ATTACK ON TITAN has all the pieces of an incredible anime experience. Incredible artwork, a mysterious story, and slash-and-hack action come together to form an addictive show. The series’ second season has just come to a dramatic close with more episodes coming in 2018. As we await Season 3, new facts have begun to reveal an elaborate picture of the ATTACK ON TITAN world. From the beginning, it’s been quite clear what the ultimate goal of society is: to save humanity from extinction. Throughout the journey toward that end goal, however, everything the humans have done to survive seems remarkably inhuman. ATTACK ON TITAN has crafted a narrative that challenges the conceptualization of ‘being human’.

Spoilers for ATTACK ON TITAN up to and including Season 2 follow.

No time was wasted in showing how horrible titans can truly be. In the beginning of Season 1, horrible images of humans being ripped apart took up the majority of each episode. In the latter half, we began learning the basis of the show’s society, but only in relation to titans. The focus was on how each individual contributes to combat. As a result, characters like Mikasa Ackerman and Levi Ackerman were glorified as titan slaying gods. Every major conflict revolves around killing titans. This primal violence goes against human nature and so do the systems that surround it.

The Brutal Survey Corps

There is a general understanding that the military’s Survey Corps is the underdog that is saving humanity. The Survey Corps has its faults; however, they are the best solution to the titan problem when compared to the other branches. The Military Police are corrupt, lazy fools that only guard the mansions of nobles and spending their days drinking and gambling. The Garrison is strong, but not strong (or brutal) enough. The Survey Corps is powerful but kills titans at a cost. The question most of the people ask is: was it worth it? It’s not clear whether a  recruit who trains for years, subsists on taxpayer money, then dies immediately is of value to their people.

Citizens clamor as the Survey Corps returns with heavy fatalities.

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Following each excursion beyond the walls, commander of the Survey Corps, Erwin Smith, leads the procession of spooked horses and bloodied soldiers. Each time he leaves, he knows he will return having lost over a third of his men. From the main character, Eren Yeager’s, childhood memories, we know that people call Erwin a useless commander. This happens especially when Erwin returns with half his soldiers missing.

As loyal viewers, we mainly saw the victories of each mission. Scenes like the capture of the female titan, Annie Leonhart, or the sealing of Trost gate got the most screen time. The show purposely doesn’t allow us to ask what the point of the slaughter is because we only see a small part of the main picture. We are stuck feeling the same unproductive feelings towards the titans as Eren and the rest of his society. Unfortunately, the bigger picture is hard to see when the focus is only on fighting.

Commoner’s Perspective

What if we looked at things from the perspective of the common citizen? They must give a portion of whatever they produce to maintain an army that dies within the span of a few hours. In return, they get some meager revelation that may or may not lead to the recovery of a wall that was breached with ease. When the Survey Corps produces zero results consistently, they are not truly contributing anything to humanity. Even the final mission of Season 1 ended in a stalemate when Annie hardened her skin beyond what the army could break apart.

In the commoner’s perspective, we also see a surprising lack of empathy. From the very first episode of the series, there was no reprieve from violent depictions of humans being ripped apart and swallowed. When Eren was eaten while defending Armin, he bears witness to a girl slowly dying within a titan’s stomach. Although most by no means ignore the deaths of others, ATTACK ON TITAN spends more screen time on someone’s death than the accompanying grief. I don’t recall any extravagant burial service, just massive pyres. In fact, we usually only hear the total deaths in post-mission reports or conversations. The people seem to live in a warped reality of denial as they cope with the bloodshed. They do this by continuing to have faith in the violent and narrow-minded agenda of the military.

Those Who Fail to Serve

The recruitment structure of the Military Police is one of the more blatantly flawed parts of the society seen in ATTACK ON TITAN. In each recruitment class, the top 10 can join the Military Police. This essentially means that the individuals most capable of killing titans are the only soldiers allowed to become lazy, drunken fools within the walls. This is obviously cruel towards those soldiers and the ones they could’ve saved. Unlike those who venture into titan territory, the Military Police Brigade deals with citizens and most have never even laid eyes on a real titan.

