"Attack on Titan" Invades Movie Theaters: An Interview with Director Higuchi ShinjiCulture
A Global “Attack” Commences
When the serialization of Isayama Hajime's manga Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan) began in 2009, its outlandish premise of mysterious giants breaking through massive walls to prey on the last remnants of humanity terrified readers with its innovative approach to horror. Since then, over 50 million copies have been published around the world. A live-action film adaptation directed by Higuchi Shinji, who has blended Japanese tokusatsu-style physical special effects of the kind developed in movies such as the Godzilla series with the latest CG technology, brings its nightmarish vision to the screen with even more visceral and powerful imagery.
Prior to its Japanese release on August 1, the first of its two parts, Shingeki no Kyojin: Attack on Titan (Attack on Titan), received its world premiere in Los Angeles on July 14 in front of a demanding Hollywood audience.
“Screening the film overseas was an added factor, but just showing it to the general public for the first time was a lot of pressure in itself,” says Higuchi. “Even so, the reaction from the audience in the ‘birthplace of movies’ was great, and they were quick to express their appreciation.
“Miura Haruma and Mizuhara Kiko [two of the film’s stars who were also in attendance at the premiere] were really excited too, and they joined in with the audience, raising their voices and having a lot of fun, even though they were watching themselves on screen. After all the hardships I put those young actors through on set, I’m glad I was able to give them such a memorable experience.”
According to the film’s production company Toho, the live-action adaptation is already set for release in 63 countries and regions around the world.
Translating the World of the Manga Into Live-Action
From his high school days, Higuchi worked part-time on numerous tokusatsu sets, and was part of the special effects modeling team for the 1984 film Gojira (Godzilla 1985). He went on to build a reputation as a skilled special effects director on productions such as the 1990s Gamera movie trilogy. His first film as director was the 2005 feature Lōrerai (Lorelei: The Witch of the Pacific Ocean), which was set toward the end of World War II and made skillful use of visual effects for scenes involving submarines and other period technology. Nevertheless, even with his vast special effects experience, his latest project presented him with an unprecedented challenge.
“The bottom line was, we had to build everything from the ground up. For example, if you’re making a samurai film, you can find out what you need to know by doing research, and there’s also a rule of thumb that you can adhere to. You can source costumes from warehouses too. For this movie, whether it was a single prop or anything else for that matter, we had to either make it from scratch, or select it painstakingly. It was my first time doing a live-action adaptation of a manga, and I was amazed to learn how difficult it was.”
Another complication was the screenplay. “The writing process would have been different if we’d been working with a manga that had a completed story, but as it was still in serialization, we had to figure out how to conclude it as a movie.” It was a case of experimenting until the right ending emerged. Of course, Higuchi was also dealing with the basic issue of how to convey the manga’s worldview through live action.
“When I read the manga, I realized that it was more intense than anything else I’d come across. It made me feel as if some guy I’d never met named Isayama had created a world in his head that went beyond manga, and manga just happened to be the means he had at his disposal to express it. Its pages seemed to have been infused with his desire to see that world in motion, as viscerally as possible.”
“The titans have a unique gruesomeness to them as well. In fact, in the manga, the imagery and drawing style for the titans are more striking than for the humans. It makes you think they’re modeled after someone. There’s a sentiment along the lines of “I hate this person, I’ll never forgive them” that exudes from their artwork, so I wondered how we could retain that imbalance, in which they seem somehow more human than the humans themselves.”
Higuchi says he could sense a profound fear of others in Isayama’s manga. “Toward an unspecified someone. You don’t know their name, or what they’re thinking. I haven’t actually talked to Isayama about this impression of mine, but I wondered if it was a metaphor for the fear he felt toward Tokyo as a city when he moved there in his twenties [from his hometown in Kyūshū].”
“Flesh and Blood” Titans
It goes without saying that the titans could have been brought to the screen as full CG creations. However, Higuchi came to a decision on the special effects techniques he would use after meeting and talking with Isayama.
