10 Years of Attack on Titan: The Crazy, Mad, Insane World of Hajime Isayama

Titan about to eat a Survey Corps member

After nearly 10 years since it’s launch in 2009 in Bessatsu Shonen Magazine, Attack on Titan is coming to a close. Over it’s long run, the series has spawned three anime adaptations, three recap movies, two live-action movies, several OVA and specials, and even a slice of life spinoff manga. So even with the main series coming to a close, I doubt this will be the last we see of the Attack on Titan universe, since it’s evidently so wide open for all kinds of side stories, prequels and alternate universes.

Even so, Hajime Isayama’s original series will not be going out with a whimper. There are more than a few who eagerly await how the series will bow out, and it’s conclusion will leave a hole in the hearts of many – something that will be felt keenly not only in the series’ homeland of Japan, but in equal part overseas as well. With that in mind, it seems important to take a moment and break down Hajime Isayama’s incredible 10 year run on what has become a bonafide global phenomenon.

10 Years of Attack on Titan: The Crazy, Mad, Insane World of Hajime Isayama

 

I was fortunate enough to be around in 2013, when the first anime adaptation of Attack on Titan aired and the hype for the series truly took off. It was around the time when me and my friends were starting to go to conventions, and we saw within the space of months entire convention halls transform into seas of Survey Corps uniforms. Online, there wasn’t a single place where people weren’t talking about the series or trying to get others to watch it, either. I quickly became drawn into the series, even participating in a little bit of the burgeoning roleplaying scene at the time.

And if there’s one party that benefitted the most from this beside Iseyama and publisher Kodansha, it has to be Crunchyroll. Nowadays, the name Crunchyroll is practically synonymous with streaming anime, but back in 2013 it was almost a non-entity. It had just transformed from an illegal streaming site into a legal one, and was waiting for that killer title to draw people to it – which would eventually become the simultaneous broadcast of Attack on Titan, with Sword Art Online perhaps helping a little bit with it’s first anime adaptation a year before. But even so, I think it’s safe to say that without Attack on Titan, Crunchyroll’s development into the giant of the anime streaming world that it is now would have been considerably slower. The company itself seems to be quite aware of that fact also, as it puts special care and attention into it’s marketing surrounding the series with such material as A Talk on Titan.

But the question remains: why did the series do so well in the west? It wasn’t just a case of it being good, although that it always an important factor in the success of any show, but the cultural circumstances for it’s meteoric rise were perfect. The zombie craze was in full swing, with shows like The Walking Dead entering it’s critically acclaimed third season and games such as DayZ garnering massive success. Furthermore, consumers seemed to be drawn to shows with darker content than what had come previously – particularly when it came to character death, the emotional effect of which had been proven by the launch of the Game of Thrones TV show.

Attack on Titan deftly wove the zombie craze and penchant for dark content into a tantalizing mix which western consumers could scarcely resist. Although they weren’t technically zombies, the core elements of a zombie-like antagonists were present in the titular Titans – the shambolic movement, body horror and outnumbering of the protagonists. Then of course, the show piled on the dark tone in it’s opening episodes, with much character death and seemingly insurmountable odds presented to the initial trio of Eren, Misaka and Armin.

It’s no mystery then that, given the circumstances, the series became such a mainstream hit. That mainstream appeal still continues to this day, with many celebrities such as Pacific Rim and Star Wars star John Boyega enthusiastically exclaiming his love for the series. And as if that wasn’t enough, the series’ mainstream appeal has pushed Warner Brothers to put into production a live action western movie based on the series, headed up by IT director Andy Muschietti.

Titan about to eat a Survey Corps member

But it would be incredibly unfair to simply pass off the series’ success as a matter of circumstance. As much as people may have been receptive to it, such a massive boom in popularity can only come about if the series is actually good. And for all it’s faults, the series has been consistently entertaining throughout the entirety of it’s 10 year run.

One aspect of the series that has rightfully received praise over the years is how it uses it’s dark tone and subject matter to constantly keep it’s readers on their toes. While the wanton killing of characters may have slowed down past the first couple of arcs, what can never be accounted for is the issue of friend or foe, with countless characters switching sides during the events of the series, and with more than a few turning out to be more than meets the eye. This world of shifting alliances, mysterious backstories and sharp character developments has been absolutely essential in conditioning a long-term readership base, far beyond the short-term infatuation with character death and dark atmosphere at the series’ onset.

Nothing better signifies this than the issue of the series’ protagonist, which has shifted considerably throughout the years. At the onset, the series is presented as Eren Jaeger’s story, as he swears to kill all the Titans in an act of revenge, but as the series develops many other characters take the spotlight, most notably the character of Reiner, whom the series shifts considerably towards once Eren’s character motivations are satisfied. Not only does this keep things fresh for the readers, but once more rewards long-term commitment as (almost) every character gets their turn in the spotlight, creating a world full of nuanced and well-developed characters in the process.

