TAIPEI (JR) — When the Season 3 plot twist of “Attack on Titan” aired in 2019, viewers wasted no time in jumping online to discuss what they saw.
In the world of “Attack on Titan” — an extremely popular Japanese anime series now in its final season, which started in March and does not have a known end date — humanity has been trapped within a walled city on the island of Paradis, surrounded by Titans, grotesque giants who mindlessly eat any person who gets in their way.
In the third season, the Titans’ origins are revealed as a group called the Eldians, a group that made a deal with the devil to gain Titan powers with which they subjugated humanity for years. A group called the Marleyans later overthrew the Eldian empire and forced them into ghettoes, forcing them to wear armbands that identified their race with a symbol similar to the Star of David. Political prisoners were injected with a serum that turns them into the terrifying Titans.
The implications that a race meant to represent Jews had made “a deal with the devil” to achieve power were too much for some to bear. Fans debated the meaning on Twitter and Reddit as think pieces pointed to the show’s “fascist subtext” and possible antisemitism as ratings and viewership climbed. Some viewers defended the series as a condemnation of those ideas and a meditation on moral ambiguity, but others said the plot’s condemnation of fascism was too weak. The New Republic in 2020 called “Attack on Titan” “the alt-right’s favorite manga.”
Either way, in November 2021, the show’s production team announced it would cancel the sale of Eldian armbands — the ones Eldians were forced to wear in their ghettos — explaining that it was “an act without consideration to easily commercialize what was drawn as a symbol of racial discrimination and ethnic discrimination in the work.”
“Attack on Titan” is only the latest manga (a specific type of Japanese comic books or graphic novels) or anime (TV shows or movies animated in the manga style) series on the chopping block. As it continues to gain popularity outside of Japan’s borders, the Japanese animation medium as a whole has been hit with criticism for alleged glorification of antisemitism, fascism and militarism. The debate has been fueled by a stream of examples: the literal evil Jewish cabal in “Angel Cop,” (references to Jews were later removed in the English-language dubbed version), the Fuhrer villain in “Fullmetal Alchemist,” the Nazi occultism (in which Nazis channel the occult to carry out duties or crimes) in “Hellboy,” and the Nazi characters in “Hellsing” and “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure” to name a few.
Western viewers are not the only ones taking issue. Fans of “Attack on Titan” in South Korea — which was subject to Japanese war atrocities during World War II that Japan continues to deny — have taken issue, too. Revelations from Hajime Isayama, the creator of the original “Attack on Titan” manga, that a character in the series was inspired by an Imperial Japanese army general who had committed war crimes against Koreans were met with heated discussion and later death threats from Korean fans online. Some also pointed to a private Twitter account believed to be run by Isayama that denies imperial Japan’s war atrocities.
“Ridiculous the lengths a fandom will go to downplay the blatant antisemitism in a series and protect and lie about the creator of said series,” wrote one Twitter user. “[Y]ou doing this and ignoring koreans and jewish people says a lot.”
These themes are so common in manga and anime that some independent researchers like Haru Mena (a pen name) have begun creating classifications for the many Nazi tropes that make regular appearances. Mena, a military researcher who lectures annually at the Anime Boston convention about World War II and Nazi imagery in anime and manga, says the phenomenon is a result of how Japan remembers its role in World War II — not as the aggressor, but as a victim of war.
“Japan does not want to be the bad guy. They love to have other people be the bad guy,” he said. “That’s why they’re using all these Nazi characters. We all agree Nazis are bad, war crimes are bad, no decent self-respecting nation would ever do [what they did].”
But many Jewish anime fans, like Reddit user Desiree (who did not offer her last name for privacy reasons), have taken issue with the way some anime and manga series portray Nazis while reducing the Holocaust to narrative devices.
“I think that most people who are telling these stories aren’t coming from an area where this would be as personally familiar,” she said. “There’s almost no resonance to it. Because they take away all these details they make it a big trope.”
East Asian interest in Nazi imagery has also bled over into the West in the form of news headlines in recent years — involving everything from Nazi-themed bars and parades to Nazi cosplay in Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Korea.
But some experts say that repeated references to Nazi villains and World War II in manga and anime have more to do with Japanese history and culture than with antisemitism.
“There is a fascination with Nazism in Japan to some degree or another,” said Raz Greenberg, an Israel-based writer whose Ph.D. research examined Jewish influence on Japan’s “God of Comics,” Osamu Tezuka, an artist sometimes referred to as Japan’s equivalent to Walt Disney. In 1983, Tezuka released the first in a five-volume series called “Adolf,” a popular manga set in World War II-era Japan and Germany about three men with that name — a Japanese boy, a Jewish boy and Hitler.
“I think there’s something fascinating about Nazi aesthetic, certainly for countries that never actually participated in the war against the Nazis. But I don’t think it’s that different from, say, the way George Lucas made the Empire in the ‘Star Wars’ films very Nazi-like in its aesthetic,” Greenberg said.
