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.