Home Attack on Titan: The End of Controversial Masterpiece

Attack on Titan: The End of Controversial Masterpiece

Every generation of anime viewers has its own classic—a title that stands out, endures the test of time, and is remembered for the years to come. For our generation, that title is Attack on Titan. Hajime Isayama’s story rose to fame with the anime adaptation in 2013 and became a worldwide hit, even among those who never watched anime before. As the story progressed the anime became mainstream, attracting attention even from those who never watched anime before. Thanks to its popularity, it came as no surprise that after the big reveal at the end of the third season, numerous articles started popping up, labeling the series as “problematic” and questioning motifs used in the story. And yes, we can’t deny that historical events, World War II especially, were used as inspiration for some of the places, events, names, and characters in the story, and it’s perfectly understandable why this makes many people uncomfortable. Yet, it is my belief that Attack on Titan never meant to glorify the topics it portrays, nor does it aim to show its main characters as heroes worthy of following. It is merely a story about human nature, fear, and the inability and unwillingness to communicate and accept those different from ourselves.

The following article contains heavy spoilers for the series finale.

Does Attack on Titan Series Push Problematic Narratives?

A boy growing up surrounded by an enemy he can’t beat, hoping for excitement that would change his life, only to end up being crushed by the very thing he wished for—this premise is nothing new, especially for many titles we see in shonen magazines today. This is how we first met Eren, a 9-year-old who yearns for freedom that lurks beyond the walls that surround his hometown of Shiganshina. Those early days of the story promised us darkness, as many of our favorite characters died week after week. There wasn’t much to hope for, since Isayama quickly proved that no one was indispensable if it meant that the story went forward.

Yet, the anime viewers in 2013 when the anime was first broadcast were quickly drawn to its darkness and the patriotic-sounding theme songs and soundtrack., which mixed Japanese and German. The story’s mysteries were plentiful and theories were everywhere online. By the time the second season premiered in 2017, it had become nearly impossible to avoid spoilers. The secret of the basement was already out in the manga and online communities worked hard to separate anime-onlies from those who knew it. I remember this time fondly—yes, it sucked if you wanted to avoid manga spoilers, but at the same time there were so many people talking about this one thing. It was impossible to not become even more fascinated, despite the spoilers.

At the time, the majority of fans, especially those who stayed away from the manga, did not mention fascism or nationalism in the context of the Attack on Titan series. That is not to say that this sentiment was not present in the community. Although his editor later denied Isayama being on the platform, the supposed Twitter account controversy was brought up here and there, but it was never confirmed and remained a sort of an urban legend, staying on the fringes of the fandom. Still, many followers of the story, including journalists and writers, would use this as a way to prove that the imperialist views shared on this account were written by Isayama himself, especially since similar themes could be found in the manga.

Are Attack on Titan Characters Based on War Criminals?

The author’s blog, which he occasionally updated, would also be brought into these discussions. One specific entry, regarding the general in the Imperial Japanese Army, Yoshifuru Akiyama, stood out. In this entry, dated December 2010, Isayama answers fans’ questions and states that Dot Pixis was indeed inspired by Akiyama:

I should say that it has nothing to do with him at all, but it’s true. I’m afraid that it is unacceptable to use him as a model with my [drawing] skills, but I am using him as a reference. His stories from the Russo-Japanese War are also amazing, but his honest attitude and personality, such as how he gave up his position as a Field Marshal and became a principal of a rural elementary school, are awe-inspiring. He led a simple life for the sake of the soldiers he lost.

For this blog entry, Isayama received death threats in 2013. Akiyama, who is considered the father of the modern Japanese cavalry, fought in the Russo-Japanese War. His military career was a prolific one: he was promoted to general in 1916 and a year later given command of the Japanese Korean Army (Chosen Army) during the Japanese occupation of Korea. In 1920 he became Director General of Military Training. After a long career in the army, he refused a promotion to Field Marshal and chose to become a principal in a rural school in present-day Matsuyama in 1923. According to the records that have been saved, he mourned the loss of his subordinates, disliked talking about his war medals, and was somewhat of a heavy drinker. He died in 1930 due to complications caused by diabetes most likely brought on by his affinity for drinking.

