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Attack on Titan [Season Two] (2017)

[This Review contains mild spoilers]

And so Season Two of the blockbuster manga/anime Attack on Titan (AoT), comes to Blu-Ray and DVD, including a Limited Edition packed with extras. 

Fans of AoT, many of whom will have streamed s2 on Crunchyroll or the FUNimation site, will get something from this release if, like me, they’re sentimental about hard copy, a decision made easier by the ‘Marathon Play’ option in the Main Menu on each disc which allows you to watch all of the episodes chained together, thus avoiding the Opening and Closing Songs now de rigueur for every big anime series, and which you’d have spun through anyway. Woo-hoo!

It will be difficult for die-hard fans to resist the Limited Edition DVD and Blu-Ray packages which come with a 60-page Art Book and 24-page “Notes from Beyond the Wall: Part III”, a kind of Haynes Manual for the twilight of humanity, exposing the science behind some of the more useful anti-Titan weaponry and defensive constructions.

For the uninitiated, meanwhile, AoT takes place in a future quasi-Renaissance world which is pleasantly green and forested (and boring) now that most of humanity is gone, seemingly eaten by ravening packs of cannibalistic giants, the Titans (not to be confused with Greek versions, though these are just as malevolent as their Classical namesakes). 

Our setting is humanity’s last refuge, a city of high, concentric stone walls (named Rose and Maria), cobbled streets and half-timbered houses in which, for several hundred years, has cowered what remains of the human race, the peasantry ruled over by a host of stereotypical European Renaissance uglies: complacent burghers, venal merchants and dilettante aristocrats. We know not exactly who built this or – at this stage – how they managed to construct the city while presumably under attack by the Titans, but s2 does quickly reveal the creepy truth behind (or, rather, within…) the walls, and without.

The thin brown line between the populace and the Titans is the Scout Regiment, the military’s Extramural-patrol-and-attack-wing – the other two Regiments being dedicated to policing the citizenry and military respectively. Not much of an army against the destructive hordes and, as it turns out [spoiler alert] positively crawling with 5th columnists, as if humanity didn't have enough to contend with.

Luckily, the Scout Regiment has a conflicted hero in Eren Jaeger, anime’s classic angry young man, who discovered in the first season he has the ability to transform into a kind of super-Titan (‘Shifter’) thanks to a rigorous programme of child-abuse-via-injection courtesy of his mad professor dad. Thanks to Eren, the merry band of Scouts mostly avoided getting their heads chomped off in s1, though he is mostly absent until about halfway through s2.

The second season opens with a quick recap and throws us right into multiple hero narratives all at once, which can be dizzying if you have never seen this before – in which case I would highly recommend watching s1 first – or if you have sort of forgotten much of what happened in s1 – in which case I would recommend re-bingeing it before you tuck in to this feast of plot, counter-plot, questions, puzzlement and gore.

The 'heroes' in this case are some of the secondary characters from the first season: the tall angry one; her weedy friend who’s probably a Shifter; Dolph Lundgren playing some German bloke; the kid who looks like the Last Airbender without an arrow on his head; and the compulsive potato-eater.

And we start with lots of questions. There are Titans in the walls, but why? In all the walls? How did they get there? What does the Church know about it and why won’t they say anything when questioned or even threatened? Who else can shift like Eren can? And what is this new Beast Titan – a humongous furry creature with a tiny head which can not only control other Titans, but which can speak, something even the Shifters can’t when in Titan form? As it becomes increasingly obvious that the Titans are some distorted form of humanity, the main question is ‘what in the hell is going on?’. 

Is s2 any good? Well, let’s start with the pluses. There is plenty of action, lots of threat – siege and flight are major themes, given the immense strength of the Titan hordes and humanity’s continuously-defensive posture – and lots and lots and lots of blood. 

Aside from the aforementioned potato-eater and the pathologically-excitable scientist-colonel who believes experimentation holds the key to the mystery of the Titans, AoT is also mercifully free of any of the usual nutty anime comedy staples (the crazy teenage girl, the diminutive old wizard/wise man, the annoying Pokemonesque creatures and so on). AoT is never played for laughs. It is always deliberately, grimly earnest, with nothing ever to leaven the prospect of humanity being eaten out of existence by, well, itself, as we gradually learn. 

While little about the animation is groundbreaking per se, it has been taken up a notch since s1, and some of the set-pieces are spectacular. The Shifter transformations reach a new level of visceral thrill and the always violent Titan incursions take on a new, manic energy with the new types of Titan.

For all its pulse-quickening moments, and there are plenty, Season Two does, however, expose the central flaw in AoT’s setup: like any narrative, it is defined by its own limitations, and the set-up is quite limiting, with those limits becoming more evident the longer it goes on. 

Unlike other anime fantasy series with richer technology elements (Full Metal Alchemist, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress), and with no magic, AoT’s pseudo-medieval setting offers us little in the way of goodies. The only really cool bit of kit is the Scout Regiment's gas-powered Vertical Manoeuvring Equipment (called ODM), which is what Batman would invent if he wanted to move like Spiderman; but as with Spiderman, all the flying around on string gets a little wearing after a while.

Even some of the devices used in s1 - such as the characters describing detailed tactical plans to take out the Titans, often with cool little CGI’d battle plans to help us visualise the complex manoeuvres - start to grate a little now as they get used time and again, and the constant use of hopelessly-hammy internal character reflections on their own actions – “What is wrong with me? Why didn’t I slice their goddam heads off??” - is painful at times. 

Boxed in by its own high walls, AoT relies on a rich mix of plot, plot, more plot and tons of loud, violent, gory action to carry the day. During the set-pieces - such as the siege of Castle Utgard, or the battle with the Colossal Titan - this can work well, but at other times it becomes convoluted, confusing and - because of the relative paucity of different elements, quite samey. 

While kudos must go to FUNimation for putting together a thoughtful package of extras on this release, it remains to be seen whether there is enough narrative depth to sustain AoT past s3 (due to roll out in July), though fans will doubtless stick with it. 

From a similar starting point, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress managed to be twice as interesting in half the time, proving that exploring how humanity behaves under siege doesn’t always have to feel as constrained as your characters in order to make the point.

FORMATSDVD/ Blu-Ray/Streaming
FROM Funimation/ Sony Pictures UK

12 Episodes 

(for ambition, scale and sheer bigness in the action set-pieces)

 (for lack of variety and siege-fatigue)

*Review copy provided by Sony UK/Funimation*