Live Action Attack on Titan and how not to approach an adaptation


Ach ja, I finally watched the two Live Action Attack on Titan movies. I say “finally”, but it was actually more morbid curiosity, sprung from my recent exposure of the I Am A Hero adaptation, as well as the original Godzilla movie and Shin Godzilla, rather than genuine interest that led me to give them a go. I rarely agree with the anime community at large on the specific problems of Live Action adaptations of anime and manga, so I wanted to see for myself, why these two movies are so poorly received, which basically led me to a problem common in other Live Action adaptions I have seen.

Before that, however. let’s talk about one specific aspect of adaptations first: Should the story be changed? And I am not just talking about obvious things that have to be changed due to the nature of the different mediums. Should the structure and beat to beat moments of the plot be changed? Should characters be changed? Should the ending be changed? Initially, I was like no, why should it? and I am still partially of that opinion. After all, I want to see XYZ, just in another medium. On the other hand, what is the value of simply recreating a story in another medium, especially if there is the opportunity to change aspects of the original story? Especially considering the Live Action “adaptations” of anime and manga I have seen, I am pretty content with viewing them as simply an alternate version to the original, rather than an attempt to recreate them. Not quite like a Spin-Off, just similar… different… yet also very much still connected to the spirit and soul of the original.

Also as a quick side note, I don’t think it leads to a productive discussion about Live Action movies based on anime and manga to only focus on how “good” it was adapted from the original. Kind of how a movie should be able to stand on its own, I also consider it paramount that a movie should be simply good first and please any other aspects second. You can have a shot for shot recreation of something, but if it turns out bad, it will still suck either way. So without further ado, let’s talk about the Live Action Attack on Titan movies. Spoilers ahead!

Live Action AoT is a very different AoT compared to the manga and anime adaptation. Sure, superficially, a lot of things look and play out similarly: Humanity lives inside walls, until the titans breach them, Eren and friends join the military to retake the walls and a conspiracy about the nature of this world arises. However, the changes that do occur result in a completely different view of the story and change all thematic takeaways of the original, which is, at the very least, more interesting than a simple retelling of the first three story arcs. Too bad that the movies are pretty bad.

It is, however, very interesting in the specific ways they are bad, which are mainly adapting Attack on Titan in the first place, with what I could only describe as having little to no understanding of the original manga and recreating specific moments in a story that should have been its own different movie. So let’s just go through the movies, note their changes and pick at whatever caught my interest.

The movie starts with a narration of how things came to be, which basically summarizes AoT’s premise; the existence of titans and that humanity retreated behind three massive walls. We get an entire establishing scene of the Shiganshina Monzen District and how everything seems to be a bit more modern than the original manga with machines and even motorized vehicles. It also looks very nice, though the movie eventually reduces this new aesthetic to bland soviet-style brutalist concrete buildings and a lack of color. We learn that Eren got fired from another job and Armin and Mikasa eventually find him on top of a bomb.

Bomb

Honestly, at this point in time, I was absolutely invested in this version of Attack on Titan. Beyond being a phenomenal image, even in a more technologically advanced setting, this bomb feels like an incredible alien objects and a remnant hinting at what might have actually happened before humanity retreated behind the walls. From there on, the movie keeps up for a couple more moments. Eren, Mikasa and Armin try to reach the wall, which is actually separated via a military zone. Other subtle hints, like all the canons pointing inwards, give off the impression that the walls are being protected from the humans, instead of the opposite. This is some grade A world-building which actually comes close to the original manga, if only thematically.

Unfortunately, it all falls down from there. One might have noticed that Eren is still wearing a certain red scarf, despite it being the “present”. This is because the inciting incident that would later form the basis for Eren and Mikasa’s relationship didn’t happen. He still gives her the scarf, though… because she is cold… How in god’s name do you fuck up this aspect of the characters so bad and spit it in the face at the same time? This is what I meant by it being a worse movie by actually adapting AoT. This is one of many direct parallels to the original story that simply do not work du to the changes and many cuts that had to be done. In the manga, Eren giving Mikasa the scarf was his way of consoling her after her parents were murdered and the both of them killing their assailants. This little act would later spiral into Mikasa protecting Eren from almost any threat and her reluctance to view Eren for what he really is. Here, it is simply Eren being a semi-decent boyfriend (It is hinted that they are a bit closer than just friends).

