The modern manga and anime industries would not exist without Attack on Titan. Without Hajime Isayama’s dystopian series and its massive, global fan base, Crunchyroll would’ve remained a curiosity instead of the global streaming powerhouse and anime production partner it has become.
Similarly, without rights to the anime — which concludes its third season this month — Netflix certainly wouldn’t have become a big enough player in the anime market to license all of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Ditto Adult Swim, which licensed Funimation’s Attack on Titan dub for its Saturday night Toonami block (a revival of the beloved after-school anime block) and saw its fortunes rise so highly that Adult Swim was able to help produce two follow-up seasons to the legendary anime FLCL.
But recent events within the manga have given readers pause. In particular, the major twist of the series, as well as what’s been occurring since then, has drawn some uncomfortable parallels to global anti-Semitism, far-right Japanese politics, and Isayama’s own personal politics.
[Ed. note: This article contains spoilers for both the Attack on Titan manga and anime. It also contains descriptions of anti-Semitic imagery, the Holocaust, and war crimes.]
While aimed at a slightly older audience than the Big Three manga/anime of the early 2000s — Bleach, Naruto and One Piece — Attack on Titan made many more anime fans out of casual watchers, arriving as it did at the crest of the YA dystopian fiction wave in the West. And while that fever has died off from its circa 2014 high point, the series still has plenty of devoted followers who snap up every single video game, spin-off, and parody manga.
There was an original comics anthology by Western talent, featuring creators like Scott Snyder, Gail Simone and Ronald Wimberly; an original YA novel, Garrison Girl, by Rachel Aaron; and even a crossover with Marvel in which the Avengers, Spider-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy fought Titans in New York City (a story devised by Isayama, with art by Gerardo Sandaval and a script by Marvel Editor-in-Chief C.B. Cebulski). The series, published monthly in Kodansha’s Bessatsu Shonen Magazine in Japan, is now in its final arc, but there seems to be no end to the wider franchise in sight.
But as with any long-running manga, the closer you get to its endgame, the easier it is to see what the message of the series really is. And the message of Attack on Titan appears to have Anti-Semitic and pro-fascist leanings.
Given the cyclical nature of manga production and anime seasons, the fandom chatter around Titan’s themes comes and goes. And now that the anime’s third season is just getting to the start of where this all becomes clear, it’s a good time to unpack it all.
The big twist of Attack on Titan
For the series’ first several arcs, protagonist Eren Yeager was driven by two things: First, to destroy every single Titan he could find to avenge his mother’s death and the destruction of his hometown. And second, to make his way back to the ruins of his house to use a key his father gave him to discover what was hidden in their basement. Even with all the complications thrown his way — including learning he could transform into a Titan — Eren never wavered in this.
In the series’ 85th chapter, Eren finally got his answer. Making his way to the basement at long last, Eren discovered a photograph (something he’d never heard of) of his father with another wife and son. The following chapters showed the journal of Eren’s father, Grisha, revealing that he was actually from the outside world.
That is to say, what Eren and the other characters thought all along — that humanity was largely destroyed by the Titans, with its remnants sealed up behind three rings of walls to defend themselves from the monsters — was wrong. Grisha, the journal explained, was actually from the nation of Marley, and, like our main characters, was a member of a race known as Eldians.
The Eldians, the journal revealed, once ruled the world, their reign stretching back nearly 2,000 years. In that era, a woman named Ymir Fritz somehow acquired the power to become a Titan (just exactly how has never been clearly said) and used it to establish the nation of Eldia. 13 years later, Ymir died (the fate of all who can become Titans), which split her soul into the Nine Titans, whose power was given to nine subjects. Passing down their powers through noble bloodlines, the Nine Titans established the world-conquering, blood-soaked legacy of the Eldian Empire, and, in particular, devastated the nation of Marley.
Infighting eventually consumed the Titan nobility, and eventually, the 145th Eldian King, Karl Fritz, was ashamed of his people’s legacy and how they’d conquered Marley. He orchestrated a civil war that destroyed the Eldian Empire, allowing Marley to swoop in and acquire the majority of the Nine Titans.
