Review:
Attack on Titan (2015)
(2/5)
Author:
Nicholas Driscoll
Published:
September 1, 2015
Note: review may contain spoilers


Godzilla fans around the world were ecstatic when they learned that Shinji Higuchi, the special effects director for the phenomenal Gamera trilogy (see my reviews for a personal take) and one of the creators behind the Neon Genesis Evangelion phenomenon (and the director of the bizarre, mostly CGI Mini Moni movie), would be directing the next Godzilla film in 2016. Plus, as a kaiju-sized appetizer of sorts, Higuchi would also be directing two live-action Attack on Titan films to be released in 2015, based on the wildly popular manga and anime of the same name by Hajime Isayama. For many, Isayama’s Attack on Titan manga and anime have provided a new, fresh, visceral twist to the giant monster genre with his intense and exciting storytelling and likable cast of characters. Thus the Attack on Titan movies seem like a fantastic test bed to see what Higuchi can do with the giant monster genre when he is sitting in the director’s chair before he takes on the King of the Monsters himself. Higuchi would be backed up by a script co-written by Yusuke Watanabe, who seems to be the go-to guy for live-action adaptations of boys’ comics, having written the scripts for all the live action Gantz and 20th Century Boys adaptations, as well as the script for 2013’s superheroic Gatchaman. What could go wrong?

A little background on my perspective: after moving to Japan earlier this year, I started reading the Attack on Titan comics as a way to practice my Japanese, and was quickly pulled into the story, and horrified by the monster action. To me, Isayama’s comic was gripping and ghastly and often unpredictable. Our heroes didn’t always win. Even victories were devastating. The ghoulish Titans were freakish and frightening at a gut level. And while the characters may not have been exceptionally deep, I found myself cheering for them, and gravitated to Eren’s adopted sister Mikasa as my favorite. I just loved her no-nonsense, noble, loyal personality—and the fact she could kick all kinds of behind without pride or histrionics—just class. So my anticipation for the movie was growing all summer, and of course I was especially looking forward to seeing Mikasa on the big screen, being heroic and awesome in the face of incredible danger.

Then I saw the movie several weeks ago. If you have seen the Attack on Titan movie already, you know where this is going…

The plot—spoiler-free version. It’s the future, and humanity has been decimated by the appearance of the titans—enormous naked men (and women sometimes) who exclusively devour human flesh. Several towering walls are built, fencing in a vast area where the humans can live in peace, protected from the nasty naked monster men outside. Many years later, bratty teenager Eren is hanging out with his demure girlfriend (?!) Mikasa and techie nerd friend Armin. Suddenly an enormous (and skinless) titan appears and smashes an opening in the outer wall before disappearing, and an army of titans invades the city and creates all sorts of bloody havoc. The invading titans seem immortal and unkillable, with nearly instant regenerating powers. After suffering incredible loss, Eren escapes into the inner wall, and years later, humanity has put together a special task force to fight the titans and find a way to save the world. Eren is part of the special anti-titan force, along with some of his friends. This is the story of their first mission against the titans, and the dreadful cost of that fight.

As hinted above, the story of Attack on Titan the movie deviates in some significant ways from the source material. It really is a different story from the comic and anime, and for those coming to in to see the familiar adventures of their favorite characters translated to the big screen, the movie will probably disappoint to some level. The world of the movie is different from the comics and cartoon. The story takes a few significant liberties as well. Even some of the main characters are drastically different from the source material—sharing a name and sometimes little else. I am sure, for many fans, these changes across the board came as something of a shock—after all, Higuchi claimed in interviews that, “I shot the movie to make it as faithful as possible to the original work. That is because I think making a live-action adaptation is all about recreating the world fans want to see” and in another interview that “The characters themselves are the same, there isn't much changed except for the appearances of course, they look more Japanese of course because the actors are. But it's not a stand-alone piece where it has nothing to do with the source material, it's actually very close: the characters that they represent, the characteristics, the personalities, they're extremely close”. Despite Higuchi’s claims, it’s simply not true—again, for better or for worse. Hope Chapman from Anime News Network loved the reworking. Brian Ashcraft from Kotaku hated it. I fall somewhere in between, but let’s explore this a bit in detail.

First, the setting. The movie does not take place in the pseudo-medieval, vaguely German/European world of the comics and cartoon, but rather a future Japan where most of our technology has been lost. We see a broken down helicopter, relatively modern-looking buildings, even a dud missile that Eren mischievously stomps on. Right from the beginning, Higuchi’s vision differentiates itself from the comic—and for me, this aspect of the film works pretty well. I am guessing it was a cost-cutting measure as much as anything. It’s a lot cheaper to go film on the legendary Gunkanjima with its ghost industrial complexes than to build European-style sets. Plus of course the cast is Japanese, not European. Sure, the industrial wasteland future is perhaps a bit more cliché than the comic’s European landscape—and the European landscape, too, ties in more closely with the old legends of ogres and hungry giants that were such common enemies of the knights and warriors in fairy tales, but nevertheless, for me, the filming is suitably dark, grimy, and oppressive in a way that highlights the horror of the story effectively. The world of the movie is legitimately ghastly, most especially in the way the titans are depicted.

