Attack on Titan: Analogy to World War II

Okay, I just had to get this off my chest…

The Japanese manga and anime series Attack on Titan made absolutely zero sense to me until I realized it is an unmistakable analogy to World War II.

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All over the internet, I kept seeing disturbing images of a giant human with no skin. I’m not particularly squeamish about violence in the media — most horror movies drive me into a fit of hysterical laughter. Plus, I’m generally fascinated by the macabre.  But certain things just get to me. Like the part in the brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth when Captain Vidal’s face is mutilated and he sews it back together (though I adore the Pale Man). Or in Boardwalk Empire (one of my favorite shows) when Richard Harrow (one of my favorite characters) scalps another character without hesitation.  And this giant skinless human is no different — sending shivers down my spine!

Screen shot 2013-09-27 at 1.13.46 AM

Image from Attack on Titan
Disclaimer: I do not own this image!!

I soon discovered that this giant skinless human is from a series called Attack on Titan (進撃の巨人, Shingeki no Kyoujin). When I first became interested in Japan around middle school, I used to watch a lot of anime. But I tend towards live-action series or movies nowadays (a wonderful tool for practicing my language skills). I do find the occasional anime series like the amazing Gankutsuou (巌窟王): The Count of Monte Cristo (which is actually the most faithful adaptation of Dumas’s masterwork) and the gripping Monster (モンスター) (scheduled to be adapted into live-action for HBO by Guillermo del Toro). In other words, I’m usually extremely picky about my anime. But, after being utterly confused by the Attack on Titan Wikipedia summary, I decided to give the series a try out of pure morbid curiosity.

So, I’ve been working my way through the episodes on Hulu. It might be a bit melodramatic at times and the so-called “Vertical Maneuvering Equipment” that allows the characters to leap around is pretty implausible. But it has a relatively well-constructed plot line and decent character development. The main characters Eren and Mikasa have particularly tragic yet compelling backstories. But I couldn’t help a strange feeling of déjà vu

ijoca8-2bc(thumbnail)

A page from Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa
Disclaimer: I do not own this image!!

And then it hit me! I realized that certain elements of Attack on Titan bear a striking resemblance to the renowned manga Barefoot Gen (はだしのゲン, Hadashi no Gen), about the bombing of Hiroshima and its survivors.

For instance: In Attack on Titan, Eren and Mikasa attempt to free Eren’s mother from underneath their collapsed house. But Eren’s mother begs them to save themselves. Eren and Mikasa, with the help of a city guard names Hannes, flee from danger as Eren’s mother is killed and eaten by a titan. This directly parallels Barefoot Gen. After the atom bomb drops on Hiroshima, Gen and his mother Kimie discover Gen’s father Daikichi and Gen’s siblings trapped underneath their collapsed house. Gen and Kimie attempt to free the rest of the family before they are consumed by the fire that has broken out all across the city. But Daikichi begs them to save themselves. Gen and Kimie are forced to flee from danger.

This parallel leads me to believe that the humanoid titans may have been inspired by the victims of the atom bombs. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many victim’s skin melted off or hung from their bodies in tatters. These victims must have been in excruciating pain and are depicted moving very slowly and blindly, almost like zombies. Although the titans are not meant to be sympathized with (at least not yet) as one would sympathize with the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their movements are very similar. In this context, the one skinless titan makes so much more sense to me. I really won’t be surprised if the series reveals that the titans are resulted from a human scientific experiment gone wrong and that we are indeed meant to sympathize with them.

Attack on Titan‘s analogy to World War II does not stop with the atom bombs. The series often explores themes related to militarism, group mentality, and self-sacrfice — topics often associated with Japan during World War II as well as World War II across the board.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps I’ll post more correlations between Attack on Titan and Barefoot Gen as I continue watching!

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Copyright 2013 by G. E. Gallas

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About gegallas

G. E. Gallas is a screenwriter and graphic novelist (writer/illustrator) best known for "The Poet and the Flea," a fantastical reimagining of the life of the poet-painter William Blake. Originally from Washington D.C., she spent her year abroad in Tokyo, Japan and graduated from New York University: Gallatin School of Individualzed Study with a major involving cross-cultural storytelling. Spring 2013, she attended the Cannes International Film Festival and spoke upon invitation to The Blake Society, London. February 2014, her illustrations will be featured in the young adult title "Scared Stiff: Everything You Need To Know About 50 Famous Phobias." View all posts by gegallas

26 responses to “Attack on Titan: Analogy to World War II

  • mcwatty9

    Wow good insight. I bet you’re right.

  • killkaties

    I loved Barefoot Gen and will now be attacking Attack on Titan just as soon as I can.

