Attack of the 50ft Whatever
First things first: spoilers for Episode 1 of Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan). If you intend to watch it but haven’t…well, you really should. Like, now. Go on, we’ll wait.
…Nah, we’re not going to wait. Heh, we totally tricked them. Don’t worry, they’ll catch up. On with the content. We’re not actually going to start with talking about Shingeki no Kyojin. We will eventually; this post is supposed to be about how the first episode of Shingeki no Kyojin effectively portrays terror, after all. Not really very high level stuff, but it’s worth talking about. Let us start with a bit about monsters in general.
‘[Artist and designer H.R. Giger] mandated that the creature have no eyes, because he felt that it made them much more frightening if you could not tell they were looking at you.’ – Alien Evolution, Alien Quadrilogy Box Set
Yes, I did crib both the picture and quote from Wikipedia. But the lack of face and eye contact demonstrates one of the tenants of monster design: inhumanity. Part of the reason why the titular Alien was such a successful monster was because it was just that: alien and foreign, triggering our fear of the unknown. I’m sure there’s plenty of literature on this subject, but since we’re an anime blog, let’s consult anime. I’d like to cite Kara no Kyoukai (both anime movie by UFOtable and novel), where Aozaki Touko the puppeteer lists three handy traits of terrifying monsters:
I couldn’t get a good cap of her eldritch monstrosity, so have a kitty.
1. It cannot speak
2. It cannot be identified
3. It cannot die
That’s all pretty simple to understand. The dehumanisation is what separates a monster from a villain. Monsters do not values, do not have character, and cannot be empathised with. Their unnegotiable malevolence coupled with grotesque aesthetics are designed to hit the scream switches that form the basis of many classic horror flicks.
Shingeki no Kyojin, however, does not necessarily aim for horror. It is about mankind’s struggle against an oppressive foe. Still, the first episode peddles heavily in fear, though less in the audience and more as part of the general atmosphere of its world. Remember how we were talking about monster design just now? The titular ‘kyojin’ (giants) are the resident monsters. Let’s have a closer look at them.
‘I tried to find the doorbell. Really.’
After all that fuss about monsters being inhuman, here we have a very human-looking kind of monster. Other than its complete lack of skin, of course. Shingeki no Kyojin is doing a fine balancing act here; Humans are supposed to fight and kill these beings eventually, but for now they are purely objects of terror. How do they make the kyojin monstrous? Mostly by juxtaposing them with actual humans.
Some of you may have heard of the ‘uncanny valley’, but I’ll summarise it in the most basic way. Humans tend to look for human qualities to things: consider the way Pixar can anthropomorphise anything and a colon and parenthesis makes a smiley face :). However, when an object gets too close to looking human our brains switch over to emphasising the qualities that detract from that object’s humanity. Zombies are the classic example.
This is why there’s no movie about the teddy bear apocalypse. But there’s probably an anime.
Frankly speaking, the skinless Colossal Titan is probably the least disturbing of all the kyojin we are shown. I mean, look at these guys from the OP.
Admittedly these are more for the creep factor than anything else.
Viewers can tell straight away that they aren’t human. Of course, that’s not enough. There’s also a great deal emphasis on their sheer strength and impossible size:
Smell-o-vision was never a good idea anyway.
I was going to add a cap of a woman being blown away by a shockwave, but the still made it look like she was doing hula hoops.
The kyojin completely dwarf the walled town. Walls are symbolic of civilisation overcoming the wild; put a wall around your settlement to keep the wolves out and now you’ve got a village. In Shingeki no Kyojin, the wild crushes the safe illusion of civilisation. Notice how all the kyojin are invariably naked and barbaric.
Oh right, and they also eat you.
‘They’re eating her! Then they’re going to eat me!’
Shingeki no Kyojin slow-rolls the devouring, both evoking images of cannibalism and also triggering a very deep fear which mankind has forgotten. In the modern world, humans are the apex predators, no contest. In Shingeki no Kyojin, they sit under the kyojin. Notice the focus on teeth:
All the better to eat you with, my dear.
The kyojin are sharks. In contrast, for the humans the emphasis is on the eyes.
The eyes have it. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself)
Eyes are the windows to the soul (again, designers are always playing with eyes) but all that is reflected in these ones are fear. Everything else has been subsumed by the primal fear of prey cornered by a predator. There’s a great scene of Hannes, the professional soldier dashing off determined to heroically sacrifice himself to buy some time. Even he is stopped cold.
Also good use of silence in this scene (inter alia). All the dramatic choral music just dies.
This is not a hotblooded action show. There is no question of morality or duty or testosterone. Fighting was not even a conceivable option. It was all flight response.
Mankind will eventually follow the premise of the story and learn more about the kyojin and tentatively start a counterattack. For episode 1, however, the kyojin are a force of nature with lots of teeth. Humans are insignificant. All developments from this point are tinted by that lens. At least they never pretended that it was going to be a happy show.