Eat or be Eaten; Attack on Titan Episode 6

Shingeki_no_Kyojin_-_06_[58DD948A]_May 13, 2013 11.27.50 AM

This week on Attack on Titan, we delve into what makes Mikasa Ackerman tick. Flashback fun times ahoy!

wendeego: If this episode of Attack on Titan has a theme, it is this:

It was noted in the comments last time that the world of Shingeki no Kyojin revolved around the Titans to such an extent that without anything else to react to, the characters weren’t given enough chances to develop on their own terms. Well, what we received this week was confirmation that even without the Titans to fuck things up, the world is already harsh. There is death, and corruption, and murder, and almost every single important character in the series has been affected by these things, our three protagonists included. Our protagonists have lost family members, they have lost friends, but the world they live in is one where these things cannot be taken for granted. Sooner or later evil will come knocking at their door, and whether it be human or Titan those who are unprepared will die.

Probably the most important part of this episode was the glimpse we received of Mikasa’s past, and the tragedy visited upon her family by others. Now, I remember this as being a pretty powerful and unforgettable scene in the manga, where the reader (who’s already reeling after Eren is devoured, understand) is thrown into events that re-contextualize everything before. Watching it again, though, I definitely have reservations – Mikasa’s past comes dangerously close to the old storytelling trope of women having to suffer in order to achieve self-control and emotional maturity, seen in much of Urobuchi’s recent work among others. A while ago on Tumblr I read a post that went something like this: “what does it mean that in this world, the principle arc for male characters is victory, while the principle arc for female characters is suffering?” Again in this episode, Eren takes the lead in slaughtering the thieves who killed Mikasa’s family (the hero achieving victory) while Mikasa overcomes her fear and becomes in part the kickass soldier she is in the present (the heroine triumphing over suffering.) That said, while I think this storyline comes up to the brink of falling into cliche I think there are a number of elements that make it flat-out work, which I will detail below.

The first is that this episode totally changes what we know about both Eren and Mikasa. Previously, the two of them were depicted as living relatively normal lives with Eren’s family behind the walls, the Colossal Titan breaching the wall being their first experience of intense suffering. But as this episode illustrates, this is not true at all. Both Eren and Mikasa were exposed to human depravity long before the wall, and while the thieves who killed Mikasa’s family and almost sold her off are depicted as far more human than the terrifying Titans, the fact that they kill and kill without blinking while being made of flesh and bone makes them almost as scary. This means that Mikasa is able to stand up and fight long after everyone has fallen because she has already seen first-hand the worst the world has to offer, and (most interestingly) that whenever Eren was spouting various platitudes earlier in the series about how humanity has to fight back, how they can’t give up, he wasn’t being naive. Eren’s witnessed Hell, just Mikasa has, and the fact that he’s able to remain optimistic despite everything he’s seen and done speaks volumes about his character to me. Granted, Mikasa is more interesting by far, but considering what they experienced together it’s clear what she sees in him and why they are so close.

Additionally, it’s worth addressing how in particular Mikasa was changed by this experience. As stated earlier, Mikasa being transformed from ordinary child to total badass through the traumatic murder of her parents and the intervention of Eren leans on being extremely problematic. But it’s worth noting that while Mikasa is changed by her experiences, the degree to which she changes is drastically different from just about every other character in the cast. Eren might have been the one to “save” Mikasa in this instance, but in the present Mikasa’s ability far exceeds Eren’s and just about every other character’s as well. I don’t want to dismiss an issue like this on a silly technicality and think that Mikasa’s backstory still has its issues, but considering what we know I can’t help but think that Mikasa’s source of strength comes less from what happened to her and more from Mikasa herself. We’re all defined by our experiences and by the people we encounter, but Mikasa’s growth compared to Eren’s is so pronounced I can’t help but think that the deciding factor is her own strength of character.

