It’ll Lift You Up, It’ll Knock You Down: Attack on Titan

attack on titan

Eren Yaeger: If you win, you live. If you lose, you die. If you don’t fight, then you can’t win!

Normally, my exposure to shonen style anime and manga is pretty limited. I knew a bit about Pokemon as a kid, I watched both versions of Fullmetal Alchemist in college, and that’s really about it. My taste in anime was more drawn to stories meant for older audiences, like Death Note and Ghost in the Shell.

But lately, I’ve been able to get into one of the newest and most popular shonen series in the US: an epic story of war, friendship, and betrayal known as Attack on Titan.

The story looks at a devastating conflict between the remnants of the human race and a mysterious species of giants known as Titans, who devour human beings for their own twisted amusement. After losing his mother to a Titan attack, young Eren Yeager decides that he’ll do whatever it takes to wipe out the menace and joins his sister Mikasa and friend Armin in joining the Survey Corps. They train to become elite fighters, hoping to reclaim the territory beyond the massive walls that protect humanity from the Titans. But the road ahead is full of twists, turns, and rivers of blood.

It took me a while to really get into the character of Eren Yeager, only because he seemed one-dimensional when it came to his savage bloodlust against the Titans. I was more interested in his sister, the stoic Mikasa who takes to fighting like a duck takes to water, spinning lethal poetry with her blades and her silent grace. But once we learned about Eren’s past and a surprising twist about his true nature, his story became more interesting. It ties him into the overall story of humanity, which is to both comprehend the mystery of the Titans and fight them until they’re extinct.

Other characters go through their own development, especially Eren’s early rival Jean. I also liked seeing more of the human settlement behind the walls. It’s a credit to the writing that we can see all the divisions inherent in the civilization, instead of a faceless mass of citizens. Not even the military is immune from backstabbing and infighting, especially between the elite Military Police and the casualty-high Survey Corps.

titan heroes

Visually, this series is wonderful. The Titans are horrifying and that’s putting it lightly. They blend the ancient terror of giants with grinning faces that fall into the uncanny valley. There’s nothing like seeing several massive nude things (with optional skin over their muscles) running after a handful of humans through a narrow city street. But to balance out this horror, we also get the Survey Corps and their 3D Maneuvering Gear, which lets them fly around the city like Spider-Man and cut through Titan necks with a pair of replaceable swords. They fight the brutal horror of the Titans with grace and courage, just like in any other shonen series… except when they don’t.

In both the anime and the manga, Attack on Titan is a deconstruction of the whole shonen genre. While Eren is a hot-blooded hero whose passion will win the day, he’s also mentally unstable and potentially as big a threat to his own people as he is to the Titans. Every fight with the Titans results in more casualties than triumphs, and it takes a long time before human beings can even pull off anything resembling a victory against the enemy.

In short, this is a series where passion and teamwork can save the day, but at a terrible price. It takes an existentialist perspective to the shonen genre, where heroic passion can be a response to an ultimately indifferent world.

I also have to commend the anime for giving us two very empowering opening theme songs: “Feuerroter Pfeil und Bogen” and “Die Flügel der Freiheit” by Linked Horizon. Both will boost your adrenaline like crazy and leave you ready to grab a pair of swords to face down a race of monsters.

At the moment, I’ve finished the first season of the anime for Attack on Titan and am halfway through the manga. I look forward to seeing how this story develops further and what new adventures and terrors await beyond the walls.

The manga for Attack on Titan is available through Kodansha Comics USA. The anime is available through FUNimation and can be watched for free on Crunchyroll.

Bibliography: Attack on Titan (manga). Written and illustrated by Hajime Isayama. Tokyo: Kodansha. Bessatsu Shonen Magazine. September 9, 2009 – present.

Attack on Titan (anime). Directed by Tetsuro Araki. Written by Yasuko Kobayashi. Wit Studio, Production I.G. Funimation, Madman Entertainment. April 6, 2013 –September 28, 2013.

The Joys of Marriage: Wife and Wife by Minamoto Hisanari

Copyright © 2010 by Minamoto Hisanari.

It’s easy to think of yuri manga–or fictional depictions of lesbianism in general–as leaning toward erotic, given how many straight male writers and illustrators there are.  But sometimes there are sympathetic angles.  Sometimes that type of romance is presented as… romantic.

