Movie Review – Attack on Titan: Part 1

EXPECTATIONS: Half a movie, filled with fun kaiju scenes of building destruction and good old-fashioned Japanese over-the-top acting.

REVIEW:  I have to make this point immediately, but I have never seen or read any material related to Attack on Titan (Just a few minutes of the anime, at best). But boy, do I know that a lot of people were waiting for this, eh? Based on the best-selling manga by Hajime Isayama that started in 2009, this became one hell of a big hit that eventually sold 52.5 million copies in print as of July 2015. And now, a movie has arrived, split into two parts, as it is more profitable to do so, thanks to Harry Potter.  At first, it was Tetsuya Nakashima that was hired as the director.  Despite not knowing the source material, this excited me to no end, since this is the director that made the lovable glitz-pop buddy comedy “Kamikaze Girls”, the emotional roller-coaster “Memories of Matsuko”, the surreal revenge why-dunnit “Confessions” and his recent film, the kaleidoscopic thrill ride “The World of Kanako”. But alas, this was not meant to be, since he was replaced by Shinji Higuchi, a renowned special effects director that has worked with anime director Hidaeki Anno on many projects, has made special effects films that have variable critical reception due to his focus on special effects, but not enough focus on character. (I didn’t like HIdden Fortress: The Last Princess, but I enjoyed The Floating Castle a lot) and is slated to work with Anno on the new Godzilla film, which I am looking forward to. But the bad buzz happened. Many people in Japan and people from early screenings were outraged by the changes the filmmakers had made (like the change in settings and appearances, removal of characters etc.) and some of the filmmakers had fought back. So is this film as bad as the buzz had claimed it to be? From a neophyte like me, it certainly surprised me, that’s for sure.

The film starts off with a narration, talking about the Titans and their attack on humanity starting 100 years ago. Then, we go to the present day, introducing characters Eren Jaeger (Haruma Miura), a cynical yet starry-eyed man who yearns to see what is outside the walls of the Monzen District; Armin Arlert (Kanata Hongo), Eren’s best friend, who serves more of a tool of exposition than a character and Eren’s girlfriend, Mikasa Ackerman (Kiko Mizuhara), a typical damsel-in-distress character with more than meets the eye. After they explore close to the walls, a Titan appears which alerts the town but there are many more to come that leaves the town into ruin, eating and crushing humans in their wake. Two years later, Eren and Armin reunite to volunteer in a special attack force, the Scouting Regiment (consisting of characters such as Shikishima, Jean, Sasha and others) is called to take down the Titans and reclaim their right to survive.

First off, the visual aspect of the film truly surprised me. I thought that this film would be a fantasy kaiju film, with a PG-13 aesthetic, meaning lots of destruction but very little perceptions of the consequences these moments of destruction would have. Well, I was dead wrong. The first action scene of the film is truly nightmarish. These Titans are technically giant zombies that just wolf down humans, with gore and blood spraying all over the place and the mix of CGI and practical effects (courtesy of special make-up effects master Yoshihiro Nishimura who has done many films) work wonderfully and really makes the Titans feel like a genuine threat. The nightmarish feel culminates into a surreal and refreshing tone that blockbusters would rarely ever go for, making the action scenes fun yet pack a punch. Dulling the action scenes a bit is the musical score. Some of it is effective (the use of the harpsichord is cheesy but fitting) but some of it is out of place, that it sometimes takes you out of the movie.

Speaking of genuine threats, the horror tone rarely permeates to the characters, as they all act in the iconic over-the-top fashion that hearkens back to Godzilla films of old. Apparently that irked a lot of the viewers, but it sometimes makes perfect sense within the film, especially when the Scouting Regiment fights back against the Titans. Most of the group are not soldiers and they are clearly not capable of combat so when they do, they are scared out of their wits and behave in irrational ways. Sometimes, the characters are appropriately cynical like Eren, claiming, at one point, “paradise seems like a prison if one sees its walls.”, adding to the nightmarish film. The meshing of the tone and the characters It makes the film bizarrely entertaining, filled with unexpected surprises (like the development of Mikasa) and unintentional laugh-out-loud moments (Eren’s standoff against the Titans) but it makes the film schizophrenic, creating emotional whiplash.

You just wished that they took the same unexpected approach to the characters. Unfortunately, they are all stereotypes and the actors suffer from it. It is expected though, considering the story is told with a swift pace that strips the story into its bare essentials. We get the reluctant hero, the loyal best friend, the damsel in distress, the war-hero, the scumbag, the promiscuous one and so on. Only a few of the actors give life to their roles that make them stand out or hopefully foreshadow character arcs being fulfilled in the second film. Satomi Ishihara is a hoot as Hans, who’s the IT person of the Regiment whilst Hiroki Hasegawa (who’s versatility is fantastic from Lady Maiko to Why Don’t You Play in Hell and Love & Peace) has strong presence as Shikishima and Kiko Mizuhara plays the different facades of her character well.

That being said, it all builds to an exciting cliffhanger, filled with many revelations, battles and over-the-top acting that make it a riot. It’s a shame that the film doesn’t thrill in an emotional level. I still had a hell of a fun time watching this film and I hope the second film carries that sheer thrill and maybe, a little emotional touch.

Quickie Review

PROS

Bravely tackling a popular source material and adding a refreshing nightmarish tone that thrills and haunts

The mix of CGI and practical effects works really well

Swift pacing that never bores

The action scenes and performances are incredibly over-the-top, they’re laughably entertaining

CONS

Not very faithful to the source material

Schizophrenic tone may leave viewers feeling befuddled

Basically half a movie

Most of the actors try their best, but fail to add life to their character archetypes

SCORE: 6.5/10

NOTE: Thanks to Madman Films for releasing this film (as well as the second part) in Australia. Much appreciated.

Cast: Haruma Miura, Kiko Mizuhara, Kanata Hongō, Hiroki Hasegawa, Satomi Ishihara, Takahiro Miura, Pierre Taki, Jun Kunimura, Nanami Sakuraba, Rina Takeda, Shu Watanabe, Ayame Misaki, Satoru Matsuo

Director: Shinji Higuchi

Screenwriter: Yūsuke Watanabe and Tomohiro Machiyama

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