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Attack on Titan vs Akira

Andrew Osmond says if you liked that, you might like this…

British anime fans of a certain age (all right, the old ones) will fondly recall a trailer released by Manga Entertainment in the early 1990s. It was full of shooting, action, monsters and explosions, set to a pounding heavy metal beat (“The Heart Beneath,” by the Swiss band Celtic Frost). ‘Blowing Your Mind into the 21st Century!’ the ad proclaimed, back when that was the future. It was made when the definitive Japanese animation for Brits was Akira; brash, violent, and inflated with Hulk-level steroids of muscle-popping, teen-inflected anger.

If there’s one thing which links Akira and Attack on Titan, it’s that both encapsulate this heavy metal, snarly-teen spirit to a T. Anyone remaking the Manga trailer now would surely cut together Akira’s bikers, Titan’s rope-swinging Survey Corps, Titan’s man-munching giants and Akira’s screaming inflatable mutant. Of course, we’ve banged on before about the return of bad-ass anime. The trailer would also include the speed-porn of Redline, the skull-splitting mega-swords of the Berserk films, and the grisly cyberpunk of the new show Psycho-Pass.

But Akira and Titan pair especially closely, because of their emotional content and because of happy circumstances in the world market. They’re both especially ‘translatable,’ slotting into genres outside anime. When we looked at Akira’s impact in Britain and America in the 1990s, we noted that it came on the heels of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop and mainstream superhero comics (Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns). This was a time when outrageous, visually-driven fantasy went hand in hand with shocking violence, lampooning real-world nightmares. As the critic Kim Newman astutely pointed out, this was before live-action films could convincingly rival the imagery of the more fantastical comics. Akira could, and did.

Jump forward two decades, and Attack of Titan feels – at least outside Japan – equally attuned to a hot pop-culture strand. It’s a Zombie Apocalypse epic, in the line of Night of the Living Dead, World War Z and 28 Days Later. The big difference – and it’s one that instantly sets the show above the crowd – is that now we’re up against Godzilla-sized ‘zombies,’ able to down you in one gulp. Kaiju Zombies, if you like.

Attack on Titan

Of course, Titan wasn’t the first zombie anime in town. Madhouse’s High School of the Dead came out earlier; it even had the same anime director, Tetsuro Araki, who also helmed Guilty Crown. High School’s genre strategy is an interesting contrast to Titan’s. It keeps close to the zombie rules laid down by George Romero, but then pours on crazy levels of breast-fixated fanservice, turning the show into a soft-porn parody. In contrast, Attack on Titan throws away the zombie rulebook but keeps the tone as grim as the original Romero films. We know how to kill the Titans – ‘clip them in the neck’ rather than ‘shoot then in the head’ – while the other Titan ‘rules’ are mysteries to be pursued through the story.

Titan also projects the Zombie Apocalypse into a temporally ambiguous fantasy. It’s apparently the future, but with medieval Germanic architecture and social structures, looking old and foreign to Japanese viewers. Of course, that’s a contrast with Akira, which it’s hard to imagine working anywhere other than Tokyo, for all the talk of remaking Otomo’s epic with an American setting. Similarly, High School of the Dead sets zombie-film conventions against Japanese icons like cherry blossom and busty anime high school girls. Attack on Titan is ‘culturally odorless’ in comparison. Like most genre zombie yarns back to Night of the Living Dead, it could be set in a dozen different countries.

Akira

For all Titan’s grotesque humour – another hallmark of the zombie film – it’s still dark, frightening and angry. Anger is what really links Akira and Titan. Teen rage is at their core, driving the action in spectacular ways. It’s done differently in each case, though. In Titan, the hero Eren sees the horrors wrought by the Titans – in particular, the fate of his mum in the first episode – and swears to fight back, to return killing with killing. Later we learn he got this attitude fighting, not Titans, but monstrous grown-ups. In Titan, adults are suspect at best. The younger characters need them for knowledge and experience, and a few grown-ups are okay – like Eren’s mum – but generally it’s wise not to trust them.

