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Ten Years Later: Attack on Titan

21 min read
Attack on Titan has spent a decade only proving itself more and more to be one of the greatest anime of all time and one of the greatest TV series of all time.

Attack On Titan
© Hajime Isayama / Kodansha/ Attack on Titan Production Committee

We were so close to being able to reflect upon all of Attack on Titan in this retrospective of the past decade. It seems likely enough that the intent was there as well, as the absurdly titled “The Final Season: The Final Chapter: Part 1” was originally intended to actually cover the rest of the manga and aired just about a month before the anime’s ten-year mark. But alas, MAPPA had to announce late in the game that the truly final piece of this protracted final stretch would have to be split off and delayed until later in the year to ensure the quality we’ve come to expect and certainly wouldn’t want compromised for the conclusion to the series. It’s a good sentiment, far more important than being poetically celebratory in its timing coinciding with a major anniversary, though the case can certainly be made that this issue might’ve been mitigated if MAPPA wasn’t making five of the biggest titles in anime at around the same time.

But our story goes back a decade, far before MAPPA ever had anything to do with Attack on Titan. Sure, some were already familiar with the original manga, the first series by a young creator named Hajime Isayama, 23 when it began serialization in 2009 as an extension of a one-shot he released at age 20. A year before its anime adaptation, its English release was underway, so it was definitely a known quantity for some, though not one that yet seemed significant enough to generate the pre-adaptation hype we see from some series today.

The first time I remember hearing about Attack on Titan was indeed in the context of its then-upcoming anime adaptation, as nothing more than one of the next season’s new offerings. While we were half a decade into the simulcast era and at the point that it was expected for all series to receive one, it hadn’t reached the level of streaming services licensing and promoting series months before their premiere with subtitled trailers released weeks ahead of time. Instead, we had an image file displaying a chart with basic information on each of the new series coming in the next season. Attack on Titan was no more than one square on that.

Even with so little to go on, it stood out as a series worth checking out. My first reaction to the title was an expectation that perhaps it dealt with a war on Saturn’s largest moon, but upon reading its synopsis and seeing some imagery, it became clear that it was more of an “attack of titans” with a weird Engrish title (which, as we’d learn much later on in the series itself, was in fact an unfortunate mistranslation that we have to stay committed to after all this time). It was clearly shooting to be something big, not just in terms of literal giants.

Attack On Titan Episode 3
Attack On Titan Episode 3

Ironically, the one factor that made me slightly cautious in my optimism was the production pedigree that had let me down in an earlier series that excited me for the same team. That was 2011’s noitaminA original Guilty Crown, which isn’t remembered for much these days, especially not in a positive light. But it turned out to have an interesting legacy in arguably defining the identity of the Attack on Titan anime.

It was easy to get excited for Guilty Crown when it was forthcoming. It was a two-cour original series on a prestigious block from the studio behind Ghost in the Shell, Usagi Drop, and Moribito; the director of Death Note; both of the writers of Code Geass alongside collaborators from then-ubiquitous juggernaut Nitroplus; and a composer who wasn’t yet a household name but had started to make an impression with his work on the likes of Sengoku Basara, Gundam Unicorn, and Blue Exorcist; with theme songs and in-universe insert songs by acclaimed supercell composer ryo and original character designs by equally acclaimed supercell illustrator redjuice. The staff made ambitious claims like it being “the next generation of anime,” and the trailers made it seem like it would be every bit the masterpiece we wanted. It’s true that most aspects of the production were as impressive as expected from that lineup, especially early in the series, but the storytelling ended up falling apart so spectacularly that the series lives on as little more than disappointment and some songs that are no less fantastic for the shortcomings of their origin.

So when this new series showed up with much of the same team, I couldn’t help but feel some trepidation; hell, it even had the same lead seiyuu. In fact, the most significant differences were not only the lack of the writers of Code Geass (one of my favorite series, though they sure hadn’t pulled it off for Guilty Crown), but also the illustrious Production I.G being replaced by a new studio that had never produced anything. As it turned out, this Wit Studio was spun off of I.G by Guilty Crown producer George Wada, much as many other studios have formed from the team behind a particular production at a parent or origin studio of sorts.