There are a few articles out there that claim Akiyama was involved in the 1894 Port Arthur massacre (namely Anime Feminist’s piece in 2020) and I’ve searched far and wide but I couldn’t find proof for these claims. I even reached out to the editorial team behind this online publication as well as the original writer, but they weren’t sure where this piece of information came from, possibly one of the comments on the original blog post. Polygon published similar claims in 2019, stating that “Yoshifuru was responsible for countless atrocities against Korea and China during Japanese occupations,” although the page that this claim leads to is a Wikipedia article that states nothing of the sort. I am not claiming these things did not happen, nor am I saying nothing happened in Korea and Japan during the Japanese occupation, but I personally have been unable to verify these claims when it comes to Akiyama Yoshifuru.

I did find a note stating that after the Kanto Massacre of Koreans that followed the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake Akiyama was remorseful and took his students on educational trips in an attempt to foster tolerance and understanding of other cultures. To risk sounding like an apologist, this kind of philosophy is definitely something I would expect to find in Attack on Titan—it goes well with the themes I think this series represents.

Regardless of the real person behind the character, it’s important to highlight that Dot Pixis is not meant to glorify Akiyama, his life, or anything else the latter believed in. While they do share certain traits, such as their physical appearance and their love of alcohol, Attack on Titan barely scratches the surface of Dot as a character and mainly keeps him in the background. We know he cares about his soldiers and we know he dislikes the nobles. As a member of the military, Pixis tries to make the most of each day while also taking on a protective role when it comes to his subordinates. It’s interesting to note that both Dot and Akiyama were known for their drinking habits.

While Isayama has confirmed this specific example of character inspiration, it is not the only case of him basing or naming characters on real-life people or things. One of the articles that connects Akiyama to the Port Arthur massacre also highlights a potential connection between Mikasa’s name and the Japanese battleship Mikasa or even Takahito, Prince Mikasa. This wasn’t difficult to check: In an interview included with Attack on Titan Volume 3, Isayama revealed that he actually named her after the battleship, stating that he heard of a superstition that if you name a female character after a ship, the work will become famous. He cited Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s Ayanami Rei and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya’s Yuki Nagato as examples. In this same interview, he revealed that she reminds him of Berserk’s Casca and that the resemblance wasn’t on purpose, it just happened. Physically, Mikasa looks like a customer who visited a shop he worked in.

These two are confirmed examples, but there are also theories about Erwin Smith, who shares the first name with the German Commander Erwin Rommel, whose day of death is also Erwin’s birthday. And it’s not just Erwin, Armin may have been based on Armin T. Wegner, a German soldier and medic in World War I, as well as a known critic of the Nazi regime in Germany, who is remembered for documenting the Armenian genocide. The fact that Armin is the narrator of the Attack on Titan anime and is seemingly reading his notes throughout the story, along with his pacifist personality, feels like a close parallel.

We have to also mention Fritz Haber, called “the father of chemical warfare” but also a Nobel Prize winner for the Haber–Bosch process. Haber was described as an “ardent German nationalist” who was later forced to resign from his positions because he was Jewish. His research led to the invention of Zyklon-B gas that would be used in gas chambers during the Holocaust. And while Fritz is a common name, I can’t help but wonder if this is who the Paradis founder was named after.

It’s not just the 19th-century historical figures that can be connected to the characters. Isayama is seemingly a history buff with a somewhat dark sense of humor which he expresses through Hange’s Titan naming conventions. In one of the early parts of the story, Hange mentions that the two Titans her squad previously captured were named Sawney and Bean, presumably after Sawney Bean, a 16th-century tale of a cannibal in Scotland. Hange also mentions Chikatilo and Albert: the first one is a reference to Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, while the second probably refers to Albert Fish, another serial killer in the US. Both of them were known for eating their victims, much like the Titans do. While this is an interesting implication, as Hange mentions their names as stories from the long-forgotten past, it’s clear that Isayama has a knack for leaving Easter eggs lying around.

