This article contains spoilers for Attack on Titan season 4 part 2.
A lot of anime series leave a mark on the industry, but Attack on Titan has been at the forefront of the medium for nearly a decade ever since it first made its debut in 2013. The daring anime has featured disturbing massacres and gripping body horror that sometimes feels as if David Cronenberg is in charge of the designs for a kaiju series.
Attack on Titan‘s rich themes and unbelievable serialized storytelling have perpetually kept audiences on the edge of their seats. Now, in the second-half of the anime’s final season, everything comes together in an explosive collision that may not leave anyone left alive. Every episode from Attack on Titan‘s final season surpasses expectations in new ways and the anime is destined to go out with its most daring episodes and as an all-time classic.
Bryce Papenbrook (Eren Jaeger), Trina Nishimura (Mikasa Ackerman), and Mike McFarland (Jean Kirstein, as well as the series’ ADR director) spoke with Den of Geek and got candid on the evolution of their characters and the series, if Eren Jaeger is really a hero, and their reactions to the surprising twists and turns from Attack on Titan’s final season as they say farewell to this foundational piece of anime history.
DEN OF GEEK: It’s a big deal when any show reaches its conclusion, but what has it been like to see these characters get pushed so far since the beginning of the series?
BRYCE PAPENBROOK: The show started off so intense and I feel like every season the intensity has built and built and built, leading up to this point. Both Trina and I don’t know how the show ends. Mike has read ahead and knows exactly what’s going on so that he can steer the ship in the right way. It’s exciting though to see it all come to a head like this.
TRINA NISHIMURA: It’s been a bittersweet experience. These characters have been a part of our lives for so long. Attack on Titan holds a very special place in my heart. I met Bryce through Attack on Titan. I had never worked with him before, and this was even his first Funimation property he worked on—or the first one you auditioned for?
BP: Yep! Both.
TN: I’ve got to meet so many incredible people from Attack on Titan. I’ve gotten to work with so many talented individuals, engineers, and obviously Mike McFarland, the director. But it’s an ending, so it’s bittersweet. I don’t know where it’s going, but I’m excited—and slightly terrified—to find out. I’m sad it’s ending!
DEN OF GEEK: Mike, there must be a lot of pressure on building the proper tone and voice for a series’ English dub and figuring out the right casting. What’s been the most challenging part of that process and is there any extra pressure to do these final episodes justice?
MIKE MCFARLAND: As far as the responsibility, I hold each character’s individual performance, the overall storytelling, all of those things are a great responsibility to me. As such, I want to be able to have fandoms from all over the world to be able to meet together with interpreters who can get excited about the show, talk about their favorite moments and lines from the show, and have nothing lost in translation or adaptation. Everyone has seen the same thing. That’s really important to me. The creator’s vision—the mangaka’s vision—gets exhibited to the audience from the get-go.
Capturing the emotional context for character and scene, and the right voice and tone for each scene and character, are always on my mind before heading into anything. It helps the storytelling for an English-speaking audience.
DEN OF GEEK: Attack on Titan contains incredible action sequences, but this anime also tackles such lofty themes. Has it been rewarding to be a part of a series that has so much to say about humanity, war, and these evergreen ideas?
MM: There are definitely a lot of big themes. It does the same thing that I think people, in general, do. What I mean is that when the show starts off its world is smaller and all that you know are your immediate surroundings. And as you grow up—or in this case, get deeper through the seasons—you understand that the world is way bigger. It’s not nearly as simple or as black and white as you thought it was. Then, when you think you have that under control, the world turns out to be even bigger than that. There’s layer after layer after layer of the possibilities of what the world has to offer.
What this does to the storytelling is that it explores that idea, but there’s also lots of socio-economic material, gender roles, and so much that it continues to bring into its storytelling to make you think everything through again. You might understand a character’s motivation in one episode and then a few episodes later they’re a total mystery to you or you’ve completely turned on them. It makes you think of those things with the nature of its storytelling.
BP: The grey areas that surround certain characters’ motivations—are they right or not—it has such a way of pulling you in and wanting to see more. I found, as a viewer, that I get to the end of an episode and then I just want to watch one more…and then another…and another. Then the sun comes up and you’re like, “What have I done?” Also just having weekly releases is so exciting and helpful. It makes me feel like I would when I was younger and I’d be watching shows, they’d end, and then I’d just be counting down the days until I could get the next piece of that puzzle. There’s that building excitement. That’s how I felt when I discovered Attack on Titan during season one when it was first airing in Japan, and this final season I’ve felt the same way.
DEN OF GEEK: Bryce, Eren is in a very different place from where he begins in the series. What has it been like to witness this change in the character and are you able to empathize with him and still view him as a hero, or are you horrified with the path that he’s been pushed down?
BP: The change to the character, as an actor, has been extremely interesting to do. We had no idea that was coming and Eren is so drastically different to where he was in the show’s first three seasons. Recreating that character after living with him for so long was so fun, interesting, and I love playing this new version of Eren. It’s just so dark and terrifying. He’s making these decisions and moving his plan forward, and unlike in the first three seasons he’s actually thinking about consequences.
He’s not just reacting. He’s truly working towards a plan with an intricate strategy. The fact that it’s Eren who is doing it makes it terrifying. So I’m not sure where I fall. It’s looking darker and darker, but I’m still pulling for Eren and hoping that there’s something there beyond the surface of what he’s saying that could win me back into his corner. I don’t know, these are really dark things that he’s putting into action, but that’s what Attack on Titan explores!
