Forget everything you know about manga.
Attack on Titan is far different from any of the other popular mangas you might have heard of or read, from Dragon Ball to Yu-Gi-Oh!. Whereas many of those stories have a fun and light air to them, Attack on Titan is unremittingly dark and grim.
But it’s in that darkness and grimness that the bravery of the characters shines forth. The story follows Eren, along with Mikasa and Armin, three teenagers who are living in a dark post-apocalyptic future. The titans – towering, alien beings who look something like giants with the skin pulled off – obsessively hunt down and eat humans, despite having no apparent interest in other animals. They don’t need to eat in order to live. There are no attacks from the humans (at least, that we know of) that instigated this behavior. So is it for sport?
Whatever the reason, the story works infinitely well as a horror-driven fantasy. The humans have been driven back into one city, protected by a large wall. The Survey Corps go outside the wall to the territory of the titans, trying to learn more about them and how, if possible, they could eventually strike back and drive them away. Few are brave enough to sign up for this duty, and very few ever come back alive. But it’s Eren’s dream. He will settle for nothing short of the Survey Corps, much to the dismay of his family. The instigation for the story comes directly from this. Shortly after Eren has a fight with his mother about the Survey Corps, the titans break through the wall, thanks to the appearance of a colossal titan, which is taller than the fifty-foot wall. In that invasion, Eren is forced to watch his mother be eaten by a titan, an event which stirs him to an even greater hatred towards the monsters, and he vows to see every one of them destroyed.
It almost seems odd that this story is being played out in a manga series. It breaks stereotypes of the genre. Despite the titans’ very odd appearance (their hands are disproportionately small, and some of them walk around with very goofy-looking faces), they never lose the sense of horror and dread. The art, which is quite violent at points, never becomes directly gory, thus maintaining the horror and fear aspect of the story, without resorting to shallow and easy shock value. More than any other horror, post-apocalyptic, or survival story I’ve experienced, Attack on Titan brings an atmosphere that puts you in the shoes of those who dread these monsters. You want the story to continue, but you also don’t want to see the titans again. Because when these characters see the titans, very bad things happen.
Because and only because that horror element is so strong and so pure does the character development work. In that backdrop of dread and hate, Eren hardly thinks twice about rushing to join the Survey Corps, and protect his people from danger. At one particularly powerful moment in the story, Mikasa is trying to bend the rules to fight alongside Eren, and thus protect him (she is a more formidable warrior than he), to which he says “Humanity is on the brink of destruction, and you’re trying to dictate your own rules?!” The most incredible thing about that moment is that even in the blood-filled battle against the titans, Eren still doesn’t think of himself. He gives himself freely on the battlefield for his friends, and for humanity. That level of bravery is inspiring.
While I’m admittedly a bit behind the times, this is one of the most promising manga series I’ve ever picked up. It does come with some caution – the violence, while not gory, is relentless when it’s there, and the book has some occasional harsh language as well (there is no sexual content in this volume). While I won’t attempt to excuse the language, the violence is, I think, necessary and effective in the purpose it serves. The book in its entirety is a harrowing and effective tale of bravery, accomplishing what the best war films do: to impress on us just how much bravery the brave show, and just how much sacrifice is required of soldiers. In that endeavor, Attack on Titan is a resounding success.