Menu Close

“Only the Winner is Allowed to Live”: The Concept of Cannibalism in Attack on Titan

By Asuka Yamazaki

The popular Japanese comic Attack on Titan is written and illustrated by Hajime Isayama, and has appeared serially in the monthly comic magazine Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine since October 2009.1 After the production of an animated TV show based on the comic in 2013, it quickly became popular; not only was a two-part live-action film released in 2014 and 2015, a second season of the anime series also began in April 2017. The comic currently has a circulation of more than forty million copies for all time, has already been translated into numerous European and Asian languages, and has risen to worldwide popularity across ages and nationalities. In recent years, after the publisher partnered with the famous comic publisher Marvel Comics, the comic has gained great popularity, especially in the United States (Hirai 91).

Attack on Titan presents a gigantic battle between the humans and the Titans who devote humans that bring about annihilation of human beings. The worldview of Attack on Titan, which envisions a gruesome atmosphere and brutal slaughter, is closely linked to a popular contemporary genre of Japanese fiction called sekaikei, which was particularly popular from the second half of the 1990s through the 2000s. Sekaikei combines self-enclosed and isolated social relationships with the imagination of young people. They prefer to read apocalyptic and mythological fiction that embody the postmodern individual and a desolate society.2 It has become a social phenomenon that spans different media, including animation, comics, video games, websites, and “light novels,” which are easily read by young people because of the simple style of writing and illustration. Ken Maejima, an analyst of subculture, has pointed out that this phenomenon has its roots in the comic and animation Neon Genesis Evangelion, which gained long-term popularity and inspired a great number of other works.3 According to Motoko Tanaka, a scholar of modern Japanese literature, sekaikei works are typically framed by an earthly apocalyptic crisis, or even a threat to the entire universe.4 However, these large-scale conflicts are intertwined with the actions, romantic relationships, and identity crises of the male and female protagonists, without any intermediary community or social organization.5

Since it describes a crisis in which humanity faces potential annihilation, the dark apocalyptic fantasy Attack on Titan falls under the genre of sekaikei comics. Isayama himself has confirmed that not only did he once desire to see the world destroyed, he was also fascinated by Evangelion’s view of the robotization of the world and unique mode of expression, in which the characters integrate with huge robots, and fight against strong enemies to save humanity (Isayama, “Interview with Kan Saito,” 121 and 123). However, Attack on Titan is set not on the stage of the modern world, but in Germany in the Middle Ages. It presents a more than century-long battle between the human race and the Titans, whose ruthless hunting and devouring of human beings has forced the last of society into a fortress surrounded by three layers of enormous, high walls (fig. 1 and 2).

Figure 1. This illustration expresses the comic’s conception of the confrontation between enormous creature and human beings. The hero Eren fights against a Titan. Eren says, “It’s been five years…” © Hajime Isayama 2010 (AT 1, 140-141).
Figure 2. The enormous wall and hero, Eren. © Hajime Isayama 2010 (AT 1, 2-3).

In this militant work, the motif of the Titans’ cannibalism, one of the greatest cultural taboos, plays a very important role. From the psychoanalytic viewpoint, this cannibalism motif develops into a theme centered on the loss and recovery of the characters’ memories, and the inheritance of collective memory. Regarding this depiction, Isayama has declared that he was inspired by the Japanese adventure romance game Muv-Luv Alternative, which includes many grotesques, shocking depictions of humans being devoured by aliens (Isayama, “Ten Thousand Word Interview.” 161). While no prior sekaikei comics have featured the theme of cannibalism so prominently, this psychoanalytical horror aesthetic has contributed to the originality of this successful comic and helped it gain a large following.6 The motif of cannibalism—including a hero himself engaging in cannibalism—is an important and commercially successful element of fiction in recent Japanese comics.

This paper studies how Attack on Titan constitutes this psychoanalytical view of cannibalism and presents the reader with a cathartic culmination of violence that they can share as extraordinary fictional experiences. To that end, the paper will analyze the relation between text, image, and thematic rhetoric to clarify the comic’s aesthetic strategy and construction of the reader’s complete absorption in the story’s world. For this purpose, I will use Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytical theory to investigate the two contrasting cannibalisms of the Titans and the hero Eren—barbarous and divine Titans. Lacanian psychoanalysis illuminates the complicated logic behind the human memory of cannibalism buried within the narrative structure.

Lacanian theory has been particularly prominent in scholarly work on Japanese comics, especially since the 1980s. For example, the Japanese psychoanalyst Tamaki Saito and the philosopher Hiroki Azuma both implement Lacan’s theory to interpret Japanese subculture as represented in comics. In particular, Saito made a significant contribution to the analysis of anime and comic characters by clarifying the worldview and narrative structure of many works. He specifically focused on Attack on Titan and provided a detailed interview with the author in a magazine issue. According to the interview, Isayama did not constitute his work from a psychoanalytic theory or viewpoint, but he underlined his persistent concern with the motif of the hero who transforms and becomes strong (Isayama, “Interview with Kan Saito.” 121). Responding to Isayama’s concept of the hero’s development, Saito argues that the author projects his own narcissism in forming the character of the Titan in this popular comic (Ibid. 128). The work of these psychoanalysts reveals that there is still a need to research the structure of this work, the development process of the characters, and their cannibalism in terms of psychological suppression. The motif of cannibalism functions to promote memory retrieval, as it triggers an identity crisis for the characters because of the psychoanalytical and traumatic primal scene and has a cathartic effect on the reader. Thus, it is important to analyze how this comic series develops a chain reaction of violence using its fascinating imagery and rhetoric. As the theme of cannibalism has become a taboo subject for human beings and has been suppressed from human history and memory, this dark fantasy visualizes this taboo and repressed memory using poetic and visual rhetoric. It demonstrates how human beings who are essentially violent, overcome the process of self-preservation at the expense of others.

