Attack on Titan – 06

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I wasn’t all that enamored of Armin’s extended whimpering at the beginning of this episode, but his realization that not only is it a cruel world where the strong slaughter the weak, but it has always been so; he just had to lose his best friend to realize it fully. And messed up as he is, he can still look at a desperate Hanna performing CPR on her clearly-dead Franz and think stop…he’s already dead. I am weak. We are weak. But we don’t have to fall to the strong today.

While Armin laments the apparent loss of Eren and the rest of his unit in its entirety, Mikasa bags her first Titan (or at least the first Titan we see her bring down), an “abnormal” that runs a lot faster than the others and was about to go to town on a throng of evacuees who weren’t able to escape because a haughty merchant is blocking the gate with his wagon full of goods.

Mikasa’s job is to kill Titans, but she’s killing Titans to save lives, not goods. So she clears the gate a blade less than an inch from the merchant’s eye, then goes back to work killing Titans once the evacuation can proceed. Her superior wonders what the hell this kid went through to become so tough and unyielding. I too have been wondering where she got her seemingly superhuman strength…and how she, and Ackerman, came to live with the Yeagers.

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The show enlightens us with a gut-punch-riddled flashback. Armin’s assessment of the cruelty of the world is felt firsthand by Mikasa, whose loving mother and father are murdered right in front of her eyes. They prepare to sell her into the service of old perverts, as she’s a rare (if not one-of-a-kind) “oriental”. And that’s exactly what would have happened, had Eren not tagged along with his dad on a house call to the Ackermans.

When Eren realizes what has happened to the parents of a girl he was going to meet for the first time (and was going to weigh whether to be friends with her based on “how she acted”), he goes off on his own to rescue her, achieves entry to the criminals’ hideout by pretending to be lost, and then kills two of the men holding her, one with a knife to the gut at the door (just how Mikasa’s dad was killed), the other more viciously with a spear-broom.

But there’s a third man, and once he has his hand around Eren’s throat, it falls to Mikasa, who had always abhorred the inherent cruelty and violence of nature. Eren gives her the rundown: Fight, or die. Win, and live. That’s it. With the knife in her hands, a switch flips: she’s the strong one here; the man busy with Eren the weak one. With overwhelming force, she fights and wins, and she and Eren live.

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The two kids are shell-shocked in the aftermath of that ordeal, but Mikasa is still in tune with reality enough to say she’s cold, and ask which is the way back home. Eren and his dad welcome her into their home, which becomes her home. Eren gives her his warm scarf; perhaps the same scarf she still wears in the present.

Eren is her everything; he saved her life, and woke her up so she could save both of them. He’s the reason she’s alive, and the reason she fights, and wins, and continues to live. As long as he’s with her, she can do anything, and goshdarn it, I believe it. But what if he isn’t with her? What if he’s Titan chow? I know he isn’t, because, well, this isn’t Gurren Lagann and he’s not Kamina…but she doesn’t know that yet.

That aside, this was a tremendous flashback episode that helped humanize and further deepen our understanding of our favorite character in the show by a mile so far. I daresay it was worth arresting the momentum of the last couple episodes.

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Attack on Titan – 05

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When Eren ends up all alone with the Colossal Titan, he wastes no time attacking it, using his ODM gear to climb all over his body and delivering a blow to the back of his neck as he was trained to do. But Eren doesn’t have his revenge today; the Titan merely disappeared as mysteriously as he’s twice appeared. Just a couple of footprints where the enemy once was. And he’ll surely be back whenever he feels like it.  There’s no resolution, no catharsis…no glorious victory.

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Now in the heat of battle, Eren is the only one among his contemporaries who seems to have his shit together, and that’s because, as his instructor noted, he’s never seen anyone work with as much purpose as Eren. He’s singularly motivated to defeat the Titans, and hard-headed enough to let that drive drown out his nerves, if only partially and temporarily.

He tries with all his might to relay to those around him the importance of forgetting about what they have at stake and focusing on their immediate duties. Armin and Mikasa are brighter than Eren, but those extra smarts put them at a disadvantage here. They waver; they overthink. Eren has to headbutt Mikasa to snap her out of her feedback loop. “You’ll be fine. We’re all going to make it. Now get your ass moving.”

