Friday, February 14, 2014

Attack on Titan 12: Wound -- The Battle for Trost (8)

Attack on Titan 12: Wound – The Battle for Trost (8)

So, this is the second of three Attack on Titan episodes about Eren lifting a rock.

That description is a little facetious, but not very. A lot of people have complained about the pacing of the series, and these problems crop up towards the end of the Battle for Trost arc more than perhaps any other. I'm not exactly sure why this bothers me so much – after all, Space Brothers has a similarly glacial pace, and I generally enjoy it as a way to chill out for 24 minutes a week.

But there's also no real aesthetic of urgency in Space Brothers, whereas there definitely is one in Attack on Titan. The best moments of the series are moments of total panic and confusion, where Titans have devastated the city and no hope is in sight. Attack on Titan sells the total despair and devastation of war better than almost anything else I've seen. But the flip side of that success is that the stalling techniques developed by long-running episodic series[1] are more egregious and seem like more of an affront to the visceral drama that the scenes of devastation promise.

Eren's resurrection as a superhuman has already undercut some of the grisly aesthetic of the early episodes, taking away the sense of consequence to the carnage by at first challenging and then reaffirming the central characters' invulnerability. When the colossal titan appeared behind Eren in the fourth episode, it was a dramatic jolt of immediacy: the narrative distance we expected to appear between the training arc and the next fight sequence was abridged abruptly, defamiliarizing the viewer from their genre expectations and establishing the uncompromising brutality of the setting. The later episodes in this arc make an opposite maneuver, stretching out the narrative distance we expect from such a seemingly simple task, and making Attack on Titan seem much more generic (in the non-pejorative sense) than it had before.

Still, what happens in this episode isn't total filler. The central drama, of Eren attempting to lift a boulder in order to seal the hole the Titans busted in a wall, is not as trivial as such a brief description makes it sound. I'm reminded of the famous Steve Ditko sequence in Amazing Spider-man, where Spider-man lifting a heavy metal object is transformed from a simple physical task to an expression of the human will.

Compare & contrast:

The labouring body has been aestheticized for political purposes by pretty much every ideology imaginable over the past century. Capitalists like Ditko used extreme physical labour to portray the individual claiming their own personal freedom. Communists romanticized the manual labourer as the source of revolutionary fervour. And fascists made the perfect labouring body an object of national desire through Olympia and other pieces of propaganda. Of course, most people who did (and do) manual labour would be surprised to discover that it was liberatory and noble instead of just painful and miserable.

Politically, Attack on Titan leans closest to fascism. Like many popular genre narratives, it adheres to Susan Sontag's ideas of fascist art in that it fixates on a single heroic individual, the need to obey him, and the idealizaiton of the body. But even moreso than your usual superhero narrative, Attack on Titan understands the role of the state and the role of the military in much the same way as fascist leaders in the 20th century did, which is to say that the two should be basically coterminous, and that weak civilian leaders and soldiers who do not follow orders are responsible for societal weakness and must be purged. The series also demonstrates some of the fixations of fascist art and politics: the unfairness of borders (and with it the nobility of conquest) and the enemy as simultaneously subhuman and superhuman. Whatever its virtues may be, Attack on Titan is fascist in not just an abstract way but a way that is very specific to the history of fascism in the 20th century, mimicking the self-justification of Japanese militarism and the aesthetics of the Nazi's Aryan idyll [2].

But Attack on Titan's use of the labouring body is distinctly different from what you would see in, say, the films of Nazi Germany. In Attack on Titan, the ideal labouring body is literally monstrous. Instead of becoming a shining example of Aryan masculinity, Eren can only achieve strength by turning into a dark, bestial figure. The colossal titan is the extreme end of this process: it is the most powerful creature in the show's universe thus far, and its muscles and inner organs are on full display, making it grotesquely embodied.  When Eren transforms into a titan, he is literally portrayed as on the border between humanity and monstrousity:

Eren's characterization also suggests that Attack on Titan feels uncomfortable with the actors and tropes that its right-wing ideology enshrines. Eren is, the anime tells us, everything that the remains of humanity needs in a leader: he is hard-nosed, incorruptible, willing to challenge the decadent complacency of his times even before the walls start falling, and completely merciless when it comes to the titans. His stated goal is to kill every last titan in the world – genocide, essentially. We're never given any reason to think that these qualities are not exactly what is required to face the titans. But at the same time, whenever Eren goes on a rant about how much he wants to kill all the titans, the anime is not shy about making him appear dangerously unhinged (and then later showing him how he is completely unprepared for combat). Mikasa's loyalty to Eren is both celebrated and made to seem more than a little insane.

This is not to say that Attack on Titan's fundamental queasiness about the actions of fascism make it progressive. I don't believe that it is, as some have argued, a deconstruction of the typical shounen narrative. It is still quite frequently didactic about the necessity of military vigilance and intolerance towards the enemy, and gives no sympathy to the straw-men characters who represent weak hearts and clouded minds. Moreover, the fundamental scenario it presents – fighting an enemy that actually is inhuman and actually is a threat to your existence – is one in which the precepts of militarism seem almost natural.