The Titans’ Cannibalism

In Attack on Titan, humanity is on the verge of annihilation. The Titans’ predation has succeeded for hundreds of years, and human beings have lost their peaceful lives, and their range of inhabitation is threatened. Humans have lived in a city surrounded by three walls, the last community in the world, since escaping from the Titans, who have appeared seemingly out of nowhere to ruthlessly devour them. The beginning of the comic depicts the spectacle of the Titans eating the humans; the Titans are portrayed as bloodthirsty, non-communicative creatures with no ability to speak except for animalistic shouting, or as nude monsters displaying no certain cultural identity. F.-A. Ursini has analyzed how the Titans’ characterization connects with the traditional stereotype of the Titan as one who “devours.”7 In contrast, Noah Patterson regards the Titans as a perfect contemporary representation of the Gothic theory of monsters (Griffis 1-2). Attack on Titan vivifies and expands such traditional horrible images of the Titan as a predator.

For example, as fig. 3 and fig. 4 show, the scenes of cannibalism often emphasize a close-up of a Titan’s face, revealing the spectacle of human dismemberment and the crunching and shattering of human bones. In such brutal sequences, the largeness of these destructive monsters and the smallness of humanity contrast effectively, evoking for reader a juxtaposition of the Titans’ might and the humans’ sense of powerlessness. Through these impressions, the reader is led to empathize with the human victims, delivering the fear, horror, and sympathy required for emotional catharsis. Fig. 3, where the mother of hero Eren is eaten in front of him, particularly evokes these strong emotions. Eren suddenly loses his mother in a cruel way that breaks their mother-child pathos relation. In the psychoanalytical state of “mother complex,” he longs for his dead mother throughout the story. A catharsis is then delivered to the reader when the hero defeats the Titans, eliciting a sadistic emotion and sense of sweet revenge, which is the compensation for the absence of his mother and the legitimation of his violence against the Titans.

Figure 3. When Eren was a child, his mother was killed by a Titan in front of him. © Hajime Isayama 2010 (AT 1, 78).
Figure 4. Eren’s friend Armin is completely shocked stiff by seeing his friends being eaten by Titan. © Hajime Isayama 2010 (AT 1, 80).

The author uses certain layouts and framing techniques to amplify the reader’s fear and horror: in most scenes of cannibalism, the Titans often exceed the large frames, demonstrating the force and dynamism of their predation so as to convey aggression. Additionally, scenes of Titans crunching human bones often use a visual language of onomatopoeias and mimetic words in black, like “パキツ” (“snap”) (fig. 3), that penetrate and cross the frames. This method of using spatial and temporal imagery with visual rhetoric conveys duration,8 lending a temporal length to the Titans’ cannibalistic acts that heightens the effect of the horror.

The composition of the Titans also renders them barbaric animals. As the Enlightenment-era linguist J.G. Herder defined the animal as instinctual and languageless in his Treatise on the Origin of Language (28-53), the horror fiction of Attack on Titan portrays Titans as grotesque animals that lack any linguistic intelligence and behave according to instinctual desire. The simplified mobility of the Titans also displays this animality; for example, in fig. 5, the Titan simply runs forward intently toward humanity, not considering anything but the humans as food. In comparison, humans show complicated and intellectual mobility, a difference that is particularly evident in humanity’s attacks on the Titans. The language the humans use also illustrates this divide: Eren, the hero, describes the Titans with the Japanese term for animal, 匹: “I will destroy them!!” he claims. “Not one animal will be left in this world!!” (“一匹残らず”) (AT 1, 88). In contrast, the author portrays human beings as intelligent, highly developed creatures who wear clothes and possess great command of language, and thus as a race of cultural creatures with an advanced civilization.

Figure 5. A Titan is running unsteadily aiming at prey, while humanity show complicated movement by flying. © Hajime Isayama 2010 (AT 2, 24).

This oppositional structure has roots in the traditional confrontational European argument, which originated in ancient times and defines the concepts of “civilization” and “barbarism” as exact opposites (Fish 679-759). We can determine how the author composes the violent images in combination with text to highlight this oppositional interaction. The depiction of Titans as ugly, non-communicative creatures lacking language objectifies them as animals. Meanwhile, the text encourages reader’s unconscious states of fictional communication with the characters to extend only to the appealing humans, who use a logical language. Thus, readers emotionally engage with the human community in the narrative structure. Image and visual rhetoric are here significant instruments for evoking readers’ negative emotions toward the disfigured Titans, fostering readers’ hatred of these villains and heightening their desire for vengeance. The author induces the reader’s mind that they creates this sadistic edge on its own through the desire of revenge, and legitimizing humanity’s violence against its mighty foes functions to make the reader unquestioningly tolerate the plot’s violence. By showing the many scenes of the defeat of an enemy in the story, Attack on Titan integrates the culmination of this violence.

Also, the motif of cannibalism within this violent composition, as emphasized by representations of Titans eating human beings, reflects the cultural and historical memory of human cannibalism. In the history of humanity, this act has been recognized as one of the most violent acts performed by humans, and therefore, it has been suppressed from the memory and consciousness of humanity.

Since the sixteenth century, when the Spanish devised the word “cannibal” based on the island “Carib,” whose native people practiced a form of human consumption that was considered inhumane, cannibalism has been used to symbolize fundamentally “barbarous” customs.9 Meanwhile, advanced countries established many negative discourses on cannibalism to justify the invasion and colonization of countries cast as uncivilized, on the pretext of abolishing savage practices. Until the nineteenth century, cannibalism was recognized in occidental values as a cruel, inhuman practice of uncivilized societies—existing in a native state of primitive consciousness—described by Sigmund Freud in Totem and Taboo as “die magische Wirkung” (magical effect) or “Das Zeremoniell der Menschenopfer” (the ceremony of human sacrifice) (Freud 132 and 206). In short, cannibalism has a long history in human memory of being savage and cruel.