The titans appear early in the film, of course starting with the now-iconic gargantuan smoking muscle-man. Frankly the Mr. Goodbody titan is the least scary beast in the film (to me), and also perhaps the least convincing. The CG animation doesn’t look real. Nevertheless, I would be the first to say that, verisimilitude aside, the roast-meat wonder-giant looks amazing, stylized but intimidating, with an impressive sense of scale. But the other titans are much worse. And when I say they are worse, I mean they are terrifying.

The titans as originally realized in the comic and anime are obviously inspired by myths, legends, and folklore from Europe about monstrous, often naked giants, trolls, and ogres that eat people—fee, fi, fo, fum indeed! Of course, Hajime Isayama added his own additional twists to the legends, grounding his monsters in a pseudo-sci-fi, steam-punk-flavored world, and giving them a surfeit of powers like super-regeneration and incomplete digestive tracts (?!). The titans themselves are frightening for a whole list of reasons; given that they are (in the comic anyway) mostly giant naked men and often sport hideous lustful grins while chasing tiny people, one could argue that the imagery evokes the horrors of pedophilia. I am not sure that such a theme was intended, but the monsters are genuinely scary on a psychological level. Much of that terror translates to the big screen well with horrific realizations of the titans. Utilizing a combination of practical and digital effects, the titans are fantastically eerie—just looking at some of the designs practically sent shivers down my spine. The titans are fast, creepy, violent, and vicious, and at least for my money, they are extremely effective in this movie. Interestingly, though, the normal titans are rendered almost universally an ashen gray, which gives them the look of ghouls or marching corpses and lends the film an even darker feel. Curiously, too, there are more female titans here (though not THE female titan from the comics), and (minor spoiler) in one of the more horrific scenes there is a baby titan (which probably left a lot of fans scratching their heads given what we know of titan biology from the comics).

For kaiju fans, too, I can’t help but draw a few comparisons of the titans to a more classic Toho humanoid monster pair—the Gargantuas, Sanda and Gaira—and, well, Frankenstein, too, really. Frankenstein (in Toho’s fantasy world) was also an enormous humanoid monster with regenerative powers. Although Frankenstein does not heal as fast as the titans do, nevertheless he grows back body parts over time (such as his hand), and Franky takes things a step further than the titans since new beasts can grow from his sliced off anatomy. Enter Sanda and Gaira and you have a few more similarities to the titans (warning: some spoilers here). Gaira is like a hairy titan frankly—his purpose in life seems to be to dash about and devour loads of humans every chance he gets. Sanda, meanwhile, might be seen as a sort of prototypical version of Eren, the protagonist of Attack on Titan. Eren can, before the end of the film, change into a “good” titan and kick the snot out of the bad titans. Sanda also serves as a sort of protector of humankind in The War of the Gargantuas (1966)—and like Eren, many humans look at him with worried suspicion. (By the way, when Eren finally transforms into his titan form and gets into a devastating donnybrook with the other titans, it is really electrifying and the best part of the movie in my opinion.) (Fans of Titan will be aware that there IS a hairy “titan” in the comics, too, but he doesn’t appear in the first movie.)

Next, the characters and acting. The brief, spoiler-free version: In my opinion, the acting wasn’t bad, though a bit over-the-top and melodramatic at times, but there isn’t much character development. Eren (played by J-pop singer Haruma Miura of the Brash Brats) is emotional and hot-headed and a little boring. Mikasa, played by Kiko Mizuhara (who, like her character, is half-Asian!), is also pretty boring, a blank face covering her hurt (more on that later). She is a tough girl with no personality basically. Sasha (the “potato girl” who loves to eat) is funny enough here. Hange (the scientist from the comics) also makes an early appearance in the story, though I thought her eccentric screaming was more jarring than anything. To go much more into the details of the characters might be a bit spoilery. Suffice it to say, fans of the comic or anime will likely be incensed at some of the changes because popular characters are altered in dramatic ways, or even replaced altogether. If you aren’t a fan of Attack on Titan, there is actually a BETTER chance that you will enjoy this movie. Why? Well…

SPOILERS!

Okay, here we go. To start, from the beginning of the film, Eren actually doesn’t even believe in the titans, which is a massive change from the source material. Also, his parents are already dead before the movie even starts, which is another significant change. Eren is also apparently dating Mikasa, who is his adoptive SISTER in the comics. Apparently they are unrelated here. And this is where things really diverge.

