This falls outside of my usual content, if it’s not clear. I specialize in melodramatic, pondering, philosophically rambling essays where I think about anime a lot harder than anyone probably did making it. However, I’ve been trying and failing to write something about Attack on Titan before its final season, so let’s give this a shot.
Just before the fourth season began airing last year, I wrote about the series’ structure as a hype machine. Each moment of downtime served to set up the next climax. Hajime Isayama crafted a story that would reach towering crescendos, and the excitement would dip only for as long as it took to set up a new higher peak. It’s what made Attack on Titan a household name in the first place, but it came to a perfect peak in the clash between Levi Ackerman and the Beast Titan.
Perhaps I could have written about the newer seasons to maintain some relevance; Eren versus the Warhammer Titan or the infamous nutcracker scene are ecstatic and awful all at once. Originally, I planned to write an essay on how Attack on Titan pivoted between being that rollercoaster ride to a political thriller, but diving into that required far too much exposition to be a neat little essay.
Even so, the first half-ish of this story was dedicated to building up to moments of hype, and based on my knowledge of where the story goes, I don’t think we’re going to reach those levels of hype. Attack on Titan has fundamentally changed what its story is about, so rather than mourn that shift in perspective, I’ll celebrate anime’s greatest hype beast by breaking down its best fight: Levi versus the Beast Titan. Oh, and spoilers for Attack on Titan.
Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, I would tell you that a truly great anime fight is a clash between two opposing ideological forces, each seeking to accomplish something that they can only gain through forcing their opponent into submission. It’s not just a beam clash and exchanging punches; these two combatants’ paths are obstructed by one another, and as long as they’re both alive and in action, nothing will change that. A great fight must feel inevitable. Usually.
So it’s weird to think that Levi Ackerman and Zeke Yeager haven’t met before Episode 54. We don’t know much about Zeke at this point, other than he’s a Titan-shifter who can control other Titans, and seems to be above Reiner and Bertholdt. As for our other fighter, we’ve learned a great deal about Levi over the course of the third season, except for one thing.
We’ve never actually seen Levi go all out, have we? We’re told early on that he’s humanity’s greatest soldier, a devil in omnidirectional movement gear that turns fearsome Titans into red paste. He’s been backed into a corner, particularly when the Scouts tried to trap the Female Titan, or one of the times Eren was kidnapped, but Levi’s never been desperate.
But the return to Shiganshina has been brutal. The Colossal Titan has Eren’s group pinned inside the city, unable to proceed to the cellar of his ruined home, while the Scouts outside the wall are cooped up behind the houses. Zeke as the Beast Titan is well-equipped with boulders he can turn into deadly projectiles, and there’s nowhere to run. If Erwin, Levi, and the Scouts continue to hide, they will die, and humanity’s fate is sealed.
Which brings us to the the plan; all the Scouts die anyway. Most of them, really. Make a mad dash, a head-on charge for the Beast Titan, fanning out, screaming, shooting their smoke signals in a crazed death throe to throw off his aim for just a few seconds. While the Scouts are wiped out en masse, Levi uses the distraction to hurtle past the Titans under Zeke’s control and heads straight for him.
The fight that ensues is not much of a fight at all. That implies that the combatants are meeting on equal footing, that there are blows given and taken. This is not a fight, nor even a massacre; it’s a dissection. Each move Levi makes is one solo instrument in a concerto of destruction, designed to take the Beast Titan apart at the seams. He’s not greedy; he doesn’t go straight for the nape, the weak spot, when he has the first chance. Zeke is an experienced Titan-shifter, and his first instinct will always be to protect his nape, so that will wait.
His first move is to whirl around the Beast’s arm, reducing his outstretched hand into a selection of deli meat. Swerving past the nape, Levi cleanly slices through the Titan’s eyes, leaving the man inside blind before he’s realized what has happened. Darting down and cutting the Beast’s ankles, Levi has neutered humanity’s greatest threat in 22 seconds.
But now that Levi has had his chance to show off, Wit Studio is going to take theirs to flex, naturally. Over the course of three seasons, they’ve broken the bar with sakuga bordering on the unnatural, and this moment has been a new summit in those efforts. Before Zeke can harden his nape, Levi renders the flesh protecting the Titan-user from him into nothingness, disarming him (literally) and shoving a blade between his teeth.
What separates a well-produced fight from a great one is the way that a writer can develop a character through their actions in a fight. More than the brilliant animation, the part that has stuck with me the longest is the profound understanding I acquired of Levi as a character. We’ve learned about his childhood in the third season, his family history, but this is the clearest picture we’ve gotten of him as a person. They say you don’t know a person until they’re desperate, and Levi’s all the proof of that I need.
It’s not the first time Levi’s witnessed his friends and comrades die, but it has never been so transactional. Petra and the other members of Levi Squad were casualties in battle, not clear sacrifices. He goes into this battle keenly aware that his shot at the Beast Titan came at a tremendous cost, and this is the most emotion Levi’s ever let show before.
