“Well, as long as Levi dies a satisfying death, I’ll be happy,” her friend replied. Levi had been her favourite character since he came flying out of nowhere and atop a titan he just he killed looks back and says 「オイ・・・ガキ共・・・これは・・・どういう状況だ」(“Yo brats, what’s going on here?”).
“I’m sure he’ll fulfill his promise to Erwin,” Karina said with plenty of confidence.
Why is it that she was so sure about Levi getting his happiness but not Jean? Every new chapter she feared for Jean’s life, feared for an unhappy ending for him. Now that Hange was dead, was Jean next on the Hit List? Where did this paranoia come from?
Both women gaze at the sparkling lights of Ebisu, lost in thought.
Karina was fully aware that her passion for Shingeki no Kyojin—indeed, her insistence on obsessing about it—was merely a means to escape from reality. The realities of a fair-paying but soul-crushing career. Of a toxic family divided into two households that loathed each other, both of whom she dreaded seeing during the holidays. Of a relationship with her current boyfriend, Kosuke, that went nowhere thanks in part to her ambivalence. Student loans that would take decades to pay up. Her appalling lack of motivation for social activism and advocacy that, once so alive and well during her student days, were now more of a chore than an honor.
Only volunteering seemed to help. Whilst a student reeling from a broken friendship, a compassionate student counselor at the university introduced her to an institution working with children with moderate to severe learning disabilities. A few times each month she went there to help kids learn the alphabet, and an English phrase or two. Even after graduation she continued to volunteer her time.
“It’s so kind of you,” one of the parents told her. But the truth was that it wasn’t altruism or having a mission or purpose in life or any of that high-falutin’ crap. The truth was, when she focused on the kids, she forgot that she was officially branded a horrible person and devil woman. All that mattered were the children struggling to learn their ABCs. She believed they helped her more than she helped them.
She was a responsible cog in the capitalist machine nowadays, but still a bad friend and a bad inactive citizen. Often she was so exhausted from work that she’d go home in a semi-catatonic state via the last train and binge on manga before falling asleep with her makeup on. Or vegetate in front of the telly and fall asleep still with her makeup on.
It was easier to mull about manga than deal with one’s rudderless life.
The great thing about masterful storytellers like Isayama, she thought, was that they drew you into a world so fantastical and yet utterly believable and well thought out it made you forget you were reading about fictional characters. Everyone seemed so real, existing in a parallel world, in one of the undiscovered Earth-like planets out there. Their pain became your pain. It was extremely well-written that the fandom would debate for ages about where each of their sympathies fell and why.
That abundance of great debate was due to the fact that the manga-ka created such a deliberately perplexing work of art loaded with plot switchbacks, moral quandaries, complex characters, multilayered planes of existence, bombshell revelations, misleading clues and sudden reversals of fortune.
Isayama’s characters were neither black nor white, and therein lay their incredible charm. They were mostly deeply flawed and led messy lives and carried strange quirks and bad habits. It wasn’t a good guy vs bad guy thing. Perhaps the only angels in the story were Carla Jaeger and Falco Grice. Everyone else was faulty in some significant way. Karina found comfort in such characterizations.
It had been a wild and joyous ride.
Now that the end game was just around the corner and Hange had been killed off, she was anxious. The manga with which she put in a lot of emotional as well as financial investment might end up a huge disappointment for her in the end.
That’s why she needed friends like Asuka, to remind her to keep her grip on reality.
In the end, for Karina it was easier to ponder over Eren Jaeger as the Destroyer of Worlds than deal with herself as the Ruiner of Lives. It was easier to let herself be absorbed by the problems of fictional characters rather than deal with the shit that real life threw her way, half of it being shit she produced on her own.
“Do you ever dream of Levi behind a counter in a tea shop he owns, advising customers on the best tea blend to fit their tastes and the mood they’re trying to achieve?” she asked Asuka, breaking the silence between them.
