Combat Exercises; Attack on Titan, Episode 5

Shingeki_no_Kyojin_-_05_[4665F043]_May 6, 2013 6.40.23 AM

This episode in Attack on Titan, [CLASSIFIED CLASSIFIED CLASSIFIED DO NOT SPOIL DO NOT PASS GO DO NOT COLLECT $200]

[trigger warning: gore! blood. man was this episode gruesome in some ways]

wendeego: Well, this was the episode that Titan got serious. A few of the things that were accomplished here:

  • We receive a clearer picture of what exactly Titans are, how they live, what they eat, how to kill them, etc. Before this the series has been very careful to feed us details through visual inference, but this episode marks the first time the series has gone out of its way to confirm certain facts.
  • We also receive a glimpse at the politics in play throughout Attack on Titan. It’s not especially complex at the moment, but you will be seeing the guy with the mustache come into play very soon.
  • The series establishes our expectations for the upcoming skirmish. We know it’s going to be tough, maybe impossibly so. But Eren remains doggedly optimistic, despite the odds. It doesn’t matter that these soldiers are children, that they’ve just graduated from military training and that they’ve never fought proper Titans before. Their city is in danger, their lives are on the line and there’s a good chance that they will never be any more ready than they already are. Their only option is to survive. But hey, these people were just introduced. Eren is on fire. Everything’s going to be okay, right?
  • Everything goes to shit. The Titans feast on Eren’s squadron. Eren stupidly jumps into battle, going through the (very fluidly animated) motions from the trailer, except instead of saving the day his leg gets torn off at the knee and he’s hurled across the rooftops by the impact. In another manga, Armin would be the one eaten by the Titan, forcing our hero Eren to reevaluate his priorities and become a better, stronger person. But here, Eren gets up, pulls Armin out of the Titan’s mouth and is eaten soon after. Attack on Titan’s shonen hero, the stubborn bedrock that Armin and even Mikasa leans on, unceremoniously devoured in the fifth episode of the series.
  • In case you were wondering, Eren is eaten in the first volume of the manga.

When I was talking to Natasha last night about this episode of Attack on Titan, one thing that came up was comparing Eren being devoured here to Shun’s suicide in episode 10 of Shinsekai Yori. Natasha brought up the point that Shun’s death is frankly much more emotional and probably better executed than what we see here. I would agree! Not only is episode 1o of Shinsekai probably the best in the series, but it’s also an impossibly sad and even horrifying moment that elicited a great deal of emotion from me. Meanwhile Eren’s death is shocking and maybe even unexpected, but hardly elicits anything close to the same feelings. Araki’s direction (which verges on emotionally tone-deaf, as always) doesn’t help much either.

That said, I would say that when it comes down to it Eren’s premature end and Shun’s death were used by their respective creators for two very different purposes. Episode 10 of Shinsekai is an emotional climax, bringing nine episodes of tension and foreshadowing to a head. Episode 5 of Titan, on the other hand, is the cinematic equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet. In anime terms, it’s roughly equivalent to Mami’s death in the third episode of Madoka Magica. Besides Madoka’s dream and the creepiness of the art design, Mami’s death was the first indicator that something was seriously, seriously wrong in Madoka, and that what looked like a typical magical girl show was actually something else. Eren’s fate is similar: an indication that despite what early impressions may indicate, Attack on Titan is not a typical shonen series. The fact that up to this point, Titans can only be brought down by groups rather than by super-powered individuals (see sdshamsel’s excellent post on the subject) unbalances typical shonen dynamics from the start, but this episode makes it very clear that Eren’s tendencies to charge into battle without a plan of action will not work. Even worse is that Eren’s squad were devoured not because they weren’t strong enough, or because the Titans had some kind of trump card that they didn’t have. They died because they were caught by surprise, and then were picked off one by one as they were paralyzed by fear. In short, Eren’s squad died by accident, and in a medium where hard work, guts and friendship is supposed to carry you past every obstacle, this is nothing to sneeze at.