In modern times, while anthropological and psychoanalysis approaches emphasize that cannibalism is a real and ubiquitous phenomenon in the world, there are many attempts to reproduce this shocking eating behavior in the fictional form. Many colonial fictions of the last thirty years have commercially adopted this motif of cannibalism, as in novels, films, TV, and music (Brown 1), making it a literary sensation and visually creating hierarchical differences between the “barbarous” and “civilized.” Also, we can find this “barbarous” definition of cannibalism in Attack on Titan’s many scenes of Titans eating humans, in that these spectacles demonstrate the human cultural dominance. Thus, the story has been developing in favor of the civilized humans on the basis of their ability to justify conquest of the “barbarous” and “uncivilized” Titans.

These carnivorous monsters are ruled by their relentless bloodthirst, as the author Isayama so intentionally designed. Upon the comic’s animation, Isayama specifically told his staff that Titans do nothing but eat (Isayama, “Interview with Araki,” 161). And yet, as volume 22 has suggested, the Titans are humans who are unaware of having been transformed into Titans by a supernatural power. It is therefore necessary to analyze how the author conceived this infantilized, barbarous humanity as a representation of perpetual violence and destruction. In this respect, Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory illuminates the violent nature and actions of the Titans, since Lacan’s conceptions of human development through different stages have similarities to the figures in Attack on Titan. As I have already noted, Isayama did not base this work on Lacan’s theory. However, psychoanalysis is used often not only for clarifying the development process of a literary work but also for explaining the socio-psychological processing of fictional persons in the context of language, subject, and unconsciousness (Klawitter and Ostheimer 155). Therefore, using Lacan’s theory as an analytical method enriches the interpretation of the Titans in this comic.

I focus here on the famous theory of “oral drive” which Freud first theorized, and Lacan successfully developed further in his psychoanalysis. In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan describes the oral drive in the primitive phase: “Even when you stuff the mouth—the mouth that opens in the register of the drive—it is not the food that satisfies it, it is, as one says, the pleasure of the mouth” (167). According to Lacan, through the function of the pleasure principle, the oral drive is never satisfied with food or objects, but with the act of eating itself. For example, even as an infant suckles the mother’s breast, they cannot obtain the breast itself, but their oral drive gets satisfaction and revolves around the breast.

The Titans exist in an oral phase of development. Because they are driven to desire by pleasure of the mouth, by the satisfaction of eating, they are ruled by the pleasure principle and have no choice but to satisfy their oral drive. The Titans’ manner of eating humans is very primitive and infantile, as they are shown sucking blood or throwing up when full due to their lack of digestive organs (AT 4, 73-74), and such depictions surely bring us feelings of displeasure. Fig. 6 shows the ugliness and infantile mannerisms with which a Titan sucks human blood. They continue to suck all of the blood until their oral desire is satisfied. However, they do not turn their consciousness towards anything else. Additionally, onomatopoeias like the sucking sound “ヂュ” (“slurped”) give the picture a gross vividness and transmit to the reader this fear and unpleasantness. Despite their mature human appearance, the Titans, like children, behave in an animal manner toward their diet, a dissonance that heightens the fictional world’s unusual and uncomfortable nature.

Figure 6. A Titan sucks a victim’s blood. © Hajime Isayama 2011 (AT 4, 16).

However, even when Titans do not eat, their immortality stops them from dying,10 which relates to Lacan’s studies on the objet petit a. He defines the objet petit a when he writes, “To this breast in its function as object, objet a cause of desire, in the sense that I understand the term—we must give a function that will explain its place in the satisfaction of the drive. The best formula seems to me to be the following—that la pulsion en fait le tour. (The drive moves around the object.)” (Les Quatre 168). The oral drive is never satisfied despite eating, because the subject always lacks the object of desire, the objet petit a, which we can in no way take into ourselves and therefore lack forever. Volume 12 suggests that the Titans are wandering the world on a never-ending quest for the lost original Titan, as though the Titans are seeking out the objet petit a.

Human beings, with their advanced intelligence, regard these murderous Titans as the Other who exists at a primitive stage, and they have recorded their violent nature in official historical documents handed down from generation to generation (AT 1, 55). This collective memory of cannibalism in Attack on Titan has fixated on a known idea of the Titan in a geographically narrow area over a century, and it proves that humanity’s reason for existence is to conquer the Titans through military force, an apparatus of civilized violence. However, this war is not between civilization and barbarism, but between both human and Titan barbarisms. Humans themselves take on the rhetoric regarding “cannibalism,” as when the hero Eren’s inner voice shouts at an army entrance ceremony that he will conquer the Titans:

I’ve finally reached here . . . It’s humanity’s turn. This time, we humans . . . eat up Titans!! (AT 1, 92-93)

Eren uses the words “eat up” as a metaphor for the declaration of attack against the Titans. The meaning of “eat up” is a struggle for existence and it is a tool to survive. Fig. 7 points to the violent character of humanity as being isomorphic with that of the Titan, illustrating their destructiveness such that the symmetrical structure creates a violent image of both sides. The plot establishes a perfect mirror image of human and Titan, reflecting the Titans’ true identity as former humans.

Figure 7. Titans are slaughtered by the human hero. © Hajime Isayama 2011 (AT 4, 42).

This panel evinces Lacan’s mirror stage, as he defines it in his Écrits (1966): “It suffices to understand the mirror stage in this context as an identification, in the full sense analysis gives to the term: namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image” (Écrits 76). In other words, the infant children cannot yet recognize the difference between themselves and the people around them, even people such as their mother. However, infant children perceive their own images by looking at the mirror, identifying themselves with that image, and recognizing the difference between themselves and others. The mirror stage reflects the subject through a mirror image in order to build and complete their identification; meanwhile, the infantile children construct their body image by gathering from this split image of their body, this “corpus morcelé,” brought about by this mirror effect (Écrits 77).

