On the surface, Attack on Titan seems to be a simple story of Eren and the Survey Corps leading a fierce defense of humanity at any cost against the threat of the Titans—but such an interpretation misses the show’s message of questioning traditional ideas of Japanese heroism and sacrifice.
I’m Yotsuba&Tochan (Y&T), and today I want to talk about why I think Attack on Titan’s depiction of heroism is far more complex and compelling than it appears on a cursory viewing. I want to help you understand the historical and cultural underpinning of ideas about Japanese heroism, and how those can help you better appreciate the show’s themes and message.
*Warning: Includes Spoilers from Attack on Titan S1 - S2E36*
Attack on Titan features two heroic protagonists—Eren Yeager and Mikasa Ackerman—who respectively symbolically represent two different contrasting views of Japanese heroism.
Eren personifies traditional Japanese heroism. Traditional Japanese heroism emphasized self sacrifice in pursuit of an ideal, especially willingness to undertake suicidal task.
An archetypal heroic incident in Japanese history and popular culture is Benkei’s last stand.
Musashibo Benkei is a historical warrior monk, on the shortlist of every Japanese kid’s list of historical heroes. A reknown warrior that served loyally in the 12th century civil wars, his most famous heroic moment is undoubtedly his death.
Benkei’s master was cornered and outnumbered—Benkei stands alone at the gate to his master’s manor as thousands of enemy soldiers surround the manor. Benkei is tasked with protecting his master from being killed by a common soldier, so his master can commit a more honorable ritual suicide.
Benkei strode out slashing left and right, cutting down his enemies despite being utterly outnumbered. The enemy samurai chose to shower Benkei with arrows, since they could not defeat him in hand to hand combat.
Legend has it that Benkei was struck by innumerable arrows, yet he continued to stand defiantly at the gate. Puzzled that any man could survive being struck by so many arrows, some samurai fearfully approached closer to see what was happening. It was only then that the Samurai realized Benkei had died standing up.
This model of the heroic warrior fighting knowing death and defeat is imminent, but choosing to go forwards for loyalty, or honor, or for ideals is arguably THE archetypical Japanese hero.
Other examples in Japanese history include people like Sanada
Yukimura, who charged (almost successfully) an enemy that outnumbered him 3 to 1 in fanatical loyalty to his liege lord in the 17th century.
manor of a high government official to avenge their master’s death—fully planning to commit ritual suicide (seppuku) after their success, knowing they will be ordered to be executed.
These figures are so famously a part of the Japanese idea of
“what is a hero” that they have repeatedly been the subject of pop culture works in film, television, manga, anime, and more.
The Survey Corps is very much an extension of this model of heroism. The motto of the Corps “心臓を捧げよ” (Shinzo wo Sasageyo) has been translated as “Dedicate All Your Hearts.” However, in the Japanese “sasageyo” carries a deeper dual meaning—it can mean, to dedicate, or to give up as a sacrifice, or to serve up to a higher power or ideal. Literally it could be translated “Sacrifice Your Hearts,” or even “Sacrifice Your Lives,” a dual meaning that would be readily obvious to a Japanese viewer.
However, Attack on Titan does not present this view of heroism without a critical eye, and actively and subtly asks the viewer to question and critique it through it’s narrative structure.
A singular important historical event led the Japanese to deeply question this view of heroism. The cultural idea of “beautiful death in demonstration of loyalty” was taken to its gruesome logical end point by the Fascist Japanese government in World War II.
Despite defeat staring Japan in the face, both in an overall context and on individual battlefields, the Militaristic Regime hailed death in service of the nation as a beautiful thing.
Wartime propaganda hailed as heroes those engaging in suicidal charges on the enemy, called Banzai Charges by the Americans. Propaganda began using the euphemism “Gyokusai” (‘shattered jewel’) to describe a garrison that was killed down to the last man, to give the horrifying concept a veneer of heroic resistance and beautiful death.