Case in point, a manga series by Minamoto Hisanari called Fufu–or as it’s called in English, Wife and Wife.

This is the story of two young Japanese women, level-headed Sumi and excitable Kina.  They begin living together and going through all the motions of being a “married” couple, like buying their own bed and celebrating anniversaries.  They also interact with other Japanese lesbians, such as Kina’s oldier sister Kana and their neighbors Komugi and Hayase.  Occasionally there are misunderstandings or attempts at matchmaking, but otherwise the plot is an exploration of day-to-day life for a young couple.

There’s only one way to really describe this series.  It’s cute.

Copyright © 2010 by Minamoto Hisanari.

There is no drama or romantic crisis whatsoever.  No disapproving parental figures or bullies, no struggle against society, no hints of jealousy or adultery.  This is just the story of a couple in love and that’s it.  It’s incredibly refreshing, which might be the point.  Manga and anime like this tend to be classified as iyashikei, a genre of low-conflict fiction designed to soothe the audience.  It certainly worked on me.

I would recommend this series for a few reasons, though it may not be for everyone because of them.  First, it’s a nice view of romance that isn’t melodramatic or constantly teased.  Secondly, it’s impressive to read about a lesbian relationship that doesn’t draw a lot of attention to itself.  Any character’s gender could be switched around to make this into a love story about a man and a woman or a romance between two men, and it would still be just as sweet.  Sumi and Kina are simply in love; they know it and they show it.

Wife and Wife is available in the yuri manga magazine Yuri Hime S., as published by Ichijinsha.

One More Thing:  Happy Valentine’s Day!  May your love, whether new or old, be as sweet as that of Sumi and Kina.

Bibliography: Wife and Wife.  Written and illustrated by Minamoto Hisanari.  Yuri Hime S. (magazine).  March 2010 – February 2012.

Bound By Blood: Elfen Lied by Lynn Okamoto

Copyright © 2004 by Lynn Okamoto.

If mood whiplash could be condensed into a single work of fiction, it’s Elfen Lied, a manga series created by Lynn Okamoto and later adapted as an anime by Arms Corporation.

The story is focused on a world that has people with horns, pink hair, and advanced telekinetic powers living in it.  Lucy is a very powerful “diclonius,” and when she escapes the island facility where diclonius research is conducted, she embarks on a quest for freedom and a chance at a new life.  Unfortunately this new life comes at the cost of her memory, regressing her into a simple-minded girl named Nyuu.  She ends up in the company of two cousins, Kouta and Yuka, who have no idea what they’re getting into when they take Nyuu into their home in Kamakura.  What follows is a tragic exploration of Kouta and Lucy’s past, the hostile relationship between human beings and the diclonii, abusive parents, and madmen who want nothing more than an endless world of misery.

This is a strange blending of two genres–science fiction horror and harem comedy–and it shows in its cast.  On one hand, you have protagonists like the harem hero Kouta, his tsundere cousin Yuka, and shrinking violets like Mayu and Nozomi (who appears in the manga, but not the anime).  On the more serious end, you have Lucy/Nyuu, who shifts between adorable and terrifying depending on the personality; Nana, a fellow diclonius who is desperate for a father’s love and Lucy’s natural enemy; and Bando, a psychopathic soldier who lusts for a vicious battle and finds Lucy to be an irresistible target in spite of himself.  Together, they make for a very memorable and dysfunctional set of characters.

Copyright © 2004 by Lynn Okamoto.

Though I have the stomach for it (sometimes), I must warn newcomers that both the manga and the anime are incredibly graphic.  Limbs and heads are torn apart on a regular basis, blood emerges from every wound, full female nudity is everywhere, and no innocent child goes unscathed.  The anime’s use of the song “Lilium” by Noma Kumiko as both an opening theme and recurring leitmotif only makes all this carnage more poignant.  This is neither a manga nor an anime series for the fainthearted.  It is brutal in every sense of the word.

For the most part, I liked the manga a little more than the anime.  Besides having more depth and character development than the anime, the manga also made good use of an additional character named Nozomi, one of Yuka’s friends from school.  While she doesn’t seem like much–a reluctant but gifted singer whose parental abuse has ruined her self-esteem and made her incontinent to the point of needing diapers–she provides a gentle counterpoint for even more troubled characters like Kouta, Yuka, and Nyuu.  Not to mention, she sings the titular song “Elfenlied.”

