A Brief Defence of Attack on Titan

I do not think the matter of my opinion will extend to more than a few sentences if tersely said, but I shall try my best.

Everyone’s heard of it by now. It’s what the otakus went crazy about in 2013, and the weeaboos got around to in time, before it filtered down to the plebeian masses such as ourselves [read: yourselves] (one notes that its public reception recalls the largely symbolic narrative point of the divided society). It’s the hit anime about a boy who decides to protect everyone and trains to save his city. If you didn’t notice what year I mentioned there you might be wondering which ‘Chinese cartoon’ I mean this time – they’re all about boys like that, aren’t they? Let us begin, therefore, by stating our subject: Attack on Titan, the anime and its spin-offs, based on the manga by Hajime Isayama that began in 2009.

For the most part, AoT, as many like to call it, has had a charmed life: the manga is celebrated; the anime (with its single season) has a strong following (and still has the novelty and respect that many older ones have lost); there are action figures and keychains being sold based on it; one – if not two – of its characters have acquired a cult following; and there is a (poorly made) live-action adaptation. If Season 2 never comes next year, and the manga stops being published, it will still have cemented its status in pop culture.

Of course, such fanfare did not come without its price.


Manga: Vol. 1, Ch. 1.

Attack on Titan does not begin in space, sadly; the plot begins at around the time when a Colossal Titan breaks down Wall Maria, the outermost of three walls guarding the remnants of human civilisation one hundred years after almost everyone was killed by these creatures. Titans invade the town and wreak havoc, forcing the protagonists to take shelter in the inner towns. Eren vows to destroy the Titans, and Mikasa and Armin fall in with his goal. They join the Survey Corps and eventually venture outside the walls, hoping to learn about the Titans and eradicate them.

If this had been a sci-fi film from Hollywood, it would probably have escaped the scrutiny that it received. But it comes to us from Japan, less than a hundred years after the Second World War. The immediate question raised is this: is Shingeki no Kyojin criticising Japan’s pacifism? The question is rather like whether Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost: this reading, however popular, was probably very far from the author’s mind, and possibly even from those of the anime’s creators.

The chief sources that fuel the argument that AoT advocates militarism are all in the first few episodes of the anime.

Manga: Vol. 1, Ch. 1.

Manga: Vol. 1, Ch. 1.

Dramatic statements such as these, delivered with gravity, coupled with the first season’s opening theme (Guren no Yumiya) leave little room for doubt. The song, though in Japanese, begins with the chant: ‘Sie sind das essen und wir sind die Jäger!’. It’s as if the audience is being explicitly directed to understand the whole story as a transparent metaphor for advocating armament and militarism. In all fairness, the remainder of the anime does not portray this culture ironically or critically, so this view cannot be easily dismissed.

Let us turn, therefore, to the rest of the anime. The phrases ‘caged like birds’, ‘breached walls’, ‘humiliation of living like this’, and the like occur less and less as the narrative progresses. It is not unlikely, therefore, that the emphasis on that aspect of the story in which a peaceful town is destroyed by invading – or should I say advancing – Titans, is only there to give the story its necessary impulse. Perhaps it’s more like a recounting of Oedipus’ good deeds, in that it colours our understanding of how and why the characters act as they do. Attack on Titan could probably be enjoyed just as much from Episode 2 or 3, but to see Eren being taken to safety while his mother dies informs us of the backdrop to the story proper. We can safely say that the story need not be read as a call to arms to the Japanese.

Further investigation yields several possible readings, some of which I shall try to discuss.

Perhaps it is best to begin where a little ground has already been covered – by Tumblr and fanfiction, no less. Attack on Titan invites comparison to another very popular manga and anime franchise: Fullmetal Alchemist (or, for the geeks, Hagane no Renkinjutsushi). To sum things up briefly, AoT is an parallel world to FMA; Eren is Ed, Armin is Al, Mikasa is Winry, Levi is Mustang, and so on. It has been posited that the Titans may have been created through alchemy (I mean the FMA kind), after which that science was lost.

Also, dead people.

This brings us to the intertextual reading of AoT and FMA: ‘science gone wrong’. The lead characters of Fullmetal Alchemist learn the hard way that every action, as well as every alchemical process, has its consequences. The machinations of a few powerful individuals wreak havoc on the world, while even private individuals like Shou Tucker bring ruin on themselves and others. Edward and Alphonse use forbidden techniques, at the very real cost of their bodies and minds; and they gain special powers, or privileges in the use of the laws of science, by going beyond the limits of normal practice. Taken on a symbolic level, this brings up certain parallels to Attack on Titan: the walls may symbolise the bounds of normal knowledge. People are seen living content lives within them. The trouble begins when a giant – perhaps metaphorically a giant of learning, or a pioneering scientist – breaks down the walls which have hitherto been held sacred. Thousands die, and while religious leaders continue to venerate the walls, efforts are made to repair them. Safety lies in not venturing beyond those bounds. Again, there are the mysterious motives of Eren’s father, and those of Annie’s.