“Ah, I’d love that for him,” her friend replied. “I just want him to be happy. Or at least, die happy.”
All Karina wanted was for Jean to be happy, too. To marry the girl of his dreams, own a nice house, and become father to a sweet, black-haired little girl, living life to the fullest. Now that Hange was gone, that’s all she wanted and prayed for from Isayama. For her, Jean Kirschtein represented humankind, the regular folk, and his happiness meant their happiness in turn. If he died, then humankind was doomed.
She wished for Hange to rest in peace, knowing they did what they could to the best of their abilities. Hange was a scientist and researcher forced to take up the reigns of commander. They struggled, lost, hurting, confused, making one fatal mistake after the other, one bad decision after another. But their incompetence as commander doesn’t erase the truth: that without them there would have been no story to begin with. Without Hange the narrative wouldn’t have moved forward because their contributions in terms of knowledge and truth-seeking, not to mention a quirky sense of humour, were simply unparalleled.
“People focus too much on the mistakes a character makes in the story,” Karina told Asuka. “People zero in on the weaknesses and completely forget the strengths. It’s as if one bad decision defines all of you. It’s utterly tragic, this fixation on mistakes.”
Your mistakes don’t define you, Karina wanted to hear from Asuka. Mistakes are simply a part of being human, a thread in the large fabric of your personhood. The real tragedy lies when a person is shut down from life on the basis of one mistake.
But Asuka wasn’t telling her any of that, because she was being kept in the dark and had no real idea why Karina found Hange’s death so painful.
It was painful because, until Chapter 132, Hange’s being kept alive in the manga was a symbol of hope for Karina. How many times did she weep alone at night, holding the Hange keychain between her hands, praying that someday Tetsuya might reach out to her, tell her she was forgiven, that he was in a good place now, and happy?
For time and distance allowed her to acknowledge something very important: her friendship with Tetsuya had been a beautiful thing. It had been wonderful, until they both made that shameful mistake. They were both at fault, and both of them hurt Satoko. Karina knew Satoko would never forgive her, but she still held out hope that Tetsuya might.
One of these days.
She needed his forgiveness, and if he ever came around and apologised to her, then she’ll forgive him in a heartbeat.
She wanted to tell Tetsuya that she still treasured her memories of him, the parts before that cursed night. In fact, she learned a lot just by being friends with him; he had taught her things she never would have discovered by herself.
One time, when she and her team arrived at a client’s place to make a pitch, she noticed a large, vintage poster framed in the prospective’s office. It was a rare, signed, first edition poster of the manga-turned-anime-film Akira, showing Kanda in his red outfit walking up to his iconic red motorcycle. The room had been decorated to match the poster’s colors.
Easily, naturally, Karina broke the ice with the taciturn client by bringing up the poster. The executive, a scowling man in his fifties, immediately found common ground with the young woman, even if he was more than twice her age. They spoke at length about Akira, the motorcycle, Kanda and the other characters, went down memory lane to the scenes and the dialogue they found hard to forget. Karina’s knowledge about bikes, of which the client was a serious enthusiast, was pretty much nill, but her knowledge of Neo-Tokyo? Quiz me, Karina would grin.
The ice breaker worked, their presentation went extremely smoothly, and eventually they won the account. It was one of the largest they took in that year. How much of their success was due to the well-timed ice breaker no one could tell, but Karina was grateful to Tetsuya for teaching her the joys of 1980s manga. On her own she probably never would have read Akira; generally speaking she had little interest in manga first published well before she’d been born. Thanks to Tetsuya her mind had been opened to the delights of the oldies but goldies in the world of manga.
And yet it still hurt. It hurt whenever Akira was mentioned because she inevitably associated it with Tetsuya. Testuya who blamed her. Tetsuya who refused to forgive her. Tetsuya who tried to kill himself because of what she did. No, what they both did.
