I watched the first two seasons of the anime, Attack on Titan and was quite impressed. It was the darkest and creepiest concept I’d seen since Berserk. The Japanese have an amazing eye for visual details in the natural world I never tire of whether it’s falling rain or cherry blossoms. That comes across strongly here too conveying visually both the sweetness and impermanence of our brief lives.
The basic premise is a great walled medieval city has been under siege by shambling giants for hundreds of years, as long as even ancestral legends can remember. Life has gone on normally inside the walls while only a handful of scouts have to deal with the harshness of the outside world. Then one day, a giant even taller than the walls peeks over at the terrified people below and everything goes to hell from there, complete with a breach in the wall.
We soon see these giants attacking the city itself, forcing the locals to retreat behind one inner wall after another as they are forced back.
The titans themselves are the most unsettling creatures I’ve seen since the titular Aliens with their chestburster larvae.
The Alien Xenomorphs are designed to appear as foreign as possible. The titans are possibly even more terrifying because of their familiarity. They look like very large, naked people at first but something is missing. They have vacuous facial expressions and their eyes are totally innocent like those of a baby. Even as they approach with mouths eagerly open and hands outstretched their pupils are dilated as though they may be friendly.
The human foolish enough to fall for this ploy is scooped up with a firm hand and promptly chopped in two by a great set of teeth, the hulking beast oblivious to their desperate pleading as they go in. If their whole body somehow goes down the Titan’s gullet without immediately debilitating blood loss, they get to perish in the steaming heat of the Titan’s stomach amidst a clutter of twisted corpses they are soon to join.
What’s more horrifying still is for all the titans’ hunger for humankind they don’t need the nourishment and periodically cough up “hairballs” of undigested human body parts. To add insult to injury the butchery to which they are single-mindedly devoted serves no apparent natural purpose.
I see this new Japanese Titan myth as a natural descendant of the African zombi myth that later became popular in the West.
Zombis were originally an allegory among African peoples for humans torn away from all family and identity by the slave trade, the living dead. In the modern West, zombies live on as atomized individuals in a post-Western atomized society where nobody cares about anyone else because all others are just adversarial competitors in the market economy whose main contribution to one another is to drive down each others’ wages.
The Japanese have one of the last, best societies on earth that is high trust and homogenous with low crime and world class health care and education. They have refused to have third world immigration on anywhere near the scale of other modernized societies preserving their ethnic domain and culture. The fertility rate is among the lowest in the world with a large and dysfunctional culture of incel outcast males but the Japanese have weathered population contractions before when hitting the very limited natural carrying capacity of their mostly mountainous, resource-poor island chain.
The variables that are different this time are those introduced by the modern neo-liberal capitalist economic system that pits all humans against one another in a fight to the death in a single grand arena.
The adversarial nature of man vs. man is the very core thesis of Attack on Titan. The overt adversaries resemble humans, but like zombies lack empathy or any trace of human spirit. Man vs. man is a strong direct theme in the series. As the humans are forced back by the Titans, there is less food and resources to go around, meaning much of the population becomes unsupportable surplus. At one point, the unimportant, the useless, and the old pretty much draw straws to go on a mass suicide offensive against the Titans so the rest don’t starve.
Furthermore, it is strongly hinted throughout that the central government of the great city is highly corrupt. To everyone’s astonishment, the most promising Titan fighters from boot camp are funneled away from the front lines to the government enforcers and secret police instead. Amidst an existential crisis of the entire species, scheming politicians are still up to no good. As if that were not enough, a religion of evangelical fanatics also vies for power and influence in the dying embers of the human world.
Even in the most dire circumstances, humans still engage in relentless zero sum games against a heavy backdrop of nihilism.
What is most shocking is this narrative comes from one of the best-off societies on the planet. Yet they too are consumed by the malaise and despair and decline that besets everywhere else.
History tells us there are sweeping trends that affect everywhere. A Japanese mercantile elite overthrew landed warrior aristocrats just like in the West when exposed to the same technology and pressures. They pursued a flavor of nationalism very similar to that in Europe and America at the time. The outcome was inevitable and so it is now.
Even if all the foreigners were instantly expelled from the United States, the intractable questions remain as we can see from the example of Japan. If these questions were answered, foreigners would be little threat and kept as powerless guest workers or expelled at will rather than function as a civilization-destroying political wedge.
Japan shows us that modernity poses a spiritual and cultural challenge that every 1st world country must deal with as roughly the same historical forces are in play from one end of the globe to another as it has been before.
Caught in a vice between attacking swarms of Titans and the backstabbing tendencies of our own treacherous kind, we seek a way towards a worthwhile future where people can cooperate again against common threats.
