The blockbuster show has mirrored the highs — and lows — of anime’s popularity
Attack on Titan’s opening sequence is one of serene terror: As geese fly high above a sun-soaked rustic town, a gargantuan humanoid figure peeks over the walls with bare, musculature and blank expression. “That day, humanity remembered the terror of being ruled by them,” we’re told through narration, setting up a series permeated by habitual anxiety and prevailing horror. Soon after, Linked Horizon’s “Guren no Yumiya,” an opening theme that will swiftly become iconic in the anime fandom, kicks in and Attack on Titan begins.
To call Attack on Titan a major success is an understatement in every sense of the word. Having recently wrapped up the second part of its Final Season (the third, theoretically conclusive part, is set to air in 2023), the team at Wit Studio spun Hajime Isayama’s controversial-but-uber-popular manga into an anime sensation. But the series is more than just a hit; it’s come to represent the anime industry itself, a business currently swelling and gaining more worldwide notoriety than ever before.
To understand Attack on Titan’s position as a powerhouse in the current anime arms race — a race conducted among streaming services and distributors vying for profit and, often more important, the goodwill of a dedicated, expanding fanbase — one has to look back to anime’s emergence through the aughts. In the late 1990s, series like Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z had proven that anime could not only be popular but lucrative for franchising. It became a part of the general entertainment diet in America, a drastic change from the decades prior, where its presence was often haphazard and surrounded by negative stereotypes about imported Japanese media and the people that consumed it.
By the turn of the millennium, the anime increased availability on television and on home video ensured that an entire generation was, at the very least, aware of it, if not devoted to it. Meanwhile, as American comic book publishers attempted to come back from the disastrous ’90s, manga publishers found a strong foothold in the market. This would last until the late ’00s, when, coinciding at least partially with a devastating global recession, the bubble seemed to burst. Companies like Central Park Media dissolved, Viz Media and other prominent businesses restructured, and anime crashed. Symbolically, Cartoon Network’s Toonami block would end its initial run in 2008, having begun its life as a harbinger of anime’s American potential and ending as a sign of its collapse.
Image: Toei Animation Image: The Pokémon Company/YouTube Bandai Namco
In the following years, sites like Funimation would emerge as a small group of survivors and Crunchyroll, which began its life as a host of pirated anime, would make legitimate deals with studios and networks to release titles in a fashion that played to the interests of fans. No longer would anime arrive in America on a “Well, if it gets big enough, maybe someone will buy it later” process. Fans could now watch it soon after its premiere in Japan, enabling instant global conversation, burgeoning community, simultaneous debate, and social media readiness. Attack on Titan emerged from the evolving system.
If there’s any question of the show’s significance, just Google “Attack on Titan got me back into anime.” One of the reasons why kids and teens flocked to anime like Dragon Ball Z, Yu Yu Hakusho, and various Gundam series a decade earlier was because it felt like those shows didn’t play by the rules of the traditional cartoons they’d grown up with. These shows were violent, rife with a kind of narrative continuity that forced you to pay attention. They were a breeding ground for fan theories and schoolyard disputes: “Could Goku beat The Hulk?” Attack on Titan revived those feelings for many, with the sight of massive creatures chomping down on helpless humans. The constant angst of the characters unleashed a show that was both effortlessly bingeable and tailor-made for weekly water cooler conversations.
It escaped the juvenile marks that culture critics had been quick to sling at anime around 2001. The story, focused on a group of soldiers known as the Survey Corps who attempt to both study and eliminate the titular “monsters,” was easy to recommend without hesitation, even to those who seemingly shied away from anime. The gruesomeness of its constant doomsday scenarios were tempered by a ceaselessly engaging story, one that knew exactly when to twist the plot and twist the knife. Plus, coming on the heels of a zombie media explosion, Attack on Titan could simply be the next step for those finished with the latest season of The Walking Dead and eager for another fix when it came to shuffling beasts consuming screeching humans.
