Tools of the Imagination — Attack on Titan

Attack On Titan
Produced by Wit Studio and Production IG, released 2013, available on Crunchyroll

Spider-Man meets Ultraman, but set in the past

Attack on Titan is a newcomer to the anime scene here in the US.  It’s been making the rounds online and has been growing in popularity ever since, largely thanks to the anime’s vivid depiction of rather graphic violence.

There’s no way to avoid saying this, so here it is: Attack On Titan is really quite bad.  Fans and proponents will champion it, to be sure, but it just doesn’t help that the show suffers from crippling pacing problems and a humongous cast of truly forgettable character that all look alike.  Many fans will find themselves gravitating towards certain characters simply because they visually stand out.  All of this is a shame because the premise is a promising one.

Sometime in the future past no one knows, a set of giant stone walls were constructed for humanity by ‘the gods’ to protect them from strange gigantic humanoid monsters called ‘Titans’ that eat humans.  The show opens with a gianter-than-usual Titan appearing literally out of thin air and kicking down the gate of the outer-most wall, and then disappearing again.

Our main hero, Eren Yeager, watches his mother be eaten by a Titan and pledges to wipe them off the face of the earth by joining the multipronged defense force tasked with defending, understanding, and/or killing them, depending on which episode of the story you’re watching.

The main gimmick of the show is that the characters in the defense force swing on gas-powered grappling hooks, a la Spider-Man and his webs.  It’s a neat idea that would provide some unique action sequences if the show had any real action sequences.  Which it doesn’t.  Despite a baffling reliance on swords to take down gigantic humans, the show sports staggeringly few really engaging fight sequences and seems to spend all its energy on a few ‘movement shots’ of characters swinging between buildings.

I would expound further on the plot but after 15 episodes currently available online, there still doesn’t seem to be much of one.


Story – 2 out of 5
The premise of Attack On Titan is a promising one, with the origins of the Titans and the perimeter walls quite intriguing.  Likewise, there are hints of a power struggle and classism between the different populations inside each of the walls.  Also, there appears to be a power struggle between the different branches of the defense corps tasked with protecting the city, and also with the new version of the Church.  There’s also a mystery involving Eren’s father, who seems poised to have answered every question in the world before the series opens.
Regrettably, none of this gets expounded on because the show has more pacing problems than Dragon Ball Z.  When the plot is progressed, it doesn’t so much as move smoothly as lurch unevenly.  Huge periods of time will be traversed within five minutes in the middle of an episode, including days and even years passing in a matter of seconds thank to flashbacks and montages, while dozens of minutes each episode will be wasted as characters we don’t know and likely haven’t even seen anymore argue about what it means to be humans in the face of the Titans, often while the Titans are bearing down on them.  The amount of wasted time in this show is truly staggering.
Worst of all is how staggeringly nonsensical the world is.  The people of the walled cities have only permanent cannons like those you’d find in the 1600s, but they also have gas-powered grappling hooks that are light enough to be worn on the legs.  They lack any level of advanced metallurgy yet have disposable blades for their swords.  They have flowing water into and out of their walled cities, yet the cities are completely cut off from the rest of the world that is allegedly crawling with Titans.
The Titans themselves are enigmatic.  They do not need to eat or breathe, yet exist solely to devour humans.  They have unique shapes and faces and seem to smile often.  Some attempts to explain Titans are made and it seems that there’s a very interesting story behind them, but it is exposed so slowly, when the tiniest detail is shared, it’s almost always in isolation, leaving it as a non sequitur and put to the viewer to piece together the truth.  If details were shared with any regularity, it might feel more like an engaging mystery, but the drastic gaps of time between learning any detail about the Titans makes it feel more like a story editor went through after the primary writer and tried to work in something more interesting.

Art – 2 out of 5
The art is fairly awful.  Most of the characters look uniform and uninspired.  Multiple groups of characters look identical to one another.  The only reason you can spot Eren in a crowd is because he’s usually the one scowling.  Most characters are purely interchangeable (even across gender lines) and given a single characteristic or quirk in an effort to make their lack of personality less noticeable.
Worse, still, is the inconsistency of the art.  Backgrounds are all perfectly fine, but the characters are drawn with garish and distractingly heavy linework that makes them seem excessively two-dimensional.  The anatomy of the characters is often compromised by the heavy linework, which is very strange given that the Titans themselves are drawn with uncomfortable realism.  It’s as if two (or more) artists are feuding over the less talented of the two being given the better job.

