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“Attack on Titan” has swiftly become one of the most iconic anime of all time.
Originally penned by Japanese artist Hajime Isayama in 2009, the eponymous manga is one of the world’s best-selling series with over 100 million copies in circulation. The beloved anime adaptation — commonly referred to by fans as “AOT” — debuted in 2013, with the fourth and last season’s final episodes slated to air in January of 2022.
Set in a world where humans live in constant fear of carnivorous humanoid titans, AOT follows the trio of Eren, Mikasa, and Armin. The three childhood friends live in an insular rural village until their lives are changed irreversibly by a sudden titan invasion. Traumatized by the carnage they witness, the triumvirate resolves to join the Survey Corps, the arm of the government that trains soldiers to fight titans. As the protagonists pursue their training, they encounter a host of eclectic characters, all the while learning about the ancient creatures that threaten the future of human existence.
And yet, ask any “Attack on Titan” fan who their favorite character is. Chances are nine in ten, if not more, won’t list any one of the three protagonists.
Instead, they’ll opt — with a wistful sigh — for someone by the name of Levi Ackerman.
Levi Ackerman is the quintessence of that male anime character who has it all. He’s handsome and stoic, valiant and ruthlessly talented. Captain of the Survey Corps’ elite Special Operations Squad, he is commonly referred to as “humanity’s strongest soldier,” easily surpassing the collective fighting power of a battalion. You think he hates you because he won’t talk to you, and then he saves your life. Levi’s brooding, quiet darkness is complicated by rare gestures of compassion — glimpsed moments of vulnerability that add fuel to his mystery, and are undoubtedly the cause for much swooning.
The playlists are particularly telling. Most feature sultry, atmospheric songs from artists including The Neighborhood, Lana Del Rey, Labrinth, Arctic Monkeys, and Cigarettes After Sex. There's a dark, sensual, and arguably self-indulgent melodrama to the music fans associate with the character — and an ostentatious yearning, too. Some notable playlist titles include “silently watching stars with levi while levi stares at you,” “bullying marleyan warriors with levi,” “falling in love with levi ackerman,” and “Having seggs with Levi: a playlist - Slowed + Revrb.” Hey — their words, not mine.
Yes, these Levi-inspired playlists are a damning exposé of adolescent horniness. Beyond that, though, it is notable that each of the four titles mentioned above speak to a simulated relationship. Levi has not merely engrossed fans across the world. He has morphed into a parasocial receptacle — a sort of virtual lover — through which consumers of Isayama’s content contend with and claim their own sexual desires.
There are a slew of complicated factors that contribute to this wealth of fan-made material. One is that media consumers, particularly younger folks, feel comfortable being outright about their sexual fascination with characters who are not real; the vast majority of people who create these meticulous, imaginative renderings of Levi are likely tweens. There is something at once disappointing and liberating about the fact that their desires for a particular character, fervent as they are, will not spill over into the real world. The awareness enables them to express a sexuality they know will remain contained within their digital lives — a broader trend that relates to stan culture at large.
But what makes the craze around Levi distinct from other fandoms? By all means, Levi exhibits the classic features of the “bad boy” trope. However, the convergence of features that form his identity are unique, and particularly reflective of broader trends of masculine portrayal in anime. The androgynous features, stoicism, and repressed emotionality that make Levi so enchanting to many viewers are relatively commonplace. Levi marks one of many successful installments in a tradition of male anime characters who exhibit similar, if not identical, visual and behavioral traits — qualities that at once conform to and break free of traditional conceptions of gender.
Take, for example, “Naruto”’s Itachi Uchiha. Frequently lauded as one of the most captivating villains in contemporary anime history, Itachi exhibits incredibly similar traits to Levi. Like Levi, has also been fawned over by generations of viewers. A genius ninja and brother of the show’s deuteragonist Sasuke Uchiha, Itachi is feared and loathed for decimating his entire clan — save Sasuke, whom he spares the night of the carnage. Often depicted in an elegant black robe patterned with bold red clouds — denoting the insignia of “Akatsuki,” the rogue criminal organization to which he belongs for most of the show — Itachi is ethereal and elegant. He derives his power from genjutsu, a fighting style that uses illusory techniques to defeat opponents. Tied-back raven hair framing his delicate features, Itachi rarely speaks and is characterized by a restrained, unsettling melancholy. He is recurrently associated with the feminine moon, as opposed to the more traditional masculine symbol of the sun. One of the most memorable scenes of Itachi in the entire show features the antagonist looking back at the strewn corpses of the kin he has murdered, his beautiful face paled by the moon as he sheds a single, luminous tear.
Dozens of other male characters from a broad range of anime corroborate this trend. Some of the most striking examples include Kurapika from “Hunter X Hunter,” Soo-Won from “Yona of the Dawn,” Alucard from “Hellsing Ultimate” (and “Castlevania,” for that matter), Sebastian Michaelis from “Black Butler,” Ken Kaneki from “Tokyo Ghoul,” Haku from “Spirited Away,” and Sesshōmaru from “Inuyasha.” The trend is so widespread that it pushes us to consider its implications. What is it about the presentations of these male characters that make them so irresistible to fans?
There are a host of potential answers, a concise description of which runs the risk of sounding reductive or culturally myopic. For one, it is notable that animators from Japan, a country infamous for its rigid gender roles and enduring patriarchal tradition, have imagined their most alluring male characters in this style. By expressing their naked adoration of male characters that draw their memorability from traits frequently perceived as feminine — that is, sadness as opposed to anger, the moon as opposed to the sun, shrewdness as opposed to physical strength, delicacy as opposed to brute force, and restraint as opposed to impulsivity — fans, too, push back against traditional perceptions of what type of man it is “normal” or “acceptable” to be attracted to.
This aesthetic and behavioral trend by no means serves as an answer to a set of sociocultural questions. Moreover, we cannot talk about the complexity of gendered expression in anime without accounting for queerbaiting, homophobia, transphobia, and the woefully peripheral role women often play in action anime — topics that merit extended conversations of their own. Rather, this notable trend serves as a question unto itself, opening the possibility for more fluid and expansive understandings of gender, personhood, and the complexity of attraction.
Exceedingly often, anime gets a bad rap. It is perceived as a second-class or otherwise juvenile form of entertainment. And yet, anime — as well as the digital material it generates in its wake — is not only complex and intelligent, but also reveals important truths about the ways digital citizens contend with their own desires, and in doing so move toward a fuller understanding of themselves.
— Staff Writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho. Part love letter, part cultural critique, and part manifesto on the remarkable wisdom of the genre, her column “Dear Anime” explores how anime enables consumers to engage in complex dialogues on gender, power, and affect.
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