But what might be even more interesting than the implications this has on the plot of the series as a whole or on the genre is how it affects the rest of the cast. In many, many shonen series, the supporting cast are either subordinate to the main character or are given dimension through contrast to the main character. Poring through an issue of Shonen Jump would already net you plenty of examples. Attack on Titan sets its protagonist up as the character all the others lean on, the one whose inner drive forces everybody else to try harder, but then it snatches him away right under everybody else’s nose. What’s great about this is that it forces every character in the series to react. Will Armin be able to make good on Eren’s sacrifice and survive despite the odds? Will Mikasa cave in now that Eren is gone, or will she continue as strong as ever? Up to this point, Eren’s technically been the “protagonist” of Attack on Titan but the dirty truth is that Armin and Mikasa really have just as much of a claim on the position as anyone else. Granted, in the original manga you could question the worth of shaking up the status quo like this in the very first volume, but as it happens the anime has been very careful to establish a status quo throughout these past few episodes. Eren could be grating at times, infuriating at others, but now (as far as we know) he’s gone. What next?

Now, notice that while I have plenty to say about the ways that Attack on Titan bucks the shonen trend in some really cool ways, I do think that the execution in this episode was laughing. An entire unit of young soldiers being gobbled up in a day is dark material that demands a degree of careful handling, and if anything this episode made it clear that Araki is totally incapable of that. The last scenes might have been horrifying, with kids being eaten and limbs flying around, but everything was at such a high pitch that it came off as more hilariously over the top than affecting. Armin’s scream at the end of the episode is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about: it’s a justified response when your best friend is eaten right in front of you, but there’s not a hint of humanity in that expression. Titan is a series about kids with belaying equipment kicking the shit out of giant impossible monsters, but at the same time if the premise is going to work you have to care about the people being gobbled up. I’ve been hoping that the screenwriter would be able to curb Araki’s worst impulses, but I’m beginning to suspect that the Araki train cannot be curbed. Will Titan grow into a series worthy of its manga counterpart, or will it devolve into a series of exciting but hilariously tone-deaf fight sequences? As excited as I am at this point in time, I’d have to say it’s up in the air.

illegenes: Well, I was promised a serious episode, and to be honest, I did get one! But I think where me and Wendeego slightly differ on opinion is how I think that Titan has a good idea of what it wants to do, but is a little clumsy in actually trying to get there and send a proper message.

Let’s start with the good things. To begin with, the animation this week was really superb! I loved the camera angles, and how the animators tried to go about different way to make these action scenes exciting rather than repetitive and stale. The scene when Eren zoomed past the buildings only for his leg to get eaten was one of the best moments yet. Also, as Wendeego has already noted, a lot of background information was revealed about the Titans this week, which was frankly something I really needed. I mentioned in my last post that there were plenty of questions that weren’t adding up, and while this newfound information hasn’t really helped me find an answer to most of the questions I’ve been seeking, it has confirmed some theories and propelled others into action. I was glad that the fact that Titans only eat humans was confirmed, but at the same time it makes no sense. In terms of evolution, the Titans are an anomaly, and so I’ve concluded that there is a forced genetic trigger that makes Titans….Titans. In other words, I feel like from the data given, Titans must have a lesser form of some kind – a form that humans can’t distinguish or cannot see. It’s the only explanation as to how Eren was about to attack a colossal one only to find that it vanished. It’s not actually based on evolution however, because Titans in their released form only attack humans, and can’t actually eat anything else, which is completely illogical.  In their lesser form, these Titans can eat and reproduce naturally, but in their triggered state, they cannot. It’s a weird hypothesis, but from the evidence drawn, it’s the only one that somewhat fits.

Titan information isn’t the only thing that’s given though. From the looks of it, Shingeki is still really behind in logical conclusions for worldbuilding.

I’ll leave this lengthy discussion for next time, but to sum up: there are a lot of things that just don’t make sense in Shingeki‘s world, and it’s not just me nitpicking, it’s blatant flaws; either a sign of deliberate red herrings, or flawed building.