Manga: Vol. 1, Ch. 1.

Manga: Vol. 1, Ch. 1.

A similar but perhaps antithetical reading would be to see the Titans as a kind of WMD aimed at the populace of one country; the people retaliate with their own weapon of equal power – in this case, the literal offspring of a scientist, Eren. Eren’s father recalls the role of Hohenheim in FMA, again. The key to saving everyone may lie in collecting more knowledge rather than fearing it: Eren keeps his father’s key, hoping to uncover the secrets entrusted to him.

Social critique remains a talking point in both anime. FMA repeatedly criticises wars of annexation, military operations on foreign soil, and indeed warmongering in general. While this is perhaps a much smaller aspect of AoT, the social disparity between the people among the outer and the inner cities is clearly shown. A prominent fraction of the latter episodes of Season 1 depicts those inside Wall Sina as aloof bourgeoisie and aristocrats, and religious devotees closing their eyes to the realities of life outside. More than a stand-in for Japan’s borders, the walls symbolise the invisible divisions in society in every country.

Most of all, though, the walls symbolise walls.

The walls themselves suggest several possible meanings of the story.

It’s important to note that the second opening theme from Episode 14 onwards changes to Die Flügel der Freiheit (Jiyu no Tsubasa, or ‘Wings of Freedom’). The most obvious reference is to the crest of the Survey Corps, the section of the armed forces that Eren has always idolised and is eventually allowed to join. The task of the Corps is to ride outside the walls to reconnoiter and to study the Titans. Part of Eren’s reason for joining is his lifelong craving for freedom and adventure beyond the walls. The anime flashes back to his moments spent with Armin reading about parts of the world all but forgotten since mankind’s extermination. It is here that we find another theme of the anime: exploration.

Manga: Vol. 4, Ch. 14.

Manga: Vol. 4, Ch. 14.

Eren’s desire to go beyond the walls taps into the age-old theme of our love of expedition and discovery. When Eren and Armin talk about what we surmise must be Antarctica and the Pacific, we recall every wanderer and sea explorer from Odysseus to Roald Amundsen, and the Medieval and Renaissance love for fantastic half-mythical lands where only the bravest have gone. To a world that would scream in anguish if the Internet stopped working for a day, Eren’s longing is immediately understood. This may very well be what the anime is about: one person’s striving for that kind of freedom while mankind lives prosaic lives behind walls, real and metaphorical. Perhaps that freedom is a spiritual one, a change that begins with a violent destruction of old beliefs – that is, the destruction of Wall Maria.

Again, a similar reading opens up with a further step of imagination. The key to this argument is how the army recruits are trained.

The army uses Three-Dimensional Manoeuvre Gear to kill Titans. Before they can use them, soldiers are trained on fixed replicas to learn balance and coping with being upside down in mid-air. This easily calls up associations with something in our own world: astronaut training. And just like that, we find another way to interpret the story.

The people living in the walled towns are actually the people of our world; the attacking Titans are cataclysmic events (like meteors crashing into the planet) that threaten to destroy humanity. The Survey Corps are an international team of scientists and astronauts going beyond the metaphorical wall of the planet itself to study extraterrestrial regions and eliminate any threats. Every time the Corps leaves for the outside, the whole town is excited; people crowd in the streets to watch them go; Commander Erwin Smith counts down to the opening of the gate. The whole event is very similar in these ways to when a rocket or space shuttle is launched. Eren yearns to travel and discover, not only like the people of the 16th century who loved to sail the seas, but also like the many heroes of 20th century fiction who explore other planets and galaxies. The anime might be advocating increasing scientific, not military, funding.

Or increase spending on Gurren Lagann.

Or funding Gurren Lagann

This brings me to my final analysis of the story: transhumanism. This is a weaker theory than the ones I’ve spoken of, but taken together with those, it’s all there. Titan Shifters, for instance, are human beings given superhuman powers through scientific intervention. In fact, the army’s universal use of Three-Dimensional Manoeuvre Gear itself is somewhat transhumanistic – if only superficially – in that man and machine move as one. One recalls, for comparison, Edward and Alphonse’s situation in FMA. Again, to overcome the limits of the physical body is exactly the kind of spiritual change that I said the Titans metaphorically incite.

Thus, we conclude that Shingeki no Kyojin, or Attack on Titan, is anything but the militaristic jingoist propaganda that some appear to have misconstrued it as. The story is myth-making at its best, in that we trace parallels to similar narratives while being aware of the uniqueness of the material, and the various plot devices, such as the walls, are open to multiple analyses. One fears to conclude too tersely or too flippantly here, but perhaps it may be said in parting that it’s always a good idea to keep an open mind.


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