This interview contains spoilers for the finale of “Attack on Titan.”
On Saturday, the final episode of the anime adaptation of Hajime Isayama’s “Attack on Titan” premiered on Crunchyroll and Hulu, ending an epic tale that started back in 2013.
Like the manga, which ran from 2009 to 2021, the anime was an instant hit, becoming one of the defining shows of the modern anime era, with spinoffs, live-action and video game adaptations, and even a comic book crossover with Marvel’s “Spider-Man” and “Avengers” titles.
Since the fourth and final season started airing in 2020, “Attack on Titan” has been one of the most popular shows on the internet — episodes have routinely trended on social media, streaming servers have occasionally crashed, the opening theme song became a rare anime song to hit the U.S. Billboard charts. Parrot Analytics said it was the most “in-demand” show in the world in 2021, a metric based on analysis of streaming, social media, search and other online behaviors. The manga has continued to be popular as well, selling over 120 million copies worldwide, and several of the published volumes have charted on the New York Times graphic novels and manga best-seller list.
What started as a thrilling yet relatively simple tale of a young boy seeking revenge against the giant humanoid monsters that ate his mother quickly evolved into a thought-provoking war epic. The tonal shift in “Attack on Titan” also came with one of the biggest heel-turns in modern anime, with the protagonist, Eren Jaeger, devolving into a radicalized monster threatening worldwide genocide.
The final episode brings the battle of heaven and earth to a bloody end, with Eren’s army of Titans destroyed at the hands of his former comrades — along with 80 percent of the world population. Peace was achieved, but nothing good lasts very long in the world of “Attack on Titan.”
Since the manga ended in 2021, there has been plenty of speculation and debate over Eren’s antagonistic turn and what the story’s ending means. Ahead of the release of the final episode, the manga creator Hajime Isayama, speaking through an interpreter, David Higbee, talks about the restrictive nature of writing and the story’s dark ending. These are edited excerpts from the interview.
The manga ended a couple of years ago, and the anime is just finishing now. How do you feel about the story coming to an end?
For this anime to be made and for that to go beyond the borders of Japan and to reach a worldwide audience is something that’s been a very happy occurrence for me. In a sense, “Attack on Titan” has connected me to the world, and that’s something that I’m very glad happened.
How much of the ending from the manga did you have in mind when you first began writing “Attack on Titan”? And how much did it change along the way?
That was pretty much there from the beginning, the story that starts with the victim who then goes through this story and becomes the aggressor. That is something I had in mind right from the get-go. Along the way, certain aspects of the story didn’t go as expected, and I adapted and fleshed out certain aspects. But I would say the ending of the story didn’t change much
There’s a much-talked-about scene where Armin, who is struggling with Eren’s turn into a mass murderer, seems to thank him for his actions. Can you talk about the meaning behind that conversation?
My thinking there wasn’t really that Armin was trying to push Eren away for the sake of justice or whatnot. It was more that he wanted to, in a sense, take joint responsibility. He wanted to become an accomplice. In order to become an accomplice, Armin had to make sure that he used very strong wording so that he could take those sins upon himself. And so that was the intent behind it.
You have a scene where Eren apologizes to a kid for the carnage he’s going to commit and says he was disappointed in the world he saw beyond the walls. What does that say about his motivation?
I think that refers to the fact that Eren was dreaming of going to this world outside of the walls where there was nobody and there was nothing. There was an excitement about this world that was just empty, a clean slate. I don’t really know whether that’s a good or a bad thing, and I don’t really know why that was the ideal that I set up for Eren as a part of this story. But what I can say is that, when he does get across the wall at that point, he says he sees that the world is really not that different from what’s within the walls in the world that he already knows. I believe that’s probably the disappointment that I’m referring to in that specific scene.
Eren says in the final episode of the anime that he had no choice but to follow the future that he saw, that he was powerless against the powers of the Founding Titan. Armin even asks if he’s really free. Was he telling the truth or do you see this as him telling an excuse?
So the truth is the situation with Eren actually overlaps in a certain sense with my own story with this manga. When I first started this series, I was worried that it would probably be canceled. It was a work that no one knew about. But I had already started the story with the ending in mind. And the story ended up being read and watched by an incredible number of people, and it led to me being given a huge power that I didn’t quite feel comfortable with.
It would have been nice if I could have changed the ending. Writing manga is supposed to be freeing. But if I was completely free, then I should have been able to change the ending. I could have changed it and said I wanted to go in a different direction. But the fact is that I was tied down to what I had originally envisioned when I was young. And so, manga became a very restrictive art form for me, similar to how the massive powers that Eren acquired ended up restricting him.
You have been involved in the anime production for a little while, supervising the adaptation’s storyboards, and have been known for asking for changes to the story in the adaptation. Did you personally ask for anything for the final episode?
Yes. Absolutely. I checked the script, but the main thing was the storyboards. There were different things I suggested. When it comes down to it, it’s really the role of the production to make those decisions. But I wanted to at least give my input so that they could take those into account when they were making the final decisions.
The manga ends with you showing the future of Paradis and sort of the cycle of war continuing. Is there no end to the conflict and the cycle you present in the story?
I guess there could have been an ending where it was a happy ending and the war ended and everything was fine and dandy. I guess that could have been possible. At the same time, the end of fighting and the end of contention itself kind of seems hokey. It kind of seems like it’s not even believable. It’s just not plausible in the world we’re living in right now. And so, sadly, I had to give up on that kind of happy ending.