After over a decade of shocking plot twists and edge-of-your-seat mysteries, it was announced in the April 2021 issue of Bessatsu Shounen Magazine that the final chapter of the record-breaking fantasy series Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan) would be released in the May issue. Author Hajime Isayama and editor Shintarou Kawakubo sat down with us in June 2017 to discuss the origin of the manga and what lies at its core. Take a look back at the entire journey in this reprint of the interview originally from vol. 42 of Febri.
“I’d say it was hatred”
I’d like to start by looking back on how Attack on Titan came into existence. How did you first conceive of the titans?
Isayama: As far as I can remember, I’ve liked giant creatures since I was in kindergarten and I spent all my time back then drawing dinosaurs. But as much as I enjoyed drawing these gigantic things, I simultaneously felt this fear of them. In Jurassic Park, there’s a really intense scene when a guy runs away from a dinosaur and hides in a bathroom, but the dinosaur just destroys the bathroom and gobbles him up, and I remember seeing that and being scared but also finding it strangely funny, in a way.
And that dinosaur eventually morphed into a titan?
Isayama: Yes. A big part of why the dinosaur turned into titans is because of an adventure video game I love called Muv Luv Alternative. In the game, humanity has been driven to the brink of extinction by a huge extraterrestrial lifeform called BETA, and I found the concept of being hunted down by an unknown creature to be both ominous and thrilling. Additionally, that humanity had already been reduced to critically endangered status in and of itself was intriguing. So that was one of the starting points for the world where humans are hunted by titans.
Initially, you first drew a sixty-five-page Attack on Titan one-shot and brought that to Kodansha, right?
Isayama: Correct. It just felt like part of the job hunt to me. That was when I met Mr. Kawakubo.
Kawakubo: I finally appeared in the story [laughter]. I was the one who accepted the Attack on Titan one-shot. At that point, Mr. Isayama was going to a technical college in Fukuoka, and he was in a program there that required submitting a piece to a Tokyo publisher.
Isayama: Right, since it was cheaper to go as a group, some classmates and I got together and made this sort of tour, where we went to Tokyo and stopped at several publishers.
Mr. Kawakubo, what was your impression of Mr. Isayama when he was a student back then?
Kawakubo: Let’s see… I can’t remember much in the way of what I thought of him personally [laughter]. I’d even say he hasn’t changed much since then. He’s usually pretty quiet, definitely when he’s in public, but even when it’s just the two of us, he doesn’t say much. He’s always been well-mannered, that’s one thing that hasn’t changed about him at all.
Okay, then, Mr. Isayama, what was your impression of Mr. Kawakubo?
Isayama: “Man, he’s young.”
Kawakubo: It was my first year with Kodansha.
Isayama: And also, “He looks really tired.”
Kawakubo: [Laughter] Sometimes he would get on the same elevator as me in the building as I was on my way to work. I knew that he was the guy who had submitted a one-shot, but I didn’t actually know him at all. You could say I was able to see his true form [laughter].
Isayama: Basically, Mr. Kawakubo and I both have low blood pressure.
I’m surprised that the both of you are so chill and in-sync with each other, despite the series being so intense. Were you caught off guard when Mr. Isayama submitted Attack on Titan?
Kawakubo: I remember it well, the story itself was intriguing, but more than that, you could feel a sort of energy in the drawings. Given that he was a student at a technical school, there was no comparing him to a professional mangaka, but there was something grabbing at your emotions from every page, block, and line. This may sound like an exaggeration but, I’d say it was hatred. It left a strong impression on me.
So, it wasn’t so much the concept of ‘titans,’ as it was the images.
Kawakubo: Yes. It was still my first year since entering the company, and I had only been assigned to the editorial department that June. Mr. Isayama approached us with his one-shot in July, so I hadn’t been reading manga as a professional editor for even two months at that point. I hadn’t gotten to the level where I could analyze or appraise a manga as an editor, and that is why I think perhaps I was right on the money when I felt a vague sense of hatred in the artwork.
Three years would pass before Attack on Titan would be serialized in your magazine. What did you do during that time?
Isayama: Mr. Kawakubo told me to try winning the (Weekly Shōnen Magazine) Rookie Award, so I temporarily stopped working on Attack on Titan and made an entirely separate story.
Kawakubo: His Attack on Titan one-shot first got an honorable mention award in the monthly Manga Grand Prix held by the magazine’s editorial department, and I was the one overseeing the Grand Prix. Still, though, since it’s tradition to serialize the winner of the Rookie Award in the magazine, I told him to set that as his goal.
And that was why you wrote Heart Break One and orz. Both of them won the Rookie Award. And once you had those wins under your belt, you were able to reach your goal of being serialized.
Isayama: According to my memory, though, the story that was serialized had been pushed to be serialized even before it got the award, right?
Kawakubo: When orz was completed, I was so sure that it would win an award that I suggested we start thinking about plans to serialize even before the results were announced.
And were those plans to serialize for Attack on Titan?
