Shingeki no Kyojin is another series that gets a very mixed response. Some claim it has a great story and compelling characters. Others say it has an overly simplified story and characters who are so flat they would almost be at home in Highschool of the Dead. It was written by Isayama Hajime and the anime adaptation was handled by relative newcomer Wit Studio with cooperation from veteran Production I.G, you may recognise them as the studio behind Ghost in the Shell, Rinne no Lagrange and Psycho Pass to name a few. This one I’m actually not going into completely blind. I have read a bit of the manga and interacted with some of the fans. I’ll try not to hold the fact that many of those fans have trouble with a simple four letter name against the anime. After all, there are plenty of good works with much worse fanbases. Although it certainly doesn’t help your credibility when you’re trying to argue in favour of the intellectual value of a series but you can’t spell Levi.
In the distant future, mankind has been forced to hide within walls. Gigantic humanoid creatures who seem to live for no other purpose than to consume humans called titans roam the land outside. Things get worse when the outermost of the walls is torn down by a titan, allowing the titans to take a third of humanity’s remaining territory. The story focuses on three youngsters who witnessed the wall’s collapse and managed to survive. They go through military training in order to fight the titans and secure humanity’s future.
On the positive side, the story is very well constructed. Everything about the world is carefully thought out from the technology to the military formations, even the horses the survey corps rides into battle were carefully selected. There are also a lot of good ideas and suspense building scenes. The story has some great tragic moments and it manages to stop at an opportune time in spite of having a lot more to the story. There are a lot of nice mysteries that keep you invested and the whole thing is very compelling. Particularly the mystery of the titans themselves. The anime itself points out that these creatures should not be able to exist based on basic biology and physics, but they somehow do and, thus far, there are only vague hints and hypotheses as to why. I am interested in seeing more of this world and learning the truth behind the various plot lines.
On the down side, the pacing is pretty slow, with overly long recap portions contributing to the problem. The series takes nine episodes for one battle. To be fair, it’s a battle with multiple enemies and a lot does happen in it, but it’s slowed down by fairly long segments where nothing really happens and it probably could have been finished in four or five episodes if they’d skipped the padding. Then, there’s the problem with foreshadowing. One of the things the Manga does very well is to give you hints about important story elements well in advance. In the anime, they cut out most of the foreshadowing scenes. There’s even one that gets moved so that it’s at the beginning of the episode that has the reveal being foreshadowed in it. Which is just terrible narrative construction.
This is the big factor that people argue about and I can see why. Shingeki no Kyojin mostly has really strong characters, but it also has three incredibly weak ones. Unfortunately, the weak characters are the ones that get the focus for the vast majority of the series.
Eren, Mikasa and Armin aren’t just mostly boring and occasionally annoying. They’re completely cliché. Eren is your archetypal determined “chosen one” protagonist. Mikasa is your typical “strong” but emotionally dependent love interest (who just happens to have been raised with Eren since they were nine which adds some disturbing context) and Armin is your basic weak but supportive best friend. He’s supposed to be smart, but all he really does is point out the glaringly obvious. The three of them are characters who have been in a huge number of series and there’s nothing that Shingeki no Kyojin does to make them unique or interesting in the slightest.
The secondary characters, on the other hand, are amazing. When compared to Eren, Mikasa and Armin, especially. The support cast has a lot of complex, well-developed characters. Jean, Connie, Krista, Ymir, Sasha, Erwin, and Levi are the most obvious examples, but there are more. These characters, in spite of having much less screen time, are all interesting with developed motivations and great potential for intrigue . Even the characters who appear very briefly and die are more three-dimensional than the three leads. If the series focused more on the secondary characters and less on Toast, Sand and Oddly-shaped Vegetable, it would be vastly improved.
The art in this is gorgeous. The detailing is meticulous. The character designs are all unique. The titans are designed to look almost human, but with enough that’s strange about them to make them monstrous, like not having skin or having massive jaws. The backgrounds are really detailed. The action sequences are nice and intense. Everything about this anime looks really spectacular. The only drawback is that the designs are so well detailed that you can easily tell who the colossus, armoured and female titan shifters are at a glance, even if they only reveal one of their identities in the series. The problem being that they try to play their identities up as a big mystery. Gee, I wonder if they’re really the people who uncannily resemble them?
Wit Studio got some really strong actors for this series. There are too many to list all of them, but they got Paku Romi, Kamiya Hiroshi, Ono Daisuke, and Fujita Saki to name a few. They all do really well in their roles. The weaknesses are Kaji Yuki, Ishikawa Yui and Inoue Marina. Just because they got the unfortunate roles as Toast, Sand and Oddly-shaped Vegetable, and all they really get to do is be bland and shout sometimes. The music is really well done. Especially during epic moments.
The Ho-yay factor is a 3/10. Krista and Ymir get a few cute scenes. Erwin and Levi also have some chemistry and Jean implies that Armin has a thing for Eren at one point, but they don’t do much with any of that. Perhaps the next series will, but there’s not much there in this one.
Shingeki no Kyojin offers a compelling narrative with an interesting world, awesome action and some superb characters. Where it falls short is with the pacing and the three primary characters being almost unbelievably bland. Although, in all fairness, they’re still too strong of characters to fit into Highschool of the Dead. The series is probably still worth checking out for everything that it does well, if you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic or action-oriented narratives. My final rating is going to be a 7/10. Going into June my request queue is down to Kill La Kill and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Next week, Sakura Trick.