Most importantly though, I feel like Mikasa’s backstory is at least somewhat justified based on just how well it makes clear the thematic message coursing beneath the skin of Attack on Titan. This is a story about the food chain, about impossible predators who prey upon humankind. The only way to survive, Titan says, is to fight back and become a predator yourself. It’s this realization which gives Mikasa the resolve to kill the last of her captors and win back her freedom. But at what cost? As this episode made very clear, Eren and Mikasa murdered three people at the age of eight. This seems weirdly implausible until you realize that Eren and Mikasa, two of our central three characters, aren’t normal at all. If their friend Armin is vulnerable, a human being despite everything, than Eren and Mikasa are monsters wearing human skin. Circumstances and their own inner drive have transformed them from living, breathing people into something other. Is Eren a determined shonen lead or is he a psychopath? Does Mikasa’s nature as a so-called perfect soldier rob her of proper empathy? Humankind stands no chance as prey, but the sacrifice to become a predator may be just as dangerous. Continuing the super robot/real robot analogy, Attack on Titan is just as over-the-top as stuff like Gurren Lagann and Shin Mazinger, but what separates it from much of its shonen ilk is the creeping sensation that human resolve and the desire to exceed limitations can be dangerous. That the only ones who will survive the slow march of the Titans are those who leave their humanity behind. At what cost do you bring down the wall?

illegenes: With Eren probably having a great time being digested in the acidic fluids of a Titan, the show decides to take a step back and take a look at one of the more interesting characters of the series: Mikasa.

It’s interesting to see that this week’s installment still had quite a lot of drama, despite lacking the most dramatic character in the entire show. I have mentioned before that Mikasa is actually my favorite character in Attack on Titan, not just because she’s serious and badass, but she’s perhaps the most quiet and stoic of the lot. And as we all well know by now, the ones who say the least have the most to offer.

Mikasa’s story is definitely more tragic than Eren’s, but it still….lacks something. I’m not sure if this has to do with the recurrent problem of Attack on Titan trying harder than it should to showcase how ‘grim’ the world is and how it spares no one, or if the details regarding Mikasa’s kidnapping just lack the proper context to make it effective and reasonable. Or maybe it’s just me growing a little weary of women who are empowered through tragic, traumatic backstories (see: Gen Urobuchi). Maybe it’s all three of the above. For starters, I feel like the show likes to insert random details here and there without ever really backing them up. Mikasa is the last of her “Oriental” clan, but do we know how this clan came into existence? Why they’re so treasured? What makes them different from others? How they died out? Is being Oriental related to some power or royalty? Where did Mikasa and her family exactly live on the outskirts of the wall, and how did they come to be there? Why does slavery exist in a city that is walled? Heck, what’s up with the political factions and corruption? Why is there a king? None of this has been explained, and while that would have been fine, the show continues to build on these weakly-built ideas and instead of holding my disbelief, I feel like it only crushes any sense of reality or world building this show has. Maybe if the show had gone into corruption and politics or how this led to class conflict and poverty, then I’d be a little more forgiving, because the prospect of Mikasa’s family getting murdered by slave sellers would be more realistic. Or at least understandable. But when the show only focuses on Titans and how the city is constantly threatened by them, any other aspects of ‘grimness’ feels weak. The idea that random bad guys conveniently come up to steal your kid just feels contrived. And this isn’t the first time this has happened for me – last week, I was more confused than shocked by the deaths of the Corps, and here again, I’m more confused than shocked by the deaths of Mikasa’s parents.

It’s not that world building is the sole purpose of Attack on Titan, and it’s definitely more plot-focused than that. But when you’re trying to focus on a character who lives between the walls of such an interesting and original city, you have to immerse your audience in that creation. I’m still having a lot of trouble with that immersion. I find myself interested halfway through, but the minute I stick my foot in further, I hit holes in the wall. The result is me being uncomfortably stuck between solid character development and really flawed world building. And the problem is, the more intense Attack on Titan becomes, the more prominent these flaws become. Not to mention that there are often some serious disbelief-suspending moments (I am damn sure that when you’re faced with death or killing an adult, your body does not just snap into motion!).

Maybe it’s just me. I usually don’t have problems emotionally connecting with characters, but there’s something that seriously hindering my connection with Attack on Titan, and I hope it stops, because I do want to enjoy the show! But I think that first, Attack on Titan needs to commit to what it’s trying to do, rather than awkwardly step all over the place, leaving some spots less developed than others. Rather than relying on “tell” instead of “show” to display how horrific the world of Attack on Titan is, I think the show should focus on more gradual instances. Build a solid world that I can place myself in without too much difficulty. From there, show me the internal and external problems and why they matter. Why all of this matters. How this really affects the state of these soldiers, makes them into who they are, and shapes them into becoming someone a little more accessible to the audience. After that, you can do what you want! You can kill off half of the cast, and it would still be more effective than killing off your main protagonist after a few episodes. But until then, I simply don’t give much of a damn. And any moment that is defined by its emotional buildup will continue to be a moment obscured by doubt and a shaky foundation.

