Men’s culture magazine Brutus recently did a special issue on Attack on Titan that included a lengthy interview with the manga’s creator, Hajime Isayama, in which he talks about such topics as how it feels to have produced an ultramega hit, how he came to be interested in manga, his inspiration behind the characters he’s created, and his thoughts on recent kaiju films, among a lot of other things. You may notice that the interviewer talks to Isayama almost like a psychologist; this is because he, in fact, is.
The magazine went on sale in November 2014, so the interview presumably took place sometime not long after volume 14 went on sale.
–Pleasure to make your acquaintance. I’ve been reading Attack on Titan since the first volume came out, but it’s since become such a smash hit that now you can find it at convenience stores. Do you ever feel pressure knowing that?
Hajime Isayama: Not really, I guess.
–The reality of it hasn’t hit you yet?
Isayama: It feels like reality is getting farther and father away. People say things say things like my dreams have become reality, but ever since I won that first prize back when I was nineteen, it’s felt more like reality has been growing distant.
–Did you not dream about finding this kind of success back before starting out as a manga artist?
Isayama: I knew that making a living from drawing manga is extremely tough, so my dream back then was just to make enough to feed myself with my manga, even if it never became a big hit — let alone the idea of becoming a millionaire.
–I’ve read in a previous interview that you didn’t originally think the idea for Attack on Titan would make for a popular manga.
Isayama: I thought it was great personally, but I figured that most aspiring manga artists must feel that way, and that I was just another kid underestimating how tough the industry really is.
–It’s true, though, that it’s not the kind of manga you would expect to appeal to a mass audience.
Isayama: I was repelled by the sort of manga that’s based on marketing research about what sort of characters or plot elements will be popular with readers. Relying on that stuff, you’ll never make anything new. So then I took that desire to see someone do something new and decided to try it myself.
–I’m sure you must’ve taken in your share of manga as well as video games and movies, but Attack on Titan comes off as something very fresh, something that doesn’t feel especially inspired by anything that came before it. How long have you had the idea for it?
Isayama: As manga artist friends of mine in their 40s tell me, manga magazines used to be full of apocalyptic stories until pretty recently, and I do think I’ve been influenced by those manga.
–I would say the idea for the walls and that universe you’ve created in general is pretty one-of-a-kind, though.
Isayama: I came up with the original idea for the one-shot called “Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan)” that won me my first ever prize, and then I didn’t think about it for a while after that until I was 22 or 23 or so, when my editor asked me to consider making that old one-shot into a long-term series, at which point I spent a half a year coming up with the details of that whole world. I still feel like it’s pretty shallow compared to the level of the sci-fi universes my older artist friends shared — like, I never read Mu [a Japanese magazine about all things paranormal] or any of that.
–Would you say part of you wished the world would be destroyed?
Isayama: What, like, “Screw the world, let it all go to hell”? Yeah, I used to really think that quite a bit — like, I’d wonder what it would be like to live in a world without people, like in I Am Legend. Living wouldn’t be so easy without the electricity and water infrastructure, though. (laugh)
–So you’re saying you would be fine so long as that infrastructure kept working?
Isayama: I think I could actually pull it off so long as I have my living environment intact. I could probably easily live the life of a hermit if access from the outside world were cut off.
–So, I’ve read that you started Attack on Titan with the ending already decided.
Isayama: It seemed like my editor wasn’t going to let the series start to be published unless I had an ending in mind.
–Buichi Terasawa said there are two types of manga artists: People who can’t produce manga unless they have the whole structure of it figured out, like Terasawa himself and Hirohiko Araki, and people who simply create characters, which they then allow to act however they want. Do manga editors these days tend to always maintain a firm grip on the structure of a manga as it’s drawn?
Isayama: I’ve only ever worked with my current editor Shintaro Kawakubo, so I actually would be really interested in knowing how other artists go about it myself. Thinking about it now, though, I don’t think I had thought the story all the way through back when I started it.
–Some people use ideas that they came up with back before becoming a manga artist. Did you come up with any ideas back when you were in school?