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Eren’s comrades on the battlements were conspicuously absent during his skirmish with the Colossal Titan, and not just because they were flung far away, but because they were to a man paralyzed with fear. Jean, enraged his transfer to the interior has been postponed, fumes about having to share his fate with a “suicidal maniac” even though he played all his cards right to get the cushy life he wanted.

Well, everyone, including Eren, learns this week that life isn’t fair, and life for the humans of AoT is a constant cycle of false security and horrendous massacre. No inspiring deeds or words from Eren can change that, but they are enough to motivate Eren’s comrades to follow him into battle. That…doesn’t go well.

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AoT is gradually starting to train me that Eren’s words about defeating the Titans and saving the world are, so far, just that and nothing more: words. And words are wind. Not a single Titan is shown being decisively killed. Eren and his mates look really cool dramatically swinging around the city, then Eren gets a bit too close to a Titan and loses a leg.

That leg is like our hope that victory is possible in this battle, but that Titan is this show, heartlessly snapping that hope up the blink of an eye and turning everything to shit. One by one, his comrades, who had enough lines (albeit mostly death flags) earlier that they’re not just pure redshirts, are plucked up by Titans and…the rest is left to our imaginations.

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Rather implausibly, Eren doesn’t let the loss of his leg (and whatever other injuries he sustained during his deceleration) stop him from literally snatching Armin from the jaws of death, only to be snapped up himself, losing an arm in the process and being swallowed, to Armin’s infinite dismay. Holy Crap, I thought to myself: the protagonist got eaten in the fifth episode.

But the Titans don’t care who you are, how much money or power you have, what your plans for the future are, or why you’re fighting. They’re only interested in what you taste like. I’ve seen few shows where it’s being a thinking, feeling, loving human being sucks this much. Where mankind has been portrayed as this damned and ineffectual. And AoT’s just getting warmed up.

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Attack on Titan – 04

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I’ll say this about these first episodes of AoT: it does not dick around. Two more years pass during which Eren, Mikasa, Armin, and a large group of fellow young cadets are hardened and trained, and graduation nears. As the drill sergeant observes them training in the woods he helpfully lays out the strengths and weaknesses of each recruit.

Armin lacks strength, but he’s got a sharp mind; Eren isn’t spectacular at any one thing, but he learns quickly, works hard, and no one is more driven. Mikasa is perfect at everything; a once-in-a-generation all-round talent. But you know what? That’s fine with me, because she’s so damn modest and unassuming about that ability.

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What I also like is that Mikasa isn’t just tough for a girl, she’s the toughest cadet, period, and there are other tough girls too, like the food-obsessed Sasha and aloof Annie Lockhart. The latter teaches both Eren and Braun a lesson with combat skills her father taught her, but isn’t taking any of this seriously, as the whole idea of those who are the most talented at killing Titans get to serve furthest away from them, in the interior Military Police.

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Indeed the top ten cadets in the class of 218 have the option of reporting straight to the Military Police, where they may theoretically live out their lives in relative peace and safety. Mikasa graduates top in the class, while Eren finishes a surprising fifth, with Armin placing outside the top ten.

Eren will have none of the military police; he’s joining the Scout Regiment, where he can take the fight directly to the Titans who took his mother and home. Armin and Mikasa decide to join him in turn, with Mikasa convinced he’ll die a quick death without her by his side. Protective? Sure, but he is her family.

When they graduate, Eren gives a speech rejecting the notion the Titans cannot be beaten, and that there’s value in fighting them even at the cost of his life, as continuing to fight them will allow them to gather more and more intel about their foe, so that one day, future forces might be able to bring them down for good. He doesn’t want to die, but he can’t sit back and do nothing.

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The speech clearly moves a few of his fellow top tenners like Conny and Sasha, who join him in the Scout Regiment. When they arrive in Trost district along Wall Rose, they’re welcomed by an optimistic crowd; it’s been five years since the Colossal Titan attacked, and there hasn’t been any advancement by the enemy. In that time, the collective wounds have healed a little, and both hope and dignity are in the air.

…Then, on Eren’s first day atop the wall maintaining the cannon, the Colossal Titan returns, and the lighthearted mood is replaced by terror and despair. Man…Not particularly forgiving to its human populace, this show. Yet Eren doesn’t freeze in fear. He and his comrades are scattered off the wall, but he uses his ODM gear to get back to the battlements and face his nemesis down.