Karina harboured no ill will towards him. During the New Year, when her Japanese side of the family dragged her to the neighborhood Shinto shrine for hatsumōde, she found herself praying for his forgiveness, for his health, for his happiness.
Someday, she hoped that she could read through the complete Akira series again and feel no pain but only the purest form of love and gratitude. The Akira manga was a masterpiece, Karina believed, and one day she hoped to enjoy it once more without being triggered.
At least, SnK didn’t trigger her. It made her anxious, is all.
Karina found herself praying to the universe that Isayama will find a place of magnanimity within himself to give the remaining characters a satisfying ending, hopefully alive than dead. And also, that a haafu would do a good deed for Satoko so that she’ll see how not all of ‘their kind’ were horrible people like Karina.
For what else could she do, really? Real life sucked. Happiness was but an illusion. In real life lots of people were miserable and, due to the new coronavirus, dying left and right. Since real life sucked so bad, couldn’t they at least find redemption through the fictional characters of a manga?
But now Hange was dead, taking with them whatever hope there was left for reconciliation.
And yet, life goes on.
After reading Chapter 132 and having a good cry, Karina gazed at the Hange keychain attached to her bag, and she knew one thing: she will always treasure Hange. The ornament had been a gift and thus free from bad vibes, celebrating a character she had come to love on her own. Unlike the Akira manga, which had been introduced to her by Tetsuya, she had loved Hange before meeting him. In high school, Hange already made it to the Top Five of her favourite SnK character list. That Tetsuya also adored Hange had been a bonus, but not her main reason for being fond of Hange.
As Karina gazed into the lights of the Big City, she thought of what made Hange Zoe such a compelling character.
Hange was inspiring. Hange’s scientific experiments and data gathering enabled Armin in Chapter 81 to come up with his plan to save Eren from the Colossus Titan.
Hange was badass. In Chapter 82, when the 104th were trying to kill Reiner and Mikasa couldn’t detonate the thunder spear because the Armoured Titan wouldn’t open his mouth, it was Hange who came flying out of nowhere to cut open his jaws. This was just one of the many times Hange showed she was amongst the elite when it came to combat skills.
Hange took responsibility for their own mistakes. When Jean argued for preserving Reiner’s life in case they had a chance to feed him to a dying comrade for titan power inheritance, Hange changed her mind about killing Reiner and went along with Jean’s judgement call. Yet when the Cart Titan managed to grab a hold of Reiner and Jean quickly blamed himself, Hange told him not to. ‘It was my decision,’ they said. Karina fell in love even more with Hange in Chapter 83; Hange showed that while they weren’t pure leadership material like Erwin Smith, they knew how to own their decisions and actions and subsequent reactions.
Hange never lost their sense of wonder and curiosity. Who could ever forget Hange in Chapter 90, when the Scouts finally made it to the ocean? The 104th kids were playing with the water whilst Hange was turning into their zany scientist self. They were knocked over by the thought of the entire ocean being made of salt water, and immediately after they found some living organisms, marine creatures (were those sea cucumbers?) that fascinated them. It was Hange being their best self: curious, enthralled by nature, mesmerised by the wonders of the universe.
That was something Karina knew she had lost. There had been a time in her life when, looking up at the night sky with the myriad constellations and galaxies up above, she felt alive and carefree, the knowledge that she was but a speck of dust in the universe giving her perspective instead of making her feel small and insignificant.
There had been a time in her life when she hiked up a mountain with friends and they looked across the rolling clouds hovering above the crimson blaze of autumn forests down below, and she felt awed by the exquisite sight, both moved and saddened with the knowledge that human beings were basically self-destructing while their planet held this indescribable beauty they continually failed to cherish as a species.
Nowadays her mind was filled with work problems, financial problems, relationship problems, all the mundane stuff that made life a squalid chore. When was the last time she looked at the ocean and, like Hange, felt a sense of wonder?