The bad part was when Eren got eaten, and I didn’t really feel shock or horror at all. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that throughout this episode, I wasn’t really emotionally moved by anything. Eren is gone, but the comfort of knowing that he’s the goddamn protagonist stays. Why should I feel shocked when I know that Eren is going to somehow come back, more determined and powerful than ever, even without a leg or an arm? It feels like a cheap and wasteful trick, and yet, at the same time, I see where the creator was going for this. Eren has to pay for his optimistic determination, right? But aren’t there so many other ways to send that message? Couldn’t Eren actually escape with losing an arm, and have to work his entire life trying to defeat the Titans, armless? Or perhaps, couldn’t Eren just watch slowly as one by one of his comrades get torn apart, just like that day when he lost his mother? Perhaps these are all far too bleak for the show, but as I see it, if you’re willing to sacrifice a couple of characters you just introduced for effect, you can easily perform these situations as well.

Maybe this is just Araki’s problem; he’s a director that rarely captures emotional power well, and I guess this is the same thing with Shingeki. We saw that this was the case with Guilty Crown and Death Note. But I think where my issue stems from is something within the show rather than outside of it. It is the fact that I’m more interested in the actual world of Shingeki rather than its characters. There is a mix of either really deliberate buildup or lazy storytelling that bothers me and distracts me from being invested in these people and their fight. Ironically, Shinsekai Yori also started off very similarly  I didn’t connect with Saki’s group until Episode 10 where I realized how much these characters meant to me. But whereas Shinsekai built its world methodically and slowly, filling up the gaps of knowledge by handing the audience the power of omnipotence and allowing us to view different events that would otherwise be shielded to the public, Shingeki sticks us in with the rest of the blind and deaf. Which is fine! This sort of method has been used many times before, and has worked well. But in Shingeki‘s case, where the show is more focused on these characters than the actual worldbuilding (while Shinsekai was focused on both), I feel like there should be a tradeoff. That in exchange for information on the Titans, we should get information on these characters. Instead, I feel like I’m on the wrong footing. I should care about Eren and his gang of Corps. I should have some sort of visceral reaction when Eren gets eaten up and a couple of soldiers get gobbled too. I shouldn’t be laughing when a giant with moe eyes and a strange face eats someone and that’s that. I should be more interested in these characters, rather than trying to work out how Titans exist and why humanity continues to hole itself up! But I don’t. And it’s frustrating.

Meditating on why this is happening, I’ve come to one conclusion: maybe the reason I don’t care about Shingeki‘s characters as of yet is because the show has offered us little time to interact with them and see who they really are. Whereas Shinsekai gave us a good 9 episodes to witness Shun’s humanity and its slow degradation, Shingeki has only given us what – 1 or 2 episodes? For a good 6-7 characters? It’s going to be tough for me to actually show interest when I barely know these people and what they’re really fighting for in the first place. Hopefully this is a hurdle that Shingeki can leap over, or maybe I’m just being a little too harsh – we’re only 5 episodes in after all, but when that’s nearly a quarter of the show done, I can’t help but be a little worried as to whether Shingeki will establish itself as a character-driven show or a plot-driven one. I’m more of the former, so I may be a little uncomfortable if the show goes for the latter. But whatever way Shingeki goes, the big question is: can it maintain a consistent balance between being emotionally engaging and explosive at the same time?

It’s a tough thing to do, and anime often struggles with keeping that line firmly established, but I do have hopes for Shingeki, and I think it’s a capable show! And so I’ll continue to root for it and its lost heroes. Here’s to hoping that our main hero returns and that there are less victims for the next battle!

(Who am I kidding, we all know it’s going to be a slaughterhouse.) See you next time!

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11 responses to “Combat Exercises; Attack on Titan, Episode 5

  1. You are consistently confusing what is objective with your subjective feeling, reactions etc in this review.

    Let’s take armin’s scream for example. You say ” there’s not a hint of humanity in that expression.” Well…, to me (and including many others), the scene (armin’s scream) is so well made one that it felt genuinely humane reaction to the brutal death of his best friend, an expression of horror, suffering, helplessness (which are all kinds of very humane feeling).

