I started thinking about the similarities in March comes in like a lionand Teppu, of all things. They both deliberately tell a story with main characters who fit the “rival” archetype in sports anime much more than they fit the protagonist archetype. They both tell a story from the Classic Anime Rival’s point of view, and because of that, the story feels unusual and a lot of the classic sports anime tropes are messed with.
And this isn’t supposition.
March pretty much acknowledges this reversal in the scene where Nikaido frames himself as a shonen protag who needs to defeat his rival Rei and… well, when you think about it, that is essentially correct.
Rei is aloof, cynical, super talented and winning constantly because of it…but his heart isn’t really in the game. He doesn’t get along with his peers very well. He’s definitely Classic Anime Rival material.
Meanwhile Nikaido is the scrappy underdog fueled by undying passion and the power of friendship who will keep playing until he collapses and inspires everyone around him. He gets along well with others. He WOULD typically be the main character.
It’s the same for Natsuo and Yuzuko in Teppu, only to a different degree. Rei ‘s archetype is that of the more pleasant kind of rival who’s closed off rather than mean. He says he’s not the hero’s friend, but he kinda is even from the beginning. But Natsuo? She’s the nasty, hardcore rival archetype. She’s always been able to achieve the things others work at through effortless talent. She’s often “bored” by how easily she can get by and she constantly infuriates others with how lightly she takes them. She’s also violent, terrifying and has a personal mad-on for the hero.
Meanwhile, Yuzuko is explicitly noted to be the classic protagonist who got where she is with hard work! passion! determination! She’s the underdog without much talent who bridges the gap with her effort and optimism. She pulls off those surprise victories.
So both March and Teppu allow us to experience nearly an entire story told from the rival’s POV, but what new insights does this shift in focus show us? For both Rei and Natsuo, it’s lonely at the top, but this manifests in different ways.
My article, ‘The Courage to Speak’: Mental Illness and Recovery in Natsume’s Book of Friends has been published on Anime Feminist! Check it out here.
I’m once again so grateful that Anime Feminist gave me the opportunity to publish this piece. I had a great time working with them as always.
I really poured a lot of myself into this one- a lot more than I expected I would- so I think it’s among my best as far as articles go. I put a ton of work and many, MANY hours into this. (Fun fact: I wrote the bulk of this while I was in Chicago to see Hamilton!)
On the way, I had some powerful realizations about myself and why this show resonated with me.
So this article ended up being about more than Natsume Yujinchou- I have some thoughts about how media and society in general approaches mental illness, abuse and recovery and why this show in particular stands out simply because it doesn’t sensationalize abuse and values recovery rather than reveling in suffering.
I hope this piece can encourage people to check this show out because it really is something special that connected with me on a deep level. I think others who have struggled with trauma, mental illness and abuse might feel the same. It’s a gentle but thoroughly emotional experience.
Even if you haven’t seen the show, I’d really appreciate if you read this piece! It’s special to me and if you’re interested in the experiences of someone struggling with mental illness and in how fiction engages in serious mental issues, you might get something out of it. Thank you.
Okay, this is my final reflection on Attack on Titan, and it’s thankfully shorter than the other two. After this, I’ll have gotten it all out of my system, hopefully for quite a while.
The final big reason I have for why Attack on Titan initially caught my eye was because it actually seemed to treat its female characters like, y’know, human beings. The cast included way more women than most shonen manga does and even more shockingly, none of them were ever sexualized or treated as eye candy (in the manga moreso than the anime).
Isayama’s art style was pretty gender ambiguous a lot of time, the women weren’t drawn differently than the men really- slighter and smaller, sometimes you could see they had breasts somewhere, but that’s it. (The ‘Female Titan’ being a glaring exception). Mikasa was allowed to be as muscular as a lot of the boys. Even Christa/Historia, who was canonically supposed to be smokin’ hot, wasn’t drawn in a “sexy’ way. I read a good chunk of the manga, and I can’t recall one instance of a woman being drawn in an objectifying way. That was kinda incredible. Sadly, not a lot of manga (or media period) hops over that low bar.
Isayama was in fact so comfortable with gender ambiguity, that he requested no gendered pronouns be used in regards to Hange, making them effectively canonically non-binary, or at least intentionally non-gendered. That’s was really cool when it happened. there’s no denying it, it’s not something you see often.