The show is all about those kinds of moments and how you can get behind someone who’s done something that’s potentially so horrific to the world. And yet, I’m still not sure and I’m still pulling for him. I think it’s just because I love this character and I—me, Bryce—want to see him doing something positive. I look at the bright side of things, but I don’t think that’s Eren. The exciting thing is the discovery as we move forward. I’m trying to savor every moment that we have left with the show while we’re still working on it. Once it’s complete and we do know the ending, I can’t wait to go back to the beginning and live the entire story again.
DEN OF GEEK: I think one of the biggest sequences from the entire series is when Gabi shoots off Eren’s head. Bryce, what was it like watching that scene play out for the first time?
BP: “Anddddd unemployed.” That was my reaction. There’s no job security in Attack on Titan. So many characters have been killed, and killed for real. Eren has found a way to come back from moments where it didn’t look like survival was likely. He has this viciousness and drive that’s kept him going, but when I saw that scene I truly thought that there’s no coming back from that. It’ll be flashbacks from here on out. The series makes you think that, and it’s done it more than once. In fact, episode five is the moment that the story really sucked me in. For a lot of characters it’s truly over when something like that happens to them. But yes, that scene in particular, I really, truly felt like it was the end of my performance as Eren.
DEN OF GEEK: It’s a crazy moment! Trina, Mikasa also heads down a fascinating path in these final episodes. Talk a little about her journey across these episodes and how she forges ahead without Eren, but still in support of him on some level.
TN: Mikasa has grown tremendously, as all of the characters have, throughout the course of the show. Her primary drive from the jump has always been to protect her adopted family—ie. Eren and Armin—and her feelings towards them change, but they’re always based in love and that adopted family mentality. As real humans change, her feelings have changed, and as Eren has changed—no pun intended—her feelings towards him have changed as well. She’s very vulnerable and traumatized in the moment where she’s given the scarf. She just went through some horrific and awful, but it also activated this deeper power in her that’s helped her to self-actualize.
So receiving the scarf, forming that bond, and heading through the seasons with this symbolic accessory that she puts down and picks back up as her relationship with Eren changes and morphs is so interesting. The scarf and her connection to that particular piece of clothing has also changed. So she’s put it down and walked away from it, but she also goes back to find it. It’s complex! It’s an evolving process, but hopefully Mikasa makes it through the series with all of her accessories intact.
DEN OF GEEK: Attack on Titan’s OVA episodes that are set earlier in the series’ run were recently released. Are you looking forward to getting a chance to play these earlier and less burdened versions of the characters again after things have gotten so heavy in the series?
BP: We also recorded Attack on Titan: Junior High after we did the first season! Season one was so incredibly intense, so to go from that to this odd show where our characters are doing wacky things allowed us to breathe a little bit more. I think those OVAs will allow for that, too. They definitely aren’t as intense as where the story is right now, so it is great to return to this younger and different version of Eren.
MM: It’s fun to return to visit that world with these characters at that age and be like, “Look at all of these babies!” Episode five hasn’t even happened yet! Look at all of these babies!
TN: That’s how I look at it. “Oh, there’s baby Mikasa! She hasn’t had enough trauma yet! It’s okay, honey. It’s coming.”
DEN OF GEEK: Do you all have a favorite moment for your characters from over the course of the series?
MM: I don’t know if I particularly have a favorite moment, but I love Jean’s growth. I love the fact that he becomes more and more selfless as the show goes on. If I had to randomly pick something then I love the sequence in season three when he and the team are heading up the attack on the Armored Titan while Eren and Armin lead the attack on the Colossal. The Beast Titan is there, too. All of these battles are happening at the same time. I love that calculated attack with the Thunder Spears where he’s narrating and going in for the kill. It’s really cool.
TN: I love all of Mikasa’s fighting scenes. I love that she’s a female character who is super strong and a very skilled fighter. It shows a definite shift from when I started doing dubbing work in anime to where we are now that a female character can be so physically capable and strong. However, comically, as an actor you try to relate your own experiences to moments in scenes and one of my absolute favorites to look back on now—post-trauma—is the scene where Mikasa just has these crazy eyes. It’s just so good.
BP: It’s so hard to nail it down to one choice. My choice is always changing and I don’t just have one answer because there are just so many to choose from, but here’s something different. At the end of season two, Mikasa and Eren are in the worst possible position. People are dying, the world is kind of in slow motion as these things are closing in on them, and Eren has just watched someone very close to them get eaten. He starts to break down and he has this weird emotion where he’s crying, laughing, and just breaking.
Being able to find what that was and go through that with him was really, really difficult, but I’m really proud of what we were able to capture in that moment. It definitely stands out as a moment in the series that’s just really special. I always think of that particular moment in the show as being one of the most intense and interesting. As an actor, it’s some of the work that I’m the most proud of.
TN: So good! So good!
MM: As you should be. As someone who’s worked on the entirety of the show, that sequence towards the end of season two—I think everyone did great, but you two performed so wonderfully. I want to thank you both for going where you did.
TN: I mean, Bryce’s performance, man!
MM: Bryce’s performance, but your performance, which was to pull him back! It had to be there, too. It was exceptional. You two both did so, so well there. I cry when I watch it.
BP: In real life, Trina actually did pull me back! I left the recording still hurting and Trina called me—she was able to see the work that I had done—and she was just so complimentary and so excited about what we were able to capture there. It made me so happy. I felt that scene for a number of days after leaving the booth.
TN: Just you mentioning it makes me want to cry! It was so good, Bryce. So good.
MM: And once again, it’s just so gratifying that the storytelling is willing to go to such depths of despair. I think Attack on Titan goes much further than other shows do and I’m quite fortunate to have a very talented cast that will go there, too.
Attack on Titan is available to stream on Crunchyroll and Funimation.