Monday, April 10, 2017

Attack on Titan: When is it fair for a series to change genres?

Attack on Titan has been on my mind a fair bit lately, and I've been thinking: When is it fair for a series to change genres? I've been following the manga for quite a while, and as people on my mailing list know, I recently rewatched the first season of the anime and starting playing the console game a couple months ago.

I'm not normally a super-fan, but there's something about Attack on Titan that really grabs me, and has done so with a great many other people such that the manga is one of the bestselling series in the country. The second season of the anime is like a tornado diving into fandom. People can't avoid it. It's even being broadcast on Cartoon Network less than a month from its Japanese broadcast, which is pretty crazy considering the logistics involved, which includes redubbing the audio into English.

Now, I'm going to get into spoilers. If you don't care, keep reading. If you do, know that I'll be covering up to chapter 92 of the manga, which is what just came out this month.

Seriously. Spoilers. Stay out if you don't want.

Now then...

Attack on Titan begins with a relatively simple setup. The last of humanity has been forced into a small country-sized space surrounded by three concentric walls that are high enough to keep out the titular titans, who are unintelligent and whose only drive seems to be to eat people. The weapon tech is perhaps early 1800s with cannons and shotguns being known quantities, but there are no gatling guns yet. Both are inefficient against titans which can only be killed by removing a meter long section of the nape.

Most people are happy to live within the walls where the titans can't snack on them, and humanity has lived this way for just over a century. But some people want to venture back into the outside world, and they are the members of the Survey Corps. (I will be using Kodansha's manga translation names here, not Funimation's anime translations, because I'll mostly be talking about the manga.)

The Survey Corps is generally regarded as a bunch of madmen who waste taxpayer money because their typical mission involves going out beyond the walls, lots of them getting killed, and then not really learning anything about what the world beyond the walls is like. Still, they fight, which is why people think they're crazy.

Attack on Titan kicks off with the breach of the outermost Wall Maria, which causes humanity to once again know the fear of the titans and flee for their lives. The human population is drastically reduced because even though many people escape to the next innermost wall, Wall Rose, it's a much smaller territory and there's not enough food to feed everyone, so the excess are thrown out to be eaten by titans, for the good of everyone else.

This is not a nice series and this is where the main body of the story begins.

Our protagonists join up with Survey Corps for various reasons, and begin their push to successfully fight back the titans.

There are revelations along the way. Main character Eren Yeager has the ability to turn into a 15-meter class titan himself, retaining his intelligence, and though he knows his father gave him the ability, he doesn't know how. We also learn that there is a traitor among Eren's classmates from the Training Corps, and she also can turn into a titan.

And in the middle of all this, there's lots and lots of people valiantly fending off and/or being killed by titans. The Survey Corps does have lot of casualties, but those who survive their first few missions often become genuine badasses, because they have to be if they want to live, and the anime does an amazing job showcasing how even ordinary Survey Corps members fight.

(I haven't mentioned it yet, but the way people kill titans is with gas-powered maneuvering gear that shoots grappling lines into trees and buildings so the soldiers can fling themselves up to the heights needed to circle around to the back of the titan and cut out the nape with their specially crafted swords.)

It really feels like this is the tone of the series. Push against titans, they push back, wall breaches, lots of people die, OMG. And though there's stuff about traitors, and we don't know the motivation of the traitors, everything fits in the box of what we know.

What's really interesting to me, is what happens after the current plot in Season 2 of the anime. Though I can understand that production issues are the cause for keeping it to 12 episodes this season, Attack on Titan also undergoes a shift in its later story arcs that could potentially annoy the anime's larger fanbase.

We've come to expect that this is a series about the last dregs of humanity making a desperate stand against the monsters that would devour them, but the next arc barely features any titans at all. Which is a shock considering the title. I'm sure the animators are going to be scratching their heads trying to figure out how to create all those dynamic action scenes for what is essentially a political intrigue arc, but political intrigue is the game. There's still fighting, there's also a number of people dying, but for very different reasons.