In Akira, the youngsters aren’t accustomed to killing, for all their cool and swagger. They have gang rumbles, but only for fun and to make their names with their peers. (Akira can be compared to the acclaimed British film, Attack the Block, where hoodies encounter aliens; the young ‘toughs’ suddenly find themselves absurdly out of their league.) Moreover, Tetsuo, the angry kid in Akira, is no Eren. There’s no particular group that Tetsuo hates; he’s just angry. He hates himself for not being a better biker and fighter, for failing to save his girlfriend when she’s attacked by a rival gang. He hates his childhood friend and leader Kaneda for being everything he wishes he was; cool, cocksure, good in any fight. The central joke is that this screwed-up kid, desperate to grow a pair, will become a container for the primal forces of the Big Bang. Take cover!

Interestingly, though there’s a comparable character to Tetsuo in Titan, the wimpy kid Armin. Like Tetsuo, Armin hates his own cowardice and uselessness in a fight, and feels overshadowed by Eren. While Tetsuo and Eren end up going very different ways, it’s interesting, after you’ve watched Titan, to think about how Armin could have become the main character. Perhaps Katsuhiro Otomo (the creator of Akira) and Hajime Isayama (creator of Titan) planned their narratives in the same way, envisioning their audiences dividing into viewers who identified with Eren and Kaneda, and those identifying with Armin and Tetsuo. Except it probably wasn’t as clear cut. What about readers who wanted to be Eren and Kaneda, but who feared they were more like Armin and Tetsuo?

In Akira, Kaneda and Tetsuo are the main characters, but we’re privy to the parts of the huge story of which they’re ignorant. Much of the narrative is told through the eyes of grown-ups, especially the hulking, indomitable Colonel. We’re always aware of how callow and immature the kids are in comparison – indeed, that’s what makes them dangerous, blundering round with such massive powers. Titan is never as disinterested. There, we’re in the youngsters’ shoes; the audience sometimes knows a bit more than them, but we’re mostly on their level, pondering the show’s mysteries with the same (lack of) knowledge.  Quite simply, Akira has more time for grown-ups, even not very ‘likable’ figures such as the Colonel (who’s another ‘angry’ character, but in a very channelled way). In contrast, Titan stays down with the kids.

Attack on Titan

There’s another obvious difference between Akira’s and Titan’s casts. Akira is overwhelmingly male, especially in the compressed anime version where the females are mostly blink-and-miss, and even the action-girl Kei is characterised thinly. In the Akira manga, there’s a very tough, gun-toting woman called Chiyoko who acts as a guardian to the kids, but Otomo declined to put her on screen. Attack on Titan has many more memorable female characters, including the alarming ‘Titan otaku’ researcher Hange – though actually, Hange’s gender is a matter of much fan dispute. Hange is voiced by a famed actress, Romi Park, but Isayama reportedly said the character’s gender is ‘better left unstated” and Park often voices boy characters! There are more details here.

But Hange aside, there’s also the clearly female central character of Mikasa, who you could see as playing to fashionable festishes. She’s Eren’s adoptive sister and utterly devoted to him. However, it’s not in any moe, little sister way. As early as the second episode, she turns into a stern surrogate parent, punching Eren to the ground with one blow and then force-feeding him the bread he refused to eat. Their shared backstory, when we learn it, turns out to be so horrendous that it undercuts any cosy wish-fulfilment. Frankly, Eren and Mikasa are a couple who deserve each other, wherever they choose to go. (If indeed, they survive long enough to go anywhere at all – we’re saying nothing!)

We’ve been mostly discussing human characters in this article, but we can’t finish without a nod to the monsters. Akira was one of the first anime to feature a really ghastly, grotesque alien Thing, a melting, writhing, engorged ball of flesh. It tapped into contemporary body horrors like David Cronenberg’s The Fly, though Western viewers might think of an infamous moment (NSFW) from Verhoeven’s RoboCop. In Titan, that grotesquerie is writ even larger, with a stress on dehumanisation; those huge grinning, leering Titan faces devoid of sympathy and empathy, those teeth mindlessly champing and crushing and munching. Rev that funky metal up again, Celtic Frost, and play us out…

Attack on Titan is released on UK DVD and Blu-ray by Manga Entertainment on 15th September.

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