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Hideaki Anno: Before Evangelion

by Matthew Roe,

It's been thoroughly refreshing that, with the impending worldwide re-release of Neon Genesis Evangelion on Netflix, everyone's talking about series creator and legendary artist Hideaki Anno again. This has been compounded by recent rumors of Anno helming an Ultraman movie, though (if true) this would delay the release of the most recent film in the Evangelion Rebuild series. Regardless of our personal opinions, upon its initial release in 1995, the twenty-six-episode series would spark a revolution in original and experimental anime. While the ripples of this seminal work have influenced subsequent generations of artists, Anno's profound and multifaceted career extends far past this single show. As a matter of fact, he had already built a reputation as one of Japan's most innovative animators - a talent he fostered quite early in life and would obsess over for decades.

By the time Anno was in junior high school, he was already deeply fascinated by manga and oil paintings, and an ardent member of the school's art club. In 1976, while he was enduring the opening ceremonies at the prestigious Yamaguchi Prefectural Ube High School, Anno became completely convinced that any further formal education would be a waste of time. He poured the majority of his attention into manga, anime, tokusatsu, astronomy, and mahjong - his fleeting attention to school work and rebellious nature often labeled him a “problem child.” During his sophomore year, Anno purchased an 8mm movie camera and began making live-action movies and cel animations, screening them at his school's festivals. Anno “became enamored with the delights of paper animation” and formed an amateur production company with his friends.

After flunking his college entrance exams and twiddling his thumbs for about a year, all the while fanboying over Mobile Suit Gundam and Ultraman 80, Anno was pressured by his family to finally apply for higher education and was accepted to Osaka University of Arts in 1980. Anno quickly met and befriended Hiroyuki Yamaga and Takami Akai, two of the eventual founders of Gainax, and (rather serendipitously) in their second year, were invited to work on the opening animation sequence for the 20th Japan Science Fiction Convention, titled Daicon III. While they were thoroughly excited by this opportunity, after discovering the towering costs of animation cels, they had rely their entire production on a single cel, a roll of vinyl, and their creative ingenuity. Crafted in a back room of Toshio “OtaKing” Okada's house (another Gainax founder), the trio all shared production responsibilities, with Yamaga credited as director, Akai as character animator, and Anno as mecha animator. While there were several unnamed people assisting with tracing and painting, they would not come to be credited in the final product.

Daicon III centers on a school girl delivering a cup of water to the spaceship Daicon at the insistence of Ultraman's Science Patrol, and all the wacky antics that ensue. The subsequent three-and-a-half minutes combine a veritable avalanche of characters from a wide array of properties, including Starship Troopers, Godzilla, Star Wars, The War of the Worlds, Atragon, Star Trek, Space Battleship Yamato, and Daimajin. The film was also shown privately to anime great Osamu Tezuka at the convention, who would remark on the absence of his characters, which would come to have a large impact on the animating trio, with them including Tezuka's characters in their next project. Anno's personal biography is quoted in saying this experience made him fall “in love with the joys of the team effort that went into film production and the preparation and execution of conventions,” effectively solidifying his full-on love for anime and otakudom (which would directly lead Anno to be one of first the major figures to redefine “otaku” as a positive term).

Upon the success of Daicon III, Anno was invited by Studio Nue to join the production staff of Super Dimension Fortress Macross (1982-1983) as a key animator for the pilot episode. He became so enraptured by the process of the industry that he spent almost all his time at the studio, even sleeping in the offices - any remaining time was either spent playing mahjong or with famed animation director Ichiro Itano (who was also in the early years of his career). Roughly around this time is when Anno first met Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (another one of Gainax's future founders) and the venerable Mahiro Maeda, two collaborators who would greatly influence and assist Anno throughout his career. The early production of Super Dimension Fortress Macross was a living nightmare for many who would work on it - from nearly losing nearly an entire episode because someone left it on a train, to numerous funding crises, the production almost seemed doomed from minute one. But the overwhelming success of the series extended its production budget and the show would go on to be one of the most profitable franchises of the decade. Anno would rejoin the series' staff for episodes 24 and episode 27, while simultaneously creating an extended twenty-seven-minute version of his live-action Ultraman fan film that he had produced for Yamaga a year earlier, releasing it as The Return of Ultraman.