There was a variety of women, a variety of relationships and they all seemed to be important to the narrative. They were treated as just as capable in combat, and the story didn’t make a big deal about gender overall.
And we had wlw! Wlw, who were, at first, well written and complex. Who were just as messy and flawed as the others, whose story felt at first like it would be important and major to the story. I can still remember how excited I was about Ymir and Historia. Even after I lost interest in the rest of the manga, I still couldn’t let them go.
I still remember a post I saw talking about the scene where Historia and Ymir are arguing over whether they can save the boy suffering from hypothermia and Ymir reveals she knows Historia doesn’t really care about him and how she sees through to her martyr complex, etc. This nameless boy only exists as a prop to motivate character development and relationship building between these two queer women. How incredibly rare is that to see? Female characters have been props for male development a million times, but here for once, we see women being valued more by the narrative, even if it was for just one arc. What a thing.
But let’s look beyond that. Let’s look at how Ymir and Historia ended up.
My previous post goes into a bit more detail, but here’s the gist. Ymir dies without even getting to kiss or say goodbye to her partner, and the surviving wlw (Historia) is now straight-up forced to become a baby factory for The Sake of the Country, so the main character man can feel sad about it. Yep, it’s not enough that her girlfriend dies! She has to become the dead-inside-seed-receptacle for some dude! That’s what wlw get in AOT land!
And there’s more!
God, it makes me roll my eyes in the back of my head to even THINK about Reiner and Bertholdt. The signs Isayama didn’t know what the hell he was doing with his characters were there from the beginning with them. The fandom was so excited by their apparent relationship. Except the writing surrounding them was so goddamn confusing and messy it wasn’t clear what Isayama ever even intended with that. Like, when Reiner implied he was gay to Ymir, was that an act? Did only his fake personality have a crush on Christa or was that real? What was with Bertholdt suddenly being in love with Annie with zero foreshadowing of that? Remember that shit? Remember how we thought it’d all go somewhere or be explained at all?
Nope! I guess the queer implications were just some weird, poorly written fake out. Now one guy’s dead and the other’s alone, so even if they really HAD been queer, we lose.
At the end of the day Attack on Titan just gives us the same bullshit most other media gave us- being gay means suffering, so either die or go fulfill your true purpose and make babies.
But! You might say! There’s still a lot of women in this story! And I want you to consider something.
Every single girl from the original squad except for Mikasa (whose life continues to revolve around Eren of course) is now dead, a hunk of crystal or forced to go make babies in the countryside. Yes. Every single one. I don’t care if more girls were introduced in the meantime. This alone shows how little regard AOT has for its female characters and what we can expect for the remaining ones, or for characters like Hange.
And this isn’t even getting into stuff like the unpleasantness surrounding the attempted sexual assault of Armin when he was disguised as a girl, the treatment of mental illness, etc. It’s bad, guys.
And we really should not be surprised it turned out this way.
We should not be surprised Isayama does not care about progressiveness or his female characters at the end of the day. you cannot possibly expect a man who believes the rape and abuse of Korean women is justified to have anything remotely resembling “feminism” in his narrative (see this post for info about Isayama’s views). So I implore you, please try not to go around calling this narrative progressive anymore. It never was and it never can be as long as its written by a war crimes apologist, a rape apologist and just a bad person overall.
(This is gonna be messy and loooong, because I have a lot of feelings. Someone on the last post noted my “rhetoric blows” and I will freely admit I’m not really trying for coherent “rhetoric” here, I’m just venting my frustration so I can get it all out of me and move on).
Yes, it wasn’t solely the premise that drew me and so many others to Attack on Titan and its potential. There were a lot of unique and exciting elements with the way this shonen manga handled its characters.
I said before that Isayama never cared about his characters, but that was a bit of a exaggeration. I think he did start out caring about some of them…it’s just he quickly got bored with them and started treating them solely as tools to serve the “plot” and the screwed message he wanted to impart.
Isayama does have one strength as a character writer- he excels at showing characters who are messy, flawed and selfish but nevertheless sympathetic. Nobody in Attack on Titan is a classic unselfish “pure” hero, they are all deeply flawed. Isayama’s characters were compelling in the beginning because of that. He allowed his characters to exhibit cowardice, he allowed them to fail spectacularly, and that made Attack on Titan stand out. Despire the melodrama of their situations, actions and personalities, there’s a rawness to (most of) his characters that fits the horror of the setting.
