He was rejected by various publishers because his drawings 'were ugly.' Today his manga 'Attack on Titan' is one of the most popular in the world

April 9, 2021
10 min read

This article was translated from our Spanish edition using AI technologies. Errors may exist due to this process.

This story originally appeared on Cine Premiere

As you read these lines, a story that has gained worldwide popularity and recognition over the past decade is coming to an end. Today, with the publication of episode 139 of the Attack on Titan ( Shingeki no Kyojin ) manga, eleven years and 34 volumes of surprising twists, endearing characters and a world that raised metaphors about war, loss and freedom are closed.

For a month, fans filled social networks and their favorite digital meeting places with compilation videos, cosplays , emotional messages, memes, fan arts , analyzes and collages of the most epic panels in preparation for the farewell. Mexican artist Tatería even dedicated a mural to the series that went viral online.

In commemoration of this milestone, we review the origins of Hajime Isayama’s acclaimed manga and what this says about the success of a work that enters the list of the most memorable of recent times.

Image: Via Cine Premiere

An effective hook

Much of the appeal of Attack on Titan lies in its story: an identifiable conflict and subplots that enrich the main action, a fantasy world with precise rules and solid cohesion, as well as an effective approach that begins in media res , that is, at the midpoint of the entire argument.

The hook, in its debut, was simple, but with force and dramatic impact. The remnants of humanity, after being on the brink of extinction, live in a walled city that prevents the entry of the titans, human-eating humanoids who appeared out of nowhere. Peace has reigned for a hundred years, but one morning thunder shakes heaven and earth; then a titan taller than any other ever seen emerges above the wall. That threat that shakes their world, reminds humanity that lives in fear and that those walls were actually cages.

“I wanted to create something short, simple and interesting when someone saw it. Making it complicated would alienate people, “says Hajime Isayama in Attack on Titan Guidebook: Inside & Outside . Thinking about how difficult it was to get people to read his lengthy first chapter, he focused on an event that would attract attention from the very first pages. Thus was born the iconic image of the Colossal Titan, seen from a low angle, looming over the wall.

What are the Titans and where do they come from? How to defend yourself against such a threat? What to do with hatred after being the victim of a tragedy? These questions raised the underlying mysteries to continue. They were resolved little by little, with new questions before each answer, until the turn that revolutionized the plot to one focused on a long-standing war between two nations and its impact on the character of the characters, as well as on the motivations for their actions.

Image: Via Cine Premiere

An intimate story

Isayama has been a diligent author with his work. Despite his withdrawn personality, he did not stop fighting for an opportunity. In 2006, when she was just 20 years old, she came to Tokyo with the dream of becoming a mangaka , although, by her own admission, she always struggled on the plane of drawing, which was one of her biggest hobbies. He thought that his work lacked the necessary quality by the standards of the medium, a self-criticism that was supported by multiple publishers.

“I visited many companies. They liked my story, but they said the quality of the drawing was poor. I was going to give up because there are a lot of people who want to become manga artists. I didn’t think I could become one of the greats, ”Isayama confessed in an interview with the   BBC .

When a Kōdansha editor finally expressed interest in Attack on Titan , Isayama had such low self-esteem that he thought, “What’s wrong with this guy?”

The themes within the work have deep ties to his own biography and perhaps that emotional honesty facilitated identification with readers. In an interview with NHK , the author revealed that his childhood harbored feelings of inferiority with respect to his environment: so much physical, because of the mountains that surrounded Hita, the town where he grew up, that they made him wonder what lay beyond them; as social, as he often lost skills or failed to demonstrate his skills. A desire to change his way of being and thinking would motivate him to leave Ōita prefecture: “It was not ambition that drove me. I felt inferiority, a certain frustration, ”he recalls .

The first conceptual influence for the manga ( via ) was Muv Luv Alternative , an adult visual novel about an alien invasion that nearly wiped out humanity. Then his bad experiences in Tokyo with drunk and angry customers in an internet cafe where he worked at dawn would be added. Isayama thought how terrifying it was to be in front of someone with whom it was impossible to communicate and that idea encouraged the creation of the Titans.

In interviews for Kōdansha and Kaboom magazine in 2013, he recounted that early designs were inspired by a zombie Mona Lisa coming out of the painting to eat people in the horror manga Cloud, the Master of Hell ( Jigoku Sensei Cloud ). Later, monsters like Godzilla, Mothra and Gamera and Japanese horror cinema, would add to their influences.

The grotesque and the unusual are perceived as a nodal point in the attractiveness of the work:

“To draw the titans I choose expressions that cause discomfort. The expression of the titans is not suitable for every situation, for example, from when they find one to they kill him, he does not stop smiling. I chose to do it this way to produce the most unpleasant sensation possible, ”he explained.

These visual references mixed with their experiences, built a world abundant in details that kept the fandom committed to the liberation story of Eren, Mikasa and Armin, outlined with dramatic undertones that strengthened its appeal. The care that the author and publisher put into the story is reaffirmed in the words of the editor Back, who stated in Attack on Titan Guidebook : “Isayama listens to every opinion before deciding. There are countless suggestions and he listens to all of them. Thus, it takes a position and builds around everyone’s proposals. Attack on Titan is not only yours, many people have influenced Kōdansha ”.

That was the power of a creative story, balanced between what it showed and what it didn’t show, between depth and spectacular action, that paid off for his enthusiasm.

Image: Via Cine Premiere

Japanese pop culture titans

The economic factor also played an important role. When something accumulates success, the cultural industries give it more exposure, translating it into greater prestige and scope. The manga debuted in September 2009 in Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine . From the beginning it had a successful reception, managing to sell almost 3.8 million copies by the end of 2011, as recorded by Oricon . In 2013, a peak of nearly 16 million copies sold earned Kōdansha its first profit increase in 18 years, ANN reported.

That rebound was fueled by the premiere of the anime’s first season on NHK television in April of that year. The adaptation catapulted Attack on Titan as a worldwide phenomenon, by making its plot available to an international audience, even those who did not consume anime. Two months later, the Japanese publisher printed an additional 8 million copies to meet the demand for the, until then, 10 compiled volumes.

The franchise expanded to numerous spin-offs , light novels, video games, live action films , and merchandise. Although sales have declined since then, largely due to increased digital consumption, Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine announced on Twitter in December 2019 that the manga had surpassed 100 million copies in global circulation, ranking in the Top 20 of the best-selling manga sagas of all time. His honors include the Kōdansha Award in the shōnen category in 2011 and nominations for awards such as the Manga Taishō and the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Award.

“There is nothing more valuable than people being able to share emotions, which cannot be expressed in words, thanks to a story. It made us happy to feel this way together with our readers and partners through Attack on Titan . Although the series came to an end, these memories will always remain warm in our hearts. Thanks for reading us ”, wrote the Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine editorial department about the ending.

Today, the end point of this story is written as successful as it is memorable. However, Shingeki no Kyojin will still live. On the one hand, in the projects that remain, such as the conclusion of the last season of its anime adaptation or in the Hollywood live action film by Warner. On the other, and more importantly, in the memory of his followers: those from the beginning, those who caught up and those who are still missing. Because good stories are known to be timeless.