ATTACK ON TITAN soldier death
A titan easily defeats and gulps down a Military Police soldier.

Sadly, survival governs their actions. By living within the inner walls, the only risk of death is a breach. Those who watched Season 1 will remember that police abandoned citizens to save themselves. Of course, they seem like villains because of it, but their way of thinking makes sense. The chaos of breaches doesn’t allow the soft Military Police to be selfless.

In ATTACK ON TITAN, the majority of humans are, ultimately, selfish creatures. This generalization can be traced back to the opening crisis from Season 1. The colossal and armored titans broke through the outermost Wall Maria, exposing human-controlled territory to a titan infestation. With the breach of Wall Maria, refugees flooded into the safety of Wall Rose. A food shortage forced the Capital to give the refugees a choice. Either slave away on the farms or fight to reclaim the wall. 250,000 chose to fight and were slaughtered by titans. The ruling class, protected in the Royal Capital, does nothing to help the remaining refugees. For those who lived through that chaos, it’s just as good a reason to join the Military Police or Garrison.

Fighters for Humanity

The conviction and responsibility soldiers feel within them isn’t from some tremendous pursuit of justice. It’s an amalgamation of the twisted rage and sadness that builds up each time they watch a comrade suffer and die. Our common idea of what it means to be a hero, one that is shared with the ‘public’ in ATTACK ON TITAN, is associated with victory.

Ultimately, the Survey Corps isn’t a group that really saves anyone. The few that make it back alive are often too traumatized to move, and some (like Reiner and Bert) were traitors from the start. What they seek is either truth or some selfish revenge against the titans, neither of which is good for humanity. Eren, the protagonist, may seem like a hero for chomping on his palm and titan punching danger away. But he is just an angry soldier with the luxury of power. He is able to act on his rage and claim that it’s for humanity while turning into a titan (which is, ironically, the enemy of humanity). Those with strong resolve are able to survive, even if the root of that resolve is inherently selfish leads to inhumane acts. However, as a result of their survival, they are able to save the people.

ATTACK ON TITAN Eren and Reiner
Eren confronts Reiner after discovering he is the armored titan.

Just Following Orders

By shifting our perspective away from pure hindsight, the show effectively forces us to live out major events of the series in just as much ignorance as the main characters. This more or less means that we learn things when characters do, and our reactions are similar to theirs. If we knew who Reiner Braun and Bertholdt Hoover truly were from the very beginning, they would’ve been hated and relegated as enemies. What really allowed us to analyze their deceit was watching them slowly befriend the main characters. Allies transformed into enemies of humanity.

In shonen anime, villains usually have a sad backstory. They often clash with heroes on ideological differences or lead other decidedly evil people. Reiner, Bertholdt, Annie, and Ymir are the only humans we know (besides the man perched atop the beast titan) from beyond the walls. But none of them is the mastermind of the operation. Even when there’s a pitiable character, they’re usually accompanied by a truly evil person. In this case, that person is absent.

A Warrior’s Will and Opposition

For those who want to destroy the walls rather than save them, the situation is almost reversed entirely. Personal motivations are mostly cast aside in service of an unclear antagonist society. Reiner and Bertholdt are from the same ‘hometown’ as Annie, somewhere far away. The three of them seem to do everything for this hometown. Midway into these Shifters’ conversation with Eren and Ymir, Ymir reveals her life as a false member of a royal family, her sentence to life as a titan, and her subsequent awakening into her liberated human form. She is a from a similar place as them, but she is more in-between because of her liberation.

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For these humans from somewhere beyond the walls, ‘humanity’ is entirely different. It’s not really fair to call them evil because they are doing the exact same thing as the humans from within the walls. An enemy exists that threatens the society they call home, and they are tasked with fighting that society to stay alive. While we haven’t learned much about their home, it does seem just as inhumane (if not, more so).

