Essay - Attack on Titan, an endless cycle of hatred

Attack on Titan, an endless cycle of hatred

Attack on Titan is a name we’ve all heard or read at least once in recent years. It’s a phenomenon that extends far beyond the sometimes restricted confines of Japanese animation. A veritable popular tidal wave, Hajime Isayama’s work has embraced more than 100 million viewers and readers, and reached the minds of people who usually have little interest in Japanese manga. When I discovered this story, I fell squarely into this category. I had no particular intellectual contempt for this part of Japanese culture, but it’s true that I’ve always been apprehensive about discovering major stories adapted from manga, frightened by the length of some of the stories, which sometimes run into hundreds of episodes. Thanks to the insistence of a friend, who kept telling me that the story was to the point, and that the ins and outs were in the author’s head, I was reassured that I wouldn’t have to embark on an interminable epic. Then I discovered the tragedy of Eren Jaeger.

Whether in terms of its artistic flair, plot or direction, Attack on Titan is an outstanding work of art, which has quickly earned a place of choice in all pop culture circles. It’s no exaggeration to say that, alongside Game of Thrones, it’s one of the universes that has most fired the passions of the last decade. This success is not just the result of chance or the right alignment of the stars. It’s all down to Hajime Isayama and his mastery of narrative processes. While his drawing style will never be held in the same esteem as that of a Kentarō Miura, few writers can claim to know how to tell a story with as much talent as the native of Ōyama. What sets him apart is his ability to frequently distill clues from seemingly innocuous elements, when in fact they are crucial to how the narrative will unfold. The vast majority of them don’t seem to make much sense at the time of viewing, and only jump out at us when plot revelations are made. That’s why it’s so interesting to revisit the work, once we know the ins and outs, as everything fits together so perfectly. A good story needs its share of secrets, and the creator of Attack of the Titans understands this. That’s why he keeps us on the edge of our seats with a series of interwoven mysteries, keeping us in a constant state of tension as each resolution leads to further questions.

Attack on Titan is a ruthless tale that catches us off-guard by revealing its true stakes, as well as its main theme, just when we think we’re seeing the light at last. Discovering the world outside the walls, those who thought they were the last survivors of the human species learn that humanity has continued to prosper, and that it harbors a deep-seated hatred for the people of the walls. This is no longer a post-apocalyptic struggle against monstrous beings, but a profound reflection on the cycle of hatred and violence that has plagued the entire history of mankind. Isayama’s work draws clear parallels with the history of our world, giving the final battles a World War II aesthetic, while linking the experience endured by Eren’s people to the atrocities committed against European Jews in the 20th century. Starting with the simple tragedy of a child who loses his mother, the Japanese author takes us through the throes of a thousand-year-old war, fueled by resentment and an inability to dialogue. The story strives to show us that there is no such thing as absolute truth, and that everything is a matter of point of view. Humanity is scrutinized at its most beautiful and most decadent. One question remains on our lips: by giving ourselves heart and soul to his cause, don’t we run the risk of becoming slaves to our own freedom and perpetuating this endless cycle of hatred and resentment?

One child’s tragedy

Attack on Titan follows the fate of mankind, who, after being decimated by giant monsters, retreat to the safety of their last kingdom, protected by three great circular walls over fifty meters high. The last survivors of the human race now live in a rudimentary, medieval-looking way. On the brink of extinction, they are forced to remain entrenched in their fortified space. Beyond the walls, packs of bloodthirsty giants roam the vast territories of the surrounding regions. Humanity is locked out, condemned to a precarious form of captivity, deprived of its freedom. The first episode immerses us in this reality from the point of view of Eren Jaeger, a young boy who lives in the Shiganshina district with his family and best friends, Mikasa Ackerman and Armin Arlert. He’s a dreamy child, eager to explore the outside world, whose curiosity has been aroused by the fables of Armin, who constantly reads to him from a book that tells of the wilderness that makes up the entire planet. For young Jaeger, life inside the walls is the equivalent of living like cattle patiently awaiting their turn to be led to the slaughterhouse. He is convinced that it is his destiny to set foot on the vast expanses of sand and ice described in his comrade’s book.

Unfortunately, these dreams of adventure are swept away early on in the work, as a titan nearly sixty meters tall, to be nicknamed the Colossal, manages to breach Shiganshina’s perimeter wall. He is accompanied by a titan of more modest stature, but whose skin appears to be covered in armour, earning him the nickname of the Armored from the human authorities. Their unexplained attack puts an end to a century of respite for mankind. Hordes of titans storm the neighborhood, engaging in a veritable bloodbath. Young Eren witnesses the death of his mother, who is devoured before his very eyes by one of these giants with a carnivorous smile. Like other local residents, the boy is forced to flee to another fortified area. The dreamy, innocent boy gives way to a traumatized being consumed by hatred. He is driven by a single desire: to eradicate the titans from the face of the earth. After several years as a refugee, he joins the army with his two friends and a host of other teenagers. Isayama’s work uses certain codes of Shonen, a genre that often requires us to experience stories through the prism of very young individuals, to confront us with the concept of child soldiers. In a way, the whole story of the manga appropriates Paul Valery’s quotation in its own way.

War is the slaughter of people who don’t know each other, for the benefit of people who know each other but don’t slaughter each other.

Paul Valery
Eren confronts his mother's death
Eren confronts his mother’s death

Eren Jaeger is the soul of this story. He embodies all those childhoods that have been shattered by contact with the cruelty of our world. In this respect, he is a difficult character to analyze, because he is not monolithic. If the impact of the titans on his life has trampled his essence, the moment he discovers that humanity is not extinct outside the walls is a new shock. He experiences an anthropomorphic cruelty, as his people, the Eldians, are hated by the entire globe, especially by the Mahr Empire, which sees them as demons to be eradicated at all costs. This process is reminiscent of the way the Nazis used propaganda to persuade people that the Jews were the enemies of German society. The various spheres of culture played a particularly important role in propagating anti-Semitism, German military superiority and the fundamentally evil enemy defined by Nazi ideology. Jews were portrayed as “non-human” creatures. The 1940 anti-Semitic propaganda film The Eternal Jew compared the people of Abraham to rats, accusing them of perfidy and a lust for destruction. The parallel with the way the world portrays the Eldians is striking. They are not called rats, but inherit other sobriquets, such as “demons” or “spawn of the devil”. In the end, they are not the prey of monsters devoid of conscience, but of individuals gifted with reason.

It is this chain of events that shapes this highly complex character. He is at once a naive and dreamy child, a soldier with an unshakeable will, then a revolutionary leader, before becoming a genocidal monster and, paradoxically, the embodiment of hope for the future of humanity. He is a sum total of sometimes contradictory characteristics, which mark out the different evolutions of his life’s journey. Some people were sometimes confused by all these paradigms within Eren, particularly in the last arc where he is everything and nothing at the same time due to the curse of knowledge he is a prisoner of, which we’ll get to later. Everything was right under our noses from the start of the story. From the moment he saves young Mikasa from a group of child traffickers, the two antinomian natures of his personality are revealed to us. He’s always been possessed by an altruistic kindness that could give way, at any moment, to an uncontainable rage. In a sense, he has always suffered from this psychological conflict, this internal war. He’s a character who constantly doubts himself, but who has no choice but to move forward, because he had to embody a kind of messianic figure from the moment the inhabitants of Paradis learned that he could transform himself into a Titan endowed with reason.