Isayama: No, I had initially made around three plots for completely separate works. You could say I had totally forgotten about that. As far as I was concerned, that was done with once I had approached Kodansha. But when I was talking with Mr. Kawakubo about the three new plots I had in the works, he asked if I’d want Attack on Titan serialized, and then I remembered it after all that time.
What made you choose Attack on Titan, Mr. Kawakubo?
Kawakubo: Hmm, I wonder. It wasn’t as if I thought the new plots Mr. Isayama suggested were bad. I thought they were quite interesting, but for some reason, once I had read it, I couldn’t get Attack on Titan out of my head. When I asked if there were any hidden backstories that could be serialized, he said he had actually been thinking about just that and presented me a few scenes right there on the spot. I requested then that we proceed with that.
Isayama: After I had that discussion with Mr. Kawakubo, I came up with even more scenes on the train ride home. What those scenes expanded into is the current Attack on Titan.
“I was really bad at drawing the characters”
Now that the series has been serialized for eight years, has anything changed from what you wanted to depict at the beginning and what it is now?
Isayama: In the beginning, what appealed to me was this framework of humanity being hunted to near extinction by man-eating titans. Like something out of The Village or The Mist. That, and since I’m a fan of mixed martial arts, I also wanted to draw the titans in hand-to-hand combat with each other. And not like stage combat you’d see in professional wrestling or Ultraman, either —I wanted to draw honest-to-god fights using logical moves you could kill someone with. But then, once I had drawn a few scenes like that and I got the urge out of my system, I realized I didn’t actually want to do those all that much [laughter].
[Laughter] So then it wasn’t the human characters but the titans that were the focus of the ideas in your head?
Isayama: Exactly. To be honest, I hadn’t given the character all that much thought. Now, though, Eren, Mikasa, and Armin basically are Attack on Titan, so at some point I feel that the characters got bigger than the titans.
Why was it that you didn’t think the characters would be very important?
Isayama: It wasn’t so much that I didn’t think they were important, as much as I was really bad at drawing them in the beginning, and I realized that they were my weak point. Of course, I sensed that I needed to make likeable characters, but never did I think that they’d grow into the characters they are now. I’ve learned to like drawing characters while drawing Eren and his friends, and now I don’t feel like I’m so terrible at it.
Since Mr. Kawakubo is in charge of overseeing the series, what sort of influence does he have over it?
Isayama: He basically asks a lot of questions about the plot, rough drafts, and whatnot that I submit, and then after that, it’s a lot of uncovering points and problems that I hadn’t thought all the way through. Usually, once I finish thinking of a story, I’m overconfident in myself, so he’ll point out things that don’t make sense [laughter]. But then a day will go by and I’ll re-read it and think, “Oh, he’s right.” That’s why now I don’t put a lot of trust into my feelings immediately after I’ve drawn something. I’d argue that an author who does that has too much confidence in themselves is extremely out of touch with their readers.
Kawakubo: I’m not sure this is related, but I’m currently reading this book called Haruki Murakami: A Long, Long Interview in which Mieko Kawakami interviews Haruki Murakami, and in it, Murakami says that right after you finish writing a novel, you feel like your brain is overstimulated and you need a cooling down period in order to make level-headed decisions. As soon as I read that, then I thought of Mr. Isayama.
Has something like that happened to you?
Kawakubo: Sometimes I’ll listen to his self-evaluation regarding a draft, you know, if he’s satisfied with it or not. When we do this, most of the time, he gives me an “I’m not sure, right now.” I usually do a bit of planning beforehand, so I’ll point out some things I’ve noticed or stuff I want to say, and regardless of whether he agrees with me or not at that moment, he’ll say, “I understand completely what you’re getting at. I’ll think over what I’ll need to do after I get home.” Afterwards, when he reviews the rough draft that came up, sometimes he reflects on why I pointed it out, and other times he’ll completely ignore it. I leave it all up to his discretion.
Would you say, then, that the story has changed significantly based on Mr. Kawakubo’s opinions?
Isayama: I try to forget the more traumatic memories as quick as I can [laughter], but he’s probably been the source of several changes, my memory of them is just faint.
Kawakubo: I forget things quickly, too, so I can’t say for sure, either, but up until volume four or five, I recall there being some drafts that I half- or completely rejected. We were both rookies back then and in a phase of desperately wanting to be qualified professionals, so we went through a lot of ups and downs together. Nowadays, there might be little things, but rarely any big changes.
Isayama: Oh, there was one recently. I changed the structure of the conclusion of volume twenty-two significantly based on his instructions. In the first bad rough draft, I completely left out what Eren’s main motivation was. Consequently, by re-establishing it like Mr. Kawakubo told me to, I came to understand on my own and I arrived at last at what Eren’s existence meant.
“I think it’s neat that Levi is this cocky little man”
Since you’ve worked with so many mangaka, Mr. Kawakubo, what would you say is unique about Mr. Isayama?
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Interviewer/Author: Daisuke Okamoto
Photography: Naoki Yukioka
Translation: Matthias Hirsh
Interview was conducted in Japanese and has been edited for clarity.
Images ©Hajime Isayama/Kodansha