Though conservatives have tried mightily to act on the late Andrew Breitbart’s admonition that “politics is downstream from culture,” too often it has been with less-than-impressive results. The forays of conservatives into the arts, especially, seem only to earn them ridicule for attempting to compete with the decisively Left-dominated cultural outlets in America.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising, then, to hear that the most unapologetically conservative and anti-Left cultural critique of our time comes not from the American Right, or even from America at all. Instead, this powerful deconstruction of one of the Left’s biggest cultural narratives—the myth that white people are responsible for all racial ills in society and must pay via “racial justice”—comes from the world of Japanese manga and anime.
Tearing Down Walls
Shingeki no Kyojin—or as it is known by its more famous English translation, Attack on Titan—is something that should be seen, first and foremost, because it is an excellent story in every way possible.
The series was recommended to me by a friend who was careful to point out that it can be enjoyed by those who normally do not care for the genre of anime. Indeed, just as The Dark Knight brought in millions of movie-goers who normally couldn’t care less for comic book movies, so too has Attack on Titan drawn in millions of readers and viewers around the world. The original manga series upon which the anime is based has sold over 100 million copies worldwide since it was first released in 2009. It is a nearly flawless series, complete with heart-pounding action sequences, high-quality animation, intricate writing, complex character development, an amazing soundtrack, and incredible voice acting.
The series revolves around what appears to be the last remnants of the human race, a civilization that lives within three gargantuan walls that protect them from the outside world. Beyond the walls roam countless numbers of Titans—humanoid giants who hunt and eat humans—and who are believed to have killed off the rest of humanity. The story follows three childhood friends who eventually join the military, and are determined to travel beyond the walls, see the outside world, and find out whether or not they truly are the last humans alive.
But while the anime’s first three seasons drew in millions of fans for its beautifully crafted story, compelling characters, and whirlwind of emotional twists and turns, its fourth and final season (which is still ongoing) has taken advantage of its newfound international popularity to spread one of the most important socio-political messages of our time. (Spoilers are ahead, for those who might be interested in watching the series for themselves first).
Based on a True Story?
The main characters soon discover that they are not the last of humanity, but are in fact isolated on an island called Paradis, which is cut off from the rest of the world. And for good reason: The rest of the world wants to wipe them out.
They find out that they are members of a unique race known as Eldians, who all have the capacity to permanently transform into Titans if they receive an injection of Titan spinal fluid; and a very select few, including the main protagonist Eren Yeager, are capable of transforming at will and as many times as they want, with the ability to use their Titan powers to fight their enemies before reverting back to their human form.
Roughly a hundred years before the start of the series, the Eldian people ruled over most of the world by weaponizing the power of the Titans, while at the same time using their powers to introduce new inventions and innovative techniques that brought prosperity and security to those under their rule. But some nations nevertheless were fearful of their power and formed a massive coalition to oppose and eventually overthrow them. The Eldian king and a handful of the Eldian people were forced to flee to the island of Paradis, where they took refuge behind their walls and, over time, completely forgot about the outside world. Even despite their self-imposed isolation and bliss, the remaining nations of the world are united in their determination to eventually invade the island and wipe out all remaining Eldians.
The only other surviving Eldians were left behind on the mainland, under the rule of the rival nation of Marley. It is here, introduced early on in the fourth season, that clear and unnerving historical parallels arise. The Eldians living in Marley are forced to live in segregated and guarded ghettos, where they must all wear armbands with star symbols on them; they are occasionally permitted to leave their ghettos, but doing so all but guarantees that they will be scorned, spat upon, and even beaten by the citizens of Marley. Sound familiar?
But the similarities do not end with World War II. The Eldians who live within Marley are faced with indoctrination from birth, mandated by the Marleyan government and directly facilitated by their own families and friends. They are taught history lessons about how “evil” their race is, and how they were responsible for years of oppression and imperialism. They are commanded to disavow their own ancestors and atone for the collective sins of their entire race, so that they may become “honorary Marleyans.” Sound even more familiar?
Some Eldians living in Marley have formed a resistance movement called The Restorationists. Any Eldians who are discovered to be resistance members are sentenced to be injected with the spinal fluid, transformed into Titans unable to revert back to human form, and are released into the wild on the island of Paradis, where they will mindlessly roam and eat their fellow Eldians. Once news of this systematic oppression reaches the Eldians on Paradis, the island is overtaken by an extremely nationalist sentiment, led by Yeager, determined to free the oppressed Eldians and exact their revenge on Marley and the rest of the world.
An Eye for an Eye
There is one especially powerful scene that captures the moment these two worldviews collide. Two brainwashed Eldian children from Marley, Gabi and Falco, eventually end up on the island of Paradis after an attack on their hometown, and are forced to try to blend in with the island’s free Eldian inhabitants. They are taken in by a foster family in which one of the girls, Kaya, eventually discovers their true identity as Marleyans.