So what's going on here?  I'd like to think that this is a bit of natural humanity surfacing even within the strictures of reactionary ideology. But we also need to recognize that you can simultaneously recognize an act as having some kind of moral taint and still advocate it. Glenn Greenwald says this frequently about torture: those that advocate for it don't do so on the basis that torture is morally right, but rather that it is unpleasant but necessary to fight the greater evil. Advocating extreme measures (torture, fascism, turning into a giant monster) are thus less a sign of moral turpitude than a sign of toughness. Presenting these measures as morally ambiguous is not necessarily progressive, as it often rescues them from being clearly unacceptable.  In the beginning of "Wound", Dot Pixis remarks that he's willing to be labelled a murderer for ordering his men to distract the titans.  The way this is formulated, as Pixis ruining his reputation for the greater good, turns what could be seen as a barbaric act of brutal command into a heroic sacrifice.

But understanding Attack on Titan's unease with its own ideology helps to justify the structure of this episode. “Wound” is all about resolving Eren's indecision as to whether or not to become a monster in order to fight monsters (to use extremely tired language). But to have Eren mopily contemplating this decision, Hamlet-like, would go against not just his character but also the virtues that Attack on Titan holds dear. So instead hesitancy is dramatized by Eren losing control of his monstrous form. Titan-Eren lashes out at the humans he holds dear, and literally hurts himself, punching himself in the face while trying to get at Mikasa. His hands and face steam after the impact: not only is the damage self-inflicted, but it makes the tools he needs to use invisible beneath the smoke.

On the inside, Eren faces the dilemma through a dream of a picturesque familial life. In his semi-conscious stupor, he is allowed to face the questions that his much-praised determination and single-mindedness would normally not allow him to consider. The people he sees in this vision are all in some way associated with pain and dysfunction: his father was distant and possibly experimented on him, his mother was killed by the Titans, and Mikasa has turned into a jaded and obsessed warrior. But here, they are all part of an idyllic, personally functional family. Precisely for this reason, they can't really do anything: they are static, only passively beckoning Eren to them.

This is the temptation of accepting life within the walls and of trying to make the best of what you can. For political actors of any type, at least those who have the privilege to “not care about politics”, there is always the temptation to slide back into a passive life, espousing your radical opinions over dinner but never doing anything to implement them. The universality of this situation means that it cuts both ways: there are some people just focusing on their own lives who should undoubtedly be taking to the streets (myself perhaps included), while there are other political actors who you wish would have chosen the passive family life instead. And indeed, only a dogmatist could argue that family, friends, and hobbies are meaningless pursuits which only serve to distract people from the One True Cause.

But Attack on Titan is a dogmatic series that takes place in a dogmatic world. The humans of the series are constantly threatened by the titans' assault, so for them the domestic life that Eren envisions is never an option. Even if Eren decided to settle down instead of fighting, he could never attain that domestic idyll: the people involved are missing, dead, or irrevocably changed by their experience of war. We see people resort to cowardice every episode, but they have increasingly little space to run to: in such an environment, bravery becomes not a virtue but the only available option.

So why does “Wound”'s drama hinge on Eren making a false choice? When Armin stabs Eren and leads him back to consciousness [3], he does not try to convince Eren that the domestic idyll he sees is an illusion. Rather, he argues that Eren doesn't even really want that domestic idyll: he wants to go beyond the walls. Perhaps Eren could stay there forever in that Titan, living out a peaceful agrarian existence in his mind. Attack on Titan maintains that this would be a sin. By the end of the episode, Eren is reminded of his ambition to go beyond the walls, to conquer the territory as a sign of his human will.

This plot also suggests that Eren is not fully in control of himself or the forces he has unleashed. This is mirrored in a subplot about Jean's gear jamming down in the middle of battle. For as much clear aesthetic pleasure as Attack on Titan takes in the aerial assault gear, it seems to break an awful lot: we've already seen it happen twice, plus one instance of the gear running out of gas in mid-fight. Much like Eren's Titan transformation, the tools of war are unreliable and unsavoury, but in the Manichean drama of Attack on Titan they are the only tools that can be used.

By looking at the series's larger ideology, the seemingly uneventful “Wound” begins to seem more important. Eren has already made his decision to go beyond the walls and eradicate the Titans, but “Wound' tests his resolve by offering him a genuinely desirable alternative. Moreover, it reaffirms Attack on Titan's political commitments by confronting and ultimately appearing to resolve its discomfort with the tools of fascism. “Wound” is still perhaps a filler episode, but it is often filler episodes that give us the clearest glance at a show's central priorities and ideas.

[1]I've talked about this previously, but due to a mixture of budget and concerns about catching up with the source material, long-running shounen series like Naruto and Bleach have perfected the art of making a fight last ten episodes without actually animating two hundred minutes of action. Flurries of activity are paced out with flashback sequences, monologues, and commentary from minor characters standing on the sidelines. This episode uses a lot of these techniques in order to draw out what is not a lot of story material. Such techniques seem much more unnecessary in a limited-run series like Attack on Titan than in a weekly serial, of course.

[2] In an earlier episode it is revealed, almost as a sidebar, that all of the Asian population was wiped out by Titans, leaving the almost exclusively white world in which the series is set.

[3] You could probably do a whole thing with the homoerotic imagery of this scene, namely Armin penetrating Eren from behind, but I don't feel like it.