The Attack Titan
The Attack Titan

In the second part of the story, the determined and resolutely human boy shows himself in a new light. Aware of what awaits his people in the medium term if he doesn’t act, he takes the path of war and commits the worst atrocities in the name of his cause. He surrounds himself with followers ready to follow him into hell, because he’s convinced that it’s better to kill others than to wait wisely for them to come for them. It’s no longer a question of collaborating with others, but of using them as long as it helps to advance in what he believes to be the right direction. He goes from being the hero of his story to the antagonist. The deconstruction of his name is the perfect representation of his trajectory. As Clément Drapeau points out in his book Beyond the walls of Attack on Titan, Eren means “holy person” in Turkish, which he fully is until a certain point in the story, and which he continues to embody for some of those who see in him a liberating being who will protect them from annihilation. As for his surname, Jaeger refers to the German word for hunter, another fundamental component of his personality. Initially driven by his desire to hunt titans, he then turned his attention to the rest of humanity. From the moment he was born and baptized by his parents, his destiny was sealed.

Even so, it’s hard to fully blame the character, as we’ve seen him grow up and know the ins and outs of the story. He was never an embodiment of absolute virtue. He was fallible, sometimes pathetic, but he was always driven by the conviction that, by holding his head high, he would become the example that so many people saw in him. His extremist turn is the unfortunate continuation of a story that goes beyond him. He is the fruit of a cycle of hatred perpetuated by adults who never tried to save their children from their sins. Prisoner of the walls, then prisoner of his island, Eren is not fundamentally different from the Palestinian child who lives trapped between the atrocities of Hamas and the apartheid policies of Benjamin Nethanyaou. He is a consequence, because no one has had the courage to point the finger and put a stop to it. To draw a parallel with what Jim Harrison says about one of the characters in his book Legends of Autumn, Eren is like the water that freezes in the rock and causes it to burst. He’s no more at fault than the water when the rock breaks. His crime is to have turned his back on others, blinded by his quest for freedom, as if it were the only way to apprehend the truth of the world, when no such thing could exist.

Eren Jaeger, from suffering to hate
Eren Jaeger, from suffering to hate

A quest for truth

For Isayama, a good story must continually renew the viewer’s interest. That’s why he went to great lengths to build a complex, dense scenario, the outline and conclusion of which he knew before his manga was published. He starts from a simple premise, that of a child in search of revenge, and skilfully unrolls his ball of mystery. To narrate his bloody fresco, he opts for the subtle use of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is a storytelling technique in which several clues are left throughout the story, subconsciously preparing us for every twist and turn, but above all creating several levels of interpretation. The first season, as well as the first episodes of the second season, are representative of this. Once we discover that Reiner and Bertolt are, respectively, the Armored and the Colossal, we can see that it’s all been there from the start. Aside from the physical resemblance between their human and titanic envelopes, the devil was in the details. Every camera shot, every reaction of these two characters takes on a new meaning. The Utgard fortress sequence is the richest in this respect. On first viewing, no one really picks up on what’s going on, as the emergency situation is at its height. Reiner shouldn’t be able to know what a herring is, because it’s a saltwater fish, yet the people of the walls are completely unaware of the ocean’s existence. What could be taken as an inconsistency, or Isayama’s lack of knowledge of the marine environment, is in truth yet another crucial clue to Reiner’s alien nature.

This narrative mechanism serves a dual purpose. If the first is to keep our attention, the second is to let us discover the reality of the world at the same time as the inhabitants of Paradis Island. They know as much as we do, which is to say not much, if anything. As a result, we’re immersed with them in this quest for truth. What are the titans? What’s the world outside the walls like? Why have Reiner, Annie and Bertolt decided to betray humanity? We follow them step by step, until they achieve the great goal of the first part of the story: to reach Eren’s father’s cellar and discover the truth about the nature of these giant monsters. As a result, when we are stunned to discover that humanity has continued to thrive on the other side of the ocean, we are deeply engaged with these warriors, whom we have followed from a very young age. We take Eren’s side at first, because, like him, we can see with horror that the entire civilized world is bullying Eldians because of their ability to transform into Titans.

Reiner, traitor to humanity?
Reiner, traitor to humanity?

We understand that this is due to a strong resentment towards them, as this ability enabled them to dominate the world for almost two millennia, before the Great War of the Titans that pitted them against the Mahr ended with their retreat to Paradis Island. 100 years ago, King Karl Fritz, overwhelmed by the actions of his predecessors at the head of the Eldian empire, came to the conclusion that nothing could redeem the atrocities committed, and that the only viable option was to withdraw far from it all. He erased the memories of those who followed him, in the hope of living in peace behind three great walls, until the inevitable day when the world would come to demand an accounting. Logic would dictate that we begin by trying to understand the other, but the scenography leads us to reject the Mahr propaganda, since everything links it to the Third Reich. So we adopt the national narrative of the Eldia people, namely that the founder Ymir is a goddess who has brought prosperity to the world, obscuring the fact that this supposed prosperity has been enabled by the enslavement of other countries with the power of the titans.

We follow Eren’s deadly advance, excusing his excesses of violence. We try to cling to the fact that he has no other choice but to eradicate this coalition of nations led by an empire that evokes both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy of the ’30s. After all, it’s a militaristic, authoritarian country whose racialist doctrine shows no mercy for Eldia’s descendants left on the continent. The latter, indoctrinated to the point of believing they deserve this because of the crimes of the past, are forced to live in concentration camps, while being forced to contribute to the glory of their oppressor. By the time we realize that Eren has become a monster, a prisoner of his quest for freedom and his traumas, it’s too late. His madness has already led to the emergence of a warlike, nationalistic doctrine among his many followers on Paradis Island. When he acquires the power of the Founding Titan, he could have been content to establish a status quo, reminding the world that he can unleash the Great Earthquake at any time. This policy of deterrence, like what the United States of America or the Soviet Union did during the Cold War, would have been a reasonable choice. Unfortunately, Eren knows that all those who carry within them the power of one of the 9 primordial titans cannot live more than 13 years from the moment they awaken to that power. He knows he won’t be able to protect his people for very long. For this reason, he begins his march at the head of an army of Colossal Titans to eradicate the rest of the human population, with the sole aim of ensuring that nothing will ever happen to those he loves. When the truth comes out, we’re as bewildered as his companions, who were clinging to the hope of lasting peace. The problem is, we held all the cards, but we were too busy looking at each other, rather than paying attention to the poison that was spreading in Eren’s heart.

Sieg wearing the armband imposed on continental Eldians
Sieg wearing the armband imposed on continental Eldians

As detestable as the Mahrs’ doctrine may be, we must bear in mind that they are a people traumatized by almost 2,000 years of enslavement. While there’s no evidence that they were continually mistreated by Eldia, we do know that the empire led by the Fritz dynasty expanded through the use of force. The progress that brought aqueducts, medicine, education and all the wonders of architecture came at the price of submission to the titans. We can perfectly well draw an analogy between the Eldian empire and Western civilization, which brought many advances, but left in its wake crimes against humanity such as the triangular trade and the Amerindian genocide. So the Mahrs invented the story of Helos, the hero who put an end to titanic domination. It’s a symbol that puts an end to years of oppression and establishes the power of the new empire. The Eldians of Paradis, meanwhile, are deprived of their past, which was selfishly snatched from them by the Fritz. They have no national heritage other than the belief that they were the last humans on earth.