Isayama: I did think about what kind of story I would do if I were to get to do a manga series someday, but those ideas aren’t something I use in my current work at all, and the notebooks I used for brainstorming are all sealed away in my parents’ house. (laugh) It is true, however, that I’ve always been drawn to protagonists who become strong through transforming, which might be a personal desire of mine.
–You’re apparently a fan of the Kamen Rider series. Did you watch it a lot?
Isayama: I don’t actually know much about tokusatsu stuff; I’m just vaguely drawn to the idea of it. I had some hang-ups about my body, so I was always drawing manga about transforming heroes since back before I ever got published.
–By “hang-ups”, do you mean you were overly self-conscious about your body, as opposed to feeling bad about yourself because of things other people said?
Isayama: Yes, I suppose that’s it.
–Those troubles do tend to start around junior high school, to the point that we even have that term, “eighth-grade syndrome” (chunibyo). Why was your body a problem?
Isayama: I felt like I was a late bloomer, physically and mentally.
–What about worries about the opposite sex?
Isayama: That could have been part of it too. I grew up in a rural area, so I was surrounded by the same people ever since preschool, and it felt pretty weird when people started dating all of a sudden in junior high school. It seemed gross to me — we’d grown up together almost like siblings.
–Wouldn’t that same group of people have gotten shuffled around in junior high school?
Isayama: There were just the two elementary schools feeding into the one junior high school, so in each grade you had two classes of just over forty students, and it was not a fun situation to be in. It wasn’t so much the dating as it was the peer pressure, and the whole rah-rah school spirit mindset, that I just couldn’t deal with.
–When was it that you started getting into manga and video games?
Isayama: Junior high school. I’d watched anime and read manga up until then as much as the next kid, but I didn’t know that there was this whole world of otakudom out there until I became friends with a Sega fanboy in junior high.
–What was it about that world that attracted you?
Isayama: I liked how it put reality off to the side. I liked the idea that this might be a world produced by electrodes stuck on our brains. I thought it’d be awesome to actually be a battery for machines like in The Matrix.
–There’s a scene in The Matrix about how illusionary steaks still taste good. Would you say you’re okay with being unable to ever eat a real steak?
Isayama: I’d say I’m the type who actually identifies more with the illusionary.
–Did you see reality as painful back in junior high school?
Isayama: Yes, I hated how pathetic I felt I was. You can see it in my manga, too — if there’s a character to my work, I think it’d be a sort of “endless adolescence”.
–It’s puzzling to me that you can consider yourself pathetic, having taken that teenage angst and refined it into a smash hit.
Isayama: The manga I like have mature, smart, cool characters. I want to make a manga like that too, but as I go along it’s becoming clearer and clearer that’s just not the manga I’m making.
–Because the characters are so far from leading successful, healthy lives?
Isayama: Well, I don’t really have much experience with that myself. It’s sad to know that I won’t be able to become like the older artists I respect.
–I don’t think you necessarily should become like the people you respect anyway, though. What about them seems so unattainable for you?
Isayama: The content of their manga. Attack on Titan is being well received, but there are all sorts of incredible works of entertainment out there, and I wish they would receive more attention and be praised more.
–You don’t think you deserve the praise you’re getting, then.
Isayama: And I feel guilty about it, yes.
–But the manga industry is a level playing field, isn’t it?
Isayama: We may start from the same point, but not everyone necessarily gets the reception they deserve. I’d say luck is half of what determines success.
–It’s kind of strange that you still feel that way.
Isayama: I’ll never stop thinking this way, maybe.
–The design of the Titans is ugly — or maybe terrifying is the better word — in a way that I’ve never seen before. Where’d you get the idea? I’ve read in an interview that you were influenced by Hell Teacher Nube.
Isayama: It might just be something like habit. Doodling as a kid I started drawing ugly stuff, and by the time I was in junior high it got so that I was drawing ugly things exclusively. Just as everyone’s handwriting is unique to them, I think my art is idiosyncratic to me in its ugliness; people got a kick out of it and it somehow caught on.
–Doesn’t that ugliness become more mild as you become better at drawing?
Isayama: I actually felt my art looked pretty good when I was starting out, but I’ve come to feel worse and worse about my art as I’ve gradually noticed how awkward it looks.
