What Does ‘Attack on Titan’ Really Mean?
Every anime season, there always tends to be the one that stands out far above the rest with the full force of fan popularity. In the Spring of 2013, it was the dark military drama about humanity on the brink of extinction due to the threat of huge humanoid horrors who mindlessly consume humans, the last of whom are forced to live behind massive walls, called Shingeki no Kyojin (or in English Attack on Titan). It’s not hard to see why this anime has become so popular – our own Justin Wu wrote a piece on those exact reasons. But there are bigger questions concerning this series, the most notable of which is “what does it all mean?” After all, such a startlingly creative and horrifying series is up to interpretation as to its deepest metaphors and crucial symbolism. So here are some of my theories on some possible interpretations of the show as it stands.
Please understand that there may be some spoilers for the anime in this article.
A Metaphor About The Other Side of War
We can all agree that, for the most part, history is written by the winners. Our historical perspective on war comes from whoever was deemed the victor, or at least deemed themselves to be with their influence and power. It’s a lot easier to see ourselves as the triumphant army, on the side of good, than the “others.” But who are these others in the context of modern warfare? What does war looking like from their perspective, as they try to fight an uphill war, out manned, out gunned, and falling fast? Titans, in this light, can be viewed as the enemy occupation, who are stronger and more well equipped than humans, who consume their lives for no good reason – not for hunger (need of resources) but for the seemingly mindless destruction of a people hopelessly outmatched. There are third parties, an endless array of politics, and even different philosophies on war. This metaphor seems the most straight forward as the entire series is about the war between humans and titans, so its not a far leap from war between humans and monsters, and between two set of humans. Even in the story, they mention how foolish humans were for fighting one another, and should have realized how precious life is.
The Hunter/Prey Dynamic
This theory takes a lot from the shows first opening song Guren no Yumiya, meaning Crimson Bow and Arrow. The song begins with the German line, “Seid ihr das Essen? Nein, wir sind der Jäger!” This translates to “Are we the food/prey? No, we are the hunter!” The line reflects the dual role of the main characters in the show who are both the hunters of Titans as well as their prey. Titans are more than just the shows main antagonists, they are also the main mystery. We don’t where they came from, why they ingest people, if there are more efficient ways of killing them, etc. Do they feel pain, fear, hatred, joy? Their behavior is incomprehensible to human beings, making them scarier than other humans. The show is about the role reversal, or at least the attempt at it. As such this can be a show about survival against incomprehensible events or creatures, determined not to be swallowed up by it.
Pulling this idea to its extreme, it could be about not being swallowed by large issues or societies. But Titans don’t represent much in terms of actual issues, though acting as agents of a society that ingest the weak could be one. The other extreme is that the show could be making a commentary on vegetarian-ism. This is super stretching it, and highly implausible, but hear me out. Human in this case represent animals, and Titans represent us. Aa animals, we are the helpless creatures who can fight back but are more likely to be slaughtered, viewing this bigger, constantly smiling creatures, in this case Titans, killing them and ingesting them at a rate that is unnecessary for their own nutrition but just to eat. It’s probably wrong but it is interesting to think about.
The Human Experience
This theory is what I like to call the “Evangelion” theory. For those of you who don’t know, Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most well-known and debated series in the anime fandom. Often, some theories associated with the show included that the characters and their situations were representations of mental diseases (depression, anxiety, etc.) or about spiritual or personal issues (self-identity, morality, etc.). As such, this type of explanation can be applied to many different series, including Shingeki no Kyojin. The connection has an extra connection to Evangelion because like the walls of the city, the Eva pilots have a barrier called an Absolute Terror Field (A.T.F) which separates them from the angels, which has been interpreted by many as the barriers we put up around ourselves metaphorically to keep others from both knowing us completely and hurting us.
If we look at it from this perspective, Eren Jaeger, the main character, could be viewed as rage, as it is only by feelings of anger and pain fuel his transformation. Mikasa Ackerman, another cadet could be viewed as stoic, since she seems more walled off or emotionally distant, while Armin Alert would likely be anxiety. This is, however, where the larger metaphor for the show being the human experience falls apart, as there are many other characters involved in the series, and not all of them can be representative of emotions/mental illnesses/human conditions. Still, the idea of the wall attacking as a metaphorical barrier as well as a literal one is plausible.