When Eren’s compatriots are held responsible for crimes thousands of years old, of which they were never aware, this creates a mutual incomprehension that can only lead to brutal confrontation. The horror of war ends up being legitimized on both sides, as it is intrinsically linked to success. Evil is trivialized by the work, because no character is blameless. They’ve all had to get their hands dirty in the name of a stratagem that allows his nation’s larger plan to take the road to success. Each character is at one time or another ready to die for the “greater good”. Everything is permitted for the imperative defeat of the “enemy”, because each character is convinced that he or she is the messenger of an inalienable truth. But there is no such thing as truth, and everyone can be perceived as a god or a demon, depending on who is telling the story, just as one person’s terrorists may embody a form of revolutionary beauty for another.

Aspiring Mahrs warriors, raised in hatred of Paradis Eldians
Aspiring Mahrs warriors, raised in hatred of Paradis Eldians

A tale of perspective

Eren Jaeger is introduced as the protagonist right from the start of the story. He is part of Joseph Campbell’s concept of the hero with a thousand and one faces. According to the American mythologist’s theory, the world’s major myths share the same fundamental structure. This is what he calls the monomyth. In all these stories, we find a protagonist who ventures into hostile territory, where he faces merciless trials. His victory enables him to acquire a gift that should improve the condition of the world, and which often translates into significant psychological evolution. Hajime Isayama divides his story into two parts: before and after the leap in time that follows the discovery of mankind’s survival on the other side of the ocean. Temporal ellipsis is a device found in many stories, from Samurai Jack to Cyrano de Bergerac. Time leaps are effective, as they allow the author to depict the characters’ metamorphoses. The author of Attack on Titan uses this device partly for this reason, but mainly because he wants to show us the other side of the mirror.

As we enter the final arc of the story, we are completely lost. All our bearings are missing. We’re following characters we know nothing about, in unfamiliar surroundings. We have to wait until the end of the first episode of this fourth season to find Reiner and Sieg, the titanic warriors of the Mahr army, to understand what’s going on. Four years after their defeat on Paradis Island, which saw Eren’s battalion reconquer Shiganshina and learn the truth about the world, the Mahr empire is plunged into war with the countries of the Middle East. The latter have allied themselves after learning of the loss of the Colossal Titan and the Female Titan, believing this to be the perfect time to try and reverse the balance of power on the continent. New military technologies make it almost possible to rival the empire’s Titans. Reiner Braun, despite his defeat in Paradis, takes on one mission after another at the front to regain his honor. The first feeling is one of rejection. We want to find the members of the Exploration Battalion, but curiosity is too strong. Things don’t seem as Manichean as the story would have us believe. Sympathy for the Eldians on the mainland soon materializes. The way they are herded into concentration camps, wearing armbands reminiscent of what the Germans inflicted on the Jewish people, raises questions. Why do they accept to serve this empire? Why do they hate their fellow human beings in Paradis so much?

Reiner, Annie and Bertolt
Reiner, Annie and Bertolt

This change of point of view is reminiscent of The Last of Us Part II. In the middle of the adventure, just as Ellie’s vengeful journey reached its peak, Neil Druckmann’s work took a step backwards and placed us in the shoes of Abby Anderson. The choice of Joel Miller’s assassin was seen as an absolute betrayal by some players, who refused to continue the adventure. In doing so, they missed out on some fifteen hours of storytelling, during which the narrative attempts to make us understand the young woman’s point of view. For her, Joel was simply the ruthless murderer of her father and a dozen fireflies. There’s a strong desire to show us that our perception of an event always depends on the prism through which we look at it. By saving Ellie, the Texas smuggler has potentially orphaned a significant number of children. Life is made up of gray areas, provided we dig deep enough. The fragility of this second The Last of Us is that the storyline was not foreseen when the universe was created. This is particularly apparent in some of the forced passages, which go to great lengths to create empathy for Abby, something that Isayama has absolutely no need to do in his work. The grandiose success of the change of perspective is the result of the mangaka’s advance planning, which we’ve already mentioned. Reiner doesn’t appear in the story seven years after publication began. He is present from the moment Eren joins the army. When it’s time to see things from the point of view of this traitor we’ve come to regard as a pillar of the group, disappointment coexists with curiosity. We’re overcome by an irresistible urge to understand what could have driven Reiner and Bertolt to commit these conscience-shredding acts.

In another universe, Reiner Braun may be the hero of a variation of Attack on Titan. He shares many similarities with Eren Jaeger: he’s not the most gifted member of his regiment, nor does he have any specific talent, but he displays an iron will and unfailing altruism at all times. Both are ready to give their lives to save their comrades. Brought up since birth in the Revelio concentration camp, indoctrinated by state propaganda to hate his origins because of the faults of his ancestors, rejected by his father who can’t stand having given birth to a woman who hid his Eldian origins from him, Reiner is an underdog. His only horizon was to join Mahr’s armed Eldian corps in the hope of being chosen to be the new receptacle of the Armored Titan. He devotes himself entirely to becoming a hero. He does it for himself, to earn everyone’s respect, but also to make his mother proud, as she automatically becomes an honorary citizen of Mahr when he is entrusted with one of the nine primordial titans.

The broken life of Reiner Braun
The broken life of Reiner Braun

And so Reiner sets out on his assault on Paradise with Bertolt, Annie and Marcel, the other porters with whom he’s learned the ropes, setting in motion the events that lead to the death of Eren’s mother. His five-year infiltration of the Wall People and their army brings him face to face with the reality of the world, shattering his psyche. When we see him playing big brother with the entire 104th Brigade, he’s not just an actor. He’s a young teenager sent to the front who realizes that the demons he’s been told about are just as normal as he is. To avoid sinking into the madness of guilt, he had to make the Mahr warrior and the savior of humanity cohabit within him. He who aspired more than anything to become a hero found himself having to accept that he had become a widow and orphan maker. Every moment spent with Eren was a torment of guilt. In his own words, “If only I’d never known these people existed.”

The revelation of his true nature takes place in a concert of madness and violence. Reiner is tired of years of double-identity. He’s lost in the midst of incompatible values, and clings to his primary objective: to seize the Founding Titan for Mahr, even if it leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. This turning point in the story is yet another heartbreak for Eren, who suffers the betrayal of his brother and mentor. Even before Livaï’s arrival, it was Reiner whom Eren most idolized and wanted to follow. His courage, charisma, strength, wisdom and, above all, his good heart were the driving forces behind his military training. For his part, the native of Mahr found in the young Eldian a comrade, a brother with whom he shared the same values. They are two sides of the same coin. Tragically, they were born into two different nations. He is the only member of his squad to return from Paradis. His return home after the failure of his mission finally shatters the man he was. The reversal of viewpoints reveals a pathetic man, racked by guilt and remorse. Close to suicide, he clings to life by rubbing shoulders with the new aspiring warriors he seeks to protect. He is the one who has experienced both sides. He is aware of the crimes of his ancestors, and therefore accepts the fear and contempt of the Mahr. Unfortunately, his life as a soldier has led him to realize that the demons of Paradis are only human, with their share of bastards and admirable people.

