“Attack on Titan”: Hajime Isayama’s “Scary Pictures” Global Smash

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The run of the Attack on Titan manga concluded in 2021, but its popularity shows no signs of slowing down. The televised anime series is finally reaching its climax, to the excitement of its many fans, both domestically and abroad. But what is the secret to this series’ smashing success?

A Story that Continues to Compel

A year has passed since the publication of the final installment of Isayama Hajime’s megahit manga Shingeki no kyojin (Attack on Titan), but fan interest continues to heat up.

The animated television series, which began airing in 2013, is finally reaching its climax, with what is presumed to be the final season set to broadcast in 2023. The show has proven particularly popular abroad, not only in traditional anime hot-spots like the United States and South Korea, but even in countries where adults are traditionally reluctant to watch cartoon fare, such as Spain.

Below I take another look at Attack on Titan to try and crack the question of what makes the series so enduringly popular around the world. Spoilers are involved, so read carefully if you’re still enjoying the series as it unfolds!

An Antihero With the Power of the Enemy

Attack on Titan is a dystopian fantasy manga series that was serialized in Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine from 2009 to 2021. The protagonist, Eren Yeager, was born in a city surrounded by fortress-like walls. When he was just a child, a gigantic creature called a Titan breached the wall, laying waste to the town and devouring Eren’s mother. Later, this memory drove Eren to enlist in a military brigade called Survey Corps along with his childhood friends Mikasa and Armin.

As this story rolled out, readers undoubtedly expected to see Eren grow into a seasoned warrior and finally exact revenge for his mother’s death. But the end of the second volume of the manga series threw readers a curve-ball: Eren can transform into a Titan himself. This startling revelation took the narrative in an unexpected new direction—for at first, even Eren had no idea how or why he came to possess this strange power.

What are the Titans that attack and consume human beings, and how did Eren gain the ability to become one himself? These mysteries formed the foundation for the story, drawing in many readers during the early phase of the manga’s serialization.

The Montage Technique

But this only describes the charms of the plot. To truly understand the pull of Attack on Titan, one must delve into the manga’s art, which I feel is on another level than that of the typical battle-centric fantasy (in a broad sense) manga.

One of the most arresting images in the entire series can be found in the first volume, when the “Colossal Titan” peers over the city walls. And then there is the terrifying appearance of the so-called “Pure Titans,” smirking as they consume one helpless human after another. Those scenes, which convey a loss of hope entirely visually rather than with words, are a testament to Isayama’s unique approach. To this day, fans often debate whether his art is “good” or “bad,” and speaking as professional manga editor, I can’t deny that the art in the first two volumes feels less polished than one would expect for a successful serial.

But one cannot judge a manga’s art on draftsmanship alone. To put it bluntly, a manga artist doesn’t require fine drawing ability of the sort that gets you an art university degree at all—though that being said, such skills certainly don’t hurt, either. Manga is a medium that tells stories through parceling out the art across panels, and the artists who are deft at “editing” these arrangements of panels are the ones judged to be the most “skilled” as manga creators.

This “editing” is akin to the montages established by the pioneering Soviet filmmaker Sergey Eyzenshteyn, and most Japanese narrative manga employ this filmlike approach to a greater or lesser degree in their storytelling.

In other words, from a very early point in his career Isayama proved to have an uncanny grasp of the use of montage in the arrangement of the viewpoints of his panels. Were this a film, one would call his use of “camera cuts” masterful. For example, the scenes in which Titans consume humans cut between the Titan’s and victim’s views, and even in longer expository sections, Isayama’s cuts ensure readers never get bored.

Comedy and Horror: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Even though many undoubtedly find them grotesque, the illustrations of grinning Pure Titans consuming humans have an incredible impact.

In addition to these Pure Titans, nine special Titans, including the Colossal Titan, appear in the series. The nameless Pure Titans are revealed to be criminals who were once human, but were forced to become Titans. However, this isn’t revealed to readers until quite some way into the story, and perhaps because of this, when I initially started reading I found myself unable to avert my eyes from the terrifying scenes featuring them.

For humans are drawn not only to beautiful and interesting things, but to scary things as well. This is why horror movies, “freak shows,” and the Grand Guignol theater of France have always enjoyed such popularity.

No question, Isayama’s manga possesses something akin to these fearsome spectacles. And I think the most obvious symbol of it can be found in the visuals of those grinning, flesh-eating Pure Titans. These scenes are already terrifying by design, so there’s no need to give the Titans terrifying expressions. By making them smiling humans (or human-like creatures) eating other humans, Isayama amplifies the fear factor many times over.

Consider the key visual of the classic horror film The Shining, in which Jack Nicholson hacks through a door with a maniacal grin. Seen in a still photograph it almost seems like comedy. But in the flow of the film, it provokes a sense of primal fear. It has been said that comedy and horror are flip sides of the same coin, and I think Isayama’s illustrations of the Pure Titans are a perfect example.

I’d also emphasize the fact that most of the Titans are malformed or unbalanced in some way. This isn’t due to any lack of draftsmanship on Isayama’s part, but is rather, I suspect, deliberately designed to blur the line between fantasy and reality.

Dealing With a Complex World

On the other hand, one might think it tiring to deliver such a high level of visual impact for an extended time. But Isayama has calculated this as well. From the middle arc of the narrative, Attack on Titan shifts focus from visual shock alone to unspooling the mysteries at the heart of the plot. And the most interesting part of this is his incorporation of different viewpoints into the world he has created.

After being thrown for a loop by the realization that the hero of the beginning, Eren, is a Titan, the story twists again and again. The unveiling of the true identity of Krista (Historia), the revelation of the fact another civilization exists outside the wall, and the moment Eren decides to destroy the world all force the reader to grapple with preconceptions about the story: who’s in the right now?

These kinds of twists are the epitome of great storytelling not only in manga, but all forms of science fiction and fantasy. As Ursula K. LeGuin wrote in Cheek by Jowl, good fantasy is a mechanism for taking you somewhere far away from the familiar and introducing you to people with different values from your own. Those who realize this realize that they have different values and choices within them as well. And this in turn allows us to avoid pointless conflicts with those we perceive as “others.”

Attack on Titan is a powerful work of fantasy that teaches us the world cannot be measured in simplistic terms of good versus evil. This is what makes it such worthwhile reading, particularly for young people who will be building the future to come.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner image: Volumes of the Attack on Titan manga. © Kyōdō.)

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