It is significant, then, that in Attack on Titan humans and Titans visually reflect each other. As fig. 7 and 8 indicate, both humans and Titans have a collective image of the injured body, a corpus morcelé, as having been maimed and dismembered by the other, although both try to build upon their existence and obtain a complete body. Like a subject fiercely attacking their mirror image, both violent creatures in this comic, in their “mirror stage,” engage in grandiose life-or-death battles for territorial hegemony over “the severe world,” as the soldier Armin mutters to himself: “By nature, this world is hell. The strong defeats the weak. This world is simple, easy to understand” (AT 2, 15).

Figure 8. A female soldier attempts to resuscitate the dismembered corpse of her dead lover. © Hajime Isayama 2010 (AT 2, 20).

Although the larger mystery of origin remains, it is key that the comic depicts ordinary people who transform into Titans, who are also humanity’s mirror images and parts of their identity: they are unconsciously eating one another in this mirror stage. In these crucial moments of human cannibalism, we can discern a devilish cycle in which life must be consumed in order to prolong life—the struggle for survival. This struggle evokes the problem of the Hobbesian “state of nature”, i.e., “war of every one against every one” (Leviathan 67), a 17th-century conception that claims there is an inherent brutality in humanity. This “state of nature” is conveyed by the heroine Mikasa’s memories of her father killing a bird and showing her how to eat it after returning home, which she later remembers in the face of danger. Hunting then seemed cruel to her, like an insect mercilessly killing its prey. However, she noticed that killing the creatures and eating them is part of the ecological food chain and realized that no one on earth can escape from this violent chain:

Then . . . I remembered . . . This spectacle . . . until now . . . I saw it repeatedly . . . That’s right . . . This world is . . . severe . . . Now . . . that I am alive, I feel miraculous.

At that moment, my body stopped shaking. From that moment on, I have controlled myself perfectly. Fight! Fight! Fight! (AT 2, 60–63, fig. 9 and 10)

Figure 9. Mikasa’s traumatic memory. © Hajime Isayama 2010 (AT 2, 60-61).
Figure 10. Mikasa’s traumatic memory. She stabs a criminal’s heart with a knife.© Hajime Isayama 2010 (AT 2, 62-63).

In fig. 9, the sequence above, the orderly black frame is used to express that Mikasa is emotionally well-preserved, calmly observing herself as a pure and pretty child focused on the predation of a butterfly by a mantis, i.e., a show of slaughter. The left side of fig. 9 illustrates the grace of her father and of Mikasa’s smiling face; they are apparently harmless people, although he pitilessly holds by the head a duck he has shot. Here, both acts, the mantis’ predation and humans hunting are recognized as violent, but humans’ cruelty and lack of reflection—i.e., their disinterest regarding the death of other life—are romanticized: that is, human violence is recognized as aesthetic memories and integrated into everyday life. The author describes the world as realistic and cruel, because death is seen as inevitable, and a survival struggle with other species continues. In fig. 9, this systematically violent world is symbolically described without breaking the frames: This undisturbed, well-organized frame means that Mikasa has quickly and carelessly adapted to this cruel world by repressing her consciousness, demonstrating the inherent human struggle for survival, even though she thought hunting was cruel.

Fig. 10, portrays how this profound childhood memory compels Mikasa to kill her mother’s murderer with devilish skill. The author breaks up the images of her two significant memories (fig. 9 and 10) with different frames: one is black framed, and the other is white. Her childhood memory with the black frame suggests that her thinking is unrelated to the murder of an animal. She is only passively witnessing and accepting the death that happens everywhere in this cruel world. This black frame expresses her state in which she is not yet awake to becoming a party to kill others, and this includes her father: both the character and her father have not yet begun to kill others. In the other one, with the white frame, she is actively woken up by a voice that she was suppressing unconsciously, retains her clear memory even when personally killing a criminal, providing context and continuity to her present situation, when she, as a soldier, joins the massacring of Titans and demonstrates her violent side (fig. 11). These different episodes and pictures not only demonstrate the human brutality that this comic emphasizes from the beginning, but also the violent nature of humanity’s cultural identity, which is clearly similar to that of the bloodthirsty Titans.

The violence humans instinctually use for self-preservation against other creatures implies that the meaning of life comes with great sacrifice. Humanity’s own barbarous culture of carnivorous eating is repressed, becoming unconscious. In this comic, however, this repression is revealed not through a public document, but a person’s living memory, Mikasa’s recollection. Clearly, this private, traumatic memory parallels the public memory of historical documents regarding Titans. Both function as a catalyst in the chain reaction of self-preservation, and the violence of such is thereby legitimized. Thus, these episodes of Mikasa’s memory and her killing the Titans disclose the logic behind the violent dynamic that orders the world in terms of Darwinian “natural selection” (On the Origin of Species 80), which connects to the tendency of characters throughout Attack on Titan to admire violence, as when Mikasa expresses admiration for this “severe world,” in which “only the winner is allowed to live” (fig. 11).

Figure 11. “Only the winner is allowed to live.” © Hajime Isayama 2010 (AT 2, 70).

For this reason, the Titan’s cannibalism is symmetrical with the barbaric structure of human culture, similarly structurizing Lacan’s definition of mirror stage, which denotes the mutual imitation of identities and the cultural developing through this imitative process. In this structure, we can confirm the comic’s anti-ethical and anti-humanistic viewpoint, which links its numerous depictions of Titans’ and humans’ deaths to the problem of their transformation into mere things, or foodstuffs. It is this comic’s literary strategy to intensify the violence of cannibalism through our memory, in order to upset the literary identity of the reader by disregarding taboo and social boundaries.

