A Show That Pits Japan Against the World Brings a Dark Past to Life

Many fans interpret ‘Attack on Titan’ as a commentary on Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan but disagree on whether it casts these regimes in a positive or negative light

A Show That Pits Japan Against the World Brings a Dark Past to Life
“Attack on Titan” character Cosser wears a mocking banner at the 29th comicup Expo in Shanghai, China, on May 3, 2023. (CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

“Attack on Titan,” which started out as a successful manga in 2009 before being adapted into an even more successful anime in 2013, is heading into its divisive conclusion later this year. With this, it is perhaps time to reexamine the relationship between Japanese politics and pop culture.

The anime series, which came after the comic-book manga version, follows a boy named Eren Yeager, who was born in a medieval society surrounded by enormous walls that keep out naked, mindless, people-eating giants called Titans. When these monsters breach Eren’s world and kill his mother, a vengeful Eren joins the army to launch a counteroffensive. Venturing beyond the walls, he discovers that Titans are actually humans who have been turned into Titans by a technologically advanced nation-state called Marley.

It also turns out that Eren’s people — the Eldians — used to control Marley, until their king, exhausted by war, built the walls and erased the memories of all those inside. Eldians on the outside were placed in ghettos and forced to wear special armbands by the Marleyan government, which has been waiting for the right moment to resume the battle. Upon relearning their true history, Eren’s comrades attempt to set up peace talks with Marley, while Eren himself — convinced that coexistence is impossible — seeks to harness the power of the Titans to wipe out every culture in the world except his own.

Known as “Shingeki no Kyojin” in Japanese, “Attack on Titan” is one of the most popular media franchises in recent memory. It’s also one of the most controversial. Despite taking place in a fantasy world, the story — initially centered on the black-and-white conflict between humanity and Titans — incorporates a variety of historical images and issues, including colonization, segregation and nationalism. Numerous fans interpret the series as a commentary on Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan but disagree on whether it casts these regimes and the philosophies they were founded upon in a positive or negative light.

Some experts warn against condensing the series’ multifaceted story into a one-sided history lesson. “Although there are some similarities between the themes in ‘Attack on Titan’ and Japanese history [like] raising high walls between people and the outside world; nuclear weapons; living on an island … there is a risk to become overly reductionist,” Ibrahim Akbas, who studied the relationship between anime and Japan’s foreign policy, told New Lines via email. It doesn’t help that the creator of “Attack on Titan,” the manga artist Hajime Isayama, avoids discussing his authorial intent so others can draw their own conclusions.

Instead of trying to unravel the definitive meaning behind “Attack on Titan,” it might be more productive to look at what the series has come to represent to different segments of its global audience. Isayama’s use of broadly applicable metaphors, such as the David-versus-Goliath motif, has spawned multiple conflicting but equally viable interpretations. But — and this is the alarming part — while the manga and its anime adaptation are inherently ambiguous, the lessons readers and viewers take away from them are often anything but.

This is especially evident in the United States, where “Attack on Titan” has developed a passionate following among members of the so-called alt-right. If you go onto the anonymous imageboard website 4chan, a well-known platform for right-wing extremists, you will find no shortage of nameless, faceless users arguing that the series functions as an illustration of and justification for their ultraconservative, “anti-woke” and white-supremacist worldview. For example, they cite Eren’s deeply ingrained belief that genocide is the only way to ensure the survival of his fair-skinned and, coincidentally, quasi-Germanic ethnicity.

Many comments and memes — of Eren attacking Israel and supporting Adolf Hitler — speak for themselves. “One of the most redpilled shows I have seen in a long time,” one person writes. Oxford Languages define “red pill” as the process of being introduced to “a new and typically disturbing understanding of the true nature of a particular situation.” Another commentator views the series as a reflection on how the “good guys” lost World War II. A third applauds Eren for fighting tirelessly “for the freedom of his race,” while a fourth insists that he “did nothing wrong.”