Animation – 3 out of 5
If there’s one saving grace to the show (aside from its premise), it’s that it has some very good sequences involving the swinging implements.  Once or twice per episode, there’s a really nicely animated sequence, whether it’s swinging between irrationally huge cities for a medieval society or just a Titan running.  Sadly, the animation is rarely uniform.  The swinging sequence in one episode will be vastly better in one episode compared to the next.  One episode’s Titan’s sprint will look fluid and photorealistic while the next episode’s will look jerky and uneven.  The lack of animation consistency keeps this score from being anything more than mediocre.

Characters – 1 out of 5
The characters are almost nonexistent.  Eren and Mikasa and others are put in the center of the story, but they’re given very little emotional range and narrative opportunities.  The story is clogged with unnecessary characters who exist to do nothing but be, and sometimes to not be.  Characters introduced and killed in the span of a single episode are often staggeringly one-sided and yet are still more dynamic than the main characters.  There are no really complex characters in the show; everybody is clearly good or clearly evil.  The attempt to present a complex character found well into the show’s teen-numbered episodes are laughable at best.

Acting – 2 out of 5
It feels unfair to judge the acting because the scripts are so bad.  Listening to the Japanese dub, the actors did a fine job, but what they were saying wasn’t worth listening to.

Overall – 2 out of 5
This show is bad.  It’s not overwhelmingly terrible, but it just isn’t worth sitting through.  There is a manga series that may potentially be vastly better, but the animated series of Attack On Titan feels more like a very poor rough draft than a finished product and seems amateurishly done on almost every front.  The show is still running, however, (episode 15 is the most recent episode available at the time of this writing) so perhaps it gets better.  But if the show doesn’t ‘get good’ until the late teens, that almost by definition qualifies it as a bad show.

DC Films

Warner Bros Films have announced a Batman/Superman movie, to lead into their now-delayed Justice League movie.  This comes off the heels of the extremely lukewarm reception to Man of Steel.  Rumors abound just what Warner Bros/DC has in mind for this film, but very little is set.  Much of this uncertainty seems to stem from DC’s inability to put together a decent comic book-based movie.  Even the much-lauded Dark Knight Trilogy’s success wasn’t due to its comic book-ness but its uncomic book-ness.  In many ways, it hasn’t been since Batman Returns that DC’s put out a true comic book movie that was, well, good.  Attempts like Catwoman and Green Lantern are synonymous with abject cinema failure and even partial successes like Batman Forever and Superman Returns have been grudgingly received.

This is especially strange because DC has a near-perfect record with animated works.  DC’s direct-to-video animated films are the stuff of legend.  Pretty much everything from Batman the Animated Series forward has been highly acclaimed by critic and fan alike.  And while animation and live-action are not interchangeable, the two are closer than either are with comics.  And yet, despite having a vast reservoir of animated resources to work from, DC (or at least Warner Bros) seems determined to start from scratch with the live-action movies.

From a fan’s perspective, this seems to speak to a lack of confidence in their animation department’s storytelling abilities, which doesn’t make sense.  Their DVD releases are eagerly awaited and are almost universally well-received.  So why are DC and/or Warner Bros so hesitant to look for inspiration there?  A perfect roadmap has been laid out.  Cast properly and, with the appropriate special effects, one could almost make a live-action remake scene-by-scene and be in the running for a great film.  And yet, they avoid this goldmine.  It just doesn’t make sense.

Tools of the Imagination — Excalibur

Excalibur MK-VI
by Matchbox, released 1992

Robotech’s B-Squad

The Excalibur, also known as the Tomahawk (or the Archer for you Battletech fans out there), is a little-seen non-transformable mecha in the Robotech franchise.  While it saw very little attention from the Robotech toyline in the mid-80s, it was resurrected when Matchbox continued the Exosquad line.
Within Robotech, the Excalibur is part of a mecha series known as the Destroids.  They’re giant mecha with tremendous firepower, but without the ability to transform like their more famous and more recognizable brethren, the Veritech fighters.  Destroids play a pretty small role in the Robotech animated series, usually making only token appearances that last for a few seconds at a time.  Nevertheless, their fandom grew by leaps and bounds with the release of the Robotech RPG by Palladium books.  Since then, many an anime and mecha fan have wanted to have more than just the flimsy imported Japanese models to play with.

