When it took four years for the second season of Attack on Titan to come out, I was convinced that fandom would never reach the fever pitch it did during the show’s beginning. In a way, I was right. Some people fell off the bandwagon after the long delay, but those that stayed were more than vocal about how good the show continued to be.
By 2019 when the second half of Season 3 released, the reception was unlike anything the series had gotten prior. It topped the MyAnimeList chart at #1, temporarily dethroning Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood. Now it sits comfortably at #6.
With season 3’s end, the plot has reached a major turning point that looks almost like a completely different story to those out of the loop. Aiding this change in scope is a new production team. WIT Studio left the series, handing the reins to Studio MAPPA, who already proved themselves to be the new titan of the anime industry over the course of 2020, for better or for worse.
At the time this goes live, we’ll be 7 episodes through the final season, almost halfway through the planned 16 episodes. How has the change in studio affected the show? How does the action compare? Or the character drama? Finally, how the hell are they gonna wrap this up in 16 episodes?
A Whole New World
The story begins almost like a completely new show, following a group of kids in the trenches of a warzone during the final days of a war between the nation of Marley and an invading force. Gabi Braun, the niece of series regular Reiner Braun, and her friend, Falco Grice, are two members of the Marleyan military. They, much like their friends and family, are labeled “spawn of the devil.”
Gabi and Falco are Eldians, a race whose spinal fluid can be weaponized and used to turn them into giant monsters; giant monsters known as Titans. The Eldians are treated like scum, held in Internment zones, with their race’s titan abilities used to win Marley’s dominance on the world stage.
The Eldians put up with their treatment because they have a dream. They blame the prejudice against them on the “Evil Eldians” who were cast out to the island of Paradis over 100 years ago. They offer their lives to their oppressors in pursuit of freedom paid by the blood of their kin. Gabi and Falco are two of the children who are candidates to inherit the powers of the Armored Titan.
Without the context of previous seasons’ revelations, this must sound like a completely different show. I’ve watched this season with people who never watched past the first and the reactions have been entertaining, to say the least. This incredible flip of perspective is the ground-floor of an ingenious and emotionally taxing climax the likes of which only the manga-readers up to this point could fathom.
After the explosive premiere, the show takes a slower, more personal approach to storytelling for the next several episodes. Gabi, Falco, and their friends return home as heroes, though only a few treat them as such. The kids enjoy the comforts of home while continuing to train to inherit titan powers. Meanwhile, Reiner Braun, Zeke Jaeger, and the rest of the Titan Shifters propose another plan to their superiors, to attack the island of Paradis.
The Final Season mirrors the first season quite brilliantly. A bombastic premiere followed by personal drama and some occasional quirky levity that Titan is known for. Much like season one, it all builds to a spark that sets in motion a blast that will thunder for the rest of the series.
It’s the small, quiet moments that get to me the most. Reiner has always been a fascinating character. He was a soldier broken by his own lies that he told himself to get through his mission. Season 2 showed that he wasn’t all there and many viewers, myself included, hated him.
There’s plenty of reason to hate many of the characters. A few of the people in this final season have killed fan-favorite cast members and done horrible things besides. But yet, that simple flip of perspective makes it possible to sanction their screen-time with more than just contempt.
Truly remarkable tales of war, be they hopeful or cynical, should aspire to make one understand the sides of war not from the perspective of nations, but the people fighting the wars. Soldiers might fight for their countries, but they more often fight for their friends. The attrition between two sides of war consumes life and the anger felt by those mourning is not merely a product of bloodshed, but the instigator of further bloodshed.
When that “spark” I mentioned goes off, it’s two-sided. You watch characters that have more or less been endeared to you because of who they are or because they remind you of Eren, Armin, and Mikasa when they were kids. And then, you see the old and the new collide. Characters return with a vengeance and these moments are both heroic and villainous.
As an observer, we have the privilege of watching without bias, though many viewers will root for one side or the other. Who can blame them? The prospect of watching the deaths of characters I’ve come to love ever since I started watching anime in 2014 is heart-wrenching, but it’s going to happen.
In 2020, the world was treated to a similar tale of revenge and the matters of perspective that complicate it, in the form of The Last of Us: Part II. I’m already bracing myself to feel that same pain again and to witness heated debates in the fandom over who’s in the right or whether a character is a terrible person.
Attack on Titan has continued to cement itself as an essential modern epic. I used to recommend it because the animation was gorgeous and because the storytelling was exceptional at getting me more hyped than ever before. Now, having seen the direction the story has taken, and the lengths to which the characters will go for what they believe, I think it has become even more than what we initially loved it for.
