House of 1000 Manga
Attack on Titan

by Jason Thompson,

Attack on Titan

"I killed dangerous beasts! They only happened to resemble humans!"

Zombie stories work because, deep down, we know human beings are the scariest things on Earth. Sure, on a cosmic scale, the planet might be destroyed by solar flares or supernovas or Hellstar Remina, or alien monsters might invade,but on this Earth the most dangerous living things are creatures that have our own face. Nature might strike back at us in the form of global warming or microscopic plagues, but the idea of human civilization being threatened by hordes of wild animals is so unlikely it's just ridiculous. Furthermore, the human body is familiar, it's easier to imagine fighting another human than fighting a giant lizard or a mad cow—and it's even more disturbing when they're not quite human, when something about them is hideously wrong. Naked and misproportioned. Animalistic, crawling on all fours. Some of them are skinless, with muscles and bones exposed. And all of them are hungry: mindless cannibals with no other desire than to find humans and shove them into their greedy mouthes. They're also 10 to 50 feet tall, proving the only thing worse than zombies is GIANT ZOMBIES. (Okay, technically they're not dead. I'm stretching the definition of 'zombie.' I know.)

Thousands of years in the future, most of the planet is infested with flesh-eating giants, and the last survivors of humanity live in fortified towns behind a ring of 50-meter-high walls. No one knows where the Titans came from; historical knowledge is suppressed, and a hierarchical military system keeps order within the massive walls. Only the Survey Corps, a special military division, regularly goes outside. As a boy, young Eren Yeager watches one expedition stagger back through the gates, half dead, half eaten, a group of 100 surveyors reduced to less than 20. Eren still thinks they're cool: "I have a dream! It's to leave this cramped walled-up world!" Eren's mother discourages his interest in the Survey Corps; like many people, she sees them as suicidally reckless, if not a waste of taxpayer money since most people have everything they need (at least, enough for a minimal subsistence existence) on the inside.

Then one day everything falls apart into terror: a 60-meter-tall Titan, one of the anomalous "Abnormals," appears out of nowhere and smashes a hole in the wall. (Of course, OT, the Colossus Titan still isn't nearly as big as the giants in W.G. Marshall's science fiction novel Enormity, who are ONE MILE TALL. Just sayin'.) Hordes of giants pour through the hole, thousands of people are eaten, and humanity retreats behind an inner wall, where thousands more die of starvation in the smaller space. Eren survives the slaughter, along with his two best friends, Armin, a nervous genius, and Mikasa, a super-cool tough girl whose main emotion is devotion to Eren. ("Without me around, you'll die an early death.") Five years later, the three of them graduate together from military training, ready to join the Survey Corps, to see the outside world…and maybe, just maybe, turn the tide in the Titans' assault on humanity. After the bloodshed he witnessed when the wall fell, Eren wants revenge: "This time, the humans will devour the giants!!"

The grim world of Attack on Titan has a retro feel, a bit like Fullmetal Alchemist. People ride horses (presumably fuel is rare), buildings and uniforms have an Old European late-1800s look, and the government is monarchical. Such technology as still exists is used mostly to fight Titans; the Titans regenerate quickly, cannons only slow them down, and the only way to kill them is to destroy a small area at the top of their spine. To combat them, elite soldiers wear "Vertical Maneuvering Equipment," basically a combination of grappling hooks and waist-strapped jetpacks which let them jump great distances. In short, you've got people swinging through the air like Spider-Man, swinging swords at the necks of gigantic monsters: isn't that much cooler than just shooting them with bigger and bigger guns? (They also use other clever anti-Titan methods, like making a "flesh wall" by pinning giants on metal hooks, until they're pinned together so densely other giants can't get through.) Unfortunately for humanity, there's a high attrition rate among Titan fighters. Titans grab them out of the air and squeeze out their guts. They are smashed against walls, stomped underfoot, and eaten. Fresh-faced young soldiers, who one moment are fraternizing and joking, in the next moment are screaming as they're torn apart. (OTOH, as a reader, I'm glad at least they die in battle; this isn't on one of those boring manga that spends thousands of pages on training sequences before we even see a Titan.) More disturbing than mere physical gore are scenes like the one when a soldier continues desperately trying to resuscitate her comrade with mouth-to-mouth even though his body is missing from the waist down; or the soldier surrounded by Titans who finds a gun, cheerfully says "All right!", and then uses it to blow his own brains out. This is war; some people go insane, some people die.

Attack on Titan is a hit that lives up to the hype; I couldn't stop reading every volume once I started. Sure, freshman mangaka Hajime Isayama's artwork has its rough spots at first. Sure, some people will have immediately tuned out the moment I compared the premise to zombies, the most worn-out trend on Earth. But it's the execution, not the premise, that makes a series succeed or fail. Isayama defies the safe expectations of a shonen manga by making us really worry about the characters and establishing a dark mood from the beginning. From the moment in the first chapter when we meet 10 top graduates of the military academy, we know that not everyone will survive. As they are tested in combat we learn who they are: Eren and Mikasa who were united by a tragic event in their childhood; the nervousness and guilt that haunts Armin ("If I died it wouldn't matter"); the swaggering bravado of Jean, the jerk who just wanted to join the military so he could get a cushy job. Later on we meet ruthless Lance Corporal Levi, perhaps the only person with more natural fighting talent than Mikasa; and Zoë Hange, a (mad?) scientist who does research on Titans, constantly full of nervous energy. There are many strong female soldiers, and several characters drawn so androgynously it's hard to tell their gender, a far cry from more fanservicey shonen manga. The "service" here isn't sexuality; it's great action scenes, strong characters, dramatic tension and tons of creepy monsters, blood and gore.

