One hundred years ago, giant, flesh-eating humanoids known as Titans appeared from nowhere and decimated most of humanity. Thereafter mankind retreated behind a vast protective wall to live in peace. A century later, restless young Eren Yeager (Haruma Miura) is eager to see what lies beyond the wall. Then one terrible day Eren and his lifelong friend Armin Arlert (Kanata Hongo) witness an attack by the largest, most terrifying Titan ever seen. It breaks through the wall unleashing hordes of ravenous Titans that massacre their entire village including Eren's would-be sweetheart Mikasa Ackerman (gorgeous Kiko Mizuhara).
Two years later Eren and Armin join the Scouting Regiment, a team of young draftees sent on a dangerous mission. Armed with powerful explosives the scouts, led by wacky, accident-prone Hans (Satomi Ishihara, in a manic performance much criticized by western media though true to the character) including potato-obsessed hungry girl Sasha (Nanami Sakuraba), big-hearted burly Sannagi (Satoru Matsuo), hostile Jean (Takahiro Miura) and doomed lovers Fukushi (Shu Watanabe) and Lil (Rina Takeda) venture into the Titan-infested wasteland in the hope of expanding human territory. Unfortunately they find themselves entrapped and hunted mercilessly. Swooping to their rescue come a pair of seasoned Titan-slayers, one: the cynical Captain Shikishima (Hiroki Hasegawa), the other: a legendary female badass with ten kills to her name. To the utter surprise of Eren and Armin, she turns to be Mikasa who now seems like a completely different person.
Hajime Isayama's manga sired a multimedia phenomenon (spin-off novels, a 2013 anime series and now live-action movie) with a rabid fan-base to rival Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. Yet it remains among the most divisive Japanese fantasy epics in recent years. In Asia diverging sociopolitical interpretations played a big part in how its various incarnations were received. For Japanese, Chinese and Hong Kong readers and viewers Attack on Titan is an allegory about resisting oppression. By comparison South Korean critics deride Isayama's work as a right-wing nationalistic allegory reflecting what they interpret as contemporary Japanese foreign policy. In fact rumours that a minor character was based on an Imperial Japanese Admiral saw Isayama bombarded with death threats from non-Japanese readers. Meanwhile western critics, largely unconscious of the story's sociopolitical content, dismissed the live-action adaptation as an over-inflated exploitation movie.
Truth be told the live-action Attack on Titan underwhelmed most Japanese critics and divided fans across the globe. Yet speaking as someone that has neither read the manga nor seen the anime, this struck me as a powerful, compelling, often unsettling kaiju eiga (monster movie). The film shares many tropes in common with the current flood of young adult fantasies. Themes such as the class divide, self-sufficient rural communities and the exploitation of youth by oppressive governments obviously parallel films like Divergent (2014), The Maze Runner (2014) and of course The Hunger Games (2012). Even the vast wall that keeps monsters away from a quasi-Medieval society evokes Game of Thrones while the post-apocalyptic pastoral village recalls the Shire from The Lord of the Rings though also the hardy rural communities from Akira Kurosawa's samurai films. Which is not to suggest Attack on Titan is derivative but rather that it echoes themes prevalent in the cultural zeitgeist.
Despite a background in special effects, director Shinji Higuchi foregrounds relationships and social observations above arcane mythology. A solid storyteller Higuchi has his protagonists slowly piece together the mystery of how the world came to be this way. He details the impact the Titans have on society, spawning a world that is tougher, harsher and more selfish: parents sell their children to the army for money to buy food, a single mother volunteers so the state will take care of her child. With human beings suddenly reduced to the lowest rung on the food chain, a survivalist mentality overrides almost every other emotion. As Captain Shikishima shrewdly observes the real enemy might not be the Titans but rather the mentality that drove human beings to fence themselves in like cattle. Higuchi delivers the spectacle and horror fans of Isayama's disturbing manga expect. The cackling, naked flesh-eating giants are truly horrific monsters. When they chow down on their squealing, terrified victims it is grisly and nightmarish, far removed from the colourful fun of your classic kaiju eiga. For the most part Higuchi keeps the action chaotic and messy, bereft of the familiar heroic beats one expects from a Japanese SF action-adventure. The script pulls off several shock twists that keep things refreshingly unpredictable and visceral. It is possible the climactic resurrection of an almost comfortingly familiar Japanese genre trope was one reason this befuddled several western critics. But if you are a fan of tokkusatsu fare it is kind of the last-minute icing on the cake.