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Characters standing at the bow of a battleship, as one says “Let’s tell them everything,” in Attack on Titan, Kodansha (2021). Image: Hajime Isayama/Kodansha

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Attack on Titan couldn’t escape controversy in the end

Looking back at the legacy the manga leaves behind

After a 12-year run, Attack on Titan has come to an end. The final panels of the manga jumped years after the Rumbling, focusing on a plot conceived by series protagonist Eren Yaeger to effectively enact genocide on the world at large. The coda is a tangle of images, sprinting past plot points that go unresolved to illustrate heavy-handed imagery of war and peace, and leave the manga’s legacy muddled.

While many viewed Hajime Isayama’s story as having a fascist subtext all along — incorporating real-world parallels to the implementation of concentration camps and even stalwart nationalism within its body of work — it took the creator’s final pages for many readers to buy the argument. Some fans took to Twitter to insist that the story is one that discourages war and remilitarization; while others lamented that the plot lacked a proper conclusion, even comparing it to the lackluster reception of the finale of Game of Thrones. Somewhat predictably, a petition emerged on to change the ending of the series entirely.

Attack on Titan ends with the world at the cusp of a literal race war, with the Eldians and Marleyans seeing no true solution other than to remilitarize and kill one another until only one group remains. Despite the intention of protagonist Eren Yeager, whose goal was to become history’s villain in order to unify people and achieve superficial peace, the Eldians come together under his name and dub themselves “Yaegerists,” remilitarizing their country in the years after Eren’s death.

During this time, Armin Arlert, alongside remaining members of the now presumably disbanded Survey Corps, are on their way to discuss peace with the Eldian leaders. Lacking consistency within the narrative framework of the series, the final spats of exposition rapidly unfold, with the ultimate chapter devoting a flashback sequence to Eren disclosing his plan to Armin sometime well before the final conflict.

Though riddled with contradictions over the years, Isayama’s message of a future dependent on remilitarization seems clearer than ever. There is a level of finality in the slogan of the Yaegerists, which roughly translates to “If you can fight you win, if you cannot fight you lose! Fight, fight!” with the reigning monarch of the Eldian people, Historia Reiss, ascribing to this body of thought.

One can argue that Isayama’s message is anti-war, given Armin’s stance and determination to share with the world the truth of Eren Yaeger’s attempt at global genocide. But the ending isn’t bold enough to refute the Yaegerists, and instead settles for a level of ambivalence that sits in contrast to years of pro-imperialist and fascist text that further solidifies a country’s need for a military. Instead of a twist or subversion that could challenge the debate, Isayama opted for silence.

Uniformed people raise their fists and shout, as narration boxes say “If we win, we live. If we lose, we die. If you don’t fight, we can’t win.” in Attack on Titan, Kodansha (2021). Image: Hajime Isayama/Kodansha

Remilitarization is a constant point of discussion in Japan, for both members of the Liberal Democratic Party and Japanese citizens. Recent action on the topic includes a potential revision of Article 9, which would allow Japan to officially reinstate its military. Since the resignation of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe August 2020, talk of revising Article 9 has significantly dwindled, though it’s remained an objective for the Nippon Kaigi, an ultranationalist group within Japan that has several ties to the current political party, who current Prime Minister Yoshihida Suga is openly affiliated with. However, any rethinking of the military remains a point of contention among the Japanese people; in a poll taken in June 2020, 69% of the population opposed the revision of Article 9.

As noted in Attack on Titan analysis over the years, Isayama has highlighted on his personal blog that the character of Dot Pixis is based on Japanese general Akiyama Yoshifuru, whom he praised for his shrewdness. This is important when considering the context of Isayama’s work, that and the name of Attack on Titan’s deuteragonist, Mikasa Ackerman: Both of these characters are inspired, in some way, by a specific period of the Russo-Japanese War. Yoshifuru was a general in the Japanese Imperial army, and Mikasa was the name of a pre-dreadnought battleship that participated in several naval encounters, including the Battle of Tsushima, in which the Japanese navy decisively defeated virtually the entire Russian fleet.

