Of the various pleasures of Japanese cinema, for me one of the greatest is to see stuff on screen that is absolutely 100 percent crazy. Not pseudo-Lynchian surrealism, necessarily, but images that are the logical endpoint of a plot that gets nuttier and nuttier as it goes along. To wit, in Attack On Titan: Part 1, there is a scene where the hero, Eren, after having held open the mouth of an enormous monster, and pulled his friend Armin out of it, gets chomped on (losing an arm), slides down the creature's throat, and ends up inside its stomach. There, floating in its stomach acid, he comes across a previously eaten friend, a girl he was just about to make it with when the monster swallowed her up. She's dead, and he, down two limbs and drowning in acid, from within this monster's belly, screams that he will kill them all.
A more than reasonable amount of this sequence is done in practical sets: the giant teeth the hero holds up, the huge tongue that Armin clings to, the throat Eren slides down and the pool of acid with his floating almost-girlfriend are not CGI creations. Sure, they look a little bit like hyped-up sets from Double Dare (a reference which shows my age, I know) but damned if the audacity of the concept and execution aren't remarkable to behold. It's crazy, and when Attack On Titan is crazy I love it.
It doesn't look as polished as a Hollywood version would have. Different cultures have different standards for entertainment, and they create product to scratch different cultural itches. This is a feature, not a bug, of international cinema. A Japanese enormous action movie does not, and should not look like, or play like, an American enormous action movie. For one thing, Hollywood is the only place in the world that spends a quarter billion dollars on making a movie. Attack On Titan: The Movies: Parts 1 & 2, made for probably a tenth as much (I could not find a solid number for these films' budget) does not look like hundreds of millions have been spent on it, and often that's all for the good.
Attack On Titan, based on a manga and the anime that followed it, takes place in a far-flung future where, as far as the protagonists know, all of mankind exists in a small corner of the world, hidden behind three concentric walls (shades of The Wall from Game of Thrones) that protect them from the menace of the titans outside. Eren, Armin, and the pretty, pouty Mikasa are three friends living in a town right along the outermost wall. Eren longs to venture outside the walls, Armin flirts with building inventions, which is strictly illegal since all technical progress is heavily regulated by the government that lives inside the inner walls. Mikasa... looks pretty, and obviously has a crush on Eren (Mikasa's initial inertness is one of the places where the movies radically depart from the anime).
One day, when dreaming their dreams and wandering illegally close to the wall, the unthinkable happens - a titan, bigger than any they have ever heard of, its head higher than the highest wall, smashes a hole in the wall and lets the smaller titans in.
This leads to a bravura section of horror-action that is alone probably worth the price of admission to the first film. The titans, some just a dozen feet tall, others bigger than the tallest buildings, are masterpieces of weird design, because they look mostly human. And that's all they are, giant naked Japanese people with makeup to make them look a little weird: no nipples or genitalia, and mouths that split their faces open. And boy do they love eating people. They pick up soldiers, children, mothers, rampage through town, and giggle and laugh as they rip them in half, spraying blood over the horrified on-lookers.
This attack sequence lasts a long time, goes from horror to horror, and ends up splitting Eren and Mikasa up for two years.
In those two years, Eren, sworn to revenge, has joined the army and trains in using the three-dimensional maneuver gear that is the only thing capable of placing soldiers in the position to do any real damage to rampaging titans. These are wildly implausible devices that shoot anchors into buildings and, in essence, allow our heroes to fly.
In camp, the wild tonal shifts that are familiar to anyone who watches a lot of Japanese commercial cinema begin to become prevalent. After the visceral horror of the titan invasion, one of the first new characters we're introduced to is Hange, the female army technical expert who gets wrapped up in her own cloak, misfires her 3d gear, and shrieks or screams almost all of her lines. She's actually an amusing character (besides being cute as a button) - in Part 2, when she and her team are surrounded by men with pre-titan machine guns aiming right for them, she screams, and runs toward the guns - she's never seen such cool weapons!
She, and most of the other soldiers are basically cartoon characters brought into live action, all defined by a single exagerrated trait. This is a little odd since the movies make a very concerted effort to differentiate themselves from the anime on which they are based. I have not seen the entire anime series, but I watched enough to take in the setting and get the flavor of the story. The anime, and presumably the manga it was based on, takes place in one of those pseudo-medieval European settings that a lot of anime seem to make home. The characters tend to have Germanic surnames, and there are a lot of blondes. Attack on Titan: The Movies are very specifically set in Japan, with Japanese characters and Japanese titans (a sequence in the second movie shows century old footage of titan attacks in different countries, with ethnically specific monsters for different regions.) The scuttlebutt from fans of the anime is that the differences in the movies are infuriating for the built-in audience.
I'm not concerned with that. I don't see the point in doing the same story the same way three different times. Where the anime has the advantage is in visual continuity - everything is animated in an animated series, so you don't have the distinct discontinuity of hyper-realistic scenes one shot, followed by a shot of actors obviously on green screens, or being pulled in ways that physics would not allow.
These visual discontinuities are prevalent in the movies, which, from what I could gather in the credits (which were untranslated) used a huge number of effects houses to put them together. Despite that, overall I actually found the result to be really impressive. They don't attempt the hyper-realism of Hollywood effects, and I think that often works to the movies' advantage. Particularly with the revelation at the end of the first movie and throughout the second of the, shall I say, special titans, where the story transforms from a military monster movie into an all-out Ultraman-style kaiju brawl, Attack On Titan just looks crazy. The special titans never look particularly real, but they have such a style to their design that I never once felt like I would in, say, a Transformers movie, where there is so much horrible junk whizzing by the screen that I can never tell what the hell is going on. It may lack polish, it may lack perfection. But Attack On Titan: The Movies wins hands down on style and out and out crazy.
Attack On Titan The Movies is being released in the United States in a limited theatrical engagement. As of this writing (10/20), the chance to see the first movie has already passed, and the second will be playing at special theaters on 10/20, 10/22, and 10/27. The problem this poses is that the second movie is not a standalone affair. Most of the scenes I've described in this review come from the first film, because it functions as the first half of the complete story - the second movie is all pay off for the set-up of the first. While there's a short "Previously On" clip that plays at the beginning of the movie, it is hard to imagine being engaged in the film without having seen the first half.
That does not mean there's not a lot of crazy visuals, radical plot twists and fun action to keep an audience interested. But these two films are really one piece, and while I wouldn't watch the second without having seen the first, I also can't imagine why you'd skip the second if the first kept your interest. If you're just an anime fan who wants to see a familiar story filmed with live people, Attack On Titan: The Movies might disappoint. For a Japanese movie fan who can appreciate and understand that mode of filmmaking, with wild overacting, jarring tonal shifts and plenty of stuff that is in the movie just to look cool, Attack on Titan: The Movies is a virtual feast of crazy.