And mysteries; the other great thing is the mysteries. (SPOILERS from here on.) The world of Attack on Titan is a dystopia, filled with conspiracies and dark secrets and the strange science-fiction rationale behind the Titans. (Early on, we discover that the Titans don't actually need to eat people; they can live apparently immortally without food, and they periodically vomit up the corpses so there's room for more. Also, they have no genitals, so how do they reproduce?) Early on, the heroes discover a secret that changes everything: some human beings have the power to transform into Titans. Actually, it's not so much that they 'transform' as that they summon a Titan body around them, in which their human body remains embedded at the neck, like the pilots in Neon Genesis Evangelion, the ultimate biological mecha. (Remember, their weak spot is their necks…?) Awakened to his Titan powers, Eren becomes a gigantic killing machine, barely in control of himself, able to rip enemy Titans apart with his bare hands. He's the military's greatest weapon, but with the discovery of his powers comes another terrifying realization: anyone could be a Titan. Soon, like the 2004 Battlestar Galactica only with "Who's a Titan?" instead of "Who's a Cylon?", our heroes realize that the greatest threat could walk among them. Could Titans actually have a form of intelligence and motivations beyond just eating people? Why would any human side with the Titans against the human race? What's more exciting: watching a bunch of people try to bring down a 50-foot giant, or watching two 50-foot giants beat the hell out of each other with trees, boulders, and piece of buildings? The secret of the Titans' origin may lie somewhere out in Titan-occupied territory, in a place from Eren's childhood…but perhaps the most monstrous secrets were waiting inside the wall all along…

Like all popular things, Attack on Titan has been heavily criticized and analyzed, including now by myself. Some bloggers have asked, is Attack on Titan (and by extension all zombie stories) racist, since it's about hostile invaders who can't be reasoned with and can only be killed? I'd say no; as long as they're not identified with a specific real group, the idea of "innately evil people who only exist to kill and be killed" (zombies, alien invaders, etc.) isn't necessarily any more offensive than "innately ridiculous people who exist only to be laughed at" (comedy) or "innately horny people who exist only to have sex" (porn). None of these three things exist in real life, but in fiction they're useful. Isayama himself said the Titans were inspired by a frightening physical encounter with a belligerent drunk when he was working at an Internet café. As a metaphor, zombies can embody many different threats and fears: for example the fear of others, of having your comfortable walls and barriers torn down by invading hordes; or the fear of yourself, of isolation and stagnation, of finding out the corruption was inside you all along. Like many of the best zombie stories, Attack on Titan has both these elements, depicting a world where "Us vs. Them" is not clear-cut, where nowhere and no one is completely safe. (Interestingly, the Titans' designs are basically a case study in "masking"; the Titans don't always look inhuman (although some do), but because they're drawn in an unflattering 'realistic' style with creepy facial expressions and the human characters are drawn 'manga-style', the Titans look hideous.)

It's a harsh world, with no easy answers, and this is something you either love or hate about Attack on Titan. "I hate the human element in this manga, the heroes are so incompetent, they're the villains," one online commenter complained. "Translation: 'I don't like it when heroes aren't perfect and can't fight without killing a single person,'" another commenter shot back. "If you want a utopia where the good guys find the solution by being completely morally correct, then you should read some other manga." A recurring theme in Attack on Titan, as in most apocalyptic stories, is the struggle between pragmatism and idealism: what are you willing to do to survive? Is it morally right to let some people die so that others may live? Forget about killing a Titan, would you kill another human being? As the series goes on, the heroes must make difficult moral choices again and again. Eren, the closest thing to a standard idealistic shonen manga hero, is fueled mostly by righteous rage. But some other characters, such as Levi and Hange, are more openly willing to say "the end justifies the means." "If you're not willing to throw away something important, you'll never be able to do anything," one character says. "Our job is to die as courageously as we possibly can," says a soldier about to perform a suicide mission. At one point the heroes yell at frightened civilians, "If you're too scared to fight for yourselves, at least support those who fight for you!!" In short, although it's not a racist manga, Attack on Titan is arguably a militaristic manga; it shows corrupt soldiers and incompetent generals, it shows senseless war deaths, but it also shows noble soldiers and good generals, it presents self-sacrifice for war as sometimes a necessary thing. Of course, many Americans have similar views about the U.S. military, but in Japan, such views are sometimes associated with right-wing nostalgia for WWII. When Isayama commented online that Dot Pixis, a heroic general in Attack on Titan, was based on Japanese general Akiyama Yoshifuru (1859-1930), Chinese and Korean Titan fans took this as evidence that Isayama was one such right-winger. (Though Yoshifuru died before World War II, he was involved in Japan's invasion and occupation of Korea.) Tweets about Japan's invasion of Korea attributed to Isayama's purported twitter account continued the controversy and led to online threats against the artist.

But ultimately I don't care so much about Isayama's personal views; I care what's in his manga. (Personally, I think the most right-wing plot element in Titan is the small racial detail that Mikasa is one of the last Asians in the world, and that Asians are rare and thus extra desirable. It's the kind of ethno-nationalistic plot point that shows up in manga like Sho Fumimura's Japan…and also, if the unspecified location of the story isn't anywhere near Asia, why is there a district called Shinganshina?) Beneath all the blood and grit, Attack on Titan might be a glorification of the military, it might be a criticism of the military, or it might be both. The Titans might be horrible monsters, they might be pitiful victims, they might be the future of humanity, or all three. It's boring to read a story where you already know the moral. Attack on Titan keeps me guessing, and that's a good thing. I'm 12 volumes in, and I still can't wait to find out what's on the other side of that wall.

Banner designed by Lanny Liu .

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