I think the last thing regarding this episode is something I previously brought up in the other post: that is, how the women of Attack on Titan are confined to one dimension of their gender: their masculinity. Mikasa is only ‘strong’ in the sense that she was traumatized by the death of her family. It’s a common trope that I personally am not too fond of, but my issue here is that this seems to be a recurring theme in the show. Tragedy pushes these girls to their limit. And within context, it makes sense: the series after all, is one focusing around death and sacrifice. But out of all the women we’ve encountered – Annie, Sasha, Mikasa, and the new Ymir and Christa, only one of them has been developed to an extent where we can regard them as ‘not badass’. That would be Sasha (we could also argue Christa, but we don’t really know enough about her to say so) who has taken up the role of being the joker. Everyone else however, is hell-bent on destroying the Titans, with dead looks on their faces. I understand that women need to by physically fit and mentally determined in order to perform their duties, and I am very happy with the way that Attack on Titan treats its ladies, but at the same time, my mindset remains the same: I keep wishing for something a little more fulfilling.

Mikasa continues to be the best character in the show despite all of this, but at what cost? I want to care for these people and their battles. But again and again, Attack on Titan diverges my attention by focusing more on the idea that this world is as merciless as the force of nature itself, and to be honest, the message itself is starting to get a little old. Give me something fresh to chew on, and then we’ll talk.

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27 responses to “Eat or be Eaten; Attack on Titan Episode 6

  1. I can’t help but feel that all these complaints about the portrayal of gender are nothing more than a serious case of confirmation bias. There is an old storytelling trope of suffering in order to achieve emotional maturity, but I fail to see how this is restricted to women in any way, shape or form. Every single character in this show, man or woman, has been influenced by the suffering they experienced.

    You quoted a post on Tumblr that had me legitimately questioning if the writer had even watched the show. “[…] the principle arc for the male character is victory, while the principle arc for the female character is suffering.” I don’t see how this comment has any basis in reality. Both characters have been doing nothing but suffering since the first episode. If anything, Mikasa has been far more victorious than the currently-being-digested Eren.

    I think your earlier post provided a much more appropriate response to the portrayal of gender in Attack on Titan. That response being that the show is leaps and bounds ahead of other anime in its treatment of women. The large, colorful female cast and relative indifference to traditional gender traits is proof of that.

    • Hmm.I don’t think the point of my message was to say that women can’t be influenced by suffering; like you said, Mikasa is better and more victorious than Eren, and that’s great! And yes, both men and women have suffered emotional trauma, which, within context, is appropriate to an extent. But my issue is this: every female character HAS been defined, ONLY by suffering. Out of the three women we have been properly exposed to – Annie, Mikasa, and Sasha, only one of them has shown characteristics that aren’t ‘masculine’ and even then, are all three ‘badass.’ In no way have I seen these women embrace femininity or the idea that in order to be capable, you don’t necessarily need to fight all the time, which is sad, because it also contributes to the limited perspective or focus the show has itself. The show only focuses on the women who fight. What about the women who don’t? What about them?

      I don’t think the show is “leaps and bounds ahead of other anime in its treatment of women.” I have seen MUCH better shows that treat women properly, and actually go through the effort of showcasing a spectrum of women who can be talented, powerful, and capable, without actually being badass. Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood is one of the many; we have talented girls like Winry, who doesn’t even fight, to Mira Armstrong, who is a leader, to Izumi Curtis, who is a HOUSEWIFE and is still capable! I don’t see that range in Attack on Titan at all. And it’s pretty depressing, because the show has that potential to do it, but fails.

      • As far as I can tell, every character has been primarily influenced by the suffering and fear they experienced over the course of their lives. Some seek revenge against the titans, some seek to protect their loved ones, and some merely want to escape the violence. This repetition may be purposeful, or it may just be poor character development, but I certainly don’t believe it has anything to do with whether or not the character is a man or a woman.

