‘Attack on Titan’ Was a Generation-Defining Hit — We May Never See Another Like It

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“Attack on Titan” debuted in 2013, but its so-called “Final Season” has been premiering episodes on Hulu since late 2020. Now, the hugely popular anime based on Hajime Isayama’s manga has finally come to an end after almost 100 episodes — including a highly anticipated feature-length finale that crashed Crunchyroll servers the moment it dropped on November 4.

The finale, titled “Attack on Titan Final Season: The Final Chapters, Special 2,” brings to a close a story that bears little resemblance to the series that began a decade ago. The story of Eren, a young boy who saw his mother killed by monstrous Titans that plague the last remnants of humanity evolved into a complex tale of war and hatred. The world was much larger than we initially thought, the threats more human and nuanced. Victims became aggressors, and friends were forced to fight one another or let humanity be destroyed. Just as “Attack on Titan” ended in a very different place compared to where it began, so is the anime industry much different now than in 2013. In many ways, this is arguably the staple anime of the 2010s.

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When Hajime Isayama first published “Attack on Titan” in 2009, it was part of Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine, owned by then-financially struggling publisher Kodansha. Isayama has talked in the past about how he constantly feared the manga would get canceled, but after the anime adaptation started airing, all concerns disappeared. Kodansha reported their first increase in sales in 18 years, and a pop culture phenomenon was born. Quickly, the story was everywhere. When the anime premiered on Toonami, it was an immediate hit, becoming the most-watched show on the programming block and attracting audiences comparable with mainstream American cartoons like “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons.” As Toonami co-creator Jason DeMarco told Bloomberg, “That’s about as mainstream as anime can get in the U.S.”

Looking back, “Attack on Titan” premiered at just the right moment to become such a monumental hit. For one, the anime came out right at the height of modern audiences’ obsession with zombies. “The Walking Dead” was in its third season, and the video game game-changer “The Last of Us” came out just a few months after the anime premiered. Although not strictly a zombie story, the speechless, mindless Titans that brought humanity to its knees struck a chord with fans of the zombie apocalypse genre. What’s more, it offered a different take on the post-apocalyptic setting. Rather than small groups of survivors that mistrust everyone they meet, the characters in “Attack on Titan” live in a society that normalized living in fear of Titans, with many people never even seeing one — until they finally do.

The other big comparison that helped sell “Attack on Titan” to mainstream audiences was “Game of Thrones.” The adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic became the most talked-about TV show of the 2010s due to its dark fantasy setting full of blood and gore and its many, many character deaths. Likewise, “Attack on Titan” offered a dark fantasy setting with political intrigue, plenty of blood and gore, and so many deaths that the core cast of characters doesn’t really form until late in Season 2 — because everyone else dies by that point. The anime even seemingly killed its main character in Episode 5. “Attack on Titan” started airing its anime adaptation right as “Game of Thrones” was on its third season — the one with “The Red Wedding” — and offered a nice piece of complementary programming.

"Attack on Titan"
“Attack on Titan”Crunchyroll

Perhaps more importantly, the show could actually reach a Western audience as it aired in Japan, thanks to the biggest innovation in the anime industry of the 2010s simulcast. After the ‘90s saw the rise of anime as lucrative franchises in the West, the late ‘00s saw the rise of streaming websites like Funimation and Crunchyroll, which didn’t wait a year or longer to air dubbed versions of anime. When Crunchyroll began streaming the first season of “Attack on Titan,” it did so only a week after its Japanese premiere. Anyone could watch “Attack on Titan,” and everyone seemingly did.

Things are different now that “Attack on Titan” is over. The zombie genre is nowhere near as prominent as it was (despite multiple spin-offs of “The Walking Dead), and “Game of Thrones” became a benchmark for bad endings. The anime industry also changed drastically. For one, there are many more shows airing any given season than when “Attack on Titan” premiered, making it hard for anything to break out, let alone become as big a cultural phenomenon. Even those that do become hugely popular, like “Demon Slayer” and “Jujutsu Kaisen,” haven’t quite reached the same level of popularity in the West as “Attack on Titan.”

With “Attack on Titan” over, the search for the next breakout anime monster hit rages on, with streamers investing heavily in not just anime but bloody, ambitious blockbuster productions. Netflix has “Baki” and “Devilman Crybaby,” as well as the latest release from the “Black Clover” franchise. Disney+/Hulu have “Bleach,” and even Prime Video briefly had the similarly bleak and violent “Vinland Saga.”

But there is no next “Attack on Titan” because not even “Attack on Titan” ended as it once was. This anime has always been dark. It has always stared down at the worst of humanity, but in its final season, the story became much more ambitious in scope and morality. It dared audiences to turn against heroes they’d followed for years and root for villains, to wonder whether genocide could ever be justified. All this as the show approached a true apocalypse with some of the bleakest and most gruesome imagery in a modern anime this side of the hyper-violent OVAs of the ‘80s.

And yet, there’s something deeply cathartic about “Attack on Titan” delivering a finale that is both full of exciting set pieces and pessimistic viewpoints on humanity. The 85-minute finale presents blockbuster-levels of cinematic thrills as the surviving characters race against the clock to stop Eren from killing all of humanity while making it clear that the cycle of violence that set them on that path never really ends. Except, as the episode makes clear, there are always moments of joy amidst even the worst horrors. That the final season, the tonal turning point for “Attack on Titan,” came out at the start of a global pandemic and is ending in the middle of an international humanitarian crisis may be a coincidence, but perfectly fits the pessimistic yet hopeful tone of the story. There’s never been a better time to watch “Attack on Titan.”

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