Q-taku is a new column by Rose where she discusses anime, manga and other parts of Japanese pop culture, and her take on it all as a queer feminist fan.
On March 21-23, I had a blast at Anime Boston, the largest anime convention in New England and one of the biggest on the East Coast. As usual, I went to plenty of panels about social issues in my favorite anime, took a lot of pictures of cosplayers, and spent far, far too much money in the Artist’s Alley and dealer’s room. But this wasn’t entirely a typical convention for me, because for once, I got to attend and cover one of the convention’s main events rather than just a small panel. I got to see the new English dub and voice actor Q&A for Attack on Titan!
If you spend any amount of time on Tumblr or other corners of the Internet where TV-loving geeks congregate, you’ve probably heard about this little show, currently the most popular anime on both sides of the Pacific. Attack on Titan has already amassed a huge following just from subtitled streams of its original Japanese version — long, long before it started getting dubbed into other languages. This survival-horror story about a group of tenacious teenagers fighting man-eating giants has taken the globe by storm. But why? What makes such an oddly-specific and brutal-sounding show so popular all over the world?
That all hung in the air during the premiere and Q&A session that followed. Anime Boston’s panel featured the actors for several of the main characters — Mike McFarland (ADR director, and voice actor for Jean Kirschstein), Josh Grelle (voice actor for Armin Arlert), Trina Nishimura (Mikasa Ackerman) and Matt Mercer (Captain Levi) — as well as the announcement of the actor, Bryce Papenbrook, playing main character Eren Yaeger, to the excited screams of hundreds of eager fans. Before getting to their comments, though, I’ll talk about why I love Attack on Titan, and why I’ve been planning for a long time on starting up my anime column with an article on this super-popular series.
Let’s start with some summary: Attack on Titan tells of a post-apocalyptic world where humanity has (literally) walled itself away from the threat of humongous, cannibalistic humanoids: the titular “titans.” Living near the outermost wall are feisty protagonist Eren Yaeger; his adoptive sister Mikasa Ackerman, the strongest fighter in town who keeps Eren out of trouble; and their geeky buddy Armin Arlert, who reads and dreams of the world beyond the walls. They live in relative peace until the wall is broken open by the gigantic Colossal Titan, and suddenly titans are threatening human territory for the first time in a century. Fast-forward a few episodes, and after Eren, Mikasa and Armin have lost their families and fled their district, they’re found training to fight titans as part of the state’s paramilitary force, along with a colorful cast of other teen cadets who each have their own unique personalities and motivations. Jean wants to join the Military Police so he can lead a comfortable life in the interior, free from harm; Sasha and Connie want to bring glory to their poor, starving villages; and cocky Ymir and kind-hearted Krista seem to have eyes and concerns only for each other.
I was relatively late on the Attack on Titan train, since the way it was discussed on the Internet — as a sort of anime Walking Dead — didn’t interest me much (I’ve never been hugely into survival horror). But I finally decided to at least check out the manga, the comics that served as the source for the anime, and which the first season (which wrapped up last summer) faithfully followed. And, like everyone else, I very quickly got hooked. I started watching the actual anime this winter, and even though I already knew everything that was going to happen, I still couldn’t look away. It’s even more engaging in living color.
The plot operates using the Arabian Nights formula: resolving one ongoing plot in the middle of an episode/chapter only to introduce a new one at the end, keeping viewers constantly hungry for more. Several of the voice actors, when asked about researching their roles, mentioned planning to watch one or two episodes at a time, and finding themselves marathoning it all night. But I don’t think the plot twists are the real reason the show is as popular as it is — as excited as I am to find out more about the true nature of titans and how much the Powers That Be know that they’re not telling our hero(in)es. It’s the characters, and their relationships with one another. And particularly, it’s the wide variety of female characters.
A lot of boy-centered fiction, I’ve found, gets extra credit simply for having non-useless women at all. I was apprehensive of all the “feminist” excitement for Attack on Titan going in, having heard the same people sing the praises of other shounen (teenage-boy-targeted) series whose women existed primarily in relation to men, or all had narrow, feminine-coded interests that usually afforded them less plot importance than the guys going off to fight. Luckily for me, though, Attack on Titan did not disappoint. The series has a wide variety of different women and girls who have as much diversity in their motivations and interests as the guys do, and who all contribute to the plot in meaningful ways. And all the important girls get to participate in the fighting. Many don’t get real development until the more recent manga chapters, but a few already make their marks in the anime material.
