WARNING: Spoilers from all over Attack on Titan volumes 1-15.
Last week, I introduced the novel idea that manga is very much part of the sequential art storytelling medium and people that are exclusively fans of western comics dismissing them are short-sighted at best, arrogant, elitist gatekeepers at worst. It was also there that I discussed my budding discovery of the runaway hit, Attack on Titan, which in the span of about a week and a half, I have read fifteen volumes of. I also declared that as much as I like the story, I would rather have characters like Mikasa Ackerman or Levi being the main protagonist.
This brings up a question as to my feelings on the actual protagonist, Eren Jaeger. Thinking on it has allowed me to open up my thoughts on a bigger topic in regards to the protagonists of shonen (essentially a work targeted at boys elementary to high school) series.
So let me say this: I don’t hate Eren Jaeger.
That’s because there isn’t much unique there to actually hate.
Eren is, to me at least, another example of the shonen action protagonist that started with Dragonball’s Goku and has become so stock. He has a dream, but he’s not that clever. He’s hot blooded, acts before he thinks. He doesn’t have any particular knowledge or skills. In fact, one could make the argument that he’s kind of an idiot. Even his motivation, a Titan killed his mom, isn’t that unique in the universe. I’m sure lots of mommies were killed when Wall Maria fell.
But, he does have a special power. The power to change into a Titan. Suddenly, everyone essentially considers him the Chosen One and now his role is more important, not because of skill or cunning or resources, but because he’s the only one that can seal Wall Maria again and no one else can!
Now, normally I’d be fine with all of this except: In my reading (and yours can be different!) of these first fifteen volumes, it feels like Eren has not developed one bit as a character. He feels like he hasn’t changed at all with all the events around him. More importantly, the writer does not feel like giving me a reason to care about him.
You want to know one of my favorite chapters of the series? One that has stuck with me? One that’s, realistically, very minor to the overall plot? It was the chapter that was essentially the origin story of Sasha Braus. In this one chapter, I learn about her as a person, her background, her skills, why she is the way she is in the present, world building, even a great deal of culture clash that I wasn’t expecting and, most importantly, genuine growth. In that one chapter, I was provided with more reasons to be invested in Sasha and worry for her life than I have with Eren.
And that is really the thing. These characters have to change. They need to grow for us to care about them. Now another character that it’s argued hasn’t changed much is Mikasa. I would argue that she has, but it’s more subtle considering her personality, but I would never take that argument from you. But even saying that, considering that she doesn’t have this Titan Shifting ability and has to rely on raw skill means that she’d have to struggle more. It’s why I would have liked to see her as the protagonist over Eren. As for Levi, my other candidate for an alternative protagonist, he too has changed. (Caveat with this one: it does kind of require reading his origin in the No Regrets spin-off and I understand that one shouldn’t have to read extraneous material so take this with a grain of salt). He comes to appreciate and care for his subordinates over time and even the arc with Kenny the Ripper shows a much more insecure and vulnerable character.
I want to like Eren Jaegerbombastic. I do. But he falls into the trap that I feel a lot of other shonen action protagonists fall into: the world around him and the characters around him are more interesting than he himself is. I feel an investment in characters like Sasha, Jean, Connie, Mikasa, Levi. I don’t feel that same way with Eren, but he’s the one I have to follow around and while writer Hajime Isayama has provided reasons why Eren is important, he has yet to, in my opinion, shown me why it would be any different if Eren was gone.
I hope it changes in the future, because for the many faults the book has, Attack on Titan is compelling. I just wish its main character was too.