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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The World is a Cruel Place: Theme in Attack on Titan

The last episode of Attack on Titan came out yesterday (I mean, it did if you watch it illegally, which I ended up doing out of sheer exasperation after 90% of the finale was spoiled in anachronistic order by Tumblr. Thanks, guys! Thanks a lot) and the internet buzzes with the sound of exclamations of joy, rage, and confusion, in equal measure.

I wasn't originally going to say too much about this show, actually, since I think the basic thematic structure is pretty easy to sort out (I mean, they straight up prattle about the humiliation of being in a cage multiple times during the show; you don't get much more overt than that). However, there's some weird pieces that folks are having some trouble fitting together, and there's some interesting stuff going on with the adaptation of the story and the question of how successful it is, so I figured, what the hell, might as well swoop in and give my take on the whole thing.

Besides, the alternative was an article on erotic fanfiction, and I need some more time to do research before I put that one together.

Yes. Research. Indeed.

All joking aside, browsing porn based on Harry Potter is a true descent into madness, and I need to process what I have seen before I can write anything coherent about it. So, let's talk about something a little more sane, like giant naked photosynthesizing cannibals. Significantly more sane. [shudder]

The Miner

Apparently Attack on Titan: The Animated Series has decided that the best way to convey information during the climax of the series is through vast walls of text. Thus it was that this image materialized on my dash:

...with the tags "#important" "#probably."

And it is, actually. I think this image does an excellent job of summarizing some of the main themes in the series. Those themes revolve around the concept of Freedom. This story, seen in that context, becomes a clear fable with a somewhat unclear resolution.

The Miner is our Everyman figure, the dude we're supposed to identify with. For that figure, the Wall is not an icon of protection but an icon of restrictive state power. Without the wall that is defended by the Military Police (a more direct arm of the State) he would be able to live and work where he pleased. The wall is thus a stand-in for the State, and he is literally undermining that state power in the process of digging under the wall. That's, after all, what undermining is--it is the act of digging underneath the fortifications of an enemy wall in order to weaken the foundation or even lay mines--explosives--that will destroy the wall. The Miner is thus a Miner in a military sense of the word, a lone warrior against the State.

His friend acts as a foil, urging complacency and acceptance of life as it is. The State's agents are always watching, after all, and it is not their lot in life to seek something greater. The Miner persists, however, and...

...And what? A lot hinges upon this ambiguity at the end of the story. Either the Miner and his friend escaped beneath the wall, or they were destroyed in the attempt--the story is unclear. If it is the former, the suggestion is that a determined individual can undermine the State, no matter how deep the roots of the State seem to run; if the latter, that the State is an implacably destructive force that will do anything to retain its power.

It's the Libertarian ur-fable, really. Everything boils down to a question of whether or not people are restricted physically by governmental authority.

And it has particular relevance with the revelation that there are Titans within the walls. This means that the threat from outside and the threat from within--the threat of state power--are really one and the same.

So, this story occupies a weird space within the narrative where on the one hand it's clearly a legend that has symbolic value within the setting, while on the other it helps unlock some of the underlying ideology of the show for those of us outside of the narrative, and on the third hand (presumably we're piloting Crimson Typhoon a this point) it serves as a hint about the weird, supernatural nature of the walls.

In that sense, it's really doing some interesting multi-tiered work, work that shores up the broader arguments made throughout the show about self-determination and the existentialist dilemma. Eren Jaeger's character arc seems to largely consist of his need for freedom and his reluctance to face the responsibility that accompanies this freedom. It's kind of the classical Existentialist problem, actually--if you have absolute freedom, you also have absolute responsibility for everything that happens, and often you can't actually determine what the outcomes of your choices will be. This absolute responsibility is terrifying, which is why it is easier for Erin to accept the orders of Captain Levi aka Reveille and trust in his comrades rather than taking matters into his own hands. Although he thought he was ceding authority to another, ultimately he still was responsible for their deaths, because he decided not to choose differently. As Rush puts it, "if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

The show, seen through the lens of Eren's character development and the Miner's story, is thus an existentialist story about freedom, and a fairly coherent one at that.

...At least, that's how it seems on the surface.

