Since first appearing as an anime adaptation in 2013, Hajime Isayamaaction/horror, The attack of the Titans, has taken the world by storm, even interesting viewers who don’t usually watch anime. It was called anime world The iron Throne – complete with crazy twists, subversions and mysteries galore. But one of the most impressive elements of The attack of the Titans is his ability to create, introduce and develop the scariest part of his universe: monsters.
Monsters have been deeply ingrained in storytelling, from ancient Greek myths (the Minotaur, Medusa) to modern horror movies (Pennywise, Angels of Death). In many ways, the monster has been a figure the heroes rally against and win against, against all odds. And although The attack of the Titans also emphasizes action scenes and mysterious elements, the story centers on its own form of monster: the Titans, giant cannibals who exist only to eat humans, bringing humanity to the brink of extinction.
The original Japanese word for these monsters is kyojin, spelled with two kanji characters that roughly translate to “great” and “human”, together meaning “giant”. The word used for its introduction to the English language, “Titan”, is perhaps the best translation for Western audiences, given its origin in mythology: Cronus, the last living Titan (a creature of immense power who predates even the Greek gods), is best known for cannibalizing his own children.
In this apocalyptic world, the dwindling number of humans know next to nothing about the nature of the Titans, which makes them even scarier: we fear what we don’t know. However, the story gradually delves deeper into the horror of dark truths that become even more terrifying as more is known about them.
Although the Titans are huge on a scale similar to Godzilla or King Kong, they also represent a type of horror commonly found in quieter stories on a smaller scale: the Titans resemble humans but for their size and their animal expressions and tendencies. Having the appearance of a human creates an uncomfortable feeling in the viewer and the characters; the monster is something close to being familiar and innocent and yet is corrupted in a strange way. This phenomenon can create such discomfort with its false sense of security that even the most innocent people and objects, such as children or dolls, become images of terror.
In a interview with Nihon TV, Isayama said the inspiration for Titans came to him after a disturbing encounter with a drunk customer at the internet cafe where he worked. The client, although appearing to be a fully functional male, was unable to communicate properly due to his impaired condition. Looking like a human while behaving in an unusual way sets the stage for a surreal experience – and, in this case, it also set the stage for one of modern anime’s most dangerous monsters.
With the Titans its own unique monster, the series could have easily ended there and still had a good monster for the story. The Titans are easily identifiable and work thematically in the tale, their simplistic motivation serving as the perfect obstacle for the heroes. However, The attack of the TitansThe themes of cover much more than just surviving and fighting against a stronger adversary. This is not a simple David and Goliath story. For those who haven’t made it past Season 1 yet and want to experience the story properly, be aware that there are spoilers ahead (and The attack of the Titans is not a spoiler story).
Isayama uses the idea of a “monster” to explore the darker side of humanity, especially following the revelation that contained within each Titan is a human person. Some of these Titan shifters use their monsters as weapons of war, even hiding among the heroes to wait for the perfect moment to strike. However, the definition of a Titan (and a “monster”) in the world of The attack of the Titans moved himself. Instead of battling hordes of mindless monsters, heroes now face real humans who commit monstrous crimes; rather than humans vs. monsters, the story changed its dynamic to heroic humans vs. monstrous humans. Season 3 takes this moral predicament even further by introducing completely human antagonists, pitting humanity against itself, and raising the question of what it means to be human.
During Season 4 (the massive final season is not over yet), this morally gray world becomes even more brutal. In the words of in-universe strategist Armin Arlert (voiced by Marina Inoue): “To surpass monsters, you must be willing to give up your humanity.” This theme develops throughout the show, as the heroes, including series protagonist Eren Jaeger (voiced by Yuki Kaji), fall down this slippery slope, fighting first what they assume are mindless monsters, then evil traitors, then opposing humans – until they finally reach a point where the line between hero and the villain is virtually indistinguishable.
The latest evolution of The attack of the TitansThe idea of monsters comes from the protagonist himself. While Eren’s plans to commit mass murder are shocking, this decision is on the path to the ultimate monster, which is also at the heart of his horror: the ability of an ordinary human to do the evil. It matches the deceptive first impression the Titans give, in that sometimes the scariest and most violent evil lurks behind a familiar face. Although the Titans look human, they are monsters. similarly, Eren has also become a monster.
It’s not uncommon to take a protagonist down a dark path to a tragic loss of humanity, thus making them a villain. However, it’s a difficult storytelling technique that, if done haphazardly or half-heartedly, can make the protagonist’s turn seem cheap. The attack of the Titans navigate this change with grace; Eren’s turn is gradual but seemingly inevitable, especially since it’s been heralded since the start of Season 1.
His violent tendencies come to light when he saves Mikasa Ackerman (voiced by Yui Ishikawa) kidnappers by stabbing two of them to death. It’s a sympathetic situation, considering Eren and Mikasa are victims and children, but Eren’s actions and inability to express regret create an unsettling juxtaposition with his innocent childlike appearance. When his father scolds him for acting recklessly and violently, and for putting himself in danger, Eren replies emphatically, “I killed dangerous animals. They were beasts that looked like humans.
Living in a world of Titans, human-like monsters, has already begun to erode Eren’s morals when it comes to having sympathy for other humans – even those who have admittedly done things despicable. At this point, Eren has yet to understand that doing an evil act can be the actions of a monster, but can also be the actions of an imperfect human being. However, by the end of the story, Eren will understand that being human and being a monster are not mutually exclusive.
There are many other themes that The attack of the Titans covers, from generational trauma to questions of free will versus predestination. However, the typical monster tale story subversion bears the fear of Godzilla, Jaws, etc. to a whole new level by slowly introducing the true monster of the story in a way that is heralded from the start.
As Isayama alluded to in that same interview with Nihon TVthe real horror, the real monster, of The attack of the Titans, it is the human being. Isayama demonstrates this truth of the story’s world by taking the protagonist, who the audience has befriended and been on quite the journey with, and turning him into a monstrous version of humanity, ultimately leaving him sympathetic but still dangerous – no quite tragic. “hero” and not quite a misunderstood “monster”. Just a human. Just like us. And this realization, that an ordinary human is capable of great evil while still retaining the bonds, desires and cares for loved ones that exist at the heart of humanity, brings the horror home.
The use of the monster in this particular piece of fiction is, so far, threefold: the blind killer, the deplorable but sympathetic human, and the abandoned humanity hero. This subversive, multi-dimensional approach to depicting monsters makes the horror story even more terrifying – and human, in a way that presents the viewer with a timeless yet terrifying dread.
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