        This anime is about soldiers on a battlefield where a feminine personality is, more often than not, a liability. That alone explains why every character tends to display more masculine traits than what would be considered normal. It has nothing to do with the marginalization of women and everything to do with the reality of the situation.

        I admit that Attack on Titan doesn’t concern itself with the men and women not on the battlefield, but I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a choice made by the author.

      • i don’t know, i’m with you on fmab and i love the shit out of winry and other feminine ladies, but… like… everyone in the show fights. all of them. they’re soldiers. that is the focus of the show. i’m just curious how you think non-combatant characters would fit in, because there’s already so much going on that focusing on a different group altogether would disrupt the story and make it even more convoluted? and i know that’s been a concern.
        i mean, snk kind of naturally has less range than fmab because it’s set in a very specific, closed group–one branch of the military in one walled off area. unlike fma, which had a more diverse cast in terms of profession, skillset, and origin simply because its main characters were travelling all over on a legit quest, snk has a very specific character group.
        also, i don’t want to spoil anything but there are some developed female characters who are quite traditionally
        feminine. one is nurturing, kind, loving, motherly, and a healer more than a fighter. another is deeply compassionate and protective–again, in a very “motherly” way. the other female characters get a lot more development and backstory too. idk, none of them are ever disparaging of femininity, and they’re no more or less feminine than real-life women.
        i don’t know. i mean i see the “but why aren’t there any completely traditional feminine characters in this series” argument a lot and i feel like sometimes it just really misses the mark. i hate the trend of strong female characters ™ being used as vessels to put down traditional femininity (REAL WOMEN DON’T WEAR DRESSES) too, but just because a female character is a capable fighter doesn’t automatically mean she’s being used to disparage femininity. even if all the female characters fight! because all of the characters fight, period! because it’s an action anime! i mean, i’m saying this as a straight-up girly girl, not every setting lends itself well to purely traditional feminine domestic womanhood. also, i kind of dislike the idea that that’s inherently empowering? like showing traditional stuff like taking care of children, healing, keeping a house running, and settling disputes as awesome and badass is super great and important. but the idea that these traits are somehow defiled if the woman in question is also physically strong really bothers me. like, you want a woman who is 100% traditionally feminine? you end up with a docile husk. because that’s what the “ideal woman” was in most patriarchal societies. so if going beyond that stereotype and having a female character who is domestic and peaceful and badass is good, why is it suddenly bad if she’s physical?
        wow this got long. basically i’m saying that i appreciate seeing open femininity in badass ladies, but i don’t feel cheated if there isn’t a 100% feminine lady? like as long as femininity isn’t specifically treated as weak or worthless or whatever (which i don’t think snk has done. mikasa explicitly states that the people who make supplies and get food for the military are just as important as the soldiers). i don’t know, i love my action girls. it’s true that there’s no wrong way to be a woman, but considering the world the snk ladies are living in, is it really surprising that they all can fight?

        • Hmm. I do agree with you on several points, but to continue the discussion: what you’re suggesting is right! Being physically strong does not disparage feminity, and in no way am I demanding that SnK gets a share of domestic housewives, functioning as damsels in distress. And like you and others have already mentioned, all the characters in Shingeki fight to the best of their abilities, and it’s nice to see that the show treats both genders with respect. However, as you’ve mentioned, I think my issue with the lack of spectrum of women does stem from the fact that SnK’s focus IS so limited. You have such an interesting world, and instead you choose to look at the warriors. If this spectrum was expanded, not only would my issue re: lack of different types of women be solved, but the worldbuilding immersion problem would be solved as well!

          If what you say is true, and different sorts of empowered females are introduced, then that’s great! I’m excited. But I do think it’s important to say that what I seek isn’t a girl with 100% femininity. I want a girl that shares both. Take Precure, for instance. The girls in the franchise can be badass and feminine at the same time! That diversity is what I seek in any creation of a female character, but so far SnK has avoided this. So no, I’m not really looking for a traditional female heroine, persay, as I am looking for a woman who is empowered by, let’s say, grace and a desire to be the best that she can be, not through emotional trauma. Who can be caring, and kind and still be merciless when the time calls for it. So far, SnK has not given me that sort of girl, which is why I’m a little disappointed. But if what you say is true, and there are going to be examples of this later on, then I am truly happy and excited for the show!