I had recently started reviewing seasonal anime simulcasts for this site, and I was deciding between taking on Attack on Titan and an original series called Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, as another reviewer was also interested in both and would take whichever one I passed on. I ended up choosing Gargantia based on the creative forces of each: while Attack on Titan was coming from what was then “the Guilty Crown team,” Gargantia was the next series by Gen Urobuchi, who had just come off of Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero, and the just-ending original Psycho-Pass series. In a strange twist of fate, Psycho-Pass itself had a bit of its own Guilty Crown legacy, not only as another two-cour noitaminA original series by Production I.G with cooperation from Nitroplus and one of Wada’s last productions at I.G before becoming the head of his old employer a decade after leaving to found its spinoff, but even featuring theme songs from Egoist, the group originally meant to exist only in the universe of Guilty Crown.

Of course, retrospect proved that this was the wrong decision almost immediately, to say nothing of how ridiculous such an idea looks a decade later. Attack on Titan was clearly the biggest and best thing we had seen in a while, and I doubt anyone has thought about Gargantia in years. Urobuchi barely even wrote any of it, and it marked the beginning of his thus-far decade of no longer writing any great new anime.

When Attack on Titan premiered, we all knew it was something special. I think it’s safe to say that it was the first time in the era of simulcasts that a brand-new anime became such a global phenomenon literally overnight, and therefore the first time that it could’ve happened to that extent at all. I saw episode 1 on day 1, and I still felt criminally behind due to the explosion of popularity across the internet within its first few hours of debuting. It was the first series to be simulcast by both Crunchyroll and Funimation, then bitter rivals, from the beginning. Everyone knew they had to have this at all costs, and they were all instantly validated. Joke about it being “titanic” or “colossal” all you want; they’re all absolutely accurate descriptors.

Araki and Sawano may have shown their talents on Guilty Crown, but the material of Attack on Titan truly brought out the best in them. This was Araki at the top of his game in a way I hadn’t experienced since Death Note. Using much of the Guilty Crown team was an especially fortuitous choice for Sawano’s inclusion, as he was already obsessed with the German language – now he had a whole German setting to play in. I hadn’t actually known him by name yet, but I remember looking him up by name the moment I finished that episode on premiere day. That was the kind of impression these artists left with their work from the very beginning of the Attack on Titan anime.

For being its first production, Wit Studio sure looked like it could handle itself. The series was beautiful in its horrific brutality, opting for an aesthetic with especially bold lines and soon displaying exhilarating action choreography that awakened Araki to his brilliant trademark that he would continue to showcase in future Wit productions Kabaneri and Bubble. If viewed from the perspective that this was less the first effort of a fledgling new studio and more the project that this studio was formed to realize, the majesty of the end product makes a lot more sense. It’s true that Wit wasn’t yet robust enough to make it through the full six months with no challenges, but even with a little help from Papa I.G, some recycling of key frames, or stills that would end up becoming a signature even when the studio was fully fleshed out in later seasons, the team always managed to make the series look polished, professional, and stellar.

Along with Sawano’s score, itself full of iconic vocal tracks as he is very well-known to deliver, the opening by Linked Horizon, the new iteration of a group called Sound Horizon with a similar structure to supercell and led by musician Revo, was an essential component to the phenomenon of Attack on Titan. I can’t tell you how many parodies of the song, and especially the sequence itself, I saw in those first few months. Linked Horizon ended up becoming the Attack on Titan band, contributing the opening theme to every cour of Wit’s run on the series except one, for which they provided the ending theme. Other artists like SiM have found great success from recent Attack on Titan theme songs, but with one piece of anime left, I would love to finally see Linked Horizon’s return for one final piece to wrap it up.

Attack On Titan
Attack On Titan

Of course, even if I was still more impressed by Attack on Titan’s production overall, these were basically all strengths that Guilty Crown shared. It was the story that fell apart there, and the story that truly made Attack on Titan must-watch TV for six months. Even in its early parts, Isayama was clearly layering mysteries that wouldn’t be delivered upon for many years, so expertly that I can only fully appreciate most of them with the retrospect of a decade of revelations. Even in this early stage, when Titans appeared to be mindless, enigmatic, and somewhat silly monsters and they were generally the only antagonists, the series showed deft mastery of depicting fear – the sheer terror of soldiers faced with seemingly insurmountable death – in a way I’ve seldom seen in anything else. Nobody was safe, major characters could die unceremoniously, and we were beginning to explore the idea of becoming monsters to fight monsters, both literally and metaphorically, a theme that would become more and more prominent in future seasons.