I followed the arc because I loved seeing the Survey Corps being put out of their element and Commander Erwin Smith's ballsy plan to wrest control away from the ruling family. (Seriously, he initiates a successful and relatively bloodless coup that wraps up in less than a week.)

But barring a surprise titan appearance at the end of the arc, the fighting is human against human and the Survey Corps members are naturally unhappy about this, because it's not what they signed up for. It's not what the audience originally signed up for either, so I'm curious how this arc will eventually go down.

We're at a point where the manga is probably 30-40 episodes' worth of material ahead of the anime (assuming 4 episodes per volume), which creates a gigantic disconnect from people who are manga readers versus anime-only viewers, and surprisingly makes it difficult for the two groups to talk.

The anime-only viewer is currently worried about the possible breach of Wall Rose, which once again puts humanity on the back foot, especially considering the intelligent new Beast Titan that has show up.

The manga reader knows what the real battle is (or at least knows more of why things are the way they are), and it's nothing like what we've been led to expect. It's ridiculously hard to talk about anything the current manga reader is enjoying without spoiling and spoiling a lot of catch-up material.

For instance, much of Season 1 of the anime is spent trying to get back to Eren's basement. That eventually happens in the manga, but when my friend asked what the secret of the basement was, I couldn't explain the significance of it without explaining a lot of other things, otherwise my answer would have no meaning.

Attack on Titan is now a war story. It was a post-apocalyptic grimdark fantasy, then it was political intrigue, it went back into grimdark people with swords, and now it's World War I with titans, and there's no getting around that.

The basement really did shatter everything, because the truth of the world is that humanity has not perished outside the walls, but is actually going about business as usual, and it's the people living within the walled country who are the hinterland hicks who don't know anything.

For some series, this kind of revelation would happen at the end because continuing would make it a very different story. Because at this point, we've learned so much, about where the titans came from, how they are actually victims who cannot help what they do, and the series ceases to revolve around killing the titans and taking back their world. Most of the world is remarkably titan free.

The only reason there are titans where the protagonists live, is because they're on an island and their ethnicity is persecuted on the mainland for their potential to be turned into monsters. Dissidents are rounded up in the country of Marley, shipped off to the island, and forcefully turned into titans, ostensibly to harass and punish those who've sealed themselves away from the rest of the world.

Most of the outside world hates and fears the people we now know as Eldians, because of their transformation abilities that allow any individual to become a mindless weapon of war, and the power of the Founding Titan, which now resides in a dormant fashion in Eren, allows one to control all the mindless titans. No one wants to end up fighting an army of man-eating giants.

But... technology marches on, and the world outside has advanced. It has trains. It has blimps. It has navies that can fire a fair distance inland at a fort. Anti-titan weaponry has been developed, and while it hasn't rendered titan warfare obsolete, that day is coming.

Where is the space for people flying on grappling lines with swords to attack the nape of titans?

At this point, Marley is using Eldians in its army, both willingly and not (the willing ones make me think of the Japanese Americans who fought for the US even as the rest of their families and friends were placed in camps--they want to prove their loyalty) and so they'll probably send some more titans at the island once the next story arc starts up, but really, if Marley takes the capture of the Founding Titan seriously this time, we're going to see people with artillery and machine guns landing on the island and I can't see our protagonists being prepared for that.

This is a totally different story than the one I signed up for, but I'm still game. I like World War I, and seeing a secondary world version of it is interesting, especially seeing this world's version of an air raid, where Eldians can be dropped from the sky and transformed into titans to attack the enemy. It's hugely intimidating, and assuming the anti-titan weaponry is taken out, incredibly effective as well.

But will we still see swords and maneuvering gear? Is the situation on the island still desperate now that they know they aren't the last of humanity, or do they feel it doesn't matter as they've traded one enemy for another? Is there still a reason for the Survey Corps?

I don't have those answers, or the one to my original question as to when it is fair for a series to change genres. I know I'm still in for the ride, but I don't know how many will be lost if and when the anime gets to these points, and how many may have been lost already.

It's still a good story, and according to Hajime Isayama we're not nearly at the end of it yet. There's a good chance it'll jump again.