When my 16-year-old brother invited me to watch Attack on Titan with him (AOT), all I knew was that it was a gory fantasy anime all about the horrors of war. Usually, I skip fight scenes and cover my eyes during horror movies, so I naturally did not expect to like it very much. Let alone liking the show as much as my brother, who told me he was unable to move on to anything else after watching it. Well, I am unable to move on to anything else after watching it.
I couldn‘t tear my eyes from the screen from the first moment. The dynamic animation, three-dimensional characters, and “close to the protagonist“ storytelling style got me hooked as soon as I got used to the overwhelming horrors on the screen. The fast-paced and precise plot and masterful worldbuilding then kept me engaged through battles that lasted half of a season. Sure, none of the characters had a break for the first three seasons; but the lack of downtime and the constant tension kept me engaged, for better or worse. When my 14-year-old brother started watching with us, I had a quick crisis about it. Eventually, I decided not to get involved in his life choices this time, especially since I had made no move to discourage the 16-year-old from watching the series, either. The three of us then absorbed all of the episodes in two months. Then we found out the show was not finished yet, which resulted in us sitting and staring at the screen in silence for what felt like a year. What saved us from eternal misery was finding out the final part was set to air on the fourth of November, 2023.
On the surface, this brilliant series is about violence, loss, and retribution. Yet, it fundamentally deals with patriotism, indoctrination, and the incredible power of knowledge. It deals with the politics of loyalty, individualism against collectivism, the subjectivity of morality, and the differing perspectives on freedom and motivation. To fit the themes within the fast-paced plot, AOT approaches its themes by giving accounts and perspectives of its characters in survival mode as the plot progresses. These characters all have their strengths, flaws, and ideas, and there is no objective beacon of morality and justice, no clear answers to any question. So, generally, AOT expects a lot from its audience and treats its themes with subtlety, and the personal way it approaches its themes keeps an underlying motif of subjectivity when it comes to the issues it wants to address. However, a consequence of this is that there is an underlying air of uncertainty. Interestingly, one issue is untouched by this nuance: brainwashing and disillusionment. While you may not be guaranteed to have a disillusionment moment for agreeing with an individual character‘s take on what motivates them, if you find yourself wholeheartedly agreeing with one group, you‘ll inevitably have to reckon with the consequences when they do something messed up, or you become disillusioned about the ideology behind their group. I am no exception to this.
The first seasons of AOT center around a civilisation that believes themselves to be the last humans alive, and who live behind walls to keep themselves safe from titans. Titans are large humanoid creatures who seem to lack rational thinking abilities, instead being driven by their instinctive need to seek out and eat humans. At the beginning of the series, titans managed to tear down a piece of one of the civilisation‘s walls, breaking in and wreaking havoc on one of the cities. This was the catalyst that led the protagonist, Eren Jaeger, to flee from this city and eventually enlist in military training with his two best friends. Soon after they finished training, it was revealed that Eren could turn himself into a titan, which became a turning point for humanity due to the overwhelming strength that Eren‘s titan lent to the military. Eren was then handed over to a specific military division called the Scout regiment, which was tasked with exploring and reclaiming titan territory. For the next seasons, the series followed the Scouts. Soldiers from other regiments were treated as cowardly outsiders and temporarily became enemies when the government turned against the Scouts. The series casually threw Scout propaganda at the audience; National anthem-like intro songs decorated with the Scouts‘ emblem and clips from their missions. A unique salute in which you cover your heart with your fist that symbolised human conviction and motivation to survive. A saying: „give your hearts“ that gave an almost intimate touch to the ideology of the group. And then the ideology itself, simple and unwavering, something the audience had no real reason to disagree with: we fight to save humanity.
At the end of season three, that ideology broke. The Scouts had finally eradicated the rest of the titans on the island and could venture beyond the walls. They rode their horses to the sea,
dipped their feet in the water, and tried to celebrate, despite the bitterness of recent realisations. They had recently found out that they were not the only humans left in the world. They had been at war with a whole nation of humans without their knowledge. They had been fighting, torturing, and sending recruits on suicide missions, all because they believed themselves to be the last bastion of humanity, and now that was just categorically false. And since this ideology was the thing that knitted the Scouts together as a regiment, the certainty of the future went out of the window along with it. And although the Scouts received the news about the world at the same time as the audience, and seemed to be acting in good faith, the reveal also brought their past actions into question.
For a little while, AOT led me to believe things were simple. And during those simple times, I quickly became attached to the Scouts and their mission, regularly singing sing shinzou wo sasageyo with my brothers. So when they left their metaphorical cave and things fell apart, I certainly felt alarmed at how wholeheartedly I had subscribed to a political group, regardless of how good their intentions were. This moment of disillusionment, confusion, and frustration is what turned the show from good to great for me. From an external perspective, it might seem strange for me to react so strongly to a pretty common plot device, especially since it could be argued to be an overdone trope. But what shook me to my core wasn‘t that the world was larger than it seemed. It was the realisation that I had stood behind a political military group that justified its actions through a perception of the world they believed to be certain and true, and they were wrong. Categorically and unquestionably wrong. What shook me even further was rewatching the show and realising the clues were there all along. My 14-year-old brother and I would turn to each other quite often on re-watch with raised eyebrows or frantically pointing at the screen.
I was compelled by the reveal because it showed that it was easy to convince me of something certain in a world of uncertainty. A world that kept me in suspense, didn‘t give a lot of definitive answers, and kept me distracted by what was on screen. A world where I knew as little as the subjects of the world themselves. And then the reveal itself introduced more uncertainty since the loss of the Scouts‘ ideology had left a wide space where certainty was once found. So, if someone were to try to fill that space, it was up to me not to fall for it again.