Eren’s Cannibalism as a Successional Curse

In this section, I consider how Eren’s symbolic, divine cannibalism connects to the admiration of political supremacy and to the maintenance of the community. As previously mentioned, Titans wander in search of the object of desire they forever lack. Although the Titans continuously prey on human beings and eat them, they are not fulfilled forever. As the story develops, it becomes clear that the Titans desire something different, the divine Titan, and not humanity as food. The second volume contains a scene wherein numerous Titans attempt to cannibalize one another (fig. 12). In fact, this Titan is the hero Eren, a human-Titan hybrid. He has the mythical ability to freely enlarge his body, because of his unique “power of Titan” (AT 3, 115 and AT 5, 40, 62, etc., fig. 13).

Figure 12. Titan cannibalism. © Hajime Isayama 2010 (AT 2, 171).
Figure 13. The hero Eren transforms into a Titan. © Hajime Isayama 2010 (AT 3, 152).

As fig. 13 shows, unlike the ordinary Titans, the sharp appearance of the enlarged Eren proves attractive and fascinating. His idealized form, a nine-headed figure, is fulfilled with “the canon,” the antique traditional aesthetic criteria for the beauty of the human body, the aesthetic and symmetric proportion of humanity, as Vitruvius defined in his De architectura (Eco 74-75) With his magnificent, muscular physique and fine, long arms and legs, he looks like a martial arts fighter.11 In comparison to Eren, the common Titans appear comical, almost surreal, due to their potbellied bodies, relative shortness, or ugly faces, which invites unusual and unpleasant impressions that deviate negatively from the criteria of the beauty of the human body. Obviously, the author modeled the enlarged Eren and common Titan according to the dualistic aesthetic values of beauty and ugliness. In fact, the Titans’ violence and physical features arouse the reader’s hatred and disgust and easily evoke a sadistic desire for destruction and slaughter of one’s opponents. In contrast, readers tend to empathize with and emotionally support the Titanized Eren, with his idealized figure. Because of this visual strategy, Eren’s existence satisfies the reader’s greatest expectation: that of victory and a sense of achievement and exhilaration. His appearance therefore embodies readers’ hero worship and craving for violence. Eren’s human-Titan hybrid nature is significant, as his character ultimately supports the idea that humans are violent and not that far removed from “barbarism.” Subsequently, the readers identify with him because he embodies the duality of “barbarous” and “civilized.”

However, the comic characterizes Eren as both an outsider—due to his exceptional position in the community, regarded as “monster” (AT 5, 26) or “devil” (AT 5, 35)—and as a “savior conducting people to hope” (Ibid.) or a “miracle” (AT 13, 72). Because he is a hero who battles Titans on the side of humanity and because he retains his human intelligence, he embodies an outsider/savior paradigm. On this point, volumes 12 and 13 disclose that this special ability of human-Titan hybridity has been sought by other Titans and called “Zahyou,” which in English most literally means “coordinates” (AT 12, 7, and AT 13, 13-15). In other words, Eren’s power makes him a kind of homing beacon for the Titans. He is therefore always a target. Eren, as an object of desire, is Lacan’s objet petit a. Such a special hybrid does not belong to the Titans, who exist in an unconscious state, or to human beings, who exist in a mirror stage. Rather, Eren figures as a transcendental presence over the other characters because of his intelligence and “power of Titan,” which gives him absolute power. Thus, he exists largely as a symbol. The comic presents a psychoanalytic portrait of living creatures in these three different states, with a dynamic struggle for survival among them.

Eren obtained his power to metamorphose into a Titan by eating his father. Fig. 14 expresses a recurrence of Eren’s repressed memory in a nightmare about killing his father. The black frame represents the discontinuity of this memory from his present time and space. The cruel memory of eating his family member has been sealed away for many years from his consciousness. Of course, this means that the Oedipal patricide has occurred without his knowledge. According to Lacan, the Oedipus complex is an important factor leading to the mirror stage, through which the subject matures and shifts to the world of language (Écrits 229-231). Indicative of this process, after his unconscious patricide Eren lives with his beloved mother, forgets his memory, and grows up without knowing of his past or sealed power. He acquires a masculine sociality and sense of duty, learns to love his girlfriend, unconsciously increases his potential power, and develops his reason to control it.

Figure 14. Eren cannibalizes his father. © Hajime Isayama 2014 (AT 15, 182-183).

In fig. 14, during the death of his father, Eren is drawn like an ugly beast with no sense of reason, as if he were not human. This suggests that his cannibalistic urge is controlled not by Eren’s will but by a supernatural power. This sequence depicts the weakness of a human who cannot bear cannibalism, and have no choice but to be as a wild beast. He commits cannibalism not as a human being, but through a fateful force, thus demonstrating Eren’s innocence as a human. Cannibalism is not beautified at all, but regarded as a dirty animal act to be shunned. By positioning cannibalism as a taboo isolated from modern human culture and behavior, the comic evokes an emotional response of fear that allows for the reader’s catharsis.

By the power of Titan, humans transcend the boundary between the existence of animals and human beings, lose their reason and memory, and carry out cannibalistic acts, which are suppressed under the consciousness. This “power of Titan” can only be possessed by members of the royal family, who pass it down from generation to generation by eating their predecessors (AT 16, 90). In contrast to the Titans’ cannibalism, which is driven by an oral pleasure principle, we can find a clear privilege in this ceremonial and political cannibalism, a ritual identification with power performed by certain people, including Eren. This ritual evokes Jacques Attali’s philosophy of how this cannibalistic tendency in primitive societies began in the form of orderly ceremonies, believed to be the privileged, sacred acts of gods (L’ordre cannibale 11-37). Such ceremonies signified the acquisition of eternal life and the conquest over what is “wrong,” including evil, disease, and death, and so it is regarded as a countermeasure against primitive violence, which Attali defined as the “sign of god” (Ibid. 11-86).

