Since its debut in 2013, the Japanese animated television show Attack on Titan has become one of the most commercially and critically acclaimed series in anime history. The show is based on a manga by Isayama Hajime that was serialized in Bessatsu Shonen Magazine from 2009 to 2021. It mixes historical fantasy, horror, and wartime drama, depicting a quasi-medieval civilization that lives in peace and isolation until, “in the year 845,” giant, humanoid monsters known as “Titans” come crashing through the barriers that safely enclose humanity within nested cities. Opening with this bloody assault, Attack on Titan follows three children—Eren Yeager, Mikasa Ackerman, and Armin Arlert—through adolescence and early adulthood as they join the Scout Regiment, fight Titans, and explore the world outside the walls. After many twists and turns (ALERT: MAJOR SPOILERS TO FOLLOW), the long-awaited part three of Attack on Titan’s fourth and final season is expected to air in Japan in 2023.
Attack on Titan reflects many of the challenges that the Japanese animation industry has faced over the last decade. Since the early 2010s, there has been a surge in the number of TV anime in production, which has not been matched by enlarged studio budgets or staffs. Underpaid and overworked animators are burning out quickly, worsening an existing labor shortage and compounding difficulties with production scheduling, workflow, and quality control. The anime industry has relied on a multitier contractor system since the 1970s, but last-minute outsourcing has become far more common in the past decade.1 Labor problems throughout the industry have gained increasing attention since 2016, when studios were unable to keep pace with rising demand for TV anime series, leading to a large number of shows going on hiatus or experiencing delays. (The second season of Attack on Titan, released in 2017, was delayed by four years.) If anything, the anime production crisis has worsened as streaming services such as Netflix have increased demand for new titles while further driving down production budgets and worker pay. The craft is also changing with an increasing reliance on software tools and more conspicuous use of 3D animation (3DCGI). Previously, the use of rigged 3D models, digital special effects, and computer-simulated motion was stylized to appear like hand-drawn, 2D limited animation (also known as cel-style animation “on threes”). This conventional anime style is distinguished by the flatness and relatively static quality of the objects in frame. It favors a “pictorial” or “graphic” image composition that maintains a palpable gap between distinct layers in the image. In 3D compositing, the gap between layers is minimized to create fully continuous, geometric space. However, as seen in the breakout hit Kimetsu no yaiba (2019 – ongoing), the mixed style of 2D and 3D animation has not only grown more sophisticated but is also steadily gaining acceptance from fans.2
Attack on Titan’s first three seasons were produced by Production I.G.’s sister company Wit Studio and aired from 2013 to 2019.3 The final season has been entrusted to MAPPA (Yuri!!! on ICE, Chainsaw Man, Jujutsu kaisen), a much larger studio known for its prodigious output.4 The handover from Wit to MAPPA caused controversy among fans—and not just because of anticipated discontinuities in animation style. Within an industry known for harsh working conditions, MAPPA has attracted criticisms for overloading animators, haphazard outsourcing practices, and disorganized production roles. In 2018, an episode of Banana Fish was outsourced due to time pressures, only to be thoroughly reworked by MAPPA animators in a complete breakdown of the production line. Key animators’ work on Jujutsu kaisen Season 1 (2020-2021) was delegated to less experienced staff. This allowed experienced artists to contribute to a greater number of episodes, but with an overall decline in quality control.5 Such problems have beleaguered Attack on Titan, as well. In 2021, an employee quit the studio and set off a Twitter storm with criticisms of MAPPA’s decision to allow portions of the show’s key animation to be outsourced. MAPPA has gained a reputation as a studio that prioritizes speed and volume over quality, but these are problems facing the industry at large.6
These production exigencies shape narration as well as reception and style. The Wit-MAPPA handover was timed to coincide with a surprising break in the spatiotemporal continuity of Attack on Titan’s narrative. The differences between Wit’s and MAPPA’s animation style drew viewers’ attention away from intratextual reasons for this gap (character development, themes, world-building), and towards extratextual pressures shaping storytelling.7 The story picks up four years after Season 3 ends—for the series, this was an unprecedented leap forward in story time. The episode begins with a battle in which the combatants use WWI-style trench warfare with technology that far outstrips anything yet seen on the show. Steel helmets, armored tanks and trains, machine guns, mortars, trenches, bunkers, and grenades—is this the future, the present, or the past? When main characters from the first three seasons finally appear, their khaki jackets and light-colored uniforms have been replaced by black tactical bodysuits with armored breastplates and metal harnesses, and their faces are aged and worn. Even the soundtrack—most notably, the music accompanying extended battle sequences—is different.8
The potential for such a radical subversion of narrative and stylistic continuity was prepared by the denouement of Season 3 (Ep. 56-59), when it was finally confirmed that the kingdom within the walls is not, in fact, “all that remains of humanity.” Eren Yeager’s deceased father, Grisha, left hidden notebooks revealing that he came from beyond the walls to massacre the royal family, and that unbeknownst to the main characters, their “world” is actually an island. These late-breaking disclosures explained where the walls came from, what lay beyond them, why the walls’ inhabitants were besieged by Titans, and how the Titans evolved. With these revelations, Eren, Mikasa, and Armin’s adventures were suddenly folded into a much longer history and geographically extensive world. In the manga, this huge reveal gave Attack on Titan creator Isayama the option of picking up the narrative from multiple points on a longer timeline in a vastly expanded storyworld. Of all possibilities, Isayama chose to place readers in the midst of yet another war—only now on the side of the “bad guys.”
For the producers of the anime, this sudden shift in perspective, charted years earlier, must have seemed like the perfect opportunity for the TV series to change hands. However, in timing this changeover with a major narrative rupture, the show’s production conditions were foregrounded, rather than veiled, and the anime industry crisis has been structured into the show’s very storytelling.
The new arc examines the intergenerational trauma caused by permanent warfare, revealing parallels in the lives of combatants on both sides. The shift in perspective emphasizes the “enemy” point of view and a younger generation’s experiences. For better or worse, the thematic reasons for Isayama’s storytelling choices have been eclipsed by public controversy surrounding the production committee system and animators’ poor working conditions. By using a powerful narrative transposition to restaff the show, the Attack on Titan production committee has distracted from Isayama’s complex treatment of war memory and militarization—and sent a grim message to those who would reform working conditions in the anime industry. The reflexive inscription of production conditions into Japanese animation style and narration is not unusual. As Marc Steinberg and Alexander Zahlten have argued, the material, technological, legal, and economic factors shaping the Japanese “media mix” tend to “play out both intra- and extratextually.”9 Yet, never in the history of the industry has this reflexivity been the source of so much public fascination and outrage.10
In Attack on Titan, the suspense of “what might happen” has always been counterbalanced by the enigma of “how things came to be.” The narrative is driven by enigmas such as: Who built the walls? What are the Titans? Where did they come from? The fabula of the show extends further and further into the past in order to answer these questions. For viewers unfamiliar with the manga, then, Season 4’s opening in the future came as a shock. The rupture underscored a major break with the show’s beloved past. The tone of Attack on Titan has changed, as well, with young hero Eren transforming into the show’s main antagonist: a genocidal monomaniac who intends to stop the fighting by wiping out the rest of the world. With the series approaching its end, Attack on Titan’s transition to MAPPA has intensified fans’ sense of loss as the series builds to its conclusion. In the contemporary anime industry, formal strategies, storytelling choices, and reception are increasingly shaped by unstable production conditions. With Attack on Titan, the viewer confronts these industry problems in an increasingly nihilistic show that asks, how far would you go to survive?