Understanding Psychology: Shingeki no Kyojin, Black Bullet & Owari no Seraph

Shingeki no Kyojin took the anime world by storm, but you guys already knew that.  So the question is how.  Was it the titans?  The post-apocalyptic setting?  We seem to have a lot of movies, tv shows and anime based on that running around right now.  Was it the 3D maneuver gear and the action?  Well yes, yes and yes but let me ask you a different question.  Why was Shingeki no Kyojin so popular while it’s subsequent clones failed to get a major following?  The answer can be found as early as episode one of the three series mentioned in the title, and it’s that question I’m going to answer.  There will be spoilers for episode one of all three shows, you have been warned.

Before I dive in I’m going to say, for the sake of buying time, that God Eater didn’t make this list because its first episode was bland as fuck and I hate the “realistic CG” art style and character designs.  Moving on.  Let’s start with what each series tried to do with the first episode.  Black Bullet was more concerned with helping us understand the world we found ourselves in then anything else so it was naturally quite a bit drier than the other two.  But all three wanted to smack us right in the feels with some tragedy and only Shingeki no Kyojin managed to.  Black Bullet had a guy who didn’t realize he was turning into a monster, die and become a monster before getting killed by the main characters. The concept is tragic but the execution was tired and predictable, I would be very surprised if anyone gave a rat’s ass about that random guy who dies at the end of episode one.  So there is no tragedy but that’s sort of ok for Black Bullet because the focus of its conflict is not the Gastrea monsters outside the walls but the humans inside them, although this isn’t really showcased in episode one.  Owari no Seraph tries much harder to hit our feels, it slaughters a small family of young orphans.  That is a tragic event but the execution is just going through the motions once again.  The “twist” where Mika’s escape plan was really a trap by a twisted vampire noble was obvious as soon as we first saw the noble in question.  He looked like a sly, sick bastard and no one was expecting a child to outsmart him.  But more importantly Owari no Seraph doesn’t focus on the parts of the slaughter that make it a real tragedy in our minds, it’s only concerned with the physical action.

This is where Shingeki no Kyojin steps in.  The death of Eren’s mom is one of the most powerful scenes I have ever witnessed in a first episode, and is a very powerful scene by any standard.  But it’s not because a relative of the protagonist dies, if that’s all it took to be tragic and powerful then Owari no Seraph would have done fine.  It’s because of the psychological aspects of the first episode.  The episode explicitly showcases the powerlessness and hopelessness of the situation.  In Owari no Seraph the would-be escapee children would never stand a chance against a vampire, so there is no shock when the physical actions confirm that.  Also the protagonist escapes after shooting the vampire in the head which destroys the powerlessness of the humans in the scene.  But usually we expect the adults to, if not solve the problem, then at least make some kind of meaningful action.  That doesn’t happen in Shingeki no Kyojin.  The adults are just as powerless as the kids.  This is best showcased when Hans puts on his manly bravado voice and assures Eren that he’ll kill the titan and save his mom.  But when Hans actually faces down the titan he freezes, the rest of the background goes black and we zoom in on the creepy face of the titan, smiling with mindless cruelty.  Then Hans looks terrified and runs away with Eren and Mikasa in tow.  Then we watch as Eren’s mom is casually devoured by the titan while the armed adult man runs for his life.  This is what makes the scene powerful and made Shingeki no Kyojin so successful, it understands that the physical terrors the titans represent are superseded by the horrors they inflict on the mind.  Being afraid of titans, vampires and Gastrea on a physical level is not just understandable, it’s prudent.  It has no particular effect on us as viewers.  But seeing a mind crippled by fear is unnerving and uncomfortable.  It reminds of us of how fragile humans can be, a truth we largely like to ignore.  This is especially true since adults are afflicted by the terror.  It’s one thing for a bunch of kids to live in of fear their vampire overlords, it’s another entirely to watch grown men and women, members of the military no less, run with shameless abandon from a fight broken by their fear.  That kind of crippling mental terror, the kind that haunts characters even when they are in a safe place, is far more tragic and powerful than any amount of physical violence can ever hope to be.  And it’s because that fear is so pervasive and prevalent in Shingeki no Kyojin’s world that it was such a big hit.  I’m not saying the art, music, and action didn’t contribute, because they were all amazing.  But the beating heart of Shingeki no Kyojin is the psychological horror, the palpable atmosphere of human powerlessness, and it’s that heart which not only sets it apart from the so called “AoT clones” but is what made it so damn successful in the first place.

Thank you for reading.  I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

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