Isayama Hajime worked nights at an internet café. He found the customers strange and often frightening. Many wandered around aimlessly, struggled to communicate, were drunk and belligerent. Inspired by these phantoms, Hajime, a quiet, polite man, wrote and illustrated Attack on Titan, one of the most popular manga to gain a following outside of Japan. The series has sold over 100 million copies since Bessatsu Shonen Magazine released the first issue of Attack on Titan 11 years ago. When its English-language televised adaptation debuted on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim in 2014, the pilot drew more than 1.3 million viewers.
Hajime credits his work’s wide appeal to its simple premise: “Humanity [is] on the verge of extinction due to the rise of man-eating giants.” Yet over the past decade, the story has moved from a simple narrative of Humans Versus Monsters into an elaborate saga. Though its creator insists that his work’s inspirations are apolitical, he has won acclaim from liberals and the alt-right alike for his story of armed revolution by the persecuted. The difference between the alt-right and the left, of course, is in the interpretation of who is persecuted.
Attack on Titan begins in a city with three walls, surrounded by massive, mindless, near-invulnerable, human-eating monsters called Titans. The city’s populace, stratified into castes and controlled by a repressive military regime, believe they are humanity’s last survivors. At the start of the series, the military is divided into a corrupt, self-serving police force, a garrison that often drinks on the job, and a scout corps that has never succeeded in its mission to take territory beyond the Walls. Several years after Titans break into the outermost tier of the walls, our three main protagonists join the scouts, a unit that has a near–50 percent mortality rate. (Spoilers follow.)
The main character, Eren, discovers he has the power to transform into a Titan, and the scouts capitalize on the advantage to secure and explore territory. After being targeted by the military regime, the scouts lead a coup d’état and install one of their own on the throne.
Eventually, the scouts discover the truth: They live on an island, and there is a vast world beyond. The people within the Walls are members of a persecuted race called Eldians. The Eldian diaspora on the mainland remains scattered across internment zones and refugee camps. Other people use historical grievances against the Eldian Empire, which controlled large chunks of the world during its reign, as a pretext for prejudice against them.
The Titans are former Eldians, forcibly transformed into unthinking beasts by a nation called Marley. When Marley declares war on the people of the Walls, Eren harnesses the ability to control countless Titans, seizing sole jurisdiction over power akin to a nuclear arsenal. At the time of writing, he leads a rebel faction aiming to destroy all life outside of the island. Most of the other protagonists are attempting to halt his genocidal plan.
Since Attack on Titan’s debut, Hajime has received widespread critical acclaim for the series’s thematic complexity, story structure, ambient horror, and sprawling world. Attack on Titan was an instant hit in Japan. (Kodansha, the publishing house that owns Bessatsu Shonen Magazine, spun off a manga series called Attack on Titan: Junior High and four light novels set in the same universe.) Penguin Random House began selling English-language issues in the United States in 2012.
The property reached global popularity with the animated show helmed by Tetsuo Araki, famous for his work on the series Death Note. By 2014, Attack on Titan was available to watch on Netflix, Hulu, and Cartoon Network, in addition to anime streaming sites like Crunchyroll and Funimation.
When asked about what influenced Attack on Titan, Isayama references everything from video games to his frustrations with himself. However, he never mentions politics. He traces the origin of his idea of human-eating creatures to his childhood on a farm, where he was fascinated by the cruelty of animals eating other animals. He compares the walls to the mountains ringing his hometown, Oyama, which he associates with his childhood preoccupation with the idea of escape. He believes his concept of an unequal, walled society, with monsters outside the walls, is “universal.”
He also dislikes didactic storytelling, instead preferring stories that do not provide straightforward answers to complex moral questions. He has stated that he admired the movie In This Corner of the World because it did not answer explicitly whether war is good or bad. “Ultimately, I don’t think [Attack on Titan] passes judgment on what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’” he added.
Isayama’s intent, however, does not remove the politics from Attack on Titan. Whether by cultural osmosis or coincidence, Isayama littered his series with allusions to racial, ethnic, and historical tropes. As a result, the “true” political message of the series has been the subject of furious debate online. Isayama’s silence just makes it easier for audiences to transpose their own ideologies onto the world has created.
Most people consider Attack on Titan a work that straightforwardly condemns the effects of fascism and racism in society. In the internment camps, the broadly sympathetic Eldians are marked with starred armbands—an apparent reference to the yellow badges the Nazis forced Jews to wear. The inequality and propaganda espoused by the fascist military regime are major obstacles that the protagonists must overcome. Isayama turns the topic’s inherent potential for jingoism on its head: Though nearly the entire cast is composed of soldiers, many are cowardly and selfish. Soldiers’ deaths are meaningless far more often than they are glorious.
Meanwhile, Isayama’s erstwhile protagonist is a genocidal maniac radicalized by trauma, and all of his former friends are cooperating to thwart him. Hidden in Attack on Titan’s blood and gore is a deft exploration of the legacies of violence.