Similar to this sacred act of communion with the gods, Attack on Titan depicts such symbolic and divine cannibalism as a successional curse. Not only did Eren perform this cursed, Oedipal act by killing his father, but his father, who was also a human-Titan hybrid, himself killed Frieda, a daughter of the royal family and heir to the throne. The royal family has performed this crucial ceremony for more than a century in order to maintain their governance over the city at the cost of the previous ruler’s life. This ceremony, in which the person in power must be killed for somebody new to take over, can be regarded as extralegal and beyond ethical boundaries. After succeeding in the ceremony, the person in power has a supernatural and omnipotent body, called 神 (“God”) (AT 16, 54).

Fig. 15 shows the scene where Frieda transforms into a Titan and ritually eats her uncle. However, in fig. 16, just as Frieda inherits the power of Titan, she is illegitimately killed by Eren’s father, who has also transformed into a Titan. In spite of the normal and legitimated process that the family of Frieda must inherit her special power, Eren’s father inhibited the process of the legitimate throne and gained the power of Titan by eating her. In both sequences, as in the case of Eren, those who inherit the power and become a “god” are depicted as cruel and ravenous beasts, more like demons. The cannibalism here is recognized as an unusual act and not as a human act. However, the portrayal of such slaughter symbolically shows how inheritance of power is publicly and politically atrocious, and how individuals can be used as cruel instruments in maintaining the power of a “god.” Elana Gomel describes this power of violence as a “sublime violence” in which sacrifice, physical pain, and torment produce a “sublime body” or sublime self that is brought about by a principle of reigning (xxvii-xxix). Such sublime violence, which those who inherit the power of the Titan accept and provide, further destines successors to serve their communities: it is impossible for them to escape from the cycle of death.

Figure 15. Unconscious Frieda transforms into a Titan and is about to eat her uncle, who prepares to die. © Hajime Isayama 2015 (AT 16, 90).
Figure 16. Frida was eaten by Eren’s father, in where “the power of Titan” was transferred to him. © Hajime Isayama 2015 (AT 15, 122).

This problem of cyclical violence relates to Lacan’s study of the “death of god” in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1986). According to Lacan, a person in power, such as the prophet Moses, commands leadership in order to establish and protect a community and has charisma due to the “hidden God,” the law of parole (Ethics 173). The original murder of the father meant that this “great person” was murdered by his symbolic son, disclosing the “secret malediction” (Ibid. 174). Through the realization of this curse, a monotheistic system was established and its religious messages defined. The origin of law, so Lacan explains, is rooted in a brutal, first drama carried out by an animalistic but omnipotent individual.

Based on this analysis, the divine cannibalism in Attack on Titan can be recognized as a mystical ceremony of regicide necessary for controlling humanity and maintaining the secrecy of the “power of Titan.” Thus, the heir is fated to carry out this extralegal murder, the “death of god,” in which the king’s body must be completely consumed. Here, individuality is sacrificed in a tragic and symbolic ceremony for the preservation of a whole community.

Attack on Titan depicts the metaphysical body as possessive of symbolic authority, like Eren’s. However, such a power becomes perfect through memory or intelligence. This is what the following quotation suggests, wherein Eren partially remembers his acquisition of the “power of Titan” from his father. Eren recalls his conversation with his father who handed over the key to Eren and suggested that there is a secret in the cellar of their house. His father tries to eliminate Eren’s memory by injecting a substance into his son. Below are the words that Eren’s father told Eren:

Eren . . . after returning . . . I will show you the basement . . . that I have always hidden from you [. . .] From now on, because of this injection, a memory disorder is to be found in you [. . .] This “power” must be helpful then. The memory that some possess can teach you to use your power. If you want to save Mikasa and Armin . . . and everybody else, you must control this power. (AT 3, 57-62, fig. 17)

Figure 17. Eren partly remembers inheriting the Titan’s power from his father. © Hajime Isayama 2010 (AT 3, 58-59).

In almost all cases, including Eren’s, new candidates as the inheritors of the power of Titan are forced into a temporary amnesia when they acquire the “power of Titan.” But after, they also obtain the complete memories of all human beings, which they previously lost unconsciously. Here, the primitive, inherited memory of the person in power is closely related to the supernatural and mythological violence that the memory itself contains. These memories can trigger a new violence; however, it is an individual matter whether or not people use this recollection of victimization for violence, as when Mikasa’s traumatic memory inspires her to kill her mother’s murderer. In comparison with this episode of private violence, the divine individual converts collective memory into an intensive, dynamic power with which to control human beings, thus monopolizing power over human memory and violence.

Ultimately, the comic reveals that the royal family established this tyrannical political framework using paranormal power. Under this principle of the absolute monopolization of violence, we can find the culmination of power and memory’s dynamic logic in the hierarchy that dominates this severe world, reflected in different characters’ feelings of awe toward those they can never reach. In Attack on Titan, we must consider that Eren’s symbolic, divine cannibalism connects to the admiration of political supremacy that exists above the natural order, under which both humanity and Titan can barely survive. It is thus accurate to say that this comic is not only based on the concept of monotheism inherent in the Titan’s power and memory, which only an extralegal and beyond ethical being can possess.12 We can also see this fascistic tendency in its many depictions of faith in excessive power and of the gratification of the desire to conquer one’s enemy. Catharsis is produced by the defeat of the weak who were recognized as enemies of such a divine existence. The experience of triumph is preserved as a collective memory, which supports the emotional involvement of the readers into the story.