My favorite character from the comics is Mikasa. She is tough, powerful, kicks everybody’s hinder, and is devoted to protecting Eren because he rescued her from human traffickers at a young age before his family adopted her. Mikasa’s relationship to Eren is central to the comic—she saves his bacon repeatedly, and her care for him (as a brother, as her only remaining family) is a moving part of the story that pushes the narrative forward in sometimes heartwrenching ways. Their relationship is arguably the emotional backbone of the original story.

So it comes as something of a surprise when that relationship is basically jettisoned in the movie. When the titans invade, Eren and Mikasa are separated, and Eren comes to believe that Mikasa was eaten by one of the titans (in the comic, Eren’s mom is eaten in the corresponding plot point). Given that Mikasa is arguably the most popular character in the comic, it comes as no surprise when she shows up later in the story—but she has changed. When she resurfaces, she is an emotionless titan-killing machine. To complete the dark transformation of Mikasa’s character, there is even a scene where Mikasa sees that Eren is basically dying—and she doesn’t care. It feels like a slap in the face to fans.

 Further, Mikasa is engaged in a creeptacular relationship with a new character introduced in the movie—the over-the-top villain (?) Shikishima. Shikishima basically taunts Eren, implying that he is boning Mikasa (oh please no), and mocking him every chance he gets. Shikishima replaces another very popular characer, Levi, who the filmmakers excised because Japanese doesn’t have the letter “v” in it. (Don’t ask.) Where Levi was heroic and likable warrior of extreme skill, Shikishima is just an evil sneering psycho in search of a mustache to twirl. He isn’t interesting in the least as a character.

There are other strange tonal changes in the movie as well, including a scene where a human soldier somehow manages to grab and throw an elephant-sized titan with his bare hands and a truly outlandish and absurd seduction scene which makes no sense whatsoever in the context of the story. (Basically, in the middle of a filthy building, in the middle of a dangerous section of the city teeming with titans, some of the soldiers just start getting it on—apparently with no lookout as a titan soon manages to sneak up and interrupt the fornicating). One of the things I most appreciate about the Attack on Titan manga is that it never has cheesecake—on the contrary, the women tend to actually wear clothes and have more character than can be encapsulated in a couple oversized mammaries. Thus, the sexualized scenes came across as jarring and out-of-place as well as stupid. Hope Chapman, writing a mostly glowing review of the movie for Anime News Network, notes that the changes to Mikasa and the other sexual additions are playing into psychosexual horror tropes. In my opinion, the additions are a wretched failure on just about every level.

It is worth mentioning as well that the first Attack on Titan movie does not have a satisfying conclusion—this is really just the first half of a movie, and the film ends on a pretty unsatisfying cliffhanger that doesn’t wrap anything up. Toho did something similar with the Parasyte movies—but each of those movies also had a relatively satisfying plot arc that could be enjoyed on its own. Even if the second movie was never made, the first Parasyte would still be worth watching. Attack on Titan simply feels incomplete—you have to watch both films to (hopefully) get a complete story.

END SPOILERS

Still with me? Let’s look at the music for a moment. Shinji Higuchi brings over composer Shiro Sagisu with him from Neon Genesis Evangelion fame, and you might expect something special given Sagisu’s experience. The music from the movie, though, didn’t gel very well. I didn’t hate the music, but it is a strange mix of genres—rock, instrumental, etc—that don’t quite come together or really drive the action very well in my opinion. The grinding guitar especially comes across as strange given the material.

As a side note, I went to the “DBOX” version of Attack on Titan, which means that I was sitting in a special mechanized seat that shook and shifted and moved to the action. Earlier this year I went to Mad Max: Fury Road with DBOX, and it was pretty thrilling—the movements of the chair translated well to the action of cars zooming and booming. It doesn’t work nearly as well with Titan, as the action is not as frequent, and it just came across as unnecessary and kind of annoying. Imagine every time the characters punch each other the chair shakes. It’s not worth the extra cash.

Frankly, to be quite honest, I hated Attack on Titan—after it was over, I complained about it to a friend and fellow Titan-fan, who was even more aghast than I was at the changes. That said, a movie stands apart from its source material—very often adaptations change a lot more than Attack on Titan did, and non-fans will probably find more to enjoy. After all, the titans are horrific, the violence tense and assaulting. Nevertheless, even standing on its own, the film has many problems as the changes are often misguided and sometimes undermine the narrative, the acting is often uninspired, the drama is sometimes over-the-top to the point of parody (my gosh, that scene where Armin is rescued), the characters don’t have even the depth of their cartoon counterparts, and the film is really only half a movie. Sometimes it felt like Attack on Titan was more an attack on Titan’s fans, but even for noobs, it’s a disappointment.