The Rewrite

One of the critiques spinning around on Tumblr right now of the series or season or whatever finale is that the studio made a number of unwarranted changes to the narrative. People tend to fall into two camps on this sort of thing. On the one side are the Originators, who (some might say slavishly) adhere to the "original" work. On the other are the Isolators, who claim to see each work as fundamentally independent and judge each upon its own merits.

I'm not a big fan anymore of either position, but I'm more sympathetic to the Originator position on the whole. The issue with the Originator position is that it assumes an Author capable of writing a definitive Work that is not subject to error, ambiguity, flaw, changeability, accident, and so on. You see this with some Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter fans--any change is considered bad simply because it is a change from what the author intended.

If you've been following along for a while, you know how skeptical I am of authorial intent. If there's one thing 20th Century theory taught us, it's that meanings can emerge that are outside of the author's ideas, because our minds are association-generating engines. There is very little change, for example, that Hajime Isayama, the author of Attack on Titan, anticipated the punning I did with the Underminer earlier on in this article. And yet, the associations emerged regardless of the author's intent. Part of interpreting a work is running the risk that interpretation will go against the will of the author, and therein lies interpretation's great freedom. In that sense, interpretation tips on the same existential tightrope that Erin staggers along--interpretation is most interesting when it is risky.

On the other hand, though, it seems ridiculous to me that we should simply ignore alternate versions of a work while doing analysis. This would be the equivalent of saying that we must read each article analyzing Attack on Titan completely independently, never weighing any argument against another, never comparing which reading is the most effective of most pleasing, never allowing ideas to cross-pollinate or interact in any way.

The idea that we cannot judge Lord of the Rings, say, by the standard of the book is simply absurd. It's ludicrous to suggest that we can ever close out the other material we have synthesized in order to judge works completely independently. In that sense, the Isolators enact the same folly that the Originators do, prizing the work as an isolated entity associated only with itself.

Viewing an adaptation alongside alternate versions lets us see where the different versions succeed or fail. I think that side by side comparison is quite useful in the case of Attack on Titan's finale, as numerous plot points were added in order to draw out the conclusion and make it seem like a much larger finish. In the process of adding these plot points, some of the thematic coherency was lost.

The biggest one, of course, is the fact that Eren has to be badgered into fighting against Annie. He's emotional, the others are angry with him, bla bla bla, this is nothing new for Shonen anime.

But in the comic, when Eren asks how Mikasa and Armin can fight against Annie, Mikasa says:

Shingeki no Kyojin 32 Page 38

And Eren's response is to say:

Shingeki no Kyojin 32 Page 41

It sure is. None of the "FIRIN' MY LASER" powerup nonsense we get in the show, just cold, bitter resolve. While the show's take is far more dramatic in the sense that there's a lot of flashy intense stuff going on, I think it's clear that the comic has far more human drama, and even more dramatic lighting when you get right down to it. The lengthy dithering simply serves to mute the drama of this fateful decision.

And when you get right down to it, it's the decision here, not the transformation into a titan, that makes this moment dramatic. In the show, Eren must transform into a titan to avoid spikey death. Here, he does it because he consciously decides to set aside his humanity and harden his heart. It plays much better into this paired theme of his freedom vs the responsibility that is his freedom's price. The interaction between the character and the theme generates the impact (plus, you know, the shadowy, backlit composition of this page, which is really stunning).

If we compare the comic and the anime, then, I think it's clear that the comic has a stronger overall composition. The show has always had issues with pacing, and the attempt to draw the ending out and introduce unnecessary elements that served only to muddy the overall character interactions (what was Levi aka Ravioli doing there, anyway?) accentuated those pacing issues while damaging the show's thematic coherency.

Of course, that said, is the theme really all that coherent to begin with?

The Existentialist

There's some odd incoherency between the different elements of the theme, actually, that I think are worth examining a little. On the one hand, the show is very consistent in how the themes are portrayed. On the other hand, the internal logic of those ideas doesn't hold together very well.

The problem is this:

There's a lot in the show that points to a traditionally existentialist outlook, particularly the idea of the world being a cruel and absurd place in which humans must construct meaning and their own identity but in which the ultimate responsibility for meaning and choice fall upon them. That's where the whole idea of angst comes from, the pain of growing up and being responsible for your life, being forced by your father to pilot Eva to become a Titan-shifter, &c. &c. That's great! It's solid material for a story about an adolescent, particularly, and it's well explored here.

