Series: Shingeki no Kyojin, Attack on Titan
Written by: Hajime Isayama
Anime Director: Tetsuro Araki, well known for his directing role in Death Note
Anime. Manga. Japan. Oh how I could write about how I feel about these three topics for days and days and days. But today I am going to be writing about one anime in particular: Attack on Titan. This anime has been trending all around the world and I was introduced to this anime by a friend of mine who is a great judge of good anime.
Preliminary Remarks: This anime is a horror and gore filled experience with beautiful animation and an engaging narrative. It may be 26 separate episodes but it needs to be seen in binges because of its masterful cliffhangers and added layers of confusion and frustration. Tetsuro Araki, the Director of Attack on Titan implements his trademark Death Note style of animation which is easily noticeable in the first few frames of this anime. It is truly aesthetically and musically beautiful with a masterful narrative arc which binds the episodes together. Hajime Isayama has truly captured human suffering, strength, and will in his characters and does an excellent job tying in multiple elements of the story together.
Aesthetic: This anime has a striking visual style. The background scenery is strikingly beautiful CGI while the characters have bold outlining and a more raw feel to the animation. The character animations look more like drawings than CGI. The musical scores are full of emotion and extremely effective at capturing the pathos of the characters and the setting. While no score may ever match the effectiveness of the “Rains of Castamere” in Game of Thrones, the scores in Attack on Titan do a very good job of foreshadowing epic plot twists and horrors.
Plot Summary: Set in a medieval fantasy world, humans were nearly exterminated from the planet by huge beings called Titans who eat humans. A small community of humans live in a city built around three successive walls each about 50 meters tall. While the origin of these walls is unknown, we know that there was 100 years of peace before the anime’s first episode. The three concentric rings of walls which get bigger and bigger, protect the human community from the greatest threat to humans in the anime, namely the Titans. The inner most, and the safest level of civilization is called, Wall Sina, with the second being Wall Rose, and the outermost wall being Wall Maria. The innermost wall protects the King and the nobility, while the outermost section, which is the most vulnerable to Titan attacks, has the poorest civilians.
In the anime there are different kinds of titans, with the most common form being what you would expect a troll to be like in the Tolkien world: dumb, slow, and primitive. Let’s call these titans level 1 titans. Next there are titans which seem to have some semblance of intelligence because their movements have purpose and they show a higher level of aggression and these titans are called, “Aberrants” in the anime. Let us call these titans, level 2 titans. Lastly there is a class of titans which are incredibly aggressive, and much larger than the other two types. We are introduced to two in titans in this class, the Armored Titan, and the Colossal Titan. Let us call these titans, level 3 titans. The one behavioral quirk that make these titans so terrifying is that they eat humans. Hence the threat to humanity, and hence the 50 foot walls to protect the remaining members of humanity. Because of these predatory behaviors humans have defended themselves with armed forces divided in to three squadrons: Military, Garrison, and Survey Corps. The Military police are the most elite warriors who protect the King. The Garrison protects the borders from attacks, and the Survey Corps go out in the wilderness outside of the walls to gather supplies, intelligence, and fight the occasional skirmishes.
Against this backdrop, the first episode begins with an attack from a Colossal Titan. The Titan penetrates Wall Maria and carnage erupts. Level 1 and Level 2 Titans enter the city and kill off the mother of Eren Jaegar, the main protagonist and successfully delivers the first psychotic breakdown for the characters in the show. Mikasa Ackerman and Armin Arlert are childhood friends of Eren with Mikasa’s connection to Eren being far more intimate because she was raised by Eren’s family after her parents’ death. With this first psychotic break, the three with Eren leading the way, join the Survey Corps to learn more about these Titans and to avenge the deaths of their loved ones.
Reflection: After watching all 26 episodes of Attack on Titan and the special OVA, Ilse’s Journal, I have a couple of questions which served as the main catalysts for immense reflection and commentary. I will be sharing a couple of these reflective moments.
Question: “Why do Titans eat humans, if humans have no nutritional value?”
One of the most intriguing questions that drives this anime forward is the “why” of all of this. Why do Titans terrorize and eat humans? The easy answer would have been for nutritional value, but early on in the anime this theory is dismissed. With Hanji’s research and from looking at the behavior of Titans, the driving force for the human eating behavior of Titans is not driven by hunger, or a special taste for humans. If this is so, why then? Why eat humans?
I do not have a direct answer to this, but I do have a reflection on this topic. I would like to preface this reflection with a simple disclaimer and it has to do with the theory of interpretation. My classmates from Wesleyan, particularly those who majored in English, Classics, or College of Letters, can relate to this field of inquiry, and that is this notion of interpreting texts written by authors. Human authorship of texts is important because this allows the readers to try and decipher and locate the author’s true intent of the work. Why this type of interpretation is natural is beyond my scope of understanding. But there is indeed something within us when we read that wants to know that intent of the author because we have a need to extract meaning in what we read. I believe that reading is done because we enjoy the ability to connect through written word, and through this connection we learn something intimate about the author. This allows for readers to experience a slice of an author’s experiences and views even if the said author has been deceased for hundreds of years. So the theory attempts to try and answer the following: is authorial intent transparent and decipherable or is authorial intent merely false interpretations by the reader? To put it more simply, is the rose in Romeo and Juliet full of meaning and a symbolic representation of “sweetness” or is it just a plain rose because it was Shakespeare’s favorite flower from when he was a child? And finally, to put it in general terms, do readers insert their own interpretations and parts of their own perception in to the works that they have read, or are those meanings actually intended and intentionally inserted by the author?