    So we got different emotional response seeing the scene each other, and I have no idea how yours could be more informed, well-judged one than mine.

    If not all, most of your ‘analyses’ in this review boils down to that thing, “it felt that way to “… Done.

    • Hello! I’m not sure if I can “convince you” whether my opinion is any more correct than yours, but let’s take a look at what you just said and see if we can come to an understanding.

      You say that I’m confusing what is objective with what is subjective in this post. I won’t deny that my feelings here are subjective rather than objective. When I say that Tetsuro Araki is a director who is highly capable of directing visceral action scenes but is much less capable when directing emotional response, that is definitely my subjective opinion and not necessarily one that other people might share. Now, I’d like to say that your view (that Armin’s scream works) is equally as subjective as mine, and so in the long run either of our answers could be “subjective.” But when it comes down to it the greater picture isn’t that one of us is incorrect, but that objectivity has no place in the practice of “reviewing” in the first place. You can use what you know about literature and film and other things to evaluate something’s worth, but in the end it really comes down to your own perception and understanding.

      Now, for what it’s worth I didn’t have a problem with Armin’s reactions in the manga (though I’m sure Natasha disagrees) which is generally more restrained than the anime. But I think it is very important to point out that when it comes to reviews (especially the ones we write and aspire to write) objectivity is totally bogus. I’ve seen an obsession with objectivity permeate video game reviews and film reviews and other things, where people yell out “your opinions suck, this movie/video game/work of art is FACTUALLY GREAT!” Similarly you have people blast the same things for being objectively terrible when they might very well be brilliant but flawed. No offense, but I believe this line of thought is actively poisonous and solely the domain of sites like IGN and other places. In that sense, this isn’t so much a response to you as it is a response to everyone who reads this: what we write here are our own opinions, certainly not objective. But if you are coming to criticism for an “objective” response than you are looking in the wrong place. You can certainly evaluate things by various criteria, but to do so via evaluating “factually” is the antithesis of what we stand for and leads to terrible, terrible writing.

      Thanks for commenting though! I hope this helps clarify things.

  2. I tried, but I can’t even finish this entire post of supposed “analysis”. you guys sound waaayyy too nitpicky and impatient. Just curious though, have you read the manga? because you guys constantly refer to it, yet still ask questions that can be answered in the manga…. =/
    Personally, I find this series really enjoyable not because I want to care about any particular character (for that I can just go for some simple slice of life story where details are more emphasized). I like AoT for the action, mystery, and plot impact as a whole. I like to see how the mangaka/animator lead us through surprises and shocks. Do I need to care about Eren to be amazed by the sheer sadistic mastery leading up to his death? No. But as a plot device, it’s brilliant that they went that route. Now I am even more interested in how that’s going affect the entire series. This is only the 5th episode, and you guys are comparing it to series longer into their plot, and demanding it to serve up as much emotional impact. Frankly, it just comes across as impatient to me. Lastly, whether us audience can connect with the character is entirely subjective on our part, it’s not up to the creator nor is it our fault that we can’t care.

    • For what it’s worth, I’ve read a significant chunk of the manga while Natasha hasn’t. Any time I “ask questions” in my part I’m generally trying to direct discussion, not trying to second-guess things (unless they deserve to be second-guessed.)

      To be blunt, I don’t think you need to be an expert in the source material to comment on or critique an anime series. Does it help? Yes, but in many cases I think the impressions of somebody new to a franchise can be just as or even more valuable than someone so deep he or she has become blinded. I don’t agree with everything Natasha writes in these posts, but I definitely listen to everything she has to say and think it’s just as valid critique as anything else.

      Understand that it is possible to take into account other’s criticism of something you like and still enjoy that thing without problems. Also understand that answering a piece written in good faith with total dismissal is by all accounts pretty rude. That said, thanks for at least making the effort!

