Friday, January 4, 2019

Character Study: Who Is Eren Jaeger? (Attack on Titan)


This post will contain spoilers for


The Attack on Titan anime



You have been warned.



Funimation 2013

On the surface, Eren Jaeger of Attack on Titan seems like your typical shonen protagonist: he’s a young boy with aspirations of grandeur (to drive out and kill1 “every last one of” the Titans) and has an almost “suicidal” (as Jean puts it) sense of pushing his limitations. Some viewers have criticized Eren for these qualities, immediately brushing him off as “just another typical shonen protagonist,” but I think there’s more going on under Eren’s hood than meets the eye, and I believe season three has only affirmed this.

Eren Hates Being Weak

Eren’s most defining characteristic is his hatred of being weak. One of our earliest introductions to Eren’s worldview is him berating himself as a child for being weak and useless when the Titans first invade his hometown. Two years later, when he’s begun military training, we see Eren has held onto this hatred of weakness.

Funimation 2013
Seeing some would-be recruits being carted away, Eren seems to have little sympathy for them. “That's just how it is. If you can’t cut it here, you have to leave.”2 He may understand their plight, but he scornfully points out how he’s not like them. He’s proud to be one of the people strong enough to be here.

This quality of Eren’s—despising weakness in himself and others—immediately turns off some of his fellow trainees and many viewers. After all, nobody likes someone who brazenly thinks they can do it all.

Many of his fellow trainees see Eren’s comments as him acting macho at best and suicidal at worst. And to some degree, they’re right. But Eren’s strength and confidence is a mixture of misplaced self-confidence and a front created out of fear.

Eren’s Hatred is Due to Fear

Eren is terrified that he is what he despises.

Eren is haunted by the memory of his mother’s gruesome death, a death he couldn’t prevent despite his best efforts. The ten-year-old boy had put everything he had to try to dig his mother out of the wreckage of their home, but he hadn’t been strong enough to move the debris. And, as his mother had pointed out, even if he’d managed to get her free, there was no way Eren could carry her to safety.

His mother died, and he hadn’t been strong enough to save her.

So when he and the other shell-shocked refugees are fleeing the remnants of their homes while he watches Titan stampede through his town, Eren vows to become strong enough to kill the Titans... and to kill the weakness he identifies within himself.

Funimation 2013

Any reminder of that weakness terrifies Eren, because it makes him think that he’s never really grown at all—that he’s still just the weak, useless kid who could do nothing but cry as the Titans took everything he loved.3

So Eren vows to do everything he can to not seem weak, to himself and to others. We can see him trying on this persona when other trainees pester him with questions about the initial Titan attack. Reminders of such a traumatic experience would easily trigger PTSD flashbacks and other debilitating experiences in anyone, and we see Eren understandably struggling to maintain his composure. He begins to sweat under the assault of curious questions and even gags on his dinner.4

Funimation 2013

But as soon as one of the other trainees tells the others to back off, Eren has the breathing room to slip his mask back on. He’s not weak; he’s strong, see? The Titans’ attack hadn’t even bothered him all that much. It’s an attempt to remind himself that he’s going to be strong enough to fight from now on... and an attempt to prove to the others and himself that he’s not that weak, crying little child.

Funimation 2013
But Eren quickly realizes just how tenuous that strength can be when he tries to sit in the harnesses that allow them to swing through the city and kill Titans. If he doesn’t pass this test, he’ll be kicked out and forced to work the fields. But Eren can’t get the hang of the gear, literally falling flat on his face. With the threat of his entire reason for existence hanging in the balance, Eren is understandably terrified. Is this proof that he’s not strong enough, after all?

So when Eren eventually passes the test, it’s an incredible victory for him... especially after discovering his gear had been damaged the whole time. It’s a huge relief.

But interestingly enough, Eren doesn’t rub this victory in the faces of the trainees he doesn’t get along with. In fact, one of the first things Eren does while celebrating is turn to his best friend, Mikasa, and think, “You don’t have to worry about me anymore!”5

It’s not a declaration of his strength and power... it’s a subtle cue that Eren still fears he isn’t strong enough.

Eren’s Resentment

Funimation 2013
Much of Eren’s frustration at his weakness shows outwardly in his resentment toward Mikasa, who has been the stronger of the two all throughout their childhood since after they first met. Everyone knows it. Eren’s mother constantly entrusts Mikasa to look after Eren, as if he’s some troublesome little brother and she the perfect and capable daughter. Even the bullies of the town aren’t scared of Eren—but they’ll go running as soon as they see Mikasa.6

Eren certainly cares about Mikasa, but her overwhelming strength and aptitude overshadows him, and it naturally breeds some resentment. It’s another aspect of Eren that many might find off-putting, as Mikasa is simply doing her best to look out for him and loves him deeply, but he never seems to appreciate all she does.