The Power of the Human Will
Willpower in this show is an incredibly important theme in the show, especially because many of the characters spend the majority of their time ignoring their survival instincts and attacking huge monsters whose single mentality is to eat them. This theory goes even further than that, especially when you look at the individual characters. Eren represents the will to kill Titans because that is his only go and keeps him going in the show. His will is a destructive one that is beneficial to society – the warrior’s will. Mikasa, while killing Titans in the show, is less preoccupied by this act but more so protecting Eren, representing the will to protect. While you may think that this is sexist because Mikasa is a female, there are other women in the show that don’t show this same will. Sasha shows the will to eat, i.e. hunger in the literal sense of the term, due to lack of food in her region and Hanji represents the will to learn, or the will to understand, as she performs experiments on captured Titans.
Armin, the least capable of the fighters, also show the will to learn, but he is less interested in understanding Titans the way Hanji is and more so to see the outside world that the Titans have made impossible to see. Connie Springer represents the will to fight in the face of personal fear as he has been represented one of the more frightened characters. In terms of which will he represents, Jean Kirschtein is one of the most difficult to pin down. He is rather stubborn and opposed to fighting, but he has been a noted strategist due to ability to understand weakness. The most accurate fit, I believe, is that Jean represents the will to carry on, the will that does not actively seek to engage in fighting, but will do so out of necessity, and is in fact quite good at it. All of the characters show a desire of some sort surrounding their situation with the Titans, be it active or passive, and all of them share the will to survive. It is these wills, it would seem, that keep our characters stable and moving forward.
Duty and Allegiance
The most obvious of the theories concerning the theories is that the show is a thesis on duty and allegiance. These are the two big question put into play at the beginning of the show, especially once the kids begin their training. Eren, in contrast to the beliefs of many of the other cadets, believes that those are the best at fighting should not go to the King’s guard, but go out on the front lines and fight in order to protect the city, if not the survey team that goes out and attempts to find ways to make it to the outer wall. Eren believe those who can fight have the duty of fighting rather than choosing the most privilege position. Jean disagrees – mostly because he does not want to die but also because the King, as their leader, has to remain protected. Mikasa feels her duty is to be with, and protect, Eren out of a sense of love and debt. Ultimately, what does does duty, and what specifically is the duty of the able when the end of humanity is on the line? This is a big question looming in the early episodes of the show, and will resurface as it catches up with the manga.
The theme of allegiance is also a huge topic once Eren’s powers are discovered. Should they swear allegiance to their King, a distant and ultimately useless leader? To humanity? To their commanders? Each other? Themselves? Do they owe it to themselves to survive or give up in their lives in the hope that it will help humanity continue? Does Eren align himself to humans, to Titans, to no one, being able to transform as he can? Who should we pledge our allegiance too, and what is our own personal duty to each other and our world at large? This whole show could be about these interpersonal relationships and how the choices we make not only affect us but the people around us, and even human kind as a whole.
Do you have your own theories?
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Top 10 "Attack on Titan" (Anime) Moments
Even though it's been a little while since I last watched Attack on Titan and have watched a whole heck of a lot of Sword Art Online, Hellsing Ultimate, and started Blue Exorcist (whose main character I can't unsee as Kirito seeing as the voice actors are the same and they look oddly similar), Attack on Titan is always fresh on my mind.
Because it's a beautiful anime, an even more beautiful story and has some of the most memorable moments in a television series I have ever seen. People always say, "characters aren't safe on this show," and while for some (Game of Thrones looking at you) that may be true, most of the time people overexaggerate this. But not Attack on Titan, as literally thousands of people and one particularly important character dies in the first five episodes!
But I'm here today (I was going to make this three days ago but, like I said, Hellsing Ultimate and playing Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z beckoned me) to count down my personal Top 10 Attack on Titan moments. Now, I am only dealing with the anime so to not ruin anything for the people who have watched the show but haven't caught up with the manga--I think there would only be one or two moments I would add, though. With that in mind, here is your SPOILER alert. If you've caught up, enjoy! If you never plan on watching the show, then re-evaluate your plans and come back here when you're done! And if you just don't care...
Let's get started!
10. Mikasa's scarf
"Hey, that's an object, not a moment!"
Okay, I meant how she gets the scarf. I couldn't really come up with a cool way of saying it other than "Eren and Mikasa kill three guys with random weapons."
The moment itself seems a little random at first but by the end of its episode it makes sense, since it is the first time we see Mikasa and Eren separate from each other and the news she gets isn't particularly the best for her to hear. As such, the scarf moment is a flashback to when they were just kids. Mikasa's parents have been killed and Mikasa captured, and the three men are debating what to do with her.
Luckily, Eren followed them against the will of his father and takes down some of the guys, mercilessly killing them because Eren just hates the bad guys. What we see of Mikasa is very interesting. Up until this point, Mikasa was always a quiet badass, she never really spoke but when she did it was usually impactful in some way. She was also the top student in their graduating class, but her main mission has always been to protect Eren and to be at his side. In this moment, we get to see why.
