Spoilers for the Attack on Titan manga.
Content Warning: Discussion of antisemitism, racism, war crimes, fascism, harm to minors.
Isayama Hajime’s Attack on Titan fast became an international breakout hit when the anime’s first season dropped in 2013 consuming both anime fandom and drawing new audiences to the medium. Its source material became so successful, both critically and commercially, that it single-handedly boosted publisher Kodansha’s revenue for the first time in almost 20 years. But in the years that followed, certain political interpretations and revelations in Isayama’s dystopian story have mired it in heated controversy. As it stands, no matter how Attack on Titan ends, its legacy will be a divisive one: a lauded masterpiece to some and despised propaganda piece to others.
However, there is a strong argument to be made that Attack on Titan is a far more nuanced tale than its most vehement critics accuse it of being.
Though simple in its initial premise – Titans eat humans, humans kill Titans – the genius of Isayama’s storytelling is that he’s always known exactly when and how to peel back the many layers of his world. At a time when teen-led dystopian fiction was at its fever pitch, Attack on Titan pulled away from its competition in the early 2010s by offering genuine, page-turning (or episode-binging) mystery. Its vision of a technology-stunted human race, caged in and terrified by herds of flesh-eating giants has a timeless, almost fairy story quality to it, while its preponderance on the mechanics of both slaying, studying and becoming the beasts drives it into the realms of horror fiction.
Isayama’s amateurish art in the beginning meant that the manga didn’t get off to the best start, but has since blossomed alongside its fantastically-animated adaptation from WIT Studio, with the upcoming final season to be adapted by MAPPA. Both are filled with startling imagery and twisting melodrama, with female and nonbinary characters presented with fortitude, complexity and variety with no real emphasis on physical appearance. In general, Attack on Titan is – for all its fantastical elements – populated by people who look like real people. That is, until they don’t.
In Attack on Titan, humanity’s constant efforts to defend itself from the threat of foreign invaders creates a heavily militarized world, which is what drew its first wave of controversy. In particular, countries/regions close to Japan, like South Korea, mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong took the manga/anime to task for appearing to promote a pro-Imperialism message.
The anime in particular inescapably glorifies its central heroes, the Survey Corps, whose job it is to rid the world of the Titan threat. There are stirring speeches from inspirational leaders, scenes spotlighting soldiers’ acts of incredible heroism, and an anthemic soundtrack that, at times, feels like a rallying cry for prospective young recruits like our main trio, Eren, Mikasa and Armin. Isayama certainly did nothing to assuage these concerns by admitting that he’d modeled one protagonist – Chief Dot Pixis – after an Imperial Japanese Army General who was responsible for the Port Arthur massacre that claimed the lives of thousands of Chinese servicemen. Mikasa, meanwhile, appears to have had her name derived from a famous Japanese warship, or possibly an Imperial prince.
But as many fans of the manga will point out, this pro-Imperial streak that colors Attack on Titan’s iconography is underpinned by anti-war rhetoric that has, in the series’ latter half, come to define it more and more as a whole, which might sound confusing to those only familiar with the anime. After all, Attack on Titan packs in plenty of the standard shounen action and protagonist angst; but while it may revere the military, its ultra-violence often leans more into a “war is hell” sentiment than one that turns the thrill of battle into a spectator sport.
Then there’s the mother of all twists: the answer to the “What’s In The Basement?” question, wherein we discover that the stream of Titan attacks stems from an unknown enemy nation across the sea. “What’s In The Basement?” becomes “Who is the REAL Enemy?,” the answer to which isn’t as simple as reading the contents of a locked desk.
The ability to become a Titan, as it turns out, is a “curse” carried in the blood of one specific race: the Eldian descendants of Ymir, the Founder. From Ymir came the Nine Titan shifters, a superior and uniquely-powered group whose abilities can be inherited via ingesting their spinal fluid. Everyone within the walled island of Paradis is one of her Subjects, sealed away and wiped of all memory of their heritage a century ago by a member of the royal family for self-preservation. It’s a seismic truth, brilliantly pulled-off, but the way that we are introduced to Eldians and their history is what stirred a fresh round of criticism for Attack on Titan – one that I found myself suddenly having an unwanted personal stake in.
Grisha Jaeger, Eren Jaeger’s father, is our window into this uncomfortable reality. We find out he spent much of his life prior to the one he made on Paradis in the nation of Marley, a far more technologically-advanced place where his people are treated as second-class citizens. They were kept within an internment zone known as Liberio and made to wear armbands with stars on them to mark out their “devil’s blood.”
Eldians are a clear allegory for Jewish people. It goes without saying that this analogy, when first presented, comes across as deeply anti-Semitic not only because Eldians have the genetic propensity to transform into literal monsters, but also because the root of Marleyan animosity toward them is because Eldians once used their Titan forms to create a global empire. To this day, negative stereotypes about Jewish racial characteristics and baseless conspiracies about Jews running the world persist.
