The Banality of Aestheticised Evil: Watching Attack on Titan under Lockdown
“Even if we’re confined between these walls, we can keep on living, just eating and sleeping. But… That would be as if… As if we’re just livestock”. These words are taken not from a conspiracy theory opposing the lockdown imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic but from the first episode of Attack on Titan, the gruesome Japanese adaptation which took the world by storm in 2013 when it was immediately hailed as the Game of Thrones of anime. The premise seems simple enough at first glance: the last citadel left on Earth fights off invading Titans, aiming to reclaim the Paradis Island and the land beyond. Both the manga, which started in 2009, and the anime are set to end once and for all this year. Why talk about it in this context, though? It would be more obvious to talk about Parasyte the Maxim, the anime adapting in 2015 the manga running from 1988 to 1995, where novel forms of life silently target and infest people, turning them against their loved ones. Just as we are now inundated with war rhetoric about fighting the virus and heroic first-line workers, AoT immediately establishes that the protagonist, Eren Jäger (Hunter), is the son of the doctor who both swiftly prevented an epidemic and issued the first warning against the fragility of walls that have gone untested for a century. Without spoiling one of the main twists, the parallel between the walls and how a vaccine builds up the immune system holds up surprisingly well.
The response to COVID-19, however, has been less of a contagion narrative played straight and more of an invasion narrative. Starting from “man against nature”, the conflict is now mostly framed as “man against man”. We tend to see invasion narratives popping up when an empire starts to fear the repercussions of violence and exploitation, in a sense, coming home to roost. Stories such as The War of the Worlds (1897) by H.G. Wells and King Kong (1933) project the unspoken fear, lending us control over it. Early American and European responses to China’s death toll showed a colonial type of voyeurism, the sense that it was something that did not fit the Western narrative of progress and control over nature, yet which happened to other people living in strange places.
Far from the alien forces of Parasyte, the coronavirus is the monster we had a hand in spreading. As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen points out, “[m]onsters are our children. They can be pushed to the farthest margins of geography and discourse, hidden away at the edges of the world and in the forbidden recesses of our mind, but they always return. […] These monsters ask us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place” (“Monster Culture: Seven Theses”, 20). While the US and Europe warned against projected rising suicide rates in isolation, Japan, the birthplace and paragon of karoshi, or “working oneself to death”, has actually seen lower rates of suicide. Already in the meatgrinder of late-stage capitalism, the vulnerable are already atomized as hikikomori or the willingly self-confined who spend most of their time with technology, not with people. Anime was born ready for the lockdown and AoT, in particular, is a timely meditation on how fear can be harnessed by nation-states even as the danger is baked into the system, leading to sadly predictable but equally devastating cycles of boom and bust.
Much like GoT in the good old days, which was praised for defying genres as the “fantasy for those who hate fantasy”, AoT broke through as the anime for those who had never watched anime. Its most notable long-term effect is making it possible for Netflix to pick up its iconic predecessor and take it from niche unlicensed streaming service to the mainstream: Neon Genesis Evangelion or Eva (1995-6), the mecha (anime centered on robots fighting each other) for those who hated mecha became an instant cult classic by raising the question of the war machine that, like Bartleby, the Scrivener, would simply “prefer not to”. AoT also pokes holes into the myth of the benevolent authority worth dying for, as elderly refugees from the Shiganshina district are sacrificed for the sake of the economy in a throw-away scene in the second episode of its first season. GoT, Eva, and AoT all subverted expectations with higher stakes and thinner plot armor than most of their genres.
Unlike the GoT of its later days, AoT does not shy away from exploring how its world-building breaks down its heroes, taking its time to explore how a protagonist comes to rationalize genocidal revenge fantasy that ironically seems to prove right the early misrepresentations of their in-group as bloodthirsty egomaniacs. Viewers in it for the cheap thrill of graphic death scenes are plunged into diverging takes on a nation’s history. Victimhood is seen as a temporary political position, not a biological essence, not an unimportant message in a world of casualized ancestry tests where hyphenated identities are increasingly visible, leading to hate groups misusing supposedly beloved cultural symbols as kitsch dog-whistles. As the series progresses, those donning the uniform of the Survey Corps with the Wings of Freedom on the back are no longer glorified, despite fighting off the grotesque instinct-driven Titans roaming the earth. Instead, they are revealed to be the disposable controlled opposition: the dream of boundless expansion is meant to fail. Their main function is to re-establish the caste system on the island of Paradis as the only safe haven against the unknowable outside, a Promised Land built upon deliberately forgetting about their origins in an apartheid state. This worldbuilding element leaves its mark on its main cast: Captain Levi’s backstory in the Underground is uncomfortably similar to the experience of the burakumin or untouchables in the 20th-century Japanese caste system.