–When you say that, you’re talking about how your art looks in terms of composition, right? There are a lot of artists out there — like Daijiro Morohoshi and Hitoshi Iwaaki — with idiosyncratic styles that are compelling despite not being accurate in terms of composition.
Isayama: I was surprised to find that there are people reading Hitoshi Iwaaki who think he’s not good at drawing.
–I’d never thought of him that way until I heard other people saying it. It’s true that he does some serious corner-cutting and does things like draw characters constantly wearing the same clothes, but I think that flavor of his is actually a boon.
Isayama: That’s how I felt when I was starting out — I was scared of being a run-of-the-mill tree with run-of-the-mill leaves that’ll blend right into the forest. Better to have memorable art, even memorably bad art, and stand out.
–You’ve done better than leaves; what you have is great big flowers. I see that the critic inside of you is still nitpicking away, though, despite the overwhelming acclaim you’ve gotten.
Isayama: I need to be that way, or else I’ll lose my grip. Part of it is also that I know that nobody likes a big ego, so the self-deprecation is a pose in a way, too, I think.
–Would you say there’s some part of characters like Eren or Levi that is based on yourself?
Isayama: I don’t feel like they’re me, really. I hear other artists I know talk about how they’re putting bits of themselves into their work, but I don’t feel that way.
–Do you start with creating the world first, and then people it with characters second?
Isayama: Yes, I start with the setting, and then create the characters based what actors the setting calls for.
–Was Eren the first character you came up with?
Isayama: It was Mikasa, actually.
–Mikasa is what some might call a girl warrior character — or even a calculated attempt at creating a moé character, maybe.
Isayama: It was my plan from the start to make her the merchandise poster girl.
–Apparently you got her name from the battleship.
Isayama: I have this theory that characters named after battleships become popular, like Misato Katsuragi and Ritsuko Akagi in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Yuki Nagato from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Hence Mikasa’s name.
–Speaking of battleships, do you play Kantai Collection?
Isayama: I don’t, but I do think I’d probably get hooked on it if I tried it.
—Evangelion is something that became a huge hit because of how much the director wrote himself into the show. Were you a fan?
Isayama: I was. The way they drew the giant robots was cool in a way unlike anything that came before it. The way Hideaki Anno directed the animation of things like laser beams and stuff — the show is jam-packed with the joy of animated expression. I never could get on board with the main character’s wishy-washiness though.
–People are divided there: There are the people who manage to identify with Shinji and immerse themselves in the show, and the people who are turned off by him. Eren is a protagonist who actually develops, and a breath of fresh air in that sense. In creating his character, were you reacting against sekai-kei stories (i.e. stories in which relationship problems revolving around the protagonist turn out to bear directly upon the fate of the world)?
Isayama: Hard to say. In terms of making him a strong or weak character, I originally planned to make him weak, but I had no idea what he would be like on the inside. He’s a character I created because the story called for someone like him.
–A medium through which to explain the universe you’d made.
Isayama: You could say that. Eren is a character who I figured out as I went along. When the manga got adapted into an anime and I got to hear Eren’s voice, that helped me flesh him out, too. I mean, these Titans show up all of a sudden, and he’s not only unafraid, but decides to go kill them? That’s just not a realistic character. But then while he may say those things, you can hear a weakness in his voice actor’s voice, which makes it sound like he’s bluffing. I’ve started to like Eren as a character more and more ever since.
–Interesting — so the character came into focus for you from watching the anime adaptation?
Isayama: It did. Tetsuro Araki, the director, and Yuki Kaji, Eren’s voice actor, had a good approach to him. The anime’s impact on the manga is by no means small.
–The most popular character is Captain Levi. Did you see that coming?
Isayama: Levi is a character I accidentally created while idly doodling, and I of course knew I had something. Then I saw Watchmen, and the character Rorschach really stuck with me and I decided I wanted to try doing a similar character, so I combined him with that doodle.
–He seems to be especially popular among yaoi fangirls. That’s not something you were aiming for originally though, right?