It's because Mikasa was never like that. She used to smile and she was basically just an average kid with a potentially good family and loving parents. She reacted like anyone would witnessing all of that. But when her savior Eren is in trouble, we see the actual change that will remain with her forever, when she runs up and kills Eren's opponent. At the end of the flashback, Eren gives her his scarf, the same one she infamously wears in the present time.
What I like best about this is that we get Mikasa's backstory, and we get to see the complete switch from innocent girl to cold-hearted human willing to do anything to save someone she cares about. Plus, it is a pretty intense moment to see what those two kids prove to be capable of.
9. Dumping the bodies
This is probably the biggest moment in the show to result from people being just complete idiots. In the manga, it's revealed that a huge moment happens from people just being idiots, but, for now, I'll talk about this one.
While the Survey Corps (no, Netflix subtitles, they are not the "scout regiment") is leaving the Forest of Giant Trees (it is exactly what it sounds like, I promise), two of their members decide to go back and find the body of their fallen ally to bring back to the town so he can be properly dealt with. This, of course, leads to Titans chasing after them, including Aberrant Titans, dangerous, spontaneous Titans.
Armin, the genius he is, comes up with a quick plan. Since the Survey Corps is bringing home several bodies already, and Titans feed on humans either dead or alive, he suggests that they dump those bodies in exchange for their lives.
What ensues is a pretty quick, but very powerful and effective, moment. You see the anguish on everyone's faces. Not only have they taken the time to find all these bodies, but they had to see the faces of their dead friends and stack them all up. And now, they have to release them back to the very monsters they fought against, even if they are just dead.
Of course, this means that the body of the person the two earlier members went to salvage had to go, too, almost making it pointless. I knew that the best move would probably be to dump the bodies, but, watching it unfurl just hurt to watch. At first, it doesn't even work, the Titans just run past them, so you're like, "Well, this sucks, someone's gonna die probably." But, the plan does work, and when the dust settles, nobody is a happy camper. And neither are you.
8. Eren vs. Annie in Stohess District
Leading up to this was very suspenseful, and it almost didn't happen if Armin didn't come along with a super awesome speech and if we weren't reminded of how Eren wants to kill all the Titans again.
What we get, though, is the best fight scene the show has to offer. And I mean like a legitimate fight scene and not just some scuffling. Annie and Eren, in their Titan forms, take actual human fighting stances and fight as humanly as they can with bodies that are fifteen meters in height. My favorite moment is the early going of the fight, where it sort of looks like Eren has the slightest bit of a chance.
Of course, Eren does eventually wind up winning fight because he goes like, I don't know, super Titan it would seem. That was awesome, too. In their previous bout, Eren just kind of lost. This time, Eren gets up pissed off and attacks Annie with all he's got and it is super awesome.
What's strange, and good, about this fight is not that they have gotten any stronger this time around. Eren and Annie didn't do any Titan training or anything (not even sure that's really possible). It's just that there is more conflicting emotion this time around. Eren does not want to kill Annie because he trained with her believing that she would help him kill the Titans. Yet at the same time, she's killed so many more of his allies.
Plus, with Eren knowing who is behind the form, he has more of a chance against her. Before, her human-like moves made for one heck of a one-sided beatdown. This time, we get little tidbits on Eren sparring with her during training, and even some interesting flashbacks that lead to almost nothing about Annie's past with her father. As such, Eren knows more on how to fight her. This will come in handy later, you fans who have not caught up with the manga. And it is AWESOME.
7. Squad Levi Finale
I almost didn't get to see this moment because Crunchyroll pooped out on me, but, I waited a while, went back to it, and just could not find any happiness in my soul at all.
One. Two. Three.
I've never seen quicker deaths in a show, but have it be so profoundly impactful. It was like, BAM. First guy down. Then, BAM Petra gets crushed (that one hurt the most, to be honest). And finally, the finally member of Squad Levi was killed.
The worst part was, the Female Titan (whose identity we did not know at the time so looking back I just can't seem to like Annie that much anymore) killed them without remorse, and again, in a one-two-three fashion.
But you've gotta understand that these are the people that are the world's best chance, these were the top dogs of the Survey Corps. They defeated the Female Titan, even just before that! They sliced her up and made her immobile and were going to see who was engineering it before everything just went straight to Hell. I could barely watch.
I loved Squad Levi. We'd spent the last few episodes building up to them being super awesome and even had a whole episode based on trusting them. I should have known they weren't going to make it.