Anyway, the three get caught by the military, Hannes Souda gets them out of trouble and the colossal titan does its thing. Noted, on their way to the wall, Armin bumped into a mysterious cloaked figure. The movie actually does a pretty good job with foreshadowing multiple plot points, so it got at least something going for it on a narrative level. The wall is breached and titans swarm the inner wall. The titans look… fine, I guess. All the CGI is clearly not up to Hollywood standards, but I wsh they would have stylized the titans more, as most of them simply look like huge naked humans, while especially the anime gives each titan a certain unique visual appeal. I also don’t quite like how the titans act. They really dive more into the horror angle with the titans growling and chuckling, stomping over each other (For a good time, more titans were killed by other titans than humans) and being seemingly more interested in actually eating the human body parts, rather than simply consuming the living for unknown reasons. I actually like the more down-to-earth portrayal in the manga and anime, as the titans were simply scary, without giving them additional attributes to make them actively “scary” and for my taste, kinda silly and less threatening.

Everyone flees from the titans and what follows is a scene that, while painfully generic, could work on its own and even has a slightly altered parallel in the original story. A lot of people try to save themselves in the inside of a house and eventually locking down the door to prevent more people from getting inside, leaving Mikasa, who tried to save a woman and her child, outside. While Eren tries to unlock the door, a titan approaches… and kills Mikasa. Finally opening the door, Eren escapes the house, which was thereupon squashed by other titans. Beyond being heavy-handed, this scene is supposed to give Eren his motivation to take revenge on all titans, but falls completely flat. Beyond missing as strong a presentation as the anime, it misses the weight of that incident by him not directly seeing it (keep that in mind), not creating this clear hate on one specific titan, that would later come back in a rather ironic way, him being relatively well composed, all things considered, and it being directly followed by the titans crushing everyone in the house. Eren doesn’t feel like he has a grudge against the titans the entire movie, which steals him from one of the only few personality traits he encompasses in the early parts of AoT. You may hate early Eren for being overly hot-headed, but seeing him take up arms first after everyone is paralyzed by the sudden return of the colossal titan is way more character than we will ever see from Live Action Eren.

2 years later, skipping all training and the selection process for which branch of the military to enroll, we see the new scout regiment prior to their deployment to close the hole in the wall. Talking about the production for a bit again, I am surprised how good the uniforms and the ODM-gear look. Meanwhile, the uniforms of the garrison and military police look way more openly… fascist?.. which is actually a plot point to come… kinda… It is also a shame that the movie never commented on the wings of freedom or the actual idea and philosophy behind the survey corps (or why some wings are red). Anyway, we get our introduction for the extended cast of the movie: Kubal, who is basically the commander of all military, Hange Hans, who is a delight every scene they get with their over the top reactions, Jean, who in this mess of a movie still keeps his crown as the best character in the franchise, Sasha, who was basically reduced to “Potato Girl”, though she gets a bow and Sannagi, who is Connie, except not… he also uses a huge axe to bring down titans later in the movie, which is actually pretty cool. Oh, and Armin survived… not sure how, or maybe I couldn’t distinguish between him and Eren’s actor, but here he is.

Military

There are also a couple of new characters, whom I don’t know the names of, because a lot are never openly stated – not even from the more important characters – and most of them don’t have anything going for them, with the exception of this one woman joining the military to get child support. It is also a shame that we don’t get to see them training and bonding together, as this will make most of the deaths pretty unmemorable and we don’t get to see our first glimpses as to how the military is kinda sus. Also, no Reiner, Berthold, Annie, Ymir, Christa and Marco, meaning a lot of character development for the existing characters will be gone, mostly affecting Eren and Jean.

