When the anime Attack on Titan premiered, it was an instant smash hit and quickly became one of the most visible and popular anime series in the world. As time has gone on, though, the anime, manga, and its fandoms have run into issues with the messages in the text itself, which some say is fascist and antisemtitic.
Attack on Titan holds the same cultural space for younger anime fans that a show like Game of Thrones or even a book series like Harry Potter does for people a generation older than them. Its first volume of the manga is still topping the charts on Bookscan 10 years after its release.
"It's hard to overstate how important Attack on Titan is," Geoff Thew, who makes videos about anime on the YouTube channel Mother's Basement, told Motherboard. "It's not just this really good 24 episode action thing. Now it's this full fantasy epic that is coming to its culmination. It's probably the last anime that every anime fan either watched, or had a very strong reason not to watch."
The manga reached its final volume this month, and as fans are saying goodbye to the series, they're also revisiting some uncomfortable, and unresolved conversations about what the story is all about.
When Attack on Titan's anime adaptation came out in the summer of 2012, it was at the beginning of a shift in culture for anime. Prior to that moment, anime wasn't very accessible other than to people well versed in internet piracy, or had enough of a disposable income to buy expensive DVDs if the series they were interested in ended up being licensed in America at all. But by 2012, the world of streaming video had caught up with the world of anime in the west. Crunchyroll, which had begun to air series simultaneously with their schedule in Japan starting in 2008, had already had a hit on its hands that year with Sword Art Online, and Attack on Titan would go even further than that. Attack on Titan would catapult anime into the mainstream in a way few other series have been able to outside of Japan, at least not since Dragon Ball Z and Pokémon would air on cable television in the decades prior.
The premise of Attack on Titan is so enticing that I was completely unsurprised that the show was a smash hit when it premiered. The show takes place in a world where the last of humanity is living in a walled city, surrounded by giant human shaped creatures called Titans who live outside the walls. Titans love to eat humans—not even for sustenance, just for fun—so the people inside the walls live in fear of those walls being breached. In the first episode, they are.
It's one of the best opening episodes of an anime, ever. I remember watching it, and then inviting multiple groups of people over to try to get them to watch it with me too.
The discomfort with the story of Attack on Titan began in earnest when the manga revealed where the Titans come from. When the lead character Eren Yaeger first left home to join the military and fight Titans, his father gave him a key to his basement, saying that he should return to investigate it when it's safe. In the basement there are books that reveal that the outside world isn't uninhabited at all, and that the Eldians, the race to which Eren and his father belong, are being kept in ghettos in a fascist society where they wear armbands to identify themselves amongst their oppressors, the Marleyans.
Although the Eldians are portrayed as being subjugated in the present day, in the past they are presented as oppressors themselves, and for some Eldians, the long term goal of all the Titan nonsense is to create a new world order.
"It should be uncontroversial to say that to a certain degree, Attack on Titan is about fascism because, I mean, they have coded Jewish ghetto," Thew said. "I think, given the resurgence of fascism globally in the real world, you can expect to see elements of that seeping into popular culture."
To some fans, it all feels a little too close to the broad arc of most antisemitic conspiracy theories, which say that the Jews rule the world through an ancient conspiracy. In some variations of the theory, Jewish people already secretly run the world government, just like the Eldian Tybur family does in Marley, where they live as honorary Marleyans and secretly control the other noble families. This aspect of the series has made other parts of Attack on Titan stand out, especially the character of Dot Pixis. According to the artist and writer of the series, Hajime Isamaya, Pixis, a military general in Attack on Titan, was inspired by real world World War II general Akiyama Yoshifuru, who is considered a hero in Japan, but also has committed war crimes against China and Korea.
These themes have been pointed out before, with some even saying that the work itself is fascist and antisemetic. While Attack on Titan boasts a huge audience, it also has a noted and vocal right wing fanbase as well; the New Republic even called it “the Alt-Right’s Favorite Manga.”
Trying to understand the line between the allegory that the manga’s creator Hajime Isayama is playing with and his own personal beliefs is where anime fans have gotten themselves tangled up. If you search "Attack on Titan antisemitism" on Google, the first three results are articles discussing the show's fascist themes. Also on the first page of results is the rant of a frustrated fan on Reddit, complaining about people on Twitter shitting on their favorite show.
The question, then, as the series wraps up, is figuring out how to engage with it, and figuring out whether a show can deal with fascistic themes in the way it does without being fascistic and antisemitic itself. The manga’s creator Hajime Isayama, for his part, told the New Republic that he didn’t want to weigh in on the controversy, stating that “Being a writer, I believe it is impolite to instruct your readers the way of how to read your story.”
A big, recurring controversy in the fandom is figuring out how to discuss or even deal with these issues at all.
As a show, Attack on Titan has taken a position of reverence among anime fans. Even if you don't currently watch the show, or read the manga on which it is based, you've at least seen the iconography from the show, especially its military insignia, in the wild. For a lot of people this was their first anime, and their first introduction to a genre of fiction they love. It's the position that makes it uniquely difficult to criticize. In the case of Attack on Titan, not being able to discuss the issues in its fiction has led to a long simmering, never resolved conflict within the fandom itself.
At first glance, it would be easy just to dismiss Attack on Titan as being unambiguously pro-fascist. The anime plays into the militarism at the heart of the story; the show's first theme, a certified banger and classic meme, opens on the lyric "Are you prey? No, we are the hunters," sung in German.
