Attack On Titan: Anger as a Source of Motivation
You’d have to be blind and deaf to not know that Attack On Titan has stolen the hearts of countless anime fans, taking the ani-world by storm and raising the bar for Japanese animation with its intricate story-line, beautiful (and sometimes intense) graphics, character intrigue, and overall excitement. The basic premise of the series, which debuted in 2013 and is still ongoing, concerns hotheaded Eren Jaeger’s quest to rid the world of all titans–giant, seemingly mindless humanoid monsters that have almost driven humanity out of extinction. The plot grows ever thicker as new mysteries concerning the titans unfold, such as where they come from, what motivates them, and how to stop them.
Throughout the series, it’s clear that it takes a lot of determination for Eren and the other characters to fight the titans. Merely breaking the spell of fear cast by the titans’ presence takes a lot of determination. Thus, it’s hard not to ask questions about what drives Eren and his companions in their quest to defeat the titans. If it takes a serious amount of determination and willpower to fight and kill the titans (strength and skill aside), where do the characters draw their emotional strength from? What drives Eren and his companions to fight back against the ominous, seemingly invincible might of the titans? Are their drives just and noble, or are Eren and his companions just as bad as the titans?
Note: this post contains spoilers.
The Birth of Anger
You don’t have to watch more than a few episodes to gather that Eren is a hothead (as the male-leads of anime so often are). His childhood reveals that he often gets into fights (and often loses them too), more or less over menial things. Eren is naturally an anger-driven person, whether he’s fighting titans or not. What’s worthy to note is that Eren resorts to violence to solve his problems.
Enter the heart-crushing death of his mother. No child should have to watch his mother get eaten by a titan…but Eren does. Whereas Eren’s anger–directed and channeled into his fights with bullies or disrespectful soldiers–used to seem pointless and immature, now Eren’s anger has a purpose. Scarred by the death of his mother, Eren now has drive. He is going to kill titans, and it is his anger that will empower him to do this.
The Consummation of Anger
Call it a plot-twist. Call it Deus Ex Machina. However you categorize it, one of the biggest ironies in Attack on Titan is that Eren is determined to eradicate the titans…and he ends up becoming a titan. In a successful attempt to save his best friend, Armin, Eren is eaten by a titan. While in the titan’s belly, surrounded by the deformed figures of the humans that were consumed before him, Eren’s will to survive and punish the titans consumes him. Through his hatred of the titans, Eren unleashes a power he didn’t know he had: manifesting his own titan form, he breaks out of the titan he is inside of. He has become a titan-human hybrid, able to switch between being a human and a titan (although with some difficulty!).
In spite of how titan-Eren tends to get the job done, it is considerably unsettling to watch him be consumed by his hatred for the titans, so much that he himself becomes one and rips, batters, and beats other titans to death. There is something truly monstrous about Eren, both literally and morally. As Armin puts it, Eren must give up his humanity in order to save humanity. Through his anger, his hatred, Eren is able to conquer his foes. The question becomes, do the ends justify the means?
The Answer to Every Problem
“I’ll kill you” seems to be Eren’s response to every conflict.
At first glance, one can’t deny that this seems like a drastic, overly-simplified response to conflict. Every time Eren’s friends are endangered, or have been killed, his immediate response is to kill whomever has harmed his friends. Reasonable? Perhaps. Righteous? This is more questionable. Eren’s only response to violence seems to be more violence; a death sentence, in fact. Once again, we see how it is pure, raw anger that drives Eren’s actions.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to condemn Eren’s motives and actions before considering the context of his violent outbursts, as well as his character. Eren is still considerably young; he’s only a teenager, and has been through the most horrifying of experiences and watched loved ones die and get eaten. What’s more, it is more than just the mindless titans who are responsible for this; it is humans too. This only heightens Eren’s sense of anger and his desire to punish those who have offended humanity, since his foes are now conscious, culpable human beings. Eren is angry for good reasons.
Eren’s desire to kill and become a titan is also spurred on whenever he witnesses the death of his companions. Given this context (witnessing the violent death of a friend), it is also understandable that Eren would want to punish whomever or whatever has murdered his friend. It seems a natural response, reasonable or not, moral or not.
Eren’s sense of anger does not go unnoticed by his friends, nor is his sense of anger particular to him alone. Rather, the fires of Eren’s wrathful determination spread to and are shared by his friends, including his adopted sister, Mikasa. Mikasa is truly the bad-ass of the series, and her ability to slay titans so effectively is blatantly fueled by a deep sense of rage towards the titans and the world. Mikasa seems to have a sense of anger and determination that comes from within herself; however, there are also times when her desire to fight is overpowered by a sense of hopelessness.
On two occasions specifically, Eren’s own sense of rage ignites a fire within Mikasa and inspires her to fight–and kill–her way out of tough situations. The first time is when Eren and Mikasa are only children; after Mikasa gets kidnapped by a group of thugs (and possibly future rapists), Eren intervenes in an attempt to rescue Mikasa. Mikasa is afraid to fight her way free of her captors, but Eren inspires her to fight back. When Eren’s life is threatened, Mikasa, even though she is a child, ends up killing one of her captors.