On the other hand, Eldians, as a race, aren’t depicted as being inherently villainous at all. Not only are they the heroes we’re meant to empathize with the most, but their monstrous curse – bestowed upon Ymir by what the Marleyans call a devil and her Subjects see as more of a benevolent demi-god – is later shown as more of a misunderstood mutation weaponized by those seeking their destruction. Titans don’t even want to eat humans, they’re suggested to be led to consuming them as a misguided attempt to “fix” themselves by ingesting shifter spinal fluid.
In more recent chapters, the true history behind Ymir – now a two-thousand-year-old figure of legend – is demystified. Ymir was a slave girl who was reborn as a Titan shifter after being hunted to near-death. The Eldian king she was enslaved to married her, used her power to establish his empire and then ensured its continuation as part of their bloodline through cannibalization. But Ymir’s spirit endured, though bound by her husband/owner’s will and all of his descendants. The mother of all Titans is a deeply tragic figure whose pain is felt – and violently harnessed – by her Subjects two centuries later.
The Eldians’ oppressors in Marley, meanwhile, are obvious Nazi stand-ins and the real villains. Hating Eldia has been saturated so effectively into Marleyan society, in fact, that some Eldians who are citizens there grow up with a deep-seated self-loathing; desperate to assist their home nation in eradicating the colony that they’re told is plotting their annihilation. Doing so, they’re taught, will atone for the sin of their very existence. This comes to a horrific head when Eren’s half-brother attempts to use the power of the Founder, Ymir, to “euthanize” (make all future Eldians infertile) his own people, convinced that it’s the only way to end their suffering for good and prevent them from inflicting it on others.
But even among Attack on Titan’s fascist enemy, we’re led to align our sympathies with certain characters. Just as not every Subject of Ymir is an “island devil” harboring a desire to resurrect the Eldian Empire, not every Marleyan is a jackbooted racist at heart. Increasingly, acting as an individual becomes more important than following any one political power’s biased agenda, be it the tyrannical Marleyan government or the Eldian Restorationists working to restore their people’s former glory. The movement could easily be a stand-in for Zionism, an ideology that has been sharply criticised for its colonialist intent.
Even some of the staunchest followers of these two supremacist camps are able to painfully disentangle themselves from hateful brainwashing; no longer defining people as either “allies” and “enemies” and instead view the world for what it is: made up of different types of people whose lives are complicated and storied and, more importantly, just as worthy of existing as their own. It’s heavy-handed in its delivery, sure, but you don’t become a fan of Attack on Titan for its subtlety.
Taking all of this in as a person of Jewish descent is pretty… exhausting. As someone who grew up in an athiest household, my relationship to my own heritage and history is just as complicated. Other than stories, photos and some inherited customs and ornaments from my Dad’s side of the family – who fled Eastern Europe to the U.K. before WWII – pop culture has long been an important way for me to connect with that part of my identity, both the good and bad.
The celebratory parts of Jewish history run through many a Hollywood classic, from Fiddler on the Roof to Yentl. But the darkest hours are also preserved in many a Holocaust documentary, like the unflinching black-and-white celluoid of Night Will Fall. Jewish displacement, suffering and remembrance feel inexorably baked into the Jewish identity – whatever one’s individual experience of it may be. Even my surname, “Collins,” is a product of it – changed from “Cohen” to better hide within British society.
This also means that my individual experience of Attack on Titan’s messy interpretation of Jewish people and our history is exactly that: individual. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for being completely dismissive of it. Even with an almost complete understanding of what Eldians and Titans really are, rather than how their enemies view them, there’s no getting around the fact that Isayama leaves too much room for readers to believe his damaging characterizations are intentional.
Anti-Semitism, like any form of predjudice, is based in fear, which has no logical root. By making Eldians former conquerors and genetic “freaks” of nature, Isayama provides a plausible rationality to something that should have none. He didn’t have to make Eldians analogous to Jews for us to understand them as victims, and I – like many others – would have felt far more comfortable if he didn’t, to be honest.
So, why do I keep coming back for more with each new chapter release? The story is honestly just so damn addictive, it’s hard not to, and with its end not yet reached, morbid curiosity about what parting message Isayama will leave also compels me on. Until then, the core treatise of Attack on Titan – for all its separate problems – is one that values communication over warfare; of breaking cycles of perpetual violence, and recognizing that the crimes of the few aren’t the crimes of the many. Moments of human kindness in Attack on Titan are few and far between, but they’re always more revolutionary than random acts of human hatred.
Isayama’s analogy is certainly uncomfortable but there is something to be said for his portrayal of Jewish diaspora, resilience and, of course, suffering, which may all be completely inadvertent. The king of Paradis Island stole the memories of his subjects’ troubled pasts from them in the hopes that being free from memory would mean being free from pain. But it also left them immobilized and unequipped in the face of adversity from the outside world.
I sometimes wonder if my Dad’s family reclaiming our old surname would have helped me feel more “authentic.” But the reason behind its erasure, in a way, is perhaps more important.