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The Politics Behind ‘Attack on Titan’
It’s just an anime and manga — and doesn’t have to be overanalyzed
by Ryan Fan
Warning: this article contains spoilers for the popular anime, Attack on Titan. Read at your own discretion.
I haven’t been writing much lately, but that’s mostly because of my obsession with one anime: Attack on Titan. I’ve watched through 44 episodes of the anime from season 2 to the most recent season in the last three days, and I’ve been enthralled by its rich storyline and action. Hajime Isayama sure is a great storyteller and artist, and I certainly wanted to know if there were any sources behind that creativity.
To be clear, Attack on Titan is just an anime and manga. But a Google search of Attack on Titan quickly invokes terms like fascist and alt-right. I don’t know how I didn’t see the “fascist subtext” behind the show, and I believe an anime or manga should just be interpreted as an anime or manga. The most recent season of the anime is very open to interpretation, so many symbols can mean exactly what they want them to be. We can make many connections supporting our own worldviews.
Tom Speelman at Polygon writes about the “fascist subtext” in particular. He starts off writing about how popular the anime is, but how the series has some parallels to anti-Semitism, “far-right Japanese politics,” the Holocaust, and a variety of war crimes perpetrated by the Japanese army. Attack on Titanis aimed at an older audience than popular anime like Bleach and Naruto,and if you watch the anime, you know why — it’s gory, violent, full of graphic depictions of death.
Getting closer to the fifth and final season of the anime is where the “Anti-Semitic and pro-fascist leanings” of the show start to reveal themselves. According to Speelman, the show's main characters are all part of the Eldian race, a persecuted and second-class people living in a dominant country known as Marley. Some people in the Eldian race escaped persecution to live on an island where they live behind walls, isolated from the rest of the world.
It comes late in the anime in the manga that the main character, Eren Yeager, realizes he is descended from the Eldian race. The final season of the show initiates his plot to seek revenge against the nation of Marley, which has persecuted Eldians and sent warriors to the island to conquer the island and take the powers of the Eldians.
The history of the Eldians is a race of people who descended from a woman named Ymir Fritz. Ymir Fritz became a Titan, a humanoid giant monster, to make the nation of Eldia, having powers like hardening herself, emitting heat and radiation the level of a nuclear bomb, and singlehandedly being able to smash huge walls. When Ymir died, she split her soul into nine titans, who “established the world-conquering, blood-soaked legacy of the Eldian Empire.” In particular, Marley was brutalized by the Eldian Empire.
At some point, the Eldian king gave up the power of the Titans. Karl Fritz, the king of Eldia, had so much shame over the brutality of the Eldian Empire that he gave up his nation’s power. He made a civil war that destroyed the Eldian Empire, which allowed Marley to acquire eight of the nine titans. The power balance then changed — the Marleyans became the world’s superpower, while most Eldians moved to the island where their memories were erased and they lived behind three walls.
Fritz knew the resentment the world had against him. In the walls were titans that would have been released on the rest of the world had anyone decided to invade the island. But meanwhile, in Marley, Eldians who remained in the nation had to wear armbands with star symbols and lived in a ghetto called Liberio.
This is the most outright political symbol, representing the plight of Jews in the Holocaust. But one point of outrage by some commentators is that the people who may represent the Jews have the ability to turn into powerful humanoid giants, which is the reason why they’re so persecuted in the first place.
Eldians in Liberio and Marley are constantly told they have to atone for the sins of their ancestors who oppressed and brutalized the rest of the world. Any Eldians who resist or break against Marleyan law are injected with a Titan spinal fluid and sent to the island where they terrorize it.
Eren eventually receives the power of a titan with intelligence by eating his father, Grisha Yeager. Eren and his friends, after discovering the truth behind Marley and Eldia, seize control over the royal government and stage a bloodless military coup. They seek to re-establish an Eldian nation and end the isolation of their island from the rest of their world, enlisting the help of Marleyan loyalists to do so.