Isayama: You know, those fans might be disappointed to hear this, but maybe I’ve got a little bit of yaoi fangirl inside me too, because something went off in my head that told me, “The yaoi fangirls are going to like this one.” I was going for something similar to Hiei in Yu Yu Hakusho, and the moment I finished his design I knew I had something good.
–I’ve heard a theory that yaoi fangirls tend to be drawn to manga with less complex universes and more developed characters, which ought to make Attack on Titan a hard sell for them. It has the characters, but the universe is so intricate.
Isayama: I take it that the idea is it’s better to leave some space in the manga for the reader to fill by herself, right? With Attack on Titan, the poor art quality is where that space is left open. The characters and universe are all already there, but there’s room for the reader to participate in a positive way by drawing it better.
–You think? I’m not sure I’d exactly agree with that. (laugh) It might be true that it’s a manga that evokes a desire to create spin-off works, though. Do you have any desire to become involved in those spin-offs yourself?
Isayama: I don’t really understand the appeal behind the dojinshi scene, and I’ve never had anything to do with that whole culture even before I got published. I suppose there was a shooter game where I thought the character design was good but the visuals just weren’t quite up to par, though, so maybe I have a little bit of the urge in me.
–So you do understand the audience’s desire to fill in the gaps of works of fiction.
Isayama: Yes, I’d say so. Kantai Collection has solid art, but it’s a video game, so I can’t view it as a visual work, and I do sometimes think about how someone could make something with CGI and give it real action. I guess they create more actively participating fans by leaving gaps like that.
–There are a lot of manga artists who got their start with dojinshi, and it’s really a very big market these days, so it’s a bit surprising to hear that you weren’t interested in it. Is that because you already had your own original universe?
Isayama: I always wanted to make my own original work, yes.
–It’s true that aside from the fake previews included at the back of every volume, there’s nothing at all meta in Attack on Titan, and you don’t produce any spin-off work yourself, either.
Isayama: Because that would be a turn-off. I don’t like having characters go around acting with the knowledge that they’re inside a manga. Maybe the readers would enjoy it, but I personally don’t want to do that stuff.
–Do you feel moé toward characters? Or are you more the type who immerses himself fully in works of fiction? One might say Mikasa occupies a position similar to that of Rei Ayanami.
Isayama: If anything, I feel moé toward kaiju like Mothra and Godzilla, or the Giant God Warriors in Nausicaa. I’ve been fixated on ugly monsters since I was little — not just kaiju, but giant things in general. You know, Tokyo Skytree, stuff like that.
–Skytree, huh? (laugh) There are some people out there with a fetish for giant women. How about you?
Isayama: I wasn’t even aware that there was such a fetish at the time, but there was a group of people into that stuff that was apparently intrigued by Attack on Titan when it was just starting, but they pretty quickly decided I wasn’t one of them and gave up on me.
–(laugh) Well, what giant fetishists are interested in is normal female bodies made giant, after all. So, is looking up at giant things from below part of what you like about them? Like, say, the scene that looks up at the Colossal Titan at the beginning of the story.
Isayama: I wish that sort of thing would happen in real life. Having a giant suddenly sprout up between buildings would be great entertainment.
–So you not only like that sort of thing, you wish it would really happen. (laugh) One design that really blew me away was the Beast Titan. How’d you come up with the idea for that?
Isayama: I’ve liked thinking about monsters since I was in preschool, and that led me to eventually take an interest in combat sports too. There’s a mixed martial artist I like named Alistair Overeem, who has this small face and developed trapezius that gives him a really intimidating physique, which is where I got the design from. And then, plus, monkeys are just scary in general. (laugh) There’s something scary about them precisely because they’re so similar to humans, I think.
–Did you see the most recent Hollywood rendition of Godzilla?
Isayama: It was terrific. Scenes like the one where the camera starts from below and starts moving up as Godzilla roars — you can tell it’s made by someone who knows what he’s doing, someone who really understands kaiju movies. That roaring scene, for example: It lasts a lot longer than I’d expected it to, and that made it just that much more effective. I learned all kinds of things from the film, I think, in terms of mise en scene among other things. Gareth Edwards is like Guillermo del Toro, the director who did Pacific Rim, in that he’s the type where the visuals come first. It’s in my personal top three movies I saw this year.
