Having fallen behind the anime scene some years ago, I didn’t know quite what to expect when a friend lent me one of the most popular current series, Attack on Titan.
Despite a title that sounds like it belongs to a forgotten A.E. van Vogt military thriller, this series based on the hit manga takes place in a half-medieval, half-Edwardian parallel world. And instead of straight sci fi, Attack on Titan blends elements of every genre from dark fantasy to kaiju films to mecha. A couple episodes even go full gunslinging Western. Its plot and setting also lend themselves to any number of real-world allegories, one of the most germane to this blog being intergenerational conflict.
It’s almost impossible to say more without at least brushing up against spoilers, though I’ll try not to divulge too much, but be warned.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Attack on Titan is its dedicated attempt to avoid overreliance on predictable, repetitive anime clichés. The series draws on Western fiction tropes to get past these dead ends. AoT’s commitment to innovation also gives rise to its biggest weakness, since the plot usually fails to break through those dead ends.
The show’s setup can be explained in simple terms. Cannibal giants have driven humanity into hiding behind a system of colossal walls. One day, the hundred-year peace is shattered when a sudden titan assault breaches mankind’s only defense. A small band of war orphans vow to get revenge on the titans while protecting each other.
That sounds like a simple premise, but the fact that they got four seasons out of it should tell you all is not as it seems. A lesser series would have featured episodic plots wherein the military engage the kaiju of the week, only to fail but get bailed out by the superpowered hero. To be sure, AoT’s protagonist does get superpowers, and you can see the production team trying their hardest to resist taking the low-hanging fruit. But for all their skill, the solutions they come up with almost always turn out less satisfying than just letting the hero beat the bad guys.
At this point, we need to address AoT’s main character, Eren Jaeger. He ticks a lot of boxes on the shonen hero checklist. Specifically, he fits the “aggressive mediocrity with a chip on his shoulder but limitless resolve” archetype to a T. He gets a strong motive, complete with oft-repeated “I want” statement, right away. We soon start to root for him when he’s shown to have zero talent but graduates boot camp through sheer determination.
The Japanese penchant for elitism soon steps in to sort out the pecking order. Eren comes to resemble fan favorite Naruto character Rock Lee, whose similar combination of low status and iron will landed him in traction. The Western way to resolve Eren’s arc would be for his hard work and gumption to pay off. To bend Brand Zero discipline by way of illustration, think of pre-Ground Zero Peter Parker winning against impossible odds because “Must … do it for … Aunt … May!”
But anime and manga have a cultural allergy to dirt people showing up their betters, so AoT gives Eren superpowers.
To their credit, the show’s creators saw the aforementioned “Form Gundam ZZ to beat this week’s monster” problem looming ahead. But once again, they can’t quite come up with an interesting storytelling solution, so they put their thumbs on the scale to keep Eren from using his power to solve his problems.
I hate to get all Sandersonian, but Brandon’s First Law applies to AoT. One reason why the protagonist can’t use the show’s magic system to reliably solve problems is because the viewer doesn’t understand the system enough. Because a sufficient explanation of the system would spoil the overarching mystery box plot. (Which, to AoT’s further credit, they do eventually resolve in a satisfactory manner).
It wouldn’t be so bad if Eren just gave it his best shot and came up short most of the time. But since AoT was written by a member of Gen Y from a nation as overrun by herbivores as his secondary world is by cannibals, Eren has to take his repeated failures in the most beta way possible.
That’s right. Not only is Eren constantly thwarted, he is surrounded by strong independent women™ eclipsing his wire fu with their superior waif fu. The writers do get around to explaining how 90 pound girls can trounce men twice their size hand-to-hand, but it comes off as ad hoc and too little, too late. Worse, always needing bailouts from the Teen Girl Squad makes Eren look like even more of a loser.
Brief but pertinent aside: Some call Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion the most cringeworthy anime protagonist. This is false. Eren Jaeger is an order of magnitude more pathetic. Yes, Shinji is an introverted wimp who wastes time contemplating his navel when he should be saving mankind. But Eren is an extroverted wimp who somehow spends more time up his own ass than Shinji. If I had a nickel for every time AoT’s plot goes: *Something happens. Eren stands there whining Why ME!? until after the commercial break* you wouldn’t be reading this, because I’d have retired to a tropical island.
A deeper dive into both characters reveals:
- Shinji’s sense of self-worth is derived from his father’s approval. Eren’s worth is derived solely from his usefulness to women.
- Shinji is a competent cellist. Eren is explicitly said to have no talents.
- Most telling of all, Shinji racks up more combat victories, some unassisted, outshining his female teammates. Eren exists only to validate his female teammates.
The final analysis: Shinji = incel. Eren = beta.
Yet Eren’s betahood follows from the setting’s internal logic. Other commenters have seen AoT as a parable for everything from the Holocaust to Communism. But I’m taking a different angle more in line with the general cultural insights of this blog.
The plight of the humans dwelling within the walls is analogous to the dynamics at play among the last several generations of Western civilization.
Consider that AoT’s human population has spent a century in a walled garden isolated from the outside world. This situation echoes the formative experience of many in Gen Y, the Millennials, and Generation Z, who had sheltered childhoods overseen by helicopter parents. Note also that these people’s history has been stolen from them. No one knows what the titans are, where they came from, or how the walls were built.
I don’t have to tell you which real-life generation maps to the elders who destroyed mankind’s history and traditions in AoT.
As for the others, some lament their confinement but seek comfort in consuming alcohol and playing games. They crumble when faced with serious challenges. These overgrown children are Gen Y.
Still others revel in the memory hole, rejecting anything that came before as evil and potentially disruptive. The complacent and terminally uncurious wall-dwellers are Millennials.
Those like Eren who yearn for liberty they can’t even imagine but were denied the wisdom they need to break free are Zoomers.
Attack on Titan does have important wisdom to share, though. When you get down to it, the Zoomer squad keeps taking L’s for two main reasons:
- Failing Sun Tzu 101
- They don’t want victory as much as the enemy.
Point 2 stems from the series’ lack of anything more than superficial religiosity – a condition sadly shared with its country of origin. And all too many Western Zoomers. Retail nihilism can’t beat a foe who’s sure that not only is there a moral order, they stand atop it.
This review may have come off as negative, but there’s plenty to like about Attack on Titan. It’s one of only a couple current anime series whose aesthetic has managed to move past the post-Ground Zero descent into sterile computer animation. The battle scenes make for spectacular, well-choreographed set pieces. And irritating though many characters are, the writers nail their characterization in terms of differentiation and goals.
There’s also much to be said for a series that at least tries to muscle its way out of the faded pastel maze of tired anime tropes. And while AoT’s dark tone gets oppressive almost to the point of apathy toward its characters’ plight, it gives just enough glimmers of hope to warrant continued watching.
To be honest, if this were a universe where a Soul Cycle anime could get made, AoT’s creative team would rank high on my list to make it happen. As it is, I recommend you read it instead.
Originally published here.