Image: Wit Studio
Aiding this propagation was Attack on Titan’s availability. Crunchyroll and Funimation were quick to acquire their respective rights for streaming the series, and it was an instant success. The publisher of the Attack on Titan manga, Kodansha, claimed at the time that the anime led to their first increase in both revenue and profit in 19 years. Hulu, Amazon Prime, a reawakened Toonami, and Netflix all eventually picked up the series, leading to a landscape where Attack on Titan was within in constant reach, the very definition of what makes streaming services thrive in the first place. One could approach it on their own terms at any time, regardless of their prior relationship with anime.
By some 2021 metrics, Attack on Titan attracted almost 60 times the amount of interest of an average series on Netflix, and was the most in-demand show on the streamer in the United States. It wasn’t the only anime series to attain such a cross-streaming platform triumph and it would be remiss to blame anime’s veritable “rebirth” in America solely on it. Series like My Hero Academia and Demon Slayer have become mega-hits around the same time period. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and One Punch Man delighted in their singular creativity. Even legendary series like One Piece, formerly the victim of what can only be described as a tragedy of misguided localization, has gained rampant momentum in the West and reversed its destiny here.
Today, Attack on Titan is a major brand in an industry swimming in them. But it still stands out. Merchandise for the show is copiously available at retailers like Hot Topic and it’s inspired tons of cosplay, with both the aforementioned Colossal Titan and the military-inspired uniform of the Survey Corps being popular choices. “Guren no Yumiya” blared from both cover bands and loud speakers alike at anime conventions. The Corps Dance Crew produces a hip hop-inspired stage show for it at Anime Expo 2014 and a rough video of it earns over a million views. The premiere of Part 2 of the Final Season crashed Crunchyroll. It’s no surprise that “finding the next Attack on Titan” became a priority, and it’s hard not to see Netflix’s recent investment in bloody productions like Baki, Castlevania, Kengan Ashura, and The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf as at least partial attempts to form a Venn diagram with Titan fans.
Image: MAPPA Image: MAPPA Image: Wit Studio Image: MAPPA
But even as Attack on Titan represents anime’s broadening appeal, it also reveals one of the industry’s rampant downsides. At the end of season 3, production of the show shifted from Wit Studio, with the show’s producers alleging that it was due to a need to “escalate” the series further as it barreled toward its dramatic conclusion. Wit would be unable to manage it, and many other anime studios turned down the idea. In an industry marked by overwork and underpay, the prospect of handling one of the most popular franchises of any kind in the world can seem like a nightmare prospect. Eventually, MAPPA, a studio currently renowned for its beautiful work on shows like Jujutsu Kaisen and currently developing another “Maybe the next Attack on Titan” anime with Chainsaw Man, took up the series. But even they haven’t been free from allegations of a miserable work environment, claims the studio vehemently denied.
There’s also the issue of fascist imagery and narrative points in the series, leading fans and anime writers to constantly attempt to unpack the intentions of the author, the unavoidable weight of history, and the implications as they connect and differ across countries. Such wariness of themes and ramifications is not alone in the medium — the Buddhist manji swastika symbol appears heavily in the series Tokyo Revengers, a show about gangs of street youths, but its uncomfortable similarity to the Nazi swastika led to its censorship when released on Crunchyroll. With inclusivity as a goal, fans demanding accuracy to the aim of the original work, and an audience that studios and distributors see as potentially indefinitely expanding, these kinds of cultural debates and decisions are inevitable as we struggle with the question “What does this mean, and to whom?”
Fans are staring down yet another wait for new episodes of Attack on Titan. The wait for the final chunk of the Final Season is nothing new to fans — people that began watching the series with season 1 had to wait four years for season 2. And in the meantime, more people will discover a show that’s escaped the bounds of the anime fandom and has effects that are being discussed on a wide cultural one. Attack on Titan is the kind of show that most studios can only dream of and as it’s gained steam, it’s shown us that anime is no longer the subject of niche internet forums and video store corners. It’s decidedly mainstream. And most notably, its omnipresence means that even the best anime deserves to be discussed and dissected, with both the good and the questionable laid out in the open.