By popular demand, we’ve written about Attack on Titan‘s new creative team, what to expect from the production altogether, and why the significant changes at studio MAPPA made them into arguably the only outside option to carry this massive load.
Just over a year ago, we published an article confirming the veracity of the rumors—or rather, of their source—about Attack on Titan’s staff being done with the series. We also added that the series was absolutely going to continue in anime form, and that if it was going to get shipped outside of the IG Port conglomerate, MAPPA would be our guess. And, as of last week, everyone knows that all of that is exactly what awaits Attack on Titan and its fanbase.
So let me get this straight before we tackle what that means for the future of the show: getting that right isn’t something worth boasting about. Knowing that the series was going to change hands didn’t take a brilliant deduction, but rather just listening to people involved in the production side of things. Guessing the destination, on the other hand, is something that anyone who is acquainted with anime studio philosophies could have done; as we’ll talk about later, it was arguably the only realistic option…other than another deal within IG Port that hasn’t materialized yet, which I’m frankly curious about now that we know it’s unrelated. Either way, this is to say that there is no magic at play when it comes to anime industry matters. Listen to creators, inform yourself about the actual behavior of different studios, and soon you’ll also be able to predict things like this. If anything, the number one reason why all of us still get things wrong sometimes is that the human brain likes it when things make sense, while this industry doesn’t.
What was it about MAPPA that made them such a sure bet, then? I summed it up as recklessness when making that prediction—that may sound like a critique of the way they operate, and to a large degree, it is. The studio has changed so much since its inception that they might as well be a different company that happens to share the same name. Most of these changes were precipitated by founder Masao Maruyama stepping down from his position as president in 2016, which quickly led to MAPPA no longer standing for what they did in the past; quite literally so, since the M in their name comes from Maruyama’s family name. Their attitude, scope, and goals changed fast, showing no signs of deaccelerating even as several years have passed now.
This new era of MAPPA has been characterized by fast, quantitative growth. In the blink of an eye, they became one of the largest studios around, with over 200 employees as of last year and multiple operative departments and side branches. Similarly, their output has more than doubled, while at the same time they’ve made no effort to change the studio’s qualitative standing in those projects; out of the 20 TV anime they’ve produced over the last 5 years, MAPPA was properly in the production committee for just 3 of them, always around the end of it if not dead last. Even when it comes to original anime, the studio tends to be little more than hired hands. With that in mind, their decision to pick up so many projects is understandable, as signing those contracts is pretty much their only source of income. Their great relationship with giants like Cygames means that they are in a weirdly stable position… as long as they keep producing way too many titles all the time.
Mind you, this is not to say that there are no skilled creators doing their best on MAPPA titles. If anything, the studio’s ability to attract talent is among the industry’s best, as seen by developments like Tadashi Hiramatsu joining them full-time. It also doesn’t mean that they’ve paid no mind whatsoever to worker demands, as they’ve made timid but positive changes to the contractual offerings and towards the legitimization of in-betweening roles. What it does mean, though, is that those talented creators and good intentions are in service of a system based on perpetual crunch that limits their potential in palpable ways. MAPPA does indeed produce shows no one else would like Dorohedoro, but it’s more due to their willingness to tackle anything—multiple anythings at the same time too—even if the workload would scare away most studios, than due to any strong creative stance like the ones Maruyama held. There are many things to like about MAPPA, some to downright admire, but it’s hard to deny that their skilled staff are wielded like a massive mercenary force.
And you know what exceedingly demanding production was in need of a studio brave enough to tackle it and ideally not take a large cut of the pie by demanding a position of power in the production committee? Now you know why guessing that the new studio in charge would be MAPPA was so easy.
We’ve covered the why by talking about the new studio in charge, but I assume most people care about the what the most—who are the new team behind it, and are they any good? Let’s start with the positives. Leading this project we’ve got director Yuichiro Hayashi, who has become a bit of a critical darling as of late thanks to a few inspired offerings. To make things even better, many of the qualities he’s been exhibiting make him look like a good candidate to handle a title like Attack on Titan too; he’s adept at horror imagery for one, as well as an evocative storyboarder who’s often very involved in that process, with a strong tendency to project outwards rather than taking an introspective approach. If I had to pick the characteristics that might help him the most with this project, though, I’d go with his flexibility and the ability to think outside the box.
As series director, Hayashi has an excellent track record when it comes to isolating exactly what makes the material he’s been entrusted with special, and then finding ways to capture that, even if he has to bypass the limitations of the production or simply make bold choices. When it came to Kakegurui, he didn’t hesitate to push for an overly ostentatious approach to the compositing, because the viewers feeling somewhat grossed out by the extravagance is part of the point. More recently, the Dorohedoro adaptation he was in charge of had to face a more fundamental problem: one of the most visceral action series in history was only feasible as a TV anime project by relying on 3DCG without much tactility to it. And, while he wasn’t able to change that, Hayashi and his team still managed to contact a handful of top of the line 2D animators to handle highlights that do look like the ideal Dorohedoro anime fans had been dreaming about. In a way, Hayashi feels like the ideal MAPPA director: perhaps not on the same level of sheer brilliance as the most idiosyncratic directors who have work with them, but so resourceful that his projects live up to their potential more consistently than the rest.