Not everyone sees Attack on Titan that way, however. On 4chan, a website now nearly synonymous with the alt-right, the rabid message board /pol/ has archived 57 distinct threads with Attack on Titan in the subject line since 2016 alone. And this is hardly an exhaustive list of racist threads citing or discussing the show. In 2014, a user with a Nazi flag described the series as “one of the most redpilled shows I have seen in a long time,” while people down the list said it was an endorsement of “the revival of National Socialism.” A more recent post from 2019, titled “Redpilling Propaganda in the Form of Movies, TV Programs,” used season three of Attack on Titan as its case study.
For white nationalist denizens of /pol/, Attack on Titan is a brilliant way of normalizing white supremacist ideology for a mainstream audience. In their eyes, the Eldians are a stand-in for white people in Western countries, punished for the crimes of their ancestors’ empires and besieged by subhuman monsters trying to enter their land. The Eldians, brainwashed by a state leader who renounced violence against non-Eldians, represent the white population indoctrinated by liberals to feel empathy for nonwhites. Marley, in this fevered telling, represents the Jews, convincing white people to hate themselves.
These interpretations are strong enough to withstand the actual themes of the show. Isayama takes pains to show that the Eldians are a deeply flawed people in their own right, but his alt-right fans still view the Eldians as members of a master race. Under this reading, the main characters’ heroism provides an example of white vitality and intelligence. The alt-right makes memes about Eren attacking Israel and joining Hitler, all while praising Isayama for including a protagonist who plans to ethnically cleanse the planet.
Here, Isayama’s convoluted racial coding comes to the foreground, because Isayama does construct many symbolic parallels between the Eldians and an ideal Nazi state. Eldian society is ethnically homogeneous, with the exception of a single Asian woman, and all the named Eldians have European names. (It is not clear if they are intended to be white. The pale mukokuseki or “stateless” default character design template used in most Japanese anime is often interpreted as Japanese in Japan and white in the U.S.) The coup against the state could be read as an anticolonial revolution, but the alt-right interprets it as a nationalist putsch against a pacifist state. The opening theme music of the show is even sung in German.
There are also parallels to Imperial Japan. Isayama explicitly based one heroic general on Imperial Japanese Army General Akiyama Yoshifuru, while fans on both the left and the right see close parallels between another character and Nazi General Erwin Rommel. Another character, Mikasa, shares her name with an Imperial Japanese battleship. Given these aesthetic decisions, perhaps it is unsurprising that one poster opened their thread, “When did you realize this was fascist propaganda and that it’s commentary on how the good guys lost WW2?”
There’s fodder for many other, sometimes contradictory, racist interpretations of the show. The Marleyan state is controlled secretly by an Eldian family, reminiscent of right-wing conspiracy theories around Jewish cabals and financiers. On the chan boards, alt-right Attack on Titan fans who detest the Eldians tend to think of the walled city as Israel and consider their expulsion and ghettoization well-deserved punishments.
A contingent of liberal commentators also identified the series as careless at best, and intentional at worst, in its invocation of antisemitic tropes. As one user tweeted, “This boneheaded metaphor has the people analogous to holocaust victims literally turning into giant horrid man-eating monsters.” As another observed, “Attack on Titan’s whole ‘Jews used to rule and brutally oppress the world and fled after losing a war and are the only people who can turn into Titans and literally eat people’ thing is, y’know, pretty gross and maybe a reason not to buy/read/watch it, just FYI.”
Isayama has been the subject of vociferous criticism for alleged right-wing views, usually based on circumstantial evidence. A cohort of Attack on Titan readers became outraged after other fans drew several connections suggesting that Isayama operated a private Twitter account that once minimized war atrocities committed by Japan during its occupation of Korea. Isayama also received death threats in 2013, in response to a blog post he released stating that he based a character on a Japanese Imperial military leader.
The range of audience responses serves as a reminder of people’s tendencies to sift through stories to find the messages they expect. Liberals are not immune: As a left-leaning fan of the manga and show, I read it as a metaphor for anticolonial revolutions and the struggle of building postcolonial states after years of exploitation. White nationalists, bereft of a conflict beyond grinding away the rights minority groups possess, must look to fiction—QAnon conspiracy theories, Attack on Titan, myths of white genocide—to invent a struggle in which they can participate.
Isayama may be unaware of the far-right segment of his fan base in the U.S. He does not tailor the manga to Western audiences and has stated in many interviews that he remains surprised Attack on Titan became an international sensation. He even expressed mild shock in an interview when he heard that some people interpreted his story as an endorsement of Japanese militarism, which he has explicitly repudiated.
He might be disturbed to hear that virulent racists believe his work secretly spreads a message of white supremacy. Or he might not. When asked how people should view his work, Isayama responded, “Being a writer, I believe it is impolite to instruct your readers the way of how to read your story.”