        • I think a good example to illustrate what illegenes is trying to say would be Legend of the Galactic Heroes. While the number of female characters on the show is very small compared to the number of male characters (I’d argue it’s partially justified on the imperial side. Not so much for the Alliance.) and the primary focus of the series is the military, there’s a lot of range for the women. There’s a superior officer, a politician, a housewife, a concubine, a soldier just as badass as her father and a woman gaining a great position of influential power in a military autocracy despite not being in the military herself.

          This show manages to have all these types of women even though the focus of the story and characters are the military. The parallels with SnK should drive the point home.

    • The Tumblr post I quoted wasn’t actually referring to Titan? What it was referring to was popular narrative as a whole, and I think that if you look at a wide variety of the stories that are being told today I think it holds up. Especially in anime recently, there’s a lot of female characters who’ve really been defined by how much they’ve changed upon being tortured by the narrative. Urobuchi’s stuff is especially guilty of this–I’m a big fan of his work on Madoka, but there’s a series where the main character becomes a martyr in order to save everyone without taking herself into account. It works in the series proper, but when that trope pops up over and over again throughout pop culture, is that really the message that we want to send?

      As for female characters in Attack on Titan, I do agree that the cast is pretty limited to essentially masculine characters without significant variety. That said, the series is a war story, and since most of the female characters are soldiers in a world where they’ve been trained since a young age to kill Titans without much time for anything else I feel like the series’s purposefully limited scope doesn’t allow for many alternatives? At best you could say Titan puts men and women on pretty much equal terms, at worst you could say that the show’s depiction of women is extremely skewed towards male preoccupations at the expense of actual range (which is extremely important when it comes down to it.) Fullmetal Alchemist is definitely an example of a shonen series that does better by its female characters than Attack on Titan, but maybe it’s worth pointing out that Hiromu Arakawa is a woman while the author of Titan was both male and twenty-three years old when the series was first published. All things considered, despite Titan’s limitations I’d still say it does a better job by its female cast than the majority of shonen manga being published today (although honestly, that’s not saying much.)

      • The mistaken context of the quote was an honest mistake on my part. When applied across the entire anime industry, it definitely makes more sense.

        I completely agree that too many female leads (especially in romantic anime) are portrayed as so-called “damaged goods”. Although this can be pulled off while remaining tasteful, most writers are more concerned with creating an intentionally weak character whose sole purpose is to be rescued and protected by the male lead.

        It’s not hard to see that these sorts of shows are pandering to a juvenile male audience, but even then I can usually accept that as a poor excuse. At this point though, the prevalence of this cookie-cutter script is even getting on my nerves.

        It’s still too soon to tell, but I hope that Mikasa manages to avoid this cancerous stereotype. So far, she comes across as a strong character with her own motivations, but her relationship with Eren has come dangerously close to dependence at points, and that’s worrisome.

  2. This show would benefit greatly from a little restraint. Frankly, this is so grimdark it’s comical. Like you said, illegenes, subtlety and context would help us care about what’s happening to these characters.

    While this episode gave us some of that context in regard of Mikasa’s character (Though I disagree with wendeego that it fleshed out Eren – Mikasa’s tragedy didn’t change him, he was already like that.), it was yet another collection of clichés that demanded themselves context to understand their value. (And no, parental death is not reason enough.)

    • I’m definitely getting Psycho Pass vibes from the show sometimes (not a great thing, as that show itself was overly grimdark and lacked proper worldbuilding for me to care enough about it) but I think Attack on Titan isn’t as blunt as Psycho Pass, which is a good thing! It also might save the show from turning into such a try-hard. I just wish the show would really allow us to immerse ourselves into the lives and world of these characters, to feel what they feel, to see what they see in the world, and believe in them. I don’t get that sense at all. And maybe it has to do with departing from a show that did fulfill all my standards of what a good fictional show should be like (Shinsekai Yori) or maybe it’s just me being overly picky. But I would like that sense of continuity and coherency! And right now, Attack on Titan isn’t really delivering on that scale. Nonetheless, as much as I criticize Attack on Titan, I still do enjoy it! It’s not a BAD show, it’s just not as great as it could be, which is a little frustrating.