The actual operation is a mix out of the Battle of Trost and the Exterior Scouting Mission, though with way less interesting methods of approaching and or dealing with the titans. I actually like the strategy involved in fighting the titans in what is essentially no man’s land. The movies kinda dodge most of these challenges by incorporating more modern equipment like APC’s… which in hindsight are even worse than horses, now that I think about it? This is a running theme in these movies. More often than not, it handles similar situations in just less interesting ways than the original. Well, it goes as expected and on their way to Monzen, the corps gets ambushed by titans (Including a Titan Baby?) and is eventually saved by not only Levi Shikishima, but also Mikasa.

So, I didn’t really believe that Mikasa was actually dead for even a second. Classic rule of cinema. If the death is not explicitly shown, they are alive. Now, the reemergence of Mikasa might bring up some questions: Firstly, how? Not just in the literal way of her surviving being bitten by a titan, but also why is she there? She trained under Shikishima and became the badass we know from the anime and manga, however, unlike Eren, this Mikasa never expressed any sentiment towards joining the military or even caring about the outside world or something similar that could have led her to join. In fact, why is she so chill when she sees Eren after two years of what might have been her believing him to be dead? Also, great job of not letting her blindly follow Eren in this iteration and instead letting her blindly follow another guy. Get rid of all the smaller details of the manga and suddenly you can see just how shallow a character Mikasa really is.

They also mess up another aspect concerning Mikasa, which is her “The world is cruel and merciless, but also very beautiful”-attitude, which in this movie is reduced to simply “The world is a cruel place”, making her appear way too edgy and again I have to ask whether the writers actually understood this line in the manga or not. It is a common theme, especially later in the manga that life is still very much worth living, no matter the circumstances or how special one might be. The manga believes that there is still hope, while the movie simply acknowledges the misery. And I tell you, one has a lot more stuff to ponder about than the other.

Then there is Shikishima. I mean it completely unironic when I say that he is a great character and exactly what these two movies needed. While obviously being the replacement for Levi, he doesn’t really have a lot in common with him and is instead a fully realized original character, which is already better than most of the movie itself, but he is also just a lot of fun with a phenomenal screen presence and he absolutely dominates every scene he is in. He just sits in the shadow, while Eren tries to make up with Mikasa, eats an apple, monologues about how “the real enemy of humanity is peace” and then leaves without elaborating. King. Like, of course he is just checking of item after item on his villain To-Do list, but every moment gave this stale movie some fresh momentum. He also has this weird possessiveness about Mikasa and just straight up kisses her in front of Eren. NTR? In my Attack on Titan? It’s more likely than you think!

NTR

The story continues by further titan attacks, an unknown saboteur tries to steal the transporter with the explosives, but is stopped by one girl that crashes the the truck into a horde of titans to revenge her fallen boyfriend and we finally get our ODM-gear action sequence. To be frank, it does look passable, but not necessarily good by any measure. The Live Action movie also drastically dials up the splatter and even goes so far as to break the fourth wall by letting blood splatter on the camera. I am not a fan of excessive blood, mostly because it looks goofy and does not have the affect of making something appear more brutal to me and rather prefer more tactful approaches, like the later parts of the manga. We then lead into the rest of the Trost arc with a lot of people dying, Eren saving Armin, him being eaten and later returning as a titan. The movie has an obvious disadvantage of not being granted the run time of keeping Eren out of the picture for too long. It certainly plants more doubts into the readers head, when the main character doesn’t appear for several chapters, instead of him dying and this weird new titan appearing only a few moments later and even robbing the surprise by letting him emerge out of the titan that ate Eren. It also steals Mikasa of the time to process his death, though in this version, she didn’t seem to care that much and instead just blindly went berserk against the titans and ran out of gas just because. Seriously, this girl has no personality.

