Attack on Titan’s perspective shift; How Isayama’s narrative choice ruined a brilliant story…
Major spoilers ahead. If you haven’t read the manga Attack on Titan, then read no further.
Attack on Titan is no stranger to fame. Since the hit manga’s release took the anime world by storm, there has been no looking back for it’s author, Hajime Isayama. There was a time, Isayama modestly recalled in a BBC interview, when publishers refused to accept Attack on Titan on account of Isayama’s distinctive artwork or the anatomically ‘inaccurate’ drawings of his portrayal of the titans; the eponymous ‘species’ that plays a crucial role in the story. Publishers are known to favor frivolity over substance. C’mon they’re human too. When finally Kodansha saw potential in the plot and agreed to publish it in its monthly Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine, the rest is, well, as they say, history.
I am one of the few people who have witnessed the growth of Attack on Titan into the behemoth it is today, since Chapter One. It is undoubtedly an engrossing, incredibly rich story that deals in a multitude of themes from patriotism and friendship, to something as diabolical as racism and (with its final volume), genocide.
Eren Yeager has been the protagonist since the beginning of the story and in Campbell’s terms, the hero of this journey. However, Hajime Isayama divides the massive bulk of the story into two parts; pre and post-time-skip. We have seen this in many works of fiction and it works fairly well. We saw this in Samurai Jack too, with Jack’s personality significantly altered from that of a lonesome, wandering warrior, to a warrior-leader. Time-skips are an effective narrative tool for the author to depict the metamorphoses of a character from a victim of circumstance to someone with considerable power. They are often done to tilt the balance in favor of the protagonist. Attack on Titan did something quite similar, except, it did not fare too well for the tone of the story. We see a plot take a dynamic shift from the reader’s hopes invested in a benign teenager in whom we sought the ultimate respite for the innocent humans within the walls, to a malignant villain whose IQ does not match his Machiavellian scheme. I believe most readers will vouch for the fact that Eren does not come across as the smartest chip on the block. In fact, the only reason he becomes the crux of the story is because a) he was the quintessential shonen protagonist and b) He obtains the titan powers and becomes a potent weapon for the people on Paradis Island. Isayama took away Eren’s basic plot point; Eren was no longer the quintessential shonen hero.
In fact, I’d have said that it was a cool turn of events given that his mother gets devoured in front of him, he realizes he also ate his own father in addition to having obtained the Founding and the Attack Titans, that he has the potential to manipulate time, and well…he is almost God. The only problem; it was done poorly. So poorly that by the time the Rumbling started I could no longer make sense of much of the story except enjoy the novel concept of the Rumbling.
And it’s not how the author writes Eren, but how much he fades him into obscurity. The post time-skip Eren is a lot; he’s tall, more verbally composed, and morbidly unconscientious. The only thing he isn’t, is himself. We see an Eren whose dynamic shift in character is explained in flashbacks as a form of self abnegation toward accepting a fate that has marked him out a butcher of mankind. We are shown that once he awakens the memories of his father and the future he is going to bring about during Historia’s coronation, he takes a tour of Marley, heartbroken over the events he is to contrive, while simultaneously apologizing to the young boy he saves at that point for having to kill him later on. This little boy, Ramzi is crushed underfoot by a Wall Titan when the Rumbling happens.
All that is relatable, except the impact is washed out when the reader gets no closure on how Eren kills his sense of self, accepts what fate has in store for him, and turns the villain of the show. We are told it is not what Eren wants. That much is obvious, but it becomes what he wants later? How? Is Fate a goddess in this universe who caused Eren’s change of heart? Well it doesn’t work that way here. It’s not Greek mythology.
The perspective shift by taking the camera as it were, away from Eren’s shoulders and onto an omniscient but indifferently detached narrator alters the tone entirely. It is understandable that it was a creative choice meant to give Eren a character that would suit the cold atmosphere after a four-year time-skip, but it only makes him a robotic shell of himself. In fact, Isayama even took away Eren’s motivation; his mother. So I would like to know, what exactly becomes of a man once you’ve divested him of his purpose? The answer, well, even I am not sure of it, but genocide it most certainly is not.
