Topic: How Attack on Titan Isn’t Actually About Titans
Manga: Attack on Titan by Hajime Isayama
When anime fans look at Japan, they look at the anime and manga and the weirdness that seems to pour out of its red sun. They are part of Japan, but just as The Simpsons, American football, and twerking don’t represent the Western world, strange otaku culture doesn’t encompass all of Japanese society. The only way to truly understand Japanese culture is to live in Japan—and from there, things like Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan become commentaries on today’s world.
Most fans would say that Attack on Titan, a horror manga where Titans eat humans, is a story about survival, the key component to all horror manga. If survival was removed, the walls that protect human civilization from Titans would be the barrier dividing traditional Japan from foreign cultures.
Since the end of sakoku, or national isolation (literally “chained country”), and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Japan has been chasing the rest of the world in technological advances and cultural inclusion. However advanced Japanese society seems to foreigners with its cars and ASIMO robots, Japan hasn’t broken away from its traditions. Miso soup and zen gardens are still part of Japanese homes and schools, and tattoos continue to be scary marks of the Japanese mafia. One of the most-iterated proverbs in Japan, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”, is ingrained in Japan’s soul—so much so creators have made a living from selling uniqueness.
Just as the first wall in Attack on Titan is easily compromised by a single Titan in the first volume, foreigners and visitors will see through Japan’s image after living in Japan for a few months. Though Japan has English education, revised immigration laws, and communication with foreigners, those things just say, “We’re not totally oblivious to the rest of the world.” The reality is Japan is uncomfortable with diversity: Japanese students can’t use the impractical English they’ve memorized; biracial Japanese people can’t hold dual citizenship after the age of 22; and Japanese people are not likely to meet foreigners in their entire lifetimes.
The other two walls in Attack on Titan aren’t easily fallible. After living in Japan for a few years, foreigners see Japan’s true colors, and they’re redder than people think. In Japan, being different or individualistic isn’t a good thing. People who are selfish, have outgoing personalities, or don’t look like other Japanese people are “less Japanese”. Students are punished more for long hair, shaven eyebrows, or ear piercings than their classroom behavior and grades. Handicap or disabled citizens have “bad blood”. Students who have mental or learning disabilities are placed in regular classes because everyone must have an “equal” opportunity to education. Speaking English is also viewed as a big difference, and many times, foreign language teachers of Japan won’t speak English with others because they’ll be labeled “strange”. These kinds of images aren’t seen by foreigners even when they’re placed in a Japanese workplace. It takes time and English-speaking friends to find the real Japan underneath its otaku underbelly.
But the walls aren’t the only thing that links Attack on Titan to the undazzling sides of Japan. When readers look at the three main characters, Eren, Armin, and Mikasa, they’ll find that they represent the different eras in Japan. Mikasa, the unaffected muscle of the three, doesn’t just represent Japanese women who still endure harsh sexism even till now—she’s the old Japan. In the past, it was good etiquette to never show emotions, as depicted in historical hand scroll paintings such as Ban Dainagon Ekotoba (12th Century) by Tokiwa Mitsunaga. Mikasa’s perseverance is a characteristic of the bushido code which has changed its samurai heritage into lengthy work and cram school hours.
Mikasa is accompanied by physically weak yet genius Armin who looks outside of the walls, and in essence, outside of Japan to improve their chances of survival. Unlike Mikasa, Armin shows his emotions, but he doesn’t go as far as Eren in expressing his thoughts. Armin represents Japan’s post-World War II attitude towards rebuilding the nation, as seen with Japan’s quick advances in technology. Japan’s advances in the public domain, such as artificial intelligence in cars via robots and Shinya Yamanaka’s stem cell research, owe their successes to outside influences (German A.I. specialists and British researchers).
The last and most pivotal character, Eren, is the opposite of Mikasa. He has a bold personality with a grandiose idea of destroying Titans. He represents the new Japanese person, one who is trying to break out of the sameness that Japan wants all its constituents to mimic. Because of his differences, Eren is punished the most in Attack on Titan. Though both him and Mikasa have lost their families, Eren watched a Titan eat his mother. During his military training, Eren faced multiple setbacks from his friends, peers, superiors, and later, his own government. But Eren drives the story and the reader because he exists—the outgoing, selfish, passionate, inquisitive, diverse Japanese person is alive at this very moment. Japanese people are questioning the government and using any means to get attention on important issues in Eren-like fashion. A salaryman in Tokyo lit himself on fire to protest the Japanese Constitution changes in June this year. Okinawan people marched against the Ospreys and the American military’s acquisition of Henoko. And most citizens are vocalizing their disapproval of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, especially with Abenomics’s unsuccessful inflation plan to improve the economy. Of course, these kinds of Japanese persons are very proud of their nation. They also juggle their questions with their patriotism as does Eren throughout the entire manga series.
While most readers look at Attack on Titan as a simple horror manga or another odd manga from an artist’s mind, people who live in Japan will uncover the hidden side of Japan buried within its metaphoric walls and diverse characters.