The Narrative Legacy of 'Attack on Titan:' Cruelty, Beauty and the Life in Between, by Emma Rudkin
As someone who can never enjoy anything a normal or healthy amount, Attack on Titan has been an instrumental part of my personality since sixth grade.
A deceivingly simple story at the beginning, the show’s premise is that the last of humanity retreated behind three giant circular walls to protect themselves from the creatures that brought the human race to near extinction: humanoid maneaters dubbed titans (hence the story’s title).
It was initially published in 2009 by Hajime Isayama as a manga series and then adapted into an anime by WIT Studios, with it debuting in 2013. After 10 years of running, the final episode aired Nov. 4, 2023, a day I never thought would come. But it did, so lately I’ve been reflecting on why this series is so important to me in the first place and why I’m so adamant about everyone in my life giving it a chance.
I remember wearing my sage green Survey Corps T-shirt to school every single week in sixth grade. One of my friends can vouch that before they had properly met me, they knew me as “Attack on Titan shirt girl,” a title I took no offense to bearing. I was obsessed, and in many ways, I still am.
I grew up with this show — literally — in the sense that it aired over the course of 10 years alongside both my physical and mental development. As I grew up and started to realize just how complex our world is and how frighteningly small my place in all of it is, so did my favorite characters. It was a hard realization for me and them alike.
Attack on Titan has always been calloused and unforgiving even from the pilot episode … especially in the pilot episode. It sets a very grim and brutal precedent for the way our characters’ world works. Before I could even recall the name of the protagonist Eren’s mother, her body was snapped in half and devoured right before my and Eren’s eyes.
The entire episode successfully trauma bonds the viewer with the three main characters: Mikasa, Armin and, most notably Eren. Eren’s resolution to single-handedly murder every single titan isn’t so crazy to a viewer who saw everything he experienced on that day.
Despite a grim opening and a collection of high-stakes episodes where it truly feels like any character could die, the world in which the story takes place seemed simple and easy to understand: humanity versus titans. While world-building and characterization certainly set the show apart and explain how it took the world by storm in the early-to-mid 2010s, at its core, the series is simple: another shonen anime. Shonen is a genre in anime that primarily caters to adolescent boys and, thus, contains action-packed stories.
The shonen elements displayed in the first season are deliberate measures taken to deceive the viewer into thinking that they know where the story is going. Unlike a shonen hero would, though, Eren does not forever serve as a surrogate protagonist for those young shonen-loving boys watching. He doesn’t go on some fantastical journey, along the way tapping into his newfound powers and becoming just as strong physically as he is mentally. Instead, he unravels as the series progresses as a reflection of the cruel world of Attack on Titan.
Eren crumbles under the pressure and the unbearable weight of the consequences of his actions — just as any of us would. But his distress begins to manifest itself in questionable and, at times, downright disagreeable ways. Eren challenges our perception of him; in order to fully engage in the story, we must confront our own morality.
I’ve always described the series using this analogy: Season 1 is like looking through a keyhole. Season 2 is like looking through the crack of an open door that’s about an inch wide. Season 3 is the process of that door completely opening. Season 4 is the explosion of the door and the room we once stood in before stepping past the doorway.
The story feeds us revelation after revelation that forces us to reevaluate everything we had previously perceived about the world of Attack on Titan … only for them to do it again half a season later. These twists aren’t random, either; foreshadowing is sprinkled throughout the entire series, giving it plenty of rewatch value (an aspect I highly value in my media consumption).
I never would have guessed that a well-written shonen anime would turn into a commentary on nationalism, human nature and the never ending cycle of violence, but here I am imploring you to give it a shot because of these qualities.
I couldn’t possibly concisely and effectively summarize a decade worth of expert storytelling in a brief few hundred words, nor do I want to spoil anything. What I can provide, though, are three of my favorite quotes from the entire series that, without spoiling anything, touch on some of the core themes of the narrative. Note that these quotes are translations, so they may not be one-to-one with the source material, which was written in Japanese.