It is also rather funny how several characters guess that this new titan is Eren. I mean, sure Souda may think so, because he knows something other people do not, but Mikasa nearly getting crushed by him and only responding wth “Eren?” is just not believable anymore after everything the movie established. Well they are correct either way and cut out Eren from the disintegrating titan. Meanwhile, Shikishima just stands menacingly on a rooftop and bites into another apple, while delivering a “Be careful when you fight a monster, lest you become one” line, which might actually be some good foreshadowing. This whole sequence is actually fine, all things considered. It’s basically straight from the manga, thus so much is to be expected with much of the impact and delivery falling flat due to the constraints of the movie. I am also confused whether Eren’s Titan was fully CG or at least partially done via practical effects. I mean, the director, Shinji Higuchi, is a Tokusatsu guy after all. All the special titans visibly look different from the normal titans and it is rather uncanny for my taste. Well, this ends the first movie.

The second movie, after a quick recap, starts with Eren’s father injecting Eren with some sort of liquid, before being raided by the military police. Souda helps Eren escape, while his father and mother are apparently killed and the police burns down the house, including a plethora of supposedly banned books. One important details is Grisha mentioning that the drug was already tested on Eren’s older brother, which made me think “Wait, Zeke wasn’t revealed as Eren’s brother yet at the time the movie came out… what?” Secondly, we finally get another glimpse into the more human-centric conflict of the world. The thing about Eren’s brother would probably had me hyped in 2015, but it is also some of the more interesting new ideas brought to the table by the movie. I genuinely think that these two movies are at their strongest when they make Attack on Titan their own, instead of being limited by it source material. It is here that the story begins to deviate more and more from the manga.

The next scene is again a mixture of several moments, this one being the court trial and the middle of the Trost arc. It is essentially a watered down discussion about the nature of Eren, whether he is human or titan and how humanity, or specifically the military, is supposed to deal with him. This scene and its initial ending actually work well in the context of its own movie, but hinders itself again by taking too much influence from the manga. Armin’s attempt to persuade the military fall flat, as in this version there is no boulder to seal up a hole with or a Mikasa that is willing to kill everyone in close vicinity if Eren is hurt. What I really like is Souda actually getting a chance to speak and defend Eren and then quickly being killed by Kubal (Guy in charge of the military), further hinting that he has more stakes in this mission and Eren’s survival, than he might led on.

I am also just in love with how this entire scene is staged. The impromptu trial being held on what seems to be a run down playground with Eren being chained to a broken slide, the sun illuminating half the room while casting the other half in shadow and all the characters positioned circular in front of Eren? This is simply *chef’s kiss*. These two movies are clearly competently directed and could very much pass as their own, wouldn’t it be so clearly Attack on Titan, while also feeling foreign to it at the same time. Neither manga nor anime feel very post-apocalyptic in their presentation and I doubt most people would describe AoT as more of a sci-fi story than fantasy or a historical drama. The world of AoT has a sense of order to it, as if the titans are only one of many problems this setting faces, instead of being overrun by it. It looks amazing, but there is this constant weird disconnect that makes it feel less like Attack on Titan.

Set

Anyway, before Eren can be shot, the armored titan grabs him, covers Kubal under several layers of debris and flees the scene. I was actually surprised to see the armored titan appear at all, not only because Reiner and Berthold are not in this movie, but also because the movie now has to handle the concept of titan shifters. Well, it does and much more. While the remaining members of the mission go on their way to Monzen, Eren wakes up in a strange room and this is the moment the movie finally goes completely of the rails (in a good way?). If you would have told me that this image is from Attack on Titan and not literally anything else, I would have called you a liar, but alas, it is.

Room

Eren is, justifiably, quite perplexed by this situation but fear not, for Shikishima is with him and holding a stupid looking glass and a bottle of wine in both hands, ready to give the biggest exposition dump imaginable. I didn’t even mind. The performance of Shikishima was quite captivating and visually it is very engaging and kinda reminded me of Evangelion. So, here are all the answers one might have asked themselves over the last two hours: The titans are a military experiment gone wrong, eventually turning humans into titans via some kind of virus. This all happened in what should be the present day world and the military just lost against the titans with humanity eventually closing themselves off into the walls. This also explains the bomb at the beginning of the first movie, as well as the helicopter wreckages on the wall… and the fully automatic machine guns and RPG’s… wild.

