This Attack on Titan review contains spoilers.
Attack on Titan Season 4 Episode 1
“Isn’t war a terrible thing?”
The third season of Attack on Titan ends with a lengthy jump forward in time where Eren and company are seemingly more ready than ever to realize their goal. The group has taken on some difficult opponents over the past three seasons, but as they prepare to invade Paradis Island and dethrone a corrupt king they begin to understand that the end to all of this warfare is finally within grasp. The final moments of last season posed the question, “If we kill all of our enemies over there, will we finally be free?” Attack on Titan’s fourth and final season is ready to dig into the complex nature of that question as it sets the stage for an ending year that’s big and rewarding both in terms of the chaotic action sequences and as an introspective character study.
In many ways it feels like this final arc is really what Attack on Titan has been all about and that the series has just finally reached the point in its story where it can fully realize itself. The anime has always reflected random pieces of this larger generational story, whether it’s through the Jaeger family, the Reiss lineage, or the more recent developments revolving around the war between the Eldians and Marleyans. Attack on Titan hasn’t made these allusions to the past very subtle, especially when some characters share the memories of their ancestors. It’s explicit because this is supposed to be one big story that’s been hundreds of years in the making. It doesn’t matter who is the one that ends the cycle because it becomes a victory that ripples through past and future generations.
Attack on Titan’s final season immediately differentiates itself from the previous years and it’d be easy to confuse its new opening theme with one that belongs to a completely different anime if it didn’t advertise Attack on Titan’s name. The title sequence is full of aggressive explosions and depressing imagery that immerses the audience in persistent conflict and offers no familiar reference points to latch onto for help. One would assume that Eren, Mikasa, Armin, and Levi are still the series’ main characters, but there’s nothing in the opening credits to assure viewers of this, which turns out to be representative of the episode itself. Audiences knew that these final episodes would signal unprecedented change, but it’s amazing just how much this new story arc reinterprets everything that’s come before it. It helps this season begin on a note that’s both exciting and destabilizing in a way that Attack on Titan has never been before.
What’s beautiful about this premiere is that it feels like Attack on Titan is getting pleasure out of how much it’s messing with its audience. The episode features the Eldian army engaged in a war that they’ve been fighting for four years and the central character, Falco, appears to be just as confused as the audience. This premiere even plays with the idea that this war-torn world is reality and that everything that’s previously happened with Eren and company is just some dream that Falco was lost in—as if this has been The Matrix or the anime equivalent of the Newhart series finale.
It’s not unusual for a series to spend time with new characters, but it’s usually understood that it will get back to the original cast at some point. Attack on Titan’s newest twist in many ways feels like a move from Lost, but what makes it uniquely different is that it’s established how characters experience the memories of their ancestors—from both the past and the future. This premiere plays with the idea that Falco is in fact the real main character and that he’s just flashed through Eren’s life in the same way that Eren experienced Grisha’s past.
The appearance of Zeke and Reiner are the only major clues offered here, but their existence indicates that these events still take place in the reality that the audience knows. This probably occurs concurrently with the journey that Eren and his group set out on at the end of season three. These storylines will presumably intersect at some point, but it looks like it may not be for a while. Attack on Titan increasingly throws expectations out the window and “The Other Side of the Sea” deserves respect for acting like the main narrative is just lore for these new characters. Even the end credits push the idea that this is now Falco’s show and to forget everything in the past that’s been held sacred.
The challenge then that “The Other Side of the Sea” faces is that these new characters need to stand out as well as the old characters that the audience has had years to grow invested in. These characters face a tall task with this bait and switch maneuver, yet they don’t come across as annoying or feel like a chore. Their story begins in its climax and it’s easy to get lost in it and not just think about whether Eren is going to show up or not. Many of these new faces feel like approximations of previous characters and while Falco is the hero, it’s the Hange-like Gabi who makes the best impression in this episode.
“The Other Side of the Sea” doesn’t feel overcrowded and its lack of exposition is one of its biggest assets. The episode does fit in some Titan action by the end and there are a few sequences that are especially powerful, like when it rains Titans or the Beast Titan’s assault on the naval unit. All of this is complemented by the score, which is the surprise winner of the episode. Every piece is fantastic and there are some unexpected choices where the music becomes evocative of the wartime setting or becomes more electronic in nature to compliment the chaos at hand.
WIT Studio’s impeccable work on Attack on Titan’s animation for its first three seasons is absolutely a factor in the anime’s success, so it’s understandable that some people have been apprehensive over MAPPA’s takeover for these final episodes. A transition like this is naturally awkward and one episode in is still far too early to tell how much the studio change has affected the quality of the show’s look and action. There are admittedly some growing pains in this premiere, but MAPPA is talented and they rise to the occasion and understand the expectations that are associated with this project. There’s an increase in the use of CG that’s likely to make some viewers flinch, but “The Other Side of the Sea” still looks gorgeous and it’s not the kind of drop in quality that crippled season two of One-Punch Man. The switch over to MAPPA will hopefully be imperceptible after the season is a few episodes in.
“The Other Side of the Sea” is a phenomenal start to Attack on Titan’s final run of episodes. This premiere is so atypical to everything that’s come before it that it’s likely to be a controversial entry, but one that will gain greater appreciation after more of this season’s story comes to light. The new season succeeds by drawing in the audience to what in many ways isn’t the show that people signed up for, but one that still feels satisfying and important. It doesn’t matter if it’s Falco or Eren who leads the charge, but here’s hoping that this is, in fact, the last war.