January 5, 2014 posted by

Hard-Boiled Horror! Two by Araki

I was asked in early September what I thought of the then-current, on Japanese TV, s-f anime series Attack on Titan that was getting such rave reviews?

attack-titan-book200Well, my first thought was that the title needs a better translation. Since it is about the attack on humans on Earth by Godzilla-sized humanoids, rather than an attack set on Saturn’s satellite of Titan, a better translation would be Attack of the Titans. But Attack on Titan is in the Japanese animation title art, so the American licensees are probably stuck with it. One previous obvious mistranslation was in ADV’s 2000 DVD release of the 1993 Rail of the Star, which should have been translated as The Starlight Railway – but the Japanese licensor insisted that its own awkward literal translation be used.

Attack on Titan is the American title of Shingeki no Kyojin (literally “Advancing Giants”), a TV anime adaptation of a manga by Hajime Isayama begun in 2009. As of August 2013, there were 11 tankōbon volumes of the collected manga (vol. 12 appeared in December), the 2013 TV anime serialization, and video games; and a live-action feature announced as in production for a 2014 (now 2015) release (with an impressive fan-made poster by Kouji Tajima). In other words, it was and still is extremely popular.

The Attack on Titan anime, directed by Tetsurō Araki and produced by Wit Studio and Production I.G, began on TV in Japan on April 6, 2013, and was still running when I was asked about it, with episode #22 broadcast on September 7. It was scheduled for 25 episodes ending on September 25, 2013, to be followed by an OAV released on December 9. It was currently being streamed in the U.S. by Funimation Entertainment and Crunchyroll. At Chicago’s Anime Central 2013 fan convention on May 17-19, Funimation announced that it would release the series on home video in 2014. It is hotly awaited by American anime fans, and is already taking preorders.

There is a Shingeki no Kyojin Wiki online already. Its synopsis of the plot is:

“Several hundred years ago, humans were nearly exterminated by Titans. Titans are typically several stories tall, seem to have no intelligence, devour human beings and, worst of all, seem to do it for the pleasure rather than as a food source. A small percentage of humanity survived by walling themselves in a city protected by extremely high walls, even taller than the biggest Titans. Flash forward to the present and the city has not seen a Titan in over 100 years. Teenage boy Eren and his foster sister Mikasa witness something horrific as the city walls are destroyed by a Colossal Titan that appears out of thin air. As the smaller Titans flood the city, the two kids watch in horror as their mother is eaten alive. Eren vows that he will murder every single Titan and take revenge for all of mankind. Nominated for the 4th Manga Taisho Awards (2011) and won the Kodansha Manga Award shōnen category (2011). In English, the series is roughly translated to ‘Attack on Titan’.”

Attack on Titan is in the s-f tradition of such recent live-action American features as Pacific Rim and Elysium; that is to say, it is spectacular but very depressing. The action follows Eren Yeager, his adopted sister Mikasa Ackerman, and the other teenaged soldiers of humanity’s Scouting Legion as they fight an increasingly-hopeless battle against the Titans. The design of the Titans, based on Isayama’s manga art, is reminiscent of the blue-skinned giant Traags in René Laloux’s 1973 Fantastic Planet, but these fiery red malevolent monsters are utterly inimical to humanity. As I said in September, “presumably everything will all work out in the final episode or the direct-to-video finale. Until then, prepare to be dazzled but depressed by the awesome anime visuals in a downer s-f plot.”

Well, the TV series is now over, and it ends with a cliffhanger. The first reviews of the December 9th OAV, Attack on Titan: Ilse’s Journal, are that it is a self-contained side story that does not resolve the main story; and a news report on My Anime List on December 11 is that a second OAV will be released on April 9, 2014. There are now at least seven card or video games, and most fans believe that the 2013 TV anime series will turn into a ‘Season 1’ with a ‘Season 2’ to start during 2014. It is always tricky when there is an anime adaptation of an ongoing manga, as distinct from a separate self-contained anime story. The anime version requires a definite climax and conclusion, while the manga author may intend to keep the story going for a long time. Katsuhiro Otomo had this problem with his Akira. His manga became so popular during the 1980s that he was pressured to make it into a theatrical feature right away, when he still had about two years’ worth of the manga planned; so he created an artificial conclusion for the movie.

death-noteWhile I was searching for information about the Attack on Titan 2014 live-action theatrical feature, I ran across the news that an American live-action theatrical feature of the anime series Death Note is also being developed. This has been in development by Warner Bros. since 2009 – the first press release came out in January 2011 – so it doesn’t look like this is going to be finished soon; but it is still in development rather than having been cancelled.