The hint was Eren remembering what Levi said. The music changed. Eren turned around. That was it. I knew they were done, and I really did not want it to happen.
6. Eren vs Female Titan in Forest of Giant Trees
OH but wait it gets so much better because right after that, guess what happens?
Eren's Titan form gets be-headed by the Female Titan.
My jaw dropped. First word: "What?"
How do you react to that? Eren's Titan Form was, as far as we knew, like the most powerful of the Titan forms by the way he was able to stop a cannon ball from close range, by the way he was able to nearly completely clean Trost District, by the way he lifted the boulder.
But this quick little skirmish proved otherwise and proved it quick. Eren seemingly had it won. Again, that's where we should have known things would go horribly wrong. Eren punched so hard that his hands needed healing, and healing took a minute of time that he did not have, that we knew he didn't have.
The way that Eren is defeated is drawn out perfectly. Both Titans get up. Alright, time for round two!
Then we get a look inside the Titan, and all we see is Eren's eye. His mouth is a little agape but it's his eye that tells it all. It's just the way that it's animated that you can see the dread in his eye. We don't even see what he's looking at and then, BAM. The Female Titan kicks his head clean off. It is literally a clean hit, too, like it just comes right off with nothing left over from the body.
Before this, it wasn't really much of a fight. Just Eren lunging around at the Female Titan, but, you wanted him to rip her/ it to shreds. She killed Squad Levi, she had to pay! What happens?
Eren loses, and guess who bears witness? Mikasa. You know it is about to go down. Sadly, that little chase isn't cool enough to make the list, but is still impressive.
5. Survey Corps Ceremony
This is the moment where I started to really appreciate Jean and his abilities, so, it had to make it to this list. Not only that, but it was so powerful.
In this show, of course we'd gotten glimpses into the minds of other characters besides the Big Three (Eren, Mikasa, Armin). This time, though, we get to hear the thoughts of three other characters and see the struggle that four more are having, on top of the other three.
Commander Erwin Smith of the Survey Corps is inducting new members to be a part of the group as part of the selection process every branch of military has in the year. His speech is not in the least heart-warming, but it is of course used to draw out the mentally strongest of the new cadets.
After his speech, we get one of the most suspenseful moments of the entire show. There's another one coming right up, but, I feel like this one, single scene was huge character development for a lot of characters, like Jean, Connie, and Sasha. As the masses are walking by them, each of them is frozen in their place, unable to move. They've all made up their minds, so, why would they consider backing out now?
Each character has something to prove to either themselves or to another group of people. Yet in the end they stay because they know that there is no point in joining the Garrison or Military Police if the Titans still rule the Earth, and the Survey Corps is the best place to fight them off. I
The best part about this is how to it all pans out. There are way more people walking by everyone to exaggerate the fact that they really are the only ones willing to make this kind of sacrifice for the good of humanity. Maybe there are that many people, I just like to think of it is as more people walking by for dramatic effect that certainly worked.
The anguish and then resolution on all of their faces is very interesting to see, too. One second they are tortured by their decision, and the next they are relieved, strangely, they gutted it out.
4. Armin's Grand Salute
This sold me on the show for good, and it sold me on Armin as a character, as well. I couldn't breathe when it happened, it was simply an amazing moment.
Eren had already saved them from a cannon blast, but, the Garrison was ready to blast Eren, Mikasa, Armin again while Eren was still recharging. The leader of this command, as we see, is emotoinally unstable and will not be convinced otherwise.
So, what do the able-bodied Eren and Mikasa do? Send Armin out, of course! Because he gives good insight? At first, it's not very believable. Sure, we'd seen Armin be smart, but, to get them out of this jam they needed something big.
And boy does Armin deliver. He gives the army's salute, gives an amazing speech about giving his life for his friend and for humanity's, and you just feel. I don't know what you feel, but you do. Chills are running down your spine. You know that they're getting out, right?
In an act of desperation, confusion, stupidty even, the commander begins to raise his arm in a sign of attack preparation. This is where you start to lose your breathing abilities. Even after that, this man cannot be convinced. He gives a small apology, then almost swings his arm down!
But it gets caught. That was the single biggest relief I have ever felt in the show, in any show, actually. I almost had to pause the video just to take a breather.
The moment, not very long at all, felt like it could have been an entire episode (of course, that entire scene is one big episode) simply because of the weight it carried. Here was Armin, a nervous wreck who just doubted all of his abilities, proclaiming he would give his life for the good of humanity and to use Eren on the side of good despite not knowing his abilities.
I honestly cannot give this speech justice without you watching the show and seeing that moment. It is simply...incredible.