He’s not Eren; he doesn’t scream or bellow in anger. Instead, Levi’s feelings are to him what a scalpel is to a surgeon. They’re his means, but they don’t cloud his judgement. He takes one small bite of the Beast Titan at a time, savoring each cut like one course of a fine meal. We’ve seen countless Scouts who were too ambitious for their own good, and met their demise as immediate comeuppance for that arrogance, but Levi’s skills don’t lie purely in his mastery of ODM gear. He’s humanity’s greatest soldier because he doesn’t allow his drive to win underestimate his opponents.
There’s many scenes I could have talked about here; I nearly wrote about my other favorite Attack on Titan moment. Isayama has always excelled in placing his characters in the metaphorical (or often literal) jaws of defeat, and capitalizing on the euphoric feeling of escaping that fate. I would have loved to talk about early on in the first season, after Eren was swallowed by a Titan on their first mission, and all hope seemed lost.
It felt like humanity could have ended right then and there. Our supporting cast all but gives up after learning that Eren and most of their friends have died. And just as Mikasa nearly lets a Titan charge her with no opposition, the Attack Titan appears. For the first time in a century, humanity has been given a weapon with which to defeat the Titans. This kind of feeling is Isayama’s specialty, and it’s incredibly rewarding as a viewer.
Another way Isayama rewards the audience is by holding Levi in reserve. Many anime and manga have canon “strongest” characters, but All Might and Gojo can’t get trotted out for just any old fight. I can count the number of times Levi has fought on-screen before on one hand, so every time he does, it’s a momentous occasion.
And of course, the buildup to Levi fighting the Beast Titan is just as exquisite as the main event itself. The third season has been detailing Commander Erwin’s motivations, his earnest desire to see the contents of Eren’s cellar and know of the world that lies beyond the walls. Even more fiercely, though, he understands the Scouts’ duty to safeguard the torch of humanity, even at the cost of their lives. In the end, Erwin is forced to choose between the mandate of his position, and the desire that brought him here.
So, as Levi says, he gives up on his dreams and dies, convincing the other Scouts to ride to their deaths with him. The only way this would work is if they had a speaker confident enough to ignore the fact that nothing waits for them at the end of this journey, and Erwin is just about the best public speaker in anime since Lelouch gosh darn Lamperouge. Every man and woman charging at the Beast Titan knows how this ends, but it’s Erwin’s last task to make them forget about it long enough to carry it out.
Attack on Titan has always emphasized the inherited nature of grief. After this season, the whole story pans back to address a world where one group of people has oppressed another, and then the tables turn, and turn again. The world is shaped by the cyclical nature of hate, violence, and revenge. This particular chapter in the larger story of the world was set in motion after Eren and Zeke’s father, Grisha, was gripped by grief and a need for revenge after the murder of his sister. It’s no surprise that the Attack Titan’s unique ability is to see both its past and future hosts.
Erwin declares that lofty ideals and romanticism don’t matter to the dead and the dying on the battlefield, but that doesn’t mean those ideals never mattered to begin with. He doesn’t dismiss the hopes and dreams of all the soldiers who have gone before them, or the Scouts who will die on that day. What those ideals mean is that the next generation of soldiers will have an example to live up to.
In the end, this mentality is what Attack on Titan has always been about, and yet it effectively seals its main character’s fate. We’ve watched dozens and hundreds of Scouts sacrifice themselves in order to preserve Eren’s life as humanity’s last hope. The burden that Erwin feels, the weight of so many comrades who put their last expectations on his shoulders, can only compound and grow on Eren. The commander couldn’t have known what this last charge would unleash on the world.
Levi versus the Beast Titan is just about everything that an anime fight can and should be. It is a demonstration of the talent of voice actors, composers, animators, all working at the top of their fields. It’s the culmination of dozens of hours of worldbuilding, storytelling, character development, and proceeds to set up the next step in the story.
The greatest fight in anime is a hotly contested title, but Attack on Titan has multiple contenders, and this just happens to be the best they have to offer. Considering how this was done on a TV anime budget and schedule from a small studio like Wit is mind blowing. There’s plenty of fights from films with studios two or three times the size of Wit that might surpass the raw technical talent of this fight, but when you pair that with Isayama’s phenomenal writing at its best, it’s a tough one to beat.
So let me know if you think Levi versus the Beast Titan is actually the best fight in anime, or who you think beats it out. I don’t know if this could be a series; I’d sure like to talk about more great anime fights, but I just needed to gush a little about Attack on Titan, and I haven’t stopped thinking about this fight since I saw it. Even so, I would love to break down some more battles.
So the best way to let me know if I should are to like the essay, mention it in the comments, or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, where I’ll be talking about the last season of Attack on Titan as it airs. Until next time, thanks for reading.