Finally, the military regime organized volunteer suicide attack plane wings that hurled themselves futilely at the overwhelming power of the American fleet, forever remembered as the Kamikaze. While incomprehensible to many Americans, the Kamikaze attacks very neatly fit into the Japanese traditional ideals of facing certain death in a heroic moment of absolute loyalty, as a beautiful and heroic death. And so hundreds, and later thousands of Japanese pilots flew these one way literal suicide missions.
After unconditional surrender, and the depths of the depravity and evil of the Imperial Japanese Government was made obvious to the Japanese public after the end of state censorship, a deep and enduring backlash to traditional idealization of heroic death began in the 1950s and 60s in popular culture.
This post-war era questioning of the traditional ideals of heroism are personified in Attack on Titan by Mikasa Ackerman. Her character fits with a new idealism of the model of a hero that emerged in the post-war era. She is brave, but pragmatic, valuing family over all other considerations.
Out of struggle with the national moral responsibility from wartime atrocities, a new generation of artists, film makers, and yes, manga-ka and animators began expressing a deep aversion to traditional heroism, which had so effectively been exploited by militarists. Many liberal artists began arguing that this traditional idea of heroism was what led TO militarism, thus is a dangerous idea in itself. Therefore, they began pushing heroic figures that explicitly argue against the value of self-sacrificial heroism that undervalues one’s own life—that life is valuable, and should be protected.
In this scene, Nagi wants to chase the ideal of capturing the Phoenix even at the risk of his life, Sarudahiko (the wise/buddhist father figure) warns him that chasing hopeless ideals is not as important as the quiet happiness of everyday contentment and survival is more important. Essentially, arguing against the traditional heroic ideal—that human life is more important than chasing some ephemeral ideal, that death is NOT beautiful, but ugly.
This critique of traditional idealization of glorified military death is made even more explicit in “Oi-naru Kan” (Kan the Great), by Motomiya Hiroshi (1983). The manga features a scene where the protagonist, Kan, is drafted during WW2.
Kan clearly expresses his fear and horror of being conscripted, never expressing an iota of patriotism or duty. He instead departs to war shouting to his friends “no matter what happens, even if it means needing to eat human flesh to survive, I’m going to survive and come home”—the tone of the scene indicates clearly Kan is depicted as a hero faced with an obstacle.
But Kan’s heroic aim is clearly indicated as “survival” as opposed to accomplishing any heroic ideal or living out loyalty. This shifting from “dying for an ideal” to “living so I can accomplish what really matters in my personal life” was a radical departure from traditional depictions of heroes. Such themes can be seen in numerous other works, like Master Keaton (1988 – Urasawa Naoki); Astroboy (1952 – Tezuka Osamu); and many more.
Mikasa’s priorities appear clearly in line with these new types of heroes that cast doubts on the traditional self-sacrificing archetype of Japanese hero. She repeatedly stresses that her priority is “not to lose any more of her family” and protect Eren.
The show takes pains to distinguish Mikasa’s priorities from the selfish self-preservation of some of the cowardly Garrison and Military Police soldiers that showed willingness to abandon others to their deaths. Mikasa clearly shows and demonstrates a willingness to risk her life for others—however, the show also distinguishes her from Eren’s blind idealism.
For these reasons, to Mikasa, a suicidal mission by Eren is unacceptable because her ultimate goal is to protect her family. This end-goal and the cost she is willing to accept makes her clearly distinguished from Eren—and by extension, from traditional Japanese ideals of self-sacrificial heroism.
This attitude can be summed up by Mikasa’s comment to Historia and Ymir (E36 S2 “Charge” at 9:08) where she states there are a limited number of people who’s lives she can work to save, and implying she will kill Ymir and Historia if they try to stop her from saving Eren.
Attack on Titan goes beyond simply presenting two characters with contrasting motivations for their heroism.
The show consciously leads the viewer to both consider and question the beauty of traditional heroic ideals through its narrative structure. Take, for example, S1E13: Primal Desires - The Battle for Trost (9).
What makes S1E13 a particularly compelling episode in Attack on Titan isn’t simply the fantastically animated action sequences or rousing voice acting. It makes a compelling succinct 24 minute exploration of the meaning of heroism through it’s narrative structure. The episode takes the first half to make a rousing showcase of Japanese traditional heroism, then takes the 2nd half to lead the viewer to question, or at least see the rousing talk of sacrifice in a far more complex light.
