Thoughts on ... Attack on Titan, Good Analogies, and The Other Side
One dull day in 2013 I was trawling through my favourite anime OSTs on YouTube when the algorithm presented a video entitled “SHINGEKI NO KYOJIN EP 5: EREN DIES". On a whim I watched a boy save his friend from being eaten by a giant Father Christmas only to be snapped to death five seconds later. The OST was chilling and the blood curdling scream from the boy’s companion left me speechless. So, I watched the clip again and again, before searching high and low for more information. I eventually found what was probably the most roughly drawn manga I had ever read. It entranced me, and I devoured it in a few days before returning to the anime, joining the start of what was to be the biggest anime phenomenon in several years. Shingeki no Kyojin, or Attack on Titan (AOT) by Hajime Isayama, was everywhere: photos from international cons showed hordes of “Scouting Legion” soldiers dedicating their hearts to a nation that doesn’t exist, new episodes trended on all the relevant message boards, and for the first time in my life, friends and colleagues who never had an interest in anime was pulling me to the side to ask “have you seen that Attack on Titan? Crazy stuff!” I was thrown into a much-deserved madness, and before long a dedicated community had been formed.
The premise is simple but effective: humanity has been wiped out by flesh eating Titans, and the only survivors live in fear behind a series of concentric walls. The army’s Survey Corps regularly holds expeditions outside the walls to study and kill titans, hoping to restore humanity’s dignity to a life outside the confines of stone and concrete. One day an impossibly tall titan appears, breaches the wall with a sentient companion, and leaves humanity reeling for answers. What starts off as a monster-of-the-week bloodbath, with edge of the seat tension as you wonder which main character will die next, slowly develops into a complex political thriller, with conflicting ideologies battling for prominence, alliances tested and questioned, and the realisation that the titans aren’t the real enemy after all. I remember discussing the almost never-ending mysteries of the series with some friends on a forum, and realised that we had stumbled upon something very big and very special with AOT. Not since Fullmetal Alchemist did a story intrigue me so much, and with the reveal of the source of the titans finally debuting in the anime this past summer, I recalled that mounting anticipation of years before when the corresponding manga chapter had dropped. Akin to the giant transmutation circle reveal in FMA, Attack on Titan promised to totally obliterate every fan theory or speculation, shattering all expectations that we had of the story before.
However, unlike FMA, the reveal left a sour taste for some. It was monumental and shocking and mind blowing and all those things, but I only really appreciated the introduction of Marley and the rest of the world halfway through its subsequent arc. On a technical note, there was an overabundance of exposition. Lots of names and new terms and new characters were hurled at the reader, only allowing us to catch our breath and comprehend the new setting a few pages later. It took a few re-reads, but I eventually understood: the community behind the walls were of the Eldian race, a people who had the ability to turn into titans after ingesting a serum. The world, which had not been destroyed at all, subscribed to a myth of unknown origin that the Eldians oppressed and ravaged the world, particularly the nation of Marley. After being permitted to escape to the walls on Paradis Island with their King, who altered their memories so they never knew the rest of humanity existed, the remaining Eldians on the Marley mainland were subjugated and brainwashed into believing they were all devils. As the years passed and the lucrative resources on Paradis became too beneficial to ignore, the Marley government trains generations of Eldian child soldiers to infiltrate and destroy Paradis and the Eldians within, telling them that the islanders and evil, and promising them that they will be made into honorary Marleyan heroes after their sure success.
It’s all a bit of a mouthful but it is in fact an interesting twist: at last we have a story behind the titans that breached the walls that day: they were brainwashed soldiers, fighting for their own survival and the Eldians of Marley. The biggest antagonist and the most memorable titan in the series turned out to be a skittish and sensitive boy, nursing his own fear, his personal love interest, and the wellbeing of his friends. It’s heart-breaking as it is shocking. In a few chapters, Isayama turned the whole story on its head, and the people we thought were the enemies had been manipulated the entire time. The real enemy is the world, and the government who had forced children to commit mass murder. The “other side" of the story is revealed at last, and it packs a punch.
