“There were giants in the earth in those days...”
From the antediluvian Nephilim of the Bible to even our own fascination with towering mecha in our anime, giants have always been a compelling theme in our stories. As the offspring of Satan’s fallen angels as they mingled with humans, they represent times and places amazing and unknowable, above our shrunken, merely material selves and unreachable in our stubby grasp. Tall figures cast long shadows though, and as much as giants are an expression of the past’s unreachable splendour, they also show its terrible nature. It is no suprise that strength is a recurring theme of the giants of many different folklores – not only because size matters, but also because a fear of the unknown can ambush and strike us down as hard as any hammer-blow and grind us beneath crushing heels.
Attack on Titan is a currently-ongoing manga, started in 2009 and created by Hajime Isayama. It’s recently attracted a great deal of interest, with an anime currently being broadcast and even a live-action adaptation (getting out of the otaku ghetto to the general public, a sure sign in Japan that you’ve made it) that will begin in the autumn. It appears to have generated a powerful wave as the next big action-adventure, and riding towards the UK atop that crest comes both the new anime via Crunchyroll and the original manga from Kodansha Comics. Currently only two episodes of the anime are available through the web, but if you just can’t resist the urge to get ahead there are four volumes of the manga currently on the shelves – and on the basis of the opening trio, can I determine whether Attack on Titan will truly bestride the world like a colossus, or will it be the runt of the litter?
Eren and Misaka are two adolescent children who have lived their entire lives in the shadow of a great wall. It’s no mere ivy-coated garden fence – two hundred feet high, the impossibly colossal construction is a cleft in their world, separating their homes from the post-apocalyptic desolation beyond. The wall has been built on an incomparable scale, a continental divide enclosing thousands of square miles of rivers, hills and fields – but while mankind is enjoying a cosy catastrophe in the ample ground within the walls, however vast that land may be... it’s all there is. Maddeningly verdant fields and forests lie beyond the walls, but as lush and fertile as they are, they are completely out of reach, as evil stalks beyond the walls. However comfortable life may be now, mankind is an endangered species, as entire nations were devoured wholesale by giants which now wander the world. No-one knows where they came from, no-one can understand them, and nothing can stand against them – relentless and remorseless, silently savage, they have no cause and no culture except that communicated by their lurid, leering grins – to seek out and devour human beings!
In darker past ages the rest of human civilisation was trampled underfoot by the giants’ huge tread, but within the walls peace has prevailed. Trusting that the science of Man can triumph over even the most grotesquely twisted horrors of Nature, the giants have been unable to penetrate the protective walls for over a century. It’s not in Man’s nature to lie slack and docile, though, and despite the comfort of life within the walls there is still a group known as the “Survey Corps” which sally forth beyond the walls to fight and learn about the giants, carefully coaxing the faint flame of hope that one day they will be pushed back and mankind will reclaim Earth. Captivated by tales of the Survey Corps’ boldness and heroism (even as the many others deride them as maniacs with no sense of self-preservation), Eren has resolved to join the Survey Corps himself. Naturally his mother is appalled when Misaka rats him out on his ambition, but their opposition may soon be moot...
Hajime Isayama has built a very effective scenario in Attack on Titan - There’s a certain purity to the threat of the Titans, their relentless drive to not merely crush and flatten but devour, making your fingers tremble with primal fears as they turn the pages – a black and truly grim fairy-tale dredging up all of the horrors lurking in the corners of dark bedrooms that we hid from under our duvets when we were children. Isayama has effectively realised how utterly relentless, remorseless and inexorable the ever-marching giants are – they aren’t merely big bosses to be taken down, but a genuine existential threat, not just lumbering shamblers but have agility. There’s also an interesting level of world-building, sensibly placed in between-chapter splash pages rather than encumbering the story with protracted exposition. It shows that there’s actually a good deal of planning and insight into the creation of the manga, and crucially “world-building” isn’t a euphemism for dreary self-important timelines of irrelevant events; rather it’s constructive and thoughtful technical detail covering topics like the strategy of the shape of the walls and the operation of the soldiers’ grapnel equipment. All of it contributes to our understanding of the world’s operation, and it’s charmingly old-school in a way, reminiscent of an era of boys’ comics where we were more into Meccano than pop singers.
