CONTENT AND SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses the series Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) and includes mention of conflict, war, sexual violence and some graphic violence.
Hello, and welcome to the first in a series of blog posts about my research into how popular media aimed at children and young adults’ can influence their habits of visualising war and peace. The first text I will be focusing on will be Attack on Titan[i] and my blog posts showcasing my research will be structured as follows:
- A Brief History of Attack on Titan (this blog post) will aim to give enough information about the world and the story of Attack on Titan for those unfamiliar with the series. This blog has little in the way of actual analysis and is meant as a summary and cheat sheet for those who have not previously engaged with the text.
- Survival of the Fittest, Not the Nicest will introduce a theoretical framework that helps to understand how characters in Attack on Titan think about violence. I will focus on events in the beginning and middle of the manga demonstrating how characters act in the conflict they’re in.
- Ending on A Low Note will explore how one can interpret the ending of the main conflict in Attack on Titan. I will investigate how it portrays the actions taken by the main cast of characters, the ethical ambiguities surrounding them, and what key messages manga creator and artist Isayama may be keen to convey.
- And They All Lived Happily Ever… will focus on peace building and the conclusion of the manga series after the ending of conflict. Peace-building post conflict is explored relatively little, but there is some consideration throughout the main conflict narratice as to how it will end. I will look at how Isayama conceives of peace in the relatively little space he gives to it in the manga.
Introducing Attack on Titan
The world of Attack on Titan operates much like our own with some key differences. People are born and die in similar ways. Physics (save for some creative liberties for the purposes of entertaining action sequences) act the same. From what the reader is shown, the world looks very much like an alternate version of our world. The key differences that I will focus on are as follows:
- The existence of Titan superpowers
- Geographical differences
- Historical differences
In this blog post I will go through these differences to provide a useful, if imperfect, knowledge base to help readers understand my subsequent blog posts about the manga. After highlighting these differences, I will then provide a summary of the relevant characters and plot points. Please note: this manga is a very dense text with roughly 6000+ pages of comics told in a non-chronological manner, frequently switching perspectives between a big cast of different characters. Below, I have linked some resources that I have found or used in creating this blog, which readers might enjoy diving into to learn more about the manga.[ii]
The existence of Titan superpowers
By far the biggest difference that a newcomer to Attack on Titan must grapple with is the existence and nature of Titans. [iii]
Titans are giant humanoid creatures that range in height from roughly 3 to 60 metres tall. They are creatures that do not procreate like other beings (they even lack genitals) and they appear “to violate several known laws of science” with their physiology.[iv] Their bodies are incredibly light in terms of weight, they run at quite high temperatures, they do not need to breathe to survive, and they have incredible regenerative abilities, able to regrow virtually their entire bodies so long as their nervous system is intact.[v] Hence, the most effective way to kill a Titan is to sever their brain’s connection to the rest of their nervous system by attacking their nape behind their neck. While Titans are clearly very distinct from a typical human, each Titan has in fact evolved from a race of people known as ‘Eldians’, or ‘The Subjects of Ymir’, who have the ability to transform into Titans.
The Titans originated from a young girl named Ymir who lived roughly 2000 years before the main events of Attack on Titan and who acquired these powers after falling into a mysterious tree.
Ymir was a slave who was under the control of King Fritz, the King of the Eldian empire, and after it was revealed that Ymir had this power King Fritz took Ymir as his wife and used her to expand and strengthen his empire. As a result of Ymir’s Titan powers, the Eldian empire was able to defeat Eldia’s main rival, the neighbouring nation of Marley. To ensure the continued strength of the empire, King Fritz had three daughters with Ymir. Then “thirteen years after acquiring the power of the Titans, Ymir died… King Fritz then forced his daughters to eat their mother’s corpse in an attempt to preserve the power of the Titans”.[vi] This initiated a cycle where the descendants of Ymir were forced to reproduce, and upon their deaths have their children consume their parent’s spinal fluid to pass down the power of the Titans.
