Buried Treasure
Hideaki Anno Talks to Kids

by Justin Sevakis, May 3rd 2007

Otaku-dom has something of a poster child in Hideaki Anno. Scrawny, unkempt, and with self-esteem peaking well below measurable levels, he's become known for his neurotic demeanor as much as for the anime he's directed.

In 1999, shortly after the successes of Evangelion and Kare Kano, Anno participated in a popular NHK show called "Welcome Back for an Extracurricular Lesson, Sempai!", where popular personalities revisit the town they grew up in to teach a class at their old primary schools. For anyone who has peeked into the very, very dark current of thought he vented so readily in Evangelion, the thought of this is impossible not to snicker at.

Whether you love or hate Evangelion, Anno is a director that can't be ignored. His unique visual style, of course, has permanently affected anime since Eva was released, but his work since then seems to prove more than that. His live action films, "Love & Pop" and "Shiki-jutsu" are important works that explore the lack of confidence that has become his highlight. More than that, though, I find the man himself utterly fascinating in how he thinks about emotions and relating to other people.

This week's Buried Treasure is a TV special that is more insightful than anything else I've read about the man. As there is little chance you will ever see this TV special, I will dispense with my usual evasiveness at key plot points, and attempt to give you a play-by-play. It's the least I can do.

Hideaki Anno talks to kids

We're introduced to Anno's hometown of Ube, a factory town in Yamaguchi Prefecture. It's not a particularly pleasant place. Rather, it has a dingy, dirty feel to it. Apparently Ube, which was supported by a chemical plant, has been going through some rough financial times. Smog and smokestacks dominate the sky. Unoshimma Elementary, where Anno went to school, is still in use, and seems to not have been renovated since before Anno attended.

The kids are adorable, of course. One proudly announces he's an otaku. Most of them are Eva fans. Before Anno arrives, they are to draw and write what they think he's like, based on their thoughts from watching Eva. Puzzled, they just start coming up with silliness.

Anno, meanwhile, is in the midst of another breakdown at the thought of teaching kids. Apparently the program's producers really had to use some persuasion to get him to appear. "I don't have any confidence," he says, a little too casually. He walks through town, full of nostalgia (obviously he seldom visits), offering up such pleasant childhood memories as, "there used to be a river here and it was full of leeches."

Deathly afraid of children, Anno steps into the classroom and starts by going through the kids fantasy drawings of him, which range from shoujo manga bishounen to something closer to a 1950's era robot. "That's completely wrong," he says in nervous response to a girl who suggested he wears pink. Noting his poor posture, one girl suggests he looks a bit like Eva Unit 01.

The assignment wasn't just busy work. "Japanese society is obsessed with information, so I wanted them to visualize something without any information at all," he notes. Despite his insistence to the contrary, he clearly has something of a game plan.

The Q&A session is next.

"What's your hobby?"

"Work is like a hobby to me."

"Why is that robot-thingy called Evangelion?"

"It comes from a Christian word meaning 'Gospel' and it's supposed to bring blessings. It has has some Greek roots. I chose the name because it sounds complicated."

"What does Rei like?" Otaku boy asks. "I haven't thought about it," is Anno's curt reply. He's not exactly a verbal person, but he's keenly aware of subtle things that affect how the kids might react to him, so he does things like maintain eye level with them. Anno admits he has a self-esteem problem. "I'm not crazy about myself. I'm often told that those who don't like themselves have high ideals, but I think someone who says that doesn't really understand the pain that's involved," he muses.

"Do you like the anime you make?"

"There's parts I like and parts I don't."

"What parts do you dislike?"

"The parts that I'm in."

Anyway, he gives the kids a quick lesson in animation, using the tried and true "bouncing ball" demo. The kids are given a light box and a tap (the pegs that the registration holes in the paper fit into), and are to try to attempt animation themselves. Their reaction is typical of first time animators: "All that work, and it was so short!"

After a quick school lunch (Anno barely eats, and refuses all meat and fish) The kids are brought by bus into town to interview Anno's parents and childhood friends. Their goal is to try to figure out what kind of kid he was. He's pretty much exactly how one would imagine.

