Manga is Literature, Too: Analyzing Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan as a Neo-noir
Author: Helayna Raffaele
Content Warning: Spoilers, dark themes
What constitutes good literature? If you were to ask my professors, most would refer to the literary canon: a largely Western collection of texts, praised for their literary nuance and technique. Though when its narrow selection is put up to question, instructors often defend the canon for its impact on society. But let’s get real here: Hajime Isayama’s debut manga, Attack on Titan, holds more social relevance today than most Shakespeare plays. Isayama’s work presents decade old debates on ethics and morals in a new light, whereas a Shakespeare reference is now deemed cliché and exhausted. With the unyielding success of Isayama’s manga, I, as a reader, feel inclined to highlight the immense literary achievement it accomplishes: crafting a deeply profound neo-noir.
Attack on Titan tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic world where human-eating giants, the titans, have massacred nearly all of humanity. Survivors barricade themselves behind 50-meter walls in an ironic attempt to live freely — that is, until that day. On what seemed like just another post-apocalyptic day, titans breached the walls, and subsequently, what small sense of liberty they provided. This idea of freedom and how to achieve it serves as a core theme for Isayama’s narrative. More specifically, it begs the questions: what does it mean to be free? Who deserves it? And at what cost? Isayama uses these questions to evoke feelings of moral ambiguity, alienation, and a lingering sense of nihilism — which together, form a neo-noir.
I’ll be honest, I could go on for essays about all the minute ways Attack on Titan is a neo-noir. But for the sanity of us all, allow me to limit my analysis to the overarching goal of the genre: revelling in the darkest parts of our own humanity. You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again, but real life is not like the movies. We’ve become so accustomed to Hollywood’s happy ending that we forgot how to process the tragic ones. Rather than contributing to this disillusionment, a neo-noir forces readers to face tragedy through its cathartic plot and protagonist. To quote Otto Penzler for HuffPost:
Look, noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they’d be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let’s face it, they deserve it.
These tragic aspects of the protagonist are what exude the moral ambiguity, alienation, and nihilism that are so vital to neo-noir; their unconventional (and often self-serving) morals are what alienate them from society at large, only furthering their depravity. Seeing such a flawed protagonist allows readers to find a degree of validation to their own darkest parts — something we don’t often find. We’re so focused on constant growth and revolutionary change that we fear to acknowledge the times we fail in doing so. Just picture neo-noir as your nihilistic best friend, there to remind you that nothing perfect can exist in such an imperfect world. Though in order to do so, the author must write such a compelling protagonist that readers from all walks of life may find resonance within them — and that is precisely what makes this genre so challenging.
In Attack on Titan, we’re given the pleasure of having two tragically fated protagonists: Eren Jaeger and Reiner Braun. The characters initially act as foils, completely contrasting one another’s beliefs and motives. Though as a neo-noir would have it, the fine line between what makes these two so different gradually deteriorates throughout their development. Initially, we’re led to believe Eren is our sole protagonist, determined to destroy anything that compromises the freedom of him and his world within the walls. Though over halfway through the series, the perspective shifts to Reiner and the ways he strives for freedom for his world outside of the walls. Each protagonist appears to be doing what is right for the sake of their respective worlds — but is it still considered “right” if at the expense of one another? Isayama creates this open-ended question as a way for readers to begin doubting their own morality.
In chapter 100, “Declaration of War,” Isayama epitomizes his neo-noir protagonists as they meet face-to-face. I’ve never been one for superhero movies, but I imagine this is what Marvel fans felt seeing the final stand off between Thanos and the Avengers. Though instead of being sworn enemies, the chapter completely defiles any distinction between who is good and who is evil. “I’m the same as you,” explains Eren. “We were born this way. I just keep moving forward. Until my enemies are destroyed.” This one-in-the same mentality is Eren’s way of saying there is no one source of good or evil within the world. Depending on who you are and the environment you find yourself in, each is subjective. When we’re taught history in North America, for example, any Western war effort seems to be in the name of the greater good. Nothing seemed good about Hiroshima, but nobody wants to be on the wrong side of history.
This is a good time to mention that the final two chapters of the manga have yet to be released — so why am I so certain that it will end in tragedy? As of chapter 137, Eren has gained control of the titans in order to destroy all of humanity beyond the walls. Chapters upon chapters depict innocent lives being lost in vain, and with them, all hope for peace. What’s left of the main character cast attempts to kill Eren in effort to save the world.
Here’s why they can’t.
At this point, a large part of humanity is dead. Eren has already set the stage for the “lost and lonely” world of neo-noir as described by Penzler. Whether certain main characters live or die cannot change that. All that matters now is how we cope with it. But if I’m right about Hollywood feeding our inability to accept tragedy, how does one cope with it? With that lingering sense of nihilism, Isayama invites the idea of purpose.
When I say purpose, you most likely imagine something quite grand, like the idea of leaving this world a better place. While this is the case for some, it can’t be for all. After reading the latest chapter, I found myself enticed by Armin’s understanding of purpose as trivial moments: reading a book on a rainy day, racing his friends through a warm summer breeze, or even feeding a lone squirrel. None of these instances are necessary in Armin’s quest to save the world, but they were precious moments nonetheless. Amidst the impending apocalypse, Isayama reminds us that not everything in life has a grand reason or purpose, because not everything needs one. Sure, the idea is still a little tragic, but the only way to truly cope with tragedy is to accept it for what it is. Cut the romantics. Cry it out. Then once you’re ready, keep moving forward.
Good literature, in my opinion, is not a matter of being canonized. Rather, good literature changes the way you view the world. By adapting the neo-noir genre to manga, Isayama has indefinitely changed the world of his readers. Lately, I find myself questioning certain thoughts. I wonder if they come from the place I think of as “goodness” and if anyone else thinks the same. For a while, I even wondered if pondering the very idea was my only purpose. I think some of us are born with the purpose to think, while others, to do. Though as the compulsive thinker I am, it led me to this thought: who’s to say our purpose must be obeyed? Similarly, why must goodness — in literature or morals — be bound by a binary? If you take away anything from Isayama’s neo-noir, let it be that you decide how to answer these questions — but there’s no guarantee that your choice will be the right one.