“The world is cruel and merciless … but it is also very beautiful.” - Mikasa Ackerman
This quote provides the thesis of Attack on Titan. While the anime doesn’t shy away from depicting horrors like beloved characters being eaten alive, human-on-human violence, or the cycle of hatred, it also takes time to display the beauty of the world.
Most episodes carve out a few seconds to feature the beauty of the characters’ surroundings. Not just the sights are featured, but also the sounds — birdsongs, the wind, insects chirping, childrens’ distant laughter — to effectively display the world’s ability to possess pure beauty, no matter how cruel it may be.
These moments of stillness also almost exclusively feature nature, and cases where humans appear, they are tiny within the frame. This emphasizes the insignificance of humanity in the face of nature, the fleeting nature of humans, and how, at the end of the day, these individual characters that we’ve become so attached to are trivial in the grand scheme of life.
This ties beautifully with the theme of history repeating itself, which is ultimately reinforced with the series’ conclusion, but you’ll have to watch it yourself to fully make that connection.
Characters that lose sight of the world’s capacity for beauty are all the more miserable for it. I think of characters like Armin, Hange and Mikasa who are able to hold onto a semblance of sanity when so many others couldn’t. Characters like Zeke and Eren resign to the nihilist mindset that the brutality of their world pushes them to adopt. The story spares no opportunity to display how they and their loved ones are worse off as a result of their submission to the world’s cruelty.
“The only truth in this world is that there is no truth. Anyone can become a god or a devil. All it takes is for people to believe it.” – Eren Kruger
Attack on Titan investigates the concept of objective truth as the story progresses and life becomes much more complex than trying to evade the titans. The beautiful thing about this quote is that it implicates the viewer, as well. The audience grows with Eren, Mikasa, Armin and their friends for the majority of the series, and it is later expected to extend empathy to their “enemies.” It’s asking a lot of the viewer.
I know so many people unwilling to try to understand characters opposing the protagonists. With Attack on Titan, though, the humanity of every single character, even those with opposing allegiances, is explored. This makes it a challenge to not extend a degree of empathy to the opposing characters, as the show characterizes them just as well as it does the protagonists.
The narrative does such a wonderful job displaying the subjectivity of everything. By shifting perspectives to our original protagonists’ enemies, the narrative communicates very well that if it were this second perspective shown originally, we would have sided with the “enemies” and considered our protagonists Eren, Mikasa, Armin, etc. as the enemies.
With such a large ensemble cast, it’s beyond impressive just how fleshed-out every single character is. As a result, this moral complexity doesn’t end at the characters, as it also extends to the viewer. The lack of true objectivity is not unique to Attack on Titan’s world, as it also exists in our own. It’s important for narratives to challenge our way of thinking and perceiving the world around us.
“Everyone I’ve met was all the same. Drinking, women, worshiping God, even family, The King, dreams, children, power— Everyone had to be drunk on something to keep pushing on.” - Kenny Ackerman
This quote applies to every single character in the series — maybe even every person in general. Attack on Titan investigates many aspects of human nature, and this quote from Kenny has stuck with me even four years after I first watched the episode wherein he said it. Despite the metaphor equating motivation with drunkenness, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Oftentimes, characters didn’t have much left when they lost motivation (something to “be drunk on”).
The quote ultimately ties into a pivotal decision that Levi was left to make between two soldiers in Season 3. With Kenny’s words in mind, I surely would have made the same decision. Of course, this can also manifest in harmful or self-destructive ways, including but not limited to actual drinking, women and power. Although, the human necessity to work toward something is another core theme explored by the series. It’s left to the person themself in what way that motivation will manifest itself — productively or harmfully — much like it is up to us in our own lives.
While Attack on Titan isn’t perfect (as much as it hurts to admit), it is my favorite piece of media that I have ever engaged in, and I highly doubt that I’ll change my mind any time soon, if ever. So if you like morally complex stories, well-written ensemble casts or things that simply look cool, look no further.
You have the privilege to binge the entire thing whenever you want to, which is not a benefit I had when first watching the series. You don’t have to wait for the episodes, so what are you waiting for?