The announcement of an Attack on Titan live action film brought mixed reactions from fans. Live-action movies based on on anime and manga tend to be disappointing. Although recent entries like the Afro Tanaka and the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy have shown improvement, they are the exception. Will Attack on Titan push the anime/manga adaptation envelope forward? Or is it destined to join Japan's anime film purgatory?
If one things was promising, it was Attack on Titan's accomplished cast. Haruma Miura (Naoko, Bloody Monday), Kanata Hong (Gantz, Goth) and Kiko Mizuhara (Norwegian Wood) take the lead rolls as Eren, Armin, and Mikasa. The young trio is faced with the incredible task of battling giant monsters with a taste for human flesh. Though young, each actor has proven their acting chops in previous works.
Everyone looks great in their charismatic military-issue jackets and equipment. But the acting left me with mixed emotions. The dialogue's delivery came across as over-done. Heroic lines were deadpan, and the grunts felt cartoony. In unfortunate cases post-dubbed voices didn't even match the actors.
Attack on Titan's cast emulates the source material to a fault. Poses and character movements match the dialogue's cheesy exaggerations. Instead of acting, the cast tries to recreate the look of the anime and manga's characters. But the style and strategies that succeed in anime don't always translate well into live action. The acting took me out of the film's world, something that never happened during the engrossing anime series.
Attack on Titan's look is one of the franchise's most attractive aspects. The manga and anime's uniforms, logos, and weaponry made the series to a cosplay staple. The locations, houses, and forests struck me as post apocalyptic, yet old world European. These motifs made the series a standout among other anime and manga.
And the film's costumes and weaponry are spot on. The costume designs do a great job capturing the look and feel of the anime. The "Vertical Maneuvering Equipment" (Rittai Kidō Sōchi) that allows military forces to grapple and swing around their surroundings looks authentic. Once suited up, the film's characters look as cool, if not cooler than, their manga and anime counterparts.
Unfortunately the film's environments don't always do the series justice. The opening scene creates a sense of vastness within the city's protective walls and the first village looks as if it were plucked straight from the anime. But the rest of the movie is generic and claustrophobic.
Once the heroes venture out into the open world, Attack on Titan feels cheap. Scenes of traveling through darkened woods look like they were shot in a park. Many of the scenes take place in darkness, rendering the architecture and environments of the source material invisible. The final battle unfolds in a crumbling village that's too dark to have any charisma. Tactless camera work leaves most of this final sequence feeling like an empty green screen stage.
What of the of those giant, creepy Titans?
Like the acting and sets, the giant monsters are a mixed bag. Most of them look as creepy, if not creepier than they did in the manga and anime. Seeing real people made up to be giant, naked monsters adds a new layer of reality. I like that the titans looked like giant versions of people in my everyday life. It added to the grotesque and discomforting nature of their actions.
Sadly, the titans aren't this film's best feature (that would be the costumes). Although most of the titans left me uneasy, others made me chuckle. My friend commented, "Don't they look like regular oba-san and oji-san (old ladies and old men) from the neighborhood? I think I saw him at the grocery store yesterday!"
Despite the blood and guts exploding onscreen, these less inspired, less made-up, less creepy titans looked too much like regular people. Jokes and giggles overcame my shock and discomfort. The feeling of dread unfortunately never returned.
Once our heroes suited up it was time for action. Anticipation forced me to the edge of my seat; the costumes and weaponry looked so good as props, how would they look in action?
If there's one thing holding Japanese manga and anime adaptations back it's the special effects and Attack on Titan proves no exception. Actors clash with their obvious computer generated backdrops and enemies, the timing of their movements look awkward and unnatural. Quick cuts, angle changes and overwhelming darkness made the onscreen action feel jittery, rough and hard to see. Characters lose proper sense of speed and proportion. The cool, smooth action of the anime was lost in the live action film.
Overall the movie's reminded me of the live action Casshern film, which felt awkward, but forgivable more than a decade ago. Attack on Titan offers little evidence that special effects have evolved since that time.
When it comes to gore, Attack on Titan piles it on. The titans go to town on their victims, snapping off limbs like Pocky. Blood, guts, and body parts abound, complete with "squishy" sounds that occur with such frequency, they nearly crossover into parody. I would suggest leaving the kids at home, but the movie going audience proved I'm in the minority on that.
Old School Flavor
The titan battles, shot in a tokusatsu style (think Godzilla or Power Rangers), reach back to Japan's cinematic roots. Actor's and stuntmen in costumes duke it out while camera positions and downsized props (and actors) create an illusion of enormity.
It's all super fast and super-choppy. But unlike the vertical maneuvering scenes, titan v. titan battles feel intense, shocking, and cool. Some viewers may be turned off by the guy-in-a-suit style, the titans being giant humanoids made it perhaps more fitting than in Godzilla or Gamera films.
While the anime and manga created a deep story to match its rich world, the movie's plot takes a backseat to spectacle. Most of the plot simply facilitates action.
As with all adaptations, purists will cringe at Attack on Titan's story changes. Without spoiling any specifics, major plot points and infamous scenes (including an memorable titan "meal") have been altered or abandoned for the movie. Some changes make sense. Others (like the aforementioned "meal") left me scratching my head.
With an hour and a half run time, there's little room for the deep character development and interactions of the animated series. Romances feel contrived. You never get a chance to connect with the characters like you do in the anime. Everyone comes across as a hollow archetype (if that). Of course this dulls the impact of anything that happens to any of the characters.
On the bright side, the terror feels real. Perhaps more real than in the series. Although the odds were stacked against the anime heroes, the soldiers had an air of confidence. The military appeared capable. In contrast, the film's defense forces come across as inept, which makes the prospect of fighting titans even more terrifying. In the final scene, defense forces resemble lambs led to slaughter.
Attack on Titan Movie Review Verdict
Based on reputation alone, Attack on Titan is sure to be a hit. As a casual fan of the anime I found it disappointing as both an adaptation and a movie in general. The direction and style were a mess. I hoped it would provide what recent Marvel movie-verse films have: well paced, smooth, and watchable entertainment. Sadly, this wasn't the case. I found Attack on Titan entertaining despite the disappointment, but it was a very rocky ride.
Attack on Titan is a mess of a movie that will disappoint those familiar and unfamiliar with the series alike. But if you plan on checking it out, see it on the big screen. The film's faults will only be amplified when it hits the small screen.