Just like GoT, it is implied that the background only seems reminiscent of the West’s pre-industrial past while actually being a post-apocalyptic world. AoT’s apparent pre-second Reich setting is just window dressing, not in small part owed to Japan’s enduring admiration for Prussian work ethic starting in the Tokugawa shogunate period. As Japan transitioned out of feudalism in the Meiji period, it modelled itself after the second Reich which, like Paradis, compensated for depleting numbers with increased mobility and shock tactics. A significant portion of AoT’s character design is Germanic, as well. Once you start looking for German references in anime, you start seeing them everywhere, from facile shorthand for the seduction of evil, akin to Russian references in American movies, to a dedicated alternate history complete with its own Führer in Full Metal Alchemist (2001-2010) or with East and West German conspiracies in Monster (2004-5), not to mention the anthropomorphized countries of Hetalia: Axis Powers (2012-present).
However, this lineage permeates even shows with a lighter mood. The 1970s and 1980s were dominated by Germanic-looking androgynous heroes thanks to Japan becoming enamoured with Björn Andrésen’s appearance and performance in Death in Venice (1971). If anything, the unmissable Prussian look of the citadel serves as a comment on how culture can be stuck in a loop despite scientific advances prioritizing the military-industrial complex, proving Frederic Jameson right when decrying postmodernity’s failure of historicity. More and more articles come up comparing surveillance capitalism with a sort of tech neo-feudalism, the newest resurgence of the neo-medievalism of the 1980s when the main concerns were rising inequality and decentralized power. AoT dramatizes this very contrast between a prosperous inside comfortably walled off from the desperate outside where wealth is extracted from. Wall Maria, a fragmented hinterland starved of infrastructure and support, lags behind the extravagant Wall Rose section of the fortress. However, the Paradis Island is portrayed as if on the cusp of an industrial revolution and just about to become an empire in its own right, fitting in a wider ultranationalist trend alongside Strike Witches (2008), Girls und Panzer (2012), Kantai Collection (2013) or Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress (2016). If Samurai Champloo (2004-5) was set in the Sengoku period and celebrated culture clash without expansionist overtones, the tide has turned towards imperialist nostalgia.
Japan’s post-traumatic culture seems better equipped than most to explore our response to life under siege. The kaiju genre, focusing on giant monsters threatening entire cities, rose when Godzilla (1954) explored precarious existence in the atomic age, blending modern technology with archaic fears as it included a Shinto-like ritual where the people try to exorcise the monster. The radical unknowability of the kaiju is revealed in an exchange that took place behind the scenes of the third instalment in the Gamera series. The actor in the monster suit asked the special effects director Shinji Higuchi what he should be feeling when encountering the little girl, only to be told: “But…he’s just a kaiju”. The Coronavirus and the Titans, unlike the colonizing alien life forms of Parasyte, are treated as amoral forces of nature with no agenda other than what we assign them. The kaiju genre, unlike American monster blockbusters, feeds upon a tradition of divided allegiances: stories featuring yokai, “bewitchingly weird” creatures of folklore, often include one willingly assuming the role of the villain so that another yokai can win the trust of humans and end the persecution of their kind. The closest equivalent in the West for the sheer dread the presence of yokai evoke would be H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu.
If the second Reich setting of AoT serves as shorthand for self-sacrificing efficiency and expansionist ambitions, it becomes even less subtle once the Eldian restorationist arc brings in overt third Reich visual parallels, complete with ethnic cleansing. More than anything, AoT reveals itself to be concerned with the so-called “necessary” violence swept under the rug by non-interventionism. The creator, Hajime Isayama, has been criticized for providing an attractive aesthetics for Japan’s right-wing populist turn, especially since the Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has been pushing for revisionism concerning the Sino-Japanese War, as well as Article 9, changing the self-defence force into a de facto standing army, thus going against the same prohibition the Weimar Republic faced.