I guess my issue with the reveal of chapter 86 was the striking imagery that was used to denote the mainland Eldians’ plight. The scene opens with a child Grisha, our protagonist Eren's father, taking his sister out for a walk. Their mother reminds them to wear their armbands: emblazoned with a single star, the children dismissively don the item of clothing used to signify their Eldian status. They leave a home that is situated behind the cold chain links of a guarded ghetto, fortified by soldiers who have to grant permission via a day pass to allow them access to the rest of their town. They are verbally abused and harassed as they make their way to a field where a zeppelin is landing. Their clothes are humble and more arcane compared to the Marleyans, and after they are discovered by two soldiers and punished, Grisha's father is forced to painstakingly remind his son of the horror of their people, how their founder, Ymir, plundered the world with her power and her subsequent descendants caused wars, oppressed Marley, and ruled the world in terror due to their frightening powers. The origins of this story are unknown, but it is told to Eldian children as fact: they are bad news, people of misfortune and mischief, both inhuman and non-human, and their current subjugation is for their good and the safety of the rest of mankind.
Are you reminded of anything with these images, with the parallels? Me too. At the time, the chapters were controversial but not in a massive way. I remember some people questioning “wait, are Eldians supposed to be Jews”? And some others dropping the series because the reveal was too wacky in their eyes. A few damning articles arose, with people branding the whole series pro-military and antisemitic because of the portrayal. With season 3 finished, and both anime and manga fans fully aware of the reveal now, the controversy arose again, mainly in the form of a poorly written Polygon article that was laden with inaccuracies (that Crunchyroll was on the brink of collapse until Attack on Titan appeared, as one ludicrous example) and in the end I just chalked it up to the writer using shock tactics to get a bit of buzz and attention. With a series as well written as Attack on Titan, I honestly believe that Isayama deserves better than that, so I pondered writing this for some time before getting stuck in it, as I didn’t want to fall into the trap of using shock and outrage to get my point across. First and foremost, I'm a huge fan of the series, and I think that as someone who has followed AOT over the years and was present during those initial fan reactions, I’m more than qualified to give a deeper critique of this. I’m not someone who wants to stir up controversy for clicks.
I'm also not a delusional fan. I can totally understand why these images are offensive to some. When Chapter 86 first dropped, I was temporarily suspended in confusion, and the remits of fiction, reality and my suspension of disbelief became blurred and incomprehensible. I genuinely believed that the world was set in 1940's Europe and it had been an alternative history manga the whole time. The main casts' German sounding names added to a muddled WW2 storyline that I hadn’t expected. And can you blame me? The arm bands. The zeppelins, the clothing and the ghetto was a little too on-the-nose and the glaringly obvious similarities to our real-world context of the Holocaust made the scene and subsequent moments a bit contrived and forced. It’s almost impossible to read this chapter without thinking about the Holocaust, which is jarring because the Elidians are not Jewish people, and with their ability to turn into mindless human-eating monsters, I would rather their portrayal be as far removed from Holocaust symbolism as possible. Isayama was sloppy here, there is no other word for it, and most people, when reading this chapter, will ponder Jewish people and fall into concerned bewilderment.
Historical symbols as literary devices are powerful. It makes the reader link those symbols to the morals the author is trying to portray. The reason why the chapter is so controversial is because everyone recognises the above symbols as belonging to the Holocaust: an event that caused devastation to a real-life minority group in our world. When an author is not from the minority group to which historical symbols are related to, they should do well to write with caution and care, and I don’t think Isayama nailed it in this chapter, or the remainder of that arc. Well known symbols from a very devastating event were extracted from their context and then ascribed to these fictional characters from a medieval-like community, who just so happen to be hated by the rest of the world because they can turn into frightening monsters. This has nothing to do with Jewish people, so why draw from such unsubtle imagery? There are many ways to portray the subjugation of a community convincingly, and the Holocaust symbols came across as cheap and exploitative.