He’s not scared, he’s pissed, and his time has come to finally attempt what he’s wanted to do since he saw his mother get eaten. I have no earthly idea how he expects to take the behemoth on, who will help him, and who won’t survive the imminent battle, but I’m damned eager to find out on all counts.

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Attack on Titan – 03

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Two years after the Titan attack destroyed their home, Eren, Mikasa and Armin begin boot camp, and their drill sergeant suffers no foolishness, especially from one Sasha Blouse, who just can’t help scarfing down a hot potato while he’s talking (the tension of the exchange is highly amusing, showing off Titan’s sense of humor even in such bleak setting. (The sergeant also thinks Armin Arlert is a dumb name.)

It’s a common strategy: strip the cadets down and then build them back up, in their case, into Titan-killing soldiers. As the sergeant walks down the line, we learn how the recruits are from all over, and have enlisted for many different reasons. Many don’t cut it and leave to work the fields on the first day. Others will wash out later. I liked how the sergeant knew from the look of the cadets who’d already gone through the wringer.

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Eren is eager to get through training so he can start kicking Titanic ass on the front lines, but he hits a snag: the omni-directional mobility gear all soldiers need to master. In short, he sucks at it. He has all the motivation and determination in the world, but appears to lack the aptitude. This is a huge setback for his life goals, and you can see in his haunted expression at dinner that he fears failure and his own weakness far more than any Titan.

This episode also presents the opportunity to spread out beyond our core trio to several interesting supporting characters, some of whom may well end up in the same unit as Eren. The aforementioned Sasha is a bit one note in her relentless pursuit of food, but Jean Kirstein’s honesty about wanting to join the military police so he can serve in the safe(r) interior provides a welcome contrast to Eren’s puffed-chest gung-ho act.

Even better though, Jean and Eren don’t just come to blows over the disagreement. A bell rings, and the two make up, perhaps aware that fighting each other is a waste of time. Then there’s Reiner Braun, who like Eren & Co. is one of the few cadets who has seen the Titans firsthand; in other words, who have seen hell.

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But the undisputed rockstar of this episode, and of the show so far, at least for me, is Mikasa Ackerman. We learn a little more about her intensely close, co-dependent bond with Eren; neither of them want to ever be apart from the other; both feed off of one another’s unique energy. She aces the OGM, makes someone fall in love with her just by walking past, looks awesome no matter what her length of hair is, and even owns Sasha by not surrendering her bread.

She also rejoices when Eren finally gets the OGM right (turns out he had a defective belt, but even managed to balance properly on that, proving he’s more than capable). But she’s also the only one who doesn’t see self-satisfaction in Eren’s face. She sees relief that he doesn’t have to leave her.

Not that he would have to: had he failed, she would have gone with him to the fields; Armin too, probably. Because if there’s one thing that’s working out for these three kids in this dastardly post-apocalyptic fiasco of a world, its the three of them sticking together.

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Attack on Titan – 02

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As the first waves of Titan victims become a feast for crows, Eren, Mikasa and Armin retreat from Shiganshina and the breached Wall Maria to Wall Rose. Initially carried by Hannes, Eren fumes over running away, but there’s nothing else to do: he lacks the strength, as does all of humanity.

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As for the Titans themselves, there’s a bizarrely charming dumpy childishness to many of the smaller ones, acting like the humans spread out before them are simply fun toys that happen to double as food. But then there are some that seem much more purely evil, or at least more evolved to dispatch humans on a massive scale, like the Titan that blasts through the gate and uses fire breath to roast the garrison.

There’s a sickening inhuman cruelty at work, but also the sense that this is simply how nature has progressed; humans are no longer the top dogs, and life is going to get more difficult. The Titans are simply doing what they’ve evolved to do: feed on humans. Sorry, humans.

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The kids end up on a boat with a few hundred other survivors, who then become refugees within Wall Rose. Whatever picturesque, idealized town Shiganshina was, their new temporary home is far bleaker and harsher, with a populace already experiencing a food shortage, there’s great animosity for the newcomers; even wishes that the Titans ate more of them.

Once he’s over the initial shock of witnessing his mother’s death and the death of hundreds of others before his eyes, Eren switches to anger and goals that, at this point, are absurdly unreasonable and premature. He tries to run before he can crawl, or at least talk about running, i.e. driving the Titans out.

