by Kory Cerjak
Title: Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin)
Author: Hajime Isayama
Attack on Titan is, as I know it, an anime that took the (anime) world by storm upon its release on April 6 of 2013. Newly formed Wit Studios (created by former members of Production I.G) took up the task (with the help of I.G) to make what has the potential to be the biggest title that the US anime market has seen since Fullmetal Alchemist hit the scene in 2001 (manga) and 2003 (anime). Kodansha has said on tumblr and Twitter that the numbers for the manga have gone up and up and up and they’re just riding the waves of success until—or should I say if—it slows down.
Simply put, Attack on Titan is really, really fun. I’ll admit that, through volume eight, it doesn’t have the depth that Fullmetal Alchemist did at the same point in its run. But that’s not to say that Attack on Titan is without depth. The titans represent fear incarnate. The innate fear that each human being holds within him or herself that unconsciously, subconsciously restricts us in ways that we’re not aware of. And the walls that surround us are the very manifestation of the “shell” and “masks” we protect ourselves with when interacting with other human beings.
The premise of AoT is this: Mysterious beings, ranging from 3 to 15 meters tall, begin to attack humanity. The titans, as they’ve been named, literally eat humans in an act that, described later, is not necessary for the continued existence of any individual titan. It’s as if they eat humans as an instinct because they completely ignore deer and other animals. To combat against the titans, humanity has created three giant walls, one within another. The walls stand 50 meters high and house something like the remaining tenth of the human race.
Humans, as we often do, feel invincible behind the walls because they have lived for a century in peace. But at the beginning of the narrative, a colossal titan breaks through Wall Maria, the outermost wall. The titan, which is over 50 meters in height, reminds humanity that it cannot just hide behind their shells in a complacent life.
Which is to say nothing of the character writing; it is also pretty top notch. However, this is where it falls short of Fullmetal Alchemist in my eyes. There are three main characters in Attack on Titan: Eren Jaeger, Mikasa Ackerman, and Armin Arlet. Out of those three main characters, I don’t believe a one of them could carry the story alone. They are so co-dependent on each other or other characters that it’s kind of frustrating. Eren is easily construed as a single-minded simpleton, and Mikasa is the same way sometimes. Armin, meanwhile, is delegated to a support role, both within the Survey Corps and in storytelling, because he’s the brains of Eren and Mikasa’s lives essentially.
Now, these complaints can be easily brought against the early volumes. The problem is that the “early volumes” lasts for four volumes (out of the current eight I’m reviewing). The first four volumes are all setup. They’re wonderful setup, but sometimes too deliberate with its pacing. It takes four volumes to say what could be said in two or two and a half. The important parts of the first four volumes are these:
1. Eren and Mikasa graduate top 10 in their class and they, along with Armin, join the Survey Corps.
2. The titans are, perhaps deliberately, attacking the walls for the first time in a century.
3. Eren can turn into a titan and is thus not trusted or treated as a human as a result.
Isayama, I believe, focuses too much on secondary and tertiary characters for the sake of drama that it bogs down the manga. These focuses are in little moments and panels like two lovebirds from Eren’s class found during the attack on Trost. The girlfriend is trying to resuscitate the clearly dead boyfriend. We pan out to reveal that the boyfriend is just his upper body. These moments are great moments, but this particular diversion lasts about three pages through the volume and this isn’t the only instance. When you do this several times, it adds up.
Even when we’re focused in on the main characters—the aforementioned three and a few others in their graduating class—too often is characterization and plot split up when it could be integrated. For example, Isayama spends a good few pages punishing and setting up Sasha Blouse’s character (otherwise known as Potato Girl) when that could be done elsewhere. It, in fact, was done later during their expedition outside the wall.
I do want to say that these complaints are largely nitpicking. But they did not detract from my overall experience with the manga. If anything, the artwork detracted more, but I’ll get to art later.
What I do want to bring up first is the character of Jean, in my opinion the most complex character up to this point. While both Eren and Mikasa are so forward-looking, Jean is living in the present. During their military school days, Jean was a haughty kid who only wanted to be part of the Military Police, the guard in the innermost wall that protects the nobles. Ironically, as the characters point out, the students graded to be most suited to killing titans are the only ones given the opportunity to become part of the MPs, who are least likely to face titans.
Upon their graduation from the military school, the former trainees are faced with the greatest threat: the titans themselves. They’re broken through part of Wall Rose, the second wall. However, thankfully, it’s isolated to Trost right now. The important part for Jean is that he sees hell. He realizes that the life he wanted isn’t the life that he SHOULD be living. He sees his friend Marco dead in the streets in the aftermath and the person cataloguing it all says “there’s no time to mourn your fallen comrades.” Two days after Titan Eren sealed off the wall, they are still cleaning up bodies, which are now threatening disease, and all Jean can do is count them. This changes him in a way that simply hasn’t happened with the three main leads (though I suspect they will be changing in big ways following volume eight, which is where the anime adaptation ended). He goes from a naïve and sheltered boy to a capable leader in a matter of a few chapters. Because, as he says, “He died, and nobody was there to see it.” He doesn’t want another Marco if he can help it.
He joins the survey corps, shaking. Sasha is crying and everyone else is terrified because they know what’s coming to them. But they join anyway. They, along with Jean, join because they want to be the one hope humanity has for the future.
This is truly the strength of the manga, its tone. Despite every shortcoming I find with the comic—its lack of Jean-level characterization for its leads, its sometimes convoluted storytelling (how did Annie even get outside the MPs and into the Survey Corps?), its slow pacing—its tone is absolutely perfect. It captures that feeling of terror you have at the moment that you are the most vulnerable beautifully. After the first episode of the anime, I may or may not have been wiping tears from my eyes after watching Eren’s final interaction with his mother. Attack on Titan doesn’t flinch when it asks “Who should I save? The kid or the mother.” It sucks it up, and saves the kid with a tear in its eye. The manga failed to immediately capture me the way the anime did, but that’s hardly a reason not to read it. Attack on Titan is worth every bit of the hype its received.
The art, unfortunately, does not live up to the story. Characters will stray off of their normal human looking shape in action sequences and every single panel in the first few volumes looks like it’s in an action sequence. The line work is sloppy and it’s clear that Isayama was running under a tight deadline with not enough time to finish his drawings. The art, mercifully, only improves. By the seventh volume, it’s downright readable. The colors that were formerly filled in with a mess of lines are now completely filled in. The titans, however, are always drawn well. Even when they’re clearly drawn with perhaps less care than another panel, the sloppy work actually gives them an extra level of creepiness. The titans fall off model frequently and often defy human anatomy, but that’s fine. They’re the very embodiment of fear, and that fear shouldn’t be given a concrete form. While it bugs me that I see a seemingly 20-meter arm on a 15-meter titan, I’ll let it slide, since the panel works really well with that disfigured arm to the already disfigured titan.
I had one problem with Kodansha’s printing of the books and it’s this: The word bubbles often get too close to the inside of the page and become hard to read. I was craning the book open just to read what was being said and this shouldn’t be a problem at this professional level, I think. These things are remedied in a digital edition, but I like my physical books. Viz hasn’t had this problem in recent memory, but I recall my Fruits Basket books from Tokyopop having that same issue.
Attack on Titan, unusually, might be the most difficult to track down at your local bookstore. I went to my local Barnes and Noble and BOTH were out of volume one. I ended up buying that on Amazon, where those books are flowing as freely as water. They’re also available at Right Stuf and likely pretty much anywhere where you can buy manga. The books hover around $8 on Amazon, but have an MSRP of $10.99.