When the plot twist of Season 3 of “Attack on Titan” aired in 2019, fans went online right away to talk about what they had seen.
In the world of “Attack on Titan,” a very popular Japanese anime show that just started its final season in March and doesn't know when it will end, people are trapped in a walled city on the island of Paradis, surrounded by Titans, which are huge monsters that eat anyone who gets in their way.
In the third season, we learn that the Titans came from a group called the Eldians. The Eldians made a deal with the devil to get Titan powers, which they used to rule over humans for a long time. Later, a group called the Marleyans overthrew the Eldian kingdom.
They put the Eldians in ghettos and made them wear armbands with a symbol that looked like the Star of David to show that they were of their race. Some political inmates were given a serum that changes them into the scary Titans.
Some people couldn't handle the idea that a race meant to represent Jews made “a deal with the devil” to get power. Fans discussed the meaning on Twitter and Reddit, and think pieces pointed to the show's “fascist subtext” and possible antisemitism as ratings and viewing went up.
Some viewers protected the show because they thought it was a condemnation of these ideas and a reflection on moral ambiguity. Others, though, said that the plot's criticism of fascism wasn't strong enough. In 2020, the New Republic called “Attack on Titan” “the alt-rights favorite manga.”
Either way, the show's production team said in November 2021 that they would stop selling Eldian armbands, which Eldians were forced to wear in their ghettos. They said it was “an act without thought to easily commercialize what was drawn as a symbol of racial and ethnic discrimination in the work.”
“Attack on Titan” is not the first manga or anime series to be canceled. Even though Japanese animation is becoming more and more famous outside of Japan, the whole genre has been criticized for allegedly glorifying antisemitism, fascism, and militarism.
The debate has been fueled by a stream of examples: the literal evil Jewish cabal in “Angel Cop,” (references to Jews were later removed in the English-language dubbed version), the Fuhrer villain in “Fullmetal Alchemist,” the Nazi occultism (in which Nazis channel the occult to carry out duties or crimes) in “Hellboy,” and the Nazi characters in “Hellsing” and “Jojo's Bizarre Adventure” to name a few.
It's not just Western fans who are upset. Fans of “Attack on Titan” in South Korea, which was harmed by Japan during World War II in ways that Japan still denies, are also upset. The author of the original “Attack on Titan” manga, Hajime Isayama, said that a character in the series was based on an Imperial Japanese army general who had committed war crimes against Koreans.
When Korean fans found out about this, they talked about it a lot and then made death threats online. Some also said that Isayama was behind a secret Twitter account that denied the war crimes of Japan's imperial government.
One Twitter user said, “It's crazy how far a fandom will go to hide the obvious antisemitism in a show and protect and lie about the show's creator.” “The fact that you are doing this and ignoring Koreans and Jews says a lot about you.”
Because these ideas show up so often in manga and anime, independent experts like Haru Mena (a pen name) have started putting the many Nazi tropes that show up into groups. Mena, a military researcher who talks about World War II and Nazi imagery in anime and manga at the Anime Boston convention every year, says this is because Japan remembers its part in the war not as the aggressor but as the victim.
“Japan doesn't want to be the bad guy. He said, “They love to make someone else the bad guy.” “That's why they have so many Nazi characters. We all agree that Nazis are bad, that war crimes are bad, and that no good, honorable country would ever do what they did.
But many Jewish anime fans, like Reddit user Desiree (who didn't give her last name for privacy reasons), don't like how some anime and manga series show Nazis and use the Holocaust as plot devices.
She said, “I think most of the people who tell these stories don't come from a place where this is as common.” “It almost doesn't make sense. They make it a big trope because they leave out all these things.”
In the last few years, news stories about Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and Korea's “Nazi cosplay” and Nazi-themed bars and parades have shown that people in East Asia are also interested in Nazi images.
But some experts say that manga and anime that talk a lot about Nazi baddies and World War II are more about Japanese history and culture than antisemitism.
Raz Greenberg, a writer from Israel whose Ph.D. research looked at the impact of Jews on Japan's “God of Comics,” Osamu Tezuka, who is sometimes called Japan's Walt Disney, said that there is a fascination with Nazism in some way or another in Japan.
In 1983, Tezuka published the first book in a five-volume comic series called “Adolf.” The story is about three men with the same name: a Japanese boy, a Jewish boy, and Hitler. The story is set in Japan and Germany during World War II.
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“I think there's something interesting about the style of the Nazis, even for countries that didn't fight against them. “But I don't think it's that different from, say, how George Lucas made the Empire in the ‘Star Wars' movies look a lot like the Nazis,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg points out that Western media is also full of Holocaust references, some of which do a better job of rejecting Nazi ideas than others, like the numbered tattoos and the recent use of a Lithuanian prison camp as a filming spot in the Netflix hit show “Stranger Things.”
