In war and horror alike, the meaning of bravery becomes amplified as the danger increases. But perhaps the most tragic question to come from these stories is, how do you keep fighting when your best friend is gone? That’s a question that Attack on Titan tackles in its second volume, with surprising nuance.
(Spoilers abound, so read with caution).
Of special interest here is Mikasa’s character. Her tenacity and sheer skill in combat easily makes her the strongest warrior among the humans, and yet Eren’s death pushes her to new limits. When Armin has to tell her about it, how he witnessed his death, he expects Mikasa to fall apart. She doesn’t. Instead, she says “This is no time to get emotional” (she herself does get emotional, although it’s in more subtle ways).
One of the things I like about how this story is plotted is that it never forces explanations too early. It’s only now, when we need to know the full extent of the grief that Mikasa is suffering, that we go into the full details of her character. We learn about a tragic kidnapping, the murder of her parents, and it’s even hinted that she’ll be sold as a sex slave. That’s when Eren rescues her – and it’s a brutal, bloody rescue – and persuades her to fight for herself so that they can survive.
Survival. That’s the key theme here. It was a clear theme of the first volume, with it’s war-film-esque plot structure, but now it takes on a different perspective. Because for Mikasa, both back then and now, to survive means to keep fighting. In essence, it means to keep killing.
On the level of mankind’s battle against the titans, this works really well. It’s good for her to push on, to keep fighting, especially since she’s fighting not only for herself, but for the survival of her people, as well. When it comes to the kidnapping, however, it’s hard not to be shocked by the immense violence of it all. The violence against the titans never feels that significant, especially since they eat the humans, and they aren’t human themselves. The scene where Eren rescues Mikasa, however, is brutal and on some level disturbing, especially considering Eren’s young age at the time. While I understand and appreciate the point that this makes – how Eren was so concerned with saving her that he didn’t think about his own life, and how Mikasa was strong, and didn’t let herself become a victim – it’s hard to see where theme becomes gratuitous.
With that said, this idea manifests itself in some remarkable ways once we’re brought back to the present. Mikasa’s bravery along with Armin’s ingenuity helps them continue to survive. The concern that Mikasa shows for Armin in particular continues to give some small sense of optimism in this bleak world. Her character is given a great deal of complexity in this volume, which is very refreshing, given how female tend to be sexualized and objectified in Japanese and American comics alike.
This is a world seeped to its eyes in death. In this volume more than the last one, the violence occasionally slips into the gratuitous. But it’s also a world that prizes bravery and tenacity in the face of despair, and promises, even if it be in a small way, a light at the end of the tunnel.