Attack on Titan
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 56 of
Attack on Titan (TV 4/2019) ?
While I'm sure the revelations offered up by “The Basement” are bound to make writing about Attack on Titan even trickier than before, I'm just relieved that the show didn't cut to credits the minute Levi kicked down the Yeagers' door. After six agonizing years of waiting, Attack on Titan has finally delivered the goods. The door has been opened, the basement has been scoured, and Grisha Jaeger's secrets have been revealed. The results are game-changing, especially for those lucky enough to avoid being spoiled all this time. Unfortunately, I absorbed some of these plot details via internet osmosis, but that didn't make it any less thrilling to see the full scope of things finally unravel in real time. What the Scouts found in the Jaeger basement might not have been exactly what you were expecting, but it's definitely enough to shake the foundation of Attack on Titan to its core.
But first, all of the other stuff. Armin wakes up to reckon with having eaten Bertholdt, cheated death, and become a Titan Shifter, which is understandably a lot to handle. Thankfully, the show doesn't waste too much time on this part of the story – Armin's sticking around for the long haul, after all, so there'll be plenty of time to deal with his tormented psyche later on. Even he realizes that what matters most now is the Scouts seizing their chance to get to that basement.
What follows is a wonderful exercise in restraint, a three-minute long sequence that's almost wordless, save for a couple of lines from Levi and Hange, as Eren and Mikasa make their first journey back home in about as many years as the audience has spent away from this place. I'm always quick to criticize anime that rely too heavily on internal monologue to spell out their emotional beats, but AoT thankfully adopts a more low-key approach. We get some powerful music from Hiroyuki Sawano that accompanies our heroes' silent reflection on the lives they once lived before their whole world turned into hell. The sequence strikes a good balance of playing on our collective nostalgia for these characters' innocence without getting too schmaltzy about it. The snippets of flashback we do get fit well and aren't distracting, serving as the perfect lead up to our arrival at the episode's titular centerpiece.
Surprisingly, Eren's key doesn't fit the lock, but Levi is thankfully able to channel the fandom's collective anxiety into a single door-busting kick, which gets us into the fabled basement, revealing not much at first. There's a bunch of medicine, some dusty old books, the standard trappings of a doctor's laboratory. As Levi remarks, it's perfectly innocuous, which is exactly what someone like Grisha would want potential interlopers to think. It isn't until Mikasa discovers another keyhole in Grisha's desk, which Eren's key fits into perfectly, that the crew finds three journals, one of which contains a most unusual artifact. At first Eren thinks it's a portrait of his father as a younger man, but a note on the back confirms Hange's suspicion. Far too detailed to be a painting or drawing, this image is made by burning a reflection of light onto a special kind of paper.
In other words, it's a photograph. That's technology far beyond what the humans within the walls have been capable of producing. When the Scouts return home, they arrive to a ticker-tape parade celebration of their reclamation of Wall Maria, but none of them are smiling. What Grisha has revealed is a whole other world of human civilization, where people live in luxury with impossible technologies somewhere beyond the borders of everything our heroes once knew.
The post-credits scene gives us even more to chew on, and this is also where things get sticky. We jump back decades in time to find a young Grisha Jaeger with his little sister, Fay. The two live in a world that resembles our own in the early twentieth century. The fashion is more modern, and dirigibles soar through the air above the children, which Fay is especially fond of. The problem is that the Jaeger's home village is closed off under heavy guard, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the ghettos that Jews (and other disenfranchised populations) were forced to relocate to during World War II. Just in case the allegory wasn't crystal-clear, Grisha's people are all forced to wear armbands when they leave their homes, and they must never go beyond the walls of their ghetto.
I have only a vague understanding of the story beats to expect in the coming weeks, and we've only been given the briefest glimpse of Attack on Titan's secret history, but I would not be the first to point out that even these scant few scenes are walking the razor's edge of thematic appropriateness. So much of Attack on Titan's imagery and themes has been built around a brand of imperialism adopted by the Japanese in the First and Second World Wars that the series has long been scrutinized for straying into glorification of a sensitive history. (It caused no small amount of controversy for Hajime Isayama when it was revealed that Dot Pixis was modeled after a Japanese Naval Officer from WWI who perpetuated war crimes against other Asian nations, such as China and Korea.)
The issue that is now bound to cause many to exclaim “What the hell, Attack on Titan!?” is how it frames Grisha (and presumably, all of the Titan Shifters who hail from his homeland). The Holocaust allegory is both undeniable and incredibly volatile, because one could see it an easy comparison between Titans, which are horribly deformed flesh-eating monsters in innocuous human skin, and the Jewish people. If this was the extent of Attack on Titan's appropriation of Holocaust imagery, it would indeed be reprehensible. I can't think of how any story could recover from taking the victims of the most horrifying genocide in recent memory and reframing them as the villains. If that were the case, Attack on Titan's heroes would be re-aligned as the “virtuous” soldiers of an Imperial Army, using their might to fight for their homeland's survival against an allegorical cabal of deceitful monstrous invading foreigners – there's a word for that ideology, and it's fascism.
But this is where I toss in a big "however!" For all of its problematic indulgence in the spectacle of warfare, I've always argued that Attack on Titan is a complex work that examines the follies and horrors of war just as much as it lionizes soldiers who fight on the front lines. AoT has proven more than willing to examine the psychological and societal destruction that comes from blind nationalism and unquestioning devotion to a corrupt hierarchy in the past. After all of these years, I have faith that Isayama's story is building to a message that's more humanistic than “Soldiers Good, Foreigners Bad”. At least, I really hope that's the case. With fascism on the rise all over the world, I absolutely understand why some folks might not want anything to do with a series whose themes are so irrevocably concerned with glorious conquest. It's easy to see how Attack on Titan's allegory could be interpreted as an attempt to re-contextualize real-world atrocities in a way that provides too much space for fascistic ideology to flourish.
I truly don't think it's going to be that simple, though. Attack on Titan has always been about staring the ugliest aspects of war in the face to accept all the nuances that follow humanity's darkest hours, and this turn of events could be yet another opportunity to tear down Eren's already-diminished practice of seeing his enemy as an inhuman horde to be slain. Recent episodes have made it clear that, even though the Titans are enemies to humanity, they possess equally complicated and even sympathetic perspectives. Their motivations for waging this war could be just as valid as any of our heroes', and we won't know for sure without further context. For those men and women living beyond the walls, Eren's definition of humanity is the monster that needs to be slain, and I suspect that Attack on Titan will be spending most of its time next week showing us how things got to be this bad for everyone.
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