Instead of turning on them, Kaya instead takes them to the ruins of her family’s old home, where her mother was killed and eaten by a Titan years before (a moment that was actually shown, in all its brutality, earlier in the series). Standing in the very room where she, as a traumatized young girl, witnessed her mother being eaten alive, Kaya asks them why their people are determined to wipe out everyone on the island.
Gabi, the more overzealous of the two, starts reciting the same propaganda that has been drilled into her head for years without a second thought. She rants about how the Eldians—a race of which she is ashamed to be a member—have oppressed and killed many people for thousands of years. Kaya simply responds by asking multiple rhetorical questions: What crime did my mother commit? Who did my mother kill? Why did my mother deserve such a horrible death as revenge for something she was never involved in?
Despite Gabi’s best efforts to repeat the talking points that she has been indoctrinated with, she finds that there simply is no answer to Kaya’s questions. She never admits to being wrong, or concedes that Kaya may have a point; she simply remains silent. But the horrified look in her eyes says it all, as she realizes that her entire worldview is crumbling right before her eyes in the most emotionally visceral way imaginable.
How to Deconstruct a Narrative
The rather obvious similarities between the story’s latest overarching message and the ongoing racial debate in the United States was not lost on many viewers. The genius of the decision to wait until now to implement this theme is that, after spending the entirety of the series up to this point watching the story unfold through the perspective of the Eldians within the walls, the sudden introduction of the hostile and vengeful outside forces naturally leads most viewers to sympathize much more with the Eldians than with the Marleyans, even though it was the Eldians who once ruled over the world.
Many viewers naturally agreed with Kaya’s stance over Gabi’s, that all the talk of “oppression” and “imperialism” means absolutely nothing when those living today had no part in past transgressions. And it is because of this that many viewers had no trouble admitting on social media that this example helped them realize the flaws in the Left’s similar narrative today in America. Because they had spent so much time watching and growing with the characters who now find themselves facing accusations of centuries of “systematic oppression,” most viewers were reluctant to suddenly change allegiances just to align with a dominant political narrative in our world.
And yet, at the same time, the series does make an effort to understand the Marleyans’ perspective as well; many of them, like Gabi and Falco, were children who didn’t know any better when this propaganda was being forced down their throats. The Eldians of Paradis, to them, were distant enemies on a faraway island, separated from the rest of the world by an ocean and three massive walls. It was all too easy for them to think of these people as “demons” and “devils” without hesitation. Only when standing face-to-face with Eldian families, innocent women and children, do they finally understand that these, too, are people just like them.
Attack on Attack on Titan
This devotion to nuance, rather than simply portraying one side as bad and the other as good, makes this most recent season and its message all the more powerful. It not only conveys the futility and injustice of racial vengeance for past transgressions, but it also shows that making an effort to understand each other can do far more than anything else to heal such deeply rooted racial tensions. What’s even more significant is that this message is being taught to an audience consisting primarily of Millennials and Generation Z, the youngest and most liberal generations alive today.
So, naturally, the Left has wasted no time in attacking this series despite its global popularity. Various articles have accused the series of Nazi- and fascist-sympathizing, for its efforts to portray the Marleyans as somewhat justified in their brainwashing efforts, and for allegedly drawing parallels between the rule of the Eldian people and the theory of Jewish global domination. Others have even gone so far as to declare that the series is now a “favorite” among the alt-Right and “White nationalists.”
Attack on Titan is coming under attack for many of the same reasons that the media went after the movie Joker, released in 2019. As I described in my review for that masterpiece of filmmaking, the media rushed to claim, with zero evidence, that it would inspire mass shootings and other acts of violence. This was done, most simply, because the film did more than any other film that year to deconstruct another favorite narrative of the Left: The notion that only the wealthiest and most powerful are to blame for our societal decline. Instead, the film pointed its finger at society as a whole, recognizing that every single person, from the wealthiest to the poorest, is somewhat responsible for the decline in civility that is dragging us to the point that we do not even see others as fellow human beings anymore, and which can easily turn normal people into savages.
Attack on Titan is another example of a disturbing cautionary tale, turning the idea of “racial justice” for “historical oppression” right on its head. It not only warns that the oppressed can easily become the oppressors, but that aggressively trying to punish the people of today for sins of the past can end up turning otherwise indifferent people into the “devils” that their antagonizers portray them to be.
Like Joker, all it asks of the viewer is that we all try to return to civility and treat one another with dignity, respect, and compassion, regardless of our individual situations and various histories. Violence only begets violence, and hate only begets hate. Until that cycle is broken, our civilization will only continue to devolve into increasingly violent racial conflict, where the inevitable end result is complete and mutual annihilation of all sides. If we are allowed to get to that point as a society, then we might as well be eating each other alive, being no better than the mindless Titans.