Katsuhiko Kitada, Ryotaro Makihara and George Wada talk Titans
The cheering shakes the roof of the ExCel Centre. It’s October 2013, we’re at MCM London Comic Con, and the audience at the Attack on Titan panel has just been asked if they’d like a second season. The three Japanese guests – producer George Wada and animators/directors Katsuhiko Kitada and Ryotaro Makihara – have explained that it’s a back-breaking job for them. But the fanbase is insatiable: We want Titan! “I can’t make any promises, but we’d like to make (a second series) in the not too distant future,” Wada concedes. Another cheer that’s, well, titanic.
If you haven’t heard of Titan, it’s set on a far-future world. Humanity cowers from the Titans, massive repulsive humanoids with a terrible taste for manflesh. Most people rely on towering walls meant to keep the Titans out. (Warning: They don’t always work.)
A group of youngsters, some with traumatic first-hand experience of the Titans, join a militia determined to lay the giants low. Rather than build robots (wrong anime), they’ve adapted the approach of Tarzan and Spider-Man. That means lots of rope-swinging, swordwork and gymnastic flying battles through every conceivable plane. There may be other ways to fight the Titans, but you’ll have to find that out for yourself.
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The set-up has elements of Japan’s classic monster movies, Godzilla’s children, as lovingly homaged in Pacific Rim. Attack on Titan has also been compared to a zombie apocalypse, with zombies huge enough to swallow you in a gulp. “I think it’s in the same vein as kaiju (monster) or zombie movies, but I think it deals with more contemporary issues,” says Wada. “My personal opinion is it’s the idea of being scared of not understanding what other people are thinking. So it’s philosophical zombies! A lot of Titans look like they’re smiling, or they look sad, but the fear comes from not understanding what those expressions mean.”
Attack on Titan is based on a manga by Hajime Isayama, which began in 2009 and quickly became one of Japan’s front-line strips. It’s being developed as a live-action Japanese film, but the anime has already proved itself as a vital part of the franchise, swelling the manga’s already stellar sales. By June 2013, the strip was selling over 20 million copies in Japan alone.
“We have been very faithful to the manga, but it looks different; there’s a difference in the expression of the manga and the anime,” Wada says of the adaptation. For example, the anime’s human world has a European slant; the staff studied material from Germany during production.
Two priorities in executing the show were the Titans themselves, and the rope-swinging combat scenes. Separate teams and supervisors were set up to handle each. The Titans were the responsibility of Takaaki Chiba, a veteran animator and animation director, while the aerial combat was handled by Arifumi Imai and Yasuyuki Ebara. “They’re both quite young,” comments Kitada of the pair. “They polished their skills on Guilty Crown and now they’ve taken off.” More on that Guilty Crown connection below.
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The anime Titan also made its mark in its magnificently badass title sequence, as performed by the group Linked Horizon (aka Sound Horizon). The hyped-up titles went viral in online fan parodies, which used the Titan sequence as a template to buff up everything from Doctor Who to Miffy the Rabbit (we love the Magica Madokas). The anime team seem nonplussed when asked for a comment. “We were very surprised!” is all they say. However, they confirm in the public Q&A that yes, they’ve seen the spoofs and were gratified to be “memed” worldwide. As of writing, we’re waiting for a fan to jazz up windy piers and sticks of rock for the quintessential British take: Attack on Brighton.
Titan is one of the first productions of a new anime outfit, the WIT studio, established in June 2012. Before WIT was WIT, it had been “Studio 6” of Production I.G., home of Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor. Wada explains, “I was talking with Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, the president of I.G, and we wanted to be able to produce higher-quality work, to be a company in our own right. With regards to what we create, WIT is completely independent.” The WIT name is made up from the initials of its founders, Wada, Ishikawa and Nakatake Tetsuya. (Production I.G was similarly named for its founders, Ishikawa and Takayuki Goto.)
For an idea of where WIT comes from, watch the series Guilty Crown, now available from Manga Entertainment. The SF adventure was made by the Studio 6 team, shortly before they gained their independence. Both it and Titan had the same director, Tetsuro Araki, who’d previously helmed Death Note and High School of the Dead. “In the process of making Guilty Crown, we did lots of marketing work, to find out what kind of anime was actually popular,” says Wada. “And in that process, Araki realised that no matter what kind of marketing you do, what’s important is doing what you want to do, and that was his passion. I think that in Attack on Titan, the rage the hero Eren feels is Araki’s rage!”
Katsuhiko Kitada also came onto Titan because of passion. “At university, I made a clay animation, and it was so much fun that I decided I wanted to go into animation. The only real way to make a living in animation in Japan is to go into commercial anime. For five years, I worked with Xebec (a subsidiary of Production I.G), then I went freelance as an animator. I took part in various projects, and then was invited onto Guilty Crown.” On Attack on Titan, Kitada served in multiple capacities, including Animation Director on two episodes.
The standalone WIT studio is compact. There are thirteen regular employees, plus about forty freelancers. Other studios pitch in for in-betweening and the last stages of production. Although Attack on Titan has been an ideal vehicle to draw attention to the studio, the anime industry is often said to be perilous, with a deeply uncertain future. “I don’t think it’ll be easy,” says Wada. Kitada says, “I don’t really think about the economic side of things. I do it because I love it, and I leave the future up to the managers. All I can do is think about how to express what I want to express on screen. If it all goes downhill, I don’t know what I’d do!”
Attack on Titan was made at the same time as another WIT production, a stand-alone short film called Hal. Made for cinemas, it’s had screenings at Edinburgh, Leeds and London. Whereas Attack on Titan (the anime and manga) was for boys, Hal is targeted at teen girls. “In Japan, we have a tradition of sci-fi for teenagers, for example The Girl who Leapt through Time, and the intention was for Hal to be in that tradition,” says Makihara.
With Hal and Titan as calling cards, WIT is already planning its next moves. There’ll be more series (for teen boys) and films (full-length next time; Wada mentions he’d have liked Hal to run ninety minutes). Beyond that, who knows? Hal and Titan are linked by their weighty themes of suffering and endurance, so we could be in for heavy-duty anime to come. But the studio must also heed the cries of the world audience. More Titans, more Titans! Thanks to its hit debut, WIT has sparked a new global appetite for human flesh and blood.
A slightly different version of this article first appeared in MyM Magazine. Attack on Titan is forthcoming from Manga Entertainment in September.