The kids interview people in haphazard fashion, and the responses are hilarious. Anno's mother answers the children in an old tired voice, while his father interjects with lines like, "He wasn't very good at sports." After showing great talent at painting early on, he was rejected from a contest and turned his attention to manga. "He has such a stubborn personailty," his mother notes.

One friend notes that he loved watching the stars. His elementary school graduation essay was basically about how he's frustrated that he's not allowed to draw manga in class. On the rooftop of a department store, Anno reminisces about attending a Gundam show on the rooftop.

The next day, the kids are assigned to take what they've learned, and attempt to make an anime of Anno as a 6th grader. Anno, who was earlier so intimidated by children, is delighted. "Because they don't try to bumble through trying to do something technically skilled, their work is pure. I had almost lost that part inside of me, and I'm happy to rediscover it."

After the kids present their (much improved) animations, Anno wraps up by explaining the point of such free-form exercises. "In school tests, there's only one answer for each question, and you might get zero or half points if you're wrong. But in the real world, things aren't so black and white, so think about things on your own and express them in words or pictures. That's how you communicate with people. That's so important."

The class seems to understand, but by the end of the program, Anno seems to have learned a bit more about himself, and, dare I say, learned to appreciate himself a little more. I can't help but wonder how that affected his works after that.

"To express something is basically said to be the task of filling in what's missing. It's the effort to get an idea across to others. The effort of trying to make yourself look normal. Those who are unable to relate to strangers in a normal way trying to do something shrewd in order to maintain their relationship with them. That's what it is for me, at least."

Needless to say, to an Anno fan, this TV special is a gigantic treat, not just for the insight into the man, but the change we see in him. It's clearly not a put-on by the show's staff; Anno even carries himself differently by the end of the show. Of course, there's also the priceless footage of him -- a grown man -- practicing Kamen Rider arm formations on top of a playground slide.

The power lines, the landscapes of man-made structures -- including many of of Anno's visual trademark shots -- are so obviously influenced by these surroundings that we almost expect to see Asuka rounding the corner. His early paintings, as displayed by his mother, show a bit of his style, but his doodles don't look so recognizable.

NHK is world-renowned for their documentary production, and this series is no slouch. Japanese TV is usually awash in bright flashes of text, studio audience reactions, and poor editing, but "Welcome Back" is presented more like a piece on Dateline NBC. Subtle editing touches include the frequent use of Evangelion's musical score (by Shiro Sagisu), and putting Anno and the kids in particularly Evangelion-like situations (including the occasional use of Anno's favorite fish-eye lens). They don't overdo it, and luckily the show never descends into outright parody. Unfortunately, I have no credits for the show's staff.

Anno has since expanded his horizons quite a bit, having gotten quite involved with Japan's more progressive filmmakers such as Shunji Iwai (All About Lily Chou Chou) Katsuhito Ishii (The Taste of Tea), and even played a small part in Ishii's most recent film, Funky Forest. His live action films have been mixed successes, both critically and commercially. But more importantly, he's gotten married, and he's about to come full circle with the release of the new Evangelion movies. If his creative output is any indication, he seems happier now than he did before (could he have made live action Cutey Honey BEFORE overcoming depression?), and it's fun to think that this TV special might have captured one of his turning points.


Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

How to get it:

Believe it or not, this episode (and only this episode) of "Welcome Back" was actually made available to North American audiences, albeit in an almost undetectable way.

Hirameki International, the company who's been slowly attempting to introduce Visual Novels into the North American market, once tried their hand at producing a monthly DVD magazine called "AnimePlay" back in 2003. As with pretty much every attempt at a video magazine to date, AnimePlay met with a speedy demise (no doubt exacerbated by competition from Newtype USA, which was launched around the same time and featured a DVD in addition to a real magazine).

Most AnimePlay issues (I believe there were only three, total) didn't have much in the way of compelling content, and suffered from poor layout and authoring issues. However, the premiere issue, which was available only at a few conventions in the summer of 2003, included this episode, complete with (messy) English subtitles.

This disc is nearly impossible to find, but should you ever happen upon it, it's absolutely worth checking out.


Screenshots ©NHK

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