Spoilers for the whole anime
I’m fairly sure that shonen is the genre I watch the most and while I do love it, I’m also aware that it’s plagued by a great amount of clichés, particularly the action/fighting anime. Most of the time, they don’t hamper my enjoyment of the show. When I started Shingeki no Kyojin, I wasn’t really expecting anything too different from the norm, despite the hype. Actually, I wasn’t even aware of how hyped SnK was until after I was a few episodes in.
I was pleasantly surprised though and while there are many reasons why I love this show now, there is just one prominent reason why I decided to stick with in the first place.
It’s pretty simple: I like dark stories and dark protagonists, and SnK delivered that in spades.
Dark storylines can easily send the viewers into a state of apathy where they get too used to the sight of characters being killed off violently and/or abruptly. It happened to me while watching Akame ga Kill. On the other hand, SnK managed to make me feel at least something for even the characters that had all of 5 seconds of screentime. That might in part be because of the care it takes to illustrate the terrified mess most people, even or maybe especially soldiers, become when faced with gigantic monsters dead set on eating them. There’s a distinct lack of idealization or glorification of violence and war in this anime that combined with the gripping narrative to save me from what TV Tropes has aptly named ‘darkness-induced audience apathy”.
That’s not to say that Snk is wholly a dark and gloomy show. It isn’t; there are some humorous moments complete with doses of black comedy as well as slivers of light amidst the darkness. In fact, the way the show handles the contrasting elements of hope and despair is my favorite part of it thematically.
The silver linings like to go on long holidays
From the beginning itself, we’re treated to Eren’s rather strong views on how humans should fight back against the titans and claim their right to this world. The eradication of his hometown and the death of his mother only serve to deepen his conviction. We even have a full episode dedicated to the training of the 104th batch of recruits that Eren, Mikasa and Armin belong to. So naturally, when the titans attack again and try to invade the second wall (Rose), I expected to see all their harsh training and the protagonist’s fearless determination bear fruit. He even gets off to a good start, attacking the Colossal Titan while rallying his fellow graduates whom all are frozen in terror. And then it all goes to hell in a hand-basket and we finally get to see why Eren’s desire to face the titans is seen as suicidal by the rest. People die in spades and Eren himself loses a couple of limbs and is actually eaten before his titan powers finally kick in. The Battle of Trost arc truly illustrates that the bloody, violent beginning of the story is going to continue no matter how the heroes wish otherwise. Even though that particular arc concludes with humanity’s first real victory against the titans, the body count at the end is so high that the triumphant atmosphere of closing the breach quickly turns into a sort of dull despair.
This trend continues till the end without ever becoming boring or predictable, managing instead to be refreshing and realistic.
After Trost, the pace slows down considerably for the next few episodes, focusing on Eren’s new role as Humanity’s Last Hope against the titans while introducing a slew of new characters. Eren is put under the care of Captain Levi of the Survey Corps with the guarantee that Levi can kill him if he goes berserk. Eren is introduced to Levi’s Special Operations Squad, all of whom has considerable experience with titans and are considered to be the elite of the elite. And then begins the Female Titan arc (unofficial name), where all the relative light heartedness of the previous episodes goes down the drain. This arc is notable for its rather horrifying subversion of yet another popular shonen trope: teamwork. In addition to building up Levi Squad as formidable titan-slayers, there are flashbacks featuring Eren bonding with them and being asked to place his trust in them. He even faces a moment of crisis where he’s uncertain whether to fight the female titan using his own titan powers or to trust in his squad. He chooses to trust the squad, much to their delight, and when the female titan eventually catches up to them, Eren keeps running, trusting his comrades to take her down.
These expressions sum up the arc quite nicely
After all that build-up concerning the squad’s prowess plus all the emphasis on teamwork, one would naturally expect them to take down the titan or at least contribute to its downfall. One would be so very wrong.
They are killed in rapid succession within seconds, and the sudden shift in tone from expected victory to utter slaughter is shocking and absolutely brilliant. By the time the expedition ends, a good portion of the Survey Corps is wiped out, the Female Titan isn’t captured and Eren couldn’t even avenge his comrades’ death. The energetic, optimistic air from the beginning of the expedition is completely eradicated by the end.
It’s like there are no right or safe choices in Snk. Rushing to action, fuelled with determination, can easily get you killed as seen in the Trost arc. But waiting to jump into the fray can also result in loss as shown in the fate of Levi’s Squad. Acting alone can be fatal but exceptional teamwork does not guarantee survival either. No matter how skilled or how strong or how experienced you are, you’re going to suffer in one way or the other. It’s a hard pill to swallow.
And then it gets worse.
For the majority of the anime, there’s an easy delineation of right and wrong, at least as far the military is concerned. Titans are bad and must be killed. Solders are the defenders of humanity and are good. Eren is an anomaly with his titan-shifting powers but he’s also firmly on the side of humanity so there’s not much confusion there. But Annie, on the other hand, is a far more perplexing existence who can’t be shoved into a neat little box and done away with. Eren himself is victim to this confusion, which results in his inability to shift to fight Annie. It takes his friends risking themselves, impalement by a fallen beam as well as the deliberate reliving of his mother’s and his squad’s death for Eren to work up enough rage to shift and go after Annie.
No one wins in this show
As is the norm with this anime, the end result of their fight is not a decisive victory for humanity. Eren manages to beat Annie but their antics alone cause immeasurable damage to life and property. Even if one can write off the damaged buildings as a reasonable price to pay, it’s hard to ignore the church full of innocents who get crushed or the blood-splattered little girl stumbling about in shock through the ruins. Not to mention that, in the end, they can’t even get information out of Annie because she crystallizes herself in some diamond-like material. All that destruction and they have nothing to show for it. It may be a step forward for mankind but once again, it’s hardly cause for celebration. The only positivity comes in the form of Eren and the Survey Corps being allowed to continue to exist.
This delicate balance of hope and despair, the latter dominating without quite drowning out the former, has a significant role in why this anime appeals so much to me. While I do love the crazy characters, the breathtaking action sequences and the setting as a whole, it’s the bleak world where victory remains oh so elusive that gripped me by the heartstrings and drew me in.
Hopefully, season 2 will be just as good.