Attack on Titan: The Final Season Cannot Rewrite the Manga’s Controversial Ending

TV Features Attack on Titan
Attack on Titan: The Final Season Cannot Rewrite the Manga’s Controversial Ending

Rumors that the first part of the last part of the final season of the insanely popular anime Attack on Titan would be delivered in the form of an hour-long special were correct. The special, which premiered on Japan’s NHK television network this past weekend, follows the remaining members of the Survey Corps as they try to come up with a plan to stop series protagonist-turned-antagonist Eren Yeager from destroying the world.

Commercially and culturally, Attack on Titan has never been more successful or relevant, with the current hype around the show rivaling and perhaps even surpassing that of its explosive debut in 2013. Critically, however, the anime stands poised to follow its manga counterpart into befuddlement and controversy as its apocalyptic final act approaches. While a part of the fanbase had convinced itself that animation studio MAPPA was going to craft a different, better ending, the special—a faithful adaptation of chapters 130-134 with minor cosmetic changes—suggests that Attack on Titan will stick to the course charted by its creator, Hajime Isayama.

Attack on Titan has come a long way since 2013. What began as a seemingly straightforward and predictable story full of shōnen clichés—screaming boys, action-figure powerups, shoehorned romance—proved to be much more surprising and substantial than anyone could have expected. This not only goes for the plot twists (some of the greatest ever, in my opinion), but the world-building, too. The Bavarian setting, which at first appeared to be little more than window dressing, jumped to the foreground when, midway through its run, Attack on Titan evolved from a disturbing fantasy about naked, man-eating giants into an even more disturbing commentary on the Second World War, told from the perspective of Imperial Japan and dealing with real-world implications of nationalism, imperialism, and racial genocide.

Ironically the moment Attack on Titan became more than just another manga or anime is also the moment it became controversial. When news broke that Isayama may have used a private Twitter account to deny the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, in which Imperial Japanese soldiers raped and killed between 200,000 and 300,000 Chinese citizens, people started searching his work for suspicious political subtext. Their findings range from the obvious yet superficial (like Mikasa being named after a warship from the Russo-Japanese War or Dot Pixis resembling an Imperial general named Akiyama Yoshifuru) to the highly analytical; in an article that was published by Polygon in 2021, translator Kazuma Hashimoto —who combed through 300+ entries of Isayama’s personal blog—argued Attack on Titan was itself an argument for the remilitarization of Japan, which, like the society in which Eren grows up, exists in a self-imposed state of pacifism.

In the manga, and now in the anime as well, Eren wants to bring that pacifism to an end. After obtaining the story-equivalent of a nuclear arsenal, he makes a conscious decision to wipe out every nation on the planet except his own. Believing that fighting for freedom and self-preservation is the whole point of being alive, and that different cultures can never coexist in peace, he convinces himself that mass murder is the only way forward.

You would think that Eren, who was originally introduced to us as an uncomplicated hero with an uncomplicated desire to protect his friends and fight monsters, would have become less popular with audiences over the years. Strangely enough, this isn’t the case. In fact, the complete opposite is true. Eren went from being considered one of the most annoying aspects of Attack on Titan to the primary reason people follow the series, and it’s difficult to say why this is the case.

Maybe it has something to do with his character development. When we first meet Eren, his two defining characteristics are his anger and his incompetence. He is angry at the fact that his mother was eaten alive by a Titan, but he is even angrier at the fact that he couldn’t protect her. He desperately wants to become stronger—strong enough to kill every single Titan in the world—but every step he takes towards this goal ends in humiliation and defeat. Even if we do not sympathize with Eren, his story is framed in such a way that audiences want to see him succeed at something, anything.

This line of reasoning does not justify supporting Eren’s final resolution to brutally murder 80% of humanity, but it does explain why so many people online continue to share such inappropriately positive, excited responses to his indefensible choices.

It also explains why they are so upset about the ending. While the previous season of the Attack on Titan anime, which ends with Eren pressing the proverbial detonator, sets him up to be an edgy, stoic antihero whose “crimes” are vindicated by some vaguely-defined and borderline fascistic revelation about reality and human nature, the hour-long special heralds in the part of the story where he is shown to be, if not a villain,  then the same sore loser we found all the way back in Chapter 1. Not only does his peace plan fail miserably (Isayama, in an additional epilogue, reveals that war and conflict continue long after Eren’s passing), but it also turns out that peace was never his true objective. In a series of flashbacks that won’t be animated until the final part of the final season arrives later this year, a sobbing Eren admits he’s driven mostly by selfish motives, including—though this is not stated explicitly—the need to vent over his inability to start a relationship with his adopted younger sister.

“Eren is not a Chad all along,” one disappointed manga reader commented on a forum back in 2021, when Isayama finished the final chapters. “He died a virgin,” another adds. A third complains the ending comes across as a “weird attempt to make Eren”—edgy, stoic antihero Eren—“as pathetic as possible at the last second.” These types of responses are sure to be repeated when the anime concludes.

While it’s still possible, it’s unlikely the remaining episodes of the anime will depart significantly from the manga. This is in part because, from a financial standpoint, writing a whole new ending is costly and time-consuming. But it’s also because the story of Attack on Titan is as consistent in its plot and character development as it is questionable in its political undertones.

Tim Brinkhof is a Dutch journalist and researcher living in Atlanta. He has written about history, pop culture and everything in between for Big Think, High Times and Esquire. Follow him at @tmabrnk.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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