While Reiner and Bertholdt acknowledge the depth of their inhumane crimes, they still continue them anyway. When eventually confronted for his crimes, Bertholdt exclaims that no one would do what they’ve done willingly. Just before the titans under Eren’s control converge on him and a transformed Reiner, Bertholdt begs to be found. His loyalty is to the hometown that he wishes to protect, making him about as human as everyone else. But despite that, he still considers his enemies his comrades.

Bertholdt begs his comrades to ‘find’ him.

Their Subsequent Breakdown

Reiner loathes his mission and unintentionally separated the killer within him from his moral self, leading to jarring panic attacks. He subconsciously wants all the violence to end, making his personalities conflate when he reveals his identity to Eren. He came to become so close to the soldiers he was secretly fighting against that he mentally couldn’t handle the degree of his actions. When we witness him struggling with this, he feels a lot more like a victim than some genocidal maniac.

Reiner’s personalities conflate and render him immobile.

In Berthodlt’s case, the reality is hardly any better. Unlike Reiner, Bertholdt constantly thinks about his crimes. He admits to Eren that he felt bad for the hundreds of thousands that lost their lives when he breached Wall Maria, but doesn’t show any indication of wavering. Despite understanding the severity of his actions, his resolve is strong. However, he feels the weight of that disconnect constantly. While not as visibly apparent as Reiner’s condition, the stress of his mission is all too clear in his lack of emotional response. Even when his fellow recruits screamed at him about his crimes, he remained calm for a long time. When he finally begins to yell in response, he doesn’t contest how horrible he is. Instead, he tries to get them to understand him.

Unforeseen Motives and Origins

The type of person these two are is a bit removed from what is a traditional villain. Actually, villain as a label makes little sense for the two of them. From their conversation with Ymir, we know that their survival is contingent upon continued success. They are fighting for interests just as selfish as the Survey Corps, and are perhaps even more committed to it. Reiner puts so much of himself into his mission that his mind tears apart. Bertholdt allows himself to fall into fearful apathy. Ymir is conflicted with what’s the best thing to do and mainly does things for the one she cares about the most.

Ymir being dragged away toward her exile as a titan.

The overarching theme here is one of assimilation and survival. When someone gave Ymir a false name and identity, she clung to it despite knowing it meant persecution and arrest. This is similar to how every soldier has to attach their identity to something in order to survive in the world of titans. Warriors like Reiner and Bertholdt fight for the mission and cling to each other desperately for support. Just like the humans in the wall, as well as Eren and those close to him, they do what they believe they have to do. Everyone fights over what’s best for humanity, but they are all doing things that are inhuman. And yet, these actions are justified because of how human they are.

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This constant clash of motivations and desires is exactly what makes the show fantastic. In a dystopian society, human nature is the main vehicle that moves things forward. This is a story that reminds us that humans aren’t that great, to begin with. The characters we see as heroes have motivations just as selfish as those we call villains. Truly, humanity is a mass of hopeless, selfish monsters who care only about self-preservation in the end, even if it means killing other humans to get it. On top of that, we now know that the main obstacle to humanity, the titans, have just been humans all along.

Now that we are just a bit closer to uncovering the truth behind titans and the walls, it’s become clear that there are more pieces to the story than I thought possible. Humans defend humans, titans protect soldiers, and now, titans attack titans. We’ve seen six Titan Shifters and have learned of something else beyond the walls. With the announcement of Season 3 starting just a year from now, fans have reason to celebrate. Eren’s new power to control titans gives hope that what’s left of humanity can survive and reclaim the land they lost without the usual bloodshed. As for whether the fight will set this world free or bring it crashing down on itself is something we’ll just have to wait until next year to see.

Featured image from Saiyanisland. All other images screenshotted from Crunchyroll.

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