As Greenberg notes, Western media is also full of Holocaust references — some more successful in its repudiation of Nazi ideology than others — like the numbered tattoos and recent use of a Lithuanian prison camp as a filming location in the Netflix hit show “Stranger Things.”
“What makes people angry is, people think when the Japanese approach it, they approach it without understanding. And it’s easier to think that they don’t understand it when you look at a show like ‘Attack on Titan,’” Greenberg said.
Liron Afriat, a Ph.D. candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Asian Sphere program and the founder of the Anime and Manga Association of Israel, said while shows like “Attack on Titan” reference the Holocaust and use World War II-era imagery, it’s likely that Western viewers are misinterpreting its intended parallels to Japanese politics. … particularly Japan’s past of aggressive and corrupt militarism and late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempts to reinstate a non-defensive military.
“Western people are very eager to jump to conclusions when it comes to Asian media. This is something I see a lot in my work and it’s very frustrating,” she said. “There is a sense that because Japanese pop culture is so popular nowadays, it’s very easy to kind of dogpile on it and say it’s racist.”
In recent decades, anime series have been watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world, and the medium has gone from being seen in the West as a geeky niche genre to a mainstream phenomenon. Though show creators may be conscious about their references, some fans say the fascist and Jewish references, especially the more clear-cut ones — like the Jewish conspiracy in “Angel Cop” — have real-life consequences.
Many in the anime fan community today remember a 2010 incident at Anime Boston when a group of cosplayers dressed up as characters from “Hetalia: Axis Powers,” a series that anthropomorphized Axis and Ally countries, was photographed making Nazi salutes just around the corner from the city’s Holocaust memorial.
“It used to be like, I can go to an anime convention and they would be selling uniforms that were clearly meant to be Nazi uniforms, but sans the swastika,” Desiree said. “And then over time, I noticed conventions started banning that kind of thing.”
Noah Oskow is the managing editor of the digital magazine Unseen Japan and a Jew who has lived in Japan for seven years. He recalled similar experiences at U.S. anime conventions.
“I think that it is problematic to portray Nazis and the Holocaust in the very frivolous way that it’s often portrayed,” he said. “Even in a place that is so far removed from Japan, that aesthetic of Nazis from manga or anime was seeping into somebody’s choices in a far-removed anime and manga event.”
Oskow says recent portrayals of Nazis and fascism in anime and manga lack the depth necessary to confront an issue like the Holocaust, but that some subtext in shows like “Attack on Titan” is likely missed by Western viewers since it is created for a Japanese audience.
Still, he says, as a Jew, there is a discomfort with these depictions, and the problems with simplifying themes like fascism and genocide should not be ignored just because the product came from Japan — particularly as stereotypes about Jews as having outsize influence remain common. In Japan, as in other East Asian nations such as South Korea, China and Taiwan, books and classes on how to become as smart and wealthy as Jews — believed to be among the most powerful people in media and finance — are not uncommon.
“In my years of discussing Jews with Japanese people…they really think of Jews as an ancient historical people or the people who were killed in the Holocaust unless they have some sort of conspiratorial idea. But most people have no conception of Jewish people,” Oskow said. “So when they’re portraying Jews in manga or anime or any sort of media, and when readers or viewers are engaging with that media, I just don’t think there’s this thought of how a Jewish person would perceive how they’re being portrayed.”
Jessica, a 29-year-old Jewish and Chinese anime fan from Vancouver who also requested her last name be left out of this article, said she deliberately chooses not to watch shows such as “Attack on Titan” and “Hetalia” because she finds the discussions about them among fans to be unproductive and frustrating. Desiree echoed Jessica’s experience of being ignored when raising the topic of antisemitism within the medium or within the fan community on platforms such as Reddit.
“I saw the reactions of other Jewish fans and, more importantly, saw the reaction of the goyish fans — the way ‘Hetalia’ fans did the sieg heil in front of a Holocaust memorial, the way that [‘Attack on Titan’] fans would swarm concerned Jewish fans in droves to tell them that they should perish in an oven, and I decided I didn’t want anything to do with anime that attracted that sort of fanbase,” Desiree said.
“Attack on Titan” returned to streaming services on March 4 with the first part of its final season. In the first episode, the protagonist Eren, whom audiences have followed for a decade, begins carrying out a global genocide known as “the rumbling” with the end goal of destroying all Titans for good and bringing peace. The end result is a wipeout of 80% of humanity, an act that Eren believes was the only path to freedom. He thinks humans must all suffer as a consequence of being born into the world — a nihilistic philosophy that can be found among the manifestos of school shooters and incels.
In the original manga series, Eren’s supporters on the island militarize in order to defend Eren’s violent act, chanting a slogan: “If you can fight you win, if you cannot fight you lose! Fight, fight!” The ending was seen as morally ambiguous and was not popular with fans, who mostly refuted it due to poor writing. Many hope that the anime series will go a different route in its final episodes, which have not yet been released or given future release dates.