Stories about giants are ancient and universal. It isn’t hard to understand why: Children are born into a world populated by big, lurching terrors with bad breath and enormous teeth — or is that Uncle Frank just trying to be chummy?

In Shinji Higuchi’s “Shingeki no Kyojin” (“Attack on Titan”) — a visually dazzling but exasperating two-part fantasy epic based on Hajime Isayama’s megahit manga — the giants, called Titans, are humanoid creatures who are male and female, fat and thin, young and not-so-young. And yet they were terrifying to the 4-year-old still living inside my head, existing as they did in the Uncanny Valley between the familiar (the Titans are played by real humans) and the creepily alien (an effect created by dehumanizing make-up, costuming and digital effects).

As the film begins, they are hidden beyond towering walls, one outer and one inner, built 100 years ago to protect a land seemingly inspired by local fantasies about quaint Swiss villages and green alpine meadows. To most of the human inhabitants the Titans are little more than legendary creatures that terrorized their ancestors.

Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin)
Run Time 98 mins
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

Three teenagers — Eren (Haruma Miura), Mikasa (Kiko Mizuhara) and Armin (Kanata Hongo) — are exploring the outer wall one fine, sunny day when a Titan pokes its head over the parapet and glares at them with angry red eyes. Looking like a classroom anatomical model stripped of its skin, it begins to pound ferociously at the crumbling wall, as stupefied guards turn antique cannons, which are pointed in the wrong direction.

It’s too little, too late: Soon Titans are lurching through a breach, grabbing humans and cramming them into their gaping mouths with idiot grins on their house-sized faces. The three teens run for their lives, but become separated from each other in the crush of a panicked crowd. Mikasa vanishes from sight and Eren, who has known her since childhood, is inconsolable.

Two years pass. The surviving humans have retreated behind an inner wall, where they live in crowded, squalid conditions. Meanwhile, the revenge-bent Eren and the mechanically gifted Armin have trained together with other new recruits in the Survey Corps, which patrols for Titans outside the wall.

Despite their proximity to danger, the recruits mostly act as if they were in a Japanese high school movie rather than the blasted post-apocalyptic landscape that now surrounds them, with their raging hormones, clashing egos and lame-brained behavior. One recruit is the swordsman Jean (Takahiro Miura), Eren’s short-fused rival, who picks fights even when larger (and hungrier) problems are looming. Another is the archer Sasha (Nanami Sakuraba), whose hoovering up of rice balls like a starving 5-year-old is about as close as the story comes to comedy. A non-irritating exception to the bad melodrama and unfunny gags is Miura’s Eren, who behaves more like a man on a mission than a kid on a school excursion.

The battles between the young soldiers and Titans are thrilling to look at, but sometimes logically impossible. Attached to so-called Three-Dimensional Maneuvering Gear, Eren and the others fly like Spider-Man and slash Titans on the back of their necks — their one vulnerable spot — but the cables the soldiers use for their acrobatics seem hooked to thin air.

Before the film falls into a rut of Titan feeding frenzies and human retaliations, surprising developments occur that set the stage for part two, which will hit theaters on Sept. 19.

Will this second film also be annoying and arresting in unequal measures? One Japanese reviewer said he wished the Titans would “eat the kids so the movie would end.” I wouldn’t go that far. My inner 4-year-old wants to see more cool scenes of Titans terrorizing humanity. And my inner grouchy old man has made a priority list for their next meals.

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