This period saw the Japanese empire’s further colonization of Asia, including Korea and other Asian nations. Additionally, this is when the teaching of “bushido” began as a reimported concept. The code of honor, which never really existed, was taught in Japanese schools to further push imperialist propaganda that placed loyalty to the Japanese empire.

A critical theory on Attack on Titan began to form when viewers connected Isayama’s interest in the time period and comparison of Dot Pixis’ likeness to Yoshifuru to a controversy surrounding a Twitter account, allegedly belonging to the manga creator, that tweeted about Japanese and Korean relations during the Japanese occupation of Korea. The tweet in question stated that “It would be horrible to think of the military personnel that were there before the formation of South Korea as something comparable to Nazis. The Korean people who were governed doubled their population and lifespans.”

The micro-blog ends with the assertion that the treatment of the Korean people under Japanese occupation could not be comparable to the ethnic genocide of the Jewish people. This belief is common among history revisionist and conservative circles, with conservative groups like the Nippon Kaigi effectively erasing mentions of these war crimes from some Japanese history books.

“It wasn’t great, I remember it trending on Twitter for a while. As internet communities do, there were mixed opinions but it was mostly strongly voiced disappointment. There was disbelief in it, too. Some were like ‘Oh this is unsurprising, have you read it?’” Korean Twitter user Ju-hyun Song said, commenting on the previous controversy. “It’s still even quoted as “one of those [manga],” or a genre to avoid. They went on to say that the reception to the ending was “mixed, but generally negative,” among Attack on Titan’s Korean readership.

While journalists have been unable to confirm that the now-locked account belongs to Isayama, the ending of Attack on Titan echoes the sentiments in its own way. In a sequence between Armin and Eren, Eren discloses the feelings of Ymir Fritz the first Titan and wife of Karl Fritz, the former king of Eldia. And that, despite her status as his slave, it was love that compelled her to protect and ultimately die for him.

Eren tells Armin that Ymir Fritz, the first Titan, loved her royal husband Karl Fritz enough to die for him, even after he burned her village, killed her parents, and pulled out her tongue, in Attack on Titan, Kodansha (2021). Image: Hajime Isayama/Kodansha

The plot point serves as a sort of “gotcha!” that seeks to sanitize the relationship between a colonized people and their colonizers, and affirms common rhetoric employed by history revisionist circles to twist the truth around the history of sexual slavery in Japanese colonies. In Miki Dezaki’s documentary Shushenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women, members of conservative groups insist that these women were not victims of sexual slavery, which illustrates how these ideas are still pervasive today.

Revisionism is a consistent theme in Attack on Titan, from the truth of Ymir the First Titan to Eren erasing Armin’s memories until his death, so that Armin can then tell the truth of his plan to the world. And, in some ways, it is almost unsurprising that Attack on Titan would end with a triumphant hurrah for remilitarization offset by a passive offering for peace. The future of the world within the universe of Attack on Titan is uncertain, which is perhaps Isayama’s intention. The resolution of Attack on Titan remains contradictory at best in its intentions. However, the pro-imperialist and fascist underpinnings of the series remain in the form of a push for remilitarization, presented as an essential means to protect a thinly veiled allegory of an island nation from external threat.

Attack on Titan leaves readers with an assertion of “us versus them” in the Yaegerist’s slogan, “If you can fight you win, if you cannot fight you lose.” Peace can, perhaps, be obtained, but only through the actions and manipulations of a single man. The divisiveness of this inconclusive ending is another on the list of myriad controversies that has plagued the series, casting a long shadow over the actual story’s dwindling legacy.

The final season of the anime might stir conversation one final time, and bring the series back into the forefront and spotlight among more avid fans. But when I think of Attack on Titan, it’s the controversy that I remember, alongside Isayama’s love and fascination for the historical period in which Imperial Japan began its long era of colonizing other Asian countries. That is what Attack on Titan leaves behind — a legacy of imperialism.