i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
Normal efforts toward self-care fall so short and feel so ludicrous when it feels as though the world is hurting everywhere. Remembering to breathe feels like a mockery given the more pressing situations at hand: hate speech is now a regular feature in American elementary schools, millions of the United States’s most vulnerable citizens are on the brink of losing healthcare, the integrity of American elections has been compromised by a foreign power. Caring for the “rag and bone shop of the heart” — in the words of Yeats — through such palliative measures as rest, meditation, exercise, and even TV seems tinged with a halo of selfishness.
Rebecca Solnit’s trenchant essay, “Hope in the Dark,” rightly points out that, “to hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear.” To hope means one is intent on future survival, but, all the same, attempting to hang on while ignoring clear and urgent cause for despair can lead to emotional exhaustion. Solnit writes that, in dark times, one is forced to “notice the tiger in the tree before you pay attention to the beauty of its branches.” But what if the world is all tigers? Their unbearable claws and fangs wallpapering the inside of your eyelids at night.
Solace, different from hope, is the emotional respite to heal.
When the first convulsions of our political system sent us careening, I turned to hours-long hugs in order to combat a deepening sense of dread. I grasped for a somewhat misplaced belief in the United States’s famous system of checks and balances. The fissures in our divided states widened. The thin veneer formerly masking racism and misogyny lifted, revealing these loathsome tendencies to be strident points of pride. An infrastructure began to grow around those who despise anyone who wasn’t a white male.
The mad rush of these first months, their wild swings of instability, challenged my previous complacency. While I remember Mr. Rogers’s famous entreaty to “look for the helpers” in times of trouble, I struggle to make sense of a new environment where such a helper is murdered for trying to protect commuters against hate speech. Ordinary citizens seem both banal and monstrous.
The grimness of apocalyptic dystopia, however, has provided an odd kind of solace. Leaning into surreal levels of gore and violence may not be therapeutic for everyone, but the Japanese anime series Shingeki no Kyojin (translated into English for Cartoon Network as Attack on Titan), one of the most popular anime and manga series currently in Japan, has become one kind of answer to my benumbed emotional paralysis.
Hajime Isayama claims he created the cannibal-horror manga upon which the series is based after he was accosted by a drunk man because it made him realize: “The most familiar and scary animals in the world are humans.” The kaiju-derived — kaiju means “strange beast” in Japanese — monsters are thus aptly humanoid even as they are Goliath-sized. And the entire genre of kaiju is descended from the famed Godzilla, whose creation arose from the atomic bombardment in Japan. The radioactive waves produced a creature of unchecked power with an ability to raze entire cities and armies. So in that sense Attack on Titan, like Godzilla, is the result of one of the most heinous acts in the known history of the world, committed by Americans, by mankind itself. Like Godzilla, Isayama’s “strange beasts” are gargantuan, with mysterious regenerative abilities, and singularly driven to devour humans. Because of the anime and manga’s extremes — the survival of mankind against this monstrous version of itself — watching Attack on Titan has become a singular balm for my psyche.
Before the recent political upheavals in the West beginning with the Brexit vote and followed by the unexpected election of Trump, Attack on Titan hooked my attention for its combination of beauty and horror. As Rebecca Silverman of Anime News Network said, “[It] is both gorgeous and appalling in its visuals,” and “an excellent mix of what 18th century Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe defined as horror versus terror: the one is physical, making you want to look away, and the other is intellectual, making you want to know what’s going to happen next.” Carlos Santos likewise describes it as “a masterpiece of death and destruction.”
Once political uncertainty started to roil my home country, I found a new measure of solace in Attack on Titan’s insurmountable troubles. A Beckettian “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” resilience pervades the show’s juvenile cast of characters, making them perfect company for the despondent. For us and for them, there is no hope of being restored to an original timeline. They cannot avoid the ripple effects of the dawn of the Atomic Age, and we somehow wrongly jumped tracks on November 8, 2016. The repercussions of American political decisions lead to our own lived horror stories.
Attack on Titan begins in a timeless, quasi-European, dystopian world that is somewhat removed from our real world’s time and technology. In an idyllic field behind a sky-high wall, childhood friends Eren, Mikasa, and Armin daydream about life outside their small, protected environs. All around those outer walls, however, are inscrutable giant humanoids who devour people on sight. The children take their sheltered lives for granted until a special Armored Titan, clad in a mysterious hardened body, batters down the wall they thought would keep them safe, and suddenly things get really bad.
