The Indestructible Studio Gainax: Part II

by Callum May,

Welcome to Part II of our 4-part history of Studio Gainax. If you missed part I, you can find it right here!

Studio GAINAX was one of the first studios to bring together merchandising and anime production under one roof. Not as part of any specific goals, but rather just because these were two hobbies that they took seriously. By producing merchandise from their own productions, they were able to reap more of the profits instead of having to deal with paying licensing fees. The team at GAINAX were never great businessmen, but they'd always excelled when it came to finding ways to sell.

1985 - GAINAX Aims for the Top!

The distance between General Products and GAINAX was never really clear. They were two separate companies, but until they merged in 1987, they operated as two separate companies that many of the staff worked between. General Products wasn't just helpful as a way of providing funds, however. It also proved instrumental to making introductions at companies whose support they needed. Their first step was to contact Bandai with their idea, having been in contact with the company for merchandise produced at General Products. They contacted a producer by the name of Shigeru Watanabe, who ended up being a major reason for GAINAX's success through the rest of the 1980s.


GAINAX staff visit the National Air and Space Museum in Washington

Shigeru Watanabe wasn't someone to make snap decisions by himself. When approached with GAINAX's proposal for a new sci-fi anime project, he instead opted to contact the anime directors that he respected. For a long time, Watanabe would contact Mamoru Oshii (who had just completed the very first OVA, Dallos) and ask for his thoughts on potential new films. Watanabe had only just moved from planning new figurines for Bandai and so for many years, he would ask for advice, particularly from Mamoru Oshii.

Toshio Okada later remarked amusingly that Oshii's advice was very good for GAINAX, as Watanabe worked to get the film a high budget and turned it from a direct-to-video production into a theatrical film, aiming to compete with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. In fact, even the title of the film was chosen to draw comparisons between the two: The Wings of Honneamise. Bandai even asked Hayao Miyazaki himself to look over a short pilot film of Wings. Like Oshii, Miyazaki was impressed, and also expressed the need for a large budget (The film ended up costing 800,000,000 yen (3.3 million US dollars at the time)).

It became a lot of responsibility for the anime staff only in their 20s and it resulted in a series of bad decisions. This idea was originally a story for the sci-fi convention goers of Osaka. Even the city the Royal Space Force operates from is based on Osaka. They were now expected to turn this idea into something with mass appeal. To create this film, GAINAX moved to a much larger building than they'd prepared for when they believed this would just be a short OVA film. However, after production ended and the film failed to make back its budget, they downsized to a more sustainable location. Okada later stated that he regards the film as having failed to hit the mainstream and believes the screenplay and plot made the film far too niche for a wide audience.

Additionally, when selling the rights to localise The Wings of Honneamise for English-speaking audiences, GAINAX accepted a costly deal that ended up embarrassing the original film. It was hastily translated and dubbed, being originally released in the US as Star Quest with parts of the story changed and characters renamed. It only screened once and with Toshio Okada in attendance, a member of staff on the dub proclaimed that they changed the script due to the original not being very good anyways. The film was later re-translated and re-dubbed (and got back its original title) and released to the public, gaining a cult audience in America.

Following The Wings of Honneamise, Bandai offered Studio GAINAX a deal. If they could come up with an anime idea that would sell more than 10,000 copies, they would fund it. At the time, GAINAX was working on other projects, including the first anime adaptation of Appleseed, an hour long OVA directed by the assistant director of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. But GAINAX took Bandai's offer seriously and started planning Gunbuster (Known as “Aim for the Top!” in Japan), a new OVA series. At this point, it's not really possible to nail down exactly whose story it ended up being. Although GAINAX had experience in anime production, they still preferred to cross the boundaries of roles and discuss ideas together.


Gunbuster

Originally, the OVAs would have been directed by Shinji Higuchi, one of the other original DAICON Film members (who eventually went on to direct the Attack on Titan live action movies and Shin Godzilla with Hideaki Anno), but their schedules didn't end up aligning thanks to delays in the project. Gunbuster was left with a screenplay, but no director. At the time, Hideaki Anno was busy on other projects, but after reading a screenplay by Hiroyuki Yamaga, he requested that he be the one to direct the series.

Anno was a huge fan of Yamaga's script, but that didn't stop him from changing it entirely. Yamaga wanted it to be a “stupid robot-girl anime”, but it was instead formed into something that was partly a parody anime, whilst also being a genuinely compelling mecha story. The series started out like Yamaga's work, but over time, he added more of his own quirks. In fact, the sixth and final episode was shot entirely in black and white, actually costing the studio even more money than they'd planned for. During production, GAINAX upscaled again, returning to the building in which they'd produced Wings of Honneamise. In 1988, the first part of Hideaki Anno's directorial debut was released.