      • Funny. To me Psycho-Pass is a Tom Cruise action movie that pretends to be thoughtful whereas SnK tries hard to be an action movie when it begs for thoughtfulness.

        (And Shinsekai Yori is perfect for what it wants to be – character driven world building. But I’m just trowing flowers at it now.)

          • I was thinking of Minority Report. I haven’t seen Oblivion, but I heard it was basically a collection of sci-fi ideas strung together with no payoff.

            At least Psycho-Pass gave me stuff to think about, even when it didn’t want to itself. So that’s a plus.

            • Yea – you’re not missing anything by not watching Oblivion. I guess having just seen it, I completely overlooked Minority Report (which seems the obvious comparison in retrospect).

    • I don’t feel like this episode “fleshed out Eren” as it put some of his previous actions into context? In the beginning of the show, it’s easy to think that Eren’s complex comes entirely from the Titans eating his family, but the truth is that he was a “monster” even before that. Eren doesn’t spout platitudes without anything to back it up, from a very young age he has witnessed horrors (in fact, I’d venture that many of his generation have witnessed horrors) but everything he’s seen has only inspired him to push back harder. It’s a trait that constantly gets him into trouble–you could argue he’s indirectly responsible for the death of his whole team by jumping into battle by himself–but it’s also why Mikasa and Armin lean on him for emotional support. Eren is stubborn and annoying and possibly psychopathic but he’s the one person you can count on who will not break, no matter the circumstances.

      That said, the fact that Tetsuro Araki is directing this series probably doesn’t help the subtlety at all. He’s great at breathless pacing and well put together action scenes but unfortunately empathy is not really his strong suit. Just witness Guilty Crown and Shuu’s hilarious expressions!

  3. this is a really great and well thought out review! i’ve seen a lot of people saying how titan is OMG SO TRAGIC but so far… you’re right, it’s been mainly filler characters who’ve been offed. that said, i’m ridiculously attached to the ones who’ve stuck around, and i’m sure it’ll gut me when they inevitably bite it. like… jean, sasha, ymir, krista, and many of the other characters start off seeming like cliches (much like the main trio) but they develop later on and become really quite complex and fascinating.
    i also agree re: worldbuilding. i haven’t found it too distracting so far, but i am desperate to know how their city, like, works. though the whole “oriental” thing wasn’t really what confused me? like i read it as a commentary on how asian women are fetishized and exotified by western society. what i really want to know more about is how the government and social structure works–we know there’s kings and lords, we know there’s underground crime, we know there’s a freaky cult, but so far not a whole lot of it has been explained.
    i’m not sure i agree on the whole “women overcome” thing. i mean i don’t like that trope either, but i feel like at this point it’s clear mikasa’s major arc is going to be more than just “she was traumatized and now she’s badass.” honestly, i’d say eren’s character is shaping up to be more about overcoming than mikasa’s. like, he’s obviously weaker than her, b/c she’s stronger than the whole damn cast. normally i find the tragic backstory woman trope patronizing, but only because it tends to limit women to only fighting small scale personal battles. which obviously isn’t the case with mikasa.
    i’ve also generally found the anime a whole lot less subtle than the manga, which is kind of amazing considering the manga is the comic equivalent of a bloody pickaxe in some places.

    • It has nothing to do with her being Asian and has to do with Asian people being really rare in the SNK universe because they were nearly all wiped out. If you think this show has enough depth to comment on “fetishization” you’ve got the wrong idea, lol.

  4. How could you not care for these characters Natasha? They’re so moe in the way they eat those filler characters I don’t give two shits about and then just teleport out of nowhere. :P

    • I’m so sorry! ;___; I tried, I’ve tried a lot. And it’s not like I don’t care for them at all, it’s more of the idea that I don’t care ENOUGH. And it’s sad, because I desperately want to, but it seems like the show just won’t let me.

        • I read it, lmao. I think you and I differ in that I seek to find value in these filler characters even though they are pretty meaningless for the time being, whereas you do not :)

          And re: Titans, hasn’t the teleportation issue been going on for a while now?? (Have you read my previous posts on this lol)

          • Oh I see value in them. As cannon fodder for the true heroes of this show, the Titans. Seeing them get eaten warms my cold heart. Seeing Mikasa act badass is cool too.

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