Even the protag Eren, who a lot of people dislike or find easily the most boring character (honestly I found Levi the most boring though), has this ugliness to him that makes him distinct from the billion other teen boy protags in shonen. He is genuinely unstable and honestly a bit disturbing, as this collection of weird murderfaces he makes shows (behold my post popular aot post, ah memories).His obsession with killing Titans was unsettling, it was the classic determination of a shonen hero through a screwed up horror lens, this kid ain’t all right.
Historia especially resonated me because she was TRYING to be that classic pure heroine- but she was selfish like everyone else deep down. She just wanted to be SEEN as an pure-hearted martyr who sacrificed for others, when really all she was doing was giving into her suicidal urges. It was criticism of the very concept of the “immaculate woman”, and that’s pretty cool. So was the fact she was seen through by Ymir, someone who embraces selfishness in all other aspects of her life but is ultimately selfless when it comes to her love for Historia…that’s some good shit. It’s fantastic as a character concept, and Ymir and Historia’s initial character writing and backstory will stick with me because it was genuinely good in all its melodrama.
Historia and Ymir were nuanced queer characters whose relationships were fleshed out well. I do believe Isayama put care into crafting their initial arcs and developing them.
But then we run into a problem. A problem that eventually we run into with every character in AOT. Isayama stops caring about them. After their initial big arcs or moments in the spotlight or backstory reveals, he just doesn’t know what to do with these characters anymore. So they completely disapppear from the manga or fade into the background only to matter again when he decides to kill them off for some cheap shock moment. Either that, or they just exist to further the narrative of how the military is cool and we have to exterminate all our enemies and blablabla.
Because he ultimately cares about that narrative far, far more than he does giving these characters the full stories that resonate, make sense and are effectively paced. He’s completely willing to undo all the character work he did previously if it means he can be edgy or impress his ideals on the reader.
That’s why Ymir and Historia have this dramatic parting that gets the audience pumped to see what happens to both of them and when they’ll reunite…only for Ymir to just completely disappear from the narrative, then be killed offscreen without even really re-entering the story again. That’s why Historia has this whole big arc about reclaiming her agency, resisting her abusive family and learning to live for herself…only to be intimidated into becoming Queen even though she’s not super into it, because she needs to serve the military and NOT live for herself after all, I guess? And oh, now she’s numbly accepted her duty to endlessly make babies for the sake of the nation! Turns out her real purpose is to be something for the other characters to be sad about.
Isayama got bored with Historia’s arc and Ymir’s arc and their relationship. He may have fun coming up with characters backstories and the big dramatic moments, but once those are over? He doesn’t care enough to do the work to conclude their stories. He gets distracted by his next plot point, his next action scene. The characters are toys he discards or breaks for the sake of either some edgy ‘anyone can die!’ moment or to push forward whatever new stupid plot point he’s thought up for his fascist narrative. (Links to evidence of Isayama’s views in this post).
I apologize for dwelling so much on something I no longer like with Attack on Titan, it’s just such a fascinating trainwreck, even though I hopped off the train just in time I have to look back at it periodically and be horrified yet morbidly reflective. I do find it disturbing people are denying the imperialist subtext here because it barely qualifies as subtext anymore at this point, so I do think noting it is valuable as long as fandom continues to be denial.
I just keep wondering at myself why I was drawn to AOT in the first place and HOW I didn’t see this coming- I think reflecting on that is valuable so I’ll see the warning signs earlier with other media.
It also helps me consider what makes a good narrative and what elements can appear compelling only to be squandered.
Because honestly, there WAS so much potential there, and though it’s a struggle, I CAN remember what excited me about it. There was a good horror concept here. It really did make me feel what the terror would be, to have this unknowable, ravenous threat that could so easily wipe out everything, to have to trap yourself to avoid it. The huge walls, the striking visuals, the displays of human weakness and terror, the visceral aspect of it all- it was compelling stuff. And also importantly, it kind of rode that line where it was very easy to laugh at as well- the memes involving the titans were a TON of fun in the heyday of AOT, the bizarre way the various ones were drawn were so funny, the peak melodrama of the situation was so absurd it almost made fun of itself, especially with all the exaggerated expressions- the fandom had a lot of fun with it.