Reiner Braun is a fascinating character. He’s one of those people who forces us to debate with ourselves. Personally, I know he plunged me into reflections I’ve rarely had about the development of a fictional figure. I didn’t feel Eren’s admiration for him. To me, he was just the blond guy with the smooth voice. He was sadly perfect, with his superior strength and his ability to always help and protect his fellow man. Simply put, I found him anecdotal. So much so, that when he revealed his identity, my first reaction was to think it was a bad joke. My brain couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t until I saw him transform and break his comrade’s heart that I began to see him in a new light. I understood his importance to the group, and felt all the more anger towards this traitor. In the end, like everyone else, I hated him, then loved him when his complexity was brought to the fore by the author. Watching him go from villain to broken, understandable character is reminiscent of the narrative trajectory of a Jamie Lannister. In the final season of Attack on Titan, Reiner is an exhausted man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. His lack of self-confidence contrasts with his ability to protect those in his care. At this point, he gradually becomes the hero of the story. He begins an arc of redemption, taking the opposite path to Eren, who becomes foreign and distant. We no longer know the ins and outs of his plan. Like the Mahrs and Eldians of the continent, we become the victims of his vengeance. Reiner’s responsibility for Eren’s fall into the heart of hell is representative of the tragedy of war in the story.

The torments of war

Attack on Titan makes a point of showing us the horror of war, and at no point does it spare our sensibilities. Right from the start, the story glorifies the military. The Exploration Battalion is an absolute for Eren. Through his childlike eyes, the soldiers of this regiment are shown as valiant heroes. They are the light of humanity, those willing to give their lives to enable us to reclaim the territories beyond the walls. This varnished image is quickly cracking. Soon after the military classes begin, our heroes realize that there’s nothing desirable about a life that boils down to moving forward or dying. Eren is perhaps the only one to enlist out of pure vocation. He wants to kill the titans, and that’s the only way. Others take this decision because the horrors they have seen make it impossible for them to resign themselves to a quiet life behind the walls. Jean, for example, wanted to join the special brigades, but changed his mind after Trost’s battle with the titans. He joins the most dangerous military corps to honor the memory of the comrades he has lost in battle. Another example is Corporal Livaï Ackerman, regarded as humanity’s strongest soldier, who chooses to be on the front line because his proletarian origins force him to serve as a bulwark for humanity, whose shield he wants to be. He has little interest in the complete extermination of the titans, nor does he seek to unravel the mysteries of existence, unlike Major Erwin Smith.

The Exploration Battalion Major is the epitome of a military hero. He’s brave, charismatic, brilliant and utterly devoted to his mission and his men. At first glance, he seems like a perfect man, the kind of individual we’d be tempted to follow to the depths of hell without being asked. But this is only an appearance, for despite his devotion to mankind, he is inhabited by demons that consume his soul. If the Mahr Empire is subject to propaganda, so is Paradis Island. The memory of the island’s Eldians has been erased, but an elite caste ensures that the history invented by Karl Fritz can never be undermined. Erwin’s father, a curious teacher, was murdered by the crown. As an orphan, Erwin took up his father’s torch, vowing to discover all the secrets surrounding the titans. That’s what led him to join the Exploration Battalion. In his early years, he was a virtuous soldier, but soon became infected by the madness of war. His talent for strategy leads him to take charge of this elite troop. The naive boy gives way to a warlord who will do anything to achieve his goal. He’ll do anything to get closer to the truth, including sacrificing his men and knowingly manipulating them. Ethics have no place in his approach to combat. Only victory counts.

Major Erwin Smith
Le commandant Erwin Smith

His figure is very close to the Big Boss imagery of the Metal Gear Solid saga created by Hideo Kojima. The latter was a simple soldier who wanted to serve for the glory of his country, forced to turn to a life of mercenarism to carry on the legacy of his mentor, whom he had been forced to assassinate for a state lie. Although full of good intentions and eager to free mankind from government manipulation, the Original Snake gradually loses his sanity. The benefactor gives way to a murderer without honor, ready to sacrifice his men if it means he can win his fight against the system. The culmination of this evolution is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Not content with betraying his men, Kojima’s character also betrays the player, embroiling him in a machination that shows us that even the most virtuous of men is condemned to become a demon if he locks himself onto the path of war. Erwin Smith fits perfectly into this deconstruction of the military hero. Honor has no place on the battlefield. This moral conception is doomed to give way to savagery.

The Metal Gear Solid fan that I am can only think back to Hideo Kojima’s stroke of genius with The Phantom Pain. We all chased the fantasy of the anti-nuclear ending of this game. The goal was to ensure that no player on earth could be in possession of a nuclear weapon on their military base. Logic, or naivety, suggested that it would be simple to achieve this objective. It turned out that, even for a video game, humanity is incapable of agreeing on these types of subjects, because some will always do anything to maintain valuable advantages. Yet we struggled. At first we did this gently. We infiltrated the bases of these individuals without causing damage, with non-lethal weapons. The failure was total, and this grotesque quest was bogged down for several months. This stagnation went hand in hand with the hardening of the methods of the last idealists that we were. By the end, our characters had all become demons consumed by the horrors of war. It was at this moment that I understood the message of the work: he who lives from war can only become a monster, because the day of peace will never come. In a sense, this life of suffering is a fair return of things when one builds one’s life on the diffusion of death.

Venom Snake, from hero to demon
Venom Snake, from hero to demon

The big difference between the two characters is that Erwin has an epiphany. As the battle for the reconquest of Shiganshina is in full swing, and he comes within a hair’s breadth of getting his hands on the truth that cost his father his life, Erwin realizes the dichotomy between his actions and his rhetoric. He sees for the first time that it was his personal ambition that carried him, where all those who followed his orders were inhabited by a deep devotion to him and humanity. He has climbed a mountain of corpses to quench his thirst for knowledge. This final discussion with Livaï, his faithful second-in-command, shows us a man making peace with his demons. In a suicidal heroic charge at the head of what’s left of his battalion, he abandons his ambitions to give his heart to humanity, hoping that those who survive will give meaning to his death. The demon humanity needed is extinguished in a shower of blood and guts.

Attack on Titan rejects the premise of clean, valiant war we see in so many works of fiction. The actors in this story are not like San Goku, they don’t derive childish pleasure from fighting, and they don’t turn yesterday’s enemies into allies. Eren Jaeger is not an admirable man whose actions are guided by absolute disinterest. He was an ordinary child living on Paradise who saw the reality of war literally knocking at his door, taking his mother away from him. Everything else that happened was a long road to radicalism. Eren doesn’t just want peace or an end to hatred, he’s motivated by a thirst for blood to take revenge on those who have wronged him and robbed him of his life. Already as a child, he expresses not sadness or lament, but a deep desire to eradicate his enemies. First the Titans, then the rest of the world. What happens to Eren is exactly how radicalization happens in the real world. Pure anger and ill-motivated rage are fueled by the constant flow of conflict he is fed. Attack on Titan sums up how a person’s mind is shaped by war. Contrary to what we see in a number of mangas, here it’s not possible to cohabit with death without being affected by it. Isayama shows that war is hell, and that ordinary people can lose themselves through being surrounded by hatred and fear of death. This is felt on Paradise Island as much as on the mainland.

Erwin's regrets
Erwin’s regrets

The Eldians in the camps are brought up to hate their origins, which drives them to maintain the cycle of hatred fostered by those who rule and will never go to the battlefield. Gabi Braun, Reiner’s cousin and aspiring warrior, can be seen as a parallel to Eren. Like him, she grows up hating others. From their childhood point of view, there was little difference between the way he perceived the titans, and the way she perceived the inhabitants of Paradis. Since the cradle, she had always heard of them as bloodthirsty demons who had made a pact with the devil. Like him, she saw the “monsters” knocking on her door and killing people she cared about. This story of hatred is like a long trail of powder that catches fire, because we’re so obsessed with the idea of who started it that no one has ever tried to figure out how to put an end to it.

