Since wrapping up last year, the ending of Hajime Isayama’s milestone manga epic Attack on Titan has been a source of much debate among fans. While some have praised its darkly realistic and psychologically intense vision of a nightmarish genocide by giant, flesh-eating monsters, other fans have panned the final act, known as the “War for Paradis” arc, for what has been called an abrupt shift in the characterization of protagonist Eren Yeager, as well as a grim resolution to an already harrowing tale of woe. This debate has been renewed in the arc’s adaptation to television, as the popular anime series races towards its finale.
Despite this controversy, as a total work, it is this quality in the shape of Isayama’s story which ultimately provides Attack on Titan with its boldest artistic statement on the need for complex ethical discussions in popular entertainment, especially when telling a story that parallels so many real-world conflicts. As the surviving members of the Survey Corps are faced with their own morally questionable choices amid a nefarious insurrection orchestrated by Eren himself – culminating in a last ditch effort to stop “The Rumbling” of millions of Colossal Titans from crushing all of humanity – Attack on Titan takes pains to center its focus on the characters who end up fighting to save mankind, as well as the victims of this genocide.
Ultimately, while the story is indeed a dark parable, it also emphasizes the heroic spirit of those who, despite their flaws and regrets, will fight to their last breath with courage and determination to see evil undone when the chips are down, even at great personal cost.
Eren’s Fall from Grace
One of the main criticisms of the post time-skip period of Attack on Titan has been that the story becomes too depressing, which is quite a statement given that it begins with the main character’s mother being eaten alive. Though little information regarding the external forces of their world are available at the outset, the final act coincides with the revelation that the denizens of the story’s unnamed walled city are ethnic outcasts (called “Eldians”) of a larger civilization, and the Titans are actually magically mutated members of this group singled out for capital punishment. This revelation kicks off the beginning of the end; namely a violent and morally questionable war against their enemy oppressors, called the nation of Marley, in which the previously plucky gang of survivors among the Survey Corps age into hardened veterans who use their blades not against mindless monsters, but human soldiers, with the same deadly proficiency.
What’s notable about this particular choice is the denial of the story’s expected heroic catharsis. The knowledge gained at the supposed pinnacle of the heroes’ quest – Grisha Yeager’s diaries found in the family’s basement – does not result in easier lives for Armin, Mikasa or Eren. It instead begins an even greater cycle of violence when Eren unilaterally makes the choice to take revenge against Marley for their attack, going so far as to personally confront Reiner “Armored Titan” Braun in an effort to psychologically torture him. When it’s later revealed that Eren has already made a deal with his half-brother Zeke “Beast Titan” Yeager to combine their powers in order to sterilize all ethnic Eldians, it becomes obvious just how callous Eren’s mindset has become.
Trauma and Betrayal
The true depths of Eren’s nihilistic and murderous turn take time to unfold, and much of the prelude to the finale involves a byzantine network of personal betrayals, most notably in the saga of Marleyans Gabi Braun and Falco Grice to escape Eldia after stowing away on an airship. Many fans have criticized the relative lack of action in these sequences, however it should be noted that special focus is granted to the enduring trauma suffered by many of the characters in the wake of the tragic lives they have lived. Surely a world of such monsters must leave a mark, and Isayama’s moral parables only become more personal in light of this fact. Special mention should be given to the relationship of Gabi and Kaya, a young girl who was saved from a rampaging Titan by Survey Corps member Sasha Blouse (who is famously killed by Gabi.)
Nevertheless, the full complexity of the sequence involves an apocalyptic series of betrayals, orchestrated by the supposed main protagonist of the series, Eren, who enacts a military coup in the name of jumpstarting a global genocide. The characters introduced, such as Yelena, a double-agent whose motivations are more fanatical than rational, and the Azumbato family, who seek political advantage at home, do little in terms of the kind of bravery witnessed in previous chapters, instead opting for a Game Of Thrones-esque series of political alliances.
It is simple for a storyteller to create compelling drama from a physical struggle between man and monster. It is a more difficult task to tell the story of why these events are occurring within the world of their story in a compelling and rational way. Attack on Titan explains it very clearly in the “War for Paradis” arc: this is what happens when groups of people allow grudges and blind allegiances to dictate their choices.
Attack on Titan’s Flawed ‘Heroes’
It is therefore fitting that, in the final act, it is a group of survivors from both sides of this conflict who must come together, despite their divisions and personal animosities, and fight an impossible battle against their former friend. Instead of being a power fantasy depicting the heroes’ ultimate “might makes right” mentality, Attack on Titan highlights his remaining heroes’ limitations and vulnerabilities: Armin, now possessing the power of the Colossal Titan, being unable to transform despite being shot in the head for fear of killing Connie; Mikasa’s internal doubts regarding her own free will and enduring love for Eren; and Levi’s own sidelining after a career of killing Titans thanks to severe injury.
The final line-up of heroes doesn’t contain a real leading protagonist, with the closest perhaps being Reiner or Mikasa, though the former’s villainy and the latter’s lack of emotion serve to combat this perception. While this diffusing of narrative focus can seem to shift into more superficial and confusing territory, this ultimately emphasizes that the final result – the saving of innocent lives and the final destruction of a genocidal force – is the actual important action. Each of these characters has already committed a series of morally reprehensible acts, including terrorist attacks on foreign soil, and there is nothing that can reverse this truth. Even the fan-favorite Ackermans, Levi and Mikasa, aided Eren in his terrorist attack on Marley.
These dark deeds aren’t ignored or excused, but they are examined in context. Neither the Survey Corps nor the Marleyan Warriors were responsible for beginning the war they found themselves in, and many of their atrocities were committed with the intention of preventing future wars. Even as disparate characters unite to give their all in service of saving humanity, Attack on Titan never forget that in real life, the world always has people who believe they’re doing good but are acting harmfully, even in the name of helping others. In this way, Attack on Titan‘s disciplined moral approach means that while many fans dislike the ending, it has a brutally clear intent, withholding certain kinds of satisfaction to make a larger point that draws all the series’ themes and ideas together into a clear-eyed conclusion.
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