As Attack on Titan‘s plot develops, the story becomes increasingly political, with social commentary galore. Much of that is positive, but not all of it; especially when the series touches on religion.
Eren is dangerous. He knows that, Mikasa and Armin know that, and most importantly, the leaders of humanity know it. Eren’s ability to turn into a titan did help them plug up the breached gate, but first, he attacked Mikasa, an event he has no memory of. He has helped them, but he’s uncontrollable and at times unpredictable as a titan. How do they know he won’t turn into a titan in his sleep? How do they know that being a titan is his actual identity, rather than his being a human?
As we’ve explored in previous reviews of this series, this touches on a great deal of identity issues that are particularly salient to Christians – is the sinner or the Christian the greater part of my identity? I could turn back into that monster we call a sinner at any point, and that’s something I can’t control. Clearly, there are limits to this analogy (we can’t use the sinner part of our identity for any good), but it is still quite an effective theme with spiritual connotations. As Eren moves on to his military tribunal, however, there are other themes that come into play, and ones that are more external for Eren than internal.
Earlier issues dove into the fact that people had assumed having a non-human enemy would unite the human race, but that hasn’t actually happened. Humanity is still divided. Never is that more clear than in the case of the tribunal, when the good will of the Survey Corps is contrasted with the utilitarian ethics of the Military Police Brigade (who want to kill Eren and turn him into a martyr). Eren marvels that, even in this dire situation, the different sectors of authority are still looking out for their own good. This is a highly political statement, but expresses a scriptural principle: pride is a highly corrosive sin, and power continues to corrupt, even (and perhaps especially) in times of war.
But the troubling thing about this particular scene is that it doesn’t stop at using the different branches of the government, but introduces the church, as well. The church in Attack on Titan is a radical religious group, and a young one, only having started five years ago, but one which treats Eren as an abomination, and the walls that surround humanity’s dwelling as “a gift from God.” It is probably worth mentioning here that in Japan, monotheistic religions are in the minority. The largest segment of Japanese people identify with no religion, or are informal observers of the Shinto tradition. It seems, then, as though Isayama has Christians in particular in mind with this criticism, particularly given the minister’s dress, which is particularly reminiscent of what is sometimes called the “high faiths” of Catholicism or Anglicism, where the clergy dress in more formal wear. In the interest of treating this story fairly, I should say that this element is only present in one scene of the story, and even that is very brief. But even so, these religious people are portrayed as radicals devoid of a shred of compassion, or even critical thinking. If developed further, this could have the potential to undercut the more spiritual themes that the manga series addresses in its best moments.
That is roughly the first half of this volume. The second half becomes particularly intriguing as it addresses the mystery surrounding the titans, and are they all actually brute animals? Although this is not developed until following Eren’s tribunal, it is introduced in the very beginning of the volume, in a flashback in which a titan attempts to communicate, albeit briefly, with a member of the Survey Corps. Later, we’re introduced to Squad Leader Hange, a leader within the Survey Corps who has a very unorthodox approach to the titans. Although she was once driven by hate for them, she now approaches them with scientific inquiry, and an approach that is almost compassionate. Eren calls this out as a possible betrayal of the human race. Hange doesn’t completely respond to this, except to say that she’s trying a different approach. There are other attempts to understand the titans, and when the Survey Corps eventually gets out into the field, more confusing behavior on the part of the titans ensues.
Where exactly Isayama is going with this particular theme will probably not be clear until following volumes. The series does seem to be attempting to turn around a new corner, thematically speaking, moving from the internal struggle of Eren and his identity to more external struggles related to humanity’s struggle with the titans. What exactly that means I cannot tell. But for the time being, I continue to view this series as being a potentially great examination of the struggle between vice and virtue, if the concerning elements with regards to religion are abandoned.