There are many reasons for why Hajime Isayama’s Attack On Titan (first serialised in Bessatsu Shounen Magazine in 2009) has become a popular and celebrated manga in Japan and beyond. Apart from its powerful narrative arcs of a team thrown into ruthless and vicious cycles of battle as they protect the concentric walled cities of Maria, Rose and Sina against the invading hordes of gargantuan and their periodic assaults, the story symbolises the ongoing interrogation of isolationism in Japan which continues to be debated in a wide range of situations. In this light, the walled cities symbolise the island of Japan – cut-off from the outside world but forever fearful of cataclysmic events wrought upon its sanctity from outside forces. It’s a theme that invigorates the 60s cycle of Toho monster movies and Tsubaraya TV productions of Ultraman, where mysterious aliens repeatedly appear from beyond to threaten Japan.
One of the most distinctive aspects of Isayama’s manga is its referencing and evocation of late Middle Ages’ graphic charts and maps. Eschewing the standard hi-tech sic-fi visualization ably employed in much sci-fi-monster manga, Isayama looks back to an historical epoch were Europe was in essence isolated despite believing it was the centre of the world. History has shown that nations and cultures are doomed when they take isolationist views and ignore the forces going on outside their walled cities, and Attack On Titan plays out like post-apocalypse Japan played out during the later Crusades. Isayama employs an ink technique in his drawing that simulates the cross-hatching employed in the technological transition from woodblocks to printing presses across the 15th and 16th Centuries. This era of the Guttenberg Press revolutionised the dissemination of information and introduced the concept of mass media which spurred the opening-up of European global consciousness. Attack On Titan is thus a trans-historical project: it utilises the look of the old to portray the feel of the new while reflecting the circumstances of the present.
The recent touring exhibition of the art of Attack On Titan superbly extends the manga’s distinctive illustrative look into the exhibition’s design. Entering and traversing the museum’s space is like entering the world of Attack On Titan. One room utilises the space as a 3-D manga page, with reproduction manga frames enlarged and distributed like shards exploding across the walls and onto adjoining pillars and suspended sections. The distribution of the frames is combined with bold black diagonal lines which cut across space to join the various panels. It resembles a strange forensic scene with tape strung at all angles to organize these fragments of data. Rather than rationally read the panels in any correct direction, your eyes rove and swivel as you walk through the space. Contrasted to this is a space bathed in blood red light. Appropriately, these walls contain panoramas of the titans devouring hapless victims. Delicately positioned in a straight horizontal line are framed originals. You can focus in on Isayama’s amazing line work, but the haze of blood engulfs your peripheral vision due to the red lighting. It produces a tension that perfectly matches the threatening bloodlust that permeates the pages of the manga.
Elsewhere, a more carnival approach is taken. A giant head of one of the more passive looking titans sits at floor level with its tongue hanging out. It has the glazed look of pinned eyes that most of the titans bear throughout the manga – being that they are a mix of Grecian gods, Chinese ‘hungry ghosts’, William Blake’s mythical monsters and contemporary human zombies. Yet this sculpture is actually a photo op: you can place yourself inside the mouth of the titan’s head and thrill to the vicarious feel of being eaten alive. The stand-out sculpture in the exhibition is the famous Colossal Titan, with his skinned head and corpus resembling an arcane autopsy experiment come to life. An effectively ‘giant-size’ head is installed in one room, theatrically bursting through the wall with his raging head and gaping mouth. And a few metres in front, his giant skinned hand erupts from the floor, ready to grasp any unsuspecting visitors to the museum. It’s more carny than carnivale, but it grants a fun moment to what really is an incredibly bleak manga. Another room features a set of life-size character cut-outs of the military team’s key members; yet another space has a few props made from elements in the story: the ‘Vertical Moving Equipment’ double-gun armature being a highlight.
The Tokyo install of this exhibition (the first before it travels to Osaka then Ota) was at the venerable Ueno Royal Museum. The outside wall leading to the museum featured a fantastic mural, displaying signage for the museum in the peculiar hybrid-hieroglyphic designs, symbols and letterings which embody the visual aesthetic of the manga. Evoking illuminated manuscripts, arcane cryptology, necromancy documents and city council parchments, it’s an aesthetic that perfectly announces the other-worldliness of the manga. A more humorous form of signage was a billboard at JR’s Harajuku station: its four panels depicted four titans devouring their prey, but instead of showing the terrorized victims being ripped apart in the titans’ mouths (a recurring visual shock in the manga), their bodies were replaced with colour photographs of a hotdog, a pizza slice, a fried chicken leg and a hamburger. The sardonic analogy between Western fast-food titans consuming Tokyo, and the titans devouring the inhabitants of the walled cities in the manga was pretty clear.