After the death of Ymir, her Titan power was split into nine unique Titans. Over the next 2000 or so, from Ymir’s death to the main events narrated in the manga, the Nine Titans were used by Eldians to expand the Eldian Empire. Each time one of the inheritors of the Nine Titans died or were about to die, their spinal fluid would be consumed by another Eldian to transfer the power of the Nine Titans. This process also transferred the memories of the previous inheritors of the Nine Titans. If their spinal fluid wasn’t consumed, a new-born Eldian would then be born at the time of their death and inherit the powers instead. Since Ymir only lived for 13 years with her Titan powers, each inheritor of one of the Nine Titans can only live for 13 years after inheriting their powers. A brief description of each of The Nine Titans is below: [vii]
As well as the Nine Titans, Subjects of Ymir are also able to be transformed into a different type of Titan distinct from the Nine Titans. Isayama dubs these titans as “Pure Titans”, and they are Subjects of Ymir that have been transformed into a Titan via the abilities of other Titans (e.g. the Founding Titan’s ability to transform others into a Titan) or through intaking a concoction made from another Titan’s spinal fluid. Pure Titans are like those seen in Fig 1.1, and range in size from roughly 2 to 15 metres. They make up the majority of the Titans seen in Attack on Titan and are generally unintelligent, but there are some abnormal Pure Titans capable of coherent thought or even speech.
The geography of the world of Attack on Titan is an alternate version of our own world. The main events of the manga take place on the island of Paradis and the neighbouring nation of Marley.
Paradis and Marley seem to be vaguely based on real-world Europe, with many of the characters having “Germanic names”.[viii] There also exists a nation paralleled to Japan, the nation of Hizuru. Whilst other nations are referenced that seem to parallel our own world’s political geography, these mentions are brief. The main places of relevance to the story are Paradis Island and the nation of Marley.
After the founding of the Eldian Empire by King Fritz roughly 2000 years before the main events of the manga, this colonial supremacy continued across the world. Roughly 100 years before the main events of the manga a descendant of the original King Fritz, named Karl Fritz, became the new monarch of the Eldian empire and inherited the powers of the Founding Titan. After inheriting the monarchy and the Founding Titan powers, he was ashamed of the colonial actions of the Eldian Empire committed against the wider world, and so he orchestrated a civil war (The Great Titan War) that dissolved the Eldian empire.
The result of The Great Titan War left the Eldian empire dissolved and King Karl Fritz left with most of the Eldian population to the island of Paradis. He then transformed a large portion of the Eldian population into 60-metre-tall Titans like the Colossal Titan that use hardening together to form protective walls for the Eldians on Paradis.
Before leaving for Paradis, King Karl Fritz left a warning to the world that if the Eldians on Paradis were provoked “The tens of millions of Titans that sleep inside the walls will surely flatten the entire Earth”.[ix] This threat became known as the Rumbling. However, the Rumbling cannot be activated by a member of the Fritz royal family, because they all inherit King Karl Fritz’s memories, and these memories prevent them from using the Rumbling. Hence, a Founding Titan of non-royal blood must come into physical contact with another Titan of royal blood to initiate the Rumbling.
Once on Paradis King Karl Fritz used his powers as the Founding Titan to alter the memories of all the Eldians on Paradis to make them believe that they are the last remnants of humanity trapped within the walls to protect them from Pure Titans that had destroyed the rest of humanity. This is what the Eldian characters on Paradis believe for the first half of the manga and they establish a militarily centred government. This society forms three branches of government: the Military Police, the Garrison, and the Survey Corps. The Military Police maintains order within the walls on Paradis, the Garrison protects the walls, and the Survey Corps are charged with exploring beyond the walls. Most of the cast of characters we follow from Paradis are part of the Survey Corps.
The Great Titan War also left Marley in possession of several of the inheritors of the Nine Titans (the Jaw, Female, Colossal, Beast, Cart, Armoured and Warhammer Titans). Consequently, over the next hundred years Marley proceeds to replace the Eldian empire as the world’s preeminent colonial power. The leaders of Marley then contain the Eldians who had remained in Marley in internment camps and they use the Eldian population as soldiers for their colonial wars and as ‘Warriors’. ‘Warriors’ are Eldians who have been trained since childhood as soldiers to inherit the power of the Nine Titans and fight for Marley. Any Eldians who are seen as enemies of the nation of Marley and brought to Paradis and transformed to Pure Titans to terrorise the Eldians that originate from Paradis.
These are the main enemies that the Eldians on Paradis face for the first half of the manga. Eventually, the rest of the world’s military technology develops to the point of rivalling the power of Titans. So, Warriors are sent to Paradis to attempt to reclaim the powers of the Founding Titan and other natural resources that are exclusive to Paradis. Ultimately, these efforts fail.
