There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. —Genesis 6:4-5
Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyoujin) is the most popular new manga and anime in the world right now. Or so it seems, based on more than 20 million manga copies sold, high anime ratings, and at Anime Expo, as many cosplayers dressed in the uniforms of the Survey Corps as there once were Naruto headbands. Even within the usually snobbish English aniblogosphere, it’s the most talked-about series for the past two seasons. It’s also one of my favorite series airing right now, one I eagerly look forward to every week.
What’s going on? What’s led this story about the war between humans and giants to sweep through the anime scene faster than the Colossal Titan can knock down walls?
During the Second World War, the American government produced a series of propaganda films called “Why We Fight.” Produced and largely directed by Frank Capra of It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the series was initially aimed at soldiers, and only later shown to civilians. The films sought to convince the troops that, should the Axis Powers prevail in Europe and Asia, they would be an overwhelming, implacable foe that would easily overwhelm an isolated America with their sheer numbers. The enemy’s own propaganda, such as The Triumph of the Will, was spliced in to reinforce the fearsomeness and ugly racist ideology they faced. The films also sought to explain why the US was teaming up with the Soviet Union, who would not normally be an ally of a Western capitalist democracy. Sometimes you have to join forces with people who may not necessarily be to your liking in order to defeat an even greater enemy.
One can see that the general narrative of Attack on Titan hits a lot of the same points as this classic piece of wartime persuasion. From the start, the viewer is convinced that the fight Eren and his family and friends face is one of sheer survival against a terrifying, superior foe. They need no films to convince them of that fact: the people they care about are eaten right before their very eyes. Eren’s goal from the day his mother perished is to avenge her death and to kill all the Titans, and in order to do so, he wishes to not only join the military, but to join its most dangerous and elite branch, the Survey Corps. He and his friends all enlist together, train together (mostly), and fight together…and by the most recent episode, all the main characters are all within the same Survey Corps that Eren sought to join from the start. Along the way, Eren himself comes under fire for his Titan-generating powers, but the authorities are eventually convinced that his dangerous powers are worth harnessing for the greater good of humanity, even though they know he is still not in full control of them.
Or perhaps “propaganda” is the wrong term. First off–just because something is “propaganda” (we just call it “advertising” today) doesn’t make it untrue, at least not entirely: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan really did stand for odious racial ideologies and did commit many atrocities. Moreover the goal of Attack on Titan in our world is not to necessarily convince us to join some real military and go fight literal giants or other oppressive enemies–except perhaps one’s own internal demons, as producer George Wada suggested in discussing his motivations for making the anime. It’s a ripping good yarn, full of intense emotions, action, and an uncanny ability to keep the audience guessing what comes next. (Few shows have been as difficult to discuss without the threat of spoilers than this one in recent memory.) This is a war story told from the perspective of soldiers, and it’s natural that themes common to war movies are featured heavily: camaraderie, corrupt senior officers/leaders in conflict with sharp, practical ones, grief at the heavy human toll of fighting, but always with the determination to fight another day. Some of the most thrilling scenes aren’t just the parts where the soldiers swing, Spider Man-like, from rooftop to Titan with their 3D Maneuver Gear–just in episode 17, there was a masterfully directed visual explanation of the Advance Scout Formation. The story is so gung-ho, even military strategy is exciting!
But all stories are not going to just resonate within themselves, but in the outer world too. And societies often look for enemies to unite against as an easy way to unify the people and get them to adopt a desired attitude or take a certain action. Within the world of Attack on Titan, there is no ambiguity about the enemy: they are monsters (though we are getting more and more hints about what they really are), and must be stopped if the human race is to survive. Past fascist regimes also sought to dehumanize their enemies, often as a prelude toward genocide: the Jews are like rats, the Chinese are like dogs. (In turn, the Japanese were depicted as monkey-like in American propaganda, which made it easier to violate the rights of Japanese Americans by sending them to camps). In order to activate the primal human sense that you must fight, your foes must die or you die, you have to convince people that the enemy is both inhuman and incomprehensible on some level. By contrast, the heroes are soldiers: valiant men and women who risk their lives, whose best leaders are wise and who follow a well-designed plan, and even when they face obstacles and danger, they will ultimately prevail.
This is not what I am saying: that this is necessarily a bad thing or a bad or dangerous story that should be shunned. Rather, it’s important to acknowledge that the structure and the appeal of Attack on Titan is not an accident, because it plays on time-honored storytelling techniques that have been used to get people to get up and fight. And there are many things in this world that actually are worth fighting for in a metaphorical way. Wada’s comparison of the Titans to every human’s fear of change and the outside world is actually very compelling. We all have “Titans” in our lives that we have to battle daily, and Walls that hold us back. That’s a worthwhile thing to fight for: and that’s not mentioning fighting against social injustice, tyranny, or other worthy causes.
Here’s the thing though: while this story is not trying to get people to fight a bad war, a story like it sometimes can. The South Korean nationalists who decried Attack on Titan as a piece of Japanese militaristic propaganda, where the Titans are the Koreans and it’s training Japanese boys to become soldiers, are certainly wrong: I’m sure Iseyama, Wada, and Araki did not think the Titans literally represent a particular nation or people. They just want to tell a great story that appeals to many people and perhaps give them a little more courage to live.
Attack on Titan is not going to get the current generation of Japanese youth to all join the Self Defense Forces (which, if Prime Minister Abe gets his way, will be renamed). But, in a world where North Korea rattles its nuclear saber, China grows increasingly hostile over a few islands, and there is serious talk about revising the pacifist Japanese Constitution…in the extremes, one can also imagine another well-directed film or TV series with similarly bombastic music, thrilling visuals, and daring heroes beating the odds that inspires youth all over to dress up like them, like soldiers. And in that alternate story, the enemy might not be as fantastical as monstrous giants. It might be clearer, and more immediate, and identifiable. It’s been done before, after all (start at 1:00):
So who are the Titans we need to fight against? That is the question.
It’s interesting that in a much older story, it’s only when the giants and their descendents appear that people became so evil that God sent the Flood.