Attack on Titan: Fan Reception of Religion and Race
Shingeki no Kyojin (SnK) or Attack on Titan is a Japanese anime TV series whose popularity rose exponentially within a few months’ time. Thanks to the quality English dubbing and subbing, this series was able to reach viewers who are not usually fans of anime. This popularity was due to its unique story and magnificent artwork. However, when looking at the series as a text, there is a lack of representation of Blacks and Latinos, while there are representations of religious and atheist groups. Even though the lack of Blacks and Latinos may be taken as problematic, fans see this as a productive aspect. In contrast, the negative representations of the religious characters are seen as problematic by fans. For this article, a brief summary of the plot is needed to understand why a point is productive and/or problematic.
The main genre of SnK is alternative history, so the story is set in an alternative universe yet set on Earth. SnK never states where exactly the characters are set. In this world, humanity is threatened by titans – huge, nude human-like figures that feed on and kill humans. So, through an unknown cause, walls were built around the surviving humans to protect them from titans. The humans do not know where the walls came from or how they were made, and a religion was formed, centered around the worship of the walls. The religious group, the “Wall Cult”, has its own beliefs about the walls. It believe that the walls shouldn’t be modified and that humans shouldn’t leave to the premises outside the walls. A segment of the military named the Survey Corps has other ideas. They constantly leave the walls in order to capture the titans in order to bring them back so scientists can analyze their enemies. The three main characters, Eren Jaeger, Mikasa Ackerman, and Armin Arlert are members of the Survey Corps. The series follows the three childhood friends, along with other minor characters, on their life or death experiences with the titans.
Since the series never explicitly stated the location of the story, fans have actually researched the ethnicities of the characters based on their names in hopes of finding out the location. On the forum thread titled “Real-world version of Shiganshina District Found”, a fan (TitaNick) has found that a location in SnK called Shiganshina District strongly represents a town in Germany: Nördlingen. The similarities are in the actual walls around the town and the walls around humanity in SnK. Also, the buildings look extremely similar. So, this could mean that the artist was inspired by the location or that the series is located in Germany.
Another fan that attempted to pinpoint the setting is Seireina. Seireina has a personal blog on Blogspot. One of her posts is about the ethnicities of the characters in SnK. Also, the series mentions that people of African, Arab, and Asian ethnicity were wiped out due to the titans. Furthermore, the series allows Mikasa to be known as the last Asian descendant that survived the titan attack. Other than Eren and Armin, there are nine other characters that were found to be German. One, Levi, was found to be Israeli, and Ymir was found to be Nordic, and the last character, Hanji Zoe was unknown. So, out of the 15 characters, 12 were found to be European.
Seireina states that:
“They [nationalities] don’t exist anymore because there are no countries, only human lands inside the walls languages would have died out too, with the most prevalent among them surviving.”
Seireina implies that the series is not about nationalities and that ethnicity is not seen as a significant character trait or narrative device. Instead, the humanity versus titans conflict is the central idea in the series. However, as mentioned before, the series does state why there is a lack of any ethnicity other than European. Despite that, fans are still curious as to why the other races did not survive. A comment on Seireina’s post by someone who prefers to remain anonymous, theorizes that the location is in West Russia rather than Germany and they state:
“Western Russia is far enough from the orient that it would be unlikely that very many would make the journey [to the walls] unless they lived somewhere relatively nearby. Europeans would be more likely to make it (though they would be greatly outnumbered by the lucky Germans) due to it being so much closer. It would be the same with Blacks as with East-Asian nations. As for anyone living in the Americas, considering there’s this massive thing called the Atlantic Ocean in the way, I would think it’s highly unlikely that any found their way there in time.”
A majority of the forums do not focus or discuss the representation of the Wall Cult members versus the atheists (who in this case are the members of the military). However, in a post by ‘uminohoshi’ called “7 Reasons That Make Shingeki no Kyojin a Daring Social Commentary”, the topic was initiated by one bullet point on the list. The point is that the series criticizes the religion by making the titan’s middle finger crush the location of worship. One comment by Hykal mentions their disappointment and problematic implementations about religion in the series:
“My biggest problem with portrayal of religion in the anime is not the negative light, it’s more of bad presentation… It’s clear the church is hiding something sinister. But the thing is, we don’t even know anything about the religion… We don’t know what the church actually does for the community. I don’t recall anyone going to church. I didn’t see any sane priests of sorts helping people.”
This comment was then replied with the poster’s perspective, which thinks that the representation of religion is a productive element rather than a problematic one: “I think my intention [of making this post] was if a person is looking for a “daring” social commentary anime, then Shingeki is one of the titles that must definitely be watched or at least be given a try because of these points present in the show… I just found the show daring for presenting the dark facet of some religions.” Thus, uminohoshi sees that SnK has planted itself as a commentary anime that has a stand on social issues and religion is one of them, ultimately making it “daring” in its most positive sense.
Based on online forum posts and opinion pieces, there seems to be a general acceptance of the lack of representation of a variety of ethnicities but a rejection on the representation of religion. The lack of representation of ethnicities is seen as problematic; but thanks to the series implying that it is a narrative development tool, it could be brushed aside as a productive interpretation. Fans of SnK seem to see it portrayal of prey (humanity) versus predator (titans) instead of being a racial discrimination, whereas the blunt and negative representation of religion is seen as problematic. In regards to the military members, which include the three protagonists, whom have no link to religion, are represented as brave heroes, yet the Wall Cult members are seen as sinister and sneaky thieves.
What do you think? Leave a comment.