Back to Paradis
The Eldians on Paradis attempt to reclaim their island from the Pure Titans which have been roaming the land outside of their walls and in doing so learn the truth of the world. That is that, due to the atrocities of the Eldian Empire, the rest of the world hates their race, and would have them imprisoned if not exterminated.
Several years after learning the true nature of the World, Eren Yeager leads a mission to Marley and forces the rest of the military forces on Paradis to help. The main objective of the mission was to kill the military leadership of Marley at a gathering, to steal the Warhammer titan for Eren Yeager and to acquire Zeke Yeager, who is a titan of royal blood to enable the Rumbling. At this point Marley and Paradis are actively at war. As well as this, several international diplomats and journalists at this gathering were killed, also causing an alliance against Paradis.
At this point, the thinking of the military leaders on Paradis is to leverage the threat of the Rumbling as a deterrent for a war against Paradis. With help from the foreign nation of Hizuru, over the next 50 years Paradis would try to update their military technologically and eventually negotiate peace with the nations of the world. However, for this plan to work, several things must fall into place:
- The monarch of Paradis, Queen Historia Fritz, must inherit Zeke’s Beast Titan and must procreate and feed her Titan to her children and her children’s children etc. until Paradis can negotiate peace
- An Eldian of non-royal blood must inherit the Founding Titan from Eren Yeager until Paradis can negotiate peace
- A smaller version of the Rumbling must be used to demonstrate to the world that the Rumbling would be devastating
- Efforts must be made to negotiate peace with nations that hate the people of Paradis
Eventually, against the wishes of the military leadership on Paradis, Zeke Yeager and Eren Yeager meet to unlock the full powers of the Founding Titan. Eren initiates a full-scale Rumbling genocide, against the wishes of Zeke. At the prospect of the full-scale Rumbling, former enemies from Marley and Paradis join forces to prevent it from happening. They succeed in killing Eren and in preventing the whole genocide, but around 80% of the human population are killed in the process. The manga ends with an exploration of peace negotiations between Paradis and the rest of humanity by the cast of characters that killed Eren.
This blog hopefully sets the scene for those of you who are new to Attack on Titan. In my next blog, I will focus on using this knowledge base to investigate how Attack on Titan conceptualises violence in the context of survival.
Undergraduate Student, Master of Arts in English and Philosophy, University of St Andrews
A special thanks to Lord Laidlaw and the Laidlaw Foundation for enabling my research, as well as to my supervisor Dr Alice König for helping guide me and facilitating my contributions to the Visualising War project.
The images included in this blog have been published online in good faith for educational purposes, making use of the exception for ‘Criticism and review’ in UK copyright legislation. If you are the rightsholder for any material used in this blog and have concerns about its use, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Attack on Titan Wiki. “Marley” Attack on Titan Wiki, https://attackontitan.fandom.com/wiki/Marley. [date accessed 25/08/2022]
- Attack on Titan Wiki. “Titan (Anime)” Attack on Titan Wiki, https://attackontitan.fandom.com/wiki/Titan_(Anime)#cite_note-e5-4. [date accessed 25/08/2022]
- invaderzz. “This video will change how you see Eren”. YouTube. Dec. 22, 2021. Video Essay. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6GmVCD7cxk&t=1257s [date accessed 25/08/2022]
- Isayama, Hajime. Shingeki no Kyojin. Tokyo: Kodansha. 2009. Inkr. https://inkr.com/title/409-attack-on-titan. [Subscription needed] [date accessed 25/08/2022]
[i] I will be using the English name as opposed to Shingeki no Kyojin for ease of writing.
[ii] For additional resources to understand Attack on Titan, I recommend the Fandom Wiki page if you’d want to look up specific groups or concepts. This video essay on youtube from invaderzz I have found extremely useful in interpreting the ending section of the manga.
[iii] All quotations and images are taken from Shingeki no Kyojin. Isayama, 2009, Chapter 2, p. 20.
[iv] Attack on Titan Wiki, “Titan (Anime)”.
[vi] Attack on Titan Wiki, “Titan (Anime)”.
[vii] Please note that the abilities and features of each of the Nine Titans depends on who the inheritor is. Each person who inherits one of the Nine Titans has a unique appearance, but different inheritors of the same Titans have similar visual appearances.
[viii] Attack on Titan Wiki, “Marley”.
[ix] Isayama., Chapter 86, p. 41.