Between the quality of character drama and the endless supply of questions that every answer only multiplied, discussion and speculation was a constant throughout the run of the first season, especially for the healthy percentage of anime-only watchers in those days. 2013 was a pretty incredible year for television. Breaking Bad had its final season, perhaps the greatest season of any television series, including an episode that has held onto every superlative since its airing. Game of Thrones became the biggest thing on TV thanks to “The Rains of Castamere,” still one of the only episodes that can challenge the status of Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias.” TV was blowing up left and right. For us anime fans, Attack on Titan was our Breaking Bad, our Game of Thrones. It wasn’t just part of the zeitgeist; for the anime community in 2013, Attack on Titan was the zeitgeist. This was the kind of lightning in a bottle you didn’t let go. Never was there hotter proverbial iron that demanded immediate striking.

Cut to an excruciatingly long four years later before we would finally get a second season. Yes, this was a well-paced two-cour weekly series adapting an ongoing, not-that-old monthly manga series with top production values at a brand-new studio. Some breaks were to be expected, lest we succumb to filler, protracted pacing, and diminished quality. I’ll take a season every now and then over an attempt to pump out constant content any day. But four years for the return of the biggest hit in ages? The second season was a brief twelve episodes, the last of which adapted a chapter released only a week and a half after the first season had ended four years prior. Of course, there were other factors, but it seems impossible to imagine that an attempt couldn’t have been made to avoid letting that success sit on the table and fade away.

What did we get during that wait instead of more actual Attack on Titan anime? The studio proper of Production I.G adapted an Attack on Titan: Junior High gag spinoff manga in what appears by all accounts to have been a shameless cash grab. “You want more Attack on Titan? Well this has its name in the title, and it’s the closest you’re getting!”

While the second season of the main series was initially announced to air in 2016, it was then pushed out a year, seemingly preempted by Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, an arguably even more shameless Attack on Titan cash grab and to date the most bizarre self-ripoff I’ve ever experienced. Kabaneri delayed Attack on Titan because it was made by almost the exact same team. An “original” series (perhaps the least appropriate word to use for it), the only major difference was the writer, and wouldn’t you know it… they got one of the Code Geass/Guilty Crown guys to write it. If you imagine a satire of a committee trying to decide how to make the biggest hit anime in the mid-2010s, they might say something like “Just make Attack on Titan again… But make the zombie analogues actual zombies! And make the steampunk imagery more steampunk… with trains! And make it a Japanese setting!” That’s literally all Kabaneri is. Araki essentially recreates his Attack on Titan scenes shot for shot. But when you look over the wall to see the giant looming over it… there isn’t one, because they’re just human-sized zombies. And when they zip around with their gear… the physics make no sense, because they’re not actually attaching to anything to pull them around. But most egregious is the fact that this superficial facsimile apes the image of Attack on Titan with zero of the storytelling nuance that actually made the real series powerful, effective, and meaningful. I have no idea why it made more sense to release this than the surefire hit of the next season of Attack on Titan, but they must’ve thought that they could use this structure to find similar success with an original IP not owned by Kodansha or something. Whatever the rationale was, it was clearly a failed experiment.

So in 2017, we finally got the only return of Attack on Titan we ever wanted. Araki took on a chief director role, supervising new director Masashi Koizuka but ensuring that his vision for the Attack on Titan anime remained consistent. Everyone else was back, and Wit was now a mature studio ready for any challenge. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm for Attack on Titan couldn’t match its 2013 height, especially after four years off.

The gap between the first two seasons was the worst timing for a gap of that length, but at least it was the last time we had to deal with a significant period of time with no Attack on Titan anime. Starting in 2017, there hasn’t been a calendar year without at least a few episodes of the series yet (this year is of course scheduled to be the last, but it’s hard to be confident about that claim at this point). Still, it didn’t feel like it captured the same magic for a while.

But in 2019, even the dampened enthusiasm around Attack on Titan couldn’t diminish the masterpiece that was Season 3 Part 2. No, these names make no sense; Season 2 had no problem being a single cour, and Season 3 and Season 3 Part 2 aired in different years and covered entirely distinct arcs. But don’t worry, that naming scheme only got worse as time went on.

Attack On Titan Episode 2
Attack On Titan Episode 2

Whatever you wanted to call it, this section of the series hit us week after week with some of the big episodes of television. Attack on Titan may have been a touchstone when its first season took the anime world by storm in 2013, but it was never this amazing. These episodes were our “Ozymandias,” our “Rains of Castamere.” It was impossible to ignore Attack on Titan even as 2019 also had some of the biggest and greatest pieces of media. This didn’t just reinvigorate people’s love of Attack on Titan but their love of anime. We were “less than” no other media; this was as good as it gets.

