much of it when you've got 2 hours and a lot of that has damned well better be monsters.

And monsters there are.  The three young friends, Eren, Armin and Mikasa are debating the merits of going over the wall to see what's really out there, when the answer comes knocking.  Titans are out there, and they've finally decided to let themselves in.  The titans are part giant, part zombie and part oni -- traditional Japanese demons.  The realistic portrayal of humanoid demons is curiously disconcerting, owing to their deformities and vacant grins.  The misshapen bodies and absent genitalia augmented their visual discomfort.

It bears mentioning that the special effects are a little lower tech than one would get in a similar American studio film (like, say, Jack the Giant Slayer), and that, for the most part, is to Attack on Titan's benefit.  The titans are filmed humans, inserted into shots and altered through makeup and/or CGI post-effects, rather than being full CGI creations.  This lends them a certain credibility, which deepens the creepiness in a way that full-CGI does not.  Jack the Giant Slayer is uncanny valley.  Attack on Titan is just uncanny.  AoT doesn't shy away from the straight gore either, and we get numerous shots of titans devouring humans with gusto.

It's clear that there's a lot of story we're shortcutting given the film's tendency to vacillate between exposition, and not explaining anything at all (human motivations in particular), but that's not what I signed on for.  The film understands this and pares the story back just enough to connect the big scenes, which are exactly what I signed on for.

There may or may not be some story tension between Eren and Armin over the love of Mikasa.  Then again there may not be.  No one ever does anything about it, but they frequently communicate through the language of pouty looks and hair flips.  Soon after the first major titan invasion, Mikasa is presumed dead, although at no point will the viewer actually believe that.  The story jumps to two years later and throws more characters at us (who blur together, save for the charming "Potato Girl.") but as soon as a mysterious bad-ass warrior appears, it's evident that it will be Mikasa.

In the past two years, life within the two remaining walls has declined, given that the farms were in the outer ring.  Let's take a quick look at that.  The outer ring was agriculture.  The second ring is commerce, and the center is royalty.  You may have already noticed the problem with this design.  The most useful ring is treated as fodder.  The farms feed everyone, but they're treated as the most disposable.  In the center, they have the most useless human beings ever conceived; royalty.  So the people who do nothing and still take the most are the best defended, never mind that they'll starve just like everyone else when the poor farmers fall.  In between them stands commerce to take the labor of the poor and channel the benefits to the rich, even though they'll be out of business without the most disposable humans in the outer ring.  Now, I don't THINK that Attack on Titan is meant to be a metaphor for modern Kansas, but the patterns are there.

The remnants of humanity are preparing for their last-ditch assault, to seal the breach in the outer wall and get on with the business of exterminating the titans.  Because the titan's only vulnerable spot would appear to be the nape of the neck, humanity's best weapon against them are hip-mounted grapnel-shooters that allow them to quickly maneuver up and behind into striking position.  The weird thing is that you see humans running around with these big metal tablets strapped to their hips far more than you see them using them.  Eventually, the action ratchets up to Spider-Man rivaling levels, but for a long time they look at a select few awe-inspiring ultra-ninjas before anyone else demonstrates that they even know how to use them.  An American version of this story would want some kind of extra-splodey rocket launcher instead of wire-based mobility.

In the end, there's a big heart-rending sacrifice that creates a story-altering catharsis via a massive and unexplained metamorphose, and rather suddenly wraps up the most present conflict, but it's pretty clear that there's more to be explained and conquered in the inevitable sequel.

The story isn't deep, in this version, and that's fine.  The character development is largely trope-based, and that's fine too, particularly knowing that I have options should I wish to see these elements explored more deeply.  Recent re-watches of Spielberg films have reminded me how much more less can be.  It keeps the action moving and that's the part that works.  The titans are much creepier and more disturbing than one has come to expect from the creatures in giant anything movies.  I don't know if they'd play as creepy in Japan as they do here, given the cultural familiarity with their design source.  The foreignness may indeed account for a portion of the unsettling "otherness" of the monsters.

There's a certain amount of corn that I'm accepting here, and part of that is because it IS the product of another culture, and part of THAT is because I do still enjoy those particularly Japanese flavors of crazy.  As films go, Attack on Titan showed me some new things and some not-quite-new things remixed in new ways.  It was never obviously stupid, and that's not something I can say about most of the box-office blockbusters of the current age.

Now, I don't rate, rank or score films, and I'm more glad of that than ever when looking back at Attack on Titan.  If you are a devoted fan of the anime, you're going to have to go into the live action film with a firm grasp on realistic expectations, and that means that no, you're not going to get ten hours of character development.  If you can accept that and understand that the film is, by necessity, a big old actiongasm, then you may have fun.  If you're NOT hung up on preexisting expectations, you're much further ahead.  Yeah, it's going to be weird in those Japanese ways, but if knowing that it's Japanese hasn't already scared you off, odds are as good as not that you're fine with that.

They'll be back.

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