Interview with George Wada, Ryoutarou Makihara, and Katsuhiko Kitada of WIT STUDIO

From left to right: George Wada, Ryoutarou Makihara, and Katsuhiko Kitada of WIT STUDIO

From left to right: George Wada, Ryoutarou Makihara, and Katsuhiko Kitada of WIT STUDIO

Sitting in a small corner of reception at the Novotel hotel near Custom House DLR station, George Wada, Ryoutarou Makihara, and Katsuhiko Kitada of WIT STUDIO sit quietly in the corner, checking email and drinking coffee, talking softly to one another as around them parents check in, children run back and forth towards the lift, and several cosplayers pass by without realising. 

The setting is innocuous considering the weight of their collective work, a quiet environment despite parents and children at odds with the context of what they have achieved. Attack on Titan is one of the most significant animated shows of the past year, its English language DVD release not even available to general audiences in the UK. It is already renown for its brutality and action sequences, and the three gentleman quietly passing time in the lobby seem utterly at odds with the context of their work.
 
This weekend, towards the end of October’s MCM London Comic Con, I was introduced to these three gentlemen and gracious translator, Bethan Jones, and spoke of race, language, and the horror of advancing Titans.
 
MCM Buzz: Regarding the ethnicity of characters in Attack on Titan, this is something that resonates quite strongly with the way many characters are presented – for me specifically, in the fact that Levi has a very Jewish name. Was there any sort of extra work done on cultural backgrounds when adapting the characters from the manga or did you just focus on what was presented in the source material?
 
George Wada: Attack on Titan is set in a fantasy world, even though it might suggest familiarity with familiar cultures. It is very much a distinct world of its own. Having said that, when adapting the manga, we did collect materials and look at various cultures so as to establish the right tone.
 
MCM Buzz: The use of German in the show is quite striking and very resonant, especially considering how militaristic the themes of the show are – it’s an effect that very much elicits a certain response as an English speaker. Were specific choices made about the use of language in the series, and if so how were these choices made?
 
George Wada: The linguists of the world are not there explicitly in the manga. In the process of making the anime we had a lot of discussions with Hajime Isayama, who wrote the manga, and we decided that as a setting, as a location to base the story, we would use Germany as the setting for our fantasy world. But there is no religious or ideological thinking behind it.
 
MCM Buzz: Watching the series, technically there seems to be a lot learnt from Kenji Kamiyama’s Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Was there anything specific you took away from WIT STUDIO’s association with this Production I.G series?
 
George Wada: WIT STUDIO started off as Studio 6 of Production I.G so maybe we were influenced by that.
 
Ryoutarou Makihara: Kyoji Asano, the character designer of Attack on Titan, worked on Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and he was from Production I.G, so he has that Production I.G/Ghost in the Shell gene maybe, which is maybe why it shows to you.
 
MCM Buzz: Yasuko Kobayashi is renown for her work on Kamen Rider and Super Sentai. She is known for inserting a sort of melodrama into the relationships of her characters. Is there any process she goes through when adapting the manga that embellishes the characters?
 
George Wada: It was Tetsuro Araki, the director who chose Yasuko Kobayashi for this. I think she’s very interesting. Do you know Kamen Rider Den-o?
 
MCM Buzz: Yes, very much.
 
Geroge Wada: I think she’s good at playing around with funny characters, and I think that comes through with Attack on Titan.
 
Attack on Titan

Attack on Titan

 
MCM Buzz: As a rule of thumb, when AKB48 members are cosplaying as characters then you’ve made it, you’re famous. Has any of the sudden popularity of Attack on Titan – especially abroad – taken you aback?
 
George Wada: We had no idea AKB48 members did this! We’ve seen lots of cosplayers here, and I think it all started with Comiket in the ’80s, which was tiny and housed in a town hall – it was a festival just for otaku – and now it’s got so much bigger in Japan and around the world, and now these events are being held everywhere. I think there’s enough in Attack on Titan to stimulate the attention of the cosplayers. When we were turning it from a manga to an anime, we really tried to make it real, including the 3D Manoeuvre Gear, and we saw some cosplaying Titans here today, and it made me think again there is definitely something in it that makes people want to get involved. Being here in the UK, that’s what I thought.
 
