I picked up Attack on Titan (AOT) after a while and I couldn’t help but put down a few things that rubbed me the wrong way.
Of course the strengths of the series, and most Shonen, still shine through with the pacing, concept and emotional tension being pretty good. But I was a little less enthused since it seemed to be written for adolescents more than it is about adolescents.
I’m not saying it’s juvenile but the writing and characterisation are definitely a kind of wish fulfillment for that adolescent urge to defy authority, righteously struggle for some cause and fit in with a group of companions. Compare that with say Akira, where you also have young adolescents up to onerous tasks. What stands out is that Akira’s characters are more fleshed out. Their flaws, age, doubts come out in conversations, in the way they interact and their actions.
In contrast the characters in AOT are always moving from one revelation to another, their conflicts always in service to some greater ideal they uphold or some great tragedy that they are haunted by. I couldn’t help but feel that these faces have more motive than character. It makes for an intoxicating pace that has the plot constantly moving even during political posturing but it ends up hurting the characters, leaving little room for development. These characters don’t live beyond their service to the plot.
There’s little breathing room like how Akira shows its main characters being underage hooligans, layabouts and delinquents hanging around shady bars but just as easily have their heroics entirely dependent on their impulsive, angst-y behavior. They aren’t caricatures, they do ask great questions and change the world but they’re still realistically within a transformational period in their lives. They aren’t ideological warriors, they’re living out their pasts even in what they believe – there’s more subtlety, nuance and humanism.
The tedious focus on the one or two characters that the entire world revolves around wouldn’t be that unbearable if there were any characters with the will power to disagree or not go along with the latest inspirational speech that’s being flung at them. The AOT world has no room for doubts, uncertainty or shifting moods in the human mind. You agree or disagree, you’re on the red team or the blue team. We get spoonful after spoonful but no time to chew.
What seems to have hurt the series is that the personal motive driven plot had to go from the high intensity of family avenging, friend slaying action that went rooftop to rooftop to a slow burn of exposition that suddenly found the story having to explain an entire history, social context, lore etc. The pacing is admirably consistent from the days of tense Titian slaying to and endless series of palace coups but without the life threatening danger, the same things that worked earlier start to show their weaknesses.
It’s a shame because, in hindsight, the survival focused story telling was some of the strongest I’ve read and so much of what the story continues to do made so much more sense since it was also in service to this constant tension. By giving way what the titans were the series kind of gave way the main threat. There is no more doom, no more end of the word as interesting. The world war plot is fine, the exposition wasn’t too clumsily delivered even if it wasn’t subtle, but it just isn’t as interesting.
When the Colossal Titian kicked down that wall, it genuinely felt like the end of the world was slowly creeping up, that hopelessness and desperation we got a worms eye view of never came back.
Addendum: Ernin the child trying to protect his own is far more interesting than Enrin the political schemer trying to develop weapons of mass destruction and the necessary prerequisites for Geo-politcal domination. It’s not hard to see how the entire series can be read within the context of the Japanese experience of WW2. The devastation, the end of the peace, family life etc. The humanism and trying to survive, rebuild etc. is compelling, but the unapologetic attitude, the kind of equivalency between crimes, love of Royalty and the idea that the Eldians were kind of bad in a country that has never apologized for its war crimes and is still run by the decedents of war criminal is a whole other can of worms that I’m not going to open.