War is a tool of exploitation for the people on the ground to be taken advantage of and capitalized by those in power. It’s a tale as old as the nations themselves, and one found in every medium from from history books to video games. But its one we keep telling because everyone’s just figuring out how to live with it.
Seraph of the End is adapted from the manga by Takaya Kagami about two boys that interweave throughout other people’s lives in a post-apocalyptic land of endless war. This war between humans and vampires takes root in the different between the other race’s “instinctual values” of lust vs systemic order. (I will be using the word sapience in this review to group together these two races for lack of a better word). Over the course of two seasons, characters are subjected to dehumanization, human experimentation, and political manipulation for the benefit of the fascist or oligarchical governments. However, Seraph doesn’t particularly care about most of the things going on in the world, as long as the main characters’ “family” are protected.
Spoilers for both seasons after this point
While there are many things happening in post-apocalypse human-vampire Japan, the show prioritizes its cast of characters. The two main characters followed are Yuuichirou Hyakuya and Mikaela Hykuya, two orphans that used to live a human ghetto ruled by vampires but then were separated by an escape attempt. Yuuichirou's personality over the course of the show is unchanging; protect your family at all costs. It doesn't matter what else is happening to the people or the world around you, protect your family. A result of him losing the family he had back in the vampire-ruled ghetto.
Mikaela is one of those family members, as he was believed to be killed only to be revived by one of the vampire nobles because of his potential as a Seraph orphan, and a powerful social agent connected to Yu. Mikaela's character is pretty similar to Yuuichirou, he wants to be reunited with his family at all costs, except he never really does anything else. The vampires manipulate him, make him believe that Yu is being manipulated, kill children in front of him. But he just sits and stews in silence. Even when he is finally reunited with Yu briefly in season 1 and then later in season 2, he doesn't really care about the things Yu says. He just keeps repeating that they need to escape together and get away from the rest of the world. Mikaela has lost hope in the morals of all people, but Yu believes that there are still some who can be redeemed.
As for the rest of the characters, most of them have a prominent personality trait that defines them, or two. Shinoa likes to take shots at her friends, defending herself with self-assigned cuteness. Kimizuki wants to be strong to ensure his sister is healed, so he will fight anyone who says he isn't strong (most of the time this is Yu). Yoichi is pretty nervous about life, knees wobbling a lot of the times when things get scary. I could go on but for all the characters, humans and vampires alike, their characters can be narrowed down to a few prominent, unchanging personality traits that only seemingly change by the end of season 2 because their characters stopped getting screen time at all.
Focused on all these characters, the show positions the audience's experience of the events in the world from their perspective. When people are killed on the battlefield, many times they are no names, never even given respect for their deaths. If something large politically is happening, we see how the characters react to it. Yet, the characters never really have reactions to what their governments are doing unless it directly inflicts physical pain upon the people they love.
I add a reminder here that narratives are inherently political as they are stories built from familiar experiences or memories that are designed by someone to be similar or different to our ideas of them. Those narratives influence how we make our decisions and how we see the world.
In the back half of season 1, Yuuichirou keeps receiving hints that there is something inside him that isn't demon or human, and that the human military are exploiting him for it. This reveals itself by the end of the season as the Seraph of the End (aha! the show's title!), a dormant angel that Yuuichirou can release that will kill any sapient being as an act of atonement for the lust of humanity. It only appears for a short while in the first season, and none of the characters really treat it as a big deal. Shinoa goes to a secret testing lab that their troop leader, Guren, is doing research at and she confronts him on whether or not Yu had been a subject of human experimentation. But it doesn't progress any further from there, Guren doesn't answer the question. Instead he just pokes at her for possibly having a crush on Yu instead. This deters Shinoa, and causes her to become embarrassed and leave, effectively prioritizing her infatuation for Yu over the unethical treatment of him.
At the end of season 2 Kureto Hirage succeeds in summoning his own Seraph of the End, the 7th trumpet, in order to wipe out all beings opposed to his rule from the face of the Earth. He kills humans and vampires alike, characters we have seen all season are ripped to shreds. But it doesn't matter for any of our characters until one of their "family" are at risk. Once Yu sees that Mikaela is at risk, he decides that its okay to become the Seraph of the End himself in order to protect them.
From these character point of views, the horrible things that people do when they are in places of power, or simply just to exploit others aren’t all that bad. Instead of there ever being systemic resistance to the problems happening in the world, characters are either willingly used as political pawns or treat these acts as isolated personality traits not affecting them.
This is especially true of the protagonist Yu, which the show places at the heart of its themes and values. As many entries in the shounen genre focus on the battles and struggles of their heroes, it is the values of that hero being conveyed when the audience sees them succeed. Many times this makes villains out to be pretty twisted or even just pretty toxic, in order for the hero to show that they are wrong. In Seraph of the End, Yu tells the audience that the people close to us are the only thing that matter, even if they hurt you or do detestable things. This is the ultimate value of Seraph of the End, family.
Family is the main value that drives all of the characters throughout the show. Each one has their own idea of what it means, but it is always the reason for the characters actions. But the show's definition of family is pretty uncomfortable at that. Most of the characters have pretty traditional ideas of the family unit, it can mean friends or a lost sibling. But we mostly get ideas of how a family should be from Yu. The audience is constantly reminded about how important family is to Yu through his dialogue, flashbacks, and internal battles with his demon, Ashuramaru. But the values of what a family value is revealed through a conversation Yu has with Mika when they reunite at the end of season 2.
I was already dead when my parents abandoned me. But because Guren and you kept me alive, I'm still here today. That's why I don't mind if you guys want to use me.
After a few words, Mika pretty much accepts this, and as a result Guren isn't demonized anymore. Instead, the show sees him as a family member, purely for the fact of keeping Yu alive. This isn't a healthy family structure though. We've all seen enough Disney Channel movies to know that living your life for your parents means is unhealthy! This is the main value of what family means to the characters in the show because there is never a rejection past this point. Mika attempted to help Yu, but in Yu's acceptance he agreed to it. All of Yu's friends knew that Yu was a subject of human experimentation by Guren, but their opinion of him never changes. As long as a person is part of the family, it doesn’t matter what their morals are.
This is one of the largest problems I have with this show. Getting past the fact that no one seems to care when countless numbers of people are slaughtered (because according to the show they are in the army and their lives don’t matter????), it doesn’t recognize the systems of power that harm people. Seraph sees each person as an individual who can make actions despite everything they are connected to. But this is the biggest fallacy that the show takes solace in. All of the characters who see their family being harmed consistently fail to recognize that the short-term harm they are witnessing is a result of horrible decisions made by the systems of power they could be resisting. As a result of this fallacy Seraph’s core ideology believes that those being oppressed shouldn’t resist the oppressive system, but keep focus on the individuals enacting local wrongdoings.
Seraph of the End fails at the primary aspect of character-based shounens by never giving characters meaningfully engaged conflicts to work through over the course of the show. Thanks to an overuse of the word family for almost every problem, and excusing atrocities for the sake of being a human the conflicts lose all significance. This is the biggest problem that Seraph has and it bleeds into every aspect of the show. For that matter, there are a lot of other character-based shounen, or war-critical anime you could be watching instead.