Both the anime and manga of Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan have been absurdly popular and widely praised. Last year, five of the books in the series were in the Top 20 graphic novels in the U.S., beating even The Walking Dead; 8.3 million copies sold in just the first half of 2014 to boost its total sales close to 22 million copies in just under five years.
To give you an idea of the audience being reached, anime (and related merchandise) was a $4 billion dollar business around the world in 2006. In 2009, anime accounted for 90% of Japan’s television exports. By the time Attack on Titan finally knocked Eiichiro Oda’s “One Piece” out of its top spot, “One Piece” had already sold 345 million copies around the world. That’s the kind of numbers that J.K Rowling, Dean Koontz, and Stephen King move. Anime and manga have been in a slump the last few years (at least in the U.S.), but that is likely a reflection of digital piracy rather than lack of interest.
For those who are new to the anime and manga world, here’s a few things to note before looking at Attack on Titan in particular.
Manga uses “block” storytelling over the linear form. (It’s a nod to a Japanese tradition of sketching on wooden blocks, called hokusai manga, though the two are not directly related). A writer on Japanese pup culture news noted that “the many full-page spreads highlighting emotional reactions, instead of the traditional action spreads… a pattern of non sequitur panel transitions that sometimes made it difficult to follow what was happening.” This style can be seen in the anime as well. Rather than worrying about being fluid, anime is drawn with more stops and starts – “blocks” if you will – that highlight particular things: voices (or eyes), one character, or the foreground of a shot instead of the background.
Manga is very visual. Robin Brenner notes, “Manga rely more on the visual side of a tale than the words — which is why they can often be read faster than a Western comic of the same page count. The symbols, character shifts, and visual cues provide more information per page than the text and therefore a reader must be fluent in all of these elements to understand the story. This kind of visual literacy is as complex as parsing prose, though a fundamentally different experience. If you read the text and skip the visuals, you’re missing a good three quarters of the story… Many manga rely on silence and pacing to accentuate everything from the pathos to the humor of a situation, and expect a reader to stick with them through contemplative stretches.”
Manga typically reflects Japanese culture. In “Japan’s Illustrated Storytelling,” Anne Cooper-Chen writes, “The exotic cultural specifics are seated within universal themes – bravery, friendship, striving towards goals, fighting the good fight… anime’s universal topics of love, friendship, death, and personal growth that have been sanctioned by most cultures. The specifics can range from samurai and ninja depictions, with historically accurate costumes and architecture, to a contemporary Japanese high school milieu, with sailor uniforms for girls, mandarin-collar jackets for boys and courtyard-central architecture.”
Robin Brenner writes about another cultural specific: the lack of embarrassment surrounding the sexual, violent, or simply silly fantasy in manga. “Anything that is within the creator (and thus the reader’s) imagination is a potential subject for manga. In the Western world there is not such a clear line in people’s minds between fantasy and reality. We worry that people will act out their fantasies, whether inspired by childhood trauma or violent books, movies, or video games. In Japan, that worry is present, but it has not yet prevented creators from bringing their wildest and unnerving visions to the page.”
The Shinto and Buddhist legacy in Japan influences many of the stories. A University of Michigan site exploring anime notes, “Many Confucian values – belief in the family, importance of diligence, loyalty, filial piety, and harmony — are widespread throughout most Asian societies.” While these values are important, Shintoism does not teach that there are absolutes, or right and wrong. People are perceived to be good; evil comes from spirits around us, not from something bad within us. Shintoism seeks not to disturb the gods or disrupt the order and harmony of the world and the community.
Manga generally appeals to niche markets. There are different types for boys, girls, men, women, children, and then a host of subcategories from there. This diversity is unified by a fairly common character breakdown that can be found in most of the story arcs. Perhaps because they are written for particular niches, it is not unusual to see a story exaggerate stereotypes – or challenge them.
ATTACK ON TITAN
Here’s the basic premise: Humanity has been hiding from gigantic, cannibalistic monsters called Titans ever since the population was decimated 100 years earlier. No explanation is given as to where these Titans originate (Aja Romano claims that the source of the imagery comes from Goya’s paintings). Now the people live in a multi-walled, socially stratified city while they train an elite Survey Corps of fighters to protect them if the need should arise again. Obviously, it does. When ten-year-old Eren Jaeger sees his own mother eaten by a Titan, he vow revenge against the Titans and joins the Corps. When his training is complete, he joins humanity’s fight from the Titans without and – much to his surprise, from within.
Attack on Titan is not for the squeamish. Don’t get me wrong – it’s beautiful, and it’s saturated with bravery and cowardice, loyalty and betrayal, love and revenge. But it’s also incredibly violent (it’s been compared to The Walking Dead because of the zombie-like cannibalism). The Titans are naked, though apparently they have neither the capacity nor the tools to reproduce. So, yeah, it’s pretty intense on a number of levels. ‘Giant’, ‘naked’, ‘zombie-like’, and ‘cannibals’ are not words anyone hopes to see strung together.
When I went to my local library and asked them for the most popular anime series, I was immediately handed Attack on Titan. When I asked for the next most popular, nothing else was close (I was told that it would depend on which niche I liked). Attack on Titan has an impressively broad – and seriously devoted – base of fans.
There is a lot of speculation about what Attack on Titan is all about – which is another way of asking why it’s so popular. It could be about a lot of different things. It could be about war as seen from those in occupied territories, where the occupied are consumed and used mindlessly. It could be about surviving incomprehensible and overwhelming events. It could be about people attacking the walls of fear that have been built around them, or about the power of will, or a call to understand the importance of duty and allegiance. It could just be a vehicle to talk about how people handle war, justice, loyalty, betrayal, bravery, patriotism, and the human condition in general. It could be all of those.
Perhaps the breadth of ideas is a testimony to the depth of the story. If you don’t mind the disturbing visuals and grim themes, Attack on Titan can give an interesting window into not only the world of anime and manga, but into moral and existential questions that seem to haunt most of the stories we tell.
The article was originally posted at Empires and Mangers.