There are probably more historical figures and cultural references in Attack on Titan, but I really want to highlight my point that these characters do not necessarily exist to glorify their real-life counterparts. We can ponder over whether these names were a wise choice, seeing as some of them were not people one would generally look up to. Still, I don’t believe this was intended to offend or pay homage to imperialist or fascist ideas, especially due to the sheer variety of characters and personalities we meet in the story. Some of them might share ideologies with the characters, but is this necessarily bad? I don’t think so—in fact, it could be part of what makes Attack on Titan feel so grounded despite its more fantastical elements.

Nazi Germany Parallels in Attack on Titan

The early-mid 1900s atmosphere and World War II imagery in Attack on Titan can’t be ignored when bringing up the historical parallels. Marley clearly resembles 1930s Germany in many ways—from the architecture, technology, and clothes down to the actual oppressive, fascist regime. Even if you manage to excuse everything else as a random coincidence, the armbands Eldians and honorary Marleyans are forced to wear are without a doubt directly inspired by the Nazi regime’s armbands in Europe. This particular piece of history doesn’t have the same significance outside of Europe, especially in Asia, which led to the official store coming up with a rather unfortunate idea of selling Attack on Titan armbands as merchandise (they did cancel it and they did apologize).

Then there is the map of the Attack on Titan world, which is a bit too obvious about Paradis being located on what is essentially Madagascar (but flipped for the purposes of the story). If you are completely unaware of the existence of the Madagascar Plan, it was a plan of the Nazi regime to forcibly relocate the Jewish population from Europe to Madagascar, which at the time was a French colony. This specific example is probably the reason why so many people are, understandably, questioning Isayama’s logic and intentions.

A common argument I see is that he could have written a story without using the suffering of real-life people for what is essentially entertainment. This sentiment I personally sympathize with but at the same time I have to admit that Isayama doesn’t use it as a lazy way out, it actually plays an important role in how the audience perceives the story, especially when it comes to anime.

The first three seasons of the Attack on Titan anime had a very strong theme: freedom and victory against a common enemy that wants to wipe us all out. This is evident not only in the story but also in the complete visual experience and music, including the theme songs. The opening theme songs for the first three seasons were mainly done by Linked Horizon and REVO, the frontman of the band. Initially written off as simply weird, these songs were a mix of Japanese and German lyrics and very patriotic-sounding. Hiroyuki Sawano’s soundtrack also featured lyrics occasionally in German. In fact, the only time Linked Horizon did not perform the opening was in the first half of the third seasonthe one that didn’t focus directly on Titans, but instead on the inner political workings and royal family’s secrets.

And so it came as a huge shock to most, myself included, when the secret of the basement was finally revealed and MAPPA’s Attack on Titan Final Season began. Many fans spent over half a decade sympathizing with Eren and his fight, hating the Titans and the traitors, especially Reiner, only to get hit with “Maybe these guys had no choice” and “Who is the real enemy?”-type questions. This complete switch in the story destroys every conception of “good” and “bad” anyone had, but also destroys the moral compass most viewers had been relying on since the beginning of the series by creating a difficult moral dilemma centered around who is to blame and who deserves it.

Obviously, most people want to identify with characters in the stories they follow, and the Attack on Titan fandom is no exception. But, once those you support become the “bad guys” in a story filled with uncomfortable symbols, references, and obvious historical parallels, what are you left with? Furthermore, if the group you recognize yourself in suddenly does some questionable things that earn them an uncomfortable real-life label, what does supporting them mean? With this, Isayama shatters not only the characters’ worlds but also the viewers.