Take Mikasa, for instance, one of the three mains along with Eren and Armin. Mikasa was discovered by Eren when his father, a doctor, went to visit her family, and found her parents murdered and Mikasa kidnapped by sex traffickers. Eren went after the kidnappers, and helped inspire Mikasa to fight back herself. While she is psychologically dependent on Eren and her role as Eren and Armin’s protecter, Mikasa can more than hold her own — as both the most feared kid on the playground when they’re young (a group of boys bullying Armin only run away when they find out Mikasa is coming at them, not Eren), and the best of their Trainee group. She graduates at the top of their class and is immediately recognized as an elite fighting force by the heads of the various military branches. Though Mikasa has received some criticism from feminist corners of anime fandom for her motivation centering on Eren, I’m inclined to think she’s a pretty special character.
That said, plenty of Attack on Titan’s ladies aren’t motivated at all by guys — or even interested at all. The series actually has several queer female characters. Ymir and Krista Lenz are two girls who are heavily implied as being in love with each other, with Ymir even telling Krista, “When this is over, let’s get married!” Ymir is a tall freckled brunette who is boastful and has a mysterious, but checkered past, while Krista is a tiny blonde who is kind-hearted and innocent (at least, she seems that way), always looking out for others. While neither girl has had much focus in the part that the anime has adapted so far, both become very important to the plot and get significant backstories in the more recent manga chapters. The fact that they’re such a respectful portrayal of lesbians in a boy-oriented story — as Ymir and Krista are neither fetishized nor reduced to their sexualities — has garnered Attack on Titan a lot of praise from queer anime fans.
As has Hange Zoe, a titan-obsessed scientist who, so far, doesn’t have a canonical gender. Hange appears female in the anime and was voiced by women in both Japanese and English (although their Japanese actor, Romi Park, is famed for playing male as well as female roles, most notably Edward Elric in Fullmetal Alchemist). However, manga creator Hajime Isayama has refused to confirm Hange’s gender when fans have asked, and requested that the English translation stop using female pronouns consistently with them. Rounding out the women in the cast are Annie Leonhart, a quiet, stand-offish girl who becomes extremely important to the story in the most recent arc of the anime, and Sasha Braus, a goofy girl who obsesses over food due to coming from a poor village.
Regarding the dub premiere itself, I should start out by saying I’m a very “pro-dub” anime fan (I like to watch them when they’re good, especially for European-influenced series like Attack on Titan). Even so, the premiere managed to exceed my expectations. Bryce Pappenbrook struck just the right balance between “realistic adolescent boy” and anime exaggeration, in his portrayal of Eren. Nishimura played Mikasa a little higher-pitched and more huggable than she was in the original Japanese, but still conveyed her stoic determination well. My favorite of the main cast, though, was Josh Grelle as Armin, a character I’d originally thought was the type of teen boy character best portrayed by a female voice actor. But Grelle was perfect, conveying Armin’s odd combination of both wide-eyed innocence and calculating logic to a tee. The casting choices overall frequently deviated from what the Japanese would suggest; among the supporting cast, Levi was much lower and Hange much higher-pitched than they were played in the original. But they all still captured the essences of their characters, so it’s hard for anyone other than purists to complain. Overall, I liked all the casting choices, and I’m excited to watch more of the dub.
After the screening, the voice actors took questions from the audience. There was plenty about why Attack on Titan was so popular all over the world, with Mike McFarland answering that it was closer to Western dramas like Game of Thrones than anime in its brutality, and how it was “relentless in its risk taking.”Josh Grelle said it was because it was a really “well-told” story, that was artistically-interesting and had great music.
Yet, of course, the conversation turned toward the characters, the core of Attack on Titan. McFarland said that he liked playing Jean because he thought Jean was the “closest to the average person” in the Attack on Titan world, focused on self-preservation and staying safe, and “attacking bravery with sarcasm”. Nishimura had a lot to say about her character Mikasa, and how she thought the female characters of Attack on Titan were part of its mass appeal. She liked that a female character was “stronger than the other characters” and showed that the stereotype of “pretty weak girls” in anime “was changing.” She talked about her teenage goddaughter, and how she was proud that Mikasa was a girl she could admire.
That gets at the real reason that people should check out Attack on Titan: underneath all the gore and plot twists, it’s a very personal story, about many extremely different people struggling against an impossible world, and against each other. And a lot of those interesting characters are women, a few of them even queer women.
If you’re interested, you’re in luck: the English dub will be premiering on Cartoon Network’s Toonami bloc on May 3rd at 11:30 pm EST! You can also pre-order the DVD release (dropping in June) from Funimation.com or from Amazon. If you just can’t wait, you can find it streaming in Japanese with English subtitles on both Crunchyroll and Funimation. You can also check out the manga, of which there are currently 11 volumes out in the U.S. plus some prequels and silly extras. There is also a five-volume “Colossal Edition” of the manga getting released next month.
Even if you find yourself put-off by survival horror, like I usually am, Attack on Titan has something for everyone, especially for people who’ve never watched an anime ever. If you want to know what all the kids on Tumblr are chatting about, now is the perfect time — before it gets another season!