Death Note, Attack On Titan, and How to Direct Mainstream Anime

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Watch Death note on Hulu: http://www.hulu.com/death-note
Watch Attack on Titan on Crunchyroll: http://www.crunchyroll.com/attack-on-titan
Watch Highschool of the Dead on Hulu: http://www.hulu.com/high-school-of-the-dead
Watch Guilty Crown on Hulu: http://www.hulu.com/guilty-crown
Kurozuka has no legal stream. Prolly why no one’s seen it.

Tetsuro Araki is quite possibly the most successful TV anime director of all time. Even if he’d only worked on shows which appealed exclusively to anime fans, the international successes of Highschool of the Dead and Guilty Crown would be enough to make him noteworthy. However, what makes Araki special is that he’s also directed two of the most widely known anime series of all time–Death Note and Attack on Titan. Each of these were not only mainstream successes in Japan, but reached an impressive international audience. The two are listed as the first and fourth most popular shows on My Anime List respectively, and generally come up in conversation among people who might not even consider themselves to be anime fans at all. In one interview, Araki himself said that friends of his who’d never watched any of his shows were telling him about how cool Attack on Titan was. I mean, hell–you’ve heard of these shows, right? And I’ll bet you’ve got at least one friend who thinks that at least one of them is the best thing they’ve ever seen.

To be fair, Death Note and Attack on Titan were both highly successful manga series before they ever came to animation, and a lot of what makes each of them work is inherent in the original stories. However, there’s no question that a popular manga doesn’t necessarily translate to a good or successful adaptation; and the fact that Araki has made this lightning strike multiple times is extremely impressive. Even if his only talent was being able to recognize which works were worth attaching his name to, it would be one hell of an enviable skill. Of course, I think there’s a lot more to it than that, which is why I’m about to break down what I think this director does to make his series stand out to such an extent.

First and foremost, what Araki excels at is the good old fashioned Hollywood WOW factor. All of his shows are explosively bombastic, visually stimulating, and over-the-top. They are stylistically hyper-real–with intense colors, sweeping and rotating cameras, and frenetic action sequences. These are shows that grab your attention–and with all of them having been produced by either Studio Madhouse, Production I.G., or the newly formed I.G. spin-off Wit Studio, these shows have the talent and budget behind them to bring Araki’s intense visions to life like no other TV anime can do.

Araki’s style stands out because whereas many directors try and be over-the-top using explosions, chase scenes, or an ever-increasing scale of destruction, Araki focuses more on taking the emotions and subtleties of his characters and presenting them in hyper-dramatic ways. Some of the most exciting scenes in Attack on Titan consist of characters giving big speeches, or reacting with horror at what they see before them. In Death Note, Light Yagami writing in a notebook or eating a potato chip can feel like the most epic thing in the world. With Highschool of the Dead, Araki specifically told his team to come up with unique and over-the-top uses for breast physics, leading to the legendary Matrix-boob scene among others.

The best way to get a sense of Araki’s strengths is by watching Guilty Crown; which, in spite of its success, is less popular than the other shows that I’ve mentioned. By most accounts, Guilty Crown’s anime-original script was an utter mess, and a lot of people watched it with the fascination of a trainwreck. However, what made Guilty Crown so watchable in spite of its script was the super-sleek production values. With beautiful character designs by Redjuice, an exciting Hiroyuki Sawano soundtrack, lavishly detailed background art, and Araki’s propensity for high-intensity action, Guilty Crown managed to entertain so much on the production level alone that it still managed to be successful. Araki clearly has an eye for putting all the best elements of production into his work, regardless of what the script might look like.

That said, the true might of Araki’s talents comes through in his adaptation work, as he can so perfectly draw out the basic appeal of the manga that he brings to animation. In Death Note and Attack on Titan, he took the impact and emotions of each scene and magnified them to the point of near excess. He perfectly understood where the raw, adrenaline pumping energies of those series lie. With Highschool of the Dead, he must have realized that what set the manga apart from all of the zombie stories it pays homage to was the emphasis on fanservice; so he ramped that fanservice up to the highest degree possible and capitalized on it brilliantly.

The key word I would use in describing Araki’s work is, “memorable.” I’m not even a fan of Attack on Titan, having dropped it after five episodes, but I can clearly remember the first time that I saw the insane action animation in the show’s trailers; and the moment when Erin’s mom got eaten in the first episode; and that unforgettable opening theme by Linked Horizon. I remember all those weird-ass random titans, because they were made to feel so distinct and strange; and I remember all those kids dying in episode four. I still remember scenes from Death Note that I watched nine years ago, and I’ll never forget matrix boobs for as long as I live.

Just try and imagine if any of these series had been directed and animated by anyone else. If they didn’t have that explosively memorable factor, would any of them have stood out nearly as much? I think of something like the first season of the Bakuman anime, which many fans consider to be inferior to the manga, simply because it failed at capturing the raw intensity of the storyline; and I wonder how a show like that could’ve felt better if someone like Araki had given it the dramatic treatment of Death Note.

On the storytelling level, it’s hard to determine how much credit Araki deserves. Not only are his most successful works all adaptations, but he doesn’t write the scenarios for most of his shows either. However, I think it’s worth pointing out that all of his shows fall into the same general narrative style, with the same kind of appeal–making it clear that, if nothing else, Araki has a particular kind of manga that he likes adapting the most.

Specifically, all of Tetsuro Araki’s shows have a very broad demographic appeal. These are shows that both adults and teenagers can easily enjoy; and in the cases of Death Note and Attack On Titan are neither particularly gendered, nor contain any factors which might limit their appeal to only anime fans, other than the fact that they are animated. And when Araki does make shows that are geared specifically towards a certain market, he makes sure to appeal to that marked as strongly as possible.

