Four years after its debut, Hajime Isayama’s manga about a group of young people fighting a hopeless battle against human-devouring titans continues to fly off the shelves.
Thanks to an animated adaptation that premiered last spring, “Attack on Titan” has sold an additional 10 million copies over the last three months.
Many factors seem to have contributed to the dark fantasy’s increasing popularity: the eerie depiction of the cannibalistic giants, a sense of stagnation among the humans forced to live inside high protective walls, the desperation of young people engaged in an overwhelmingly disadvantageous battle, and a mystery-laden story.
Isayama’s drawings, which he admits are amateurish, have also succeeded in captivating the hearts of many readers.
The manga has been running in Kodansha Ltd.’s Bessatsu Shonen Magazine monthly comic anthology since 2009.
Before the animated adaptation started its run on Tokyo MX, MBS and other networks this past April, the manga’s nine volumes had sold a total of 12 million copies. But as of July, the series’ 10 books have sold more than 22 million copies.
The anime boasts sharply defined illustrations and speedy action sequences. But those who read the original manga after enjoying the animated series may be taken aback by its crudeness. The characters are drawn in a somewhat indistinguishable manner, with twisted poses and unstable lines. The arc of the story composition, repeatedly intertwined with reminiscences, is hardly sophisticated.
But a mysterious sense of discomfort seeps from the pages.
“This is a manga that strongly evokes the primitive fears of humans in the form of gigantic things that are approaching,” critic Tomofusa Kure pointed out. “If (the manga was) presented with refined illustrations, this eeriness wouldn't have been possible.”
Isayama made his professional debut with “Attack on Titan.”
“I had thought my drawings fell short of the standard required for commercial works,” he admitted.
But the manga has become a huge hit.
“I am amazed by how wide the readership of manga superpower Japan is.”
As for the quality of the animated adaptation, Isayama said: “If I were to give 100 points to my manga, I’d give about 200 million points (to the anime). I am satisfied that much.”
As the manga volumes continue to be released, Isayama’s drawing skills seem to have been improving.
But does this bode well for the manga?
Writer Mao Yamawaki, who is also well-versed in manga, has a positive view, saying: “The facial expressions of the characters have become increasingly rich. It goes well with the development of the drama that begins to reveal the inner emotions of the characters.”
She added, “(The manga) keeps its momentum, with the coming-of-age story of the boys and girls at its core and the story in which a new mystery is presented in each episode serving as a booster.”
The grotesque intensity of the drawings has become less so, but the manga’s easier readability seems to have made it more compelling, pulling readers into the story.
Yearning for the world outside the protective walls, the protagonist joins the army to battle the titans.
He gains the ability to transform his body into a titan, but there is no explanation on how this is happening.
Furthermore, startling secrets surrounding the titans are revealed one after another: one of his fellow soldiers turns out to actually be a titan, while another titan is found embedded in one of the walls that surround the human town.
The manga seems to be developing without letting itself get carried away by the momentum of its popularity. The story also provides some foreshadowing elements tactically intertwined in the narrative.
“The story unfolds as it leaves these mysteries as mysteries, amplifying readers’ expectations,” Kure said. “It is like a game whose rules begin to be clear as it is played.”
“The author has a strong will not to make it ‘just another predictable story,’” Yamawaki said. “It can also be felt from how he portrays the titans, whose body shapes don’t seem to be strong and wear a faint smile.”
Many have analyzed the manga as representing the hopelessness felt by young people in today’s society.
“In any generation, young people feel the society that surrounds them as a ‘wall.’ It is not peculiar for the current generation to be afraid of, and at the same time, long for the world outside the wall,” Kure said.
Yamawaki added: “Older readers may see (the characters) as Japan threatened by globalism. With this story, readers are at liberty to take any stand and make their own interpretations.”
Ironically, two Hollywood blockbuster films premiering in August in Japan share some similarities to the manga. In both “World War Z,” which features Brad Pitt confronting a horde of zombies, and “Pacific Rim,” in which gigantic robots combat colossal monsters, the human race has built massive walls to keep safe from the invasion of foreign foes. It appears that the feelings of being surrounded by walls like “Attack on Titan” are common not only in Japan.