"It’s important to note that the use of fascistic, war, or even Nazi imagery is not necessarily an endorsement of these ideas or regimes, as strange as it may sound," Joe Yang, who makes videos about anime at the YouTube channel Pause and Select, told Motherboard.
Both Yang and Brian Ruh, author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii, suggested that multiple anime and manga series at least seemingly try to separate fascist iconography from the acts the horrifying regime committed. Whether they succeed—and whether this is even possible—is another question altogether. Yang noted that one of Isayama’s biggest influences is a visual novel called MuvLuv and its anime adaptation Schwarzesmarken, whose storyline includes an alternate universe German state that uses fascist imagery in its uniforms and also features a fictional version of the Stasi as characters.
"If you look up Schwarzesmarken and Muv-Luv Alternative, you can find images that are heavily reminiscent of the imagery you’d see in Attack on Titan," Yang said.
Ruh cited the forward to one of Japanese critic Eiji Otsuka's books, Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan. Otsuka writes, "Why do [anime fans] feel that the war machines of Nazi Germany are 'beautiful'? In Japan, as compared to the West, there is a tendency to detatch criticism of Nazism and the Holocaust from the cultural items that they brought about."
"In this way, when something like Attack on Titan makes historical references it may not be with the intent to evoke a full comparison," Ruh said. "Whether it's wise or responsible for a popular artist with a global reach to play with history in such a manner is another matter entirely."
It should not be controversial to suggest that Attack on Titan includes fascist and antisemitic themes. What the fanbase and critics must grapple with is how to talk about them and whether the show is actively causing damage.
Thew told Motherboard that he hadn't totally caught up on Attack on Titan because he was kind of dreading unpacking its controversial politics, especially on his channel. Part of it is because talking about Attack on Titan and its relationship to fascism is so complicated. Another part of it is because the fandom has, by this point, dug in its heels.
"It's because this conversation keeps happening, but it's also not," Thew said. "There's some really good criticism of Attack on Titan, and I think it's important to criticize it, but a lot of people come at it strong and condemn it. That does as much to kill the conversation as people being like, 'shut the up about politics,' because it reinforces the argument that people are just trying to cancel this good show that you like for flimsy reasons."
For a long time, anime fans had no way of knowing what their favorite writers and artists even looked like, let alone what they thought about the world. Because anime was, until recently, a niche culture, and one that has occasionally been unfairly maligned for being pornographic and violent, anime fans in general have avoided talking about the politics of their favorite shows.
"Some Anglophone and American anime fans say that politics in anime is too foreign to comprehend, I think that's a minority position. A lot more people these days seem to have some accurate knowledge about sociocultural politics in Japan, but in my experience they're equally likely to combine a dollop of knowledge about current circumstances in Japan with their own preconceptions about Japan and Japanese society," Andrea Horbinski, an independent scholar with a doctorate in new media studies and history, told Motherboard. "Ironically, while it's never been easier to access cultural and political discussions directly from Japan thanks to the internet, relying on their own preconceptions and only taking on board information that supports them definitely does keep anime fans in this position from appreciating the range of views in anime generally."
This doesn't just affect how fans view shows like Attack on Titan, but also how some anime fans might view shows that deal with feminist themes or LGBT content. According to Horbinski, some right wing fans of anime insist that certain kinds of political themes must be imported from western culture.
"[These fans] insist that feminism and trans people don't exist in Japan and that any anime depicting either is 'woke garbage' or similar. These fans are extremely angry at attempts to discuss the depiction of female characters in anime as something that could often use improvement, or the inclusion of trans characters period." Horbinski said. "They may cite 'evidence' to support their views that is wholly out of context, or they may just insist that their views about Japan are correct because they're correct. Attempts by Japanese feminists and LGBTQ activists to provide corrective information online do not go down well, particularly on Twitter."
Given the global reach of shows like Attack on Titan, framing anime as something that is not, or should not, be influenced by culture outside of Japan doesn't make much sense.
"Anime does come from Japan, but it’s been a global medium for a very long time," Yang said. "The problem with understanding anime as a distinctly Japanese media with Japanese politics is that it makes very specific claims about Japaneseness, that it is only Japanese, that it is only the Japanese who can understand this, and that this somehow absolves the text of its messages."
Shutting down conversation about the inspirations for Attack on Titan, its themes, and how fascist imagery is used, and whether it enhances the story to use it in the way that Isamaya does, means that gaining deeper meaning from the text just stops being possible.
Given its popularity, Attack on Titan clearly resonates with the people who live here beyond just fans of anime who are deeply enmeshed in its culture. The attitudes that some fans of the show have about Japanese culture and its politics have been predominant in the fandom so far, but Attack on Titan is so much bigger than just an anime. It's a sign that anime's space in broader mainstream culture is changing. Maybe it's time for anime fans to put away old ideas about how to read and interpret this text, ideas about Japan just being too foreign to understand. Clearly, hundreds of thousands of Americans have watched Attack on Titan and seen something that they relate to.
"I think it does hold anime fans back, because aside from veering pretty close to Orientalism, it also arms them with excuses on why they don’t need to seriously grapple with the messages that certain texts can convey," Yang said. "If someone presumes a text is sexist simply because 'that’s how Japan is, you wouldn’t get it' not only does it ignore some of the subcultural connotations or history imbued in these signs, but it also speaks volumes about that utterer’s beliefs about an Othered, 'far off' Japan."