Imagine that your whole life is confined by walls. On the outside, there is a horde of gigantic beings, ready to devour you as soon as you step out. You will never be free until you tear those walls down and defeat the monsters outside. This is the world where Eren, Armin and Mikasa, the protagonists of the manga Attack on Titan, find themselves living.

Attack on Titan: much more than a manga for boys

Mankind almost faced extinction because of titans and now lives inside three enormous city walls. When the menace strikes again after one hundred years, Eren decides to join the Survey Corps and kill all titans to avenge his mother. This military unit is the only one crazy enough to leave the city in order to fight titans and gather information about them.

First published in 2009, the manga Attack on Titan has been a worldwide phenomenon. It soon topped the sales charts and, also thanks to the animated adaptation (begun in 2013), it reached a huge audience. Technically, Attack on Titan targets young people, as for classics such as Dragon Ball, Naruto or One Piece. The main characters are teenagers facing their fears and looking for their place in the world. But the reader soon discovers a story pervaded by a sense of terror, immersed in a militarized setting and full of gory, political and nuanced contents.

Are we all doomed to suffer?

The story starts with essential, but dramatic questions. Why does mankind have to live under the terrible threats of titans? What is the meaning of this absurd suffering? Aside from the actual danger they represent, titans symbolize an inexplicable evil, blindly striking everyone. The constant presence of death and the rawness of the scene where titans devour humans is to be found in a few other manga, like Gantz.

Attack on Titan manga
Image courtesy of Attack on Titan © Hajime Isayama/Kodansha Ltd.

But there is also a mystery which drives the plot. What are titans, actually? Why do they exist? Eren and his comrades strive to find this answer and when they do, the perspective is literally flipped upside down.

When the titans slip…

The plot always keeps the reader’s attention on high, feeding them with exciting turning points. However, the structure of Attack on Titan is not always impeccable. The narrative smoothness is sometimes affected by the frequency of the flashbacks. The author strongly relies on them to unravel plot points or to build backgrounds for his characters. The characters themselves, at first, appear quite stereotypical. But the story continuously pushes them to their limits, allowing complex and convincing personalities to emerge.

However, the most famous flaw of the manga Attack on Titan is, for sure, the author’s drawing style. It is quite basic and sometimes it is hard to discern one character from another. The author often publicly apologized for the quality of his visuals, but has actually managed to improve them year by year. In particular, the direction of the battle scenes became more and more incisive thanks to the dynamism and the framing of the illustrations.

Attack on Titan: a manga about the high price of freedom

The many connections and references to 20th Century history, especially to the two World Wars, give a realistic atmosphere to the whole story. The historical hints at terrible phenomenons, like anti-Semitism, contribute to strengthening the cynicism of the political subplots. Nonetheless, even if all this resonates with the ruthless struggle for power of Game of Thrones, Attack on Titan never loses a highly idealistic touch.

As the reader progresses, they see characters dealing with complicated and harsh moral dilemmas. The author depicts a scenario where every fight, every war, even the ones which seem the most righteous, demands a heavy toll. There is no victory without suffering, without casualties, without your hands getting dirty. All characters will have to understand the price of the power necessary to obtain the freedom they are seeking. And that, sometimes, freedom is just unattainable.

Attack on Titan manga
Image courtesy of Attack on Titan © Hajime Isayama/Kodansha Ltd.

Attack on Titan won, among others, the Kodansha Manga Award as Best Shonen Manga. It became an actual brand, as it expanded with plenty of other products, like spin-offs (e.g. Attack on Titan – Before the fall, manga and light novels), anime and videogames (e.g. Attack on Titan – Wings of Freedom).