“Elfenlied” was originally written by nineteenth-century German poet Eduard Mörike and was later adapted into a song by Austrian composer Hugo Wolf.  It tells the story of a young elf who mishears a watchman’s call for his name, comes across a feast by human beings, and hits his head on a rock when he tries to get a better look.  As odd as it may seem, this poem fits the underlying theme of the Elfen Lied saga.  Lucy and her fellow diclonii are magical beings trying and failing to coexist with the human world.  Any attempt to make a family or a friendship only ends in failure and violence, but unlike the elf in Mörike’s poem, the violence is directed outward and results in many innocent humans dying horrifically.

Elfen Lied is hard, but worth the effort.  It is a genuine tragedy mixed in with a little romance and comedy as only a good manga and anime can deliver.

The English translation of the Elfen Lied manga is available through Tokyopop.  The English dub of the Elfen Lied anime is available in the US through the Independent Film Channel.

Bibliography: Elfen Lied (manga).  Written and illustrated by Lynn Okamoto.  Shueisha; Weekly Young Jump (magazine – Japan).  June 6, 2002 – August 25, 2005.

Elfen Lied (anime).  Directed by Mamoru Kanbe.  Arms Corporation (studio).  Madman Entertainment; Anime Network.  July 25, 2004 –October 17, 2004.

Cyborgs And SWAT Teams In Paradise: Appleseed by Shirow Masamune

Copyright © 1985 by Shirow Masamune.

You might know Shirow Masamune as the creative mind behind the popular Ghost in the Shell manga, which inspired some highly-acclaimed anime that I’ve already reviewed.  But he also broke ground with another manga series with heavy cyberpunk themes and elite security forces: Appleseed.

The story takes place after the nuclear climax of World War Three, as civilization rebuilds itself with cybernetics and genetic engineering.  Two old-style SWAT Team officers, Deunan and Briareos, are drafted to join an ESWAT Team in the utopian city of Olympus.  From there, as they begin to integrate with the new society, they also get caught up in its problems, as the interconnected postwar world means that there are more political hotspots and terrorist attacks than ever before, resulting in a lot more work for ESWAT.

Copyright © 1985 by Shirow Masamune.

Despite the classic cyberpunk imagery of full-body cyborgs and human clones known as “bioroids,” the overall tone of the story is very post-cyberpunk.  Instead of being outcasts in a desolate landscape, Deunan and Briareos serve in a legitimate law enforcement unit.  Instead of corporations ruling everything, there’s a strong impetus to enforce the rule of law, both within the city of Olympus and around the world by the empowered United Nations.  And there’s also a healthy debate between baseline human beings and bioroids, as the latter are designed to have less imperfections and be in better shape than their human counterparts.  It’s a series that enjoys its cybernetics and gene-splicing, but doesn’t automatically claim augmented beings as “superior.”

On the whole, I like the story’s ambition and sense of grandeur, though it’s on a lot of the specifics that I take issue.  For most of the second half of the manga, it’s almost nothing but ESWAT missions against extremists from the Sacred Republic of Munma and other high-class criminals.  While the dialogue and the attacks do reflect a lot of detail and research about real-life special forces, it does make the story a bit repetitive after a while.  There were a few times I had to confirm which chapter I was on and who was supposed to be the enemy.  It was also a little hard to appreciate what Deunan’s story arc was, though it mostly has to do with her relationship to Olympian society and to her partner Briareos.

If you want to see a lot of good cyberpunk visuals and some kickass special forces in action, I’d recommend Appleseed.  It’s like Ghost in the Shell, but nowhere near Tokyo and without Major Kusanagi’s defining presence.

The English translation of the Appleseed manga is available through Dark Horse Comics.

Bibliography: Appleseed (manga).  Written by Shirow Masamune.  Published by Kodansha, Seishinsha, and Media Factory (Japanese); Dark Horse (English). Super Manga Blast (English magazine).  February 15, 1985 – April 15, 1989.

