January 30, 2014 7:00 pm JST

'Attack on Titan' creator sees bright future for Japan's anime industry

KUMIKO SEZAKI, Nikkei staff writer

TOKYO -- If you believe the rumors, Japan's anime industry is fading fast, losing ground to offerings from South Korea and Southeast Asian countries. But Joji Wada begs to differ.     

     The 35-year-old Wada, president of anime production company Wit Studio, was responsible for turning the "Shingeki no Kyojin" manga series into a hit TV show of the same name. Known in English as "Attack on Titan," the anime aired in Japan for the first time last year and has already become available in nearly 30 countries and regions worldwide, picking up a massive and devoted fan base along the way. 

     Wada recently talked with The Nikkei about the show's appeal and what Japan's anime industry as a whole can offer global audiences.

     Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What aspect of the original manga did you like?

A: In the story, humans live in a society surrounded by walls. The main character begins to wonder about his surroundings, but just as he is about to see the outside world, humans are attacked by the Titans. I think this story speaks to the hearts of people from all generations, both in Japan and in other countries. The main character's situation resembles that which young Japanese people or U.S. and European businessmen find themselves in now. The former is protected by the "wall" of university, but after graduation, they are suddenly thrown into a tough reality in which there is no more lifetime employment. The latter is forced to compete in the dog-eat-dog world of global society. This is a story everyone can relate to. Personally, I felt the story was directly linked to the circumstance I was in, as I had just left a company and started my own.

Q: What challenges did you face in terms of graphics?

A: The main feature of the animated version of "Attack on Titan" is the depiction of fast movements. For example, boys wearing Three Dimensional Maneuver Gear, equipment used to fight against the Titans, dart around the town and through the woods. The key element in realizing that effect was the digital drawing of the characters using tablet computers instead of pencil and paper. The work efficiency improved dramatically by doing everything in digital form, and the collaboration between animators, who draw the image, and the CG team, responsible for CG processing, helped create a new style of graphics.

 Q: How are the overseas responses?

A: Last year, I went to anime festivals in the U.S., the U.K. and Singapore and was surprised to see that so many young people were dressed in 3-D maneuvering gear costumes. Some responses I received were also unexpected. For example, in the U.S., people traditionally love a superwoman-type character like the one played by Milla Jovovich in the "Biohazard", also known as "Resident Evil," movie series and they see Mikasa, a friend of the main character, as a modernized or updated new heroine. One person even said to me: "It's a new zombie movie, isn't it?" 

     We did not think ahead and intentionally create the anime in a way that would make it appealing to audiences overseas. It is the result of taking what we felt was interesting and turning it into an anime. That said, we have been absorbing American culture naturally since childhood. Using the sensibility that we have acquired, I believe we can create works that are unique to Japan and at the same time in tune with a global audience.

Q: Some people say that Japanese TV anime shows are losing competitiveness now that those made in South Korea and other Asian countries are gaining momentum. What is your take on that?

A: South Korean companies create animations with global audiences, particularly those in the U.S., in mind from the beginning. I think that is a wonderful thing. But I also believe that closely examining what we feel in Japan and the world of the Japanese language will lead us to create new, original works.

"Attack on Titan" features neither the fancy machines nor pretty girls that are so popular with anime fans, and it has cruel scenes. It goes against the "formula for a hit show" in the anime industry, but the never-before-seen graphics and storyline have won over many fans. Furthermore, the anime generated an Internet media buzz overseas at almost the same time as it was broadcast in Japan. There is also global respect for Japanese anime, thanks to extraordinary works of our predecessors. I believe there is hope and potential in Japanese anime.

[About Attack on Titan]

For 100 years, humans have lived within high-walled cities to protect themselves from the mysterious Titans. Now, children with no firsthand experience of the past fear begin to take the current peace for granted and dream about the world outside the walls -- until Titans even larger than the walls suddenly attack. After losing his mother to one of the Titans, a young boy named Eren learns combat skills and becomes a soldier to fight the monsters. What do the walls and the Titans represent? Against whom or what are the humans fighting? One of the story's major points of appeal is that it leaves enough room for numerous interpretations.

     The original manga has run in a magazine since fall 2009 and has a circulation of 30 million copies in Japan. The animated show was first broadcast in Tokyo and some other areas last April and ended in the fall. Filming of the live-action version will start later this year.

     The manga has been translated into eight languages and sold in about a dozen countries. Its popularity is especially high in North America (660,000 copies sold), South Korea (530,000 copies) and Taiwan (420,000 copies). The anime has been aired or made available online in nearly 30 countries and regions, including the U.S., Europe, Asia, North Africa and Australia, and the number of areas where it will be broadcast is expected to increase in the future.