From Sweet Child to Mass Murderer – Discussing Eren’s Character Arc as a Shonen Protagonist


Disclaimer: this article describes parts of the manga that have yet to appear in the anime. If you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read this article. Although really, considering how long the next arc has been out already I think you’re just being silly for not reading the manga. SO GO READ IT YOU FLACCID SAUSAGE!

The world needs a hero. A man of true quality and with iron-clad convictions, ready to take on injustice, corruption and inhumane slaughter. A man with bold new ideas, ready to act even if it may cost him personally. A man with a handsome face, muscular body and hey, he likes to eat a lot. And in Attack on Titan that man… is not Eren Yeager. Because he is not your average Shonen protagonist. No, he’s a deconstruction of the archetype and an example of why such a person can be pretty damn harmful in real life.

Goku was so popular as a character that he spawned a new Japanese archetype: the Shonen Protagonist.

To explain why our beloved Eren is a deconstruction of the ever popular shonen protagonist I think it necessary to first explain what a shonen protagonist is. Otherwise this entire article will be rather pointless, won’t it? So a shonen protagonist is essentially a clone of Goku from the Dragon Ball series put into another story. That’s how popular that manga became: it essentially created several Japanese character archetypes. And what defines a Goku? Spiky hair, a big eater, naïve and/or stupid, oblivious when it comes to love,… Completely unimpressive when you meet the guy. Naturally many friends and foes first dismiss the Goku as nothing but a dumb fool.

But once you get to know him the positive qualities start to shine. You find out the Goku has a strong sense of justice, always happy to jump in danger to help out a stranger or a little kitten stuck in a tree. He values his friends greatly, to the point where often this belief causes either his friends to power up or for him to develop a new power himself. Bonus points if the power of friendship allows him to fuse with his friends so they may all take on the world! That simple-mindedness and naïvety also has its own charm, as it causes the Goku to be easy to interact with. He’ll never be mean or rude, he’ll always say hello and have that trademark smile on his face. He’d make for a great person to share a meal with, if you have the money to pay for 57 full-course meals. And of course, most important of all, you’ll find out he’s very passionate about whatever it is he’s passionate about. Above all the shonen protagonist is the ultimate determinator, who never backs down from a fight and who will train so much the muscles on his muscles on his muscles will be begging for a few moments of rest.

Attack on Character

One of the reasons Eren is able to succesfully pose as a war refugee in Marley is because he’s actually experiencing the symptoms. The biggest determinator in the story is a child soldier suffering from PTSD.

So do these character descriptions fit the Shonen protagonist of Attack on Titan? Yes. And no. Because while it’s definitely obvious that Eren has many of the qualities of a Goku (minus the galaxy-breaking super powers. And even then…), the manga itself isn’t exactly a tale where he can be the lovable idiot we all grow to wear the nostalgia goggles for. Eren Yeager is a deeply traumatised and psychologically unstable young man. As he grows up he doesn’t turn into a happy-go-lucky goofball. No, he grows up as a young man suffering from a severe case of PTSD and he may even be turning into the bad guy of the story. Why? Because all of the aforementioned Shonen qualities are presented as flawed personality traits.

So let’s explore how they are deconstructed. When it comes to physical appearance Eren doesn’t look much like a Goku. He doesn’t even look like a bowlcut Gohan. There’s no spiky hair, nor does he wear orange. Eren isn’t exactly a big eater either. But he does have the standard Shonen look: black hair, big (green) eyes, pretty face, lean build.

Eren is also not that intelligent. In fact, drill sergeant with a fondness for potatoes Keith Sadies states that Eren is “lackluster in the classroom, marginally better in the field, but driven by a sense of purpose that is almost terrifying.” And yes, I did just quote the English dub of the anime. Eat me.

One, Two, Eren’s Come Through

The final words of Eren as he’s, supposedly, about to die in the stomach of a titan. He isn’t begging for his mother, he’s vowing to kill all titans.

And it’s that final thing that really defines Eren’s personality: the impressive, yet absolutely terrifyingly strong sense of purpose. The determination. When I say Eren is the most determined motherfucker on the planet, to the point that he redefines physics, laws and our very reality itself, I’m am actually understating it a little bit. When this character thought he was about to die, in the hot stomach of a titan, his first instinct was to raise his chomped off arm and shout that he’d kill every single titan. That’s how much this guy believes in his goals. He won’t let something silly like impending death get in the way of his dreams and goals.

Eren’s main motivation is his desire to be free. Why does he utterly despise the titans? Why is he capable of murdering humans at the age 9? Why does he give a brutal speech to Mikasa and Armin in chapter 112? Why does he kill, maim, and turn into a titan despite hating them? Why doesn’t he care that innocents die when he fights Annie inside the walls? Because he wants to be free and he thinks people on Paradis are living in a cage. A pretty little gilded cage, but a cage nonetheless. The people live like cattle, like those cute little moo-moos you see when travelling through farm lands. And he will stop at nothing to accomplish his goal of seeing lava, ice and the ocean. And that is not presented as a good thing.

Eren has a very black-and-white morality in a rather grey story. He believes in complete freedom and if anything or anyone gets in the way of that he dismisses it immediately, often with a hot, burning hatred. Slavers trying to sell Mikasa? They’re no longer human and there’s no issue killing them. Titans are threatening humans and forcing them to live inside walls? Exterminate all titans! The Survey Corps, once the symbol of freedom for Eren, is slacking off and forcing Historia to have a baby despite Eren promising she’d be free to live as she sees fits? Well, time to do a coup and take over the government. Wait, what?