The hyperbolic remove of this apocalyptic action series enables me to understand how to cope in the face of catastrophe — in whichever form it arrives. The protagonists’ suffering only mutates, but never abates. Perhaps, the current political instability of the world has returned me to an adolescent emotional and intellectual phase — a regression of sorts — where I live as if my heart is outside of my body, easily wounded. I used to feel safe in my own country, and now I don’t. What now?
The teenage angst of the series suits the existential howl of my overcharged lizard brain, perfectly shaped to meld with its receptors, addressing the intensity, the roiling fear. The continuous chaos of Attack on Titan, the relentless onslaught of gigantic humanoids, figuratively captures the reality of living in a country where it feels like the government is attacking and actively harming its own citizens. The people of Attack on Titan supposed that their sky-reaching walls could prevent the worst from happening, but then the worst did happen. There’s a strange, resounding comfort that comes from Attack on Titan’s over-the-top speeches delivered with quivering irises and operatic heights of emotion — these teens living in a post-apocalyptic landscape besieged by kaiju can find a path to hope, therefore so can we.
By dipping into Isayama’s scarlet-saturated dreamscapes and its visceral mangling of anything decent in its path, my mind finds a way into wordless emotional logic. The ravenous humanoids cannot communicate. The essential nature of these beings is to mindlessly devour. There can be neither reasoning nor diplomacy with these “titans.” Their addled expressions make their presence even more eerie, extending into uncanny valley territory. The intransigence of the enemy, the lack of nuance, aptly describes the depth of my own incomprehension across a national divide that sets white tribalism above and before anyone else.
The show and manga’s credo, perfectly encapsulating its fatalistic bent, is, “Life is cruel, but beautiful,” echoing the essential tenet of Buddhist philosophy that life is suffering. There’s no minimizing the traumas of this brutal world, and most importantly, no looking away. The temptation to stop paying attention to the suffering of others — from endangered immigrants here at home to civilian victims of drone strikes abroad, living their own post-apocalyptic nightmare thanks, again, to political decisions in the United States — to shield our own psyches is an act too complicit in abetting the injustices we strive to prevent.
I clamor for the dead-eyed, spine-stiffening resolve espoused by the ridiculously athletic and skilled Survey Corps. I’d be lying to say that on the flipside of the curtains of bloodletting there isn’t also a seductive element of analytical aspiration — to hone one’s limited power to strike a blow to one’s most feared and hated objects. Because it’s not simply an apocalyptic series: it’s an apocalyptic action series in the truest sense of the word. To believe that “as long as we continue to fight, nothing yet has been lost,” as another military captain urges, is to believe that actions can and do matter, even against gigantic humanoid cannibal monsters.
It’s no wonder that a series whose most competent figure is a teenage girl, whose fighting prowess dominates at a level that strains credulity, holds appeal for someone like myself who experiences her rights as a woman being stripped away at breathtaking speed.
During my own time living in Tokyo, my 18-year-old students would cheerfully tilt their heads and say ganbatte, meaning, “I will fight!” in response to tackling even their quotidian English language studies. Indeed, I was a bit perplexed at the warlike expression being so regularly invoked in the classroom. Ganbatte, derived from ganbaru, literally means “to stubbornly persevere.” This selfsame cheerful resolve threaded throughout Attack on Titan ends up being part of a collective responsibility laid equally on the shoulders of all willing soldiers. At one point, the leader calms his terrified troops saying, “It is for us to fight this cruel world.” The show is, to some extent, about the realization that you are responsible, even in some small way, for the future.
In the end, it is Attack on Titan as a death opera that makes those brief 20 minutes of vicariously experiencing life in oversaturated emotions and hues restorative. When finishing an episode, or the latest manga chapter release, I return to the non-fantastical world I reside in with my dusty careworn heart and remember the other half of the credo — that life is still beautiful — and with that renewal of spirit, find the way to the ledge where hope resides, and the internal mettle to take action. While Attack on Titan reminds us realistically that death comes to us all, how we live our lives still matters independent of how dire the circumstances are around us. In season two of the anime series, the impassioned battle call of the brilliant head commander Erwin Smith makes its direct argument, levering us from a state of solace to a state of hope. The world, no matter how terrible, becomes a better place the moment you decide to make it so. With one sword pointing toward the direction of the melee he cries, “Devote your hearts! Create your rightful future with your own two hands!”