And the concept COULD have gone somewhere that was compelling, rather than boring fascist nonsense. While the components of fascist narrative were present from the beginning- a grotesque invading threat the military, the protags, as heroes, must fight- there was potential in the premise for all that to be subverted, for it to ultimately go somewhere not fascist. The Titans turning out to be fellow humans, even your former loved ones, could have been more than a footnote.
The titans actually being people only ended up mattering in the sense of “this shows us the REAL threat is this other race that trapped us here and in fact we must use the titans to defeat them”. It didn’t ultimately change the characters or their ideals, it just made them change enemies (to a much, much more boring threat and narrative). But it COULD have been a game changer that shook the characters to their core. A very natural place for this revelation to lead would have been “it turns out there is no clear enemy. We’ve been fighting ourselves this whole time. We thought we were killing something monstrous, but it wasn’t, it was the people we love. We were used. Now what do we do?” It could have been a story of the characters struggling to answer that question. How can they seek freedom now?
And if you really want a “dismantle the corrupt government” plotline, it would be a much simpler and stronger narrative if it was simply about the government pushing for Titan extermination despite the revelation, because they prioritized their own safety above all else and also wanted to erase past mistakes.
What if the Titans had simply been the result of horrific human experimentation done in the past and the government just wanted to cover it up? That’s it. no other countries, no emphasis on royal bloodlines or magic amnesia or any other convoluted bullshit. The reason people responded to Attack on Titan was NOT because they love convoluted royal drama or covoluted wars between opposing countries, that was not even a factor in the beginning…it was because it touched on this very simple, visceral thrill, so the story needed to keep being simple and visceral.
The final struggle of the narrative, the key to freedom, could have been the characters having the re-evaluate their worldviews and the character having to struggle to find an alternate method to deal with the titans while society goes against them for doing so.
The survey corps is disbanded. Eren, who could only deal with his grief by focusing on obliterating a clear enemy, now doesn’t have that and is forced to actually grow as a character. He has to actually confront his guilt and the fact his desire to construct an inhuman opponent he could fight was all so he didn’t have to deal with survivors guilt, because he wanted something that was black and white with no messy emotions attached. but it turns out nothing ever is that simple.
Or hey, maybe there’s something more compelling and less predictable you could do to subvert the fascist elements. I’m only doing this off the top of my head, there are probably a million ways the story could go in a more interesting direction than the shitstorm we got if someone actually focused and creative puts their mind to it.
I just did a pretty extensive series of posts analyzing the fascist…well at this point in the manga, overtones, in Attack on Titan and how the narrative has failed both the premise and the characters that that drew people to it in the first place. I am reposting the series here.
But I think to compliment this series, I need to give context about me and Attack on Titan.
I was never an Attack on Titan superfan, but I did read the manga around the time the first season on the anime came out, watched and enjoyed that anime season, and was hooked along with a lot of other people. Then it came out that the author, Hajime Isayama, was a hardline nationalist who straight up claimed the Japanese war crimes against Korea in WWII were okay on Twitter. And if you want to clutch at straws and deny those tweets were his, there is ampleevidencethey were. Don’t bury your heads in the sand on this one, folks.
I wasn’t sure what to do with this revelation. I’ve enjoyed work from plenty of problematic creators in the time (when it comes down to it, everyone’s a lil’ problematic) but this was beyond the fucking pale. I waited to see if anything else would come forth and read the manga through not-so-official means in the meantime. I kept a sharp eye out to see if I would spot any war crime apologism in the work- sometimes art can be separated from the artist, but if a manga’s about the military and the mangaka’s a nationalist and war crime apologist? Yeah, those views are probably gonna start showing up in that narrative more and more as time goes on.
I gave up on AOT as a narrative around chapter 60-ish. I found myself utterly bored with the story now that the focus had shifted from fighting the titans to some badly-written fighting-the-government royal family drama. What’s more, there was a thing where Hange and Levi, our heroes, were torturing a dude for information. Though the characters were all like “This Makes Us Bad People”, it was still presented as “necessary”. Considering this was coming from a guy who thought the ACTUAL rape and torture of Korean civilians by the Japanese military was “necessary” it was a big NOPE.
There were other factors, like Armin almost getting sexually assaulted while disguised as a girl and other characters shown laughing at this, and even Jean, who seemed more sympathetic, implying that this meant Armin was “corrupted”. There was a moment where Levi physically intimidated Historia, an abuse victim, into “doing her duty as a soldier” and becoming Queen when she didn’t want to (and then the narrative then immediately had a character assure us that really, Levi is a good guy, because it couldn’t stand for the readers to think badly of the manga’s golden boy for one second).