It’s not entirely clear how or why Robotech and Exosquad crossed paths.  As none of the Destroids (or anything involving Robotech) appear in the Exosquad show, there’s no narrative explanation for how the two were supposed to be related, aside from very vague talk in interviews about ‘crossovers’.  Going off of the general premises, the two stories take place in different universes with different timelines and different technologies, so that remains a mystery.  The fans are generally pretty okay with this because the end result was that we got some cool Destroids to play with.
Appearance – 2 out of 5
The Excalibur, like the other Destroids in the collection, is pretty unremarkable.  A total of four colors were used to paint the figure and in places were great detail was required, the paintjob falls a bit short upon inspection.  There isn’t a whole lot of texture to the figure, but there’s enough to do the job.  Where the figure does stand out is that this is a picture-perfect representation of the mecha shown in the show, the RPG, and in the occasional comic book.

Construction – 2 out of 5
The Excalibur is just shy of being cheap.  The plastic isn’t brittle but it’s hardly sturdy, nor is it particularly weighty.  The joints are very simple, while rivets and seams in the plastic are quite obvious if you look.  The joints do not have uniform strength, which is frustrating because that means one arm may stay in position while the other will fall unless held up.

Movement – 3 out of 5
It’s a little tricky to score this figure’s movement.  On the one hand, the joints have pretty simple and they generally have limited ranges of motion.  On the other hand, so did the mecha that the figure represents.  With the exception of the missing knee joints, this toy is capable of no movement that the inspiration itself was not.  And while the lack of knee joints would be a big deal, the inclusion of toe joints pretty much off-sets it.

Extras – 1 out of 5
There is nothing extra to this toy.  Not a thing.  No guns light up, no missiles fire, nothing.  The closest thing to an extra is the missile pods that open to reveal tooth-like missiles that cannot fire or be removed (these opening missile pods are a feature shared with only one other Destroid figure in the line).  This is incredibly disappointing because the Robotech universe is replete with little additions that could be thrown in.  The usual things like missiles and light-up guns aside, there’s always miniature vehicles like planes or tanks that would help establish some scale.  While it might be somewhat sacrilegious to some to suggest crossing over into the realm of Battletech (which “borrowed” many mecha designs from Robotech), an option might have been to have interchangeable weaponry and armaments.

Packaging – 2 out of 5
The packaging for this toy was absolutely nothing remarkable.  The figure was covered with plastic and that’s it.  The backboard of the packaging was not unique to each figure and offered only the most basic of explanation of the story of Robotech, Exosquad, or how they were connected.  The only thing that saved the packaging from being completely uninspired was the color scheme (unique to toy packaging at the time) and the fact that the figure was protected from damage.

Overall – 2 out of 5
It seems a shame to give this toy such a low grade because it is fun to play with.  Part of that may be the Robotech fan in me talking, but part of it is the simple pleasure of having an honest-to-goodness mecha toy released to US audiences.  This isn’t a vehicle for a figure to ride in, it isn’t a sentient robot character, it’s a giant robot toy.  And part of me is overjoyed just to see that kind of presence on the toy shelves.  But at the end of the day, the Excalibur property is simply too rich to deserve such a second-rate figure.  There’s too much that could have been done with this figure that wasn’t and that’s a real shame.

Novel Work

I just now (literally, a few moments ago), submitted my third novel to Haven Publishing to begin the editing process.  Said novel, tentatively called RocKaiju (though very likely to change titles), will most likely see publication this winter, maybe in time for Christmas.

“But wait a minute, Robert” I hear you saying because I have really good hearing “what happened to Rhest for the Wicked?”
Good question!

The answer, unfortunately, is complex, frustrating, and involves ogres.  Yes, the kind that live under bridges and eat billy goats.  Yes, I know the story says its a troll.  It wasn’t.  It was an ogre.  It was made into a troll thanks to Gnome racism.  But that’s neither here nor there.

Rhest for the Wicked is still coming.  It’s still on its way.  Haven is a new publishing house and I am (until Rhest), a mostly underground author.  Combine these two factors together and large companies are hesitant to dive right in.  The delays have been mostly at the corporate level, with company A double-checking everything company B did, prompting company B to return the favor.  Lots of little delays that have added up quickly.