The Death Note anime series, based on the manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, and also (what a coincidence!) directed by Tetsurō Araki (but animated by Studio Madhouse), appeared on Japanese TV in 37 half-hour episodes from October 4, 2006 to June 27, 2007, at 12:56 to 1:26 a.m.

Death Note is a supernatural horror-thriller based heavily on the traditional Shintō belief in shinigami, or death gods. The shinigami are roughly the equivalent of Christian guardian angels, except that where a guardian angel is supposedly assigned to a person throughout their lifetime, bringing their souls to Heaven after their death to be judged, a death god just continuously brings the spirits of the dead to their afterlife; and there is nothing “angelic” about them.

In Death Note, the bored death god Ryuk drops a Death Note notebook onto Earth, with instructions on how to use it conveniently in English. Whoever’s name is written in it immediately dies. The notebook is found by Light Yagami, a young college student. By the time that Ryuk reveals himself to Light as a sardonic conscience, Light has already tried out its power and decided to use it himself as an avenger for good. Light starts to write the names of well-known criminals in it, causing their deaths by apparent heart attacks. The coincidence of so many high-profile criminals’ apparently natural deaths does not go unnoticed, but nobody can prove anything but coincidental fatal accidents and heart attacks. Then two things happen: one of Light’s victims turns out to have been innocent of his supposed crime, shaking Light’s self-image as an avenger of evil instead of just a killer; and “L”, a famous pseudonymous world detective, announces that he will find the vigilante who is somehow killing criminals. Light, who has been corrupted by power, would use the Death Note to get rid of L, but he does not know L’s real name. Death Note becomes a race between Light and L to unmask each other first.

Despite its barely-after-midnight time-slot, it became popular enough to generate two Japanese live-action movies: Death Note, 125 minutes, released June 17, 2006; and Death Note 2: The Last Name, 140 minutes, released October 28, 2006. Both were extremely popular; Death Note topped the Japanese box office for two weeks, and Death Note 2 for four weeks. Their popularity generated a spinoff feature, L: Change the World, 129 minutes, released February 9, 2008. All three had very brief (two days) limited theatrical releases in the U.S. during 2008 and 2009, the first two by Warner Bros. and the third by Viz Media, and immediately went to DVDs. Now Warner Bros. has plans to make an American Death Note movie.

The Death Note anime was very popular with American anime fans when it appeared in this country, on DVDs from Viz Media and on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim in late 2007. I went to Los Angeles’ Anime L.A. fan convention in January 2008, and I saw many fans (especially adolescent girls) with T-shirts, toys, plush dolls, and even backpacks, of the horrific death god Ryuk. If Warner Bros. ever makes its American Death Note live-action theatrical feature, it should be even more popular with horror-movie fans than with anime fans.

Who is Tetsurō Araki? He was born in November 1976, and started in the anime industry in 2001. His first work, for the Broccoli studio, was on comedy series as a storyboard artist and episode director: Galaxy Angel, and Panyo Panyo Di Gi Charat. In 2003, he performed the same duties at Studio Madhouse for the 26-episode TV anime Gungrave, about a criminal killed by his best friend, who is reincarnated and goes after the Millennion crime syndicate that they were both members of, for revenge. Gungrave did not let him display his full talents, because he was not the series director (that was Toshiyuki Tsuru), and it was based on a video game so the plot was constrained.

Araki’s debut as a lead director was in 2005, with the OAV Otogi-Jushi Akazukin for Madhouse. Red Riding Hood, a little girl, fights the evil witch Cendrillon to protect Fandavale, the world of magic. The OAV led to a 39-episode TV series in 2006-2007 that Araki did not direct, but that was noticeably lighter in mood, being basically a magical little witch series about three young heroines (Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty), The Three Musketeers who fight Cendrillon. Araki’s OAV was a dark fantasy in which Red Riding Hood and Val, her talking wolf friend, are alone in confronting Cendrillon’s monsters.