There had been similar scenes to the one with Historia in the narrative before this, but with my knowledge of Isayama’s views, any whiff of “a soldier’s duty takes precedence over individual freedom” made me sick. Isayama’s poisonous views were clearly coming through strongly and damaging the narrative and the characters at this point and I was not about it. It just wasn’t enjoyable anymore. I told myself I’d check back in when Historia and Ymir reunited because I still cared about them as characters (look, i’m a lesbian who loves lesbians, you know me) , but otherwise, I was done.
Quitting when I did may have been the best decision I ever made regarding a piece of fiction in my life. A…lot of bad stuff happened in the manga after I left. Here’s a tumblr post detailing some of it. (Discussion of antisemitism enclosed).
I was super naive to think Isayama would care enough to reunite Ymir and Historia, turns out. I heard via the grapevine that Ymir had died offscreen without ever seeing her again, and oh yeah, Historia is pregnant or something now.
I was aghast. I went dumpster diving in the Attack on Titan wiki to investigate this trainwreck. Below the cut, I copy and paste the posts that resulted, in which I discover what a blatantly pro-fascist shitstorm the manga became. This is what led to the in-depth analysis of how AOT went off the rails that I will be posting on this blog. So let this give you some context, if you aren’t following the manga.
This is really, really super deathly ancient history, but since I’m treating this blog a complete repository for my media analysis of sorts, it wouldn’t be complete without this essay. It was my first post that ever blew up on Tumblr and it still circulates to this day. *checks notes* Wow, almost 50,000. A lot of those are arguments and various temper tantrums though. People accused me of not knowing anything about comics (hilarious if you’ve talked to me for more than one second), people said I was salty because someone insulted my OC (I never wrote fanfic with any OCs or made any, you can check my ffnet and deviantart history yourself. it never interested me. I have yet to be really published either so none of my original stories have that level of scrutiny) etc etc.
If you want to know what ACTUALLY inspired this essay, like many things in my life, it traced back to FMA. I wrote it after being pissed off that people “identified” Julia in the FMAB movie Sacred Star of Milos as a Mary Sue based on her five seconds of screentime in the trailer before the movie came out. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back of sorts. So that’s why she’s the featured image. Who knew a one-off character from a mediocre anime movie would indirectly change my blogging life so much.
Anyway, it was the start of my blog gaining a ‘large’ (it’s all relative) amount of followers. It’s 7-8 years old. If I had known so many people would read it, I would have written it more carefully. I wouldn’t have written it in 45 minutes. And if I wrote it today, I’d be a bit more nuanced and detailed.
That said, the essay, even with all its flaws, clearly struck a chord, so I’m preserving it.
If you’re curious about my opinions on the term Mary Sue today, not much has changed, honestly. I think the term is dead and has no worth, if it ever had any- it is inextricably tied to hatred of female characters and teenage girls at this point (and was primed for that since its origin), and there is essentially no meaning. “Self-insert” or “flat character” is more specific and less loaded. Moreover, I think if you want to be more thoughtful as a media critic, one should avoid using the term simply because not doing so forces you to be more critical, more specific, and engage more with the text rather than being dismissive. You can identify the problems with how the character is written if you actually, y’know, talk about those problems rather than using a blanket statement that accomplishes nothing. We should always aim to be more thoughtful in our criticism and identify actual trends (“manic pixie dream girl”, “magical girlfriend” “born sexy yesterday” are all examples of trends with female characters being named and identified in a more useful way).
So, there’s this girl. She’s tragically orphaned and richer than anyone on the planet. Every guy she meets falls in love with her, but in between torrid romances she rejects them all because she dedicated to what is Pure and Good. She has genius level intellect, Olympic-athelete level athletic ability and incredible good looks. She is consumed by terrible angst, but this only makes guys want her more. She has no superhuman abilities, yet she is more competent than her superhuman friends and defeats superhumans with ease. She has unshakably loyal friends and allies, despite the fact she treats them pretty badly. They fear and respect her, and defer to her orders. Everyone is obsessed with her, even her enemies are attracted to her. She can plan ahead for anything and she’s generally right with any conclusion she makes. People who defy her are inevitably wrong.