I’d say that Eren’s character was never a consistent one. From the time he ruthlessly slaughters Mikasa’s peddlers, then shifts to having a sudden rush of innocence during his time training in the recon corps, then shifts again to a cold and unnerved Eren, it is uncertain what Isayama wants to depict with Eren’s mercurial personality.
Is it a deliberate choice to portray Eren with psychopathic tendencies or is it simply poor writing? Either way I refuse to accept the glorified portrayal of genocide under the pretense of defending one’s homeland. This may seem as a morally easy ground to take given that more than half the world is under constant threat of war, but it is also why the magnitude of mass murder should not be undermined. Eren Yeager turns a monster to protect his island, but Isayama gives him impractical reasons to do so. It also doesn’t help that the infamous Chapter 139, which wraps up the storyline has Eren admitting that majority of what he did, he is unsure of why he did it.
The logic was too circular to be comprehensible. He claims that his perception of time and space is too warped for him to make sense, but we are clearly shown that he was quite lucid when he manipulated his father, Grisha in a time travel sequence. We are also very clearly told that Eren made a choice to go ahead with the Rumbling and was rather eager to do so. We are also told that he had to convince Ymir to lend him the Founding’s power which undervalues the whole premise of her having waited for him (or Mikasa…pfft) for 2000 years. Then in a very underhanded way, Eren admits to having redirected Dina Fritz, the Smiling Titan on that fateful day to where his mother lay under a pile of debris. So what exactly was Eren’s plan?
He does not seem like the smartest of characters to be given the power to goad the fate of mankind. He is not only suicidal, he is also hotly murderous. So toward the end when the entire oddball troop of Paradis saviors are whining over Eren’s decapitated head as “you suicidal maniac”, I couldn’t stop laughing. The additional pages that were released show us a couple, if indeed a couple it is (who at least look somewhat like Mikasa and Jean) putting flowers on Eren’s grave…?? Did he not carry out an indiscriminate massacre of innocent people? Eren Yeager’s character was reduced to a disgusting pile of homicidal madness. Even if that was the author’s choice since the beginning, the characters’ reaction towards Eren does not indicate any disgust in the least.
The time-skip plot, if anything, shows that Eren lengthened his own agony by prolonging the death of Bertholdt and enabling further ravage on the walls that happen after the very first breach.
With the rise of social media, there is a current trend among the audience to compare characters from different universes. This time the one to take the fall for Eren’s yardstick for sacrifice is Itachi Uchiha from Naruto.
But I beg to differ. Unlike Eren, Itachi was pushed into a corner with two very unappealing choices, one of which at least saved his younger brother. Itachi does nothing out of hate. He had to choose the lesser of two evils and take a stand or watch the Uchiha clan bring about the Great Ninja War. Kishimoto spends considerable time fleshing out Itachi’s change of attitude, his shift in mood, and a very human aspect of him becoming increasingly uncooperative with his clansmen. It was done so masterfully that even when Sasuke watches the horrifying scene of Itachi coldly standing before their parents’ corpses, the audience knows something’s amiss. But Kishimoto never glamorizes Itachi at all nor does he underwhelmingly push aside the criminal act of genocide. He makes his character suffer, both in life and in death. Itachi, after his crime, lives shamefully like an outcast, pitifully marginalized as a rogue ninja by his own people, afflicted with some debilitating ailment, nearly blind, and eventually dying at the hands of his brother. There is nothing glorious about Itachi Uchiha, yet when his miserable story is unfolded before Sasuke and the audience, everyone feels for him. For a side character, Kishimoto gives tremendous weight to Itachi’s character because his actions directly justify the actions of Sasuke, who indeed is one of the central characters of Naruto.
Eren Yeager however, had a choice. He chose to kill. He chose revenge. And Isayama chose to glorify him.
The series was poorly concluded. Hopefully the anime fixes the time loop debacle and restores Attack on Titan to what it can potentially be; one of the greatest anime series of all time.