As if to go out on top, it was confirmed that this would mark the end of Wit Studio’s time on their very first series, and later that nearly the entire main staff would be replaced. There has never been a more terrifying time in the production of this series. This team had just reached the top of their craft, perfecting the artistry of this anime so masterfully that we couldn’t ask for anything more than the same treatment for the rest of its run. It was even announced that we were not only getting another season (from someone) but that it would be “The Final Season” and would air the next year, in 2020. It was a bold choice given the fact that the manga hadn’t announced an ending, and the fact that the anime still hasn’t finished proves that perhaps it was an irresponsible announcement and title at the time.

Wit Studio not continuing to produce future seasons of their series has since become a trend, and so has MAPPA picking up every big title they can get. At the time of MAPPA’s announcement, they weren’t the biggest name in the business. But within 2020, a year in which most productions were suspended, MAPPA not only announced that they’d be taking over Attack on Titan but released no fewer than an inconceivable count of eight individual TV series, six entirely within the calendar year along with two that would carry into the next. The first was likely the biggest hit of 2020, Jujutsu Kaisen, which really made MAPPA a household name for top-quality anime production in a way they never were before. This set a slightly more confident stage for Attack on Titan: The Final Season to air alongside Jujutsu Kaisen for the last month of 2020 and the first season of 2021.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, perhaps Attack on Titan’s greatest threat under MAPPA’s watch has been competition for resources with other simultaneous MAPPA productions. Wit Studio pushing Season 2 out a year in favor of Kabaneri was an unfortunate decision, but at least it showed that they wanted to make sure Attack on Titan had all the resources it needed. Wit Studio’s Attack on Titan never aired alongside another Wit production. MAPPA’s Attack on Titan had its debut while Jujutsu Kaisen was clearly receiving the studio’s top resources, and is currently just one of the balls MAPPA is juggling along with the likes of Chainsaw Man, Vinland Saga (similarly inherited from Wit), Hell’s Paradise, and the next season of Jujutsu Kaisen, every one of them an A-list title.

Attack On Titan Episode 3
Attack On Titan Episode 3

Despite this, Attack on Titan: The Final Season has managed to be consistently excellent. I was worried, not only because of the unknown quantities replacing the people who had proven themselves the absolute finest for the job, but because the replacement team that was announced largely matched that of the recent Dorohedoro anime. That was a fine series, but it had a very heavy CG aesthetic that I was worried might be indicative of what to expect from their Attack on Titan takeover. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case; MAPPA’s Attack on Titan definitely looks different than Wit’s, but it’s much more similar to that than it is to Dorohedoro. Perhaps the most controversial change is indeed the much more significant CG usage, particularly for Titans, but the choreography, rigging, and compositing still result in it being some of the most successful utilization of blatant CG elements in 2D anime.

If Attack on Titan had to change hands, it seemed like doing so for “The Final Season” made no sense; surely Wit could do one more season. Of course, it ended up being so much more than one season. In fact, this point in the series made the most sense, because it’s the biggest change in the story. When MAPPA’s work picks up, years have passed in the story and we’re in a completely new setting with completely new characters and completely new kinds of conflicts and storytelling. What would’ve been a jarring shift under any other circumstances feels fitting because it already feels like a different series in so many ways. Even when we return to our original cast and setting, everything has changed so much in the timeskip that it still works.

That said, I still miss my old crew. I miss Araki’s direction; Hayashi and his chief director Shishido do an excellent job honoring Araki’s blueprint while injecting their own unique trademarks to better fit the material, but there’s really nobody who can match Araki’s kinetic thrill or cinematic scope. I miss action animation director Arifumi Imai, who realized Araki’s ambition by leading and personally animating the most stellar sequences of the series, which MAPPA has yet to match. I miss the sense that the studio was truly dedicating every available resource to making this particular production as flawless as possible, to stand the test of time. That doesn’t mean everything has to be the same, though. I like Wit’s thick outlines and solid colors, but MAPPA’s aesthetic arguably allows the war-centric material of The Final Season to feel more grounded and less like a bombastic action comic.

Attack On Titan Episode 3
Attack On Titan Episode 3

Although the writer and composer technically changed as well, that’s only partially true. Hiroshi Seko had already written most of the episodes of Wit’s seasons, including all the best ones, and has written most of the best anime since 2019. Upgrading him to series composition makes total sense; the series couldn’t be in better hands. Sawano is the only name who remained on the main staff list, and indeed all his classic tracks are reused and rearranged, but he’s joined by his protege Kohta Yamamoto. The two have collaborated on most anime with Sawano’s name attached in the past few years, and Yamamoto both understands how to create Sawano-worthy compositions and brings a new sound that’s fresh while being congruent and nearly as powerful.