Death Note is perhaps the best example of Araki’s broad demographic appeal. A lot of Death Note fans would probably never guess that the original manga ran in Shounen Jump alongside the likes of Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece, because it feels like something made with adults in mind. It has dark, serious themes, a working understanding of psychology and social politics, and a tendency towards very smartly-written strategic scenarios.

However, I don’t think there’s anything in Death Note which is so complex that the average fourteen year-old couldn’t easily follow along with it. All of the character motivations are made explicit again and again, and any of the complex scheming is explained in great detail. When the series raises a moral question, it is sure to spell out the nature of that moral question for the audience. Death Note takes the types of social concerns faced by adults, and presents them in such a way that a teenageer coming into contact with those concerns for the first time can easily understand. As such, Death Note can feel completely mindblowing to teenagers who’ve never seen anything like it, while being good enough for adults to remain engaged with it all the way.

Likewise, Attack on Titan is an incredibly straightforward narrative, but is heavy enough with its dramatic moments and intense scenes of violence that it can attract both an adult and teenaged audience. Adults have a tendency towards dark, mysterious, and bleak fictional universes, while teenagers like to see exciting, violent scenes that make them feel more adult for being able to handle them. Even Highschool of the Dead is obviously geared towards those audiences, and Araki himself said that he was aiming to make it something which his fourteen year-old self would have been rushing out to buy on video. Araki rides that perfect line between the sensibilities of a teenager first getting into the world of adult media, and an adult who can still be excited by the dark, mysterious, and sometimes intelligently written universes of his work.

To me, the library of Tetsuro Araki makes a strong parallel to that of Hollywood director Zack Snyder. Attack on Titan is his 300–a comic book adaptation with a very straightforward David and Goliath storyline, full of violence, crushing defeat, memorable speeches, kinetic action, hyper-stylized visuals, and a color pallette of almost entirely browns and burnt orange. Death Note is his Watchmen–hyper-dramatizing what was originally a comparatively more low-key comic book series about a man trying to save the world by killing most of the people in it, with strong socio-political themes and a dark tone. Highschool of the Dead is his Dawn of the Dead for reasons that should be pretty obvious. Guilty Crown is his Sucker Punch–an original story which kicks the stylish visuals and music up to eleven, but is undercut by a script that goes all over the place and ends up being kind of a trainwreck. And Kurozuka is his Legend of the Guardians, because no one watched them. Even when you look at the mentality that Zack Snyder had with making movies like Sucker Punch, wherein he just wanted to appeal to his inner fourteen year-old boy and make something awesome, you can draw a parallel to Araki’s aforementioned comments about Highschool of the Dead. Hopefully, this doesn’t mean that Tetsuro Araki’s next work will be his Man of Steel, but only time will tell.

Incidentally, Tetsuro Araki has an upcoming project called Koutetsujou no Kabaneri which will be animated once more by Wit Studio, the team behind Attack on Titan, and written by Ichiro Okouchi, who previously wrote the third most-popular anime on MAL, Code Geass. There isn’t much information nor any hype surrounding this series just yet, but I won’t be the least bit surprised if it’s a huge success, regardless of whether or not it’s even any good.

All in all, while I can’t say that I’ve been a big fan of any of Tetsuro Araki’s work, I think it’s admirable that he knows how to tap into the core appeal of the works he choses to adapt, and can present them in such an accessible and exciting way. Not unlike Zack Snyder, I get the sense that Araki really enjoys making the shows that he does, and isn’t at all cynical about manufacturing them to work for a broad audience. This isn’t a guy who directs broad, appealing shows in the name of making money, but because he legitimately enjoys those kinds of shows, which is why he has such a strong grasp on what will resonate most with his audience.

If you’re a fan of any of Tetsuro Araki’s works, let me know what grabbed you about them and what you think of his style in general down in the comments. And if you like my channel and want to help me to make more videos, consider supporting me via patreon or paypal, or just by sharing this video around. Peace!

2 thoughts on “Death Note, Attack On Titan, and How to Direct Mainstream Anime

  1. (Little note: I am Italian and I don’t wrote or talk too much in english, so I apologize if I’ll make some grammatical mistakes in this comment). Personally I really like his style directing: its not only memorable but even very recognizable to me, differently to other anime directors (exept for Ryutaro Nakamura, Satoshi Kon and Hayao Miyazaki). But, even if its very stylish, its also pretty clear and simple to understand, while another directors like, for exemple, M. Night Shyamalan overused it to the point that it just create a slow, lifeless, pretentious mess . Araki’s style, on the other hand, its very linear, emotional and passionate: the scene in Guilty Crown (an anime that I love, even if its full of flaws) where Shu takes off Inori’s void for the first time, with that soundtrack that just goes BAM!, pumped me in every time I seen it. I don’t think its perfect but it does what it does and never failed to entertain me.

    • (Little note: I am Italian and I don’t wrote or talk too much in english, so I apologize if I’ll make some grammatical mistakes in this comment). Personally I really like his style directing: its not only memorable but even very recognizable to me, differently to other anime directors (exept for Ryutaro Nakamura, Satoshi Kon and Hayao Miyazaki). But, even if its very stylish, its also pretty clear and simple to understand, while another directors like, for exemple, M. Night Shyamalan overused it to the point that it just create a slow, lifeless, pretentious mess . Araki’s style, on the other hand, its very linear, emotional and passionate: the scene in Guilty Crown (an anime that I love, even if its full of flaws) where Shu takes off Inori’s void for the first time, with that soundtrack that just goes BAM!, pumped me in every time I seen it. I don’t think its perfect but it does what it does and never failed to entertain me.

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