Seid ihr das Essen?
Nein wir sind die Jäger
Spoilers to follow:
The bestselling manga Shingeki no Kyojin by Hajime Isayama has been adapted to television, inspired several video games, and a commercially successful English translation Attack on Titan all since its first publication in 2009. The plot depicts a near extinct human race besieged and devoured by thoughtless cannibalistic giants, hints at a vast conspiracy, and feats of heroism that only occasionally break the unrelenting sense of imminent doom. This series is clearly a modern epic fantasy.
The story follows the adventures of Eren Yeager and his comrades in a desperate battle against the titular mindless Titans, a mythic echo of the Ur-gods of the Ancient Greeks, or the Norse Jotuns.
Isayama’s choice of a European setting is intriguing, with the majority of the characters having Germanic/Anglo names and the architecture resembling pre-industrial townships.
The action takes place in a constructed social utopia, with humanity having barely survived extinction and now enjoying an uneasy peace after a century of hiding behind fortified walls. The Germanic aesthetic of the towns is therefore the result of purposeful design. More sophisticated technology – such as the 3D Manoeuvre Gear used by humans to attack Titans – is available for use by members of the military in their attacks against the giant monsters.
It can be assumed that Isayama has not simply made a stylistic choice for the sake of aesthetics. There is a thematic purpose to his citing of Germanic culture, as the show presents perspectives on nationalism, the conflict between technology and the natural world and mythological terror, recurring concerns of German literature and philosophy.
Attack on Titan confronts the viewer with the archetypal fear posed by the Titans, who listlessly chomp down on screaming victims instead of showing signs of conscious evil. They are not only huge in size, but their behaviour is unfathomable to the humans they devour.
In response to Sigmund Freud’s theory that the fundamental instinct is the sex drive, Ernst Bloch argued in his key works The Spirit of Utopia and The Principle of Hope that hunger instead was the base of what drives not only humanity, but civilization. In hunger, Bloch rooted not only survival but desire, will, and the capacity to aspire to become greater.
In the thoughtless hunger of the Titans, as well as the panicked mobs in Shiganshina after the Colossal Titan breaks through Wall Maria, we see that drive to consume stripped back to its most bestial. What makes the Titans truly horrifying is their facial expressions as they eat their victims.
When Eren witnesses the death of his mother, the animation slows to drag out the moment, the monster’s mouth opening impossibly wide. The Titans act purely for the pleasure of eating. They lack a digestion system and ignore all other forms of sustenance apart from humans.
In that respect, the Titans represent the mythic Other. Their monstrousness is that of a natural world that is actively hostile to a vulnerable humanity. Eren angrily accuses the placid inhabits of Shiganshina moments before the Colossal Titan attacks of being trapped in a cage, unable to fight back against the Titans outside. The theme song itself is more explicit:
The livestock may be at peace
in their phony prosperity
This becomes a recurring charge against the inhabitants of the cities and corrupt merchants, with allusions to cattle or pigs frequently employed. Eren is furious at the petty complaints about increasing costs following the deaths of his family and neighbours and subsequent exodus of the few that survived the genocide.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra condemned “The Last Man” for wanting only to be comfortable and warm, avoiding any threat to his well-being, or any goal that demands he struggle to attain it. During the siege of Trost, Mikasa Ackerman interrupts her battle against Titans in order to force the merchant Dimo Reeves to remove his cart from the only exit to the district. Only when she threatens to kill him does Reeves allow the desperate people to escape. The transport of his goods, and his own profit, meant more to him than the lives of the people trapped in Trost.
Hints at an overarching conspiracy in Isayama’s story suggest that this devastating conflict between mankind and Titans was deliberately set in motion. Humanity has therefore been trapped by an unknown conspiracy and set in the path of monsters.
