Home Arts & Entertainment Animation Spolight: How Attack on Titan approaches fascism and genocide

Animation Spolight: How Attack on Titan approaches fascism and genocide

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Key Visual for Attack on Titan The Final Season Part 2. Screenshot by Thomas Rodda

It’s inevitable that wherever you go in life, no matter what hardships you may face, and no matter what kind of misery will wear you down, as we grow older, the phrase you’ll hear from many is to “keep moving forward.”

What happens when that kind of mentality leads to the worst ending imaginable?

Attack on Titan started out as a manga, illustrated and written by artist Hajime Iseyama. First serialized in Bessatsu Shonen Magazine on Sept. 9, 2009, Attack on Titan would eventually skyrocket into international popularity with the start of its T.V. anime adaptation by Wit Studio on April 7, 2013. After analyzing reports conducted by Parrot Analytics, Attack on Titan won the award for most in demand T.V show in America for the year 2021, held previously only by Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.

To perform an analysis of Attack on Titan’s themes, spoilers will be inevitable. Additionally, the topics discussed will go into gruesome nature, and reader discretion is advised.

Trigger warning: Hyper violence, fascism, genocide

Eren Yeager, a 10-year-old boy, wakes up to the scenery of a field of grass and flowers. In the distance stands a wall, 50 meters high. Having just been sleeping under a lone tree, Eren opens his eyes to find a girl standing before him, his friend Mikasa. She asks Eren why he’s crying, but even Eren doesn’t know why, recounting, “I feel like I just had a really long dream.” Eren feels like he’s lived an entire lifetime for some reason, with memories that aren’t his.

Eren Yeager wakes up under a tree with memories that aren’t his. Screenshot by Thomas Rodda

Initially, Attack on Titan’s story was simple in nature. Eren Yeager, the series protagonist, lives in a terrifying world inhabited by colossal human eating monsters called Titans, surrounded by “miserable walls” encasing and protecting the people of three districts. The walls are labeled as Maria, Rose and Sina.

Diagram of the walls of Maria, Rose, and Sina. Screenshot by Thomas Rodda

The power of the Titans being overwhelming, and without the necessary technology to fight the Titans effectively, humanity has no choice but to cower behind the walls, making Eren feel like he and his people are indisputably cattle.

This peace is short lived, however, because a Titan tall enough to peer over the outer wall kicks a hole through the structure, causing a horde of titans to flood inside. The end result is that Eren’s mother is devoured by one of the monstrosities, and the boy who yearned for freedom vows vengeance against the creatures that would take his life away from him.

The story puts the viewer immediately in a sense of danger that makes the conflict feel entirely all or nothing, the enemy being disfigured monsters that are impossible to sympathize with. This premise worked beautifully for its target audience, spawning a worldwide phenomenon as the central conflict was incredibly simple and easy to get behind. Eren eventually joins a military faction of sorts, the scout regiment, responsible for the exploration outside the walls as well as the elimination of Titans.

For about the first two seasons, the conflict remains about as simple as that, man vs monster. As the story progresses, however, the lines begin to get blurred as to who is acting for the good of humanity. The military factions are splintered off with different prerogatives, the government is self interested in keeping its most wealthy in power, and eventually, the line between human and Titan gets blurred.

It turns out, the real identity of Titans are transformed, disfigured humans, with some having the ability to transform between the two. The king of the walls actually yearns for the nation to be destroyed, and the identity of the Colossal Titan that destroyed Eren’s hometown is one of his comrades.

Comrades Reiner Braun and Bertholdt Hoover reveal to Eren that they were the ones to bust open the wall of Shiganshina, Eren’s hometown. Screenshot by Thomas Rodda

By far, however, the discovery that disappoints Eren the most comes after he’s finally seen the ocean. He realizes that humanity still exists outside the walls.

As it turns out, the entire rest of the world views humanity within the walls as a nation called Paradis, an island of devils that needs to be eradicated through the use of Titan invasion tactics.