“What makes people mad is that they think the Japanese approach it without knowing what they're doing. “When you look at a show like ‘Attack on Titan,' it's easier to think that they don't get it,” Greenberg said.
Liron Afriat, a Ph.D. candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Asian Sphere program and the founder of the Anime and Manga Association of Israel, said that while shows like “Attack on Titan” talk about the Holocaust and use imagery from World War II, it's likely that Western viewers are missing the show's intended parallels to Japanese politics, especially Japan's past of aggressive and corrupt militarism and late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's attempts to rein it
“When it comes to Asian news, people in the West are quick to make assumptions. She said, “I see this a lot at work, and it's very annoying. “There's a sense that because Japanese pop culture is so popular now, it's easy to say it's racist.
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In the last few decades, hundreds of millions of people all over the world have watched anime shows. In the West, anime used to be seen as a niche genre for geeks, but now it's a big deal. Even if the people who make the shows are aware of their references, some fans say that the fascist and Jewish references, especially the more obvious ones like the Jewish plot in “Angel Cop,” have real-world effects.
In 2010, at Anime Boston, a group of cosplayers dressed as characters from “Hetalia: Axis Powers,” a show that humanized Axis and Ally countries, were photographed making Nazi salutes just around the corner from the city's Holocaust memorial. This made a lot of anime fans uncomfortable.
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Desiree said, “I used to be able to go to an anime convention and buy uniforms that looked like Nazi uniforms but didn't have the swastika.” “Then, as time went on, I noticed that conventions started to ban things like that.”
Noah Oskow is a Jew who has lived in Japan for seven years and is the managing editor of the digital magazine Unseen Japan. He remembered having similar things happen at anime events in the US.
He said, “I think it's a problem to show Nazis and the Holocaust in a very silly way, which is how it's often done.” “Even in a place far away from Japan, someone's choices at an anime and manga event were influenced by the way Nazis look in manga and anime.”
Oskow says that recent anime and manga depictions of Nazis and fascism lack the detail needed to deal with a problem like the Holocaust. He also says that Western viewers are likely to miss some of the subtexts in shows like “Attack on Titan” because they are made for a Japanese audience.
Still, he says, as a Jew, these pictures make him uncomfortable, and the problems with simplifying big ideas like fascism and killing shouldn't be ignored just because the product came from Japan, especially since it's still a common stereotype that Jews have a lot of power.
There are a lot of books and classes in Japan and other East Asian countries like South Korea, China, and Taiwan about how to become as smart and rich as Jews, who are thought to be some of the most powerful people in media and finance.
“In all the years I've talked to Japanese people about Jews, I've found that they really think of Jews as people from the past or as people who died in the Holocaust, unless they believe in some kind of plot. But most people don't know what Jews are like,” Oskow said.
“So when they show Jews in the manga, anime, or any other kind of media, and when readers or viewers interact with that media, I don't think anyone thinks about how a Jewish person would see how they're being shown.”
Jessica, a 29-year-old Jewish and Chinese anime fan from Vancouver who also asked that her last name not be used in this article, said she doesn't watch shows like “Attack on Titan” and “Hetalia” on purpose because she doesn't like how fans talk about them. Desiree said that she had the same experience as Jessica when she brought up racism in the media or in the fan community on sites like Reddit.
“I saw how other Jewish fans and, more importantly, how non-Jewish fans reacted, like when ‘Hetalia' fans did the sieg heil in front of a Holocaust memorial or when ‘Attack on Titan' fans told worried Jewish fans that they should die in an oven, and I decided I didn't want anything to do with anime that had that kind of fanbase,” Desiree said.
On March 4, the first part of the last season of “Attack on Titan” came back to streaming sites. In the first episode, the main character Eren, who people have been watching for a decade, starts a world genocide called “the Rumbling” with the goal of killing all Titans for good and bringing peace.
Eren thinks that killing 80% of people is the only way to be free, which is why he does it. He thinks that everyone must suffer because they were born into the world. This is a nihilistic view that you can find in the writings of school killers and incels.
In the original manga series, Eren's followers on the island arm themselves and chant, “If you can fight, you win. If you can't fight, you lose!” to defend Eren's violent act. Battle, battle!” Fans didn't like the finish because they thought it wasn't clear what the right thing to do was, and because the writing was bad.
Many people hope that the anime's last episodes, which haven't been released yet and don't have plans for when they will be, will take a different path.