'Attack on Titan' ('Shingeki no Kyojin'): Film Review

Toho Pictures
A visually refreshing blockbuster undermined by clichés.  

The first installment of Shinji Higuchi’s two-part live-action movie is based on a popular manga and anime series.

The first installment of Shinji Higuchi’s two-part live-action movie based on the popular manga and anime series is a brisk, visually refreshing dark fantasy saga littered with clichés. Attack on Titans is impressive in its ability to inject what is essentially a gory kaiju (monster) movie with elements from Japan’s riveting horror tradition. This hardly comes as a surprise -- Higuchi (Japan Sinks), who's slated to co-direct Godzilla Reboot (2016), was one of Japan's top special effects director. This strength, however, is undermined by hackneyed characterizations. Some fans have criticized the scriptwriters for "watering down" the original characters, a move apparently endorsed by series creator Hajime Isayama. Granted a 98-minute film has to take things much faster than a serialized publication. But resorting to stereotypes is still a cop-out.

Attack on Titan topped the chart on its opening weekend in Japan, with US $5.1 million. If the following are reliable indicators of public taste, the film, slated for a September 30 premiere, should not do poorly in the US. The manga series is wildly successful here -- almost all of its 16 volumes made it to the top of the manga best-sellers’ lists. Japanese horror movies (The Ring, Ju-on) and video games (Silent Hill, Resident Evil) have also done exceedingly well in the US. While Attack on Titan is not a conventional horror film, it does contain aspects of the genre.

The film features sleek back-and-forth between action and drama. Timing and tempo are spot-on, with fast cuts and no scene overstaying its welcome. Corny exposition scenes are jam-packed with things to show and tell — tell mostly; (too) much of the explaining is done via dialogue – and a few melodramatic "If your mom and your spouse both fell into the water, who would you save?" moments.  

Eren (Haruma Miura), Armin (Kanata Hongo) and Mikasa (Kiko Mizuhara, Norwegian Wood) live in a city with enormous walls built to defend against man-eating giants who almost wiped out the human race a century ago. The teenagers ponder what the world beyond is like. Eren, who lost his job again, is cynical about the Titans’ existence. He gives Mikasa his scarf when she gets cold. Armin is the timid friend.

All well and good for an opening, if the characters and their relationships are fleshed out in ensuing scenes. But they’re not. Despite brushes with death and joining the Scouting Legion to avenge loved ones, Eren and Armin remain the rebellious teen and the expositional best friend. This makes them hard to connect with, a situation not helped by the acting and the soundtrack. Mikasa is more interesting. Mizuhara’s performance is aptly enigmatic and the character undergoes a transformation that happens off-screen.

The lack of character development also means that people sometimes behave in logic-defying ways. Women, for example, come across as irrational, strongly maternal beings who, on the brink of disaster, (1) sit mermaid-style and weep, (2) put a man’s hand on their breast, (3) look for babies or (4) play "The End of the World" on the piano.

Compared to the human characters, the Titans are proof that the Japanese are experts when it comes to the uncanny (The Ring). Special modeling director Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police) created them using actors in make-up with help from CG. They’re creepy and grotesque, but also shockingly familiar. At times, the naked humanoids with flat noses, single eyelids and clumsy gait, look almost like stoic peasants, next to young, chicly-coifed protagonists with their chiseled features and Steampunk gadgetry. This makes the cannibalism all the more disturbing, of course. It also diverts some attention away from the crude compositing in the battle scenes.

In terms of the sets, the highlights are the scenes shot on Hashima Island, featuring ruined apartment blocks. However, they might have less of a doomsday vibe for viewers familiar with the island, a UN Heritage Site. Another scene with a toppled chandelier looks like it was plucked out of a music video from 2005 – so corny it’s fun. Otherwise the studio sets are run-of-the-mill.

Dilapidated structures, uprooted communities, and damaged farmlands are all too familiar in post-tsunami Japan. They make threats to territorial integrity appear larger than life. Armin was taught that technological advancement leads to resource depletion and environmental destruction. The Titans seem to hark back to a time when life was both harder and simpler. Could they, like Frankenstein and Godzilla, another TOHO creation, be the children of scientific advances run rampant?

Production company: TOHO Pictures

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

Producer: Sato Yoshihiro

Executive producer: Akihiro Yamauchi

Director of photography: Shoji Ehara

Production designer: Yohei Taneda

Costume designer: Shinichi Miter

Editor: Yusuke Ishida

Music: Shiro Sagisu

World sales: TOHO Pictures

In Japanese

 

No rating; 98 minutes

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