Adapting a manga or anime into a live action film can be a bit of a gamble. Sometimes you’ll end up with films like the Death Note duology (the third film is more of its own thing) — something that distills the essence of its source material in a condensed piece of gripping cinema.
Other times you get something like Dragon Ball Evolution — resembling its source material in only the broadest of strokes, making it hard to understand how one thing could have led to the other. Attack on Titan Part One is definitely neither extreme, but it’s unfortunate to say it’s much closer to the latter.
Which isn’t to say there’s nothing to like. Attack on Titan Part One has received quite a bit of criticism, but it’s important to look at the positives too. Director Shinji Higuchi might best be known for his special effects work on the acclaimed 90s revamp Gamera films. Attack on Titan shines with its confident, dynamic and visually impressive action sequences. While the digital budget might not have been excessive Higuchi has the experience to make it work. Model work with digitally altered actors in Titan suits are deftly combined with the more real human shots, creating a terrific sense of scalability, an assault of vivid colours and movement. They’re mesmerizing sequences that really translates the dynamism on the page into real movement. Though the Titans themselves lack quite the breadth and variation of design as in the source material.
It’s unfortunate then that the Titan fight sequences only make up a small fraction of the overall film. There’s maybe only about 10 minutes of actual full-on action (disclaimer: I did not time this). There are about 3 Titan sequences in total, and it’s only in the final that they commit to proper action. It’s hard to understand why the talents of Higuchi have to be wasted. This is likely to be something dictated by production rather than him. At one point Tetsuya Nakashima was attached to direct these films, but left due to creative differences.
There’s a joy in the digital effects heavy scenes notably absent from the rest of the movie, which is largely just bland, slow character drama. Teen drama. Character drama around characters the movie never gets us to care about. And it mostly happens in grey, ruined apartment buildings (Battleship Island), with the constant sound of dripping water. You know there are issues when, during an emotional scene, Titans suddenly appear and brutally kill one of the characters, and the only thing you feel is joy that finally the Titans have shown up to put an end to the pointless drama scenes.
I was adamant I wouldn’t be the guy to get annoyed that they had changed things from the source material in this film. I never like to be that guy. In fact, I think changing this is great. Books and film are very different mediums. They require change most of the time. But it’s what you change, and why, that’s important. I find it hard to understand any of the changes they made here. In the best cases it’s mostly bizarre (having the Military Police dress in SS uniforms), or at the worst completely changes core elements of material, such as Levi’s absence. There are also more important, spoilerish changes. So, I will talk about them in this spoiler box:
Levi is effectively replaced by a new character, Shikishima. He’s like a jokey, ladkiller version of Levi, and that’s just weird. He’s in some kind of weird relationship with Mikasa, where he’s her mentor/implied lover, and there’s a really weird bit where they eat an apple together. Them getting together happened over the period where Eren and Armin were training, and they think Mikasa is dead. That’s because in the initial Titan attack, instead of the iconic scene where Eren watches his mother get eaten by a Titan, he instead sees Mikasa look like she’s about to get eaten before then being unable to see anymore.
This takes away a lot of the character’s core motivation from the source material. There is even a bit when someone asks Eren something along the lines of “why do you hate the Titans?” and the character seems to hesitate, almost as if when writing it they only just realised in that very moment that he no longer had a defined reason. This also isn’t a great change for Mikasa, who now seems a bit annoying because she seems to have some kind of beef against Eren for being presumed dead for some reason, and also is no longer as great a strong, independent badass as she was before, instead having to be a second-hand to Shikishima.
They also modernized the setting. So no horses. There are army-style trucks now instead, which makes the travelling seem a lot more impersonal. This is probably just so they could use the bland Battleship Island as a location on the cheap.
The changes are mostly just bizarre. Maybe they will serve more purpose in Part Two, teased as Attack on Titan: End of the World, but so far they don’t seem to have been changed for much of a good reason at all. Some of the key things that make Attack on Titan unique and popular are just gone, and it’s all make way for the teen drama. Somehow they even made Eren less likeable (perhaps even due to some of the changes). There’s even one bit where he is yelling to himself in self-pity, even though he is well aware that Titans are attracted to the noise of humans. And when somebody calls him out on that he gets all defensive and has a fight, and the movie makes it seem like we’re meant to be on his side.
I already mentioned about the scene where the character dies and you don’t feel anything for the death. That’s true with a lot of the deaths and “horror” in the film. It mostly lacks the impact and oomph that it does in the anime and manga. It’s not that there are none — there are some truly nasty bits — but for the most part it’s hard to feel much, with how over the top it is. It doesn’t help that there are some bizarre moments of slapstick humour, that when mixed in with the physical performances of the Titans, gets a bit muddled. There is one scene early on when citizens are trying to escape the Titans and are making their way through an alley, and they’re getting picked out and ripped apart. Obscene amount of body parts and goopy blood rains down on them as they run about screaming, but it just feels like all they did was get gunged, like it’s some kind of challenge on Takeshi’s Castle.
There is one new character for the film that I quite like called Sannagi, played by Satoru Matsuo. He is an ex-farmer recruit of the Survey Corps. He does have ODMG, but he mostly doesn’t use it, instead preferring to run around on the ground with a massive axe. He is a very competent fighter, which is nice as most of the recruits in the film spend their time running around not fighting (until the very end). He uses his axe to attack the feet of the Titans to make them fall over, and at one point even physically flips a Titan over his shoulder. It’s a bit silly how powerful he is. Along with the other “good” soldiers who can kill Titan effortlessly he makes all the others look ridiculously ineffective in comparison. But, compared to everyone else Sannagi is likeable, humble, and has a good heart. He doesn’t get much screen time. The film should have been about Sannagi. He says “I just want to go home and farm”. I have not seen Part Two, but I hope he gets his wish.