clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Eren standing above the camera with his arms open facing a big blue sky Image: MAPPA/Crunchyroll

Filed under:

Attack on Titan’s ending isn’t supposed to feel good

Eren Yeager’s journey is relatable — which is what makes his ending so difficult

Watching the final episode of Attack on Titan in 2023 made me feel exactly like I did reading the final chapter of the manga two years ago. The primal screams of the voice actors, goosebump-inducing soundtrack of anime music god Hiroyuki Sawano, and mostly crisp animation of MAPPA — close to but not quite on the same level as Wit Studio’s work on the first and second seasons — all enhanced the experience. Still, the emotions they stirred up inside me were the same ones I felt scrolling through the manga on my laptop: fear, sadness, shame.

[Ed. note: This post discusses the end of the Attack on Titan anime and manga.]

Attack on Titan Final Season “The Final Chapters Special 2” picks up where “Special 1” left off, with the surviving members of Marley’s Warriors and Paradis’ Survey Corps teaming up to stop protagonist turned antagonist Eren Yeager from destroying the world. He’s already destroyed half of it and nearly succeeds at wiping out humanity in its entirety. Eren’s fate arrives in the form of his adopted sister, former companion, and forbidden lover, Mikasa, who, after a lifetime spent protecting her brother-boyfriend, finds it in her to finally cut off his already disembodied head. Eren dies, the curse of the Titans goes away, everyone embraces. Years later, Mikasa visits Eren’s grave under the tree where they slept as children, and where, with Eren waking up from an indecipherable nightmare, the anime originally began. Centuries after that, the tree is still there, and the world is once again engulfed in an all-consuming war.

The ending of the anime, like the manga before it, has generated mixed responses, with many of the complaints boiling down to the handling of Eren’s character. Once heavily disliked by the fan base, his popularity went through the roof when — following the mid-series timeskip — he turned from an incompetent crybaby into a seemingly invincible force of nature, one whose decision to destroy the world appeared to be based on an enlightened understanding of human nature. Traveling to Marley and seeing how the country is hell-bent on eradicating the people inside the Walls, Eren comes to believe that different races and cultures could never live together in peace and that for one to flourish, the other needed to die.

Eren and Armin reflected in water, with Eren walking away and Armin looking at him Image: MAPPA/Crunchyroll

If the goal of “The Final Chapters Special 1” was to establish Eren as this unstoppable force, “Special 2” reveals that the person hidden inside his big, scary titan body is, in fact, the same pathetic, helpless child we met at the beginning of the series. In the previous episode, Eren already hinted that the justifications for his crimes were flawed, that he did what he did because he wanted to do it, not because he needed to. In part 2, during a private conversation with his lifelong friend Armin, the facade breaks down further. They acknowledge that his plan might fail — a possibility confirmed by those end credits, which show the cycle of war continuing far into the future. (The final shot of the anime, of an unnamed boy coming across the same place Founder Ymir discovered her divine powers, even suggests that the Titans themselves will eventually return.) Confronted by his imminent demise, Eren’s stoic demeanor gives way to tears, and he tells Armin he wants Mikasa to think of him for years to come.

To understand what makes these plot points so upsetting, we have to go back to the first episodes. Although Eren Yeager was, as mentioned, heavily disliked by viewers, he was still the protagonist, and the qualities that made him so frustrating to watch — his stubbornness and incompetence — also made him incredibly relatable. In Eren, Attack on Titan’s angsty adolescent fan base could find a perfect mirror: someone who feels deeply, yet is unable to express themselves to others, who wishes desperately to achieve his lofty goals but fails at almost every turn and is humiliated for it.

This interpretation of Eren explains why his character became so popular in the second half of the series, when he turned from a protagonist into an antagonist. The average viewer wasn’t excited by the Rumbling because they have genocidal aspirations of their own. (Although, given the series’ resonance with far-right viewers, this point is certainly worth investigating.) Rather, they were excited because the story of AoT is set up to make us identify with Eren and wish for him to succeed at something — anything.

Seen in this light, Eren telling Armin that he likes Mikasa and that he wants Mikasa to like him is more than a confession of love. It’s also an admission of defeat — an admission that he was wrong, his plan was wrong, that he hasn’t grown, that his choices were misguided, and that all of his struggles were for nothing. In the anime, altered with manga creator Hajime Isayama’s input, Eren is even more explicit:

“Why did this happen?” he asks, kneeling in the blood of 80% of humanity. “I finally understand. It’s because I’m an idiot. An idiot you can find anywhere, who got himself incredible power.”

Attack on Titan wasn’t created in a vacuum, and many other manga and anime feature characters and plot lines that prey on the desires and insecurities of their impressionable audiences. But where most shonen narratives allow fans to live out their personal fantasies, becoming powerful warriors and attracting beautiful women, AoT takes the opposite route, settling on a protagonist whose fragile ego turns him into a villain, a monster, a devil, a loser. Eren’s ending isn’t sloppily written. Far from it; his devolution is intentionally jarring and somewhat unsatisfying, functioning as a rude awakening for anyone who, at any point in the series, felt they recognized a part of themselves in him.

I know I did. As a high school freshman who suffered from social anxiety and dreamed of one day becoming a world-famous writer, I admired pre-timeskip Eren’s drive and willpower. I commended his ability to stay true to himself, the single-minded conviction with which he pursued his goals, and just how little he appeared affected by ridicule and criticism from those who doubted him. I also sympathized with his self-loathing, with the way he agonized over his own shortcomings and deliberately punched himself in the face when he felt that his best wasn’t good enough.

A shot of Eren looking sad Image: MAPPA/Crunchyroll
A shot of an Eren Titan walking past fire Image: MAPPA/Crunchyroll

And while I’ve never wanted to hurt another human being, I would be lying if I said that, during my lowest moments, there wasn’t a voice inside my head that told me life was cruel, and even wished for the destruction of the world.

To this day, no other piece of media — film, show, book, or video game — has spoken to me the way Attack on Titan has. For years, I saw the series as a friend, a confidant as dear to my heart as a living, breathing person. Eren’s maxims penetrated the reptilian part of my brain, where they lived rent-free, echoing whenever I was disappointed with myself or angry at the universe.

As a lonely teenager, Attack on Titan convinced me to trust my own emotions, embrace my own identity, and fight to turn my dreams into a reality. As a wiser, more well-adjusted adult who doesn’t feel so lonely or misunderstood anymore, my attitude toward Attack on Titan has changed. While I still think that there is something uniquely and universally human about Eren’s character, I now recognize his ego as weakness, not strength, something that clouds his judgment, pushes away loved ones, and puts himself and everyone in danger.

The ideas mentioned in this essay are ideas I have talked about many times before, but that the finale finally crystallized. To watch Eren’s death is to let go of your inner child, of your pitiful temper tantrums and the naive, overly simplistic worldview that seeks to provide excuses for them. To finish Attack on Titan as a whole is to take a deep breath and say to yourself, “That was that. Now it’s time to grow up.”

Attack on Titan is streaming on Crunchyroll, including all final parts.

Entertainment

Anime Awards 2024 names Jujutsu Kaisen season 2 Anime of the Year

What to Watch

The best anime of 2024 so far

News

Kaiju No. 8 looks like one of the year’s best anime, and we finally know its release date

View all stories in Anime