In that respect, the setting of the series opening describes a classical utopia – a perfect system that only enjoys peace at the expense of lives sacrificed to sustain that order. Bloch pointed to the failure of the political left, in the face of Nazism’s purported reclaiming of national German pride, satisfying people’s “hunger” better than Marxist critique of capitalism. The rise of fascism in Germany occasioned a looking back to an abstract concept of German-ness, a corrupted form of the regional mythology and nationalist spirit of their culture. This, in Bloch’s thinking, was an example of a false utopia. The conspiracy behind the secret of the Walls similarly manipulates what is left of humanity in order to exercise its dominion, willing to sacrifice thousands to accomplish this. The peasant class and bourgeoisie of Walls Maria and Rose have therefore been placed between the aristocrats of Sina and the danger of the Titans. Similar to the coastal walls of Pacific Rim, or World War Z’s Redeker plan, they are the unwitting sacrifice to the Titans.
The urbane drunk Dot Pyxis hints to Eren at one point that he suspects the conspiracy behind the Titans may have been set in motion in order to unify humanity against a single enemy. Instead ethnic diversity has depleted to the point where Mikasa is explicitly identified as the last surviving “Oriental.”
The rulers within Sina exercise power through the population’s terror of the Titans outside and more directly through the military, broken down between the Survey Cops, Garrison Regiment, and Military Police Brigade.
The Survey Corps are the only humans brave enough to venture outside. Eren hero-worships them, as he and his best friend Armin Alert have grown up wondering what the world outside the walls is like. Their leader Erwin Smith even resembles a Saxon hero, of the Arthurian/Parzival type, his trips outside the walls being quests instead of doomed sorties with the unstoppable Titans.
However, most of Eren’s neighbours are shown to resent the Survey Corps, outwardly for being a waste of tax money, but clearly due to their continuing failure to achieve military success over the Titans serving as a reminder of humanity’s powerlessness. They would prefer, like Nietzsche’s “Last Man,” to not be reminded.
This is grimly illustrated by a grieving mother receiving the a half devoured arm, the only piece of her son the Corps were able to recover.
In the opening episode we meet members of the Garrison Regiment, who anger Eren by being drunk on duty. Their role is to man the walls that encircle the surviving human habitations and they have become complacent over the course of the hundred years of peace.
The innermost wall, Sina, is notable for being the seat of a largely absentee king, as well as the remaining aristocracy and religious hierarchy. They are defended by the Military Police Brigade, chosen from the most skilled trainees at the academy that also produces the Survey Corps and Garrison Regiment. They are also the least likely to have to face a Titan, secure within the centre of the inhabited regions. Their decadence and corruption is juxtaposed with the heroism of Erwin Smith.
The interruption of the one hundred years of peace is caused by the actions of the intelligent Titans – the Colossal Titan, Armored Titan and Female Titan – as well as Eren, a newly discovered human Titan or ‘Shifter’. Firstly, the hostile intelligent Titan Shifters – whose identities, with the exception of Annie Leonhart, are revealed in the manga – enter the same class of trainees as Eren, to observe defence tactics. Their motivations remain unknown, but it is worth noting that by the time Eren, Mikasa and Armin meet them, the trio are already responsible for the deaths of thousands of people.
Literal “overmen,” they parallel Nietzche’s concept of the Übermensch described in Zarathustra. However, they act according to an unknown external party that transformed them into monsters as children. They are compelled to kill – hence Annie’s admiration for Eren, who acts only in accordance with his own desires. There is also poignancy to her confession, “I just want the weak, who do get swept along with the flow, to be considered human too.”
Eren’s abilities as a Shifter first tip off the military that there are traitors within the ranks who can resemble other humans. Unlike the traitorous trio though, Eren can only become a Titan when he is fixed on a particular object of his will. If anything, his status as an uncontrollable creature determined to kill any Titans in sight due to his lust for revenge makes him the closest to Nietzsche’s concept of a purely individualistic being.
That Eren only discovers his powers by being himself eaten by a Titan, and then standing in a stew of dismembered corpses in the creature’s belly, brings to mind another Nietzsche line from Zarathustra, “I love those who do not know how to live, except by going under, for they are those who cross over.”
Attack on Titan’s technologically naive setting reveals a largely untouched natural world that has thrived without human interference for over a century. German Romantic literature reflected back on the relationship of man with nature. Concepts of nationalism and “German-ness,” distinguished it from the neighbouring English school.
