CONTENT AND SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses the series Avatar: The Last Airbender and Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) and includes mention of conflict, war, and some graphic violence.
“100% one of the best stories ever told”Tinseltopia (Reddit user) [ii]
Hiya, I’m an undergraduate student and Laidlaw scholar investigating how popular anime/animated shows and manga/comics influence young people’s habits of visualising war and peace. This introductory blog post is the first in a series of research outputs from this project and is designed to introduce readers to my research topic and the media I will be engaging with in subsequent blog posts.
I have focused my research on two concrete examples of anime and manga: Avatar: The Last Airbender and Attack on Titan.[iii] These are two extremely popular examples of their respective genres. Since starting as a manga series in 2009, Attack on Titan has become one of the most recognisable names in manga and anime.[iv] Around peak readership in 2013 it was the second most popular manga series in Japan, with roughly 16 million copies sold,[v] and it had six of its volumes in the New York Times Manga Best Seller List.[vi] It has now sold over 100 million copies worldwide[vii] and is regularly cited as one of the best manga and anime series of all time.[viii] Attack on Titan is an example of ‘Shonen’ anime and manga, referring to the demographic that the media is aimed at. ‘Shonen’ literally translates to “a few years”, so it refers to young adults (usually young boys).[ix] Reaching similar levels of popularity to Attach on Titan, Avatar’s season 3 finale received 19 million viewers at the time of initial broadcasting, mostly comprising young children (ages 6-11) and tweens (ages 9-14).[x] It is also regularly referenced on lists of the best animated or children’s television shows[xi] and has won a prestigious Peabody Award for electronic media.[xii]
I chose examples of anime and manga because of their powerful potential to shape habits of visualising war and peace, both thanks to their renown and to the relatively young age of their audiences. Many people grow up engaging with them; and many also revisit them later, through discussions with fellow fans and the vast library of online analyses (to get an idea of the volume, just search up video essays on either of them on YouTube). People who loved them as children have a tendency to consider them ‘well-crafted masterpieces’ also as adults, and to draw a good deal from their thematic explorations of war and peace. I confess that this has been the case for me. There exists somewhere a picture of an eight-year-old me dressing up as Aang (the primary protagonist of Avatar) for Halloween after having recently shaved my head, because what else was I going to go trick-or-treating as?
My initial contact with them was emotional, nostalgic, and largely subconscious; but I rewatched the series and engaged with criticism of it going into early adulthood, and that got me thinking more critically about them and their impacts on audiences’ habits of thought. The research I am now doing aims to prompt further critical discussion of these fascinating and influential media.
Narratively speaking, both series use war and conflict as a backdrop for the main events of the plot. Both also end with an explicit peace formed (as in Avatar), or with peace talks about to ensue (as in Attack on Titan). My research has focused particularly on the representation of peacebuilding in these media (which is much less discussed than their representations of war); but in order to appreciate how the ending of a typical linear story is being narrated, it is important understand what came before. So, in both cases, I have focused first on how they represent conflict and violence and how the main conflict ends, in order to appreciate how their creators chose to represent peacebuilding. From this general framework I will highlight clear thematic throughlines about war and peace that the creators quite clearly wished to impart to their audiences, as well as other more hidden representations that should be considered in critical engagement with media.
Attack on Titan’s world revolves around a major conflict between humans and titans (large humanoid man-eating monsters) and deals along with way with themes such as ‘hopelessness and loss’.[xiii]
Attack on Titan initially was pitched to several editors in Japan by Isayama who appreciated the originality of the premise but were doubtful about his drawing ability.[xiv] His story pitch was to have humanity under existential threat from a species of beings more powerful than us. The inspiration for such an existential threat came from other media, like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.[xv] One of the main recurring themes in the manga is the idea that ‘the world is cruel’ and in an interview with the BBC Isayama noted that this sentiment comes from his upbringing as a child on a rural farm: ‘All living creatures must get nutrition from other living creatures to survive. We might call it cruel, but it is actually the norm’.[xvi] It is interesting that this worldview comes from such a formative childhood experience of Isayama’s, something I will explore in a subsequent blog post. Additionally, there have been real life histories that have influenced the manga too: for example one of the important characters, Dot Pixis, is based on ‘real-life Japanese general Akiyama Yoshifuru’ – celebrated in Japan for reforming the Japanese cavalry, but who may also have been responsible for atrocities in the first Sino-Japanese war.[xvii] Akiyama Yoshifuru evidently figures as a hero for Isayama, as well as for many other Japanese people – somewhat controversially.