A Whole New Studio
MAPPA had a tough decision to make when adapting the conclusion of this saga: do they keep the style close to the character designs of Kyouji Asano or do they make the art as faithful to the manga as possible? Their decision? They struck a balance and a balance that I find to be perfect.
I wasn’t always a fan of the manga’s art but I admit that it improved over time. While the artwork from Season 1 continues to hold a special place in my heart, the artwork here is masterfully done as well. It’s how the character art is put to motion that truly was the test of the show’s merit for many.
First and foremost: the CGI. I remember season two airing and immediately feeling skeptical because of the addition of CG horses and the Colossal Titan being completely CG, as well. It was a point of contention for sure. However, I’ve also been incredibly harsh towards CG animation in the past. Years ago, I would have decried all of it as the slow death of hand-drawn animation.
What changed? CG got better. Studios that used it most started to improve their craft and soon we got shows like Land of the Lustrous. Producers like Studio Orange have changed how people view CG in anime completely. Now shows can actually look good with computer-generated animation and not as many people will deny that.
The Final Season has more CGI in its action than any other entry in the series. This might be concerning to people because the fights in previous seasons were always memorable for their detailed hand-drawn complexity and the fluidity with which the titans beat the crap out of each other.
So, why CGI? Well, the director, Yuuichirou Hayashi, is the director of MAPPA’s adaptation of Dorohedoro. The few friends I have that give a shit about Dorohedoro might guffaw at this notion as they weren’t happy with that adaptation. However, I recall the complaints about Dorohedoro‘s anime having to do with the artwork not matching up. Attack on Titan has no such issue.
It looks pretty good, which might sound like a downgrade compared to the descriptors thrown at previous seasons’ visuals, but I’m serious. The animations are smooth and not too choppy like other shows’ CG. The choreography and the creativity with Titan’s abilities in combat are brought to life well using computer animation.
Does it look as good as the other seasons? I still prefer those, but the narrative buildup to these fights is so good and the tension and emotion contextualizing them is so strong that I can’t really say it’s a limiting factor on my enjoyment. It makes you think about what really made the fights from previous seasons so good.
Some might argue it was a cost-saving measure, and normally, I would agree, but given the advancements in computer animation out of Japan over the past several years, I feel like it’s irresponsible for me to label the animation as simply a “budget constraint.”
With the director having worked on Dorohedoro, I believe the use of computer animation was a conscious style choice and I support it wholeheartedly. Plus, the synergy of hand-drawn artwork and CGI is handled well, and there are 2D sequences that make me think they’re saving the hand-drawn Titan fights for later on. Even if not, though, I’m totally sold on the animation.
As I said, it isn’t as though they’ve abandoned hand-drawn animation or diligently-constructed sequences of insane 2D animation. Episode 2 was a triumph of character animation. One character, Udo, goes on this impassioned rant and the animator just said, “imma just let this kid bare his soul for 30 whole seconds of animation.”
The most contentious decision was to have the trailer and the show produced separately. The trailer for the final season was entirely hand-drawn and showed several action set-pieces that have aired already. However, almost everything seen in the preview was different from what we got, even the hand-drawn stuff, to a lesser degree.
Normally, something like this would piss me off. It seems like false advertising. And yet, I don’t have an issue with how the animation actually turned out. Still, it’s an odd choice, and I won’t pretend I wouldn’t have liked to see some of those cuts make it into the final product.
Yet, upon further inspection, some of these shots were lacking in actual character movement and relied heavily on the artwork and effects animation like explosions to carry it. It wasn’t like they animated entire fights and then cut them out in exchange for a lesser product.
Instead, they produced every part of the trailer individually to create the promotional material, so that way they could let the show’s production prioritize the flow of the narrative. I speculate it was done for the sake of not constraining themselves in how best to direct and animate specific scenes that might have looked good for a trailer.
Only 16 Episodes?
The Attack on Titan manga is not over. That said, we know when it will be ending. The final chapter will be released on April 9th. However, the final season’s 16-episode-order is almost completely fulfilled. I’ve talked to friends who have read the manga and they have expressed to me their doubts about the story being able to close, even if the producers know the ending.
I don’t think this season will actually end with 16 episodes. If anything, it will either have a “part 2” like Season 3 or there will be a movie (or movies) to wrap up the story. This is merely speculation, but considering this franchise avoided diverging from the manga in the four years between seasons 1 & 2, I doubt they’ll diverge or abridge now.
Against all the odds (and delays), Attack on Titan has earned its place among some of the most beloved franchises today. The conclusion will be the final test of whether it will be remembered as such after the fact. As of right now, things are looking very promising.
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Attack on Titan: The Final Season is available for legal streaming through Crunchyroll and FunimationNow.
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