What does freedom mean to you?
In the anime world, it’s what many a protagonist strives for. It’s the ultimate goal, the true way to live life, the path to do anything your heart desires.
And then there’s Attack on Titan, which despite its very fictional approach, displays the setbacks and trappings of freedom, being “special,” and humanity at large. It also shows that freedom doesn’t mean what a lot of people think it does.
In the United States, everyone yearns for freedom. Why shouldn’t they? America’s slogan of “give me liberty or give me death” may as well be a promise to its citizens that no matter what, as long as you live here, you are free from oppressive restrictions. For as long as we can remember, that’s always been one of America’s most significant selling points. But as society grew wiser during the Information Age, citizens began seeing the strings. People began to see America for what it really was and that freedom in the United States meant the freedom the country allows you to have. The American Dream didn’t die; it never existed as anything more than an economic selling point to live and contribute to paying off the country’s debt.
It only became legal for same-sex marriage in 2015; our grandparents still remember segregation. And the only way people ever got their rights in history was to fight for them.
©Hajime Isayama, KODANSHA/’ATTACK ON TITAN’
Attack on Titan protagonist Eren Yeager is the definition of fighting for freedom, thanks to his inherited power as a Titan, a huge human-like monster with the power to destroy militaries and topple countries. He came from Paradis Island, where the inhabitants all thought they were the last vestiges of humankind, thanks to the wild man-eating Titans that keep them enclosed in their three towns. Most Titans are mindless creatures, but only the truly special ones (like Eren) retain all their faculties.
However, at this point, he finally began to see the strings. He learned from his father that his dad comes from across the ocean, Marley, where civilization thrives and technology exists, but those from Paradis are hated and not invited. They’re not invited because the citizens are all susceptible to becoming the same Titans that surround their island. Those citizens who weren’t sent to the island and remained in Marley are essentially slaves that live in concentration camps. And special Titans like Eren are used as military deterrents; even the Titans are used to topple his hometown. It was a strategic espionage attack by Marley to secure the Attack Titan and one-day pillage of its resources.
Eren fought Titans as a Paradis soldier after they ravaged his home and killed his mother, only to find out he’s also a Titan. One of those Titans that rob society of their freedom to explore the outside world. He swore to use this power to kill the Titans responsible for wiping out everything he loved, only to find out Titans are human. When he sets his sights on the powers that be within his small island and seats the rightful ruler of Paradis on the throne, he finds out humanity exists outside his home, and they hate his kind. All the fighting and loss of lives he thought would bring him freedom only revealed he’s less free than he ever thought.
Humanity keeps humanity from achieving freedom, not monsters. Society dictates that no man be freer than the other, and anyone not adhering to this rule will be fighting to keep their “freedom” from the powers that be. This radicalizes Eren, and he reduces himself to terroristic tactics in order to secure his worldview.
He has to lash out at the society that oppresses him, no matter how many innocents, which only makes him the enemy, just like what happened to him. To gain freedom, you must stomp out the ones preventing you from being free. The one preventing another from being free usually lives in peace, and vice-versa. And freedom cannot be given, only taken. This means peace somewhere else has to be shattered in order for somewhere else to have freedom.
This is how wars are created, and a war indeed breaks out between Paradis and the rest of the world, starting with Marley.
The only people in the AOT world that can attain freedom are the special ones, and the only ones that can enjoy peace are the average citizen, who is shaped by rules and societal constructs. But it takes the shattering of social constructs to create freedom for certain people. But when you look upon the destruction and terror you had to commit to attain and keep your freedom, is it even worth it? Are you better off just being ordinary and conformist?
Being the Attack Titan, Eren can’t help but try to attain freedom, no matter what he has to do. Freedom is a natural desire with a darker side that most anime isn’t willing to explore. It shows how an innocent and relatable cause can turn evil and cruel when extrapolated to its biggest stakes.
It’s how civil unrest comes about. It’s why riots ensue, revolutions, terrorist attacks, online vitriol, and hate speech. It’s why every other anonymous Twitter profile uses Eren Yeager like they used Guy Fawkes a decade ago: Eren symbolizes us and our desperate desire for freedom, to be heard, and to feel special. The same people who love Joker and making “we live in a society” memes so they can laugh away the truth.
But like so many of us, even those who read the AOT manga to its conclusion, and Eren himself, still have no idea what “freedom” is or the weight of “being special.” Otherwise, they wouldn’t want to be Eren. When Eren finally learns the truth, he doesn’t even want to be Eren anymore.
If you’re looking for answers in a world full of lies and want freedom but aren’t sure what that looks like, you should be watching Attack on Titan: Final Season Part 3.
Attack on Titan, March 3, Crunchyroll