Andrew Osmond hunts sneaky agendas in Studio WIT’s anime blockbuster
Here’s the thing. Is a hideous flesh-eating fantasy monster, like the Titans in Attack on Titan, ever just a hideous flesh-eating fantasy monster? An army of media studies teachers and political pundits say no. If the monster’s not a symbol for racial oppression (King Kong!) or class war (bourgeois-eating zombies!), then it’ll still reflect a politicised mindset, xenophobic, jingoistic, or subversive. Many people think politicians are monsters, so why not monsters with politics?
Attack on Titan has been accused of having a sneaky political agenda, one that it’s up to critics and otaku to decode. Perhaps the political antennae were raised by the anime title sequence. To be precise, we’re talking about the first title sequence, which is endlessly parodied online. It’s the creation of Studio WIT rather than Hajime Isayama, who wrote the manga, but it’s become a big part of Titan’s narrative image. And what does it show? Humanity under attack from grinning, revolting, dehumanised giants; a luridly stormy field of war; grim-faced young men and women clenching their fists in unison; then those same men and women hurtling at jet speed into battle, literally propelled by their extending cables. It all culminates in a brilliantly campy crescendo: screaming guitar riffs, gymnastically tumbling he-men, and clouds of soldiers raining from the heavens towards the foe.
Many pundits argue this kind of imagery is never innocent. Rather, it’s militarism sold by gung-ho and testosterone, a drug to keep the world at war. In Titan’s case, such arguments are magnified because of where and when the show comes from. After Japan ravaged its neighbours in the 1930s and 1940s, its post-war constitution included a ‘pacifist’ clause which specifically forbade Japanese soldiers from fighting overseas. Today, that clause is being challenged by Japan’s government, led by the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
According to a report in the Guardian last June, Abe’s rationale is that the pacifist clause ‘inhibits the country’s ability to protect itself and its allies, despite growing fears over North Korea’s nuclear programme and China’s aggressive territorial claims in the region.’ Abe argues the change in policy is purely defensive, to let Japan protect itself properly. However, the move has led to huge protests by Japanese citizens, including a shocking incident when a man set himself on fire at Shinjuku station. Meanwhile, countries such as South Korea and China have voiced concern at Abe’s actions; they speak for peoples who grew up on stories of what the Japanese did to their parents’ and grandparents’ generations in the war.
As one of Japan’s most popular manga/anime exports, Attack on Titan has come under scrutiny. The underlying suspicion is that it’s a call to arms for Japanese youngsters, teaching belligerence disguised as fantasy; that the horrible Titans really stand for China, Korea and other Asian nations; and that the show is hate propaganda. There was a particular heated online flamewar over one particular detail. One of the characters in Attack on Titan, an eccentric army general called Pyxis, was reportedly modelled on a historic general, Akiyama Yoshifuru. While Yoshifuru is most famous for fighting Russia in the 1900s (he died in 1930), netizens quickly deemed him a war criminal whose actions are covertly commended by Titan. There’s a snapshot of the flamewar here.
Of course, these arguments can seem built backward from the desired conclusion – namely, that Titan does show that Japanese nationalism and belligerence are on the rise. You could point out, for example, that what Titan is doing doesn’t seem particularly Japanese. Rather it seems universal. Hero fantasies have always dehumanised the ‘enemy’ into subhumans. In the past, they’ve used caricatures which were openly racist (the ‘Indians’ of yesteryear Westerns) or extremely dodgy, like the Orcs in Lord of the Rings, whom JRRR Tolkien described as ‘degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol types.’
Today, those racist origins are disguised, but whether you’re talking about Doctor Who’s Daleks, shambling movie zombies or videogame space invaders, you’re still talking about the same thing; enemies to be killed instantly, with joy at the rising death count and not the slightest flicker of conscience or sympathy. You can condemn this mindset, of course, like Hideaki Anno in some of the later TV episodes of Evangelion, or Hayao Miyazaki attacking the fantasies of Spielberg and Peter Jackson in Turning Point. However, it’s hard to see why Attack on Titan is worth singling out from a mass of shoot-em-up, burn-em-down, world pop culture.
What difference does it make that Titan is Japanese? It’s been suggested that Titan’s geared towards showing the supremacy of the group over the individual, about people building themselves into a fighting force. But that’s hardly special to Japan – umpteen stories from across the world, about wars real and imagined, have the same ethos. Nor is it especially borne out if you watch the Titan anime. Certainly the opening titles have a ‘strength through unity’ feel, like an anime Leni Riefenstahl, and there are many individual scenes that you can see as valorising the team. But there’s also – and we’re trying to spoil as little as possible here – a whole plot strand that feels like an intoxicating power fantasy. A single person, a commoner, transcends his or her peers, and gains huge powers that other people, including many in authority, are too small and stupid to appreciate. This hardly accords with ‘Japanese’ ethics, including the saying that the nail that stands up must be beaten down!
Quite simply, Titan, like many fantasies, has it both ways: images of individual heroics on the one side, images of comradeship and massed fighting teams on the other. It’s much the same mix as in Hollywood’s summer tent-poles, especially those with superheroes and Middle-Earth. Titan could have been easily set in a future Japan, but isn’t; instead the world has European trappings, and the anime version makes it distinctly Germanic. For all the efforts to map Titan’s world onto contemporary Japan, as this article tries here, the scenario in Titan seems little different from genre fantasies of the last half-century, where worlds are always in dreadful decline with falling resources, corrupted governors (like Denethor in Return of the King) and monsters from the outside beating down the walls.
Despite Miyazaki’s efforts, few youngsters in anime’s and manga’s target demographics dream of being pacifists and peacemakers. Hidenori Oyama of Toei Animation once described the appeal of Precure, a ‘magic girl’ anime franchise for girls aged three to eight. “Maybe I could become a Pretty Cure, and fight to protect my family!” And in such fighting fantasies, names and icons from national mythology are often repurposed, be they Britain’s King Arthur or Japan’s giant wartime battleship Yamato, which was transformed into a wondrous spaceship by Leiji Matsumoto. Yamato rarely seems to get accused of being part of a warmongering nationalist zeitgeist, maybe because the Internet wasn’t around back then.
And whatever you think about Prime Minister Abe, it is possible for an adult to conclude that Japan has to abandon its post-war pacifism, without being a John Milius-style right-winger. Two decades before Attack on Titan, Mamoru Oshii made the film Patlabor 2. It used an argument that Abe would never dream of trying on the public: that ‘peaceful’ Japan is an immoral tool created and used by America for its own wars of aggression. The point is also implicit in Blood: The Last Vampire (produced by Oshii), which is set on a ‘60s Japanese army air base, launching planes toward Vietnam. Even if Titan is covertly saying that Japan must stand on its own feet and protect itself, that doesn’t necessarily imply a nationalist agenda.
To answer the question from the start; the monstrous Titans may not just be mere monsters. However, the issues they raise and reflect seem much older, and far more universal, than the politics of the moment on one small island. Besides, we don’t even know how Titan ends yet! Imagine someone trying to decode the messages of Fullmetal Alchemist or Evangelion from the first sections of the respective stories; they’d get a shock! Heck, Isayama claims to have contemplated an ending to Titan where everyone dies…
Attack on Titan is available 15th September on UK Blu-ray and DVD from Manga Entertainment.