Unless we live in China, we just can’t escape from Attack on Titan. In the post-apocalyptic manga by Hajime Isayama, the last bastion of humanity lives within inside walls built to keep man-eating titans out. But like the zombie horde fans so often compare them to, the titans find ways to breach the barriers, decreasing the human population one bite at a time.
Likewise, everywhere we turn, we run into something related to Attack on Titan. The original manga has spawned spin-off series, anime, light novels, games, a live action movie, an amusement park, and a generation of cosplayers sporting those sleek military uniforms. Subaru even runs a Japanese car commercial inspired by the series!
But one thing that gets lost in exporting Attack on Titan for English-speaking audiences is the context. When FUNimation licensed the anime in 2013, they billed the series as The Walking Dead with giants. Presented as a post-apocalyptic survival story, the adventure and action aspects get pushed to the forefront. For good reason, too. Escape the cage created by the walls initially created to keep humanity safe! Explore the world beyond and maybe see the ocean! Combined with unpredictable plotting that leaves you unsure of who’ll survive until The End, Attack on Titan has hooked many a fan. And the three-dimensional maneuver gear used by the story’s soldiers to fight the titans is undeniably cool.
That’s what it looks like to the average English-speaking fan anyway. What about Japan though? Is that how it looks to them? After all, their post-apocalyptic tradition is rooted in nuclear fallout — a fact we all should remain aware of since Godzilla is now their official tourism ambassador.
For some context, let’s rewind a few years to 2009, the year Attack on Titan debuted. That year, One Piece topped the manga sales charts with over 14 million copies sold. Naruto hit the #2 position with a distant 6.8 million. Two years later, One Piece topped the list with an astonishing 38 million copies. Naruto once again occupied the #2 slot with 6.8 million while Attack on Titan hit #11 with a respectable 3.7 million copies sold.
Where it gets interesting is 2013, when the anime adaptation first aired. The One Piece manga sold 18 million copies while Attack on Titan ousted Naruto from the #2 spot with almost 16 million copies sold. Last year, the gap between One Piece and Attack on Titan closed even further with the former selling 11.8 million volumes and the latter 11.7 million. For years, One Piece‘s optimistic themes of defending your friends against the world and fighting for your dreams resonated with a receptive audience, contributing to its juggernaut sales. If you add the sales of the series occupying the #2-#10 spots on the 2011 bestseller list, that figure would still be less than the amount sold by One Piece. So what happened between 2011 and 2013?In 2012, Shinzo Abe was elected as Prime Minister of Japan. A right-wing nationalist, Abe’s politics led to the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Passed after World War 2, Article 9 rejected war as a method of settling international disputes and prevented Japan from maintaining a military. What the reinterpretation did was allow Japan to increase its self-defense forces and give them the ability to take action if one of its allies was attacked. Abe viewed this reinpretation as a way to revive national pride, but many critics question the change because the Prime Minister did not follow the procedures for constitutional amendment. He used a different route that let it pass without any debate and vote.
What does that have to do with Attack on Titan? In case the uniforms weren’t a giveaway, the main characters are young military recruits. Divided into three branches, the military consists of the Military Police, the Garrison, and the Survey Corps. The Military Police, charged with protecting the innermost ring, are rife with corruption. After all, the capital is in the heart of the civilization, far away from the outer walls and any titan threat. The largest branch of the military and responsible for protecting the walls, the Garrison is largely ineffectual. They exist for show, to assuage the population living in the outer two rings. As the first chapter of the manga told us, they’re not competent when it comes to killing titans.
They’re brave. They’re heroic. They’re relentless titan killers. They search for a way to eradicate the titan threat and free humanity from the walls. It’s true they suffer a very high body count, but those individual sacrifices are viewed as necessary for the benefit of the whole.
Guess which branch of the military our young main characters join? Fandom darling Captain Levi Ackerman is second-in-command of the Survey Corps, after all.
The opinion that Attack on Titan is Japanese military propaganda isn’t a new one. Isayama admits that Dot Pixis, a high-ranking officer in the manga, is based on Akiyama Yoshifuru, a general of the Japanese Imperial Army from 1916-1923. Considered a hero in his home country, he also committed many atrocities against Korea and China. Given the recent reinterpretation of Article 9, is it any wonder that many Korean citizens have little love for this manga?
I think, though, that Attack on Titan is less military propaganda, more a reflection of disaffected Japanese youth. Isayama is 28 years old, making him young enough to buy into Abe’s notion of stimulating national pride. It also makes him old enough to have been affected by the economic contraction in the late 2000s.
Remember the subprime mortgage crisis that hit the United States in 2007? People lost their homes, and retirement savings were wiped out. But the U.S. wasn’t the only economy hit hard. The effects eventually reached across the world to Japan.
In its present state, Japan’s economy operates a little differently from what we’re used to seeing in Western nations. Buy, buy, buy! Spend, spend, spend! These are the catchphrases of a consumer market. In Japan, however, the consumer market that drives the economy doesn’t actually live in the country. The nation’s economy depends on external consumer demand rather than an internal one. When the housing bubble burst, the U.S. economy contracted, and people spent less. You can bet Japanese goods were affected.
What do we see in Attack in Titan? Humanity lives inside walls built to protect them. But not without a price: resources are finite. At the start of the series, titans break through the outermost wall. Humans abandon that ring and retreat within the second inner wall. Later, there is a threat of them losing the second wall to titan attack. The problem, however, is that retreat into the innermost wall isn’t a viable option. There aren’t enough resources in the inner city to sustain the population, which means people will need to be left behind to die. Most of them, in fact.
Japan is an island nation. Its natural borders keep the population within a defined space. The culture also prizes homogeneity. Immigration is deterred, a cultural artifact from the Tokugawa era during which Japanese citizens couldn’t leave the country and foreigners couldn’t enter it without facing the death penalty. Another key point: Japan’s fertility rates are low. For whatever reason, the culture as a whole doesn’t prioritize having children. Combined with its attitudes toward immigrants, the overall demographic continually ages up.
But where does that leave people belonging to the younger generation? When companies protect the interests of its older employees, younger hires have no hope of advancement. Instead, they’re trapped in low-paying dead end jobs. This results in a generational malaise afflicting people in their 20s and 30s. Even if they don’t want to live the work-dominated lifestyles of their parents, they see no other viable options because Japanese corporate culture doesn’t support it. In fact, many young Japanese entrepreneurs make their mark in other Asian countries.
This social anxiety echoes throughout Attack on Titan. One of the biggest criticisms levied against Japan’s youth is that they lack the ambition of previous generations. But if the majority have no hope of advancement due to a corporate wall, why is that a surprise? In the manga, most people are content to live inside the walls. It’s safe. But as the manga’s protagonist, Eren, says, that’s like living in a cage. There’s no hope for something more. Eren, along with his allies, don’t accept this fate as easily. They fight against it actively.
Works do not happen in a vacuum. Context is king. If many dystopian recent YA novels reduce girls to property of men and convenient baby makers, then that is a reflection of the anxiety over womens’ rights in the U.S. If Attack on Titan bears eerie parallels to current events in Japan, that is hardly a coincidence.