But they’re finally smoothing themselves out.  Rhest for the Wicked will be on store shelves soon, potentially as early as this week.  Once I have links, I will go link-o-riffic, don’t worry.

So stay tuned.  🙂

Tools of the Imagination — Alec DeLeon

Exosquad Alec DeLeon
by Playmate Toys, released 1993

Exosquad: Mecha’s Unsung Hero

In a genre overrun with the newest Transformers, Robotech, and Gundam series, it’s easy to overlook some of the less-successful franchises that still managed to deliver beautiful work.  One such example is the Exosquad series which delivered some truly fantastic toys to go along with their excellent – though sadly oft-forgotten – animated series.
The Exosquad Franchise has generally been little more than a footnote in the annals of animation and mecha history.  The story is about a war between planets and between humans and their artificially-created offshoot, the Neosapiens.  The story is set in the future when Venus and Mars have been colonized with the help of powered suits called E-Frames.

The story of ExoSquad drew heavily from classic sci-fi, including the works Issac Asmov, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein.  While it certainly had its stylistic and near-superheroic qualities, this series was far more rooted in real and believable science than many of its sci-fi brethren on TV in the early to mid-1990s.  Sadly, Exosquad didn’t survive past one season and has more or less disappeared from the collective consciousness.  All that remains, aside from a few VHS tapes on eBay, are some very fine toys that managed to do a whole lot right.  For the purposes of our discussion, we’ll be talking about the series’ Alec DeLeon.
Appearance – 4 out of 5
The E-Frames and the figures they came packaged with were pretty standard fare for toys of the day, though the figures were slightly smaller.  The 3” figures were about as mobile as the ubiquitous 3.5” GI Joe figures they were clearly patterned after and equally detailed, though a bit on the stylized side (read: cartoony).  The E-Frames themselves were colorful and had some noteworthy detail.

Construction – 2 out of 5
Unlike their appearance, the E-Frames and their figures were just on this side of cheaply made.  The plastic looks sturdier than it turns out to be once you’ve got the packaging open and the figures’ paintjobs often left something to be desired (paint that should stop at the joint would continue across it; etc).  Bolts, screws, and seams were quite visible on most of the toys.
It’s worth noting that the E-Frames had handles that were absent from the show (as the vehicles were completely enclosed in the show).  Getting the character to hold these handles is quite a chore and is one of the major drawbacks of these toys.

Movement – 5 out of 5
While the human characters were fairly mobile and flexible, the E-Frames were a little on the stiff side.  This would be more of a problem except that the figures can easily fit into the E-Frames and its mobility is completely unaffected.  The E-Frames, rather than have strictly linear joints for the shoulders, actually have ball joints, allowing them a great amount of arm mobility.  The leg joints are limited but with hip, knee, and ankle joints to the legs, the limited range is hardly a big deal.  As such, it is this trait that makes this combination toy really stand out against many of its peers.

Extras – 5 out of 5
The Exosquad toys really are remarkable because of what they came with.  Rather than just a figure or a vehicle, you got both, as well as two weapons for the figure (a pistol-sized weapon and a rifle-sized weapon), along with the assorted missiles for the E-frame.  This really was a fantastic deal because you were for all intents and purposes getting an entire playset with each figure.  On top of that, most of the E-frames had one or more little features (the Alec DeLeon model had a rotating communication disc, a detachable data terminal, and ammo belt).  All these little extras added up quickly to make these some engaging toys.

Packaging – 5 out of 5
The packaging for the ExoSquad toys were unique to each figure (making finding in the toy store which figures were available all the easier), with not only the individual’s face and E-Frame on the front, but also a character bio and mecha statistics on the back along with an overview of the story.  Inside, you had a bio card, stickers, and a guide to the toy.  The package itself was also a solid rectangle with a lifting flap that revealed the figure inside.  This really was some of the best toy packaging that’s been produced.

Overall – 5 out of 5
A superb toy that has sadly been somewhat forgotten by the industry, the Exosquad toys were really stellar and some of the best toys made in the 1990s.  These toys were really fantastic and they set a great bar for future toys to live up to (which few did).  So until the action-figure-packaged-with-a-mech industry picks up the clues, we’ll have to just remember fondly of the days when these toys graced the shelves.