To recap, Wall Rose’s gate has been destroyed by the Armored Titan, and Eren and the Survey Corps are desperately trying to plug the gate. Eren (in Titan form) has been tasked with carrying a giant boulder through the town to plug the destroyed gate—but Eren is defenseless from the many Titans already inside the city while carrying the heavy object.
In a moment of pure adrenaline pumping heroic desperation, Ian Dietrich (a Garrison Corps elite soldier) orders “suicide runners’ to distract Titans on foot—despite the actions being certain death.
(Scene: 8:34 at S1E13 )
Eren even explicitly says in a voiceover (to paraphrase), to chase the ideals of freedom that we are born with, no matter how strong those who stand in the way are, we’ll fight, we’ll fight—even as the action in the background shows Ian and many other solders’ gruesome deaths as a consequence of their decision.
The rousing music, the chilling visuals, and the clear bravery clearly are designed to emphasize the incredible heroism of Ian, Mitabi, and the others that ran the suicide mission to clear the path for Eren to plug the hole in Wall Maria—and these self-sacrificial actions fit very easily within the traditional Japanese idea of heroic sacrifice.
However, I found it very interesting that the Season 1 director, Araki Tetsuro, chose to place this rousing “conclusion” –Eren dropping the boulder in place to block Wall Maria – at the 12:37 mark of a 24 minute episode. The episode does not end on the high note of Eren and the Survey Corps victorious—in fact, nearly the full last 1/3 of the episode (minutes 16 – 24) are devoted to the costs of this idealism, punctuated by Jean’s discover of Marco’s corpse.
By placing the cathartic moment of Eren and humanity’s victory at the midpoint of the episode, the director gives the viewer time cool down and to question and appreciate the complexity of the costs for the actions. Mikasa is overjoyed, to an extent by Eren’s success, but more than anything by the fact Eren survived. But as other soldiers are collecting bodies of their comrades, you see clearly many, many people were no so lucky, and gives structure and depth to the viewer’s assumption that Eren’s statement (“at any cost”) is something they agree with, or should agree with—in parallel to modern Japanese society’s historical struggles with its ideas of what constitute hero-figures.
Similar issues are explored with the presentation of Levi Squad in S1E14 – 18.
Levi squad is presented as the elite soldiers of the Survey Corps, and Eren obviously highly respects and admires them. Furthermore, each soldier (especially Petra and Oruo) are depicted with strong characterization, as more than just generic “heroic soldier for Eren to admire” with personality quirks that are likable.
Thus, when these soldiers are killed by the female Titan, it again serves to emphasize that it’s not only a heroic death in service of a higher purpose. It is a heroic death... but at the cost of the loss of unique, interesting and likable human being.
This theme continues into Attack on Titan Season 2, for example in the death of Miche Zacharius, Season 2 Ep. 1 “Beast Titan,” where Miche heroically offers to stay behind and face down numerous Titans, and as he peels off from the rest of the group, Gelgar implores the rest of the squad to keep faith in Miche’s survival.
Heroism and ideals then come to reality, as Miche is torn to peaces while screaming desperately “No, please stop!” in one of the more horrific deaths in AoT.
Indeed, the show’s gruesome and violent deaths almost always seem to serve this thematic purpose. I struggle to remember any deaths to civilian or non-combatants that are depicted in these types of gruesome ways—it is always a heroic soldier, usually after a moment of bravery and desperation, who’s cost of heroism is being depicted through the brutality—being eaten alive while screaming in pain, or begging the Titan to stop, or just repeating “No.” (also see Nanaba and Gelgar’s deaths E29 (S2) “Soldier”).
Although the most obvious dramatic tension in the show revolves around the epic battles with the Titans and the mystery around Eren’s origins, much of what makes Attack on Titan truly compelling is actually built very consciously around the questions the show poses around “what is heroism” and “what should be the goals of heroes?” In this context, the show’s extreme violence is not gratuitous, but used to further these themes.