“One of several specific requests [made by Isayama regarding the live-action adaptation] was to refrain from having the titans act in a frightening way, such as approaching while howling like monsters, glaring, and making threatening gestures. When he said he wanted me to make the titans seem unearthly, in the sense that you can’t tell what they’re thinking, I decided to go with flesh and blood humans who would be carefully chosen for their distinctive qualities.”
Over 80 prospects attended auditions, from which 20 titans were selected. There was repeated test photography from very early on in the production, and the experimentation extended to makeup and performance. The resulting footage was then digitally manipulated to distort the actors’ proportions.
“The Red Queen in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was a reference point. She was extremely small, but her head was huge. I wanted to try doing the opposite. We played around with the footage, elongating or bloating sections of their bodies. All we had to do was disrupt the balance of certain wholly familiar body parts, and it gave them a fantastically unearthly look.”
Apart from the titans played by humans in the film, there is also a colossal titan that was operated by several technicians. One was inside it while the other six were outside, and they all worked in concert to pull off the performance.
Through their hybridized fusion of physical and digital visual effects, Higuchi and his staff have succeeded in creating powerful, visceral imagery.
Miniatures and puppetry have long been mainstays of Japanese special effects, but for Higuchi, the methodology itself was less important than bringing the atmosphere and imagery of Isayama’s manga to the screen as evocatively as possible. “The technique we decided on is the one I’m best at, and doing it this way gave me the confidence to go ahead. We also had over 300 CG staff adding the finishing touches by digitally manipulating the physical effects footage. And this method was the most suitable for translating the worldview of Isayama’s manga into live action.”
The Ruins of “Battleship Island”
One more crucial key to bringing the manga to three-dimensional life was the location shoot on the island of Hashima, better known as Gunkanjima (meaning “Battleship Island”), in Nagasaki Prefecture. It had previously been considered as a potential shooting location for the James Bond film Skyfall, but ultimately the producers chose instead to build a set based on photos of the island. Higuchi says the shoot for Attack on Titan in the remains of a former coal mine on Gunkanjima—which was recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site this July for its role in Japan’s industrial revolution—was even more effective than he had envisioned.
“The other day, we held the press conference announcing the completion of the film on Gunkanjima, and it had been a year since I was last there, but the place had deteriorated so much that I doubt we could achieve now what we achieved last year. I’m glad we were able to shoot there when we did. It helped us greatly to add some weight to the film.”
“I wanted scenery that could surpass the manga’s imagery in that sense. Gunkanjima provided a rationale for making the film in Japan.” Higuchi passionately states that the island’s landscape will take on a closer connection to the films’ original story elements in the second part of the film, Attack on Titan: End of the World, scheduled for release in September.
Higuchi has now completed the daunting task of making back-to-back live-action Attack on Titan movies, but his next big project is already looming ahead. Together with his friend and colleague Anno Hideaki, creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, he is due to begin production on a new Godzilla film. Anno is acting as supervising director and screenwriter, while Higuchi is co-directing. Set to open in summer of 2016, this feature represents the revival of the venerable Japanese franchise, and will be the first homegrown entry in 12 years since Gojira: Final Wars (Godzilla: Final Wars) in 2004.
Decades ago, Higuchi worked on the set of Gojira (Godzilla 1985) as a dresser for Godzilla actor Satsuma Kenpachirō, helping him to put on and take off the unwieldy suit. He made various mistakes, and laughingly recalls that he “nearly killed Mr. Satsuma,” but by constantly being in the vicinity of the giant lizard, he learned how the shooting process worked, and how to give instructions as a director. His love of movies led him to enter the film industry, but he humbly says that “I never had a desire to become a director, let alone make a Godzilla movie myself.” After Attack on Titan, we can look forward to new surprises from Higuchi next summer.
(Compiled by Nippon.com editorial staff from an interview held on July 21 and originally published in Japanese on July 30, 2015. Attack on Titan, the first half of the two-part film, opens on August 1, and the second, Attack on Titan: End of the World, follows on September 19. Banner photo: © 2015 Attack on Titan Movie Production Committee ©Isayama Hajime/Kodansha.)