–What do you think of Shusuke Kaneko’s Heisei Gamera series?
Isayama: I’ve seen them. In fact, I got some inspiration for my man-eating giants from Gyaos in Gamera: Guardian of the Universe. It was great how they portrayed it feeding on humans — even if you’ve seen all the previous Godzilla and Mothra films, this one makes you wonder if it’s okay to show to kids.
–So you moved away from moé and toward tokusatsu.
Isayama: Right. You know how moé characters tend to have big eyes, right? When I see those eyes, I can help but wonder what their skulls must be shaped. I like my eyes small. (laugh)
–Attack on Titan is a manga that places physicality up front and center, which is unusual these days. There was something of a macho boom in shonen manga back in the 1980s, like Fist of the North Star and, for a time, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, but I feel like that trend is all but gone now.
Isayama: Yeah, the guys in Jojo really were all so beefy until part 3. For a combat sports fan, the limitations of the body are exactly what makes it interesting.
–You can see your interest in the involuntariness of the physical body and how it doesn’t do what one tells it to do in the early volumes of Attack on Titan.
Isayama: I think I did have that in mind. Like, I dream a lot about being chased by huge monsters and I need to run away, but I trip over myself and can’t. It’s something like that, think.
–And then right from the start, you have that Colossal Titan with all those muscles laid bare.
Isayama: I actually have a very clear source of inspiration for the Colossal Titan. Using this “30-Second Drawing” app made for practicing drawing human bodies, I originally made this enormous Titan that had a stone-like body with teeth growing all over it, and I wanted to use him as an iconic character for the manga, but then I decided that muscles would be cooler instead, which is how he ended up the way he did.
–Do you exercise at all yourself?
Isayama: Sometimes I’m overcome by the urge to run, so I go sprinting. I’ve got a sandbag in another room, too, which I like kicking; that’s one exercise appliance I can keep using and never get tired of. I have a chin-up bar, too.
–Going for a lean macho look, are you?
Isayama: No, I just don’t feel right without a little bit of strain under my arms… like, when I don’t feel muscle pain there, I don’t like it, because it somehow feels like I’m atrophying or something.
–And you don’t draw your manga digitally, either.
Isayama: Right, I do it by hand. It’s hard to make that leap to digital in the middle of a series. I get the feeling that I wouldn’t be able to get my art right if I were to do it digitally — I’m probably more suited for doing it by analog.
–It’s true that it’s probably easier to get the right touch for Attack on Titan by hand-drawing it.
Isayama: The printed version that people read is flat, but the original copy that I draw is actually three-dimensional, from all the digging into the thick paper and slathering on white-out that I do. I like having my paper get beat up as I go along drawing.
–Do you ever make tables of characters information to keep track?
Isayama: I know I should take note of that stuff, but I don’t.
–As you keep adding more characters, though, don’t you ever find yourself slipping up and getting them confused?
Isayama: I do tend to forget a lot of it, so I just go back and reread the manga.
–That’s something I’ve wanted to ask you about — whether you ever forget the details of this world of your own creation as you concentrate on drawing it.
Isayama: Yeah, sometimes others know it better than the creator. For me, there’s a lot of information that I haven’t drawn into the manga, including ideas that I’ve thought up but decided against using, so that’s a source of confusion.
–I see — you’re dealing with more information than just what you put onto paper. Do you ever wish you could read Attack on Titan as just another reader?
Isayama: I do — I want other people to take this universe and construct stories with it using their own approach. Stuff that I couldn’t do myself. Just as zombie movies form a genre, I wish man-eating giants could be a genre, too.
–There was a lot of zombie-themed work coming out around the time you first got published, so I’ve sometimes wondered if your manga isn’t a sort of variation on that genre. Do you like zombie stuff?
Isayama: I do, but I’m not really an expert on it. I mean, my first exposure was with Resident Evil, and while people tell me that it is inexcusable to not have seen George A. Romero’s films, I still haven’t.
–Putting the classics aside, what do you think of recent zombie movies?