Three, Four, The Kingdom’s At War

While adding much needed levity in this dark story, Eren and Jean’s constant bickering is also a sign that Eren, AKA the Suicidal Blockhead, isn’t that popular, despite being the Shonen Protagonist of the story.

Indeed, Eren’s character arc is marked by a sense of escalation. He starts the story out as the Suicidal Blockhead, mocked by the rest of his classmates for being determined to exterminate the titans when everyone else wants to join the Military Police to live a life of luxury and comfort. Notice that people don’t really respect his Shonen qualities. He becomes something of a joke and outcast. And this doesn’t really change. Jean keeps mocking his reckless tendencies throughout the story and rightly points out that they get people killed. Got that? Eren’s reckless determination gets people killed. Eren has to slowly learn to act more cool and think ahead rather than rush into battle. Otherwise he ends up in titan mouths and stomachs. Though granted, he does learn to slow down by trusting in the power of friendship and working together, so it’s not entirely a deconstruction on that front. Though we also see him becoming more unhinged when Sasha dies… So… Really… It’s complicated.

But do you want to know why Eren learning to act cool is actually another deconstruction in itself? Because Eren becomes more cold, more calculated and more willing to do immoral things to accomplish his goals. This is definitely the case past the time skip, where he casually kills innocent Marleyians in order to consume the War Hammer Titan. It’s interesting to note that in chapter 103 Galliard notices Eren being incredibly reckless in his usage of the Attack Titan. He transforms three times in a single battle, despite that draining a lot of energy and increasing the risk of the Titan Shifter becoming one with the titan. So again, another deconstruction.

Mikasa asking Eren, with the vacant stare, if he knows what he’s done. Eren doesn’t respond and focuses on the War Hammer Titan instead.

As for the power of friendship: Eren essentially uses his team as back-up and manipulates their love for him to start a war they didn’t want to start in the first place. Best demonstrated by Mikasa tearfully telling Eren that he killed innocents and there’s no undoing that. How does Eren respond? By telling Mikasa to stay focused and follow his lead. The power of friendship eh? Another deconstruction. Deconstructions within deconstructions. I love it!

And after recklessly attacking Marley and getting a power-up the Eldians go back to Paradis and Eren casually takes over the government, as mentioned before. This is where we need to keep the fascist and nazi elements of the story in mind, because it’s important. Eren has seemingly created a rebel faction bearing his name back home, with many Eldian followers who lived in Marley and experienced that lovely Marleyian treatment thinking Eren’s Coördinate power is able to create a happy new Eldian Empire. And because their beloved leader is ever so slightly being inconvenienced by Hange and her/his ilk, they think it’s perfectly okay to feed them Zeke’s spinal fluid wine and hold everyone hostage under the threat of titanisation. One can only wonder why these lunatics joined the Yeagerists in the first place.

Five, Six, Murder to Fix

But Eren himself has no problems  using these people to enact his own plan. A plan we don’t know yet, btw. Will he kill off the Eldians or won’t he? We’ll have to wait for another chapter two, but that’s also besides the point. Whatever Eren is planning, his means to fulfill it have become immoral. He kills innocents, forces his allies to start a war, performs a coup and probably sacrifices kittens to titans. Eren has become a radical, who feels justified taking over power because of his ideals. That is disturbingly close to a fascist or a nazi in the previous century, after Germany was suffering under the results of the treaty of Versailles and the German people desperately needed economic growth to live semi-decent lives again.

After four years and plenty of character development, Eren’s core philosophy is to still fight for freedom, regardless of what it takes.

And ultimately that’s the deconstruction of the shonen protagonist. Isayama presents the case that someone who has a Goku level of determination can devolve into a radical, who starts justifying horrible means to fulfill their goals. Someone who is capable of corrupting the notion of freedom into “let’s sterilise the Eldians y’all. Eldians who can’t reproduce can’t get more kids who’ll suffer, so dem kids be free of suffering.” Someone who is willing to discard the power of friendship in order to use his friends for his own means and who will deliver a horribly brutal speech to his best friends in order to break them. Isayama is using Eren, someone we’ve followed this entire time and understand to some extent, to demonstrate how an innocent, happy and bright-eyed child can become a terrorist.

Of course, there are factors we have to keep in mind. In chapter 118 Armin theorises that Eren is faking a persona: he’s pretending to be on board with Zeke’s sterilisation plan because his hands were pushed. Eren is ultimately the one who decides what he does with the Founding Titan’s powers and he may be manipulating Zeke in order to use his royal blood. It’s also possible he delivered the brutal speech to Mikasa to finally free her from her obsessive devotion to him. In that same chapter Mikasa finally discards the scarf Eren gave her long ago, symbolising she’s finally free of him and her Ackerman genes, despite her genuine love for him. And hey, maybe now she can finally get that relationship with him she so desperately wants. After all, a romantic relationship where one partner is obsessed with the other is… rather unhealthy. Now why am I getting an odd sense of irony?

So it’s possible that Eren is merely pretending to be the radical, but even then it’s interesting to note he’s working on his own and using very questionable means to pursue genuine freedom and not the corrupted “Can’t suffer if I’m not born” form of freedom. So despite the fact that Attack on Titan isn’t finished it’s very clear that Eren isn’t your average lovable Shonen protagonist, but a deeply flawed, traumatised young man who is determined to fulfill his dreams and plans. Regardless of the consequences, whether they be noble or tragic.

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Copyright: The images used in this article are screenshots taken from the “Attack on Titan” manga and anime.  We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. Attack on Titan belongs to Hajime Isayama, Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine and Wit Studio.

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