MCM Buzz: It worked! During the panel, you spoke a lot about loss and despair being the themes that connected Hal and Attack on Titan. This is something that isn’t really expressed in material aimed at teenage boys over here, but for me personally it was very important when I was younger. When you described Eren being Araki’s rage, that’s how I felt when I was a kid, and when I saw shows like Gatchaman and I saw this emotion presented so strongly, it struck a bell. Do you think there’s something special about the way anime approaches these emotions and presents them that makes it so appealing to the rest of the world?
 
Ryoutarou Makihara: Firstly, I think there is an abstractness to the images of anime and manga that makes it universal, that works everywhere. So a Japanese fan looks at manga and you ask them where those characters come from, they say Japan, but if a Russian fan looks at it, they’ll say, no that’s a Russian face. I think that’s something that helps it work everywhere. In the case of TV anime, you only have 20 minutes, so it has to be very compact, you have to get the main point of the story across, so what you see on screen is concentrated. 
 
Katsuhiko Kitada: There’s a traditional theatre form in Japan called Noh where the actors wear masks, and the masks are frozen, but the actors can convey emotion to the audience using just tiny movements. I think the way Japanese people live now has changed since the olden days, and the way we express ourselves, the way we move has probably changed, but watching Noh theatre even now, we can still tell if that character is meant to be angry or sad, and I think that however different the face is, there’s something we all have in common.
 
MCM Buzz: Regarding what was said in yesterday’s panel about making Attack on Titan something like being in ‘the Animator Corps‘. As you become aware of upcoming story-lines, is there anything that makes you think, ‘this is too far, how are we going to present this – this is too vivid in terms of emotion and the visceral presentation?’
 
Katsuhiko Kitada: We did experience a lot of despair in the making of Attack on Titan. It was such a tight schedule and I don’t want to focus on that, but each time we looked at the storyboards and saw what kind of stories were coming up we tried to imagine how it would work and how we could make it look the best it could. Often we wouldn’t be able to do it exactly as we imagined it to be and this would be repeated each time we had a new storyboard to work on. So in that sense we were like the Survey Corps, fighting on, thinking of how to do it, planning, drawing, rubbing it out, drawing it again – not exactly despair maybe, but it makes you very happy when you actually manage to do it. The sense of triumph when you see the finished work up on the screen is unbeatable. That gives you the power, the strength to carry on doing it.
 
Ryoutarou Makihara: We’re like war junkies. We’re addicted.
 
MCM Buzz: Because the focus of Attack on Titan is such a weighty subject and it is so dark, what do you guys do, when you put that away, what do you guys do to relax?
 
Ryoutarou Makihara: I’ve been into Grand Theft Auto.
 
Katsuhiko Kitada: When I’m drawing those dark scenes, I do tend to get too involved and share the feelings of what’s going on in the scenes, so when I’m done with it, I like to try and completely clear my head and have a rap party, and drink, and try and forget about animation. Maybe hang out with friends, hang out with family, play games, but it’s still there at the back of my mind, and I’m thinking maybe I can’t escape this, maybe this is my fate. 
 
 
The interview ended quietly, yet for a moment we remained talking about WIT STUDIO‘s work.
 
 
George Wada: What do you like about Attack on Titan?
 
MCM Buzz: It’s uncompromising. Like DevilMan, it has this feeling of ‘this is who I am‘ and the need to keep fighting. It’s a show that gives you strength. I associate with the characters very much, it’s that feeling of ‘never give up‘.
 
George Wada: That’s exactly how we felt when making it.
 
MCM Buzz: And Eren is just me, like when I was that age. Except less bite marks.
 
Hal

Hal

As Makihara sketched a picture of the giraffe mascot from Hal, Bethan asked if I recognised him.
 
MCM Buzz: My wife is keen to see Hal. She was engaged with Attack on Titan, but the trailer for Hal moved her.
 
Ryoutarou Makihara: Thank you. Please come to the screening in Leeds!
 
I smiled and thanked everyone involved and behind me a girl looked from me to Anime Unlimited‘s Andrew Partridge as we shook hands and declared, “You’ve just made his day.”
 
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