Illustration from Attack on Titan Marley arc

Attack on Titan: How the Marley Arc Changed Everything

Up until the Marley arc, I had been reading Attack on Titan for close to a third of my life.

If we say that the arc started in 2017 with chapter 91 ‘The Other Side of the Ocean’, and that I picked up the manga in favor of the anime in early 2013, it has stuck around since then for the best part of seven years. Considering that I’m now 22 years old (young, I know, but I feel old) that’s a solid portion of my existence spent exploring the world of Hajime Isayama and his characters; time well spent.

Nevertheless, until the Marley arc concluded in 2018 with chapter 107 ‘Visitor,’ I wouldn’t have considered Attack on Titan a masterpiece. I don’t think many people would have. There has been a clear shift in recent years towards more vocal support of Hajime Isayama’s series, with people calling him ‘the GOAT’ and the series ‘incredible now.’ This is because, in many ways, the Marley arc changed everything.

The Other Side of the Ocean: Exploring a Whole New World

It’s almost impossible to separate the Marley arc from Attack on Titan’s previous major storyline, the Return to Shiganshina; this is a serialized story, after all. Adapted by WIT Studio in 2019 as Season 3 Part 2, that arc dropped several bombshells about the truth of Attack on Titan’s world: namely, that our characters were not as alone as they once thought.

Contains spoilers for Attack on Titan up until episode 59.

‘Humanity has not perished.’ With those simple words, Attack on Titan knocked down all the walls that had previously held our characters in the dark and at the mercy of the Titans. Now, we knew who had made the walls. Now, we knew who had made the Titans. Now, we knew that the plight of ‘humanity’ was actually the plight of the Eldians, and that the Marleyians were the ones to blame.

Almost immediately, the Marley arc moves to address the questions that still persist after Attack on Titan’s late-game revelations. How are the Warriors picked? What purpose do they serve for Marley? And what happened to the rest of the Eldians who did not go to Paradis? All of those questions, and more, are answered, setting up nicely for the subsequent, final arc.

Liberio from Attack on Titan
Gabi in the Liberio ghetto

The Marley arc does this, rather efficiently, by switching the focus of Attack on Titan’s story entirely from the island of Paradis to the nation of Marley and the Liberio internment zone. This saves Hajime Isayama valuable time and effort as we can explore this brand new world through the eyes of those brought up there, as well as take advantage of their insider knowledge.

This has various consequences for Attack on Titan’s characters, as we shall see, but it is worth stopping for a moment and considering how well Hajime Isayama was able to execute this shift despite being so far into the story.

Usually, a change in setting occurs around the second act of a narrative, where long-running shonen tend to stay for the majority of their run before finally entering into their climax after several years.

Not Attack on Titan. This is the equivalent of starting a brand new story centered on a bunch of new characters thirty minutes before the end of your average Hollywood movie, although this is precisely one of the advantages that the serialized medium of manga storytelling provides: narratives can be developed separately from one another to build up towards something larger. Much like how Gege Akutami took an entire arc to explain Satoru and Geto’s back story in Jujutsu Kaisen, Hajime Isayama would be a fool not to take advantage of it.

Eren Jaeger Is No Longer Attack on Titan’s Protagonist

That’s a subtitle and a half. Up until this point, we have mentioned several times that the Marley arc proceeds separately apart from many of Attack on Titan’s main characters. Why is this?

Simply put, much of the Scouting Regiment and most of the series’ established cast don’t appear until towards the end of the arc, or even afterwards. Instead, this part of Attack on Titan’s story focuses on introducing a new set of characters, the Warrior candidates, and fleshing out some that have appeared before, but under distinct pretenses: Zeke and Reiner.

Reiner is, in turn, undoubtedly the character that is afforded the most attention. This much is obvious from his placement underneath Eren on The Final Season’s poster. I remember that, when the Marley arc first started, a friend told me that Eren ‘wasn’t even the main character of Attack on Titan anymore’. While this is a bit of a hyperbole, it does speak to a wider transformation in the direction of the narrative that serves to underscore the meaning of the entire manga.

Eren from Attack on Titan at the Sea

Up until this point, Eren Jaeger had been our protagonist and point-of-view character. He was just as clueless about the world as we were, and we cheered for him as he succeeded over the seemingly impossible odds.

Yet, from the very beginning, there was something off about him: he was angry, self-centered, and focused on a goal that really should have raised eyebrows. When Eren said that he was ‘going to kill all of the Titans,’ we laughed him off as just another ‘zealous’ (jyounetsu) shonen protagonist, stating his goals in an emphatic way for the sake of the audience.