What is more, Isayama has admitted that the character design of the sympathetic Commander Dot Pixis was inspired by no other than Akiyama Yoshifuru as a respectful homage for his “simple and frugal life”, making no mention of Yoshifuru’s war crimes when serving as a general in the Imperial Japanese Army in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars or the annexation of Korea in 1910 and the Japanese all-out fight against Korean culture. The fan base was quick to notice similarities between the beloved selfless strategist, Commander Erwin Smith, and Erwin Rommel, the military theorist and field marshal of the Wehrmacht. The artist has also claimed that the fan-favorite Mikasa Ackerman was named after the only surviving battleship used in the Russo-Japanese war. This loaded choice was justified by pointing to another guarded main female character, Misato Katsuragi from Eva, named after a World War II Japanese aircraft carrier. Mikasa and Misato both step in when the angsty protagonist fails to react, both examples of what the character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto termed a “girl next door” from the military.
However, where Eren is anxious to the extreme, Shinji shares the depression of Eva’s director Hideaki Anno and sees no point in fighting the Angels, the kaiju threatening Tokyo-3. The EVA Shinji has to pilot, much like Eren’s titan shifter, blurs the line between insider and outsider, machine and organism, mindless monster, and bio-weapon, even as both protagonists share overbearing fathers with misguided beliefs in total control over these weird life forms. I say “weird” rather than “strange” because they are not simply everyday images made unusual by the circumstances they are encountered in. The Titans look like malformed humans with no digestive tract, devouring people only to vomit them up, more like plants than animals as their energy source is daylight, making them unable to move at night. The EVAs are not just robots to be piloted like those of classic mecha such as Gundam (1979-present), they are cyborgs in every sense of the word. Mark Fisher’s analysis of these distinct modes in The Weird and the Eerie (2016) draws the line between the weird as an insidious intrusion, something that should not be there and which disrupts our illusion of control, and the eerie is a failure of presence. The city under lockdown is eerie, from Tokyo-3 buildings retreating underground to empty streets giving us a taste of the world without or, rather, after us, prompting nihilism, while the weird can still move us to action. There is no point in Paradis and Tokyo-3 returning to “normal” defined as life before contact with the weird: nothing was truly normal before, either. They are both revealed to be transactional societies where life is cheap, and so the main characters need to consider whether there is any “home” to return to once the kaiju is defeated.
Adaptations sometimes deliberately distance themselves from the source material to comment on real-life context. Parasyte adapted two decades after the completion of the manga, had to write in technology not available at the time to make Shinichi’s despair comprehensible. Eva’s controversial ending is partly owed to last-minute changes prompted by the March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway by a doomsday cult. A plotline that would have been uncomfortably similar was completely scrapped, opting instead to have Shinji face head-on a similar ideology to that of the cult, the Human Instrumentality Project, after learning not to hate an Angel. Will AoT end by continuing to insist on striking before one is victimized in a time of escalating tension between nation-states? After all, it is no stranger to retconning, and its recently announced trailer for the final season surprised the fan base by switching studios. As things stand right now, it presents a battle between voluntary extinction and ethnic cleansing, a false dichotomy bubbling up once again now that eco-fascism has escaped the underground and claimed humanity was the virus, alongside its corollary, eugenics dressed up as apolitical assessment of who is worth saving.
Either way, just as Eva remains a cultural touchstone that signalled the end of Japan’s unfounded optimism of the bubble economy era, AoT is the revenant marking the post-2008 cultural shift from the free movement of globalized neoliberalism to the rising populism of the far-right and the normalization of conspiracy theories. GoT, in the end, succumbed to the temptation of uncomplicated crowd-pleasers, which is why it has no re-watch value for me under lockdown. Aot and Eva, on the other hand, tackle what Mark Fisher termed the sense of a cancelled future under capitalist realism. Indeed, to end on a quote from Grafton Tanner’s Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts (2016), “[f]or now we live in the mall, but I think it’s closing soon There are forces outside breaking through the glass, threatening to interrupt this dream we’re drifting through, doped on consumer goods, energy drinks, and Apple products, climbing toward the bright light of digital deliverance. […] Maybe they’ll tear the whole charade down and we can wake up to mobilize, to make plans for an unsimulated world, to instruct our children to never settle for life in the haunted mall”.