1989 - A Production Disaster

Whilst the lead staff at Studio GAINAX started thinking about a new project to follow Gunbuster, Takami Akai had an idea for a project that would transform the studio. As a fan of PC games, he realised that the studio could take advantage of all the animators on staff to create art for their own games. He approached Yasuhiro Takeda about his idea who gave him the greenlight and set out to create a new game by himself. The game was called Cybernetic High School and featured the player answering questions to gradually strip the female characters. Unsurprisingly, the title became incredibly popular and other members at GAINAX (Including Toshio Okada) joined in on creating sequels, including one featuring the cast of Gunbuster. At this time, the studio building was a mesh of activity. In the main area would be the animators, in a room near to Okada's office would be the General Products team producing garage kits and further along would be a computer space where the staff worked on new GAINAX games.


Cybernetic High School

(“Now then, let's begin class. Please answer yes or no to the questions.”)

But in the meantime, conflict had arisen in the leadership. When they had originally founded GAINAX, they'd brought on a Tezuka Productions producer by the name of Hiroaki Inoue. As the only professional producer at the company, he'd been responsible for dealing with budgeting and keeping Bandai happy during the production of The Wings of Honneamise. But the current president, Toshio Okada, wasn't as reliable. Back when he was the president of General Products, the staff staged a walkout due to Okada's disorganisation as head of the company. Okada even admitted years later that when he was in charge of GAINAX, they'd be making loads of money one month and no money at at all the next. There was no consistency.

Inoue challenged Okada for the leadership of the company and in response, invited an old friend from General Products, Takeshi Sawamura, to come to Tokyo and help lead the studio. This prompted Inoue to intercept a production proposal from NHK, asking for character designs and pre-production ideas for a brand new project. Inoue took control by sending his pitch to NHK behind Okada's back. This would become Nadia - The Secret of Blue Water.


Nadia - The Secret of Blue Water

When the pitch was accepted, the rest of the GAINAX leadership went to NHK and demanded that Inoue be removed from the project entirely. The rest of the production staff sided with GAINAX. Inoue left both the project and GAINAX itself in August of 1989 and eventually joined AIC as a producer. The original story of Nadia was pitched by Hayao Miyazaki, but after discussions, he dropped out from the project, leaving the director's spot open. At first, this was given to Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, but he was soon replaced with Hideaki Anno after he decided he'd prefer to work on character design instead.

Nadia - The Secret of Blue Water was driving GAINAX closer to bankruptcy. The proposal written up by Inoue was far too risky for the studio to afford. As well as this, GAINAX's usual production environment did not suit the stresses of TV anime production at all. Directors and writers would take home scripts and screenplays to change them to surprise each other, all with the approval of Okada. This sort of environment wouldn't normally have caused as many problems, but there were large parts of the series that were produced in Korea that drove the series into a situation that Okada described as “Real chaos. Just like hell.” It didn't help that Hideaki Anno struggled with finding an ending, eventually deciding on the finale just three months before it was meant to air.

1991 - “In the Beginning of GAINAX, We Were All Just Friends,” Said Toshio Okada

What saved the studio financially at the time was Takami Akai's game development. Prompted by an idea by Okada to make a game about raising a girl (instead of taking the clothes off of them), Akai produced Princess Maker, the first in one of GAINAX's most successful series of games. It was so successful that after Nadia, Okada suggested that the studio pull out of anime production entirely and just focus on making games. In The Notenki Memoirs, Takeda recalls thinking “You frickin’ idiot” at the time as he teamed up with Akai to argue that anime was the reason their game development was popular to begin with. In fact, their video game adaptation of Nadia - The Secret of Blue Water was considered wildly popular.


Nadia - The Secret of Blue Water for the Famicom (1991)

The studio was in a slump and Toshio Okada wasn't doing anything. Takeshi Sawamura, eventually cut his salary whilst Yasuhiro Takeda asked him to quit. What came next is unclear. Two of the main sources for this article are The Notenki Memoirs: Studio GAINAX and the Men Who Created Evangelion, written by Yasuhiro Takeda and an extensive interview with Toshio Okada from 1996, published in Animerica. Takeda describes what happens next as a mutual decision amongst top members at GAINAX to force Okada out of the company. However, Okada details his own self-satisfaction that drove him to quit, as he'd accomplished everything he'd wanted to at GAINAX.

Regardless, Toshio Okada, the Otaking and the first member of DAICON Film and Studio GAINAX left in 1992 after 12 years of working in anime production. He has never been involved in animation production since and has spent the last 25 years as a pundit, writing books and conducting lectures on otaku culture.

Today, he can be found commenting on the anime industry on his Youtube channel.

Stay tuned for Part 3, covering the new Studio GAINAX following Okada's departure, Neon Genesis Evangelion and a tax evasion scandal.


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