Araki’s next TV anime, again as a storyboard artist and episode director, was Black Lagoon. This was as two 12-episode series during 2006 for Madhouse. I mentioned Black Lagoon in an earlier column, “Outrageous Anime”, last May. Rokuro Okajima, a naïve young salaryman, is sent on business by his Japanese company to Southeast Asia, where he is kidnapped by a “trading company”, the Lagoon Company, actually a criminal gang of mercenaries/pirates. When his company, which is involved with international crime, writes him off because he has learned too much, the disillusioned Rokuro joins the mercenaries as Rock, and gradually becomes one of its hardened members. Black Lagoon was an anime adaptation of a manga by Rei Hiroe, who has stated that it was inspired by thriller novels and films like those of Quentin Tarantino, and news reports of modern pirates in the East China Sea. It is heavy on gunplay and similar graphic violence, with lots of deaths.

After that, Araki became a “specialist” in directing dramatic and “hard-boiled” TV anime series, usually s-f or supernatural fantasy with an emphasis on cynicism or a bleak mood.

High School of the Dead, with a group of high school students (including the most-endowed co-eds you ever saw) trying to escape a plague of zombies.

Kurozuka, a drama about Kuro, a 12th-century swordsman who becomes enamored with a beautiful vampire and, after several betrayals, finds himself in a future post-apocalyptic Japan.

Guilty Crown, about a teenager who suddenly gains psychic or supernatural powers, and becomes a pawn between an oppressive government and a resistance movement called “Funeral Parlor”.

And now, Attack on Titan. Araki is often assigned to direct anime adaptations of manga or video games where he is not responsible for the basic plot, but his direction makes them suspenseful and memorable. As Wikipedia says of Guilty Crown, “Critics praised the series’ presentation but panned the plot for being jumbled and cliché.”

What is Araki doing now that Attack on Titan is over? His name has not turned up in the anime press on anything newer yet, but considering the popularity of Black Lagoon, Death Note, High School of the Dead, and now Attack on Titan, he surely must have a new anime TV series in production.


  • I wasn’t aware of that connection between Death Note and Attack on Titan. He must have had his hands full though since from what I’ve read Attack on Titan had a very hectic schedule to get each episode out on time. Despite that I’ve watched clips that have some great pieces of animation.

    I haven’t fully watched or read, the manga is notorious for being horribly drawn, Attack on Titan but I did enjoy the over the top opening theme that’s already been ran into the ground with parodies. I can’t help but assume that might have been a key reason for people to take notice of it in the US.

    • It also helps that the Attack on Titan manga is well written despite the crude artwork. Being well written goes a very long way to making a successful anime adaptation. Considering AoT is also expertly directed and animated, it’s hard for a series like this not to get an initial buzz based on visuals alone, as is often the case in the past few decades where the visuals are often a crutch to a weak or mediocre story.

      The Death Note anime pretty much has the same weaknesses as the manga–it peaks midway, loses its best character, and is a downhill ride from there-on. Not even quality direction and animation can cover up those faults.

  • Glad you focused on the directorial side of these series. Tetsurō Araki adds quite a bit to these series yet most of the praise usually goes toward the animation team and production studio or to the original manga writers. Adaptation in the case of these two can be pretty thankless unless you’re dealing with a superstar anime director, which I think Tetsurō Araki may be just recently gaining some such notoriety.

    Perhaps this is because most if not all of the series he has directed have unusually high budget efforts where the skill of the animators can overshadow the director’s efforts in the perception of more fickle fans. Often in limited or even modestly animated series, the episode or series director’s hand and eye are more plainly visible–especially if the director’s style doesn’t stick out through a signature animation style.

  • “Since it is about the attack on humans on Earth by Godzilla-sized humanoids, rather than an attack set on Saturn’s satellite of Titan, a better translation would be Attack of the Titans. But Attack on Titan is in the Japanese animation title art, so the American licensees are probably stuck with it. One previous obvious mistranslation was in ADV’s 2000 DVD release of the 1993 Rail of the Star, which should have been translated as The Starlight Railway – but the Japanese licensor insisted that its own awkward literal translation be used.”

    I feel the same way as you Fred when it comes to odd decisions on titling shows in English or internationally. Attack of the Titans would be a suitable title indeed, but because someone in Japan didn’t proofread ahead of time, we’re stuck with what it is and it’ll stay that way permanently in the minds of everyone not aware of it’s wonky-ness.

    I haven’t seen the show like everyone else, but what I bother to spoil myself through podcast reviews of the same, I get the gist of what is going on and commemorate the producers for going somewhere with this than what the viewer may expect to see (even if it’s not my cup o’ tea).

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