The Return of Ultraman, 1983

Now, while Yamaga, Akai and Anno had moderate success with Daicon III at the convention, the team had gone into debt, and resorted to selling VHS and 8mm reel copies of the film to make ends meet. As their minor reputation built up, they would form the production crew of Daicon Film, producing the Daicon IV opening animation for the 1983 Japan Science Fiction Convention, and training the participating staff. Like the previous animated short, Daicon IV is a visual onslaught of pop culture and entertainment references. It follows a grown-up version of the previous main character, now in a bunny outfit often worn by Playboy models, and scored by Kitarō's “Noah's Ark,” and a pair of Electric Light Orchestra songs. None of this appropriated material was licensed for use, and their failure to do so would later prevent an official release of the film for home consumption.

Though the team behind Daicon IV this time had a dedicated “studio,” Yasuhiro Takeda would claim in his 2005 autobiography The Notenki Memoirs: Studio Gainax and the Men Who Created Evangelion that it was as close to a literal anime sweatshop as was probably possible, with many staff members being locked inside the building after closing and forced to work all night without air conditioning. Though the declared length was supposed to be fifteen minutes, the massive difficulties of the production resulted in the final product clocking in at just under seven-and-a-half minutes. While their first effort was obviously produced on a hairstring-of-a-hairstring budget, and the animation quality and limitations were expressive of this, Daicon IV comprises a much more lavish and complex animation style, and is able to accomplish quite a lot with a seemingly small amount of production support.

As his work with these projects had completely taken over his life, Anno was subsequently expelled from Osaka University, which he would use as an opportunity to take off for Tokyo to look for more work. While answering an ad in Animage magazine calling for animators for Hayao Miyazaki's 1984 sophomore feature Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Anno would impress Miyazaki so much that he was put in charge of one of the most difficult sequences in the movie: the God Warrior's attack sequence. He would subsequently spend almost every waking hour at Studio Topcraft's offices for the duration of his involvement (the film's complete production would run roughly nine months, and be fraught with borderline-disasters and complications), and would grow so close with Miyazaki that their friendship endures to the present day. Nausicaä would go on to receive massive critical acclaim and a strong box office, eventually being ranked as one of the greatest animated films of all time.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 1984

Anno's contributions to the film had dramatically honed his animation talent, as well as furthered his understanding of what it meant to helm elements of a large-scale production. This experience likewise afforded the young animator some industry interest, including acclaim from Toshio Suzuki, editor of Animage. He would use his sharpened skills and reputation to great effect as a key animator for Studio Nue and Topcraft's theatrical film The Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love? After a sizable national marketing campaign generated massive hype around the film, with fans camping outside theaters prior to the public premiere, the film would release to critical acclaim and a fantastic box office. It was ranked only behind Nausicaä in the 1984 edition of the Anime Grand Prix as the two most popular releases of the year.

During the production, Anno befriended the Assistant Animation Director Shōichi Masuo, and while the two would also work together on episode 156 of Urusei Yatsura (1981-1986), the two created Studio Gravitron to gather freelance animators. Though I was only able to find this studio referenced in Anno's biography on the Studio Khara website, and sites reblogging that same biography, Anno reportedly lived at the Gravitron offices and only worked “when he was broke or when something caught his fancy.” These fancies would consist of key animation work on Shinya Sadamitsu's OVA Birth (which echoed Anno's love and fascination with futuristic science-fiction, humanity-ending weapons, mechas, and strange alien species), and concluded the year key animating the fourth part of the early hentai serial Cream Lemon. This fact makes Anno one of the very few highly lauded anime directors (that I am aware of) that have dipped their toes in animated porn - the other arguably being Akiyuki Simbo. While he had a meteoric year in animation, was visibly a talented artist with a creative muscle to flex and on the prowl for a niche, he would conclude 1984 on his highest point: co-founding Studio Gainax.