There is just one tiny little thing I want to comment on: It’s fucking stupid! Ignoring how generic this reveal is, reminding me of several YA books, you are telling me that modern military couldn’t handle titans, but were able to build the walls? I mean, sure, fine, but this reveal is very unsatisfying and not holding a candle to the reveal of the manga, most importantly making it a problem that is out of the characters ability to handle or solve. Shikishima leaves the room with Eren, revealing it to be build under the wall and thus confirming that the government and higher-ups in the military know about it all. Shikishima introduces Eren to the remaining members of the initial survey corps, who where thought to have died in their last mission and whose members stole the trucks with the explosives in the last movie. They also look like the image of what comes to your mind when you hear the word “Taliban”… what a way to introduce what are supposed to be literal fighters of freedom. Of course they are the good guys… Together, they make their way to Monzen.

After the other characters finally bond for the first time and the movie tries to establish a romance between Armin and Sasha, they dig out the bomb until they meet up with Shikishima, Eren and the other scouts. This is where Shikishima reveals his grand plan: Instead of plugging the hole, they want to create two more. While never actually shown to any extend beyond the two direct instances, the government seems to be quite bad for the normal populace, taking control over the stream of information, limiting child birth, and so on, which is actually very on-brand for AoT. Shikishima wants to overthrow the government… by swarming the inside of the walls with titans.

So, ignoring some minor problems, like everyone dying, why is this a thing? The survey corps overthrowing the government turned out to be a plot point in the manga, but not like this. It all comes down to the lackluster introduction of the different branches of the military, the general lack of shown influence by the government and a great oversight in taking such drastic measures. The movie builds upon the idea that fixing the hole and reaching the outside of the walls is what would solve the conflict introduced so far and now, 3/4 into the story, it introduces a new conflict that essentially overwrites the old one that will still lead to actions concerning the first. This movie essentially becomes a weird amalgamation of several ideas, with the new ones not being bad in themselves, but timed unfortunate, when the initial villain still has yet to make their proper appearance.

I will talk about this later, but the goal to take down the government and enact change is very much what I would want to be there, when I see a take on Attack on Titan, but it should come at a later stage, not inside of what is basically the beginning of the resolution for the inciting moment in the first movie and story arc. Sure, fix the hole and see what lies beyond the walls, but make it clear that not everything is resolved and tackle this point later on. Dealing with the government is clearly not going to be done, as it currently stands directly opposed to plugging the hole, so… don’t just yet and maybe think about another way to handle the coup than sacrificing every human being in the walls on the way. Well, Shikishima beats the ever-loving shit out of Eren and Sannagi, using brute strength and determination, brings down a nearby tower, destroying the explosives and killing the survey corps members and allows the gang to flee with the bomb.

Also, Shikishima is the armored titan (the transformation is sick af). Just gonna leave that here… which also kinda implies him being Eren’s brother… also, Mikasa apparently knew?.. This is what I meant by it not making a lot of sense talking about whether it is a good adaptation or whatever, when the movie takes a sudden nosedive into the “not being good”-territory. Everyone fights Titan Shikishima and Eren cuts him down in his titan form by using a helicopter blade. They then plant the bomb, until Kubal emerges from atop the wall, only missing a sarcastic slow clap to complete his bad guy entrance. You know how I knew Mikasa wasn’t really dead, because she wasn’t shown dying? Kubal was completely crushed under debris and the armored titan and while a later shot showed him with only his upper half covered, this guy was dead! The surviving soldiers later build a grave for their fallen comrades so I assumed they would have retrieved his corpse, but no… they just left him there and now he is back with a vengeance and some ideological monologue to back it all up.