Even when they were on the edge of death, Hange never lost this sense of wonder. In Chapter 132, they looked at the marauding wall titans and, despite knowing they would soon be crushed to oblivion, still spoke in awe of these mysterious, magical creatures.
How lovely it would be to have that particular page as a poster on my wall, Karina thought, to remind me never to lose my sense of wonder.
“Hey, Asuppi, looks like the weather’s gonna be great this weekend. Why don’t we rent a car and drive down to Kannonzaki Park? The beaches there are open now; I’ll bring my tent and you bring your frisbee. We can all wade into the ocean whilst social distancing. Let’s celebrate Hange’s life and their first sighting of the ocean, whaddya think?”
The gigantic public park in Yokosuka City, south of Tokyo and about an hour away by car, had views of the Pacific Ocean, stretching on as far as the eye could see.
Asuka thought it was a swell idea. They decided to invite a friend each. Tomomi Kaneda, Asuka’s old friend from her high school in Fukuoka, was in Tokyo for corporate training and would be free this weekend. Karina wanted to invite an old friend from university, Shiho Matsuoka. The girl stood by her during the toughest part of her college life.
“You’re so stupid, Karirin,” Shiho had scolded her. “You know you shouldn’t get wasted in the company of boys, given the amount you can chug. Drinking won’t keep you from making dumb choices. Ugh, on the contrary! Get your act together, won’t you?”
“You’re so stupid, Tetchan,” Shiho had scolded him. “You know you shouldn’t drink with crying girls in your house, because it’s too tempting and your girlfriend doesn’t like it. Now look what happened.”
“You’re both so stupid I can’t stand it,” Shiho had given each of them a harsh rebuke. But she remained their friend.
“Why don’t you dump me like everyone else?” Karina had asked her.
“Because you’re my friend, and you’re human. Humans can be really, truly stupid sometimes. That’s part of what makes them human.”
She’d have to ask Shiho not to talk about that part of their uni days to Asuka. But Shiho was trustworthy, and between them was a friendship she wanted to keep for the rest of her life.
“Look, Karirin, I saved the best for last,” Asuka told her before they parted at the train station. From her Samantha Thavasa handbag she fished out a copy of the latest paperback volume of Saezuru Tori wa Habatakanai. “To help you keep your mind off SnK until the next chapter drops.”
Karina squealed with delight, hugged her friend, kissed her on the cheek. “You’re the best, Asuppi. Thanks!”
“Ugh!” Asuka groaned, wiping her cheek with a hanky. “Keep your bloody lip gloss off my face!”
“You’ll be alright? No ruminating tonight over Shingeki no Kyojin, or Akira?”
“Nope, tonight I’ll be dancing to the tune of Yashiro and Todomeki,” Karina grinned naughtily.
A smile creeping over her pretty features, Asuka gave a sigh of relief. “Good to hear.”
Karina holds her friend’s hand and squeezes it. “Thanks for everything. Dunno know what I’ll do without you.”
Asuka shrugs, trying to look nonchalant. But it was obvious she was happy knowing Karina had cheered up. “What are friends for?” she asks.
The train makes a stop at Asuka’s station, Shimokitazawa. She gets off, turns around and waves at her friend.
Karina grins and waves back, clutching the book to her chest. On her arm hung her satchel, and for a fleeting moment the Hange Zoe keychain glints under the bleak, austere lights of the train carriage.
Asuka stood watching from the platform until the train disappeared into the night.
That’s it for this story. Thank you so much for reading! What’s your favourite Hange moment? Please please please take a minute to say hi in the comment section below. It’s so lonely and discouraging to find out I haven’t got any readers. Your comments are the only way I know my stories are getting read. Even just one sentence from you will give me the encouragement I need to keep on writing. Feel free to use a pseudonym and dummy email address. Please say something—anything at all—just to let me know you’ve finished reading. Comments do mean the world to me—THANK YOU! xoxo, hana
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