As I write these lines, I can’t help but draw a parallel with the murderous conflict that has been shaking the Israeli-Palestinian space since October 7. The crimes of Hamas are terrorist acts of unspeakable ignominy. Yet when I think of those Gazan children raised between the sea and a wall, who have never seen an Israeli other than through a military prism, all under the silence of the international community, I can only conclude that we always end up creating our own monsters. The Palestinian who takes up arms is not so different from Eren. He sets out to wage war, because the Other is dehumanized in his mind. The Other is nothing more than an enemy who harms him, and who must be harmed before he harms us even more. This logic is pernicious and can only lead to the creation of other attacks on humanity, hence the importance of true dialogue. The human race can only find salvation by genuinely listening to and exchanging ideas with its fellow man, without ever raising anathema to cut short any attempt at discussion. This idea is shared by Eren’s companions in the 104th Brigade, as well as by the aspiring Mahrs warriors under Reiner’s disillusioned influence. Gabi initially comes across as a ruthless radical, but unlike her compatriot in Paradis, she manages to put her hatred aside when confronted with the reality of the world. In a way, she embodies both the most beautiful and the ugliest aspects of humanity.

Attack on Titan analysis
Gabi Braun, child soldier

The rise and fall of humanity

Isayama’s work isn’t just a whirlwind of hatred and violence, it’s above all an attempt to put humanity under the microscope. Unlike the NieR saga, the aim is not to erect a mausoleum to glory in a world marked by its absence, but to show that we are the demons of this hell we have built. This is the tragedy of our species. All collective initiatives have led to massacres. We have killed for the glory of kings, for the veneration of sacred texts, to free ourselves from the yoke of an oppressor, to avenge or protect a loved one. Violence is rooted deep within us; it’s a primitive need that expresses itself in many forms. We could almost be tempted to say that everything man does is just a perpetual quest to find a reason for the expression of his violence. The paradox is that this bloodthirsty darkness constantly coexists with a form of grace. Attack on Titan always manages to bring out the gentleness in its characters between two dramatic events. These little moments of innocuous tenderness prevent the world from descending into chaos for all eternity. We’ll see later that it’s the beauty of this bond that unites us to others that prevents Eren from engulfing the world in his apocalypse. Even in the darkest hours of our history, the hope of a happy ending remains. But this feeling is absurd, because reality always catches up with us in the end.

Is humanity capable of controlling its feelings and its appetite for violence? This is a legitimate question to ask after viewing Eren Jaeger’s tragedy. This titanic fable shows the human tendency to succumb to greed, jealousy, anger and vengeance. In the end, every achievement is hijacked or tainted by other things that sully the epinal image we’ve just admired. Take the ice cream tasting scene in the episode “Dawn of Mankind”. It’s one of the few moments in the whole series that exudes happiness. Our heroes discover the joys of the continent and advanced technologies completely foreign to them. As they stroll along the stalls, they come across an ice-cream cone stand that fills them with wonder. It’s a moment of sharing and naive camaraderie that shows life in this part of the world at its best. Soon, however, this false bliss gives way to the reality of a ruthless world. A very young Oriental boy is caught by one of the shopkeepers, who accuses him of theft. The mahr crowd begins to gather around the boy, hurling the worst insults at his origins. Discussions about the punishment to be inflicted on him begin to intensify. Some talk of cutting off his hand, or even both hands, in case Eldia’s blood also runs in his veins.

Attack on Titan analysis
Eren discovering the reality of the continent

The wonder of technological discoveries, made possible by certain peoples on the mainland taking a liking to Paradis in the hope of freeing themselves from Mahr, underlines our ability to turn every advance into a warlike use. The discovery of engines could have made life easier for everyone on the island, but this was not to be. Instead, this technological advance was used to increase the firepower of the Three Walls’ defense forces, blurring once and for all the line between a belligerent and a defensive army. A whole new field of possibilities was opened up for the mass production of firearms and other lethal devices. We find ourselves at a pivotal moment when the eldians of Paradis find themselves having to ask whether they are at the end or the beginning of a world. Every medal has its reverse. This kind of observation is nothing new, and can be found in the real world. The most characteristic example of the twentieth century can surely be found in the figures of Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer. Astrophysics owes its identification of gravitation as a curvature of space-time to the former. The latter led to enormous advances in black hole research. However, they are best remembered for their contribution to the Manhattan Project, aimed at producing an atomic bomb during the Second World War.

Maintenant, je suis devenu la mort, le destructeur des mondes.

Robert Oppenheimer
Attack on Titan analysis
Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb

The creation of the atomic bomb is a reminder that, when faced with progress or a major discovery, mankind is always at odds with the way it perceives the world, which is one of the main reasons for the major aberrations that result. Human beings are woven of emotional movements, which is why, throughout history, they have never ceased to make use of suffering. This is because, within a group, they are unable to manage their impulses, desires and fears. This kind of erring is particularly true of revolutions. Whether it’s the French or Russian revolutions, despite their democratic impulses, they ended up tainted by man’s excesses. There’s this permanent idea that the opponent will try to get the better of us, so we have to annihilate him before he gets the chance. This escalation of fear and resentment leads to tragedies such as the assassination of the Russian imperial family. Trotsky, seventeen years after the fact, revealed that the Bolsheviks massacred the entire family in order to terrorize the enemy and stifle any counter-revolutionary movement. Paradise Island is no exception to this cycle. General Daris Zackley, Commander Dot Pixis and Major Erwin Smith are plotting a coup d’état to overthrow the royal family and return the keys of power to the people.

This revolution, which put an end to the cult of secrecy and royal oppression, enabled the people to embrace modernity. The end of the Ancien Regime is inextricably linked with the reconquest of Shiganshina and the eradication of the titans that roam the island. All could have ended there, but the opening up to the outside world is going to put a piece back into the machine. While the beginning sees the arrival of new technologies thanks to the links forged with Mahrs dissidents and the Heazul lands, very quickly the fear of conflict leads to a hardening of Paradis, which gradually becomes a militaristic state tinged with exacerbated nationalism. This rise in the worst feelings is largely due to Eren. In another world, he might have shared his comrades’ exaltation at this dizzying discovery, but the fear instilled by the memories inherited from his father has only fueled his extremist leanings. The viewer doesn’t know it yet, but at this point in the story, Eren is no longer the young man we knew. All that’s left of him is a broken character who knows what’s coming and what he’s going to do. This knowledge, combined with his obsession with freedom, has made him a prisoner of his own chains.

Slave to freedom

“To you who live 2000 years later” is the title of the very first episode of Attack on Titan. We didn’t know it at the time, but it goes a long way towards defining Eren’s status as an instrument, and the limits of the freedom he holds so dear. The latter, like the Titan that characterizes him, is the embodiment of the anger of a child whose existence has been sullied, in life and in death. This child is none other than Ymir, the great ancestor of the people of Eldia, the starting point of the Titans’ curse. She was neither a goddess nor a demon, simply a slave of a barbarian tribe with Germanic features. One day, she let her clan’s pigs escape. We have no way of knowing whether she did this knowingly or unknowingly, although certain visuals seem to indicate that this was no simple clumsiness. And so she incurred the wrath of the local warlord, a hard, brutal man named Fritz, who offered her “freedom”. This gift was a punishment of rare perversion. The young woman was free to run for her life, pursued by the men of her liberator. Out of breath and wounded by an arrow shot to the shoulder, she tried to escape her pursuers by running into a forest. Distraught and on the verge of death, she fell into the stump of a gigantic tree and came into contact with an entity that offered her the power to respond to the cruelty of the world. She was able to materialize her distress and suffering in the form of a Titan.