Right now, according to Speelman, the show is in its final arc. Eren attacks Liberio and kills countless innocent civilians, sparking international backlash. Eren has no support from the island’s government in doing so, and in turn, forces his allies to come to save him as he becomes intent on re-creating the Eldian Empire and “awaken[ing] every single Titan inside the walls and use them to destroy the world.”
Initially, I thought the Eldians were allegories for the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany, and perhaps Paradis Island was seen as an Israel of sorts. The Eldians are also the only ones who can turn into titans and have the power to destroy the world, which plays into some anti-Semitic tropes. Speelman has a more ominous reading of the manga and anime:
“Isayama’s work is full of anti-Korean, nationalist, pro-Japan subtext, parallels to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and subtextual references to Nazi Germany.”
He goes on to talk about how there are two types of titans: intelligent titans and pure titans. The pure titans are “nude, creepily smiling cannibals,” who mindlessly exist solely to kill humans for fun. They have very notable features, and the most exaggerated one is large noses, another anti-Semitic trope.
Also problematic is the prioritization of military might as the solution to all the world’s problems. While most media does have a group of teenagers changing the world, Attack on Titan certainly has political overtones. Military skills and the agility of characters like Levi and Mikasa are glamorized, while the mental prowess of characters like Erwin and Armin are seen as the greatest gift to save humanity.
Isayama said in one blog post that Dot Pixis, a character in the show, was based on a real Japanese general named Akiyama Yoshifuru, who was in the Japanese Imperial Army from 1916 to 1923. The two bear striking physical resemblance, and once Isayama admitted Dot Pixis was based on the military leader, Isayama started getting thousands of death threats. The 2010 controversy opened wounds between Japan and other Asian countries like South Korea, with many accusing Yoshifuru of being a war criminal for atrocities against Koreans during the Japanese occupation. Anti-Korean atrocities, in particular, were plentiful, including the massacre of Koreans in Kanto and the Japanese “comfort women,” who were used and kidnapped as sex slaves by the Japanese army.
Speelman goes on to say that there are parallels of Nazi Germany, too, with the goal in the most recent season of destroying the world being similar to the alt-right rhetoric around Jews “already secretly controlling the world or are plotting to through finances.”
Others have pushed back on Speelman’s analysis, including Faiyaz Chowdhury at CBR, calling the show anti-fascist and anti-racist. The military overthrow was that of a fascist government. The show criticizes Marley’s choice to put Eldians as second-class citizens. And close to the end, one character, Gabi, is confronted with the fact that she was brainwashed. The people she hated, the island Eldians, were not devils after all.
“When Gabi says its because of the atrocities committed by the ancient Eldian Empire, Kaya replies that neither her or her mother was there when it happened and should not be responsible for the actions of their ancestors,” Chowdhury said.
Attack on Titan is meant to make you feel uncomfortable. It’s meant to make you question. In the most recent and final season of the anime, the heroes we’ve become attached to this whole time suddenly turn to not so heroic means, most notably Eren’s decision to massacre people in the Liberio zone.
What are we left with, then? Well, the political connotations of Attack on Titan essentially mean whatever you want them to mean. I felt like Speelman was reaching a bit, but I also feel like it can apply to the liberal resistance against Donald Trump, or a Republican resistance against coastal liberal elites. Depending on our own personal views and life experiences, we all interpret the show differently.
Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. Attack on Titan doesn’t need to be fascist propaganda, nor does it have to be anti-fascist propaganda. It’s literally just an anime and manga and more people should stop reading into its subliminal politics. Philosophically, inductive reasoning is where someone’s experiences and observations are the foundation for a conclusion, instead of a conclusion being the basis for experiences and observations.
The political analyses of Attack on Titan shows we have lost the philosophical art of inductive reasoning. It’s just an anime and manga — and doesn’t have to be overanalyzed.