Attack on Titan is more than just the best anime of the year; it's the best TV show of the year, period.
Looking at IMDB's top-rated TV episodes of all time (with at least 1,000 ratings), it might be surprising to find the number one spot is held by an anime series. After all, while anime has certainly become much more mainstream over the past few years, few franchises outside of Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z appreciate similar name recognition as Game of Thrones, let alone anywhere near the same level of critical analysis. But sure enough, Attack on Titan Season 3, Episode 17: "Hero" is currently sitting at #1 with a 9.9 rating, right above Game of Thrones' Season 6 finale. Moreover, Attack on Titan has another episode in the top ten and three more in the top 50, which is interspersed with acclaimed shows like Breaking Bad and The West Wing.
None of this is to say that IMDB's TV show rankings are some sort of universal truth–for instance, the algorithm doesn't seem to weigh differences in the actual number of votes (GOT's #2 spot has 123,000 votes while "Hero" only has 13,000). Even so, any show that can inspire viewers to turn out in such numbers is at least worthy of a closer look, and in this particular case the fans are absolutely right. Attack on Titan is a masterpiece, and if you enjoy dark fantasy or even just great fiction, you owe it to yourself to watch.
Attack on Titan Manga Volume 1©Hajime Isayama/KODANSHA LTD
Currently in its third season, Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin in Japanese) premiered in 2014, taking the anime community by storm before going on a three year hiatus until 2017. Adapted from Hajime Isayama's manga of the same name, the series takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where the only surviving humans live within the confines of a walled city. Outside the walls, horrific creatures called Titans–giant humanoid monsters that consume humans without reason–roam free. The story follows three friends–Eren, Mikasa, and Armin–whose town and families get destroyed by two seemingly intelligent Titans, the "Colossal Titan" and the "Armored Titan," who breach the walls. This tragedy leads them to join the Scout Regiment, an army of elite human soldiers dead set on taking the world back from the Titans.
Narratively, Attack on Titan differs from many other shonen series (anime/manga aimed at a young male audience) in that it doesn't revolve around characters getting stronger or achieving a lofty dream through battle and friendship. Rather, Attack on Titan revolves around the brutal realities of war, rife with themes of death, loss, duty, and perseverance. The show's first season establishes the dystopian world and the core mysteries surrounding the origin of the Titans. The second season expands upon these mysteries as humanity mounts their first major foray into Titan-controlled territory.
But while the first two seasons of Attack on Titan are incredibly compelling, Season 3 transcends all expectations, taking the show in unexpected new directions without ever losing sight of its thematic core: humanity's capacity to push onwards, even against unbeatable odds.
***SPOILERS THROUGH AOT SEASON 3, EPISODE 17: "HERO" AND GAME OF THRONES AHEAD***
Armin Arlert©Hajime Isayama/KODANSHA LTD
One of the most impressive elements of Attack on Titan is how it doesn't shy away from the nearly insurmountable odds set up against its protagonists. Unlike similarly "dangerous" fantasy series–say, Game of Thrones, which conceived a brutal world at the onset (famously executing Ned Stark at the end of Season 1) but then decked out all its main characters in loads of plot armor–AOT's heroes perform every action in a constant state of risk. Main characters can and do die, sometimes unceremoniously.
The latter half of Season 3 revolves around humanity's greatest all-out advancement against the Titans. By this point in the show, we've discovered that the mystery surrounding Titans is much deeper than we possibly could have imagined. Certain people have the capacity to turn into special, intelligent Titans, amongst them Eren and three of the Scout's former allies who turned out to be spies.
The Scouts' mission revolves around leading their army to Shiganshina District–Eren, Mikasa, and Armin's home town which was destroyed and overrun by Titans during their childhood–in order to reach Eren's basement, which potentially houses the secret behind Titans. Upon arrival, they find the town void of Titans and realize they've been set up for an ambush by their former allies. Nearly the entirety of their forces is destroyed, and the survivors stand against truly insane odds in a seemingly inescapable death trap.
Inside the town, Eren, Mikasa, Armin, and their tiny squad stand as the only survivors against the Colossal Titan and the Armored Titan. Even with his Titan powers, Eren is barely a match for the Armored Titan, let alone the Colossal Titan. Outside the wall, the Scouts' top brass–Commander Erwin and Captain Levi–are the only experienced soldiers left, trapped behind a row of buildings with a terrified platoon of new recruits as the last line of protection for all the horses necessary to their escape. Meanwhile, the Beast Titan–an intelligent Titan with the ability to control other Titans–is systematically leveling their cover. Both groups seem to have two options: wait and die, or try to do something and die.
Beast Titan©Hajime Isayama/KODANSHA LTD
It's the kind of overly bleak scenario that seems ripe for a deus ex machina. Game of Thrones did exactly that with the Battle of Winterfell, a scenario that seemed similar on the surface with the heroes fighting against the seemingly invincible, undead forces of the Night King. It's incredibly hard to come up with a believable way for heroes to win against impossible odds, especially without killing any main characters, so Game of Thrones took the easy way out and had a character essentially teleport. It made no sense, and it essentially ruined what could have been the greatest victory of the series, but good battle tactics are very difficult to write.
This is where Attack on Titan outshines every other show ever, in all of television history. Captain Erwin and Armin, both tacticians in their own rights, realize the gravitas of their situations. They devise plans that are believable because they account for great casualties, including their own. They understand their actions very likely mean death, and they grapple with the fact that their deaths mean that their goals and desires can never be fulfilled. And then they carry out their plans based on information that was there all along. There is no deus ex machina, no ass-pull victory. Their plans succeed with massive casualties, and main characters whom we care deeply about lose their lives. As in war, victory comes at immeasurable cost.Attack on Titan manages to blend intense action and suspenseful mystery with believable character growth. It tells a deeply thematic story with some of the most emotional gut punches ever seen on screen. It will keep you on the edge of your seat, cheering one moment and sobbing the next. Attack on Titan proves that anime can not only be just as good as any other form of media; it can be much, much better. So even if you don't watch anime, give Attack on Titan a shot. It's more than just the best show of 2019, more than just better than Game of Thrones. Attack on Titan is a masterpiece, and if you enjoy great fiction you owe it to yourself to watch.