Isayama has never been one to shy away from genre shifts either, as the story has moved away from the simple action-based premise of the series’ opening arcs and towards more delicate, nuanced character drama over the years. Several of the story’s arcs have even seen it shift towards what resembles more of a political thriller than an action manga, and at one point the series even dives into some full blown historical fantasy. This has only served to demonstrate Isayama’s own capacity for endless invention, as well as keep fans entertained.

However, that’s not to say that the series has been a flawless success for the whole of it’s run. Rather, it could be said that Isayama’s restlessness and willingness to change elements of the series during it’s run have contributed to more than a few dead fish in the water, with some arcs paling in comparison to the rest. In particular, I was dissatisfied with the series’ foray into historical fantasy, and found some of the more political arcs to be quite dull. Some characters have also been starved of much needed depth, particularly the main character of Eren, who has always proven himself to be one of the weakest links in what can generally be seen as a strong cast of characters.

Yet the series has always delivered when it has to. Big action set pieces are always enthralling, and when the more dull sections pay off with brilliant character drama and conflict, I’m always impressed. You also can’t exactly blame Isayama for trying to keep things fresh – there’s more than a few mangaka who fall back far too willingly on their laurels, and to have a series that’s both popular and inventive is a rare thing indeed.

Hajime Isayama draws final panel

And if the name Hajime Isayama has come up a few too many times, I apologize. But after all, the story of Attack on Titan is inextricably linked to that of it’s creator, whose perseverance and dedication to his craft should be a lesson to all budding creators out there.

In a recent post on his blog, Isayama stated that his original one-shot for Attack on Titan was in fact rejected by Weekly Shonen Jump – confirming the suspicions of many industry experts over the years. In fact, he was rejected twice by two different editors, which must’ve been tough for the young mangaka, who had just managed to move to Tokyo and was having to balance writing manga with paying his bills through part-time work at an internet café. To many, including Isayama, Jump is manga – if you want to be a mangaka, it has to be Jump. So to be able to deal with rejection and keep on going is a real testament to his determination and creative spirit.

Eventually, Isayama managed to get a serialization in Kodansha’s Bessatsu Shonen Magazine after participating in one of their contests, where his one-shot Humanity vs. Giants won the “Fine Work” award. But the problem was that even though he had drawn the previous one-shots himself, Isayama was not a trained artist and would’ve ideally wanted to handle the story while someone else did the art. But there was no way that Kodansha were going to spare one of their artists for a newbie, and one that didn’t really seem to have much promise at that – so Isayama ended up having to handle both story and artwork all by himself.

This lack of training and experience in drawing really shows in the opening chapters of the manga, where proportions were often off and perspective often skewed. Panelling was also an issue, as Isayama wasn’t able to set the page out in a very engaging way for the reader. His linework was also quite light and sketchy for a manga, which usually relies on clear yet non-intrusive linework for traditional character designs.

Yet something was able to shine through all of this – Isayama’s dedication to the story he had set out to tell. Even if he wasn’t the best artist, he could deliver his story with apparent ease, and it didn’t take long for heads to begin to turn with his unique premise, dark tone and nail-biting suspense. It was certainly enough to convince the fledgling WIT Studio to take on the project for an anime adaptation in 2013, which was the real beginning of a mainstream splash for the series.

And as the various anime and live-action films began to roll out, Isayama’s art did start to improve. With practice, he was able to improve his perspective and proportions, while taming his artwork to be a little bit more pleasing. While panelling still isn’t his greatest strength, it’s certainly more dynamic now than how it used to be. Even his apparent faults began to become an essential part of the appeal of the manga, especially when it comes to the terrifying designs of the Titans themselves, which are greatly enhanced by Isayama’s strange proportions and skewed perspectives as well as his odd linework.

Beast Titan

So now, we stand not only at the end of a 10 year journey for the series, but for Isayama himself. The young creator has emerged from the other side of his first serialization as an esteemed and world-famous artist. Despite all the hardships he had to put up with, he persevered and finally got to where he wanted to be – a successful mangaka.

Where next for Hajime Isayama, then? A vacation, I’d assume. But beyond that, I have no doubt that he’ll return to the world of manga. If there’s anything that reading Attack on Titan for 10 years has taught me, it’s that it, nor it’s creator can be tamed. Even if the series is a huge mainstream success in both Japan and the west, it’s still the same old kooky manga that no one thought would ever get anywhere, least of which it’s publisher – and look where it’s ended up. Attack on Titan is dead; long live Attack on Titan.

Kodansha, Crunchyroll
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