His conditioning as a slave made him incapable of turning his strength against his oppressor. On the contrary, she served him as an armed arm to impose his domination on other peoples, and to provide him with offspring. Thus was born Eldia’s empire. For many years, she used her power to make the young state prosper. She never had the love of this monster to whom she gave everything, including her life to protect him from an assassination attempt. Where death should have been a deliverance, it was the beginning of an even greater tragedy. Her memory was sullied, by the decision of the first King Fritz to force their three daughters to eat their mother’s remains so that her power would not disappear with her. This is how the Axis materializes, a dimension that transcends time and space, linking all Eldians. Ymir is thus condemned to an eternity of servitude in this mystical place, fashioning titans for the glory of Eldia. It was from this bondage that the eight Primordial Titans were born from the original. She spends 2000 years waiting for someone to free her from her condition. That someone is none other than Eren, who becomes her weapon of vengeance. To counter Fritz’s royal egocentricity, the young woman had enough resentment to create a rebellious, uncontrollable titan: the Attack Titan, whose special feature is that each wearer can see the memories of his successor if the latter allows him to.

Attack on Titan analysis
Ymir and the origin of the titans

Eren is the only person in two millennia to know of this power. That’s why he doesn’t just want to create a coalition of peoples, by incarnating the devil, to ensure a long and happy life for all those he loves. He seeks to free Ymir from this millennia-old bondage, to put a definitive end to the curse of the Titans. He doesn’t plan everything to perfection like a late-night Danny Ocean. He follows a trajectory whose contours he knows only too well. He’ll adapt them as much as possible to the impulse that drives him to go ever further into atrocity. His only certainty is that Mikasa is the key to this tragic-cosmic farce. And so he pushes her to her limits. She who loved him so much, while he was always unable to return the love she deserved. In a way, Eren has been Mikasa’s Fritz, a warlord without any real consideration. When she kills Eren in a final kiss before Ymir’s eyes, the world destroyer’s mission is accomplished. He has appeased the founder of the Eldian people by showing that it is possible to break the hold. The titans ceased to exist. To appease the angry child who had unwittingly plunged the world into Titan hell, Eren agreed to kill the jovial child he once was. This materializes in the scene showing that, from the future, he was the one who knowingly directed the Titan responsible for his mother’s death towards their home, when the monster had set its sights on Bertolt. Without this tragedy, Eren can’t become the man he’s meant to be, so he makes sure nothing stands in the way of things running smoothly.

Attack on Titan analysis
Eren Jaeger with Ymir on the Axis

I don’t know exactly how long, but I’m going to slaughter all these people. Soon they’ll all be dead…or rather, I’ll have killed them all. It’s already written. We’d never have found a way to save Paradise anyway. Everything will be destroyed. Houses, people, animals, lives, dreams… I wonder what Mom would think. Shouldn’t we Eldians be the ones to perish? That’s what the King of the Walls had decided. Between our island and the outside world, the number of victims is disproportionate. The eradication of my people would certainly solve the problem of the titans. But I refuse to consider this outcome. […] I’ve already seen all this in my memories of the future, and it seems that the future is immutable. I’m just like you, Reiner, an infamous scumbag. No, I’m worse than that…

Eren Jaeger

These thoughts, which haunt Eren’s character, express a great deal about his deeper nature. He is not a monolithic being, as he is full of moral paradoxes. It turns out that this freedom-obsessed man is actually the least free character in the whole story. He has run his whole life to escape all forms of constraint. Submission and servitude have always been intolerable to him. Ironically, this thirst for deliverance led him to build his own cage of freedom. Unfortunately, no matter how hard he struggled, the only freedom he found was always fake. Freedom is an absolute concept that is difficult to fully define. According to Rousseau, it’s the way we act and see the world that defines freedom. Man is the artisan of freedom. Not the artisan of his own freedom, but the artisan of collective freedom. He explains that freedom consists in being able to do whatever does not harm others. The limitation of this reasoning is that it raises serious contradictions. How can an accumulation of laws and limits be compatible with the notion of freedom? No doubt Eren would crush the good Jean-Jacques with a wave of his hand on hearing this pamphlet. Some would say that it serves above all as a bulwark against the cruelty of the world. In a utopia, a world without violence or oppression stemming from fear, no one would think of chasing this chimera. To the very end, Eren Jaeger remains a little boy trying to achieve the impossible, because it’s impossible for him not to demonstrate that he’s the freest of them all, even if it means indulging in cruelty.

Because of the world in which he grew up, and in particular because of his character, Eren has a very Sartrean vision of freedom. The French philosopher declared that he had never been so free as under the occupation of Nazi Germany. France’s defeat meant that its people lost their rights, starting with the right to speak and think. Little by little, the venom of Third Reich ideology spread everywhere. The propaganda visible on every street corner was like an invitation to perceive oneself with the filthy face that the oppressor had of the French people. That’s why every just thought was seen as a conquest. Since they were being hunted down, every gesture of protest carried the weight of a commitment. For Sartre, the atrocious circumstances of this struggle for liberation enabled all those who stood up to discover the quintessence of life. It is only in times of crisis that man can conceive of what freedom really is, and can conceive of the elaboration of a more fair life. He believes that it was through blood and darkness that France was able to build its strongest republic. While there’s obviously no question of a republic in Attack on Titan, the fact remains that it echoes the boy from Shiganshina. It’s obviously the desire to discover the vast wilderness that drives his intoxication with freedom, but his obsession with it is built on opposition to injustice and domination: that of the walls, then that of the titans, before finding himself confronted with the hatred of the rest of the world. Its great tragedy is that it is, unwittingly, part of Spinoza’s vision. In his “Ethics” texts, Spinoza explained that man cannot be free because everything we do is defined by divine will. Since we follow the path predefined by a higher being, freedom is merely an illusion that it makes no sense to pursue.

Attack on Titan analysis
Spinoza and the illusion of freedom

Eren’s obsession matured alongside his frustration at the weakness of humanity, which was content to live like cattle, patiently waiting for the time to go to the slaughterhouse. The neighborhood in which he grew up, and the great walls that protected his childhood from these bloodthirsty giants, never ceased to remind him of his limitations. This cocktail of frustration is at the root of his latent rage. So he kept going, in the hope that one day he’d be much more than just a bird in a cage. The problem with obsessions is that they’re impossible to get rid of. The human mind always finds a way to plunge deeper into the abyss. Eren is no exception to this human peculiarity. He’s a character who’s doomed to never be satisfied with what he gets. Yet he has always been clear-sighted about his nature. When Livai has to choose who will inherit the Colossal Titan in order to be saved from death between Erwin and Armin, Eren reminds us that his lifelong friend is the only beacon of goodness in the squad. He emphasizes his ability to dream, whereas he has always been obsessed with vengeance and war. The character’s profound change of heart, which makes him the most enslaved being in the story, takes place in two stages. First there’s the discovery of humanity’s survival via his father’s notebooks, which destroys the way he had imagined the world. Then comes the moment when he kisses the hand of Historia, heiress of the Royal blood of Eldia, which has the effect of revealing to him the true power of the Attack Titan of which he is the bearer. Accepting the royal blessing, he sees himself as an adult in his father’s memories, influencing him and all previous bearers of the Attack Titan. At that very moment, he becomes the beacon in the darkness for all those who have possessed the Titan’s powers. He points the way to overcome Fritz domination. The keys to what was and what is to come are handed over to him.