There’s a lot of material that’s been skipped for brevity’s sake, but that is the lead up to the central conflict facing Eren going into season four. If he wants to be free, and experience what he’s always dreamed, Eren feels as though he must annihilate the entire rest of the world, lest his island be massacred by the alliance of nations across the sea.

Eren looks out to the sea, asking his closest friends if he’ll finally be free once he kills everyone across the ocean. Screenshot by Thomas Rodda

The ultimatum presented to Eren becomes extremely dark extremely quickly, considering that the story gives Eren Yeager the power to do just that. Using the power of the Titan’s, Eren is given the option to control millions of Colossal Titans residing within the walls in order to enact an apocalypse event called the Rumbling that would destroy the entire world outside of Paradis, an act that can only be aptly compared to genocide.

Eren Yeager carries through with this plan.

Eren Begins the Rumbling as a long, insect-like creature emerges from where his head used to be. Screenshot by Thomas Rodda

It can be aptly described as one of the boldest, if not most controversial decisions ever made for a shonen anime to make its central main character a mass murderer, and to have him be framed through a sympathetic lens. Nevertheless, the question still remains to me of if this story reflects sympathy for genocide and fascism, or rather as a critique for the absoluteness of individualistic values without compromise, a deconstruction of the shonen anime trope of never giving up no matter what.

Fascism is largely understood as being a political ideology and movement that carries with it extremely dark ideals. According to Merriam Webster dictionary, fascism can be understood as, “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”

In simple terms, the two cruxes of fascism can be thought of as being a government that thinks only of the pure blood of its people, and the nationalistic identity of the nation’s land. Blood and Soil, for example, was the prevailing motto of the early fascist Nazi party in Germany.

Could the central ideas of fascism then be applied to having been represented in Attack on Titan? It certainly seems plausible, as one of the central main points of the series is that only people of Eldian blood have the capacity to turn into titans.

This central fact is one that leads to a back and forth mentality of ethnic superiority between the empires of Eldia and Marley. (Marley being the dominant nation on the mainland) The initial Eldian Empire, as well as the nationalist Eldian restorationists within the series claim that, as the race with the embedded ability to turn into Titans, they have the right to subjugate all other races to being second class citizens. Citizens of Marley, essentially being normal humans, feel as though all Eldians, due to their blood, must all be devils due to the nature of their existence.

This discrimination by Marley leads them to designate humans with Eldian blood within Marley as devils by forcing them into internment zones, additionally forcing Eldians to wear special armbands that draw parallels to the real life Jewish badges of World War 2.

A depiction of Eldian warrior Zeke Yeager with his Eldian armband. There have been some concerns as to why the author would draw reference from real life Jewish discrimination. Screenshot by The Anime Tea on Youtube

Eren Yeager, if not directly fascist himself, is certainly a driving force of fascism within the story. The Yeagerist party shows itself within the show to be dictated by values emphasizing Eldian supremacy, and a one party government with a willingness to enact a genocide that would wipe out millions across the ocean. At the very least, Eren is a person capable of said genocide, as shown by the enacting of The Rumbling.

Another character who represents some of the worst of fascist ideals is Floch Forster, Eren’s primary supporter and enabler. While there is still ongoing debate on if Floch is actively fascist, due to never explicitly stating that Eldian blood is superior, he is unequivocally dictatorial.

On multiple occasions, Floch Forster gives complete disregard for his enemies lives, acting as a self appointed leader of the Yeagerist party. In his own words, “What’s so bad about submitting?” is what Floch says just before shooting a foreign volunteer. The volunteer initially wanted to help the Eldians, but then turned against Eren and Floch’s rule after he realized Eren’s Rumbling would destroy his homeland.

Floch Forster executes a defiant volunteer amidst the beginning of The Rumbling. Screenshot by Thomas Rodda

Some would argue that by framing our main character as an unrelenting force of fascism and death, (the fascist Yeagerist Party is literally named after him) that the story is making light of or even trying to justify his atrocious acts. After all, if one is to make their main character a force of fascism, then couldn’t that influence spread into real life?