In East Asia, by contrast, “Attack on Titan” has been interpreted not as an allegory for Nazi Germany but Imperial Japan, whose age of conquest complicates international relations to this day. Here, controversy emerged as early as 2010, when Isayama revealed in a blog post that one of his characters, the Eldian general Dot Pixis, was based on Akiyama Yoshifuru, a commanding officer in the Russo-Japanese War. In the comments, Korean fans of his work scorned and even threatened Isayama for using a “war criminal” as a template for someone who, in the context of the story, was clearly meant to be seen as a capable and charismatic leader.

The historians I spoke with were unable to confirm if Yoshifuru was directly involved in any war crimes over the course of his career, and neither the comments on Isayama’s blog nor the media outlets that reproduced them presented any evidence to back up these claims. Still, the fact remains that Yoshifuru helped run a military organization that would commit plenty of well-documented atrocities in years to come. By and large, however, this specific dispute has less to do with the past itself than the way in which it lives on in the collective memory and popular imagination of Japan and its neighbors.

Like many Japanese, Isayama likely learned of the Russo-Japanese War from “Clouds Above the Hill,” a popular historical novel by Shiba Ryotaro that turned Yoshifuru, one of its protagonists, from a relatively obscure figure into a far more recognizable one. Both the novel, which was written in the late 1960s, and its TV adaptation, which aired the same year the “Attack on Titan” manga entered publication, were boycotted for their apparent glorification of an event that ultimately served as the pretext for the Imperial Japanese army to occupy the Korean Peninsula and, later, Manchuria.

“Shiba’s novels,” Sven Saaler, a professor of modern Japanese history at Sophia University in Tokyo, wrote in an email, “have massively influenced the Japanese historical consciousness.” His treatment of this period is so prevalent that, on the 70th anniversary of the Asia-Pacific War in 2015, the late prime minister Shinzo Abe referred to the Russo-Japanese War as a defensive war in which Japan fought to protect East Asia from European colonization, rather than an offensive one that enabled the country — emerging as a new power — to start establishing colonies of its own.

Although its Bavarian setting suggests otherwise, the world of “Attack on Titan” has more in common with the Land of the Rising Sun than it does with the Third Reich. Placed in the context of Japanese history, the island nation where Eren grows up becomes analogous to Japan itself; the Titans, some of which possess the ability to explode into giant mushroom clouds, turn into a metaphor for atomic bombs in particular and foreign aggression in general; and Eren’s insistence on fighting enemies, as opposed to reasoning with them, starts to sound a lot like a call for Japan’s long-awaited remilitarization.

According to Roman Rosenbaum, editor of “The Representation of Japanese Politics in Manga” and a scholar of postwar Japanese literature and popular culture affiliated with the University of Sydney, “Attack on Titan” caused controversy in Japan for the extent to which it provided an argument for the revision of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Added to the constitution under American supervision in 1947, this article prohibits the country from maintaining a standing army and resorting to war as a means to solve international disputes. Its modification has long been an objective of right-wing politicians such as Abe.

Because history is a contentious subject in postwar Japan, people find it easier to explore historical questions through manga and anime than other means. Disguised as works of art and entertainment, revisionist histories like Yoshinori Kobayashi’s “Gomanism Sengen” market what its authors see as a “proper” reading of Japanese imperialism, one in which aggression is presented as justifiable and crimes against humanity are written off as anti-nationalist propaganda. While not as overtly political as “Gomanism Sengen,” themes of memory erasure and involuntary pacifism ensure copies of “Attack on Titan” end up in the same reading circles, which — notably — are comprised largely of young adults.

Another noteworthy similarity between “Attack on Titan” and Japanese history concerns fear of retaliation. In the manga and anime, the war between the Eldians and Marleyans is driven not just by hatred but also by anticipation of the other party’s response to past actions. Just as Marley wants to eradicate the Eldians inside the walls before they have a chance to avenge the persecution and enslavement of their brethren abroad, so too do some supporters of Article 9 modification believe Japan needs to be able to defend itself in case China, South Korea or North Korea decides to take revenge for the suffering endured under Japanese rule.