From then on, he becomes an almost omniscient being, lost between past, present and future. He is cursed with knowledge. No human mind could endure being present everywhere, all the time, because of the combined powers of the Attack and the Founding. It is diluted within every Eldian who has existed since the dawn of time. The young Jaeger is no longer an individual, but a materialization of fury. He’s not far removed from Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan. Both are fragmented in relation to time, and more often than not end up as mere spectators of what must happen. Eren is not free. He is a character shaped by a self-determinism that lies in his inability to deviate from the path he foresees. He is a victim of the fatality intrinsic to the Assailant. As there can only be one future, when he decides to show his memories to the past, he ensures that history will indeed go in the direction necessary to keep his reality unchanging. He is the architect of his own tragedy. The past is thus built around the memories of the future, creating a fatalistic loop. The sudden change in the character’s personality takes on a new meaning. He begins to feel compassion for the Titans wandering aimlessly around his island, knowing that they are compatriots “condemned to Paradise”. Happiness is taken away from him, as he is aware of the turning points to come, even if many gray areas remain. The boy from Shiganshina, by influencing two millennia of history, is the one who characterized this Titan’s thirst for rebellion. This temporal paradox terrifies Eren to the core. His only solution is to keep moving forward, making sure that whatever has to happen will happen. The scenes in which we see him talking to himself in the mirror, repeating “Fight” over and over again, can then be seen as a credo propagated across time and space to show the way to his predecessors.

Attack on Titan analysis
Eren terrified by visions of his future

Described like this, it’s easy to see him as an odious being who orchestrated everything, but Eren is also a prisoner of what he has glimpsed. When he hears Willy Tybur utter the phrase “I don’t want to die because I was born into this world”, his reaction betrays that he himself remembers having uttered those words years ago, to the comma, with the same intonation. Any doubts he may have felt before bringing war to Mahr territory are swept away. The future seems immutable. He’d like to give peace a chance, retire to the woods to live out his last peaceful moments with Mikasa, but every event brings him face to face with reality. Whether it’s when he asks what Sasha’s last words were before she died, or when he agrees to save Ramzi from a public lynching even though he refuses to do so at first, because he knows he’ll kill him when he unleashes the Great Earthquake, everything keeps reminding him of the inexorability of what he’s seen. Little by little, he becomes a ghost who lets himself be carried along by the rails of his destiny. He relives the same self-inflicted traumas over and over again, in this space where all temporalities coexist. His only hope is to do what the future demands of him: raze the world to the ground. Overwhelmed by such power, he leaves the choice to his former comrades-in-arms. He could use the powers of the Original to stop them, but he gives them the option of confronting him to put an end to his madness, as if he wished for death. Basically, Eren is more anti-hero than hero. He commits the worst kind of genocide, going so far as to trample on 80% of the human population. Out of cruelty, but also because it’s the only absurd hope he has of breaking the circle of vengeance and hatred that gave birth to his civilization.

Attack on Titan analysis
The apocalypse according to Eren Jaeger

He is the one who writes the script for his own tragedy. Eren is a figure capable of both the best and the worst. In this darkness, he nevertheless manages to put his vice at the service of a cause beyond himself. Without the chain of events he set in motion, the peoples would never have allied themselves against him, and the origin of the titans would never have been silenced. He responded to this 2,000-year-old cry of distress by accepting to become the worst of evils, he who once aspired only to become a symbol of hope. If he is a prisoner of destiny and the path Ymir laid out for him 2,000 years ago, we mustn’t reduce him to a tragic savior. He remains a bloodthirsty monster who could have made other choices if he hadn’t let fear devour his heart. He could have said no to fate. Eren is a compendium of paradoxical feelings, a revolt against a cruel and absurd world. His ambivalence both fascinates and repels us.

The beauty of his tragedy shouldn’t erase the fact that, with or without reason, he would have ended up walking all over the world. This is what he explains to Armin during their last discussion. He appears lost, incoherent in his speech, his mind fragmented by his simultaneous presence in all temporalities.

‒ Even if I hadn’t known you’d stop me, I think I’d have devastated the world regardless. I would have wiped out the whole Earth.

  ‒ Why?

  ‒ Why? I don’t know. I don’t know… It was an irrepressible urge. 

Eren to Armin in the final volume of Attack on Titan

His dreams of discovering the world have been sullied by reality. Crushing the world from his hundred-meter height, he has a front-row seat to contemplate the emptiness of his desire for freedom. This can be seen in the last images we see of his face. He seems emptied of all emotion. Anger, sadness and determination have given way to apparent despair. Deep down, he would have liked to have a peaceful life with Mikasa deep in the woods. If only he hadn’t been consumed by fear and his inability to see happiness at his feet, rather than always staring at that unattainable horizon. He became the monster of legends, the one who in turn tore mothers from their children. One thing remains true about him: he knew, in his own way, how to give his heart.

Attack on Titan analysis
Eren, victim of fate

Shinzou wo Sasageyo

Shinzou wo sasageyo is the characteristic rallying cry of Isayama’s work. It is inseparable from Attack on Titan, whether because of the many poignant speeches in which it is delivered, or because of the famous song composed for the series by the band Linked Horizon. Humanity has always resorted to this kind of symbolism to give itself courage. In the days of ancient grace, men relied on Alala, a minor allegorical goddess who personified the battle cry. She is described by Pindar as “the prelude to the game of spears, to whom men, in defense of their city, offer the sacrifice of their lives”. Shinzou wo sasageyo means “Dedicate your heart”. The verb sasageyo refers to certain Shinto ceremonies based on offering and sacrifice. It is often used to designate literal or figurative sacrifice to something higher, a cause or a god. Shinzou is the Japanese word that designates the heart as a physical entity, not a metaphorical one; otherwise, the word Kokoro, used as much in a metaphorical sense as an anatomical one, would have been chosen by the author. This choice of vocabulary is explained by its combination with sasageyo. It explicitly indicates that the soldiers of Paradise are ready to give their lives to honor the cause embodied by this credo. I wanted to come back to this war cry because the evolution of its symbolism parallels the events we are told about.

At the very beginning of the story, this phrase is chanted by the army of walls. It has a noble, idealistic quality, as it symbolizes the boundless courage of all the brave men and women ready to go to the front, blades in hand. There’s a romantic beauty in seeing these men and women chanting this phrase over and over again to give themselves courage. They are smiling, with determined eyes, driven by their devotion to humanity. They are depicted as warriors of light, standing up to the darkness the titans embody. They always look to the horizon, convinced that they will succeed in reclaiming what has been snatched from humankind. Most of them know full well that they’ll never see this new-found freedom, as they’ll end up crushed or shredded long before then, but they press on with their heads held high, their hands on their hearts, never wavering. Their reward is the knowledge that, one day soon, one of their own will be able to hold their child’s hand in a free world. Gradually, this credo takes on an almost religious quality, especially from the moment Eren realizes he can transform himself into a titan. He embodies all the hopes of humanity, becoming a kind of messianic figure whom Erwin does not hesitate to use to galvanize his men. He constantly reminds us that there is no world in which humanity can prosper without Eren. Unfortunately, as is often the case, as soon as the religious enters the picture, a fanatical and extremist turn is taken, which taints the symbolism of this phrase.

