It’s no exaggeration that Hajime Isayama was a huge draw at Anime NYC. The event marked the Attack on Titan manga creator’s first-ever appearance in the United States and while enthusiasm for the anime is still going strong, it was hinted before he greeted his fans that Isayama was nervous. The manga had spent over 100 weeks on The New York Times’ Best-Sellers List and has sold over 100 million copies. These are impressive milestones for any work of fiction, but the manga series’ ending has remained controversial, a fact Isayama is well aware of.
Kodansha issued a statement from the manga creator on its Instagram page prior to the convention that read: “I am aware that the ending of Attack on Titan was quite controversial. I am open to receiving people’s honest opinions. However, I would appreciate it if you’d be kind to me.
If Isayama was nervous walking onto the stage in The Javitz’s packed Special Events Hall, hopefully, the standing ovation put him at ease. I’ve attended a fair share of Japanese guest panels at conventions in the last ten years and have never witnessed a guest get a standing ovation, much less one with such thunderous applause.
Isayama was joined by Kodansha’s Ben Applegate and TJ Ferentini, and translator Misaki Kido. The panelists’ and fan-submitted questions painted broad strokes over the 36-year-old creator’s career. Isayama shared that he first became interested in creating manga in elementary school after participating in a school recycling activity. The assignment allowed him to sift through manga magazines like Shonen Jump and sparked an interest in creating his own story. That desire would stick with him, but the formation of Attack on Titan’s concept began to grow when Isayama saw the art piece “Kaiju” by Kiyoshi Yamashita, an autistic artist known as the “Japanese Van Gogh” who specialized in chigiri-e.
Yamashita’s “Kaiju” depicts humanity’s struggle against invading monsters, including an oni emerging from the sea, a giant serpent, and a gargantuan spider. Humans engage the creators with heavy artillery while others flee what appears to be a losing battle. Isayama found the image “really impactful” and it would inspire his early manga pilot, “Humanity vs. Titans.” He began pitching the concept to manga editors at 19 years old but felt his art wasn’t up to par for serialization. As he approached abandoning his prospects at manga creation, he decided to try one more magazine. It was here that Isayama met editor Shintarō Kawakubo.
He was the first person to say it was good. I was happy but I thought, ‘is he for real?’ I had my doubts at the time,” Isayama told the crowd. Isayama has previously commented on what he perceived as his lackluster artwork in the series. For the next six months, Isayama spent every waking moment thinking about the story, but he also had concerns about getting axed.
I would say 80 percent of manga is canceled after two volumes and you might not get the initial investment that you put into the story back,” he said. He recommended that aspiring artists go all out because if your odds of failing are high, you might as well go big and fail big in pursuit of fulfilling your dreams.
Isayama shared additional tidbits about his character-creation process. Foremost, he creates characters to serve the story he has in mind and starts by drawing their appearance. Some characters are also influenced by television and movies, for example, Gabi was inspired by Arya Stark from Game of Thrones, and Falco was inspired by Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad.
The panel proceeded like plenty of Japanese guest Q&As, but its biggest moment all came back to the original comment shared on Instagram and the underlying unease about the manga’s ending. For context, Isayama has appeared in Japanese television programs in the past that frankly showed his anxiety about creating the manga’s ending. In one program Isayama was described as “bearing the burden of wanting to live up to fan expectations but also to go against them.” He was sleeping only two to three hours a day. He felt unable to draw and the documentarian noted that he only smiled once during filming—when he took a break to play a video game.
When the panelists asked if Isayama always knew how the series would end, the audience responded with ominous murmurs. Isayama referred back to the painting by Yamashita. This is what I wanted to do. From the very beginning, I knew where this series would land but details like how the main character would get there weren’t determined. Isayama credited voice actor Yuuki Kaji for influencing the manga’s portrayal of Eren as more of a “good guy” and Isayama needed to steer the direction of the story in order to make it convincing to readers. I still have my doubts within myself if I did it right,” Isayama said. “I still struggle with this point and I’m really sorry about it.
Moved by his uncertainty, a voice broke out “we love you!” and like opening the floodgates, fans rose to their feet to cheer Isayama on with thunderous applause. The creator reacted with a hand over his heart before replying, “I’m trying not to cry.” The emotional moment permeated through the rest of the panel. There were further hints of the lasting effect working on the series had on its creator. When asked if he will make a new manga, Isayama responded frankly. When Ferentini asked him, what does freedom mean to you?” he responded again simply, I don’t know.
Isayama ended the panel with gratitude for his fans for reading the manga and believing in him when no one else did. He shared that his family and friends doubted him and so he’s grateful for the fans who stuck it out.
When I was carrying those heavy feelings and was in a rut for a long time until about yesterday. I had signings and got to talk to fans one-on-one and many told me the ending was awesome. Those kind words really hit me and I feel great gratitude to come to NYC and to meet you all. It was a great experience for me.