Except the existential dilemma, the existentialist angst, comes from the realization that limits are internal and once you abandon those limits you can jump off any cliff you want with the absolute responsibility of the outcome.

The three walls of Attack on Titan are, however, an external constraint and part of Eren's angst comes from being constrained by these external forces.

See the issue here? Existentialism seems, to me, to be largely inward-focused while the plot of Attack on Titan increasingly places state institutions as an external enemy that must be defeated to achieve freedom. In essence, this injection of a fundamentally Libertarian or Anarchist ethos unsettles the existentialist ideas in the show because it moves the conflict from the introspective to the external world. It's basically the opposite of what happens in Evangelion, interestingly, where the conflict appears to be external but gradually becomes more and more existential as the show goes on until the final battles are fought in the mind, and Shinji must confront the fact that he is responsible for his own happiness.

The introduction of the Miner, who as far as I can tell does not appear in the comic, really does a serious blow to the thematic coherency because it makes far more explicit the Libertarian bent, at least, of the show's adapters. The story seems far more obviously an allegory of the evils of state power than about the need for the Miner to realize his own freedom of action and identity that precedes Minerhood. Whereas Eren's choice in the comic indicates a resolution to action within an absurd and cruel world, his choice in the show, when paired with this story, suggests a need to struggle for survival against a very specific foe (rather than a need to struggle for meaning against an indifferent universe). So, again, the adaptation brings the show into conflict with itself.

Does that uncomfortable conflation of internal understanding of freedom with external achievement of freedom help or hinder the show? I honestly don't have an answer to that question. I think it might be something every fan has to determine for zirself, fittingly enough. The theme itself seems to be effectively carried through the show, so the question of whether or not you agree with the theme itself almost runs parallel to the question of whether or not the show is successful, I think. It's ok to find a work artistically coherent while politically incoherent or even objectionable.

At the very least, it's worth considering what message this show is sending and how that message is changed through the act of adaptation, especially for those engaged in fan art and fanfiction, where the development of new stories and scenarios has rich potential for reconsidered and altered themes.

Regardless, I'm eager to see where the theme goes in both the anime and the manga, which suggests that even if the theme isn't always successful, it's at least intriguing... which is maybe what really matters most, in the end.

SIE SIND DIE TEXTEN UND WIR SIND DIE READERS! AH AH AH AH AH AH AAAAAA. Follow for updates, random thoughts, artwork, and news about articles. As always, you can e-mail me at Circle me on Google+ at you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.


  1. The wall-of-text images are so big they're breaking the layout of your site. It's hard to read the parts that collide with your sidebar.

  2. Oh also the picture of Eren's response is missing for me. Anyway thanks for writing!

  3. I took the series in a completely different direction.

    Rather than the threat of a controlling State, I saw it as a much more direct critique of the State's ability to adapt to an external, cold, heartless threat. The Titans work fantastically as an allegory for terrorists of every stripe. They strike suddenly, violently, without warning, and their reasons are unfathomable for those within the "protection" of the State.
    By the same token, the reveal of Titans within the walls strengthens this argument, especially with the uptick in the last few years of Westerners converting to these extremist mindsets and actively attacking their former allies (see the bomber's wife from the UK for the most recent example).
    The walls could be viewed as a symbol of the military, since thanks to the History Channel most Westerners can still picture the firing lines (re: cannons lining the walls) of massed fire that muskets required, a "wall" of flame and death that would protect the citizen from external threat.
    I think you just inspired my own blog post. I'll end this here. Cheers, thanks for the inspiration!

  4. "Attack on Titan" made a lot more sense to me once a friend of mine pointed out that it's fascist. Everything in the show's plot, universe, and theme run on a simple logic: only through maximum aggression and violence can we attain our goals, or even survive, or ever be free. The characters live in a universe divided between predators and livestock.

    This is why Eren speaks his most utterly absurd line in the final episode: "I'm free." Not because he can see and accept responsibility. That might be Existentialist. No, he's free now because he has gone completely axe-crazy and berserk. His "freedom" is the freedom to rampage through the world killing everything in his path.

    That's the freedom of a Titan.

    1. "O, it is excellent to have a giants strength, but it is hellasweet to use it like a giant" - William Shakespeare more or less.


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