By the time The Final Season, nobody was reviewing the series for us and I was inspired enough by Season 3 Part 2 to start reviewing it as it changed production hands, even though I rarely do so for sequels to series I didn’t already review. I’ve written thousands of words about every single episode of The Final Season, so I won’t spend too much more on the specifics here, but know that I still could. It really becomes a different series, albeit one that ties back to the themes that have been set up since the beginning in brilliantly satisfying ways.

The Final Season came and went, and the manga still wasn’t over. Like Season 3, it was always guaranteed to have multiple “parts.” It didn’t take much longer for the manga to wrap up, so when Part 2 aired the following year, it seemed possible to truly cover the rest. If it kept up the pace and ran longer than a standard cour like the first part, I think it could’ve pulled it off, but we got yet another non-final “final season” finale.

At that point, it was announced that the series would truly be ending once and for all with what would seriously be called “The Final Season: The Final Chapter.” It seemed like the ultimate fulfillment of Attack on Titan’s self-satirical nature for its Final Season naming when it was announced that, even more absurd than any joke one could make about it, “The Final Season: The Final Chapter” would in fact be split into multiple parts. The only thing that could make it better was if “The Final Season: The Final Chapter: Part 1” had multiple “chapters” within its single special… and that’s exactly what it does.

Attack On Titan Episode 3
Attack On Titan Episode 3

That brings us back to my opening paragraph, and roughly to the present, looking back at a decade of Attack on Titan with almost a full picture of the series, but not quite. Since the manga ended two years ago, I’ve been hearing nothing but horror stories about how terrible the ending is. Even Hajime Isayama was nearly brought to tears in depressive self-doubt over his choices in how to end it during his appearance at Anime NYC. Somehow I’ve managed to avoid learning anything about what that ending actually entails, but we’re fresh off of its immediate predecessor and I’ve hardly ever felt more positive about Attack on Titan. Only Season 3 Part 2 edges out what we’ve seen of this “final final” installment thus far. Can one more hour truly ruin this decade of some of the best television ever made? I find it extremely hard to imagine, but I suppose we’ll see. Hopefully, we don’t.

As much as I’d hate for that to happen, I can’t help but chuckle at the idea that not getting the very final installment of the series in time for its tenth anniversary actually preserved its image as a mostly unblemished masterpiece for that decade. It’s like when Game of Thrones had Seasons 1-7 box sets even when it was known that Season 8 would be the final one, only for Season 8 to be a trainwreck that arguably ruins much about the series, thus making those box sets the most ideal collection of Game of Thrones. Perhaps at the end of the year I’ll reflect that the first decade of Attack on Titan, before we got the true finale, was the ideal existence of the series.

But let’s hope not. If Isayama really failed to stick the landing after creating a story truly unlike any other, I hope the team changes it however is needed to make it an ending worthy of this decade that we’re able to celebrate so wholeheartedly right now. Ideally, they involve Isayama and let him redeem himself, if that’s how he would feel about it. I just don’t want to eat these many, many words. But even in that worst-case scenario, I’m of the opinion that a bad ending still can’t detract from the strengths of what came before it. The abysmal final season and especially final episode of Game of Thrones doesn’t invalidate the fact that the series has had many of the greatest episodes in television history. The same would be true of Attack on Titan, even if it meant that the series as a whole would be greatly diminished.

Maybe Attack on Titan wasn’t as big as it was when it was new, fresh, and unexpected a decade ago. But it has certainly returned to being one of the biggest anime series in the past few years, especially while it’s airing, and it may be more acclaimed than ever. I think it’s safe to say that it has been one of the most prominent anime of the past decade, perhaps unmatched in its combination of popularity, acclaim, and mainstream crossover success. Even that may be giving it too little credit, as I remember achievements like “the most in-demand TV series in the world” just last year, a title otherwise only held by mainstream live-action American dramas.

As of this writing, the recently premiered “Final Chapter” is the highest-rated anime on both MyAnimeList and Anime Planet. Many of the highest-rated episodes of all television – the highest-rated titles period, in fact – on IMDb are episodes of Attack on Titan, more than any other series. Many sit as high as a 9.9, with “Hero” – now one of the few episodes with over 100,000 votes – having spent plenty of time as the highest-rated title on the entire site, with the elusive, perfect 10/10. Attack on Titan has spent a decade only proving itself more and more to be one of the greatest anime of all time and one of the greatest TV series of all time.