Although it will be hard to match the caliber of the directorial lineup that WIT put together over the years—very few productions can boast about having gathered the likes of Takayuki Hirao, Shinji Higuchi, Yuzuru Tachikawa, Masayuki Miyaji, Ryotaro Makihara, Akitoshi Yokoyama, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and so on—MAPPA is making an effort to surround Hayashi with capable people as well. That includes people like fledgling yet already multitalented storyboarder and supervisor Teruyuki Omine, as well as more experienced individuals like Jun Shishido, who’ll be acting as the second in command with his role of series episode director like he did on Yuri!!! On Ice. Whether they’ll be able to complement them with excellent guest directors like WIT did remains to be seen, but at least MAPPA is the kind of studio that has the contacts required to make that possible.
Of course, the directorial roster is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a production team, and here is where things potentially get dicey. Ever since the start, Attack on Titan’s animation has been a demanding effort that WIT had a consistent answer for: extremely polished if sorta stiff depictions of the intricate designs during the downtime, and then kinetic explosions during the already iconic 3D maneuver setpieces. And that, as you can imagine, took a ridiculous amount of resources and specialized artists. Hundreds of animators per week, including many whose sole role was polishing things up. Chief among them all, the dependable supervisors always at the top—character designer Kyoji Asano, as well as chief animation director Satoshi Kadowaki. Similarly, titan designer and supervisor Takaaki Chiba, as well as the make-up team whose embellishments eventually blended into the pipeline, made sure the show always maintained a strikingly detailed look. Although many MAPPA-afiliated supervisors are used to working with very detailed designs (Naoyuki Onda’s works come to mind), and despite new character designer Tomohiro Kishi reigning it down somewhat, chief animation director Daisuke Niinuma is tackling perhaps his hardest job yet, both due to the inherent workload and the fan expectations.
When it comes to the titan-slaying, much has already been said about WIT’s equally consistent team of action animation directors. That praise is often directed towards Arifumi Imai, and for good reason at that. It’s not as if the other action leaders aren’t good at what they do—few people make blade movements as slick as Takuma Ebisu—but it’s undeniable that Imai transcended them all, as well as the role of animator itself. He handled the most memorable sequences, began storyboarding them himself (even for the pre-animated teasers), and soon became the ideal form of Attack on Titan action, beloved by fans and inspiring for coworkers. Many stylistic quirks that have become synonymous with the franchise are actually Imai’s own idiosyncrasies, and there’s no replacing that. Even the 3DBG integration for those Spiderman-like sequences, which over time became integral to the show’s success, will essentially start anew since the CG is now in the hands of Takahiro Uezono and V-Sign’s team, old acquaintances of MAPPA and Hayashi himself. While none of the additions are particularly awful, it’s when it comes to matching the highs of Attack on Titan’s action that I’m least confident about this final season. Even the pre-animated teaser, which you should never take as representative of the actual quality of the series, shows glimpses that feel like sort of a step down.
We’ve gotten tons of requests to write this post, many of which ending with the fated question: is this good news? As always, no one can give you a definitive answer to that short of inventing a time machine, but I believe that by reading this and asking yourself some key questions you might be able to figure out whether you’re likely to be pleased by this final season. What was it about Attack on Titan that you loved so much? If it was the grandiose staging that Araki first established and later directors replicated well enough, or Imai’s one of a kind fluid action, you’re not going to get those; something that very intentionally resembles it, sure, but don’t expect newcomers to the franchise to nail the specialty of another group of creators because they simply can’t. Was it purely the narrative that hooked you in? In that case, your fate is in the hands of original author Hajime Isayama and his love for wild twists, since Hiroshi Seko is, despite debuting now as the series composer for the anime, the person who has written the most Attack on Titan scripts to this day. Consistency in the writing is to be expected.
If you don’t mind the stylistic changes—inevitable despite their obvious intent to create something that feels familiar to existing fans—and are willing to accept that key creators for Attack on Titan‘s past are simply done with it, I don’t think you have much to worry about. Or at least, not more things to worry about; WIT’s behind the scenes management of this franchise has historically been a mess, so despite MAPPA’s consistent struggles in that regard, it’s hard to see them as a much scarier option. A riskier one than keeping the production within IG Port among people who were used to Attack on Titan’s specific needs, yes, but still a fairly high profile effort that feels like the only option that was available once they decided to change teams completely. And if this isn’t reassuring enough: sorry, this is still the anime industry we’re talking about.