When Guillermo del Toro made his robots versus kaiju movie Pacific Rim, he was greatly influenced by a painting by the 19th century painter Francisco de Goya.
Called The Colossus, it depicts a bearded, apparently naked giant striding across a gloomy landscape, its body so huge that its torso punctures the clouds. People and animals below scatter in terror, specks dwarfed on a vast canvas.
If you’ve never seen this painting before, here it is:
Looking at Pacific Rim, it’s easy to see why del Toro was influenced by the sense of scale and drama in this picture, even if the colour and tone of his film more often inspired a sense of childlike awe rather than that of fear, which Goya’s painting surely provokes.
To find a piece of pop culture that not only references Goya’s painting, but also recreates its atmosphere of weight and menace, we need to look to something called Shingeki no Kyojin (which translates to Advancing Giants), or, as it’s known in the west, Attack On Titan.
Now, it’s quite possible that you’ve heard of Attack On Titan before, especially if you live in Japan or America. For some of us in the UK – that is, your humble writer – the manga and anime was something of an unknown quantity until only a few weeks ago.
Written by Hajima Isayama, Attack On Titan began as a manga series in 2009. A huge success, it’s been adapted into an anime series, a light novel, a videogame for the Nintendo 3DS, some additional manga series, while a live-action film is being scheduled for release in 2015. And despite its harsh subject matter (which we’ll get onto in a moment), the property’s been popular enough to spawn all kinds of merchandise, from detailed statuettes to mugs and even a pair of slightly ghoulish Titan-themed tights.
Set in a future where humanity has retreated into medieval-looking cities protected by huge, concentric concrete walls, Attack On Titan introduces three young friends – Eren, Mikasa and Armin – who provide a vantage point for Isayama’s story. A century earlier, we learn, a race of giants called the Titans emerged, and immediately began laying waste to the planet.
These Titans, which can range from anywhere from three to 60 metres tall, really are a sight to behold. Naked, occasionally skinless, and aggressively hungry, they are compelled to catch and consume every human they see – a reference, perhaps, to another famous, disturbing Goya painting called Saturn Devouring His Son.
What makes the Titans additionally threatening is their lack of reason. Seemingly driven by no other purpose than to hunt and eat, they appear to have no intellect or society at all; in the anime, they’re occasionally shown shambling around the countryside, twitching involuntarily. Who are they? Where did they come from? Isayama is in no rush to tell us, and that’s what makes the story so unsettling and engrossing.
When a particularly huge Titan shatters the defences of the central characters’ home city a couple of episodes into the anime, it establishes the creatures as a truly loathsome menace. It’s an attack which sets central character Eren on the path of revenge, and determined to rid the planet of the Titans for good.
Neither the manga nor the anime pull their punches, and the level of violence and bloodshed can sometimes prove quite shocking. Said violence hasn’t gone without criticism, either; Gundam creator Yoshiyuki, a famously outspoken figure in Japan, reportedly said that the series’ mayhem was “on the same level as pornography.”
Overwhelmingly, though, Attack On Titan has been praised for the strength of its storytelling, and the indelible image of those fleshy, nude Titans with their permanent rictus grins – a creation at once grotesque and mesmerising. Like the colossus in Goya’s painting, the Titans could symbolise all kinds of things: war, pestilence, a fear of helplessness – Isayama has said in interviews that Attack On Titan was partly inspired by feelings of physical inferiority in his youth.
Isayama doesn’t rest his story on this sole idea, either; the military’s 3D Maneuvering Gear, an outfit which gives otherwise puny humans the agility to fight the giants on something approaching an even playing field, is a cool creation, transforming Eren’s adopted sister Mikasa from a plucky sidekick into a formidable warrior in her own right.
Attack On Titan’s success in both Japan and American has led to the planning of the live-action movie mentioned earlier, which was first talked about as long ago as 2011. More recently, it’s been announced that Toho finally has a director on board – Shinji Higuchi, an experienced special effects director of giant monster movies like Giant Monsters All-Out Attack and Gamera: Guardian Of The Universe.
It’s significant that Toho, famous in the west for its kaiju movies like Godzilla, should be behind the live-action version of Attack On Titan; the manga and anime are very much rooted in the Japanese kaiju tradition, and succeed in harking back to Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla from 1954 – a time when the title creature was a figure to be feared as much as admired.
If Toho’s live-action Attack On Titan can recreate the same sense of menace and outright repulsion as the Titans in the anime and manga, it could result in a truly unique and unusually savage new take on the time-worn kaiju genre.
In its most powerful moments, the Attack On Titan anime (which you can watch legally on Crunchy Roll in the UK) evokes the same sense of primal fear present in that famous old painting, The Colossus. The Titans are heading this way. They’re naked, grinning, and they’re very, very hungry. Goya would be proud.
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