The studio's name was a suggestion by Akai as a play on a seldom-used Tottori Prefecture term for “giant,” and he and Anno would reconnect with his former Osaka chums Yamaga, Okada, Sadamoto, Takeda, and Shinji Higuchi to form the fledgling production company. Headquartered in a residential apartment in the Takadanobaba neighborhood in Tokyo, the team set out to make a feature film - they produced a four-minute promotional short to sell the idea of what would become Royal Space Force - The Wings of Honnêamise (1987) to Bandai Visual. Bandai president Makoto Yamashina was so impressed by the long-form investment trailer that the feature production was approved for a 800 million yen budget (roughly $3,077,830 US dollars in 1985), a record amount at the time for an anime film. Anno and many other members of the production staff would travel to the United States for aviation and spacecraft research, which included watching the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery. Anno reportedly “regretted not paying more attention in his English classes,” though upon his return to Japan, his attention was fully immersed in Gainax's promising debut feature. He was just 25 years old.

Anno is credited as animation director, layout designer, production designer, and special effects artist on Honnêamise, and his numerous positions are highly emblematic of the whole Gainax crew, who all followed similar suit and had their hands in every part of the production. This dedication and eclectic work ethic would come to distinguish these artists in their subsequent careers, especially Anno, and make Gainax true to its name as an industry giant. During this time Anno would also outsource his key animation talent to the first Megazone 23 OAV, a cyberpunk mystery with a focus on simulated realities, with many drawing comparisons years later to the works of David Cronenberg and the Wachowskis. He would conclude the year by designing and conducting miniature work for Yamata no Orochi no Gyakushū, a seventy-two-minute 16mm special effects kaiju movie, and the final fan film the team would release under their Daicon Film label. This film actually became so popular, that it was actually released on video (and eventually DVD) by Bandai, though copies making their way out of Japan have been fairly rare, compounded by Gainax ceasing its sales. A few copies can apparently still be snagged through Japan's Amazon Marketplace.

Yamata no Orochi no Gyakushū, 1985

After nearly 18 months of grueling work developing the visual designs and screenplay, animation production finally began on Honnêamise, which roughly coincided with the gang moving the studio to Kichijōji in the city of Musashino in Tokyo, in order to accommodate an expanded staff (many of whom were recruited by Anno himself). Honnêamise would be set to be released in 1987, with an advertising campaign eerily structured to make the film seem similar to Nausicaä. Even though they do share plot and thematic elements (and some of the same staff), it arguably was a poor decision, possibly leading to Honnêamise's disappointing box office returns and its inability to even break even with its budget. However, that didn't stop it from instantly achieving near-universal critical acclaim on an international scale, eventually becoming solidified as an anime classic.

The Wings of Honneamise, 1987

Though the work on Honnêamise had thoroughly satisfied and exhausted Anno, he made a brief return to freelancing, which included key animating Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01 (1987) and Kindan no Mokushiroku: Crystal Triangle (1987), serving as Assistant Animation Director on Battle Royal High School (1987), and was hired by Nintendo to direct a three-minute promo for the 1987 FamiCom game VALIS (bringing back a lot of the vibes and pacing of the old Daicon shorts). Around this time, he would come across Yamaga's screenplay for the second episode of what would become Gunbuster (1988) and was reportedly “moved to tears.” He eventually felt compelled to direct the project himself, but when its pre-production stalled, he slid over to work on Isao Takahata's soul-crushingly beautiful magnum opus, Grave of the Fireflies (1987). He would spend a month key animating the Heavy Cruiser Maya, but upon seeing the alterations made to his work in the final product he would begin his descent into an infamously severe depression that would last roughly seven agonizing years. While working on mechanical designs for the feature film Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack (1988), he began his extensive involvement in the six-episode Gunbuster OAV. In addition to his roles as series director and storyboard artist, he also co-wrote (with Okada, the series writer) and key animated the final two episodes, and then planned and co-wrote (with the recently befriended Kazuya Tsurumaki) two bonus science episodes that were included in the eventual laserdisc release.

While his work on every previous project in his preceding career has detailed the creative rise and maturity of an artist searching for new methodologies, it was this debut, heavily inspired by the 1986 American action film Top Gun, that became the flagship of Anno's unique stylization and evolving tropes that would become to hallmark his career for the majority of the 1990s. These tropes would of course include the birth of “Gainaxing:” the art of accentuating every possible movement of a woman's breasts through animation. Considering how oversaturated this aspect is to the point of eye-bleeding insanity in contemporary anime-related media, it's sometimes humbling to remember that a little OVA from a freshman ragtag bunch of rouge animators started it all - whether that's good or bad is up to you. Gunbuster is also often cited (though not to my knowledge by Anno himself) as a spiritual predecessor to Evangelion (alongside its much more obvious influence, Ultraman) as it handles many similar elements in similar contexts - especially the use of cosmic horror, mecha and alien battles, morality play, and the expanse (and dangers) of the human mind.