  3. Wendeego, I love how you compared Eren’s death with Shun’s and Mami’s plots. You’re right about Shun’s death being way much more emotional – not only because we get to know him better after 10 episode of Shinsekai than we know Eren after 5 episodes of Shingeki, but I think it’s also because we see it through Saki’s eyes, through eyes of someone who loved him and who is main narrator of the whole story. Eren’s death, as you pointed out, is more like Mami’s death – it happens in a combat, it’s sudden, we haven’t seen it coming, according to classic schemes it should not happen. This kind of death has bigger “here and now” impact, while a death like Shun’s stays with us much longer and much deeper.

    I wonder how this brutal carnage of Eren’s squad will impact on the rest of the young soldiers. It clearly shows that their military training was pretty much useless. It seemed like they were “physically” ready, also right before the fight they seemed motivated. Shingeki claerly shows that being strong and wanting to win is not enough – it’s nothing against this kind of opponent. It’s really scary and pessimistic vision – it makes me think that there’s no way for human to defeat Titans without, I don’t know, magic or genetic mutation.

    Speaking of genetic mutation – I also find the whole knowledge about Titans a little inconsistent or maybe (hopefully) just incomplete. While I can accept the fact that Titans eat only humans (by choice) it makes no sense to me that they can survive like 100 years without their food. I mean, they are living creatures, they have to eat something. It seems logical that when they can’t get humans they eat anything instead just to survive (for example animals). It would be more consistent if their nature was more like (it’s going to be silly so sorry in advance ;)) vampires – they also eat human (or more specifically human’s blood) but popculture showed us many times that when they can’t have real human blood, they can use some replacement. That’s why I really like illegenes theory about Titans (as we know them) being some kind of mutated form of creatures that normally are much smaller, can reproduce or, finally, eat something different than human flesh. I find this idea very convincing :)

    And as for Eren’s death, I have to admit, I had very emotional reaction on this scene, however illegenes’ deduction made me think about the nature of my shock. You’re definitely right about viewers not having any chance to bond with those characters, even with Eren. After 5 episodes we know that he seeks revenge, is crazy brave (emphasizing crazy ;)) and has tons of passion. However those are very superficial qualities for a shounen protagonist. On the other hand there was no occasion to present those characters properly – not as victims of Titans or soldiers agains Titans. Their whole presence in the show revolves around Titans – it seems like those monsters are a real center of the show, not characters like Eren, Mikasa or Armin. People talk only about Titans, think only about Titans, everything they do revolves around Titans. It’s hard to know any character when he is presented to us only through the prism of his opponent. I wonder whether creators will be able to step back a little and give those characters space that isn’t eclipsed by Titans. I would really love to see that because I still believe that those characters have a lot of potential.

    • Hmm…there’s a lot to ponder here!

      I don’t want to say too much because I’ve read quite a bit of the manga already. That said, I think the “impossibility” of the Titans is very deliberate. These are creatures who don’t reproduce but swarm the world by the thousands, creatures who don’t have to eat but eat humans anyway, creatures that are almost impossible to kill except by a maneuver that fails about 20% of the time. The odds are almost hilariously stacked against humankind, but I think that’s really part of the message of the whole thing. Rather than some kind of biological threat I think it’s a lot more apt to think of them in terms of the Angels in Evangelion: terrifying, varied and fundamentally unknowable.

      When it comes down to it, every fight scene in Titan is essentially a leap into the abyss. The Titans are opponents that are almost hilariously overpowered, and yet our cast of humans have no choice but to fly into battle in order to keep what remains of their families and friends alive. It’s true that the characters through most of this have been defined by their *reactions* to the Titans, but again I think that’s part of the experiment: set a man or a woman against an impossible, ravenous beast, and what do they do? Fight? Run? Die? Titan asks this question of its cast over and over again, and while some run or cry or even kill themselves the ones who survive pick themselves up from the ground and do it all over again.

      Really I think the only way the Titan adaptation will succeed is if it gets to the core of the manga, which I think is bravery. The series takes the whole “hard work and guts” manga that runs through most shonen manga and crystallizes it into its most pure and horrifying form, the Titans serving as a crucible that transforms the central cast into something else. When done right it’s a device that makes the exceptional bravery (and, sometimes, failure) on display all the more astounding. If the series can capture any of this than I think it really stands a chance of being remarkable; that said, this IS Araki we’re talking about and as good as he is with tense direction and action sequences, subtlety isn’t his strong suit.