Was it truly necessary to pick such a Eurocentric setting and focus on one of the worst parts of world history? It’s pretty clear where and when the world in Attack on Titan, mainly in Marley, is modeled after. Do I think it was necessarily the best choice? No, but I do think the sharp turn helps drive the story to its main point: a dark corner filled with oppression, hatred, and denial, one that perpetuates the inexcusable eternal cycle of humanity’s desire to rule, subjugate, and alter history.

The Elements That Form Attack on Titan’s Story

What started off as a typical shonen story evolved with the audience over time, and grew with those who spent years following it. Did any of us think a somewhat grim story about human-eating monsters would end up being an analogy for centuries of hate, fear, and the true nature of humanity? Probably not, although looking back it was evident it wouldn’t exactly have a happy ending one would see in say, Weekly Shonen Jump, with all the death and tragedy and especially with how it dealt with it. The consistent storytelling has been a strong point for this series throughout the years, with the anime staying faithful to the manga for the most part and successfully landing the ending Isayama has received mixed opinions on, even though it was seemingly planned from the very beginning.

Understanding the Enemy

One of the main talking points among the fans and casual readers/viewers in the past few years has been the glorification of the Scout Regiment, which would later become one of Paradis’ leading forces. When combined with the 1930s historical parallels and the attack on Liberio, this branch of the army that the anime had you supporting for the longest time falls under question. Initially, Erwin’s leadership and motivational speeches end up creating a patriotic army, willing to give up their lives for freedom, just to support Eren and find out the truth.

When presented like this, these soldiers seem like ideal heroes, who lead by example with their bravery in spite of corrupt government and other difficulties. Yet, when you look at the individuals who make up the military, you are faced with numerous characters who are there to survive and reach a goal that means something to them. Some are there for revenge, some out of curiosity, while others just want some kind of income to be able to survive. The common thread that connects them is the theme of sacrifice: countless soldiers lose their lives in vain, and those who survive are left wondering whether their sacrifice was worth it. Comradery ties the survivors with those who are gone, and the question of going forward remains. If we stop, who did they die for? That seems to be the driving force for many, at least in the first three seasons of the anime.

That is why it becomes difficult to support some of these characters after the Raid on Liberio. Our characters are now morally grey and picking a side feels like proving Eren’s (and of course Isayama’s) point. While Armin tries to unsuccessfully push negotiations, Eren has different plans that involve destruction—and he is not the only one. This is also when we learn how the walls on Paradis came to be and how King Fritz’s sacrifice, made with the best intentions, ended up dooming a whole generation and buying the world only 100 years of peace. We learn about the “devils” of the island and how the rest of the world sees them. The history taught in Marley is heavily skewed, but the history that revolutionists, like Grisha, teach is not any better.

The first half of the final season spends a great amount of time dealing with the sudden shift in perspective while trying to humanize the previously “evil” side and explain why the “devils” are feared. Somewhat unexpectedly, the perfect summary of this comes in the form of the hunters and the forest analogy, first explained by Sasha’s dad very early on in the series. His philosophy is that the people of Paradis need to “stop being hunters and leave the forest” and sacrifice comfort for the sake of others. Although he initially tells this when a wave of refugees hits their homeland, this analogy continues to be an important part of the story. When Sasha dies, he says she “got lost in the forest” when she attacked someone’s home, and when he finds out it was Gabi who killed her, he once again repeats that they should break the cycle.

This motif is also present in the 84th episode of the anime: former Scouts meet Marley’s army in a forest where they are forced to spend the night and work out their differences. Marco’s final words, “We haven’t even had time to talk this through” become a message that unites them, as they accept their past wrongdoings and circumstances.

Still, one of the most powerful scenes of Attack on Titan is the interaction between Kaya and Gabi in episode 70. Kaya asks Gabi how exactly her mother sinned and why she deserved to die. Gabi counters by explaining the history she has been taught and brings up a millennium of Titan power used to oppress and enslave, and Kaya repeats her question, stating her mother never hurt anyone. The argument is stopped by Falco, who admits they just got caught up in it. Kaya thanks him and tells them about Sasha—whom Gabi killed just a few days prior for invading her home. The children that continue war they did not start without knowing why, thanks to indoctrination, is one of the central themes of Attack on Titan. The inheritance of ideas, memories, history—everything gets passed down, if not through history, then through Titan powers.