Gunbuster, 1988

Anno has said of his time on Gunbuster that he was challenged harder than any earlier point in his career, and faced grueling obstacles he had not anticipated or prepared for adequately. But he was able to consistently rise to the occasion, much to his own surprise, and provide Gainax with a nice feather in its cap. The episodes would be split into a three-volume VHS set, and a three-disc laserdisc set, and would eventually find their way onto DVD in 2001. It became Gainax's first commercial success, and was recognized by anime communities as the first OVA genuinely made by and for otaku, and that anime could finally “be made for its own sake.”

While embroiled in an internal power struggle within Gainax, leading directly to the resignation of producer Hiroaki Inoue, Anno would snag chief director on what would become the 1990 series Nadia - The Secret of Blue Water. The series began as a mid-1970s idea from Hayao Miyazaki while he was working for TOHO. Loosely adapted from Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Anno's involvement would quickly stumble into the most infamously terrible period of his blossoming career, subsequently plunging him into a depression that would consume almost every aspect of his daily life. Though the demands and pressures of leading a full anime serial are enough to over-stress anyone, it was the complete lack of creative control over what he was producing which made Anno disassociate so completely from the series and eventually from life itself.

Nadia - The Secret of Blue Water, 1990

In 1991, after departing Nadia, which had ballooned massively in popularity and scooped up a handful of prestigious awards, Anno's inability to move pass his crushing disappointment and mental angst would result in long stretches of wasted days and self-sabotaged projects and collaborations. While he was originally brought on to direct the Nadia theatrical film, his involvement was short-lived and Anno soon found himself doing some minor uncredited acting in the iconic Otaku no Video (1991), and being a special guest animator on several episodes of the Giant Robo (1991) OVA. Side note: even though Anno is mostly recognized by his groundbreaking direction, as we actually compile his history, we see how much anime to which he had invested his talents, and it's a surprisingly sizable list.

As Gainax moved on with other properties, continuing to try new avenues in anime design, Anno began working on a feature film titled Uru in Blue, which was to be a sequel to Honnêamise and set 50 years later. With Anno directing, Yamaga writing, and Sadamoto executive producing, its highly-flawed production would eventually halt in 1993, mainly due to Gainax's mounting monetary troubles and faltering businesses (largely brought on by reckless financial deregulation throughout the 1980s, dragging Japan into a devastating financial crisis). Though they would announce revival attempts in 1998, 2001, and 2013, it wasn't until Yamaga announced in 2017 that production had begun again, that any hope for this expansive and costly film was plausible. It is currently being created by Studio Gaina (formerly Fukushima Gainax), and is slated for a 2022 release - but we'll see how that goes.

With Uru in Blue cancelled, Anno took up scuba diving and skiing to pass the time, and would occasionally assist on various projects attached to Gainax over the next couple of years. He would key animate Masuo's Crimson Wolf (1993), a pair of scenes of Sailor Moon R: The Movie (1993), episode 1 of Macross Plus (1994), segments of Macross Plus Movie Edition (1994), and was animation director for the Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune transformation scenes in the Sailor Moon S serial (1994-1995). However, Takeda probably explains the next “legendary” developments best in The Notenki Memoirs:

“Anno knew a guy from King Records named Otsuki, and as the story goes, the two were out drinking one day when Otsuki suggested to Anno that they work on an anime television project together. Anno agreed on the spot, came back to the office and promptly announced it to everyone. Nobody even batted an eyelash. We just accepted it without further thought.” (Takeda 164)

Anno has reportedly claimed Otsuki remarked, “Bring me something, anything, and I'll make sure it gets greenlit,” and you can imagine what happened next. Here's a hint - it's set to drop on Netflix on June 21st, 2019.

Look forward to the conclusion of our Hideaki Anno retrospective on Wednesday, June 19th!

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