Isayama: I haven’t seen World War Z. I’m more of a ghost kind of guy than a zombie guy — Paranormal Activity, that kinda stuff. Stuff that quietly creeps you out rather than making you jump in your seat. It doesn’t have to be scary, necessarily — I’d say I prefer the bizarre. The strange.
–The bizarre and strange: Exactly what’s at work in Attack on Titan. Powerful enemies appear in an age of constant strife, and somehow humanity fails to rally together to combat them. That dark side of human nature, the side that prioritizes self-interest and keeps people from coming together, seems to me to reflect the real world. Was that intentional?
Isayama: I just watch the news and listen to the film critic Tomohiro Machiyama’s commentary, but yes, that’s the idea. My earliest inspiration was the adult game Muv-Luv Alternative, in which aliens invade and humankind is on the brink of annihilation, and yet people are still at each other’s throats. It came with a thick commentary booklet. The game’s universe also had Japan emerge victorious from World War II and retain its imperial system, and then there’s the Eurasian continent already occupied by the aliens, making Japan the front line for the war of resistance.
–But it IS still a pornographic game.
Isayama: Well, there is porn in it, but I suspect that nobody’s all that interested in that part. The fetishes are a bit too esoteric — girls getting dissected by aliens, that sort of thing. (laugh) But it does have moé characters, and I think it takes its inspiration from Puella Magi Madoka Magica in how it turns into hardcore gore, with humans suddenly getting eaten and stuff. By giving it an “18 and Older” rating they have fewer restrictions to deal with and can do some pretty deep stuff with the content.
–Just like the film director Kiyoshi Kurosawa got his start doing Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno series.
Isayama: I think adult games really are serving as fertile soil for cultivating artists.
—Attack on Titan has achieved huge popularity abroad, too. Why do you think that is?
Isayama: Yes, I even got to attend events held in Singapore and Taiwan. I think the popularity has to do with the hooking premise of the story.
–So, seeing the reaction from readers outside of Japan, you did feel that the manga had a following there, then.
Isayama: Succinct stories that you can sum up in two lines have an advantage over complex plots that require close reading. It’s something that can make or break a hit series.
–You can sum up Attack on Titan in two lines?
Isayama: It’s a story about humanity on the verge of extinction due to the rise of man-eating giants.
–Okay, I see. So, back to Japan, now: Are you the type of person who reads the commentary that’s been written about your own work, on the internet and otherwise?
Isayama: I am, because I start to worry when I only ever hear good things. If I were to only ever look at what people who enjoy the manga are saying, then that feedback would be pretty biased; I try to take it all in, including the harsh stuff, and use it to make the manga better. People write stuff on the internet thinking that the artist will never ever read it, so I’d like to think those opinions are especially honest.
–Do you ever find yourself angry over the criticism?
Isayama: It happens. (laugh) It’s potent stuff, and sometimes I do feel like I overdose on it.
–So… the plot’s been getting pretty complicated lately.
Isayama: Right now I’m at the part in the story that I have the least confidence in. It was a part that I couldn’t simply skip past, but I just don’t feel sure that it’s entertaining. Until now I was always confident that I could put on an entertaining manga even without knowing much about the wider world, but drawing this arc where humans are clashing against each other and the Titans don’t even appear has made me truly realize just how slight my abilities are.
–That’s surprising to hear. Even assuming you’re coming up with the dialogue and whatnot on a chapter-to-chapter basis, you have the overall plot already figured out, so I didn’t think it would be as tough as coming up with a stand-alone story where you have to figure it all out from square one.
Isayama: I have the overall frame figured out, but the details are wide open, so it’s pretty close to starting from square one.
–Is depicting political shifts what’s so difficult?
Isayama: The problem is the lack of any backbone to fall back on when creating an entire historical framework.
–Are you constantly worrying about things as you go along creating the manga?
Isayama: Well, each arc is generally four volumes long, with each arc basically already planned out, and whenever I start onto a new arc I’m pretty much always nervous and unsure that I’ll be able to pull it off. I’ve always managed to get through it in the end, but this time I’m panicking that maybe it won’t work this time.
–Well, I’ve really been enjoying reading the latest chapters, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next. Thank you for your time today. ♦