Philosophically, there’s really not a lot going on with Shingeki no Kyojin. Power corrupts; power is inhuman; the strong eat the weak. Anyone who has taken more than a few minutes to observe how society works has probably come to these conclusions.
Rather than make SnK boring, though, in some sense this clears the field for the story to proceed unhindered. It establishes a clear philosophy, so that even though there are narrative and plot surprises each week – often leading to people getting eaten in new and exciting ways – the fundamental “type” of story does not surprise us.
Mikasa fanart by Tsuchinoe Tatsuya
In terms of personality, characters are relatively uncomplicated: you have your good old boys, your grizzled veterans, your crazy ass scientist, your zealots and politicians. Each one has a backstory and a reason for thinking the way that they do. If anyone can be said to be one-dimensional, it’s Mikasa, the talented, traumatized, yet endearing girl whose main goal in life is to be with her adoptive brother Eren. And yet her one-dimensionality is not necessarily the result of sloppy writing or an unwillingness to flesh out the author’s world; it is, rather, the only way she understands how to deal with the pressures of the insane world she lives in.
The titans themselves, though they start out as little more than fleshy murder-bots, are soon differentiated; some are mindless killing machines and some have very complex motivations. The female titan’s story in particular is fascinating, especially regarding the tradeoffs of what power does for you and what it requires you to do for it. But for a few strange decisions, it might even be argued that hers is the most human story of all.
Ultimately Shingeki no Kyojin is a very Greek drama: mortal man is beset by all kinds of forces completely beyond his control, and can only make the best choices he can. Even then, his nature obligates him to make certain choices, so it’s dubious whether he can control his life or not. Calamity and salvation ride on a toss of the dice, and heroic sacrifices are demanded not at rare occasions, but almost daily. It is an excellent reminder of what the world is like for the majority of humanity, even though the plush chairs and Lay-Z-boys the viewers sit in may not invoke that.
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.
George Wada, head of Studio Wit (a subsidiary of Production IG) and producer of hit anime series Attack on Titan, spoke to the press at Anime Expo 2013. This is a transcript of his remarks, directly translated from the Japanese by Rome. The first record of this is contained in the live tweet blog gendomike recorded, which was based off the on-site translator’s interpretation.
There’s been a lot of Attack on Titan cosplay at this convention. What’s your reaction to seeing so much of it?
In just this past month, after making Attack On Titan in Japan, I realized that it is so popular even here in America!
Will there be more episodes after the current run of 24 episodes ends?
We haven’t decided if we will do a second season, but I personally want to do it as soon as possible.
Will the anime’s ending be different from the manga?
Basically, we plan to make the anime as faithful to the original manga as possible, but it’ll be up to director Tetsuro Araki and what he’s thinking about.
What attracted to you to Attack on Titan as something to make into an anime?
Because, first of all, I thought Attack on Titan‘s setting, where people are surrounded by walls, is similar to the psychological setting of current teenage Japanese boys and girls.
The economic situation in Japan is getting tough, but even so, it’s about time that kids in Japan learn to go outside, to go beyond the wall, where it’s not always as peaceful or safe…so [it was easy for] Japanese kids [to] invest their emotions in Attack On Titan, and that’s why it became popular among teenagers. So, I wanted more people to know about this by making this animated.
There’s a parallel between the complacency of the people who’ve lived behind the wall [for 100 years] and the peacetime attitude that the Japanese have become accustomed to. Up until now, the Japanese people have been content to remain within their own country [and tend to their own affairs]. But since the global political climate is changing, times have changed and people now have to go outside, and I guess inside many teenagers’ hearts there have been similar longings to go out into the world. And by making that kind of story animated, I want the people in the world to know that this is the No. 1 story that Japanese teenagers have been the most moved and touched by.
Where do giants fit in this allegory?
Well, perhaps, why is this story so popular? Because people may have the same feeling inside their hearts. You have yourself and then hit the wall that represents the limits of reality. And at that time, tragedy without reason suddenly attacks you unexpectedly. Those, allegorically, are like the giants.
Did you select Araki as director? What made you select him as director?
Yes, I was one of the staff that selected Araki as director.
I have two reasons. First, Araki is the director whose work [ed: includes Guilty Crown, High School of the Dead, Kurozuka, and Death Note] has been the most about the wall between ideal and reality. Second is that Araki is a world-class master of action and visual scenes. Guilty Crown proved that to me more than anything else.
The first episode was pretty gruesome, even showing Eren’s mother being eaten by a Titan. Why open with something so brutal?
In the first episode, the most possibly tragic thing happens to Eren, at the hands of a Titan. I believe that showing this was absolutely necessary and crucial. For Eren, what happened was so sudden, absurd, and unreasonable; while fleeing, he says, “This can’t be happening! Why?” And through all that, all this happened anyway, in the first episode.The world is that cruel.
Why did you decide to make Attack on Titan through the spinoff Wit Studio, not Production IG?
While we were making Guilty Crown, we thought if we didn’t change how we produced anime drastically, we would be stuck in the same place and never able to move up to the next stage. That’s why we established Wit Studio, and if we hadn’t started Wit, Attack On Titan would never have had the great quality that it achieved.
What’s the difference between Production IG and Wit in making anime?
Well, in terms of feeling, there are a lot of sub-departments and teams in Production IG’s building. Instead, Wit rented a different building and there’s only one team. The sense of unity is very different than what we had at IG.
Why depict Mikasa having such pronounced six pack abs? Is this a conscious turning away from the moe aesthetic?
In Attack on Titan, we tried to depict the severity of battle environment. And in that, Isayama-sensei [the mangaka] says that if the characters have such great physical ability to move around, her body of course naturally must be like that. And this part is a reflection of Attack of Titan’s more realistic approach.
Also, [even] with Production IG, in the first Ghost in the Shell movie there was the last scene where Maj. Motoko Kusanagi fights a tank. In that moment, she becomes super-muscular. So for me, Mikasa is a continuation of a type of female character that includes Motoko and that Production IG has naturally gravitated toward.
Did you anticipate that Attack on Titan would become such a big hit?
To be honest, in Japan, the most popular anime are the ones with moe characters, a lot of girls in it, and no cruel scenes. I thought these were the shows that would make it big, so initially I thought Attack On Titan would be a minor hit at best.
But on the contrary, because Attack On Titan doesn’t have any of these three elements (moe characters, a lot of girls, and no cruel scenes), it spread among people who normally don’t watch anime. It’s one very important element that made Attack On Titan break through as an anime.
Why did you make Attack On Titan despite being aware of the risks?
Well, in a word, a sense of duty. Araki wanted to animate Attack On Titan, I also felt I needed to animate it when I was reading the manga, and Isayama-sensei told us that he wanted us to animate it. So, I made up my mind that we had to make this anime. So, it wasn’t from some marketing impetus, about how can we make money; ultimately it was the creator’s idea.