With that said, I admit my interpretation of Attack on Titan falls under the category of the reader putting in their own interpretations based on their own perceptions and experiences. For me, the religion vs. the “real” world dichotomies allows many important elements in the anime to neatly fall in to one of these two categories. Religion is seen as the archetypically counterproductive activity based on hope, belief, and reflection while the “real world” element focuses on immediate survival, and the immediate task at hand. This dichotomy is seen with the portrayals of Armin representing the former and Mikasa/Levi on the latter. Religion is seen as being counterproductive and futile in this anime with explicit and obvious portrayals of meaningless death to most of the civilians who are practicing their faith. It is difficult to imagine the author of this anime to not have deliberately destroyed and therefore mocked those of faith.
On the topic of religious undertones, one of my main reflections on Attack on Titan involve the interesting unanswered phenomenon of Titans inexplicably eating humans, especially when humans do not provide any sustenance. The image of Titans eating humans, especially with the Titans having human heads, looks a lot like human cannibalism. But since they get no nutritional benefits, the act is ritualistic. Which sparked a lot of thoughts on the Titan’s performing rituals for spiritual gain instead of nutritional gain. Which then sparked another train of thought on a religion which is near and dear to me, namely, Catholicism. Catholicism at its very root holds three fundamental cores, the Trinity, bodily resurrection, and transubstantiation. The last is the most interesting because every Sunday Mass is dedicated to experiencing this phenomenon. Transubstantiation is the act which turns ordinary bread and wine in to the body and blood of Jesus Christ. While this may sound metaphorical on paper, the Catholic Church literally believes that during the climax of each mass, the bread and wine no longer resemble earthly objects, but heavenly and literal forms of Jesus Christ. As Catholics we consume these two forms, not for nutritional value, but for spiritual value. We do this in remembrance of the Last Supper, and as an act of reverence to Jesus Christ and his teachings. Now, it seems rather plausible that Titans could also be consuming humans for spiritual value. Because in the extra OVA, episode 3.5, we learn a crucial element of the story behind Titans, namely that one Titan showed temporary regret and caution before consuming a human’s head, and then offered the body of the soldier as an object of worship and reverence. This hesitation and remorse after killing the soldier highlights a key part of a Titan’s psyche which has never been known before this episode. The acts of reverence towards Ilse combined with the utterance of “Ymir’s People” by the Titan shows that Titans are not what they seem. Of course, the manga later shows what these utterances mean and refer to, but the notion that Titans revere humans combined with the parallels seen in Catholicism lead me to believe that this anime can do a lot more in terms of social commentary.
For instance, what if the anime is seen as a Hobbesian metaphor for a brute, cold, world? Or more specifically to the anime, what if life is cruel, and meaningless without purpose? If for a second we flip the script and we imagine the Titans to be humans, and the “humans” in the anime to be God or Reason, what then? If this is the case, then the Level 1 titans are the drone like humans whom we can think to be cogs in a capitalist world, or automatons, or slaves in the Nietzschean sense. But, the Level 2 and Level 3 Titans can be the “enlightened” the “ubermensch” or the “god-like” beings who find purpose and dare to step out of Plato’s cave so to speak. And if so, these Titans eat humans because it brings them closer to God or Reason, just as Catholics consume the body of Christ each week to gain spiritual healing and strength. Then the anime can be seen as Gods’ or Reason’s attempt to also understand humans, and humans struggling to gain a superhuman quality, which is knowledge and spirit.
On the other hand, it is more likely the Titans are just brutish representations of the bullies that Hajime Isayama encountered and endured from childhood. Because he admits in interviews, that a lot of his emotional drive for this anime was to channel into a place where he was bullied when he was young. So the Titans may not have any meta-meanings at all. But for me, anime is more than just a platform for mindless enjoyment. Yes, the gore, the blood, and the awesomeness which is Levi and Mikasa, with Eren’s typical Shonen mindset of wanting to save the entire world by himself, are all enjoyable elements. But just as Death Note meant more to me than just a mindless monomaniacal, Moby Dick Ahab-esque story, Attack on Titan is more enjoyable when I put my own meaning into the show.
So in summary, authorial intent may never be fully understandable, and thus the interpretations inserted by the readers illuminate and highlight the show’s elements in ways that even the author could not have imagined. And whether this is a sin or an insult to the author is debatable and is debated. But for me, Attack on Titan will always be more than just what it is, it will have social commentary on topics like religion, pragmatism, capitalism, and utopianism which makes the anime infinitely more meaningful in my life and more appreciated as a work of art.
Follow-up Post: March 2, 2015.
After much contemplation I think that the Malthusian theory of overpopulation, or numerical growth of resources versus exponential growth of humans, is the main theme of the show. In the first chapter of AOT, Eren and Mikasa run into Hannes and his drinking buddies. They are supposed to be soldiers protecting the city but instead are seen playing poker and drinking liquor. This angers Eren because he realizes that complacency at a time of constant war is both dangerous and unacceptable. This encounter along with many others points to this series’ theme of complacency versus fear and their effects on humanity. Complacency is a natural consequence of safety because selfish desires kick in when things are calm, and self-happiness or self-fulfillment predominates collective security. In other words, distracting yourself from the truth–which is in this case that life is without meaning–is far better than diving into a nihilistic abyss. These distractions include procreating. When procreation is done without the fear of consequence then it becomes a complacent activity devoid of any considerations for the collective good. Instead, it becomes a matter of personal choice and personal pleasure. What AOT reveals is that fear is a powerful motivator for humanity to reach unbelievable heights, as seen by the endurance that is required to survive the trainings to become a soldier. This fear sharpens their focus on the interconnectedness of their actions and heightens the importance of survival. Therefore, the theory that the titans were purposively created to control the population level is very likely. This explanation offers a reason for why the titans target humans without having any biological urge to feed. Ultimately, the titans give the humans purpose and remind them of their humanity, namely that humans require a greater awareness of their interconnectivity.