I persisted in believing that there was no hell more terrible than this. But despite everything, humanity’s darkest day has arrived abruptly. The echo that knocks at our door continues to be tormented. The darkest day invited itself unexpectedly into our lives like a nightmare. Those who once betrayed us are the enemies we must exterminate! On that day, with what expression were they watching us through their eyes? What must we renounce in order to ward off these nightmares? If our lives and souls are not enough to pay the price… Let us dedicate ourselves! Let us dedicate ourselves! Let us devote our hearts. All the sacrifices we have made were for this moment!

Paroles de la chanson Shinzou Wo sasageyo

Eren is never relieved of his providential status. His aura eventually extends far beyond the Paradis army. Indeed, it spreads to the entire population, who are afraid of the outside world, which seems to hate him to death. The island’s inhabitants are well aware that the current military leadership is completely out of step with the challenges of this new era. Eren is seen as the sole guarantor of their future. His powers allow him to represent the greatness of Eldia’s former empire, and thus to suggest that a return to this glorious paradise is possible. The island then takes on a xenophobic and bellicose tone, and Shinzou Wo Sasageyo becomes a true national symbol. It was no longer the prerogative of soldiers facing death. It is now the cry of an angry people ready to follow their liberator into the worst atrocities, as long as the supremacy of their territory is assured. This construction resonates strongly with Germany in the 1930s, which was in search of a new-found honor after the First World War, which had taken a heavy toll on the country. The same thing happened with the Sieg Heil, which was taken up by the entire political caste and no longer just by the German army. The Jaegerist movement, made up of soldiers and civilians convinced that Eren must eradicate the whole world, is fast becoming the majority ideological base on Paradis Island. The rallying cry, which once smacked of heroism, has been emptied of its substance. It resonates within us as something ominous and harmful.

Attack on Titan analysis
The Jaegerist movement

Attack on Titan is a never-ending cycle of hatred and violence. That’s why so many people rejected Isayama’s ending. Eren hasn’t achieved anything lasting. He just bought time for his loved ones, while offering humanity the chance to put its culture of war on hold. At the end of his life, when he has accomplished his fateful tasks, he relies fully on the word that will be carried around the world by those who have come into contact with him. Although he doubts that his fellow creatures will be able to put an end to these incessant conflicts, he places his trust in Armin’s ability to unite the survivors, as he has always considered him to be the best among them. If it’s naive to think that the simple word of his companions could be enough to curb any future belligerence on the part of his friends, can we really believe that his quest has been in vain when everything seems to indicate that a relative peace has lasted for several centuries? Eren is neither a god nor a demon, although some may consider him so. He’s just a man who found himself with a power that would have driven anyone mad. He has done his worst in the hope of seeing good come out of it for those who will endure.

When Mikasa and the others succeed in stopping Eren, humanity is offered, for the first time in a long time, the hope of a happy future. 80% of the population has been eradicated, but people seem to have understood that this apocalypse was the result of their inability to put aside their hatred of others. The last survivors of the Mahr state vow never to repeat the mistakes of the past. The Eldians of the mainland are aware that there has never been a demon on Paradise and that they must free themselves from history. This new paradigm is possible thanks to the union between the aspiring Mahr warriors and the survivors of the exploration battalion that made the reconquest of Shiganshina possible. Far from any state consideration, Mikasa, Livaï, Armin, Reiner, Falco, Jean and Connie fought with all their might to stop Eren’s macabre march. They refused genocide as a response to hatred. They rose up against Eren’s uprising. They decided to say no to the Camusian absurdity that guides the man they grew up with. It is possible to find meaning in life, provided we are prepared to give it through our experiences. The world witnessed the unlikely association that prevented the annihilation of all life on the continent. This last-chance battalion has thus become a symbol of the importance of dialogue. In order not to forget, to honor our duty to remember and to prevent the horrors of the past from happening again, we need to talk. This brings us back to the fond memories of Marco, who begged Reiner not to kill him and to discuss with him why he did it.

Attack on Titan analysis
Emissaries of peace

For all the victims of the past, the children who have become adults will have to pass on their history, to preserve their future children from the evils their parents never tried to eradicate. Livaï embodies this figure of the veteran who truncates his swords for lollipops, symbols of his devotion to this new generation that must be preserved. It is this duty of remembrance that reminds us that peace and history must be at the heart of learning for future generations. Eternal peace cannot be guaranteed, but must be fought for, and efforts to keep it must never flag. As Major Erwin points out, mankind will probably only stop fighting the day there is only one man left on earth. Our ideals have an unfortunate tendency to clash with those of others. There’s no need to judge this reality through a moral prism: we’re all prisoners of our ideologies. We are all prisoners of our ideologies, which are as responsible for our greatest advances as they are for fuelling conflict. It’s possible to kill a man, it’s even possible to eradicate a people, but an idea is immortal. Unfortunately, there is no belief that does not clash with the beliefs of others. That’s why we fight again and again. Some with a pen and words, others with a gun and their blood.

Isayama reveals a very pessimistic side to his vision of humanity. He seems convinced that only a divine tragedy could bring the inter-ethnic massacres to an end. After Eren Jaeger’s death, the world was to enjoy decades of peace and harmony. In accordance with his wishes, the people he loved were able to live long and happy lives. Mikasa died an old woman, surrounded by her family, after a life of happiness at Jean’s side. She never forgot her first love, whom she carefully buried at the foot of their childhood tree. Unfortunately, the Jaegeristes didn’t seize the opportunity for cohabitation afforded by the man they thought they idolized the right way. The very last act of the story shows an island of Paradise ready to go to war, evoking in turn the imagery of the Third Reich. The former Exploration Battalion’s mission as peace ambassadors has failed to stem the extremist poison Eren left behind. A succession of images follows, showing the evolution of technology over the centuries. Humanity returns to its penchant for slaughtering others. The final shots of Attack on Titan show what appear to be the ruins of Paradis. A young boy and his dog wander among them, before stumbling upon a gigantic tree resembling the one Ymir found thousands of years ago….

The symbolism of the mystical tree’s return to the place where Eren was buried plunges us into a dizzying cycle. If we take a step back, we can then think that this story, begun by Ymir and ended by the boy from Shiganshina, is just one link in a great circular chain. Ymir is probably not the first child to come across this mysterious entity, which seems to appear every time humanity has fallen into its worst depths. Just as Eren probably isn’t the first madman to temporarily put an end to this hell, before himself serving as the breeding ground for the emergence of a new Original. Where is the beginning? Where is the end? No one knows. The titans seem to be a divine or natural response to mankind’s irrepressible need to wage war against one another. They embody our monstrosity and our servitude to our convictions. We will always find a reason to spill blood, whether for revenge or liberation. One thing is certain: as long as there are men, there will be titans.

To you who will be reading me in 2,000 years… or 20,000 years.

Sources

Articles

Fate, not Freedom: An analysis of Attack on Titan and its ending

Attack on Titan” Analysis: The Culture of Complacency

Historical allusions in Attack on Titan: A fascist subtext

Attack on Titan: horror and the aesthetics of fascism

Freedom by Rousseau

Jean-Paul Sartre, « La République du silence »

Book

Au-delà des murs de L’Attaque des Titans – Clément Drapeau

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