Fritz took the majority of Eldians — the ancestors of the series’ main characters — to the island of Paradis, where he rewrote their memories to make them think they were the last of humanity, forcibly turned thousands of Eldians into Colossus Titans, and built the three walls over them. Back in Marley, the remaining Eldians were herded into ghettos, forced to wear identifying armbands with star-shaped symbols (we’ll come back to that) and were shunned as second class citizens. Eldian criminals were taken to Paradis, injected with Titan spinal fluid, and turned into mindless Titans to ravage the island for eternity.
In the modern day, Grisha, Eren’s father, was swept up in a movement to topple the Marleyan government and restore the Eldian monarchy. He even marred the royal heiress and had a son, Eren’s older half-brother Zeke. But when he was 7, Zeke betrayed his parents and their movement to the Marleyan government, and Grisha and his wife were taken to Paradis.
But while his royal first wife was transformed into a Titan (the same one who ate Eren’s mother at Titan’s start), Grisha was spared by a Marleyan soldier. That soldier was the head of an anti-Marley/pro-Monarchy movement, and he sent Grisha on a mission to find the descendants of Eldian royalty in Paradis and steal the power of the Founding Titan.
Eventually, Grisha accomplished his mission, only to learn that his second wife had been devoured. He went mad with grief and injected Eren with Titan fluid, which gave him the powers of the Attack Titan and turned him into a mindless monster, whereupon he ate Grisha.
After Grisha’s journal gave Eren and his friends the knowledge that their civilization wasn’t alone after all, they staged a massive military coup of their own government. Seizing control of Paradis, they began plans to close the 100-year technological gap between them and the rest of the world, and to reestablish the Eldian nation.
Currently, the Attack on Titan manga is in its final arc, with a four year time jump ending in Eren and his followers attacking Marleyan soil in front of international dignitaries, without the authorization of Paradis’ government. Meanwhile, a hundred soldiers have formed a faction in support of Eren’s goals of Eldian restoration, assassinating the current government head and plotting to carry out Eren’s plan to create a New Eldian Empire via “The Rumbling.” That is, helping Eren awaken every single Titan inside the walls and use them to destroy the world.
The good, the bad, and the very, very bad
Despite being wowed by Studio WIT’s dynamic visuals and that undeniably badass first opening theme song, I could never get into Attack on Titan. But having read the entire manga, I acknowledge Isayama has some strengths. For one thing, his pencils are filled with pure energy and his inks are very good at capturing the pure horror that envelops the characters time and time again. For another, the tension successfully generated before each big plot twist is enviable. All these elements are only emboldened in Kodansha Comics’ English-language release, with Ko Ransom & Sheldon Drzka’s nuanced translations and the legendary Steve Wands’ potent lettering.
But well-dressed aesthetics and pacing can only do so much before you start to notice the ideas bubbling underneath the surface. Isayama’s work is full of anti-Korean, nationalist, pro-Japan subtext, parallels to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and subtextual references to Nazi Germany.
For one thing, there’s the so-called Pure Titans: that is, the random Titans that menace our characters throughout the series. Nude, creepily smiling cannibals, these Pure Titans are mindless, not even needing to eat to live so much as for fun. Many of them have grotesque or exaggerated features, from short arms to giant heads to ... large noses. And then there’s the Eldians living in ghettos, wearing star-embroidered armbands.
For another, military might is presented as the strongest, truest power of all. This goes far and beyond the typical theme in Japanese action media of the group of friends banding together, doing their best, and changing the world. Frequently, the military — particularly the Survey Corps that Eren and the rest of the main cast belong to — is presented as full of pure rational-decision makers and unquestioned commanders. The clearly unhinged soldiers, like Titan researcher Zoë Hange and the goofball Sasha Blouse, are mocked. But the certitude that they should lead is never interrogated.
Stepping back from the text itself, to what Isayama has said about the text, there are all sorts of uncomfortable parallels to real-world history. In a 2010 blog post, Isayama (who has always maintained the series was inspired by an incident where he was accosted by a large, drunk foreign man at a cafe) admitted that a supporting character, wily general Dot Pixis, was based on real-life Japanese general Akiyama Yoshifuru, who served in the Japanese Imperial Army from 1916-1923. Considered a hero in Japan — with Isayama admitting he found the general an admirable figure — for his actions in the First Sino-Japanese War, Yoshifuru was responsible for countless atrocities against Korea and China during Japanese occupations.