The second time Eren incites Mikasa to fight back is when Mikasa is cornered by a titan, her flying gear destroyed, and she is alone. Merely by recalling Eren’s words, Mikasa finds the strength to grip her broken sword, determined to fight back even though it seems futile to challenge the approaching titan. Mikasa doesn’t even end up fighting the titan, as she is saved by Eren, but this doesn’t change the fact that Eren’s words, fueled by his anger, made Mikasa’s own heart catch fire.
The Justification and Definition of Good and Bad Anger
Upon watching Attack on Titan and the anger-driven characters of the story, a worthy question to be considered is “When is it acceptable for Eren to act on his anger, and for what reasons? Conversely, when is Eren just becoming a monster, caving in to his hatred? Is there a better way for him to act on his anger and do what he must?”
Not even regarding whether his actions are justified or not, Eren’s anger is perfectly acceptable. But what is an acceptable display or response to anger?
Quoting St. Augustine, the philosopher and theologian St. Thomas of Aquinas writes about anger:
“anger craves for revenge.” But the desire for revenge is a desire for something good: since revenge belongs to justice. Therefore the object of anger is good.
-St. Thomas Aquinas
Thus, anger is oriented towards justice: it is a desire for justice. Though “the object of anger is good”, anger can be for “both good and evil”, according to Aquinas. Anger can only be good if it is directed in the right way and for the right reasons. If anger is ignited and acted upon without reference to justice, then anger is no longer good, but merely a manifestation of hatred. On the contrary, when anger is oriented toward righting wrongs and protecting the innocent from someone who is up to no good, then it is justified.
Simply put, anger that is oriented towards righting a wrong or achieving what is just is “good anger”. Anger that lacks control, that is angry just for hatred’s sake, and lacks a sense of justice or mercy, is “bad anger”.
If these can be used as definitions of “good anger” and “bad anger”, is Eren’s anger justified? Or is Eren simply a monster fighting other monsters?
The answers to these questions more or less determine the sense of morality that Attack on Titan possesses as a story. Stories are clearly very powerful, as they have always had a significant impact on society throughout all human history. Attack on Titan is by no means an exception; anyone who watches the anime could understand this. Attack on Titan is emotionally gripping, astoundingly beautiful, and full of intricacies in all the right ways. Thus, being as powerful a story as it is, one might say that it is possible that Attack on Titan has a sense of responsibility towards its viewers.
If the story merely depicts anger (and violently acting on that anger) as a means of solving one’s problems, the anime might rightly be considered a “bad example” for viewers. However, the show is rated Mature Adult for good reasons. When witnessing the intense but even cool, stylized acts of violence performed by hyper-furious characters, a sense of moral responsibility is also placed upon the viewer. Viewers must be able to distinguish between “good anger” and “bad anger” in the show and know from which to draw as a source of inspiration in their own lives. There are certainly many things to be angry about in life; Attack on Titan straightforwardly depicts this truth. But how we react to these things is a question of morality in and of itself, and a worthy question.
Can Eren and the story of Attack on Titan lead the way for how we handle angering issues in the world? Or do they lead us astray?
The Triumph of Anger
There are clearly times when Eren transforms into a titan and acts out of pure hatred. Whether he is protecting innocent people in the act or not, sometimes it seems as if Eren wants to kill titans simply because he enjoys it; simply because he hates them.
However, the thing about well-fashioned characters is that they grow as the series goes on. At the end of Season 2, when confronted by the same titan that ate his mother, Eren seems as if he is prepared to act out of hatred once again. Eren bites all of his fingers off in his attempt to transform into a titan and avenge his mother, but his normal methods for transforming aren’t working. When his childhood adult-friend Hannes is eaten by the titan, Eren finally ceases his violent attempts to transform, in utter shock.
Falling to his knees, the audience hears Eren pour open his heart and confess all of his frustration; whether to himself, to Mikasa, or the world, the viewers don’t know. But out comes the truth. Eren is frustrated because he isn’t strong enough to save the people he cares about. In this intense, beautifully crafted scene, we come to understand the true motives underlying all of Eren’s hatred. Mikasa only encourages the good, even innocent vibes radiating from Eren. She tells Eren how much he means to her, and that he is by no means a failure.
Raised up by Mikasa’s words, Eren stands tall before the titan. It is clear that something has changed about him. He doesn’t try to become a titan once again; unlike so many times before, he doesn’t confess his hatred of the titans before trying to kill one. Rather, spurred on by Mikasa’s words, he confronts his foe by throwing a seemingly insignificant, human-sized punch. For the sake of not spoiling the ending, there’s no need to explain what happens next!
The fact that Eren confesses not hatred of the titans but a desire to protect; the fact that he responds to Mikasa’s words not with more anger towards the titans, but with loving determination–is the audience witnessing, perhaps, a display of noble anger?
Attack on Titan reveals that anger is a powerful motivator. It inspires humans to act both for good and for evil…for good reasons and bad reasons. Anger is oftentimes a very justified emotion; what matters is how one acts on it, and why. Anger is meant to be oriented towards justice, dare we say even love. Although Attack on Titan seems to be full of instances where bad anger gets the better of good anger, Eren is not without the capacity to grow and change his perspective. Rather, Eren reveals to us that change is indeed possible, and that anger can be used correctly to defeat one’s enemies and protect the people a person cares about.
What do you think? Leave a comment.