Last I gave a rundown of what I’m watching with one of those shows being Attack on Titan. A few discussions I’ve had about it have brought me back to a thought I’ve had before about media and narratives. Specifically it’s hard for me to take the idea that Attack on Titan is particularly dark. Not to say that it’s an upbeat show per se, but it’s hard to take the darkness very seriously in the context of the entire series. This in turn is related to the way that we tell stories in general. What do I mean by that? Well let’s dive in and start talking about television.
Let’s quickly summarize Attack on Titan as a starting point for our conversation. Humanity lives in safety behind walls while most of the Earth is covered by giant vaguely humanoid monsters known as Titans that like devouring humans. It’s been a stalemate for a hundred years and then the series kicks off with the Titans breaking through the wall in the prologue and then doing it again at the beginning of the series proper. Just from that summary alone we have stuff to analyze. First, the plot moves forward either by some seemingly convenient new deviant and/or superpower or humanity fighting back. By the appearance of the Female Titan it’s hard to not just throw up your hands in exasperation.* By the Raid on Stohess District arc it’s not really surprising that humanity attains a pyrrhic victory engineered by a spiteful universe. It’s hard to find it depressing when it happens every single time; an apt analogy would be Charlie Brown with the football.
The second element in play here is one that’s tied closer to the idea of a narrative more than anything else. The beginning of the story is a stalemate, and it’s hard to get invested in that opening set up as a springboard. Instead if you have a status quo that is quickly destroyed and pulls in the viewer. The setting at the beginning is neat, but you can’t really do much with it.
I could easily go on a litany about all the bad things that happen to characters in Attack on Titan and how they’re all horrible things. These things fall into three broad categories: 1. It happens during the Battle of Trost 2. It happens to one note characters 3. I’m actually going to talk about it in depth. I’m discounting the Battle of Trost on the grounds of how abnormal it is compared to the rest of the series.** The only one shot character whose death I care about is that of the Levi Squad and that was in part due to the nature of their death. That brings us to our third category: things I’m going to talk about in depth, specifically Eren’s mother’s death and the Mikasa sequence from the Battle of Trost.
The death of Eren’s mother does a lot of things from a narrative point of view. It does a large part in setting the tone of the series and gives Eren a more tangible goal than just go out beyond the walls. However the tragedy is undercut by Hannes statement that “you could not save your mother because you weren’t strong enough and I couldn’t save her because I lacked the heart”. This dual need for martial strength as well as the willpower to use is a key theme. The tragedy is used as a means to propel its characters to greatness instead of dwelling on it. The second scene to focus on is Mikasa’s sequence during the Battle of Trost. It’s arguably more dark as it showcases the sheer depravity of humanity and has a lot of unfortunate implications for human society. However the single line, “if you win you live, if you lose you die, if you don’t fight you can’t win” cuts through the scene like a knife and is also a very good summary of the show.
This sort of dichotomy between the bleakness of the setting and the characters fighting against the bleakness is a universal constant. It’s with the viewer from the beginning in the lyrics of the opening “Are you food/no, we are hunters…the dignity of starving wolves” It neatly summarizes the character growth of the 104th Trainee Corp as well as Pixis and Smith. While both Trost and Stohess are noted as having caused horrific casualties rates it doesn’t really mean much. First because most of that is offscreen; the main example in Stohess of civilian casualties is the Wall Cult church, which the viewer is all too happy to see destroyed. It also introduces very early on that “In order to fight against monsters, one must be willing to throw away their humanity” Quite frankly it doesn’t matter how many people die in these battles because it’s made very clear that the alternative is fleeing behind Wall Sina and extinction. Tied in with what I mentioned earlier that it’s hard to care about a lot of nameless or close to nameless mooks dying.
This brings us to the final point. For the series to truly be dark, someone in the main cast needs to die and the viewer needs to be convinced that their lives are in danger. So far there’s never really been a sort of fear for the character’s lives and I don’t expect that to change much in the near future. Why? Cause when you get down to it that’s just how stories work. Characters need to around in order for you to care when their lives are in danger but on the flip side it makes killing them an important thing that should be taken lightly. The result is that we kill off our protagonists sparsely and as a result it makes most threats to them less threatening and more set pieces that exist to be overcome.
So in conclusion, Attack on Titan might have some depressing window dressing, It’s a defiant, strong willed show about the need to fight and in that need to fight it isn’t so depressing anymore. Join me next week where I either talk about Solforge or review a boardgame.
*In a manner that isn’t that dissimilar from a jerk DM denying you victory at every possible turn.
**The Battle of Trost is a gritty somewhat war movie esque arc wherein Eren is nothing more than a secret weapon used to eke out a victory. The rest of the series in many ways is addressing the fact that Eren, and by extensions others, can become Titans and it changes into a far more shonen series. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it is different.