As the popular advice blog Ask a Korean detailed in 2007, said anti-Korean atrocities (continued long after Yoshifuru’s retirement) included the murder of then-Empress Myeong-Seong, rioting and massacring of thousands of Koreans living in Kanto after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and the notorious “Comfort Women,” a euphemism for the hundreds of thousands of Korean women and girls who were kidnapped and used as sex slaves by the Japanese army (something widely acknowledged by everyone but the Japanese government). With that and the earlier, centuries-long history of hatred between Japan and Korea, small wonder then that when Isayama revealed Yoshifuru as an inspiration, and got into a Twitter flame war where he appeared to deny the notorious Nanjing Massacre, he was swarmed by death threats from Koreans.
For its part, China has simply banned Attack on Titan outright.
Then there’s the ultimate goal of the Yeagerists (who, incidentally, have a very fascist uniform sensibility) being to reestablish the Eldian Empire and take their bloody revenge on the world. Given the unavoidable implied parallels between Eldians in Marley and the Jews in Nazi Germany, the eventual apocalypse that the manga seems to be building towards is, subtextually, like something out of Alex Jones’ darkest ravings. That is, to say, it’s not hard to draw the line between the Yeagerists’ (who Eren, incidentally, seems to tacitly endorse) plan of laying waste to the world and the much-beloved right-wing talking point that the Jews (or as they dog-whistle, “Globalists”) either are already secretly controlling the world or are plotting to through finances, Hollywood, or whatever BS that leaks out of their demented heads this week.
But why now?
These parallels haven’t been lost on the viewing and reading public. In an essay for Women Write About Comics shortly after the anime began, writer Vernieda Vergara pointed out that Isayama is old enough to have lived through the Great Recession (and, it should be noted, grew up during and after Japan’s 1990s economic bubble burst). The rise of his work also coincides with the election of current Japanese prime minister and right-wing militarist Shinzo Abe, who infamously reinterpreted Article 9 of Japan’s constitution — written by the U.S. after WWII, it forbids Japan from having a standing army — to give Japan the ability to increase its self-defense forces and attack when one of its allies is attacked.
But why are people seemingly only upset now, with the anime no longer at the peak of popularity and the manga winding down? Well, for one, the series still has a devoted fanbase. For another, we live in a world where hate groups, authoritarianism and nationalism are on the rise from the U.S. to Japan and beyond. And finally, since Titan exploded onto the scene, there’s been a surge of anime with right-wing leanings, from GATE (a sci-fi show centered around heroic JSDF agents that was actually used as recruitment material by the Japanese army) to the reemergence of the notorious Happy Science cult and the propagandistic anime films they fund to the themes some found in 2018’s Studio Trigger hit Darling in the Franxx.
Put simply, this stuff is on people’s minds and the signs are relatively easy to spot. As for why the outrage seems to occur in cycles? Well, like any popular Japanese property, there’s always the crowd who read the manga first and then the anime-only crowd. Given anime’s long production time — and Titan’s arduous cycle in particular (with a four year gap between the first and second seasons) — conversations about its themes are bound to take some time to resurface. Combine that with Titan’s staggered release across Crunchyroll, FunimationNOW, then DVD, then later Adult Swim, and this is a cycle that will keep happening.
Now, no one can clearly say what Isayama’s true intentions are except for him. But it’s hard to ignore the underpinnings of dystopian fiction when it stares you in the face. It looms over you like the Colossal Titan, serving as a reminder that, even in fiction (maybe especially in fiction), we have a responsibility as consumers to fully engage with what a story might be trying to say. And to consider whether that’s a message we want to hear.
Tom Speelman is a freelance writer, proofreader & editor based in Lansing, Illinois. He’s on Twitter @tomtificate and has written, among other things, the English adaptation for Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka by Makoto Fukami and Seigo Tokiya, available from Seven Seas Entertainment. He encourages you to support your local library.