This claim isn’t without its credence. Ever since the Attack on Titan anime revealed the existence of the Yeagerist party, entire online communities have sprung up trying to defend Eren Yeager’s decisions as moral and necessary. Some fans have even taken the position that “Eren Yeager did nothing wrong.”

One look at any message board or subreddit discussion will have threads upon threads of Eren supporters who look to him as a beacon of justice, even a role model. One particularly infamous subreddit titled “r/yeagerbomb” which has at the time of this article been deleted, became a festering ground for Yeagerist party supporters with an undercurrent of Neo-fascism lining its sentiments. The subreddit had been banned for hateful inflammatory content.

Attack on Titan as a story, on the other hand, doesn’t frame Eren’s actions as necessarily being in the right. There’s another argument to be made that the true message of Attack on Titan is that hate only spreads hate, and that war is ultimately a travesty that should be avoided at all costs.

Several clues echo this sentiment. After the Rumbling is enacted, the main characters of the series arguably shifts to Armin and the rest of Eren’s closest friends, rather than Eren himself. The focus primarily becomes how to stop and let go of Eren due to how far down along the path of destruction he’s already gone. Why frame the main character’s enemies as the ones who we should be rooting for, if the series wants us to root for genocide?

Eren’s friends try to convince Eren to stop The Rumbling through the paths, to no avail. Screenshot by Thomas Rodda

Some of the most poignant lines from the series regarding hate and violence actually come from minor character Commander Muller, the last commander of the Marleyan military still alive to fight Eren and his Rumbling.

Muller says to his troops, “The responsibility for this, lies with all us adults. We took advantage of hate, instilled and fostered it, believing it would bring us salvation. All the problems arising from our faults, we dumped onto the island of devils. As a result, that monster was born, and now it’s marching our hatred right back toward us. If, by some miracle, we manage to have a future again, I vow to never make the same mistake.”

Commander Muller deliberates the sins of himself and his nation, vowing to the last survivors of humanity to never again harbor the fires of hate. Screenshot by Thomas Rodda

Eren’s primary goal, throughout his entire life, was to finally be free. From the moment he was born, his life, and his future was encased within three fifty meter tall walls. Fiery water, sandy fields of snow, the ocean of water spanning so far to the horizon that merchants could spend their whole lives and never get all the salt out…  Eren didn’t have the freedom to see those things, and felt indignation towards that fact.

To find what he’d been searching for, Eren inherited a Titan that allowed himself to see the future. That future allowed himself to see the truth of what he would need to do, but that truth was horrible. It included a militaristic overthrow of his own government, the lives of some of his friends, and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people outside the walls.

Eren had options besides genocide. One defeatist example came from Zeke Yeager, arguably the series main antagonist, through the Eldian euthanization plan. Said plan would use the founding Titan’s powers to make Eldians unable to reproduce until the end of time, ultimately solving the Titan and racial conflict of Eldians vs Marleyans.

A different, more hopeful plan came from the enacting of a partial rumbling that would wipe out the outside world’s military, but keep the civilian population intact. The biggest downside of this plan would require betting on the risk of a better tomorrow, and the hope that one day the nations of the world, with time, would come to understand each other, instead of resorting once again to ultimate violence, death and destruction.

Eren still clung to the childish dream of seeing a world that had been just like the world he saw in his friend Armin’s book. He wished to see an empty world that he was free to see, and so to achieve that dream, he decided to wipe the rest of humanity clean.

Eren moved forward until all of his enemies were destroyed. Is that really freedom? And if so, should we really let a freedom like that control us?

Eren regresses to his child-self, basking in his “freedom,” while millions of innocent people are trampled under his feet. Screenshot by Thomas Rodda

Do not harbor hate. Do not let it cloud your heart, as the heart will let hate grow, and will in turn be consumed by it. In order to be free, in order to live a life we can be proud of, we must learn to love, to understand, and to let go, lest the hate we cast out return to crush our own heads.

The final episode of Attack on Titan is set to premiere this fall 2023 in Japan.