Attack on Titan (preliminary)

I've gotten burned reviewing a number of series before they were complete. I did a preliminary review of Durarara!!, which was perfectly fine until the middle third got a little dull and the final third of the show fell apart. It was still worth seeing, but not worth the grade I gave the opening salvo of episodes. Some shows turn into different beasts halfway in -- hello, Trigun and Evangelion! -- and others lose steam. And with DVDs being sold as season box sets these days, there's little point in reviewing less than a full season of an anime.

That said, streaming has made a sea change in the way anime is being watched, especially when it comes to new series. Within the last couple of years, we've had the ability to stream shows within days -- even hours -- of their broadcast on Japanese TV. While there have been a few shows in that timeframe I've thought about watching, nothing tickled my fancy enough to pick it up during its original airing. But then the buzz on one show kept building, and I got curious. And then I got hooked. And now, nine episodes in, I'm an addict waiting for his next fix. Yes, it's that bad.

The anime fix I am referring to is Attack on Titan.

Attack on Titan is not the best anime ever. It has some real flaws, including a heavy reliance on dialogue in inappropriate places. Occasionally, the animation suffers as the production company has rushed to get the show done in time. You can pick apart its flaws if you want. But I can only think of a few times in my twenty-seven years of anime watching when I have gotten this sucked into a show. It's smartly unpredictable, occasionally shocking, and wildly entertaining. When the action ramps up, it's nothing short of stunning. I'm having a hard time waiting from Sunday to Sunday for it.

In an uncertain future, perhaps on Earth, perhaps not...the human population has been utterly decimated by titans. These gigantic monstrosities, ranging from a few meters to perhaps a hundred meters tall, appeared a hundred years ago, eating through humanity at an alarming rate. A major group of survivors walled off a sizable area, creating a stronghold against future titan attacks. Three walls now protect the human population from these horrific creatures. Occasionally, a military group of scouts is sent out to check on titan activity, but few ever make it back. The size, speed, and ferocity of the titans makes them a foe nearly impossible to beat; as they don't speak, there's no negotiating with them. As the series starts, though, there's a sense of peace -- not because there isn't danger lurking outside the walls, but because the titans haven't attacked for a hundred years.

Erin and his parents, along with his foster sister Mikasa, live a somewhat normal existence in their medieval-European city. While they live in the most dangerous zone out near the third wall, the apparent truce between the titans and humanity has lasted so long that the risks seem muted. But their world is about to turn upside down...suddenly, a colossus titan rips through the main gate, allowing thousands of titans to pour into the city, devouring the inhabitants indiscriminately. The troops trained to fight these devils are gorily defeated before they have a chance to inflict much damage, and most of the populace is lost in the rampage. Erin and Mikasa witness horrific events no one should ever have to face, and Erin vows to destroy every titan as an act of vengeance.

A few years pass as we find Erin and Mikasa training in the military corps, attempting to become soldiers prepared to take on the titans. Equipped with swords, grappling hooks, and gas-powered blowers, they take to the air with their squads like well-armed spidermen. Yet titans are only vulnerable at a spot on the nape of their necks, and striking a killing blow is about as likely as bull's eying wamp rats. As primitive as their technique is, it's the only hope of saving the population from the titans, even if it promises near-certain death. But Erin is not about to give up on his revenge, and Mikasa isn't about to leave his side...

Attack on Titan's tech specs run from mediocre to brilliant. The show has been running behind; a recap episode has already been announced as a way for the production staff to get back on track. Sometimes, it shows. In one episode, the character lines were far too thick, making a couple incidental characters look like those Colorforms I used to play with as a kid. And yeah, those kind of problems are a turn-off. It's a tradeoff for the action sequences, which are simply incredible for a weekly television show. Watching the troops race from rooftop to rooftop is stunning, and I can put up with windy speeches with limited animation to see the spectacular battles against the titans.

Even if the animation doesn't impress you, the soundtrack will. Its opening theme is an intense earworm that dares you not to listen to it. (To give it its full due, I usually listen to OP themes once, then skip them to get more quickly into the meat of the show. I haven't skipped Attack on Titan's OP theme once.) While the slower EP song isn't as impressive, it's fine. The rest of the soundtrack is perfect, giving weight to the sequences it underlines. I do not doubt that this is a soundtrack many people will wind up importing; I can only hope it gets a US release.

Story-wise, there are some minor gaps, but the overall package works. So let's start with the not-so-good. Erin is a little one-note; revenge might make for a good Mel Gibson flick, but it can't be a character's only motivation for an entire TV show. Mikasa is a little bland, and her voice actress doesn't help. There are too many characters, and quite frankly, they die so quickly that trying to follow them all before you're a few episodes in is an exercise in futility. Certain minor players are stereotypes, such as the king -- who in his five-minute cameo so far appears to be a complete idiot. Occasionally, conversations between squadmates go on way too long, especially when we the audience are thinking, "Hey, aren't there titans around?" And if you're queasy, watch out; while the gore isn't exploitative, there's plenty of it. We are talking about humans becoming giant fodder, after all.

I give you all that up front because there are so many good points. Attack on Titan knows how to build and sustain tension. There are plot twists that I never saw coming, which is rare. Unlike many anime, the show allows its characters to grow up before they go into battle -- at least, they're of the age that they might qualify to join the armed forces in first-world countries. The angst they suffer is not from being put-upon teenagers; it's from seeing good friends get torn to shreds by half-skinned creatures that are from the depths of their worst nightmares. While the scenarios are wildly different, this is about the closest I've ever seen anime get to the raw intensity of a Saving Private Ryan. And while the characters aren't the most developed, the further the show goes, the deeper the back stories on our leads become. And when the action starts, it is amazing. It's thrilling, perhaps more so because the danger is real and palpable. The shows themes are very dark, yet its characters are hopeful that they can build a better life. You want them to succeed and grieve when they fail. Give it three episodes, and if you're not hooked, I'd be genuinely surprised.

I've been wrong about shows a third of the way through before, and I could be wrong about Attack on Titan as well. There's a lot of ground left to cover, and since I'm writing in mid-June 2013, truly no one knows if this is going to wind up a winner or a stinker. But if I were a betting man, I'd bet on this one. Whether you watch it via Funimation or Hulu, watch it. Unless you hate shonen action, faint at the sight of blood, or are nitpicky when it comes to your anime, I highly recommend hopping on this crazy train.

Attack on Titan ep. 1-9 -- graphic violence, mild profanity, titan posteriors but not nudity per se -- A