Goethe’s iconic hero in The Sorrows of Young Werther begins his correspondence in the epistolary novel by describing the sights and smells in his countryside retreat. Soon his peace is disturbed by his obsession with the kind Charlotte. Goethe explicitly establishes that nature is now out of balance in keeping with Werther’s emotional state, when in discovering that his beloved is engaged to a man named Albert, a loud storm begins:
The dance was not yet finished when the lightning, which had for some time been seen in the horizon, and which I had asserted to proceed entirely from heat, grew more violent, and the thunder was heard above the music.
The partygoers are flung into a panic, breaking down in hysterics. This is Goethe’s playful allusion to the “sturm und drang” trope by presenting a literal storm and panic.
The surrounding valleys and forests in Attack on Titan are depicted as beautiful and serene. This is deceptive, as the Titans themselves can emerge suddenly from hiding when they detect the presence of the Survey Corps. Nature in Attack on Titan is a hunting ground, not a beatific pastoral setting. A terrifying scene involving Sasha Braun passing a simple cottage, which obstructs their view of the Titan on all fours behind it, is doubly frightening for what it suggests the creature was doing before it began to pursue them.
The celebration of nature and chivalric within German literature was a response to the wave of Enlightenment rationalist thought. Werther became a key Romantic text due to the hero’s emotional outbursts. His nobility is established through his capacity for cultured thought and feeling. The closest comparison with Werther within the series is Jean Kirschtein. Initially presented as an arrogant trainee who only wishes to excel so he can be chosen to remain behind the walls of Sina, Jean falls in love with Mikasa and becomes jealous of her relationship with Eren. Slowly he comes to grudgingly admire his rival and despite himself is inspired to join the Shiganshina survivors in Survey Corps.
He also procrastinates in a manner common to the German Romantics, as Goethe and his successors in the form had much admiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with his digressions and obsessiveness.
Once allied with the Survey Corps he becomes a reluctant leader, given to long soliloquys on his worthiness. Only the death of fellow trainee Marco motivates Jean to become a more effective fighter, his obsession with the off-screen death of his friend acting as a catalyst.
Kirschtein’s opposition to Eren is equivalent to Nietzsche’s divide between the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects, concepts derived from Ancient Greek theatre. Jean acts according to what he feels he is supposed to do, in accordance with what is lawful. He observes his fellow members of the Survey Corps mid-battle, assessing the performance of Reiner in a fight against the Female-Titan (though unaware that the two are staging their encounter to deceive him).
Eren on the other hand acts out of rage, activating his abilities through injuring himself by biting off his thumb. He is motivated by pain, anger, and hatred. While others admire his passion, Jean sees his behaviour as dangerous, even before Eren is revealed to be a Shifter.
Attack on Titan has a dizzying tendency to contrast moments of levity with extremes of horror. A comedic sequence involving the country bumpkin Sasha Braus stealing meat rations for her fellow trainees is immediately followed by the sudden appearance of the Colossal Titan and the slaughter of the citizens of Trost. The series also spends whole episodes mourning the deaths of individual characters. Marco’s demise for example becomes totemic for Jean, though his onscreen presence is limited.
Perhaps a hint in the anime that all is not what it seems with Annie is how she is determinedly stoic right up until the moment of Armin revealing her treachery – at which point she bursts out laughing. The human characters express a range of emotions, whereas the glazed appearance of the Titans indicates a total lack of conscious thought.
The privileging of emotion within the series, as too within German Romance, makes it a richer experience than typical fantasy genre epics. The individuality of the characters is stressed, giving the violence and horror a sense of weight.
Even as German philosophers and writers looked backward to Grail myths, court romances, Greek theatre, and thinkers to create a rejuvenated cultural identity, Attack on Titan presents a literally reconstructed post-Medieval European society in order to explore the same themes of nature and identity.
The challenge for Isayama is to conclude the myriad puzzles he has set up in as satisfying a manner as possible. The mystery of the series though will remain enjoyable while it lasts, as it is suggestive of a multiple interpretations. Credit is due to Isayama for deliberately evoking these comparisons through the themes and setting of Attack on Titan.