It’s actually quite nice to see both “villains” stand in direct contrast with each other. Shikishima wants to get rid of the walls and considers peace an enemy to humanity, freeing them in the process from a corrupt government, while Kubal advocates for the people’s need of the walls and the current power structure, because not even a common enemy like the titans could unite humanity. Too bad that both of those ideologies can’t be really supported by neither the viewer or the other characters, as the simple solution is to just get rid of the questionable government AND the titans and the walls altogether. This is eventually how the first part of the manga ended and it tied everything up in a nice little bow with further conflict to come. The movie also displays the lack of agency of the the main characters, as it now boils down to not let the crazy people do their plan… great.

So, Sasha just fills Kubal with arrows and surprise surprise, he is the colossal titan. I think both the reveal of the armored and colossal titan are fine. The movie doesn’t lean that much into the mystery surrounding the titans, so having two seemingly random people be the titans are fine with me… it just plays out very different to the manga, which is kinda a shame, but the characters of Reiner and Berthold aren’t even in this movie, so who cares. The final fight begins, the detonator didn’t work and Eren can’t slash the nape of the colossal titan, so Shukishima pulls a “The enemy of my enemy is still an enemy” and lodges the bomb into the colossal titan, killing both and filling the hole with debris from the wall. One important detail is that Jean dies in a pretty unremarkable death. Sannagi at least died while sacrificing himself and helping the others flee, but Jean was simply squashed like a fly, without adding anything… Why do you do my boy so dirty? He still has an entire character arc in front oh him!

Well, the day is saved, the hole is closed and the big bad government guy, as well as the genocidal guy died, ending two conflicts with one stone. Eren and Mikasa climb up the wall and we finally see what lies beyond. Roll Credits!

Outside

Again, the idea of the ocean as this symbol of finally reaching freedom falls relatively flat, compared to the manga. Also, having an eagle be the bird to relate Eren to instead of the wild geese kinda loses its meaning. Wasn’t the point that even prey can achieve more freedom than him? Anyway, I think that this moment of finally seeing the outside world doesn’t seem to mean that much to Eren. He didn’t have to sacrifice that much and he was more contempt with being inside the walls than manga Eren. It also leaves the ending with a lot a baggage to be discussed. The government still wants to keep the outside world a secret, there are still titans roaming in and outside the walls and what about the true nature of this world? We know what happened, but what is the plan going forward? The movie clearly leaves a lot of room to be covered by a potential sequel, especially with the ominous post-credit scene that shows Eren and Mikasa being observed by someone and calling the events “interesting” and that “two subjects escaped the test zone”. Seriously, this is Maze Runners all over again! Let’s see how the Hollywood production will fare… yep, this one is in the works.

Superficially, the appeal of Attack on Titan are the titans, but here is the thing: Attack on Titan is not about the titans! Which begs the question, if one wants to make an Attack on Titan movie, what should it be about? What is it that makes Attack on Titan… well… Attack on Titan and I think this movie is a good showcase in how to severely undermine what makes certain moments in the manga work, how to simply copy them into another story doesn’t and can even deflect from itself. In its core, AoT is a story about human conflict and taking away all the titans wouldn’t change one bit of it. However, take away the titans in this movie and what are you left with? A bit of social commentary, characters dying before completing their arc and a plot that is barely able to stand on its own. There is a decent movie in here… just not an Attack on Titan one.

It is this critical misunderstanding of what makes the original source material itself. This is something I have not only seen in these two Attack on Titan movies, but other Live Action movies like Ghost in the Shell and I Am A Hero, which seem to lack the grasp of what made the original good and so beloved in the first place. On the other hand, there are movies like Netflix’s Death Note that, while not being a great movie, at least gets parts of what made Death Note and is able to successfully incorporate it into its own movie.

Coming back to Attack on Titan, I seriously doubt that portraying any part of AoT’s story in only the span of a single, or in this case two, movies is possible. Attack on Titan is simply to interconnected and big as to just cherry pick individual moments, though I am still open to see people try. As its several spin-offs have shown, the world of AoT can still be expanded upon and maybe I would have been fine if they tried to forego adapting parts of the original manga and instead created a new experience that still feels like the Attack on Titan we know.

Attack on Titan - Film 1 is available on Amazon via Amazon Prime.


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