Spoilers ahead for the Attack on Titan manga and anime.
I was rather surprised to tune into the latest episode of the Attack on Titan anime series and find out that, not only were we getting an origin story that took a trip back in time before Eren Yeager’s birth, but that that story would be an allegory for a country’s segregation of citizens seen as inferior or “vermin”, specifically representing the Jewish people in Nazi Germany during World War II. Unexpected, to say the least. What I should have expected, however, was that the Internet would respond with a knee-jerk reaction without taking the time to sit and think about what they just saw. And I also should have expected a notable outlet to take advantage of said outrage by fanning the flames of the freakout over animated pseudo-Fascism. This is 2019, after all.
In a heavily circulated Polygon article, author Tom Speelman over-stretches his argument that Attack on Titan is pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic. (He also posits that creator Hajime Isayama is “anti-Korean, nationalist, pro-Japan”, and that Attack on Titan is responsible for “modern manga and anime industries”; yeah, there’s a lot going on here…) His argument focuses on the story revelations that came about, starting with the 85th chapter of the manga (which came out in the fall of 2016). These were just brought to light in the 57th episode of the hit anime series, but the controversy continues right up to the latest manga release with chapter 114; we’ve got a long way to go to sort this one out. The problem is, despite getting the core elements of the Attack on Titan story, its tropes, its aesthetic, its naming conventions and obvious allusions to real-world history correct, Speelman also either ignores or misunderstands key plot points, glaringly obvious subtext, and just who we’re supposed to be rooting for.
To catch you up in the simplest terms: Recent events have led our human heroes to discover the complicated history of the human and Titan races. Specifically, Eren & Co. finally made it to his childhood home where his doctor/scientist/secret agent father hid damning documents in his basement laboratory. (Whether they were of the traitorous or patriotic nature depend on your allegiances and ability to recognize right from wrong, hero from villain.) The latest anime episode as of this writing, “That Day”, was told from the perspective of a young Grisha Yeager, partially through his recently recovered journals and partially through Eren’s shared “Titan Visions.” And it’s here that we get the very obvious allegory that Grisha and his people, the Eldians, were treated like the Jewish people of Nazi Germany, right down to their segregation into ghettoes, visual discrimination through armbands, forced labor, and mass executions. Speelman’s got the right of it here, as do most of the folks on either side of the manufactured outrage.
Here’s where it goes wrong: The people who are mad about this depiction of Jews, Speelman and his argument included, seem to think that the Eldians are still, somehow, the villains of the piece. To me, that speaks more to their own worldview than it does to Isayama’s. Yes, the Eldians are an ancient race of people who are able to transform into Titans, the mindless, human-devouring monsters our heroes have been fighting against all along. If this is where the comparison stopped, of course there’d be room for rightful outrage, but it’s only part of the story. It was the then (and currently) ruling class, the Marleyans, who forcibly transformed their Eldian prisoners into Pure Titans (the dopey, mindless, cannibalistic sort) as a punishment, for their own sport, and as a means of exile. It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out who the villainous side is here, but since it seems to be difficult for some people, I’ll put it plainly: It’s the Marleyans. So if your argument is that Attack on Titan is pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic, you’re also arguing that the show’s mythology puts the Marleyans forward as the heroes.
But wait, there’s more! If all you got from Grisha’s story was the history lesson on how the ancient Eldians were ruthless, over-powerful, and carried out genocide against the Marleyans, of course there’d be room for outrage if the show was found to be drawing comparisons between the Eldians and the Jews:
But even young Grisha understands that the actions of our ancestors should not dictate the treatment of our contemporary selves. At least, that’s my understanding of what Isayama is trying to say here:
As a young man, Grisha learned a part of the truth of the Marleyan ruling class, that they’re vicious, hateful, and see the Eldians as vermin. With the revelation from Grice as to how his little sister really died, it’s understandable that he’d want revenge, no matter what nationality or race you belong to.
A glaring omission from Speelman’s argument, and most of the reactionary outrage on social media, is a scene between an adult Grisha and his new followers, the Restorationists:
At first, I thought maybe this scene was added in the anime but was not in the original manga; that would have explained some of the confusion/lack of attention it received in all the outrage posts. But as you can see, it’s there. The idea that the Marleyan government has been using propaganda to subjugate the Eldians is damning evidence against the argument that Attack on Titan is pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic unless, again, it’s also your stance that the show is saying that the Marleyans are somehow in the right here. That speaks more about you as a viewer than Isayama as a writer.
Complicating this counter-argument, however, is the suggestion that Grisha himself is using these newly discovered texts as his own form of propaganda. First of all, there’s their dubious source, coming from “The Owl”, an informant working inside the Marleyan government whom none of the Restorationists have ever seen (though viewers meet him a few minutes/pages later). Then there’s the exchange between Grisha and Grice, with the latter asking him how he deciphered the ancient language:
Perhaps Grisha was merely seeing what he wanted to see and using it to inspire his people, or perhaps he was tapping into some truths in those texts. And going further, perhaps Grice’s story about Grisha’s sister’s death was also propaganda disguised as truth in order to recruit him into the Restorationists in the first place. We may never know (or maybe manga readers who have hit chapter 114 know already), but that’s what makes Attack on Titan such an interesting story: It displays the fallible nature of humans (and Titans), the cycle of revenge, the corrupting power of power itself, and the gray area of the moral spectrum in which all humans live, be it in this fictional world or the real one.
Speelman’s argument is thinly supported but only superficially; there’s more interesting subtext to be mined if you dig a little deeper. If Attack on Titan was truly pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic, it would be much more obvious: The Titans would have remained mindless cannibals and our heroes would have allied with the Fascists to “exterminate” them, to use their terminology; the more hateful the ideology, the more straightforward the rhetoric. Instead, we get the gut-check realization that the heroes we’ve been rooting for all along have been duped by their familial, political, and military superiors, knowingly or unknowingly. It’s a fantastic narrative twist to make your heroes ask, “Are we the baddies?” It’s been done in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and the new Carmen Sandiego series, just to name a couple recent additions, and I love the trend. But it requires smart viewers who pay attention, not folks who think “Hey, some of those Titans have large noses! This show is anti-Semitic!” or “I should send death threats to Isayama!”
I’ll concede that Isayama’s personal politics, sources of military inspiration, and ultimate plan for Attack on Titan may yet have troubling repercussions down the line. What will be interesting to see is how Eren and his allies proceed from here on out, now that they know the truth (or at least this version of it). But right now, what’s been shown on screen and on the page doesn’t fit the reactionary narrative.