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.