The structure of the world we are introduced to in Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan is fascinating. At a glance, humans have been driven to reclusion within the perimeter of the three walls that take on the role of guardians, wardens, and sentries. To venture outside is to confront a world dominated by the men eating titans; monsters of a singular purpose and eerily familiar features. The palpable tensions do not need to be articulated to be felt; to fear and begrudge the unknown is part of this world. Yet, In Isayama’s world, like in ours, to discover is part of the human condition; humanity has not yet fallen prey to inertia. Attack on Titan is a story about overcoming the dichotomies of the world, but often this pursuit may be drenched in tragedy and uncertainty.
Isayama’s world is multi-layered, the wall society is barred from the outside world from the horde of titans at its gates, while on the inside social inequalities are common between the inhabitants of the three walls. The district of Shiganshina as we find it at the start of the story is blessed by peace; complaisant town guards, busy markets, and lively pubs are the reality of its denizen. There is a sense of security to Shiganshina. Isayama would depict the fragility of that peace when, Wall Maria, a towering, century-strong structure is shattered by the sheer power of an even more towering titan. In a blink, the ground has collapsed under the viewer’s feet, our protagonist experiences the loss of his mother and his home as his once peaceful town devolves into a titan infested hell.
This steels our protagonist Eren’s hate of the titans and that antagonism defines himself and his purpose. There is a monolithic understanding of humanity and a clear divide between the wall society from within the wall, the ‘self’, and the titans of the outside, the ‘other’. To the viewer there might be an inkling of the idea that the titans were human, their unsettling anthropomorphic features are an indication of that. Yet, in Isayama’s world, the titans are a monstrous constant that is differentiated from humans, after all, they do not behave nor look like us. The long history that the wall society has in fighting the titans has cemented the animosity towards them, people like Hange that seek to find the truth behind titans are exceedingly rare.
There is an uneasiness as to Isayama’s choice to portrait these monsters as they are, the notion of violence perpetrated by a human-looking aggressor is often more real and horrific than any surreal monster could ever be. For these reasons the realization of the true nature of the titans is baffling and the moral grounding of our characters is shattered; what they had been killing all along were not monsters, but humans.
“I’ve spent the last few years of my life flying around and killing humans? Is that right?” -Levi
This blend is exemplified through Connie’s struggle with the notion that his mother might have been turned into a monster; the viewer and the characters slowly come to terms with the reality that the titans that they had considered nothing more than senseless creatures were in fact victims of an unseen enemy. It alludes that their drive towards eating humans are a product of their subconscious desires to regain their human form. The portrayal of humanity that is unified against a singular enemy is broken when the humanity of that enemy is also revealed.
There is fear in the unknown and the different. It is easier for a society to rally against something that is perceived to be fundamentally different from oneself and dehumanized; it precludes us from empathy. Yet, what Isayama does is to bridge the gap of understanding to flip on its head the characters preconception, the moral justification of devoting one’s heart to the eradication of titans becomes null.
In its effect, the misnomer of the titans’ nature is a prelude to the greater societal divide that is introduced. Through the conflicts that arise between the Eldians and the Marleyans infiltrators, Annie, Bertholdt, and Reiner, the story shifts from its premise that pitted humans against monsters to human conflict. Our characters, that once saw humanity as a monolithic and unified community are morally shaken. Isayama posits an ideological wall that divides the Eldians and the Marleyans; a painstaking reminder of the oppression and systematic hate of our world. The centuries-old feud between the two nations is revealed to be the foundation of the struggles suffered by the people of the wall society, once again the main casts oppose an ‘other’, albeit this time it is a much more familiar one.
However, as opposed to the titans there are greater nuances to the Marley threat; Reiner’s dissociative predicament is a testament to that. What was to simply be a role for him, becomes part of his reality as he is confronted with the similarities between the people inside and outside the wall. The enmity he had based on the perceived differences from the demons of the wall collapses; we are reminded that one’s sense of ‘self’ is often intrinsically linked to our consideration of others.
When Bertholdt, Annie, and himself are forced to confront and end Marco’s life there is clear distress, they are painfully aware of the cruelness and inhumanness of their actions, yet Annie and Bertholdt clench their teeth for the mission. Renner on the other hand loses grasp of reality, his recruit persona taking ascendance as he forgets why the horrific scene before him is even happening. Reiner cannot bear the weight of the irrationality of the world; this world that pits humanity against itself is too cruel for Reiner. He takes on and hides behind the personality of his deceased friend Marcel as he cannot make sense of his sense of self; who is the other, and what is the self has become confused within him and his moral grounding has collapsed.
“Why… is Marco being eaten?” – Renner
The world of Attack on Titan is grueling, there is no beauty in the fight against the titans, it is a simple matter of survival Isayama tells us. But there is even greater cruelty to the conflicts between humans that have forgotten each other. This notion is emphasized through the conflicts that erupt between the Survey Corps and the interior police. If human conflict and war are something very much present in our world that is not the case in Isayama’s. There is an uneasiness that protrudes from the Survey Corps members as, for the first time, they engage in battle with the intent to kill, they too are painfully aware of the weight of such an action. Levi, a figure of composure in the face of the loss of his comrades to titan cannot help but take on a grim look when the same happens at the hands of humans. The understanding of humanity as a unified concept is toppled.
Kenny in many ways is a more fearful existence than that of the titans. His amorality is a contradiction to the essence of a society that had been defined to the viewer through its united front against the titans; again, the familiar enemy is often the scariest. He is a reminder that society is not so easily described, there are variance and diversity in people, to posit a perfectly unified community is impossible; we are reminded of that fact as we delve into Levy’s and Kenny’s lives in the underworld of the wall society. Through Kenny, Isayama makes the point that one’s self does not start and end as the apparel of society, we as individuals have hopes, dreams, and desires unique to one another. Isayama forgoes the image of a monolithic society and in favor of the multiplicity of individualism.
“Everyone… was a slave to something” -Kenny
Isayama’s approach is slow and meticulous. As the story goes, he peels away and lays bare the struggles that exist in this world. An initially simple premise takes on new life and meaning as revelations are made to us about this world. It is painstakingly effective in embroiling the viewer in the happenings of a world that suffers in many ways from prejudices much like ours does. There is no indulgence at the end of the penultimate season of Attack on Titan, no overwhelming joy in the conquest of the outside. Where Attack on Titan left us, as Eren stands on the coast of paradise island the viewer realizes that the enemy, the ‘other’, and the wall had only shifted a bit further. Isayama seems to tell us that it is the fate of humankind in its eternal momentum to become embroiled in conflict as we forget to understand one another. How Isayama will choose to overcome the greatest wall of all remains to be seen.
” If we kill every last one of our enemies out there, will we finally be free then?” -Eren