Finally, it is significant that in Attack on Titan, the original memory of cannibalism that Eren forgets, due to his amnesia, repeatedly appears in his dreams (AT 1, 119-120). The comic uses the literary strategy of flashbacks and dreams to repeat earlier traumatic events, whether they are collective or private. For instance, the second depiction of terror and anger becomes more excessive and combative when Eren, during battle, recalls his mother’s death at the hands of a Titan, at the same time as he remembers shouting “I will destroy them!! Not one animal will be left in this world!!” (AT 1, 78 and 137, fig. 18). In comparison with fig. 3, where only Eren’s shock is emphasized, fig. 18 highlights his enormous anger and thirst for vengeance. The author effectively creates these recollection scenes by reusing images. Comic researcher Thierry Groensteen defines the spatial combination of these frames as a “network” and sees certain meanings forming within it (276). In this comic system, Attack on Titan’s scenes of recollection appear in the form of flashbacks to evoke readers’ hatred and pull at their heartstrings. In the story structure, the situation is configured so that whenever humanity remember these times of tragedy, they is driven to fight to their deaths. The use of memory in this work thus amplifies the sense of death and destruction that fills the world of Attack on Titan.

Figure 18. Eren recalls the scene of his mother’s death. © Hajime Isayama 2010 (AT 1, 137).

The formation of memory is not only closely related to the traumatic event but also, from the psychoanalytical approach, it is deeply involved with the dream. Lacan regarded the dream as an important site and describes it as follows: “If the function of the dream is to prolong sleep, if the dream, after all, may come so near to the reality that causes it, can we not say that it might correspond to this reality without emerging from sleep? After all, there is such a thing as somnambulistic activity” (Les Quatre 57). According to Lacan, a subject touches reality, although this is also the cause of the subject’s fragmentation. Eren, who exists on a symbolic level, suffers not only from the real memory of his beastly patricide, but also from the destabilization of his self-identity through this traumatic act. Thus, this dream compels him to awaken his inner Titan and use this power against the enemy. In both memories, then—the one of the brutal, divine ceremony that appears in Eren’s dream, and the other, communal memory of the Titans’ cannibalism of humans—we can recognize a “Pandora’s box” that leads to an escalation of violence.

However, as volume 16 suggests, Eren decides to use the last of his humanity, and not the power of Titan: he chooses to give his life as a sacrifice because he discovers hope for escaping Pandora’s box. Eren will overcome the memory of the past and save humanity if cannibalized by his female companion, Historia, the true heir to the throne, although he remains ignorant of his father’s true intention:

How many people really died, since my father and I stole the Titan’s power, which should be in its rightful place [. . .] Hey . . . therefore, at least . . . Let me leave my life in your hands. Historia . . . by eating me, save humanity. (AT 16, 131-135, fig. 19)

Figure 19. Eren urges Historia to cannibalize him. © Hajime Isayama 2015 (AT 16, 135).

Readers will surely be enlightened in future books that have not yet been published as to if and how Eren creates a peaceful world and restores humanity’s hope in its future, in which they can escape beastly violence. However, this can only be achieved by denaturalizing the dark world, the naturalized chain of violence.


The first section of this essay clarified that the depiction of the Titans’ cannibalism is described cruelly using visual language; however, their barbarous action is shaped in a mirror image relationship with the food culture of humans. In this view, both Titans and Humans are divided into the two contrasting categories of “savage” and “civilization” in order to conceptually express the differences of cultural relativity in an exclusionary form. The two conflicting categories arouses the fear of the readers and gives them a cathartic effect. However, the act of “eating”—the theme of the primary stage in both the giant and the human being—is illustrated not only in the binomial confrontation structure on the surface but also in the deep layer concept of this story. This structured relevance reflects the symbolized barbarism of the act of eating and the historical facts that have suppressed it, and therefore, the reader needs to understand this concept of “eating” and “cannibalism” in order to understand the development of the story.

The second section analyzed the monopolizing of supernatural Titan power that the transcendental human being or the hybrid noble person holds and bequeaths to the next generation by performing divine ceremonial cannibalism. The structured ceremonial man-eating behavior is conceptualized in the real history of humanity. This comic illustrates the hierarchy system among humans, as well as between a human and a Titan, through the divine cannibalism of such an exceptional person as a god. Additionally, the primitive natural environment of humanity is revealed in the barbarous behavior of the hero and its privileged class. In this political and legal cannibalism, violence is used as a means of controlling others by influencing the inheritance of power.

Using philosophy and psychoanalysis, this paper studied the way cannibalism, regarded as taboo in human history, and the violence behind it appears in Attack on Titan. This analysis makes it possible to reconfirm and objectivize the violence which forms the literary fascination with this comic and adds to its commercial appeal. While the acts of man-eating are forgotten in the modern age, fiction cannot avoid dealing with such a traumatic memory of human beings, in which their cultural taboo is re-contextualized as horror material and reproduced on a self-identical basis of humanity who forget and suppress this taboo in their history. In a sense, it is an expansion of the narcissism of the reader who project on the comic by excavating human memory. Considering the great reception of Attack on Titan beyond global cultural differences, applying an analytic approach to this shocking and horrifying cannibalism elucidates the fear created in this plot and clarifies the phenomenon of the reader’s absorption into that subject. This comic has a great impact on the reader, with its violent content and many cathartic elements. Normally, the reader would not care about why they are fascinated by this comic, or about the impact of this comic, or how deeply their minds and feelings are involved. Therefore, it is necessary to understand how this comic is based on violent structure and content and objectivize the fear and catharsis in order to comprehend the narrative structure and objectively read the comic. Indeed, the discourse within the fiction is inseparable from human history and memory.


This research was supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant and by the research fund of College of Commerce, Nihon University. The English editing was conducted by Editage.


