While I was watching and reading Attack on Titan, I was most interested in the arc of Eren’s character. His journey from idealistic (and slightly annoying) hero to self-sacrificing villain immediately reminded me of Frank Herbert’s Dune protagonist Paul Atreides. Both are messiahs burdened with rescuing their imperiled people; both have a fascinating prescient ability to manipulate time and memory; both make the conscious decision to become irredeemable villains for a perceived greater good.
In this review: First, I’ll review AoT in general with a practical and helpful lens on the plot, character development, investment, and so on.
Then, I’ll dive into our two villainous messiahs—and why this rare character trope is one of the best to exist.
Attack on Titan is Testing Me
It’s true that many anime take their sweet time rolling out the backstories of many of the characters. It is also true that many of the events and relationships in the first two seasons of AoT have exquisite, immediate relevance to the dramatic later seasons.
BUT. Literature does this too, and from experience I know that there are certain ways to go about this character-building that don’t make the reader…itchy. Things in the first two seasons built upon one another in a never-ending avalanche of things I didn’t care about and didn’t want to be forced to watch. Long Eren speeches that I got the jist of after thirty seconds. Tender bonding moments that hit the viewer over the head so hard with THESE PEOPLE LOVE EACH OTHER AND WOULD DIE FOR EACH OTHER I almost wondered if there was some kind of trick (there was, but not until the end).
So, the first two seasons needed more movement and more interest. I will not compromise on this point. The later seasons move much more quickly, and guess what! It’s fine. The entire origin story of the titans, Eren’s powers, and the various nations of the world is explained succinctly and intriguingly. Hard to make excuses for the first two seasons when the second two are so vibrant.
In any case, I passed the test of the first two seasons, and I don’t regret it. But I can still hold a grudge.
My Eyes are Happy
The Epic Dopeness of the Anime & Manga Visuals
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the clouds. Some of the skies in this anime were distractingly exquisite. Anyone will tell you that the battle scenes in both the anime and the manga are stunning. The battles are long, no-holes-barred war, and the ODM gear is the icing on top. The concept was cool from its infancy in season one and remains the dopest visual on the show through to the very last manga chapter.
And the pure titans—what a strange, hard-to-achieve creepiness.
Attack on Titan, manga + anime:
How Paul Atreides and Eren Yeager redefine the corruption arc
all the spoilers ahead!
Paul Atreides does not want to save anybody—except, perhaps, his family. However, Paul has special abilities that he was either born with or that he develops: eventually, he possesses perfect prescience and an ability to move through past and present memories stretching throughout thousands of years of humanity. As these meta time/memory powers emerge, Paul becomes aware of a “terrible purpose:” something looming and dangerous in his future, something he will do as the fated Kwisatz Haderach (literally meaning ‘the one who was promised’). He views this purpose with dread from nearly the moment he is aware of it.
“He understood terrible purposes. They drove against all odds. They were their own necessity. Paul felt that he had been infected with terrible purpose. He did not know yet what the terrible purpose was.”
Yet Paul wants to be good. Paul wants to save people, even wants to save humanity. He does not enjoy killing. At the beginning of his journey, Paul seeks peace and stability for his family; that is all. The destruction of these things is what begins to lead him toward his “terrible purpose:” a universe-wide genocide—a jihad that kills billions, all in the name of humanity’s eventual survival. Because Paul can see so totally into the past and the future, he eventually passes a threshold over which this mass genocide is the only solution he can see. It is not only inevitable; it is inescapable. So he becomes the catalyst for the murder of billions. Willingly. Sacrificially. With that exquisite, tortured reluctance that calls to mind a male love interest breaking the girl’s heart because she’ll be better in the long run.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Eren Yeager just wants stability and survival for his people, too. At first, the enemy is simple: it is the titans outsie the wall. Eren, with his mysterious attack titan abilities, is a hero. Simple. Several seasons focus on his emerging importance and the heroics he shows. Then, as his abilities continue to develop in seasons three and four, he becomes a savior of Paradis—a messiah, just like Paul.
He also gains access to past and present memories—of both himself and other Elidians—through the attack titan’s powers.
Memory as time travel is rich ground for drama and story.
As he gains both access to and control over all these memories, Eren, like Paul, sees only one way to save humanity. Eren’s terrible purpose is its own genocide, this time, according to the manga, of eighty percent of the human population. Indeed, the reason for this genocide is very similar to Paul’s reason: if it isn’t slaughtered in a wholesale manner, humanity will tear itself apart, fight itself literally to death, or else limp out of existence, mediocre and impotent.
“He found that he no longer could hate [them]. They were all caught up in the need of their race to renew its scattered inheritance, to cross and mingle and infuse their bloodlines in a great new pooling of genes. And the race knew only one sure way for this—the ancient way . . . jihad.”
However. Both stories—Dune more so, to some extent—point out that even though these two characters are ostensibly all-seeing and supposedly working in humanity’s self-interest, they are still hopelessly guilty.
Both of these characters come to believe that they are allowed to judge whether a person deserves to live or die. Self-hatred aside, they act as gods.
In Dune, there is extensive discussion about keeping the human gene pool varied and the danger of gene stagnation—which amounts to humanity’s eventual inability to keep procreating successfully.
In AoT, Zeke nearly succeeds in his ‘euthanasia’ plan to keep Elidians from having children, therefore ending their line. Both of these concepts take a stab at the purpose of humanity in general. They ask: is our purpose just to survive?
On a macro level, yes. That’s why it doesn’t work. That’s what AoT does well that Dune sometimes lacks: fleshed-out characters that find life precious on the smallest scale.
There are arguments against the concept of all-powerful, god-like prescience that both Paul and Eren develop. But I personally like the argument that these corrupt messiahs made the wrong decision because of the daily joys and individual lives they destroy. Paul and Eren’s solutions take the easy way out, instead of the long, grueling solution that would look more like inching toward understanding and a lot more messy fighting. But they also obliterate all the beauty and grace that would have blossomed in tandem with the longer, harder fight toward peace.
Attack on Titan is available on Netflix in most countries.