For this part, I’m leaving you with a CD jacket illustration for Shinesei Kamettachan’s “Boku no Sensou/My War” for which Isayama drew the illustration. I always assumed this was Gabi in a classroom, as she is one of the few characters who manages to break the cycle she was stuck in. She had the mental fortitude and the maturity to realize where she went wrong. Unlike Reiner, who cracked after realizing the Paradis citizens were just normal people, Gabi managed to pull through, stronger than before.

Freedom in Attack on Titan

Kenny Ackerman’s final words to Levi were that everyone was a slave to something—and nowhere is this more evident than in the series’ main character, Eren. Eren’s only goal in life is to be free, to the point that he admits he is a slave to freedom. The reason for this is simple: Eren doesn’t know what freedom means to him, he doesn’t know what brings him joy and even if he somehow achieved complete peace in the world, he still wouldn’t know what to do. His initial motivation for activating the Rumbling is to ensure Paradis stays undisturbed and for his friends to stay alive. Eventually, he breaks down and shows his true nature to Armin.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Isayama stated that Eren was disappointed with the outside world and that the freedom he expected to find there was just another form of oppression. His final conversation with Armin highlights this: he admits that he wanted to destroy everything and level the world to the point where there were no enemies. Armin recognizes his sacrifice but comments about Eren always looking ahead and never being able to live in the moment or appreciate the small things—despite being at the beach with Armin, Eren doesn’t see a conch until Armin hands him one. Armin’s promise about seeing Eren in hell is a way to take some of the burden off Eren’s shoulders, but also a way to accept responsibility for his own actions.

I know it may be difficult to grasp, but Eren is not a hero. He may be the main character, and he may be someone you grew up cheering for, but the moment he decided to go through with the destruction of the world, he let his hatred win and he stopped being someone worth supporting. Isayama makes this clear through Mikasa and Armin’s eyes; Eren hurts them more than anyone else, and they realize they must be the ones to stop him since he is doing terrible things for their sake. Still, even in his final moments, Eren finds it difficult to admit his true motives—that he is not interested in working things out, he doesn’t care about humanity, and he only wants to protect the few people he cares about while maintaining his skewed sense of freedom. And it’s not like he didn’t warn us before. When Armin nearly loses his life to the Colossal Titan, Eren convinces Levi to save him by stating that Armin is the one with a future, that he is the one who sees beauty in life and he deserves to live on as someone who cherishes the world for what it is and as someone who will save it. In contrast, Eren admits all he thinks about is hate and killing.

It’s interesting to see people defending Eren’s actions. Between “he did nothing wrong” and “he was a depressed teenager” it’s clear that while there are certain fans who think his actions are justified, the majority realize that the annihilation of the human race beyond the walls was not the right choice and accept that he was faced with difficult choices. Isayama admitted that Eren is a character that resembles him the most and even Eren describes himself as an “idiot with power,” which is not an uncommon trait in many humans. It makes me wonder if we were all to end up in situations like these someday, what side would we choose, and would the Eren in us show up?

Still, I have to admit that Eren felt like a tragic character during his last moments with Mikasa. In spite of the power and the hatred he harbored, he wanted to be there for her, and maybe he could have been happy with her in the brief time they’d spent together. But, he realizes that by doing this, Paradis would get destroyed, along with his friends, Mikasa and Armin included. Ultimately, you have to admit that he doesn’t want to be a hero who saves the world and brings peace, he just wants his friends to live long lives. What happens beyond that is not a part of his plan.

Whether you think his choice was a justified one or not probably says a lot about how you see the world. I would argue that there is no right or wrong answer here—in the end, this is something that aligns with your personal beliefs, history, and morals. It’s quite easy to criticize the plot and characters of Attack on Titan when you’ve never been in a similar situation, but as someone who grew up in a country deeply divided by ethnic tensions, I will say that extreme beliefs, like the ones Eren held, are unfortunately not uncommon and are sadly sometimes even justified.

