Who would have thought that an anime about naked giants attempting to use the last of humanity for their own personal buffet would evoke World War II, Japanese imperial thought, and advocate the individual's sacrifice to group-think?
Or maybe over its 25 episodes, the opposite is true: that Production I.G.'s adaptation of the Hajime Isayama manga is a sly critique of the all of the above, and that one season in, the audience hasn't yet been exposed to the line of thinking which upends what would seem to be a sustained celebration of the kind of expansionist thought that led a militarized Japan to look to the Philippines, Korea, and China and begin licking their chops.
Lauded (rightly) by Todd in our year-end TV roundup, Attack on Titan is set 100 years after humanity has effectively lost the war against massive, people-chomping monsters. If you haven't checked it out, you should get on that right now - in part because it is that good, and largely because the following piece will spoil many of the twists from the show's first season (consider yourself warned, etc.).
For the uninitiated, our hero is Eren, a teen who grows up in the outermost of one of three concentric, walled-in communities keeping the Titans out and humans growing complacent after 100 years without a Titan attack. The brash, angry Eren resents that his fellow survivors would remain content to stay confined within the walls of their 18th-century style communities. When the Titans - led by an armored, seemingly intelligent variant, mounts an assault on his community, Eren vows to join the military to kill every last one of their invading oppressors.
Largely a military drama, Attack... is broken into four major engagements with the Titans, where the life or death strategy of the boys (usually) teenaged soldiers in the Scout Regiment and Military police breaks down into two tactics: retreat and defend the
central kingdom innermost wall of Sina, grow fat, and maybe survive for a little longer, or resist and extend humanity's reach beyond the walls.
So here you've got a nation struggling with dwindling resources, a fearful and incompetent government, and a youth culture without direction, facing the struggle of their lives. Sounds like Japan* in 2009, when the world economy felt like it was - well, what's a phrase more terrifying than "free-fall," because it was that. That was the year when unemployment spiked to around 5.7% by that summer, a record number at the time.
This was also the year in which the first volume of the Attack on Titan manga appeared in Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine.
For a nation struggling to find its direction, seemingly prey to the economic and political machinations of larger countries, and falling behind its cultural rival China, it must have been easy to identify with Sina,** a nation under siege. "If only the slackers, the moochers, and the cowards would simply fight back, Attack on Titan" seems to cry with every episode. And be prepared to subsume your identity in the process.
One of the running themes throughout the show is the desires of the individual versus the needs of the many. As a fan of the show, you have to be prepared to watch a lot of bodies drop, as each of the military strategies seems to be one of misdirection by attrition, throwing the bodies of the young soldiers at the Titans so that a smaller force can achieve something greater over time. But when the individual goes off on his or her own, it's the cause of greater pain.
Consider, for instance, the arc featuring the Scouts attempting to capture the intelligent female Titan, which encapsulates a lot of this argument. Eren is asked repeatedly to trust that even through all of the bloodshed, there is a plan to defeat the female variant, which is faster, smarter, stronger, and has abilities not manifest by any of the previous types.
Ultimately, we learn that Captain Erwin's secrecy was based on the (correct) assumption that the female was a human who could transform like Eren, and that the plan was to use a small number of definitively loyal scouts to capture her. The operation goes sideways when Scout leader Levi begins taunting the female as the others plan a means of revealing the traitor within the body.
This, by the way, is a running trope throughout the series: a carefully-laid plan falls apart because of the individual. "We're all in this together," the series would add, except for the cowards, the traitors, and anyone outside the walls of our nation. Erwin ultimately sums up the philosophy of the show when he says that he has to turn off his emotions to save humanity, a curious, likely deliberate reworking of Emperor Hirohito's speech at Japan's surrender at the end of World War II:"I made efforts to swallow tears and to protect the species of the Japanese nation."
At about this point, it's easy to say the show is more about collective effort during crisis and less about militarism if the series' creator didn't deliberately drop a member of the Japanese Imperial Army right into the middle of the action.
That would be Yoshifuru Akiyama (1859-1930), a general in the Army responsible for developing that country's cavalry strategy. He was also part of expeditionary forces into China and against Russia at the beginning of the last century, and he forms the visual (and seemingly character) model for the eccentric general Dot Pixis in Attack on Titan.*** If Akiyama's inclusion isn't an embrace of militarism, it's at least a friendly handshake for a time when Japan was an Imperial power with colonies and greater regional reach.
None of this is even touching on the concept of Titan Eren as the nation's nuclear option, or the simple chauvinism of the show which reduces its best and baddest soldier, Eren's adoptive sister, Mikasa, to a quivering mass of jelly when the emotions get too real, or what the reveal of the traitor in the last two episodes of the first season will say about the those who want to destroy the wall.
So what do you think? Is Attack on Titan a nationalistic call to arms for the young of Japan? Or maybe it's saying something deeper that I'm missing here - maybe something subversive? As always, the comments are open to you to speak your minds.
*Not just Japan, obviously, although the island nation was hit especially hard by the global financial crisis.
**What does it mean that "Sina" is the Latin word for China? I'm not really sure, but Attack presents itself within such an odd cultural melange, it's hard to decide which aspects are for effect, and which are simply for aesthetic.