The lightning career of Attack on Titan creator Isayama Hajime

May 3rd, 2014 by

Isayama Hajime’s first ongoing serial manga, Attack on Titan, is one of the biggest hits in manga of recent years. As of April 2014, 36 million copies were sold. An anime adaptation by Wit Studio and Production I.G. just finished airing its first season in September 2013.

Attack on Titan, which was serialized in Kodansha’s Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine since 2009, may only be Isayama’s first serialized manga, it already spawned a massive multinational media franchise. Besides the manga and anime, there have been several spin-off manga series, a light novel series, several visual novels, a video game and there’s also a live action movie in the works.

Obviously, Isayama, born in 1986 in Japan’s Ōita Prefecture in Ōyama, Hita, is very talented even despite the some-what crude drawings in Attack on Titan (that improved in later chapters). He admits he’s heavily influenced by ARMS, which in turn is heavily influenced by Alice in Wonderland. Attack on Titan isn’t really his first manga, but it is the first that got picked up by the big manga magazines (Kodansha, the publisher of Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine, is one of the biggest in Japan). In the two years between Isayama’s so-called one-shot of Attack on Titan – basically a pilot episode of the series – and its incredibly succesful serialization that started in 2009, Isayama made orz and Heart Break One, of which orz was chosen as a selected work in the 81st Weekly Shōnen Magazine Freshman Manga Award.

In the above video you can see a lot of Isayama’s artwork. It’s worth a look even if you can’t understand the Japanese audio (there’s no translation). Having read all of the manga myself, I have to say I really like Isayama’s intense and expressive drawing style. The quality of the artwork is just a wee bit above average and not very precise, nor particulary detailed. But it always gets the point across, making an epic story alive and jump off the pages. I’d argue – and with me several other critics – that Attack on Titan wouldn’t nearly be so succesful if it was cleanly drawn. You just rush through the manga, finishing something like 200 pages in what seems to be just a few minutes. And then you curse the fact you’ve haven’t ordered the next volume yet.

So if it’s not the artwork, which Isayama himself describes as that of a fledging, especially if you compare it to that of someone like Otomo Katsuhiro, who made Akira, what makes Isayama’s work so brilliant it’s sold over 36 million copies in hardly five years time?

Attack on Titan is a compelling multi-layered coming-of-age story, with its theme of hopelessness echo’ing what many young people worldwide are feeling right now. Personally I think it’s a wonderfully detailed detective story, which happens to feature man-eating giants, with a strong plot that doesn’t cheat to get where it wants to go. In fact, if you re-read the manga, you’ll notice that Isayama is dropping hints which you’ll have probably missed the first time.

It’s known Isayama really did think out in advance what ‘truths’ are revealed in what manga volume and what the ending would look like – he’d kill off all his characters but now he’s backtracking on that idea to spare his millions of fans. It’s very welcome to see an author of a manga this prepared, compared to mangaka and story writers in general who seemingly only think a few chapters ahead. To me, this quality combined with Isayama’s overall story-telling techniques makes him one of the most promising young manga-artists of recent years.

Ennio Wolsink is a Dutch ICT-entrepreneur, avid manga reader, anime watcher, Karate black belt and Japanese in spirit. He dreams of his own manga/anime productions.

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