100 years ago, mysterious humanoid figures called Titans, ranging from 16 to 50 feet tall, appeared on Earth and began to decimate humanity. These giants ate any people in their wake, feasting their way across the landscape until the remainder of humankind barricaded itself behind a series of cramped concentric walls that keep the Titans out. Until now, that is. Bigger and badder than ever, the Titans have infiltrated the walls and are once again chomping down on the few heroes attempting to defend society from utter destruction.
Such is the delightfully bizarre yet disturbingly violent premise of Attack on Titan, a Japanese cultural phenomenon that started as a graphic novel, sold over 20 million copies, and now takes the form of an anime, video games, and an upcoming live-action movie. Originally created by Hajime Isayama, a 26-year-old manga wunderkind, the anime has a morbid fantasy aesthetic that should appeal to legions of Games of Thrones aficionados. It’s set in a similar kind of faux-Germanic milieu with castles, thatched roofs, and walled towns, with dramatic characters prone to impassioned speeches. It also shares with the American show an unquenchable thirst for blood.
The Titans, who have disturbingly disproportionate features, too-short arms, overly long legs, and heads that are too big or too small for their huge bodies, spend their on-screen time biting people in half. They pull them apart. Corpses litter the ground as they invade the walls. They eat the mother of the show’s protagonist, Eren Jaeger (the last name is German for hunter), which drives him to join the Recon Corps, the elite group of soldiers that sallies forth beyond the walls to fight Titans. Jaeger picks up a Spiderman-like device that allows him to swing from trees and walls to attack the giants right at the single vulnerable spot on the nape of their necks.
It sounds cartoonish and over-the-top. It is. Yet, behind the gratuitous violence and the simplistic bildungsroman plot, there’s something deeply appealing about Attack on Titan, perhaps because of the half-formed symbolic message behind the show’s grotesqueries. For all its monsters, the show is really about being human.
In one of the first major plot points of the show an extra-huge, skeletal, 200-foot-tall Titan attacks the protective wall just outside of the city where Eren grew up. The scene bears an uncanny similarity to the cover of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 treatise Leviathan, which shows a giant, crowned figure looming over the horizon of a country landscape just outside a town.
It’s an apt comparison. In Leviathan, Hobbes characterized humanity’s pre-civilization existence in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” “a war of every man against every man.” The same could be said of the lives of those remaining humans resisting the Titans. The strong devour the weak (literally in this case), as Mikasa, Eren Jaeger’s adoptive sister and fellow Titan-fighter, observes: “Only the victors are allowed to live. The world is just that cruel.”
The cure for this predatory state of nature, according to Hobbes, is organized civilization. By sacrificing their freedom, putting trust in a centralized state, and giving it a monopoly over violence, Hobbes’s humans prosper. This is the state of the world inside the walls of Attack on Titan. But as the show progresses, just as much threat comes from losing the fragile balance of power and peace between humans within the walls as from the Titans beyond it. We are our own worst enemies.
Titans and humans are somehow linked, through the crux of our protagonist. There’s a pervasive air of conspiracy, heightened by the looming threat of the giants. Military higher-ups know something that ordinary people don’t. Eren’s father hides a secret about his son’s past in the basement of their old house, outside the security of the walls.
Freud described cannibalism as one of humanity’s “instinctual wishes,” a base impulse given form in the Titans. They’re simply relentless consumers, gaping and stumbling around, their blank eyes bespeaking no particular thought or emotion. It’s revealed that they don’t even need food — the humans they consume aren’t digested for nutrients but rather spit back out, whole but very dead. As a threat to humanity’s survival, they’re less alien predators than psychological mirrors.
Like Lost, Attack on Titan presents a convoluted mystery that some viewers may not be interested enough to follow through to its end. That’s fine — the show is also a must-see for anyone who simply wants to dip a toe into humanity’s latest creative vision of its own hell, a Boschian nightmare that we’ve come up with to either entertain or torture ourselves. Or both.
All current episodes of Attack on Titan are available for streaming on Crunchyroll.