  • TheShadowDiary

    Have you ever thought of the possibilities of coincidences? 1 skinless titan while the others have skin. Their weak spot is on the back of their necks. They’re surrounded by walls. I see where you can think that the part where Eren and Mikasa were dragged away by Hannes and Gen and his mother had to flee, but honestly, there aren’t as many comparisons as you can make it seem.

    • gegallas

      Thanks for your comment! I respect your opinion, and that’s a possibility.

      But Barefoot Gen is an extremely well-known manga from the 70s that has been adapted as both anime and live-action multiple times. It’s extremely unlikely that Hajime Isayama is unfamiliar with Gen.

      Also, there are many more comparisons that can be made between the two series that I have not had a chance to discuss. For instance, both works share the following in common:
      1) A government that sends teenagers on suicide missions.
      2) A greedy and rich ruling class.
      3) The character’s bond of loyalty to each other as well as to the government.
      …just to name a few!

      Again, I’ll try to add more to this entry as I continue watching Attack on Titan.

      Best regards,
      G. E.

      • TheShadowDiary

        Thank you for replying!

        I understand and your reasons and I find it interesting what can be similar and what isn’t similar to an anime. I have never read or heard of Barefoot Gen so I won’t post anymore as I am not quite sure what else to reply with.
        I appreciate you taking the time to read my post!
        Very good catch on the similarities!

  • katemcmillanblogs

    My sister’s been telling me to read/watch this for aaages, so I’m starting this week. :) Will keep an eye out for any similar themes.

    Also, have you ever read Fullmetal Alchemist? There are some really strong parallels in that one. Military corruption, genocide, change and growth after war… There’s a morally deficient Führer… Possible satire aside, it’s well written, frequently hilarious, and the characters have depth. It is a little macabre, but not unnecessarily so.

    The anime’s different from the manga, but the story’s worth a read. One of my favourites I think. :)

    Okay, my geek rant’s complete now. You may carry on with the awesome art-making and writing etcetera. Give my regards to Fluffernutter. ^_^

    PS. Where IS he? O.o

    Oh! Before I go! Any live-action suggestions? Saw ‘Departures’ last week (first time I’ve cried in a movie for years, and it wasn’t even a language I fully understand!), and ‘Always’, but would love to find some more films. My Japanese is so rusty it’s embarrassing now. :/

    All the best!!

    • gegallas

      Great to hear from you!!!

      Interesting! I haven’t had a chance to read/watch Fullmetal Alchemist yet, but I’ll have to add it to my list.

      Fluffernutter says “EEK EEK” which I assume means “Hello.” I’ve been working on some greeting cards featuring him and I hope to make a zine or something with him in the near future.

      I’m glad you liked Departures! The other film that won a ton of awards the same year is Tokyo Sonata, which I found really fascinating (but a bit disturbing). I think you’d really like Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi Ni Naru) which should be coming out in the U.S. soon. You might like that director’s other films too: Still Walking (Aruitemo Aruitemo), Hana (Hana Yori Mo Naho), Nobody Knows (Daremo Shiranai)…
      :D

  • Dumad

    With this post you just earn my Facebook Like! Nice Post

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  • alakotila

    I wonder! Interesting insight. I have heard a lot about it (the author is from the city I now live in), and my students love it. I have never picked it up because the skinless titan freaks me out and the giant AOT display just looks like anatomical diagram books! My language skill isn’t good enough to read a complicated series, so I may have to wait on reading it. :(

  • Hans

    And it’s now on Netflix! Just started watching myself.

  • daleharkness

    Many thanks gegallas for the thought provoking article. Besides talking about the interesting connection with World War II, I felt a smile appear on my face when you mentioned Pan’s Labyrinth. I’d nearly forgotten about this wonderful film. Makes me want to go back and watch it again. Keep up the great writing!

    -Dale

  • Rik Spanjers

    Great post, although I do not think AoT’s analogies to WW2 are particularly striking. The atom bomb figures in a very large number of anime. Murakami even made a pretty cool part of his exhibition on the “explosion” of Japanese pop culture about that.

    Still, I do think that reading Japan’s conflicting ways to deal with the legacy of the War in Attack on Titan might give some insights.

    My biggest problem would be the Titan. Who do the titans stand for? This might be a more difficult question that it seems. Because, as agressor in te war, it seems more complicated to cast the Japanese as the utterly innocent victims of brutal assaults like the people who live in the titan world. Anyhow, I am curious how you will develop this analogy in the future!

  • Lori Ono

    Thanks for your write up on Attack on Titan. I’ve been considering whether to start that series, or not.

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