An Old Vs. New Review: “Fullmetal Alchemist” vs. “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood”

Fullmetal Alchemist is an incredibly rich story of sin and atonement, science and faith, and humanity at its best and worst.  It also has the distinction of having two very long anime series based on the original manga by Hiromu Arakawa, with the first starting in 2003 and the second in 2009.  I’ve watched both series and I want to see just how they compare on their own merits.

First Category: The Story

Copyright © 2003 by Hiromu Arakawa.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is essentially a strict adaptation of the manga series, following the Elric brothers as they seek out the Philosopher’s Stone and unravel a sinister conspiracy at the heart of the State Military.  The 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist anime follows a similar route, but with a different main villain and slightly different characterizations for the supporting cast.

What’s important to note is that both anime have good stories to them, but as far as stories go, the Brotherhood anime tends to move quickly in order to keep up with the manga, while the original anime moves at its own pace, allowing characters and plots to breathe and be more creative.  It’s a strange thing, though, in that I liked the first half of the original anime series better than Brotherhood, but found the second half of Brotherhood to be better than that of the original anime (there being a stronger and more satisfying resolution).

Second Category: The Cast

Copyright © 2003 by Hiromu Arakawa.

Edward and Alphonse Elric are about the same in both series, which is just as well since their journey for the Philosopher’s Stone and atonement is similar in both series.  However, there’s a big difference with the supporting cast for each show.

For example, characters like Rose, Maes Hughes, Shou Tucker, and Barry the Chopper have more extended storylines in the 2003 anime than they do in the Brotherhood anime.  Again, this is in keeping with the original anime having its own plot that allows for such characters to go in new directions than they were allowed in the manga.  The homunculi have different motivations, too, and some, like Pride and Wrath, are switched around from their original identities in the manga and Brotherhood anime.

Third Category: The Style

Copyright © 2009 by Hiromu Arakawa.

For the most part, I think the animation between the two anime series is about the same, although I’ll admit that, being a later production, the Brotherhood anime has a slightly sharper quality.  The 2003 anime does, however, have an interesting trait in trying to assign colors to specific processes and show off a larger variety of alchemical symbols and transmutation circles than Brotherhood does.  This holds well considering that the original anime gives itself more room to explore alchemy and its different aspects before getting to the main plot.

What also interests me is that both series have their own excellent soundtracks.  The 2003 anime has “Ready Steady Go” by L’Arc-en-Ciel as a kickass opening theme and a nice leitmotif for the Elric brothers and their backstory, but overall, I prefer the more bombastic and dramatic melodies used throughout the Brotherhood anime.

Fourth Category: The Theme

Copyright © 2009 by Hiromu Arakawa.

As I said before, the basic plot in both series is essentially the same, at least around the first half.  But there is a slight difference in what issues the different storylines confront.  The 2003 anime focuses a little more on science and ethics, especially given Ed and Al’s zeal to find the Philosopher’s Stone and get their bodies back.  On the other hand, the Brotherhood anime emphasizes the human condition and the struggle to break the cycle of vengeance and avoid sacrificing human lives in pursuit of one’s goal.

On the surface, they seem like similar themes, but again, because the 2003 anime takes its time with the main plot, there’s more room to explore the science of alchemy and the ethics behind its use.  By contrast, Brotherhood has to get right into the homunculi storyline and the nature of the Philosopher’s Stone in order to make its overall point about the value of human beings and innocent lives.

Final Verdict: Both Great Entries, But I’ll Take The Latest Edition

Both shows are excellent on their own merits, providing multi-dimensional characters in a complex and compelling plot with great visuals and music.  Ultimately, though, I’m much more partial to the Brotherhood anime.  As much as I appreciate the 2003 anime for letting the manga characters breathe and the creative new storylines they get, I find Brotherhood much more satisfying to watch, if only because of the immensely powerful impact it has all throughout the second half of the series.  It’s big and bold, and boy, does it deliver!

Bibliography: Fullmetal Alchemist (anime).  Directed by Seiji Mizushima.  Written by Sho Aikawa.  Prod. Bones, Funimation Entertainment.  Cartoon Network (Adult Swim).  October 4, 2003 – October 2, 2004.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (anime).  Directed by Yasuhiro Irie.  Written by Hiroshi Onogi.  Prod. Bones, Funimation Entertainment.  Cartoon Network (Adult Swim).  April 4, 2009 – July 4, 2010.