The Endless Cycle

All this brings me to my final point, one that Attack on Titan’s finale highlighted in a somewhat depressing manner. As long as humanity exists, so will conflict. There is no resolution, any progress will eventually be set back by more war, more killing, and more hate. In the series, this is evident through Eren’s sacrifice: no matter what he does, Paradis will eventually get destroyed. What he managed to do was buy a few centuries of peace, which although quite significant for humans with their life spans, felt painful to see.

This nihilistic overview is definitely something I expected from the series, but I can’t say I didn’t feel empty when I first watched it. It felt like we went through 10 years of the story, watching our favorite characters fight, suffer, and die, or come to soul-crushing realizations about themselves, just to reach a point where they finally get the deserved ending. And then, just like that, it’s over and the cycle begins anew. More destruction, more pain, more suffering; a never-ending conflict caused by things most have forgotten, or have been taught subjectively about.

It was a nice touch that the first scene in the series connected to Eren’s final one, as the main plot was a cycle that revolved around him. It’s also quite fitting that Mikasa was the one to break this cycle in many ways, not just for Eren but also for the Mother of Titans, Ymir, whose own skewed perception of love put her on a path of suffering. In many ways, Mikasa is the exact opposite of Ymir. She loved, but she was willing to live for herself, she fought for herself, and she didn’t let others order her around. Of course, Ymir’s circumstances were different: as a slave, she didn’t have any choices, and the only two she ever made (leaving the pig gate open and dying for Fritz) destroyed her life and the lives of so many people down the road.

Attack on Titan ended up being a story focusing on Mikasa and her love, even though it was told from Eren’s point of yearning for freedom, and narrated by Armin. With a story as dark as this, it’s easy to forget the role love plays as a driving force for many characters, even though Eren Kruger says to Grisha: “Love someone inside those walls. If you can’t do that, it will only repeat. This cruel history… The same mistakes… Over and over again…” It’s quite possible Eren Yeager was saying these words, so it’s even more depressing that not even he, with all the power he had, couldn’t change anything. It’s Mikasa who manages to break the cycle by doing what she thinks is right, in spite of how difficult it is for her.

Attack on Titan’s Legacy

When I look back on the Attack on Titan story, it’s difficult for me to tie it with something that justifies violence, killing, or hatred. For a while, I pondered what kind of message Isayama was trying to convey. Was it a warning, or just an explanation of human nature? The post-credits scenes of the finale and the manga’s epilogue both highlight the cyclical nature of everything in this story, the cycle that continues beyond Eren, beyond Eldia and Paradis, and everything else. There is no forever, just small, fleeting moments of peace and happiness that can last a few lifetimes if humanity is lucky enough—or else reeling from a great disaster.

Although fictionalized with added fantastical elements, Attack on Titan‘s core messages are ones that are universal. Perhaps the series would be less controversial if it had less evident parallels, less humanized characters, and a happier ending. But that isn’t the case, even though Isayama himself revealed that he tried to change the ending. In the end, he decided against it because it was one he imagined from the very beginning.

Still, one thing has left me with a slightly hopeful feeling. The very final moment of the story, in which a child stumbles upon Eren’s tree—now looking like the cave Ymir entered so many years ago. You could look at this scene and see it as Isayama’s way of saying that history will repeat itself. But, there is a small, tiny chance that it won’t. We do not know who the boy is or what he wishes for. I could say that he maybe wishes for better things instead of destruction, but as we learn from Ymir’s story that doesn’t always matter.

Ultimately, it will come down to his perception of the world and whether he feels he was born free. And for us, it will be the overarching message we took from the masterpiece that is Attack on Titan.

Images: ©Hajime Isayama, Kodansha/”ATTACK ON TITAN” Production Committee; ©Hajime Isayama, Kodansha/”ATTACK ON TITAN” The Final Season Production Committee

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