Avatar is set in a world heavily inspired from several ‘non-western’ cultures, mainly East Asian and Inuit. These cultures heavily influenced the construction of the fictional world. For example, the world of Avatar has four nations, each inspired by the nations of these ‘non-western’ cultures, and each one’s history paralleling that of the actual nation’s history.[xviii]
At the time of the show’s initial airing, it was one of the few animated shows on Nickelodeon and other children’s television networks that represented a compelling introspective story about war with non-white characters. It is this compelling story that the creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino very intentionally had in mind when producing Avatar. In a 2015 interview, Konietzko noted that ‘Kids are deeper than a lot of people, and especially corporations, give them credit for’, adding that they wanted to tell ‘the kinds of stories with the types of conflict that interested us [Konietzko and DiMartino]’.[xix] In other words, this show – which seriously explores the ramifications of war and conflict – is intentionally aimed at a younger audience, and consciously does not treat that audience as merely passive and unthinking children. I will explore the ramifications of this further as I work through my blog series.
There are a few disclaimers I should mention at the outset of this project. Firstly, in the case of Attack on Titan, I am working with translations from the original Japanese to English. I do not speak Japanese, nor am I especially knowledgeable in Japanese culture. As a result, I may miss or misinterpret certain aspects of the text in my analysis. However, these are not likely to be significant in the wider scheme of my arguments regarding Attack on Titan, since my focus is on its more general representations of violence, conflict, and peace, not fine details. Moreover, there is a large international following of this manga, many of whom are in a similar position to me, and as a result I would argue that this skewed perspective is still relevant for exploring and understanding how the manga’s audience could learn to visualise war and peace from it.
Secondly, with regards to Avatar, I will be discussing certain aspects of the series’ message in the context of its cultural and historical inspirations. For those unaware, in the world of Avatar each of the four nations which comprise its world are based on several real-life peoples and cultures including: the Inuit, Qing dynasty China, Imperial Japan and Tibetan monks. I am not from any of the cultures directly influencing the world of Avatar, and much of what I know I have learnt through secondary sources, and as such I may not give a sufficiently fleshed out representation of them in my discussion. That said, I have tried to research what I can in the time available, and I hope it will be sufficient for the purposes of my arguments.
Finally, and specifically to those who are fans of the media I am looking at: my critical discussion is not designed to degrade or criticise specific works, nor to attack the big popular media franchises behind them. Nor am I implying that you should accept my readings of these texts as final. I am merely offering my (hopefully valid and well-informed) readings of these media to promote discussion of these and similar texts, which are so valuable and influential; to date, they have not yet received enough attention, especially in academia.
Thank you for reading this far into my opening piece. I hope to start bringing you some of my research findings soon.
Matin Moors, July 2022
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.
DiMartino and Konietzko. Avatar: The Last Airbender, Animation. 2005.
Isayama, Hajime. Shingeki no Kyojin. Tokyo: Kodansha. 2009. Inkr. https://inkr.com/title/409-attack-on-titan. [Subscription needed] [date accessed 24/07/2022]
[ii] despacito11 and Tinseltopia. “Attack on Titan has now 7 episodes rated as 9.9 and above, more than any tv series. Breaking Bad has only 4.” Reddit, 26 Jan. 2021,https://www.reddit.com/r/attackontitan/comments/l5553g/attack_on_titan_has_now_7_episodes_rated_as_99/. [date accessed 09/07/2022].
[iii] I will be using the English name as opposed to the original Shingeki no Kyojin.
[iv]A note on terminology. For those unfamiliar, ‘anime’ is used when referring to animated visual media made in Japan and the associated style of animation. However, there is debate about whether something should be classed as ‘anime’ due its specific animation style, or simply because it has its origins in animation, or a mix of both. Likewise, ‘manga’ refers to Japanese comics and their associated style, and here too there is an ambiguity as to whether `manga’ refers to the particular style that a comic evokes or to its origins in the wider ‘manga’ tradition. For the purposes of my research, I shall be using these terms relatively loosely, to refer to works that can simply trace their origins back to anime or manga. This avoids ambiguity over media such as Avatar: The Last Airbender (Avatar), where there is some debate as to whether it is anime or not. Whilst it was not made in Japan, it does have several hallmarks of the style of anime. For more on this follow this link.