The manga then has an effective high-concept, but that alone is not enough to sell a piece. It’s in the execution though that the giants make a misstep. Attack on Titan is Isayama’s first professional manga – and unfortunately, it shows quite badly with some very clumsy art. Perspectives are skewed, and characters’ proportions are mutant – the giants get some leeway because they’re inhuman monsters, but Isayama has real problems with foreshortening, moving limbs that squidge into bendy sausages, and even when characters are standing square-on to the camera there’s a mismatch of arms and legs that can’t simply be dismissed as mere lankiness. In one scene where soldiers are forming a gun-line they seem to have all been flattened down into paper. Individual panels can be effective (such as when they focus on the giants’ creepily lipless leers), and in later panels Isayama does start getting more confident and depicts moments of impact well as fists and cannonballs crash with wincing violence. However, in other places scribbling scrawl is confused for motion, and the “frozen instant” that I normally am fond of in action scenes has the potential energy drained from it – a cannon barrage just looking as though several ink-blots were dropped onto the page. Supposedly bustling cities seem oddly lifeless, with half-timbered medieval buildings looking boxy as though they’re printed onto folded cardboard, and sticking rigidly to plain lines as though Isayama was worried about missing his vanishing points.
A major feature of the action in Attack on Titan is the heroes’ “3D Manoeuvre Equipment”. Like all big beasties, you’ve got to shoot the core – giants regenerate all damage incurred unless you cut into a very specific spot. To get into that awkward position humans have devised devices which fire and reel in powerful grapnels, allowing them to swing around the environment like Spider-Man and perform deft aerial tricks to sling themselves higher than the giants and plunge down to land finishing blows. It’s a great and distinctive concept sensibly regulated by scarcity and dramatically threatened by the giants’ snatching fists, but Isayama’s inexpert art once more means that his reach exceeds his grasp. To be fair, he does improve from the second half of volume two onwards, laying down heavy motion lines to emphasise movement, but nonetheless it does require a fair amount of imagination from the reader to visualise the rushing acrobatic feats that he’s trying to imply.
The writing of the manga does fare better than the artwork. There are a few twists and turns in the narrative; the battles with the giants show an appreciation of tactics which keeps them interesting. A timeskip is effectively handled - mostly by thankfully omitting yet another interminable “training arc” when Eren and Misaka are conscripted into the military (there’s just a bit of a nod to the usual barrack-room politics, and we’re off and away), so maintaining the pace of the narrative and ensuring that the focus remains on the threat of the giants. The danger of the situation is undermined in some areas though by several instances of luridly and ludicrously overcooked drama, which are less affecting and more absurd.
Towards the end of the second volume the situation is mixed up as a new ally arrives to fight the giants, saving the humans from total defeat – to its credit it’s not a deus ex machina because the new arrival is a source of controversy and conflict itself that occupies much of the third volume, yet it doesn’t quite satisfy me... I don’t insist that Attack on Titan must be a David-and-Goliath tale (after all they’ve been done since, well, Biblical times!), but the very appearance of the new force is a tacit admission from Isayama that he’d already painted himself into a corner – that by making the giants so unassailable this was the only way for him to stop his own manga from self-destructing! Volume one also includes an interview with the author, copied from a Japanese magazine where he answers readers’ questions – it’s a bit alarming, because while the answers seem innocuous enough when first reading them, they do tip the hand of later twists.
Interestingly, Sheldon Drzka is prominently highlighted as the translator on Attack on Titan’s title page. This is fairly unusual, as normally translators are fairly anonymous and you have to go hunting through the back matter to find their credit. I doubt that translators will ever become personalities in the way that it’s perhaps hoping, but Drzka has put his name to a decent effort – everything reads clearly and competently, although there is one strange quirk with his constantly footnoting measurements, which becomes distracting and obtrusive: it is after all a story dealing with giants, which leads to dialogue sort of preoccupied with height! In future volumes, just use imperial measurements and leave it at that – it’s fair enough, you’re writing for a predominantly American audience, and other readers don’t need to be Metric Martyrs to know what feet and inches are! Translation questions also invite us to focus on our first encounter with language in the manga’s very title. It would be better translated as “Attack of the Giants” or “The Giants’ Onslaught” but the English title is given as “Attack on Titan” due to another one of those childishly adorable stumbles of Engrish. That said, however clumsy its grammar may be and however much it disappoints sci-fi enthusiasts hoping to see attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, “Attack on Titan” actually works quite well as a title, conveying aggression to add power and motion to the soldier descending on the monster on volume one’s cover.
As we can see then Attack on Titan has a strong foundation but doesn’t quite build up a great structure on top of that. In light of that, we must consider alternatives – as mentioned at the start of the review, there is currently an anime version of Attack on Titan currently available to watch on Crunchyroll, and I would consider that much more worth your while. It benefits greatly from extra polish – the art is more refined and detailed (the city looks much livelier and human than the blank boulevards of the manga), the giants given more bite and the action in general is much better, the moving pictures on the screen being able to do the aerial manoeuvres of the heroes truly impressive justice. You get all the same content that you would have read in the manga with the added benefit of enhanced production values, so it is a revised edition that outclasses the earlier version. Attack on Titan is certainly worth your time, but I’d fall back on the manga really only if streaming is not an option.