The society that figures it out first seizes the unclaimed prize. Or perhaps we all sink back into a great Dark Age.
8 replies on “Attack on Titan and Modernity”
>Even if all the foreigners were instantly expelled from the United States, the intractable questions remain as we can see from the example of Japan.
Blacker than the blackest black, times infinity.
If the picture you posted is representative then the Japanese think Caucasians are Titans. So I do an image search and some of the Giants look like monsters and some like Caucasians. The villagers look like typical stylized anime. Somewhat Japanese.
I admire the Japanese but they are in trouble. I agree with their not packing the country with immigrants but they are losing a lot of people. They also have no resources and their ability to use Mercantilism to keep the economy going is becoming a less valid trading option. We should have made that clear around the time of Reagan or before as they’ve been raping our industry for decades. I think the change now is because after Japan even the most idiotic free trader can see we will never survive more of the same from China. I really don’t get what the Chinese are doing because if Trump doesn’t flinch then a trade war can only strengthen the US. It’s already happening. Plants are being built in the US and since our wages have declined so much and automation makes up for even more, once they come here I doubt they will leave for a long, long time.
It’s not unusual for anime characters to barely look Japanese at all. In the case of Attack on Titan, it’s consciously set in a Medieval European kind of setting where most of the characters have German-sounding surnames. The titan fighters are even called Jaegers, a German word for “hunter” that seems to have become popularized in Japanese culture. The Kaiju-fighting mechas in Pacific Rim are known by the same name.
Only some of the main characters look Asian and they are explicitly referred to as some of the last Asians on earth as far as anyone in that city knows.
I have long supported a foreign policy of reducing the US grip on Japan and South Korea to cultivate them as strategic allies against Chinese expansion while thawing relations with Russia to keep them surrounded and contained within their historical borders.
“…I have long supported a foreign policy of reducing the US grip on Japan and South Korea to cultivate them as strategic allies against Chinese expansion while thawing relations with Russia to keep them surrounded and contained within their historical borders…”
I agree also. There is a problem though. The Mercantilism of Japan and Korea has really hurt our industry. By protecting their home markets they also are able to ramp up volume and become the low cost provider in many other countries. Without a protected home market they would be less able to do so. Something I’ve never heard anyone talk about but I think about frequently is what if Japan and Korea join with China. Everyone seems to see this as so odd I’ve never even seen it mentioned. We’re kind of stuck. If we stop Japans abuse of trade, notice Japan is NOT getting the high tariffs that China is, then they may decide to bury the hatchet with China. Then we have the perfect North-South planetary axis of struggle.
Just after I said I hadn’t heard others say Japan could join China I start seeing all kinds of people saying that. Including Samuel Huntington in his book “The Clash of Civilizations”, (which I haven’t read). It’s odd how things like that happen. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned my thoughts about Japan and China being allies before and now I start seeing it.
If you enjoyed AOT you will enjoy Muv-Luv Alternative. The manga explicitly shows MLA in some of its chapter-opening splash pages, and the author has stated that MLA was a primary inspiration.
Titans = Islam
The Fortress wall = Chesteron’s Fence
The First titan to peer over the wall = The FrankFurt school
Evangelical Fanatics = Leftist Progs
Corrupt Government = Deep State
Hmmm, Rich Similes. Not sure if the Japs intended them. Maybe Not.
I’ve read your essay several times. It’s a big subject. It fits in very well with the cyclic theory of history which even the Greeks talked about so this is not new. I wonder what exactly can be done about it? What are the causes? Some ideas. As society matures it starts boxing in humans. Especially males. I saw a documentary the other day about some people who live in California in the desert. They live in a sort of ramshackled way in the middle of nowhere. Apparently someone wants their land so the inspection department has been going out and fining these people basically to bankrupt them so their land can be grabbed. It’s total bullshit. One of the guys they are harassing nearest neighbors are ten miles away. There was a guy who made a super cool looking pole house from used telephone poles that they told him he couldn’t live in. I wonder if this is not a big factor. The people at the top, possibly money and power crazed, move up and crush everyone that won’t be controlled beneath them. In turn people just refuse to propagate and refuse to produce more that will just be swept up by these greedy bastards. Better to just coast and give them nothing to take. Africa is a big example. When someone reaches the top there they just take everything they can such that the whole system falls to dust. I think it was Francisco Macias Nguema (EQUATORIAL GUINEA, or one of the other African dictators, who decimated so much of the infrastructure that at one time all he had left was one lone riverboat. When that died he had nothing.