Friday, 20 May 2016

Attack on Titan: In Defence of the Wall

About a month ago, I finished watching Attack on Titan, the massively popular anime series feature terrifying monsters called 'Titans' which have nearly wiped out humanity, the remainder of which hides behind humongous walls built to keep Titans out. It is brilliant.

Once an episode finished, my girlfriend and I were left in such a state of anxiety and desperate excitement to know what would happen next that we had to watch the next episode. This led to some serious binge watching.

I mean, just look at that.

Everything in the show is set to eleven. The stakes are absurdly high for one - humanity is on the brink of extinction and the battle the protagonists fight is against an unrelenting unstoppable enemy, one which they aren't equipped to face. They are hopelessly outmatched and know it.

The drama is so intense, it could be accused of being melodramatic if the high stakes hadn't already been so well-established. The characters' emotions are exaggerated, the reality of their situation warrants their dramatic outbursts.

This is apparent just from the show's original opening theme song. An insanely awesome tune which is equal parts over-the-top camp and pure adrenaline pumping. Everything is designed to ramp things up, thrashing guitars, heavy metal drums, bombastic orchestra, piercing choir, unrelenting vocal. It is nothing short of epic.


That is Attack on Titan in nutshell. A ridonculously epic show. There is barely a moment to breathe, particularly in the first several episodes as you're thrust into this world and events unfold so quickly and so shockingly that you can scarce believe what you're watching. The pace is relentless. The spectacle gripping. The story compelling.

And I realise I haven't done a good job so far summarizing the story or describing the show at all. Since I want to address some analysis and weird theories about the show, summarizing the plot might be in order. Alright, before we get into this, for everyone who hasn't watched Attack on Titan yet...

This Post is Full of SPOILERS, Seriously Dude Don't Touch It


Spoiler 1: The Titans breach the outer wall protecting humanity in the first episode.

As previously noted, Attack on Titan is set in a world where humanity lives inside cities surrounded by enormous walls due to the Titans, gigantic humanoid beings who devour humans.

As per Wikipedia,
The story follows the adventures of Eren Jaeger, his adopted sister Mikasa Ackerman, and their friend Armin Arlert, whose lives are changed forever after a Colossal Titan breaches the wall of their home town. Vowing revenge and to reclaim the world from the Titans, Eren and his friends join the Scout Regiment, an elite group of soldiers who fight Titans.
In the first episode, Eren's mother is eating by a Titan before his own eyes as he is being taken away to safety. There is really a feeling through the series that anyone can die, that no one is safe. This is an enemy that can't be reasoned with since they only live to eat humans and not for nourishment, they can survive without food. They eat humans just because.

This is Thomas Wagner. He was a cadet with Eren and a character we get to see grow over the course of several episodes.
He is the first cadet in Eren's squad to get eaten by a Titan but not the last.

I bring this up because in a post on Fandom Following about Plot Armour, Attack on Titan was brought up as an example of how not to use plot armour. For the uninitiated, "Plot Armor is a narrative device which allows any character to survive anything (as long as the writers consider them important enough)." Essentially how the bad guy's bullets seem to always miss the good guy.

According to the Fandom Following writer, while Attack on Titan tries to do the 'Anyone Can Die' thing, it ultimately fails since it establishes who the main protagonists are and doesn't kill them off, using the example of Eren. And that's where this argument falls flat for me. The Fandom Following post criticizes the fact that Eren seems to die but is brought back "shortly afterward none the worse for wear, with special powers to boot".

This kinda misses the point. I have this idea that just because people are aware of the tropes which exist in storytelling they apply them to situations which might fit the trope in isolation but with no concern for the wider context of the story being told.

This is where Eren is eaten by a Titan and for all we knew had died.

When Eren 'died', it was a complete system shutdown moment. My girlfriend and I stared at each other in disbelief, they could have killed off the main protagonist could they? And he isn't brought back shortly the next episode like some cheap emotional trick.

He comes back three episodes later, emerging from the body of another Titan, a Titan body he was unknowingly controlling. See Eren's return from death wasn't an example of plot armour in action. Rather it was an important narrative development and thematically significant. It signaled how little we, and the characters, know about the Titans and who Eren is, as well as seeding things for later in the season.

The revelation that Eren can turn into a Titan isn't a glib "oh, now the protagonist has special powers" empty twist. It raises questions and is treated with suspicion by the rest of the characters but also offers them the first glimpse of hope they've had in long time. It has narrative purpose and isn't just a lazy way to write a character back to life or avoid death.

He uses his new Titan body to pick up a big rock and use it to plug up a hole. It's more awesome than it sounds.

And really, the Fandom Following post missed an excellent opportunity to use a perfect example of plot armour in action from the show, Armin. While Armin is quite bright and able to think up clever strategic plans for attacks on the Titans, he is a so inept as a fighter due to his crippling fear of the Titans that he often just freezes when confronted by one of them. If any character has plot amour, it is Armin.

Armin was literally about to be eaten by a Titan only for Eren to miraculously pull him out of the Titan's mouth at the last moment and sacrifice himself instead. That's how Eren died. He was Armin's knight in shining plot armour.

Don't get me wrong, Armin is important to the plot but the way he has survived numerous situations where he surely would have died if he wasn't a main character are pretty obvious. This is the difference between just applying a trope without context and examining how the context of the show fits the trope applied.

[Full Disclosure: I love Fandom Following and think it's a great site but this writer kinda dropped the ball here.]

This is Dot Pixis. Note his appearance, this will be important later.

Moving on, one thing I had heard about Attack on Titan was that it was Japanese propaganda. This was something I was aware of going in but didn't really catch at all while watching. At first I thought it might be because of cultural dissonance, I wasn't able to pick up the element of propaganda so I decided to research after I finished the first season.

And from what I can tell, essentially the propaganda theory is based on two things. First is the fact that Dot Pixis, a high ranking general in Attack on Titan, had his appearance based on General Akiyama Yoshifuru, a war hero in Japan who committed several atrocities against Korea and China. Second is that Eren and the rest of the characters are in the army and sacrifice their lives for the rest humanity.

That's about it. From that, it is argued that Attack on Titan is Japanese imperialistic military propaganda. Because one character's physical design was based on military hero/criminal and the fact that the characters are part of an army. Since of course, by basing a character's design on someone infamous from history, you fully endorse that person, regardless of whether the character's personality is completely different.

Also, the fact that the only way for them to fight the Titans is as part of the army isn't discussed, nor is it raised how the characters mistrust the high command and are mostly working outside of command to get things done. 

No really, it's kinda a major theme of the second half of the season. The Scout Regiment, which Eren and co are part of, face off another human-Titan and suspect the higher ups in the military of a cover up so they essentially go rogue to root out the conspiracy. But nope, still military propaganda.

Couldn't possibly be a metaphor for the inevitably of death considering how the Titans are near unstoppable and kill everyone, could it?
Also, could possibly be about seeing giant monsters fight, I dunno.

The thing is, I'm not going to argue there isn't a lens through which you could argue the show has a xenophobic angle (they built a wall to keep out an invading race which is mindless and wants only to kill the normal people inside the wall) but the propaganda theory just doesn't hold water for me.

That was pretty much all I had to say about Attack on Titan, for now at least. Well that's not quite true since I did want to talk about other things but they can wait for a later post.

And I think a good place to end is by saying that I really enjoyed Attack on Titan and can't wait for season 2 to come out... what?! it's been pushed out to 2017?! Not cool.


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