[v] Loo, Egan. “Top-Selling Manga in Japan by Series: 2013.” Anime News Network, 1 Dec. 2013, https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2013-12-01/top-selling-manga-in-japan-by-series/2013. [date accessed 28/06/2022].
[vi] Hodgkins, Crystalyn. “New York Times Manga Best Seller List, October 13-19.” Anime News Network, 29 Oct. 2013, https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2013-10-29/new-york-times-manga-best-seller-list-october-13-19. [date accessed 28/06/2022].
[vii] Loo, Egan. “Attack on Titan Manga Celebrates 100 Million Copies With Giant Mural at NYC Madison Square Garden.” Anime News Network, 25 Dec. 2019, https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/interest/2019-12-25/attack-on-titan-manga-celebrates-100-million-copies-with-giant-mural-at-nyc-madison-square-garden/.154747. [date accessed 28/06/2022].
[viii] See e.g. TheTrueJapan. “The 30 Best Manga of All Time” The True Japan, 25 Dec. 2017, https://thetruejapan.com/20-best-manga-time/. [date accessed 28/06/2022]; Poe, Arthur S. “100 Best Manga of All Time You Need to Read” Fiction Horizon, 21 May 2022, https://fictionhorizon.com/best-manga-of-all-time/. [date accessed 28/06/2022]; McMahon, Andrew. “Top 20 Most Popular Anime of All Time, Ranked” Twinfinite, 20 April 2022, https://twinfinite.net/2022/04/most-popular-anime-of-all-time-ranked/. [date accessed 28/06/2022] .
[ix] Freedman, Alisa, and Toslade. Introducing Japanese Popular Culture. London; New York, Ny: Routledge, An Imprint Of The Taylor & Francis Group (2018), p. 445.
[x] Luna, Kyle. “Nick’s ‘AVATAR’ Animation Series Finale Scores Big Ratings” Animation Insider, 23 July 2008, archived on 5 Jan. 2009, https://web.archive.org/web/20090105224926/http://www.animationinsider.net/article.php?articleID=1794 archived at web.archive.org. [date accessed 29/06/2022].
[xi] See e.g. Scbyrnetda. “50 Best animated TV series of all time”, IMDb, 26 April 2011, https://www.imdb.com/list/ls000376561/. [date accessed 29/06/2022]; and Saunders, Huw. “15 Best Animated Shows of All Time”, Cultured Vultures, 23 April 2021, https://culturedvultures.com/best-animated-shows/. [date accessed 29/06/2022].
[xiv] Brinkhof, Tim. “NAZISM REPACKAGED? A CLOSER LOOK AT THE “FASCIST SUBTEXT” OF ‘ATTACK ON TITAN’.” pop matters, 18 March 2020, https://www.popmatters.com/hajime-isayama-attack-on-titan-2645472520.html#sidr-nav [date accessed 26/07/2022].
[xv] Singh, Tanveer. “Attack On Titan: 10 Sources That Influenced Creator Hajime Isayama”, Gamerant, 21 Feb. 2022, https://gamerant.com/attack-on-titan-hajime-isayama-influences/ [date accessed 27/06/2022].
[xvii] Speelman, Tom. “The fascist subtext of Attack on Titan can’t go overlooked”, Polygon, 18 Jun. 2019, https://www.polygon.com/2019/6/18/18683609/attack-on-titan-fascist-nationalist-isayama-hajime-manga-anime [date accessed 26/07/2022].
[xviii] Shiota, Julia. “AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER’S WORLD NEVER FELT TOKENIZING BECAUSE IT DREW FROM ASIAN HISTORY”, SYFY, 6 Jul. 2020, https://www.syfy.com/syfy-wire/avatar-the-last-airbender-pan-asian-history [date accessed 26/07/2022].
[xix] Myers, Maddy. “Interview: Avatar: The Last Airbender Co-Creators on Writing Flawed Heroes and Smart Content for a Young Audience”, The Mary Sue, 7 Oct. 2015, https://www.themarysue.com/interview-avatar-the-last-airbender-co-creators/ [date accessed 26/07/2022].