When viewed through a Japanese lens, even the Germanic elements in “Attack on Titan” acquire a different connotation. Watching the anime, Christopher Smith, an assistant professor of Japanese at the University of Florida, was struck by the enthusiasm with which a character of Asiatic heritage, Eren’s adopted sister Mikasa, devotes herself to the military campaign and national mission of the country she calls home. Had the same story taken place in a world even remotely reminiscent of Japanese society, Smith said on Zoom, that “would have set off everyone’s alarm bells.”

“Attack on Titan” is certainly not unique in this regard. From “Fullmetal Alchemist” to “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure,” the Japanese media landscape is filled with manga and anime that appropriate aspects of German culture, including imagery related to National Socialism. The explanations for and consequences of this obsession are worth looking into. As suggested by Smith, European-inspired locations and characters allow Japanese audiences to express their thoughts on sensitive topics like nationalism and militarism without causing controversy.

But that’s not all. By removing totalitarian symbols from their original context and integrating them into fictional universes, manga and anime contribute to the gradual normalization of things that should not be normalized. Across Japan, novelty shops selling SS uniforms and Nazi-themed bars decorated with swastikas stay in business partly because there are now enough people for whom fascism has become a pop culture aesthetic — Nazi culture or Nachikaru in academic speak — instead of a real and serious threat that could one day take over the world the way it tried to a century ago.

The same goes for images related to Imperial Japan. Smith’s research has focused on Kantai Collection, a long-running web browser game where players assume the role of an admiral who has to assemble a fleet of warships that the developers depict as women in revealing dress who wear the visual markers of famous Japanese vessels — radar masts, naval guns and even the emperor’s chrysanthemum seal — as fashion accessories. In “Attack on Titan,” Isayama arguably makes a similar connection through the character of Mikasa, who is herself named after a prominent ship from the Russo-Japanese War.

Smith doubts a Japanese soldier who put his life on the line in the Asia-Pacific War would enjoy seeing the Mikasa or the Yamato, the crown jewel of the imperial fleet, dressed in short skirts and mismatched stockings. But what about their great-grandchildren, who never experienced the war and know little about it? While associating weapons of war with cuteness or “Kawaii” culture is unlikely to restore a narrative of national greatness as it existed in the past, Smith notes, it “may at the same time be possible to make it seem like Article 9 revision is actually not such a big deal.”

Kazuma Hashimoto, a Japanese-English translator who argued in an article written for Polygon that the ending of “Attack on Titan” solidifies the series as a pro-militarization discourse, agrees. “If you turn a warship that attacked Pearl Harbor into a hot anime girl,” he says over a Zoom call, “you’re making people have this emotional attachment to this thing that helped perpetuate war crimes and colonization. You can’t say this isn’t propaganda, that this isn’t somehow working in tandem with the massive amounts of history revisionism that’s happening in the country.”

Although the Japanese entertainment industry works independently from the Japanese government, politicians have become increasingly skilled at using manga and anime to get their messages across. Rosenbaum points out how various parties, mainly the Liberal Democratic Party, started producing manga and mascots to win over young voters who care more about pop culture than politics.

“Soft power is more powerful than hard power,” Rosenbaum says on Zoom. “That’s why we need to critically analyze the manga we read. Just like political articles, we need to research them to discover if they are potentially harmful, which they can be.”

Of course, this does not mean that all manga and anime are necessarily dangerous. For every Kobayashi, there is a Shigeru Mizuki — a manga artist who uses their medium not to revise history but to pass on the memories of their traumatic wartime experiences to future generations. And for every Mizuki, there are a dozen storytellers who don’t consciously deal with history or politics at all. Yet, even when the entertainment we consume isn’t directly about the past, it still influences the way we make sense of the present and visualize the future. Even if it is set in a fantasy world, it still reflects reality to a degree.

In a BBC interview from 2015, Isayama said that he felt “connected to the universe” while working on the earliest chapters of the “Attack on Titan” manga in his tiny apartment, indicating that he was, on some level, aware of the profound impact the series would have on his audience. Whether or not one interprets his story as political commentary, there is no denying that, at its core, it provides radical answers to heavy questions about how we should live and treat the people around us. As a result, Eren’s actions will appear defensible to those who see themselves in him. That alone is cause for concern.

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