But Eren’s frustration and resentment makes perfect sense when we factor in his fear. How can Eren possibly be considered strong if he constantly needs Mikasa to bail him out?

So he relishes a chance like with the harness gear to prove that he doesn’t need Mikasa to babysit him. He’s strong enough to stand on his own.

Eren Doesn’t Want to Rely on Others

It may also be why Eren constantly feels the need to push his friends away when they offer to follow him. The kids are only ten when they decide to become trainees. Eren is fully resolved in his decision, but he’s distraught when Mikasa and their mutual friend Armin announce that they’re going to follow him into battle. He tries to persuade them not to; there’s no reason for them to lay their lives on the line. This scene is echoed later, after their training is complete, when Eren announces that he’s going to join the Scout Regiment, the most dangerous branch of the military with the highest casualty count. Once again, Mikasa and Armin are determined to follow him into danger and almost-certain death. Once again, Eren tries to dissuade them.

True, Eren may be trying to push them away because he’s afraid of needing to rely on them. But it’s clear from Eren’s protests that he’s not trying to shove them aside out of some misplaced sense of pride, a sense of “I can do this on my own; I don’t need you.” He’s concerned for their safety and well-being.

Eren’s Concern for Others

Eren genuinely cares deeply for his friends, even if he doesn’t often show it. This is proven by the way Eren and Mikasa see Armin, their mousey and far less physically-adept friend. He’s not a burden to them but an invaluable part to their trio. In fact, Eren and Mikasa both believe they owe the fearful and timid Armin their lives.7 Were Eren only a macho man who didn’t need anyone else, he would only see Armin as a hindrance and a nuisance.

I believe the main reason Eren tries to dissuade his friends from joining him is out of genuine concern for their safety... and fear that he won’t be strong enough to keep them alive.

Eren doesn’t want to be weak physically, mentally, or emotionally, because he knows that if he’s not strong enough, people he cares about are going to die.

Fear for Himself Turned into Fear for Others

This fear proves nearly prophetic when Eren watches a childhood friend of the family, a soldier named Hannes, be devoured by the same Titan who killed Eren’s mother five years before.

Everything falls apart. Not just Hannes, but almost everyone Eren cares about are fighting and dying in a Titan-infested field, all for him. And there’s nothing he can do to help; Eren has been injured in a previous fight. Even Mikasa is helpless, having broken her leg in an attempt to protect Eren. All Eren and Mikasa can do is sit in the midst of an endless field of death. Eren’s mind begins to unravel. “Nothing changed! You haven’t changed one bit...” he sobs.8 Eren has no choice but to accept his weakness, his frailty, as death and destruction stare him in the eye.

Mikasa has accepted their inevitable fate and thanks Eren for giving her the strength to keep going this long. And this sparks something in Eren.

He can’t let her die. He won’t let any more of them die.

Weaponless, helpless, still Eren stands up, defying the Titan that devoured his mother five years ago and Hannes only moments before.

Funimation 2017; photo from VRV.co

Eren turns his fear into his strength.

Who Eren Is

When Eren gains the ability to shift into a Titan, Mikasa proclaims that he’s like “the manifestation of humankind’s anger.”9 This is who Eren Jaeger is.

Eren has always been afraid that he’s nothing more than a sobbing, helpless child. So, moving out of fear that that’s true, Eren tries to become as strong as he can. He pours everything into improving himself, working tirelessly even to his detriment. But he keeps pushing forward, even when the odds are stacked against him. Because his fear has turned to anger. Anger at the unfairness of the world, anger at the brutality of the Titans, but most importantly, anger at himself and his shortcomings and weaknesses.

Facing Fear Turns to Strength

It’s fascinating then to watch Eren’s transformation in season three as he finds himself once again helpless, sobbing. The entire season leading up to this moment, Eren has once again been completely at the mercy of foes he’s powerless to defeat. But it isn’t this moment of weakness that drives Eren to his lowest point. Nor does he use his anger to rise up and fight the powers that be, regardless of his current state.

Even after being given the ability to fight back, Eren refuses to break free. He’s overwhelmed by information that suggests all the pain and suffering the people closest to him have undergone... was because of his father and, by extension, because of him.

Despite all the time Eren has spent fighting his fear, fighting overwhelming odds—the idea that all the death and pain surrounding him, including the death of his own mother, was indirectly his fault completely crushes Eren’s spirit. Fighting back? Strength? What does any of that matter if he caused the death of so many people?