There is one main reason why I dislike PETA and similar organisations. Such groups enjoy using Slave Trade imagery to strengthen their point about the pain animals go through as a result of the meat industry. I see the posters of cows slung from trees and pigs in stocks before bidders, and I cringe. The Transatlantic Slave Trade was a very real and devastating period in the West, and it was so pervasive and prolific that we are still enduring the legacy of that today. The enslaved Africans are my ancestors, they were not just anonymous Hatties and Ulysses’ printed in plantation baptism records. Real people with dreams and characters and languages totally stripped of their worth and identity—therefore it is the height of insensitivity to reduce their suffering and their livelihoods to empty symbols: nooses and chains and gibbets and black skin bereft of personality, commodified images reproduced for some hipster white person to appeal to the gentrified classes' meat consumption. It is grotesque. So I understand why offence ensued when a story that featured an oppressed population that can turn into human-eating monsters used star-emblazoned arm bands, ghettos and unverifiable myths to drum in the point that their subjugation was unfair. There are more nuanced ways to portray oppression, more thought-provoking means to show “the other side".
Obviously Fullmetal Alchemist comes to mind, with Scar and Homunculus’s respective tragedies changing our perceptions of the story. We think we know who the enemies are and we are so sure that they are all totally wrong, but when those cold grey doors of the Gate of Truth open, and Father screams in fear, your heart reluctantly breaks for him. Secondly, and more pertinent to the subject at hand, the Ishvalans, to which Scar belongs, are an oppressed group of brown-skinned people who are at odds with the dominant culture’s alchemy practice and they suffer genocide and annexation as a result. Arakawa didn’t need to rely heavily on slave-trade imagery to get her point across, and in fact the Ishvalans’ oppression could easily be applied to Rwanda, to Cambodia, to South Africa, to Bosnia. In reality, the story dealt with a bunch of morally grey characters who acted according to their own personal desires, it just so happened that they used self-destructive means to achieve them.
I’m also enjoying the current villains arc in My Hero Academia. The unruly League of Villains were just a bunch of aimless kids before, and Shigaraki was annoyingly moany. With this “other side" sequence, we get his chilling backstory, the reason for his strange appearance, and the origins of his destructive and somewhat childish persona. Interestingly, I don’t think we are supposed to like Shigaraki with these revelations, because his actions are indefensible, but we now understand his motivations and his ideology, and it makes him interesting. The whole “my parent was one of X and because they were a bad parent I have an unreasonable hatred for anyone associated with X” mindset that plagued Shigaraki’s father is not unique in fiction, but it was used effectively in that now Shigaraki himself is burdened with an irrational world view about heroes too.
The Promised Neverland is a current manga that deals with very similar content as AOT, and it is equally popular. The “demons" that cultivate children like farm animals are really just intelligent life forms that need human brains to survive and maintain their sentience. Norman, our once sweet and sacrificial lamb, is now cold and calculating, and he has a plan to exterminate all demon life on his side of the planet. Emma disagrees and wants instead to form a new promise with the leader of the demons which will put a stop to their consumption of human life. At first, I was disappointed with Emma’s reaction to Norman’s plan. Having just left an arc in which she was one of the main masterminds in a plot to kill a group of demons in Goldy Pond, having her exclaim “I don’t want to kill any of them" appeared at first to be a haphazard way for the author to force conflict between the two protagonists. We were then given a very silly attempt to equate demon food preferences with meat eating, and we the reader was expected to naturally come into agreement with Emma’s idealistic goals.