  4. That was horrible. Still not nihilistic though (haha, ok I’ll stop now)

    Over-the-top and emotionally unengaging would be a good way to describe this episode. It was so nerve-wrecking that I had to calm myself afterwards But, like you said illegenes, not because we care about the cast. Rather because it shook up our expectations of what a shounen acts like.

    • Heheh, it’s okay :D

      I mean Attack on Titan has been over the top since day one for me, but at least the first death of the mom had value and emotional impact because family members? And we could really see how this loss affected Eren and impacted him in such a way that he vowed to obliterate all Titans from the face of the planet. None of that is displayed in this week’s episode, which makes it for a contrived and unspectacular performance. Visually breathtaking, but I can’t just connect, and it’s an issue for me.

      As for ‘shaking up expectations of a shounen series’, I would strongly disagree (to me, that’s like saying that PMMM is a deconstruction of a mahou shoujo series); plenty of shounen series are gruesome and dark. Take GANTZ for instance, or Beserk, Deadman Wonderland, even Fullmetal Alchemist/Brotherhood. Shounen series don’t necessarily have to be inspiring, or lighthearted/optimistic, and that’s why I still consider Attack on Titan to be pretty regularly shounen-like.

      • Correction! Gantz and Berserk are both noticeably violent seinen series, not shonen stuff at all. Deadman Wonderland (and yeah, Fullmetal Alchemist) are both pretty intense shonen, but I think it really comes down to the real robot vs. super robot thing I think sdshamsel got into in the post I linked above? Both casts of Deadman and FMA are composed of individuals with unique abilities, which is pretty different from Titan’s dynamic where most of the cast have the same capabilities and are therefore expendable. Fullmetal Alchemist comes a way towards capturing this dynamic in volume 15 (which focused on Ishbal) but even then the characters engaged in Ishbal were mainly adults. Ed and Al both go through a great deal of difficulty throughout the story but I feel like Titan more consciously subjects its kids to what is essentially a war narrative.

        That’s not saying that there isn’t shonen just as violent as Titan, because Jojo ran in shonen jump for years and it is SUPER VIOLENT. That said, there’s a difference between cartoonish (albeit awesome) superheroism interspersed with gore and something more in line with Shonen Gundam, and I think Titan’s really on the side of the latter. Which is neat!

        That said, I’m not gonna lie–I laughed when Eren was eaten too. Armin’s crazy expression coupled with the shock value was pretty hard to take :)

      • The impending death of family members has become that obvious, cheap way to get sympathy, so I’m basically treating parents like any other character. I’ll care about them if you give me something more substantial than blood ties. So at least we got to spend relatively much more time with the other soldiers. Relatively.

        I’m not saying SnK is subversive or a deconstruction of the shounen genre(that’ll have to wait until the end – and I’m not expecting anything too complex anyway). It’s the way that the episode played with genre conventions(or rather, acted like it was a shounen show) to trick us into a roller-coaster of tension. “His friend has been killed! Eren’s going to get revenge! Wait.. no, his leg got chopped off. But his comrades are coming to the rescue! No… they’re getting eaten.”

        To be honest, I don’t like this kind of manipulation. The show makes up for lack of emotional involvement by frustrating you with bursts of high tension that go on and on unfulfilled.

        PS: Glad I’m not the only one to think Madoka isn’t a deconstruction. High five!

        • I totally agree. I mean, I’m a little more soft toward family members, but that’s just me I guess. But re: everyone else getting eaten, I feel like it’s so contrived. There’s no real meaning or value in it, and like you said, it feels more of just manipulation for the sake of manipulation rather than trying to go for an achieved effect. We know Eren’s coming back so why should we care if he gets eaten or not? As for the rest of the team who probably won’t come back – couldn’t you have spent a little more time fleshing them out so they didn’t feel like old cabbages being thrown out of pack? I don’t know. I feel like Titan has an idea of what it wants to do, but it’s having a hard time getting there and showing it effectively.

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