Thank goodness then, he has the more sensible Armin to keep him from getting an even more severe beating from a guard, and a no-nonsense Mikasa who isn’t above punching Eren out and stuffing bread down his throat if it means keeping him alive.

I’m already enjoying the dynamic of these three, in particular Mikasa, the steadfast rock of the trio with no patience for Eren’s empty speeches about wiping out the Titans when clearly, at present, nothing can be done.

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That fact is underlined when, after putting the refugees to work in the wastelands cultivating food doesn’t arrest the food shortage, 250,000 of them are sent back out to “fight” the Titans. Of course, they only serve as a massive buffet (only 200 survive), and a sign of how callous those behind an inner wall can be to preserve what they have.

A lot of time passes this week, making these first two episodes  a solid foundation chronicling the trauma endured by our protagonists that motivate them to enlist in the military, that they might do something, anything to try to push the Titans back.

Meanwhile, Eren has intense, disturbing dreams and/or visions of future events; his dad is still alive somewhere, and there was a secret in the basement of the family home his dad intended Eren to see. All of this points to Eren being more than just talk, but whatever power he possesses seems a long way from being unleashed.

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Reminder: Comments are welcome as always, but please limit discussion to this episode and avoid spoilers, as I am watching AoT for the first time. Many thanks—HB

Attack on Titan – 01

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Thanks to Netflix and a relatively light Fall season, I am pleased to finally crack open the massively popular Attack on Titan, a show I eschewed virtually sight unseen, choosing instead to follow Gargantia, Majestic Prince, and Valvrave. I’m only past the first episode of AoT, but I can already see I made a major oversight; one that will be corrected forthwith.

AoT’s cold open shows us the very moment the people of Shiganshina are royally hosed, then after the credits, rewinds to the morning before the shit hits the fan and begins the process of masterfully building up the dread and tension preceding the events of the cold open.

As we follow Eren (a loud-mouthed portentous shonen if ever there was one) and his sister Mikasa (a girl of few words but immense strength) as they wind their way through the streets of their huge hometown, the walls, streets and structures have a strength, solidarity, and safety to them. Even the sounds of everyday life are lulling.

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If there is one shortcoming to this first episode, it’s that Eren isn’t necessarily likable at first. His reasons for wanting to strike out into the outside world aren’t unreasonable, but he can be over-emphatic in his protestations and scolds.

Sure, he may have had a vision of doom descending on Shiganshina, but he’s fighting against a century of idleness and contentment. Conviction and loudness are no substitute for hard evidence. Also, the episode tries to paint Armin with broad strokes, but there’s not much to him yet except that like Eren, he’s not content to stay within the walls.

Then the evidence arrives in the form of a hand grasping the top of the 50-meter outer wall, and it’s a powerful “Toldya so” moment that shakes every inhabitant of the city to their core. Then…a hole is blasted in the wall with such force it causes widespread destruction to the rest of the city. And that’s before smaller Titans start rushing in.

Any early quibbles I might have had with Eren or Armin go out the window when the appalling carnage starts, with throngs of humans running for their lives and many being scooped up and gobbled up like hors d’oeuvres. There’s a distinct sticky aura of awfulness to the spectacle, and the utter powerlessness of the three young protagonists.

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When Eren rushes home hoping against hope his house is still intact only to find his mom’s legs crushed under its ruins, it’s a gut punch. Before I can recover from that, a Titan eats her with cold satisfaction as a fleeing Eren watches, flooring me yet again.

Amidst the wholesale butchery and mass despair, there are obviously glints of both hope and levity. Mikasa’s imposing brawn is employed for a snicker when she and Eren rescue Armin from bullies, and the smash cut from Hannes momentarily facing off against a Titan to reconsidering and scooping up the kids, and retreating was a legitimately funny “oh shit” moment.

As for hope, well, Eren, Mikasa, and Armin are still alive, which means anything is possible. Obviously, they won’t stay powerless for long. But nor is any viable counterattack likely in the immediate future. The onslaught of the Titans has only begun, after all. For now, surviving is the name of the game.

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Welcome to my weekly (or bi-weekly) Attack on Titan retro reviews. Comments are welcome as always, however please limit discussion to this episode and avoid spoilers, as I am writing these reviews as I watch AoT for the first time. Thanks—HB