It’s not until the short yet heartbreaking story of Ayshe’s childhood that we fully see how “the other side" is not as evil as we think. They have families and some are compassionate to children, with Ayshe’s demon father-figure being her main source of love, until Norman’s crew, who obviously see every demon as a sadistic child-eating threat, kill him unquestionably and “free" her, genuinely believing that they have done a good thing. It’s complex and nuanced and it gives more weight to Emma’s ideology without having to rely on cheap imagery or haphazard literary devices to stir the reader’s compassion. Honestly, I think that AOT has stronger character development with its own “other side". Casting aside the initial Holocaust symbols in the latter end of Return to Shiganshima arc, the Marley arc is unquestionably superior to Neverland’s attempt to do the same. TPN's flaw is its speedy execution, with major plot developments unfolding off panel, and so we never get to see the demon world that turned Emma’s heart. AOT on the other hand is meticulous in its delivery, and Isayama has given depth to a whole new group of characters as if we had known about them from the beginning: Gabi and Zeke's character arcs, to name just two, have been phenomenal, and “the other side" of this story is clearly just as deserving of sympathy as our main trio. When the Titan shifters were first revealed, I honestly thought they were just evil people with evil motivations, now I know this isn’t quite the case. What I like about Isayama's writing is that he doesn’t shy away from presenting obviously flawed characters: just because the Eldian soldiers were brainwashed children, it doesn’t suddenly absolve Annie’s playful murder of the Survey Corps, or Zeke idly turning his own murder spree into a baseball game. They did evil, unforgivable things, but they are also victims in need of salvation.
Overall I think the Marley arc, which came immediately after the basement reveal, is one of AOT's best. I liked seeing the new cast of characters and understanding some more about what life is like on the other side of the ocean. Reiner's new despondent, shell shocked persona is a pleasure to read, as we see him come to terms with the lies his government told him, and knowing he is a hated enemy over in the island he had made his home for five years. His friends are all dead and although everyone in Marley see him as a hero, he cannot accept the title. At the end of the arc, the Paradis Eldians finally meet the mainland ones, and the chapters leading up to the bloody denouement are so tense and well written; I remember feeling my heart race during Eren and Reiner's conversation beneath the stage. Everything following the initial basement reveal is solid, I just wish Isayama had been more subtle with the analogy. Segregating the Eldians behind a gate or a wall would have been equally effective as it would have unwittingly linked them to their so-called enemies on Paradis, or something reminiscent of a Hunger Games-style barrier, forcing an oppressed minority to live in squalor. The Eldians might have been annexed or threatened with famine, they might have suffered general civil rights violations. The possibilities were endless, and his imagery of choice was disappointing.
I don’t believe that people from outside a particular minority group have equal say with those within it on what constitutes as offence to them. I also cringe at the same people clamouring to find a member of said group to agree with them and constantly parade the affirmation as proof that anyone who is offended is just being a sensitive snowflake. You will find Black people who support Trump or who say things like “I don’t get offended when white people use the n-word!” and then white people who are obsessed with the word and who genuinely feel like their human rights are being compromised because people call them racist whenever they use a racial slur will then quote that black person ad infinitum to make their point. Therefore I won’t be quoting any Jewish AOT fans, nor will I carelessly call any Jewish person who genuinely felt offence at the images sensitive or simplistic in their reading of the material—especially because I thought it was poorly executed too. I think it’s a shame that Isayama isolated people with the imagery, but as the writer that is his burden to bear. What I would say is that I am glad I stuck with the series after my initial concerns, because it ended up being one of the best written shonen I have read so far, and it makes me excited not only for the end, but for whatever Isayama comes up with in the future. What I do admire about the story is how well everything is planned and foreshadowed. He has done Harry Potter-level world building, with every chapter and every scene and almost every line of dialogue having some deeper meaning for a future event. That level of dedication deserves some reward, and I think the global popularity of the series is warranted.
I guess this is one of those stories where you really have to make your own mind up about whether you are prepared to give it a chance, or if you would rather spend your time reading something else. It is a sensitive and complicated subject, but I wanted to be fair and objective in my assessment of chapters 86-90. The story is good and the message is thought provoking. The use of the Holocaust imagery was just unnecessary and could have been executed more cleanly. The Holocaust was a big event after all, and writers and artists regularly draw inspiration from that time in various ways (see Maus), but I don’t think I've come across a story that has used the images so blatantly and forcefully. I suppose it can be a learning moment for both reader and writer, and I hope that Isayama only continues to develop his craft as the years go on. If he nails the ending, I don’t doubt that Attack on Titan will be looked upon as a culturally and historically significant series, sharing accolade space with the likes of Fullmetal Alchemist and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Time will tell.