3. Wall Maria
I won't go too into detail about this, since this was one of my most chilling moments in a TV show, and seeing as I explained it there, I don't feel like repeating what I said.
Instead, I'll just bring up the gravity of the situation.
You should have known this would make the list, if not at the number one spot. But no, there are of course two more things ahead of it!
Anyway, the invasion of Shingasha district kind of seems small-scale compared to the rest of the show, but, you've gotta understand:
Without this one, single moment, we don't have a show. We don't have a struggle with Eren of returning home, we don't have an adventure through the forest. Wall Maria is the single most important moment for the entire show for one reason:
The Titans get in for the first time ever. Okay, well, if you see the after-credits scene of Episode 25 you can argue with me on that (I may even agree with you) but still, they are walking around in human territory for the first time ever and it is terrifying. Nobody is able to stop them. We don't see anyone kill a Titan for a really long time, we just see the Titans killing a lot of people for a really long time.
Like I said, I won't explain too much since I already did a lot of that in an earlier posting, so, go ahead and check that out! For now, let's move on to number two!
2. Plugging the hole
At first, I was gung-ho for this plan. Then I didn't really trust Pixis. Then Eren went crazy. Then I was sad because more people died.
And then one of the coolest things ever happened.
Eren had been having this little moment in his mind where he was back home and everyone was alive, but Armin was banging on the window, yelling at him. Finally, he snaps him out of it, asking him why he wanted to go outside. Of course, to kill all the Titans. But how can he kill all the Titans if he is just like one?
Before this, Eren had been on a rampage that would cause some controversy later on...and a beating. He almost killed Mikasa and drew out the mission for too long, leaving people exposed to die. Of course, we got some solid Eren-Armin bonding time, with Armin standing atop Eren's Titan body pleading for him to wake up.
Still, though, the most important was completing the mission. Plug the hole in Trost district, and beat the Titans.
This moment carries with it a lot of emotion and weight to the story. Emotionally, it's a roller-coaster. Watching Eren carry the boulder was one of the coolest things on the show, because we hear his struggle with carrying it, yet at the same time he refuses to put it down to defeat the Titans. Meanwhile, all his friends are putting their lives on the line to save him. When he puts the boulder in the hole, it is amazing because nobody knows how to react. Humanity had never defeated the Titans before then, it was their very first victory.
That's also where the weight on the story comes in. Now there was some ray of hope, there was the slightest chance for humanity to continue on in this seemingly horrendous world. Not only that, but, Eren seemed to have gained control of his Titan form which could now be used on the side of good.
I suppose it's a very metaphorical moment, too, but, eh. Seeing Eren carry the boulder is awesome because it looked for so long like that wasn't going to happen. Plus the image of everything burning up around him before he snaps back into reality is legit as heck.
And the number one moment is...
1. Eren saves Armin
I couldn't believe what happened. Wow. How it went down:
viewer: "Noooooo Armin don't get eaten you fool you're a main character!"
viewer: "Heck yeah, EREN YOU GET UP AND SAVE ARMIN!"
viewer: "Ah, good Armin's safe, now Eren you jump out. You're the main character, you live by some miracle strength."
viewer: "Hey, wait, don't hold your arm up, you can't use all your strength."
viewer: "Stop saying emotional things, Eren! ARMIN SAVE HIM HE IS OUR MAIN CHARACTER!"
*chomp, Titan swallows Eren, Armin screams in extreme horror*
viewer: *screams like Armin* "WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA NOOOOOOOOO EREN IS THE MAIN WAAAAAAAA NOOOOOO"
Yeah, folks. That is exactly right. Episode 5. Attack on Titan. They killed the main character right before your eyes. And we were helpless.
I mean, yeah, shows kill main people off. But this is like if The Walking Dead were to axe Rick. This is like if Star Wars were to just kill Luke before he can leave Tatooine. That new hope you got? Nah.
I actually had to check if Eren Jeager was really the main character after I saw this. There was no way, no way in Hades that his guy dies as the main character. But he was, he was listed as the protagonist. This was just a concept I could not come to grips with.
Starting the series I kind of figured one of the main three would die, assuming of course it would be Armin. So I thought, wow, they killed Armin quick. But nope, they literally trade places in a matter of seconds.
It is the moment from the show that sticks with you for a very, long time. That and the corpse of half-Marco, that's the stuff nightmares are made out of. But just imagine being Armin. Eren is your best friend in the whole world, the one that promised to go outside the walls and to explore with you, the one that fought alongside you. To Armin, Eren was the hope of humanity. And right before his very eyes, that hero, that man, that best friend of his. Was eaten by the very things he promised to destroy.
Eren saving Armin. Wow. Just. Wow.