The Marley arc, however, reveals the logical conclusion to such a psychopathic character. It also shows how well Hajime Isayama had a handle on him and what he represented from the very beginning. I’ll refrain from spoiling too much, but what I will say is that the Marley arc is merely the prelude to a series of events that will leave you questioning the morality of this series, as well as that of shonen manga itself.

This much was arguably already foreshadowed at the end of Season 3 Part 2, when Eren said: ‘If I kill all of our enemies over there, then will we be finally free?’

How the Marley Arc Made Me Reevaluate My Relationship With Attack on Titan

That being said, before we go any further, we need to address the elephant in the room: Attack on Titan: The Final Season will be the first adaptation of the series not to be handled by WIT Studio. Instead, it’s been picked up by Studio MAPPA. This means that the all-important Marley arc (which I love so much) will be subject to a whole series of changes.

As mentioned, my attachment is to the original manga, so this change never really bothered me that much. I never even saw past episode 13 of the first season until two weeks ago. Nevertheless, I’d be remiss to mention the mountain of anxieties I have when reviewing Attack on Titan: The Final Season’s production: from the stretched schedule to the mountain of animators, I’m certainly not the only one worried that the whole thing could collapse like a house of cards at any moment.

No matter how the Marley arc turns out in animation, however, that won’t take away from the lasting impact that it has had on the Attack on Titan manga. Nor will it take away from my newfound appreciation for the story.

Attack on Titan Screenshot

I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of serialized stories. I think that it was the fact that so much Japanese media is based on them (mainly manga) that got me into the culture in the first place, starting with Fullmetal Alchemist in my early teens. Much like Attack on Titan, that was based on a monthly manga, bringing with it all of the advantages of the medium.

Growing up alongside a set of characters and exploring a mysterious world with them is something you only get to truly experience consistently in Japanese media. True, there are such things as series in the realm of western TV and books, but the comics industry is overwhelmingly dominated by superheroes, and those TV series and books don’t release as regularly as something like Attack on Titan, which has come at the end of every month for eleven years like clockwork.

As a result, I have formed a close connection with Hajime Isayama’s series that I’m sure many of you reading this will probably understand. It’s managed to stick around this long in my mind, after all. Nevertheless, precisely because it has been around for so long, parts of the ways in which it has influenced my life can seem trivial, or even embarrassing, in hindsight. I do think that the Marley arc changed all that.

The Marley Arc Proves That Hajime Isayama Is a Master Storyteller

When Attack on Titan first got popular in 2013, I was very active on Tumblr. There, I got quite involved with the early fan community, joining in with such things as theory-crafting and roleplaying as my favorite character (Rico Brzenska, if you must know).

We came up with all sorts of stupid explanations for the truth of Attack on Titan’s world, including one that I still remember quite well: the ‘multiple walls’ theory. This said that the location of Walls Shina, Rosa, and Maria was somewhere in mainland Germany (because of the series’ Anglo-Saxon cast and naming conventions) and that other countries had different sets of walls, constructed after some sort of apocalyptic event.

So yes, kind of just like every other post-apocalyptic zombie series out there.

Attack on Titan Screenshot
This map of the world was revealed later, making us all look stupid in hindsight.

It fills me with intense joy that the truth behind Attack on Titan’s setting was not something as stupid or basic as this. Instead, Isayama chose something much more original, also incorporating elements of real-life history into the story: most notably, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. I feel like this is pretty obvious, but the armbands that the Eldians are forced to wear in Liberio should be enough to underscore this fact.

The Marley arc is a competent exploration of this theme, but it is also the culmination of everything that Attack on Titan has been building towards up until this point. Even more so than the subsequent, final arc, it is the proof in the pudding that it was worth sticking around all these years. It demonstrated to me that it deserved to be called a modern classic.

True, if the revelations at the end of the Return to Shiganshina had also been dull or inconsistent, then that would’ve been disappointing. But Isayama also had a duty to show us that his story could continue beyond that eternal MacGuffin: Attack on Titan needed legs, and the Marley arc gave them in spades.

On the whole, Attack on Titan appears to be so well constructed that Hajime Isayama must’ve had it all planned out from the very beginning. Even the title of the first chapter, ‘To You, 2000 Years in the Future,’ is full of meaning and significance. I look forward to The Final Season cementing this in the mind of anime-only fans, as well as delivering the brilliance of the Marley arc in anticipation of a fantastic ending.

Let’s just hope MAPPA doesn’t implode by then.

You can read Attack on Titan via Kodansha Comics. The Final Season is streaming on Crunchyroll and Funimation now.

Kodansha Comics/NHK
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