Since its premiere in 2013, Attack on Titan has been one of the largest multi-media brands in the world. Its manga concluded in June 2021 and the anime is finishing its final season now. It’s been adapted into live-action movies, spin-off mangas, and merchandised into oblivion, becoming one of the most popular Japanese IPs in the past decade. Its critically acclaimed anime adaptation has just finished the season finale of the second to last part of the final season, the finale of which is set to release in 2023.
Attack on Titan has also become a prominent target for internet discourse since it was accused of being fascist propaganda. The accusations appear to have started in 2019 with the publication of a prominent Polygon article that accused the show of propagating anti-Semitic, fascist, and imperialist imagery and themes in its story.
“But well-dressed aesthetics and pacing can only do so much before you start to notice the ideas bubbling underneath the surface. Isayama’s work is full of anti-Korean, nationalist, pro-Japan subtext, parallels to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and subtextual references to Nazi Germany.”
There have been a lot of responses to the article – positive and negative – debating the truth of this claim, but the claims have started garnering more attention again now that the anime is preparing to wrap up.
For context, Attack on Titan started initially as a post-apocalyptic survival series about the last survivors of humanity being trapped in a massive fortress that appears solely designed to keep a race of humanoid giants called Titans from cannibalizing mankind. When two massive Titans destroy the outer wall and flood the inner walls with refugees, humanity is thrown into chaos as it realizes that some force is actively pushing for their extinction and that the government may have hidden agendas and truths it is hiding.
SPOILERS AHEAD – This culminates in the season 3 finale where it turns out that humanity doesn’t just survive within the walls of the fortress. The humanity within the walls is actually descendants of a race called the Eldians who have the power to transform into Titans, and a race called the Marlians have formed a fascistic government based around oppressing and controlling the Eldians who hadn’t retreated behind the walls.
The imagery in the flashback reveals in these scenes is undeniable. The Eldians wore Yellow armbands similar to that of the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear in the holocaust. Immediately, this setup becomes messy insofar as it is a direct allegory for Nazism and the holocaust. The story’s reason for the internment and oppression of the Eldians is that they’re paying retribution for the sins of their ancestors who killed and oppressed the Marlian people.
Unlike the real-life Jews, the Eldians are clearly guilty of this crime. Flashbacks make it clear that the Eldians did create a great oppressive empire by using the Titans as weapons of war against the world. This immediately opens up a box of thematic worms that one asks about the nature of intent and execution. Did the Mangka knowingly suggest that Jews are dangerous, conspiratorial, or trying to take over the world? The answer is likely no. Setting aside some troubling accusations of series creator Hajime Isayama and his alleged connections to Japanese Nationalism, the series doesn’t make a clear-cut allegory between the Eldians and Jews.
For one, the Eldian main characters had all been characterized up until this point as Germanic in their culture. The Race of the characters is prominent in the first season of the show, which highlights the European features of the cast, with the notable exception of the lone Asian character Mikasa, as her race is relevant to her backstory and the tragic death of her mother.
It could just be a coincidence that the main characters have both Germanic and Jewish features, but I don’t think it is. Considering that half of the show’s villains and antagonists are members of the Eldian government themselves who operate a fascistic government to keep the Eldians from rising up against the world, the lines between good and evil aren’t set up on racial lines. The show clearly doesn’t see the Eldians as uniquely menacing or devious, as an anti-Semite would against the Jews. Even their fascistic oppressors are given fairly humanistic motivations and fears.
It hasn’t helped the case defending the show though that actual white nationalists have tried embracing Attack on Titan as a story that expresses their emotional frustration with white genocide – the theory that Jews and other elites are purposely oppressing and attempting to eliminate European peoples through mass migration and brainwashing. Although many aren’t embracing it for its depictions of Jews but as a defense of racialist collectivism.
The fourth season of the show, which wrapped this week, depicts the final war between the Eldians and Marlians, with the now grown-up main characters launching a surprise attack against their oppressors and killing hundreds of prominent military leaders and diplomats who were actively planning to genocide the Eldians. From there, the story shifts gears as the main character Eren Jaeger leads a radical movement known as the Jaegarists against the Eldian Military, eventually unlocking the ability for him to launch a surprise attack against the entire world known as “The Rumbling” – which involves controlling millions of Titans and having them March across the world and stomping their enemies into dust.
Eren does this and makes it clear that he fully plans to genocide the entire Earth in revenge for the lifetime of torture and suffering he’s been forced to endure by their attempts to genocide Eldia. The rest of the main characters – including members of both Eldia and Marly’s military – team up to desperately stop Eren from destroying the world. One can speculate why the white nationalists would enjoy a scenario where collective race vengeance is brutally unleashed upon the world…
So yes, Attack on Titan is juggling extremely loaded themes and attracting some very radical people into its midst, who appear to be rooting for the mass genocide at the end of the fourth season, instead of recognizing that every character in the show sees it as horrific and wrong (at least ironically, I could be wrong). Most of the shows’ ideas are inelegant in their articulation and it is somewhat understandable why some people have had their alarm bells set off by how it’s portrayed. That doesn’t take leftists off the hook though for not being fair to Attack on Titan, just because part of the Alt-Right happens to like the show in some respect.
Our modern understanding of politics is opposed to such a bleak take on human cooperation. The philosophies we call Marxism and Critical Race Theory are founded on these precepts, the notion that all of society is caught up in an eternal battle between the oppressor and the oppressed: rich and poor, black and white, etc. It is no wonder the most fervent critics of Attack on Titan are leftists, the same people who chilled at the notion that their favorite utopian “Slaya Kween” in Game of Thrones would heel turn and commit genocide against Kings Landing.
Attack on Titan is a messy story with messy themes. If there is any truth in Attack on Titan though it’s found in the classic Solzhenitsyn quote that the line between “good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” There are no good people or bad people, just people who make good or bad decisions. This isn’t a show about good guys and bad guys. It’s a show about how those things are arbitrary, and how good intentions can create horrific atrocities. This is a show where the plucky hero becomes a genocidal mass murderer in the name of freedom.
The theme is best articulated at the end of season three during the flashback, where the character Eren Kruger, an enigmatic Eldian restorationist working undercover in the Marlian government as an executioner, waxes philosophical on the unknowable nature of truth. He has seen and personally perpetuated the worst sins of both sides. He believes both the Eldian and Marlian stories of greatness and conquest are lies and that the truth belongs to whoever holds the power. Both sides became evil when exposed to power. Both sides committed atrocities. Both sides control their narratives and the truth is lost between them.
The manga’s nominal “happy ending” is a reflection of this. We see the characters and their fates several years in the future, but the final frames of the manga cut to generations into the future, where a bombed-out city now lies where our main character’s grave was located. A small child running from the violence stumbles into a dark cave where the grave used to be, for he is falling into the same path, the legacy, of our Eren Yeager – the boy who was radicalized against the Titans by the sight of his mother’s death. The cycle of violence never goes away.
Attack on Titan isn’t necessarily fascist, but it understands the fascist impulse, the nature of radicalization, and the real temptation for the oppressed to become the oppressor. In Attack on Titan, the nature of oppressor and oppressed is fluid and unclear, because the humanity caught between the people wearing those labels don’t know or understand them. When their skulls are crushed, when their bones are powderized, when the survivors reflect on watching their loved ones die agonizing deaths, all that remains of our narratives are the deeply personal horrors of man’s inhumanity to man and the horror that your precious life can be drained out of your material body in an instant by forces you don’t understand.