[1] Isayama, Hajime. Attack on Titan (original edition in Japanese), vol. 1-22, Kodansha, 2010-2014. (Following: AT)

[2] Regarding sekaikei, I referred to the following study by Ken Maejima (Sekaikei 27) and Motoko Tanaka (“Apocalyptic Imagination. Sekaikei Fiction in Contemporary Japan.”).

[3] Maejima’s study investigates the sekaikei and post-sekaikei genres, and how the animation Evangelion has influenced fans and other works, and changed the entire business model for these genres (13).

[4] Cf. Tanaka.

[5] Ibid.

[6] We also can see this theme in the popular comic Tokyo Ghoul, which began in September 2011. This comic features a hero who one day unexpectedly becomes a man-eating human-monster hybrid. His cannibalistic monster character illustrated through homicide that evokes horror aesthetical feeling of the reader, while his human suffering and dignity engages the hearts and minds of young readers.

[7] Cf. Francesco-Alessio Ursini, “Themes, Focalization and the Flow of Information: The Case of Shingeki no Kyojin.”

[8] Michihiro Itoi has analyzed the general function of the onomatopoeias and mimetic words and indicated that this language suggests a continuation or movement and the passage of time (66-73).

[9] Regarding this explanation, I referred to studies by Marvin Harris (Cannibals and Kings) and Jacques Attali (L’ordre cannibale).

[10] For example, Ymir, a human-titan hybrid, reveals the surprising fact that she had previously wandered the woods for more than 60 years. AT 12, 16.

[11] According to author Isayama, this figure especially reflects his interest in martial arts (Outside Kou 29).

[12] I refer to Susan Sontag’s study regarding the aesthetics of fascism. She defined fascist art as typified by the admiration of obedience, the urge to abandon thought, and the worship of death (100-114). The following article also analyzes modern literature’s tendency to admire violence. Cf. Juergen Nieraad, “Gewalt und Gewaltverherrlichung in der Literatur des 20. Jahrhundert.”

Works Cited

Attali, Jacques. L’ordre cannibale. Vie et mort de la médecine. Trans. Sadafumi Kanezuka, Misuzu-Shobo, 1984.

Darwin, Charles. On The Origin of Species, with an introduction by Ernst Mayr, Harvard UP, 1964.

Eco, Umberto. History of Beauty. Trans. Yasuo Uematsu. Toyo-Shobo, 2005.

Fish, Jörg. “Zivilisation, Kultur.” Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, ed. by Otto Brunner, vol. 1-8. Klett-Cotta, 1972-1997, vol. 7, 1992, pp. 679-759.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem und Tabu. Einige Übereinstimmungen im Seelenleben der Wilden und der Neurotiker. 9th ed., Fischer, 2005.

Griffis, Emily. “Predator vs. Prey: The Human Monstrosity in Attack on Titan.” Digital Literature Review, vol. 4, 2017, pp. 1-13.

Harris, Marvin. Cannibals and Kings. The Origins of Cultures. Trans. Youichi Suzuki, Hayakawa-Shobou, 1990.

Herder, Johann Gottfried. “Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache.” Sämtliche Werke. Trans. Modern Literature Study Society at Osaka University, Hosei UP, 1972, 2002.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, introduction by A.D. Lindsay. Dent/Dutton, 1949.

Isayama, Hajime. Attack on Titan (original edition in Japanese), vol. 1-22, Kodansha, 2010-2014. (abbr.: AT)

—. “Attack on Titan.” Bessatsu Sh?nen Magazine, vol. 7, no. 1, 2014, pp. 577-621.

—. “Attack on Titan.” Bessatsu Sh?nen Magazine, vol. 7, no. 2, 2015, pp. 134-179.

—. Attack on Titan. Outside Kou (Official guidebook), Kodansha, 2013.

—. “Interview with Teturo Araki.” Attack on Titan. Animation Side Kou ?(Official guidebook), Kodansha, 2013, pp. 146-171.

—. “Ten Thousand Word Interview.” Attack on Titan. Animation Side Kou ?(Official guidebook), Kodansha, 2013, pp. 13-31.

—. “Interview with Akira Oodera.” Da Vinchi, vol. 21, no. 10, 2014, pp. 14-19.

—. “Interview with Kan Saito.” Brutus, vol. 35, no. 22, 2014, pp. 119-129.

Itoi, Michihiro. “Manga’s words’ as a style.” Nihon Gogaku, vol. 8, 1989, pp. 66-73.

Hirai, Itsuko. “Attack on Avengers.” Brutus, vol. 35, no. 22, 2014, p. 91.

Klawitter, Arne and Michael Ostheimer. Literaturtheorie – Ansätze und Anwendungen. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Seuil, 1966.

—. Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan, Penguin Books, 1986.

—. L’éthique de la psychanalyse, 1959-1960. Le séminaire de Jacques Lacan. Texte établi par Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Hiroyuki Koide, Iwanami-Shoten, 2002.

Maejima, Ken. Sekaikei toha Nanika. Post Eva no Otaku-shi. [What is Sekaikei. The History of the Otaku After Evangelion] Softbank, 2010.

Nieraad, Juergen. “Gewalt und Gewaltverherrlichung in der Literatur des 20. Jahrhundert”. Internationales Handbuch der Gewaltforschung. Eds. Wilhelm Heitmeyer and John Hagen, Westdeutscher Verlag, 2002, pp. 1276-1294.

Sontag, Susan. Under the Sign of Saturn. Farrar, Trans. Takao Tomiyama, Misuzu-Shobou, 2007.

Tanaka, Motoko. “Apocalyptic Imagination. Sekaikei Fiction in Contemporary Japan.” E-International Relations. 1 Feb. 2013.

Ursini, Francesco-Alessio. “Themes, Focalization and the Flow of Information: The Case of Shingeki no Kyojin.” The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship, vol. 7, no. 2, 2017.

Related Articles