Eren’s facade of strength comes crashing down around him. He openly weeps in front of all of the friends he tried so hard to be strong for during training. He acknowledges that he’s powerless to help them in this situation. Eren finally comes face to face with his deepest fear: that he truly is a helpless, sobbing, broken boy.

But as before, it’s in staring this fear dead in the face that Eren finds the motivation to keep moving, despite the odds.

In a last-ditch effort, Eren makes one last gamble with his life, praying that once, just once, he can be useful and save his friends.10

And, in his moment of weakness, because he had the courage to face his fear, he surpasses his fearful, weak self... and does indeed manage to save everyone.

The biggest reason I love Eren, now more than ever—is that this moment doesn’t cause him to become self-absorbed and proud. Instead, the Eren we see afterward carries himself with a new and far more subdued demeanor. He’s been humbled by the experience, and it shows: not only in the more calm way he interacts with the others, but also in the cool-headed new-found confidence he has in using his Titan-shifting abilities. Sure, he still has some backsliding into his hesitation and fear, but with the help of his friends, he keeps fighting against that and moving forward... in order to protect others.

Funimation 2018; photo from VRV.co

Eren Jaeger is a young man who desperately clung to the idea he was special because it was the only way he thought he could escape the fear that he was helpless. And when he discovers he is indeed as helpless as any other feeble human being, he acknowledges it and accepts it, allowing himself to grow and be changed by his experiences rather than repeating past mistakes. This vulnerability enables him to rely on others, trusting their judgment and strengths to supplement his own... as they serve to be his inspiration, driving him forward to protect and defend.

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Are you one of the fans who just doesn’t care for Eren, or do you like the suicidal maniac? Why or why not?

Please be considerate toward us anime-only dweebs who haven’t read the manga. :) Spoilers will, unfortunately, need to be deleted!

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Notes and References:
  1. The exact word differs depending on the Japanese subtitles and the English translation. Eren Jaeger, Attack on Titan, “That Day: The Fall of Shiganshina, Part 2,” Season 1, Episode 2, Directed by Masashi Koizuka, Written by Yasuko Kobayashi, April 14, 2013, Funimation.
  2. Eren Jaeger, Attack on Titan, “A Dim Light Amid Despair: Humanity's Comeback, Part 1,” Season 1, Episode 3, Directed by Kiyoshi Fukumoto, Written by Hiroshi Seko, April 21, 2013, Funimation.
  3. Eren Jaeger; Attack on Titan; “Scream”; Season 2, Episode 12; Directed by Satonobu Kikuchi, Takayuki Hirao, Tetsurō Araki, and Yoshihide Ibata; Written by Yasuko Kobayashi; June 17, 2017; Funimation.
  4. Attack on Titan, “A Dim Light Amid Despair: Humanity's Comeback, Part 1,” Season 1, Episode 3, Directed by Kiyoshi Fukumoto, Written by Hiroshi Seko, April 21, 2013, Funimation.
  5. Eren Jaeger, Attack on Titan, “A Dim Light Amid Despair: Humanity's Comeback, Part 1,” Season 1, Episode 3, Directed by Kiyoshi Fukumoto, Written by Hiroshi Seko, April 21, 2013, Funimation.
  6. Attack on Titan, “To You, in 2000 Years: The Fall of Shiganshina, Part 1,” Season 1, Episode 1, Directed by Hiroyuki Tanaka and Tetsurō Araki, Written by Yasuko Kobayashi, April 7, 2013, Funimation.
  7. Attack on Titan, “Response: The Struggle for Trost, Part 6,” Season 1, Episode 10, Directed by Hiroyuki Tanaka, Written by Hiroshi Seko, June 9, 2013, Funimation.
  8. Eren Jaeger; Attack on Titan; “Scream”; Season 2, Episode 12; Directed by Satonobu Kikuchi, Takayuki Hirao, Tetsurō Araki, and Yoshihide Ibata; Written by Yasuko Kobayashi; June 17, 2017; Funimation.
  9. Attack on Titan, “Small Blade: The Struggle for Trost, Part 3,” Season 1, Episode 7, Directed by Yuzuru Tachikawa, Written by Hiroshi Seko, May 19, 2013, Funimation.
  10. Attack on Titan, “Outside the Walls of Orvud District,” Season 3, Episode 8, Directed by Matsuo Asami and Azuma Ryōsuke, Written by Yasuko Kobayashi, September 10, 2018, Funimation.
All photos are used under US “Fair Use” laws. Attack on Titan and all related terms property of Funimation. And I am not affiliated with them.

From Him, To Him

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