Hideaki Anno: A Career Retrospective

by Matthew Roe,

Update: It has been brought to our attention that some details presented in this documentary have come under dispute, and we wanted to apologize and clear up any misconceptions that may have arisen as a result.

Regarding Anno's involvement in the anime adaptation of Kare Kano (His & Her Circumstances), there has long existed considerable dispute as to whether he actually left the series early, or that he was still involved through the final episode. This debate has been largely centered on the differences in which Anno is credited in the final episodes, and that he shares director credits with Hiroki Sato. In the 2019 Blu-ray re-release of Kare Kano, the series included new interviews with Anno and Sato which set the record straight. Due to conflicts with TV Tokyo, Anno left the production halfway through Episode 14, to protect the creative freedom of the staff and to not bog down the already tight schedule, but returned to directorial duties shortly thereafter, and did not actually leave the series up to Sato to finish. So, while the experience did still put off Anno from helming another anime series after its completion, and the series was still constantly at odds with internal studio struggles at Gainax, as well as external struggles with TV Tokyo and Kare Kano creator Masami Tsuda, it is incorrect to say that Sato was solely responsible for the conclusion of the anime, or that Anno "abandoned" the series. Anno remained the series director for all 26 episodes.

The second detail which has been disputed is the assertion that the Daicon IV opening animation was bootlegged to LaserDisc by fans due to the copyright infringement brought about by Daicon Film using unlicensed music. This information was taken from the Polygon article "Neverending Evangelion" by Aaron Stewart-Ahn, in which he writes in relation to the opening in question, "The animation became an artifact of legend, traded among anime fans and even — despite the non-legal, trademark-infringing status — getting pressed to bootleg LaserDisc." This repurposed information was cited somewhat incorrectly, as its original reference was to the greater bootlegging phenomena surrounding Gainax's early works (most specifically Neon Genesis Evangelion), of which the Diacon openings were seemingly also involved. While there exists bootlegged LaserDisc copies of the Daicon openings shared among fans, with numerous threads online discussing how certain individuals attained their version of the Daicon openings, it is incorrect to say that the majority of copies at the time of its release were these illegal bootlegs. The character goods brand known as General Products, founded by Gainax co-founder Toshio Okada and other "veterans of the 20th Japan Sci-Fi Convention," started releasing Betamax and VHS releases of these openings released throughout the 1980s (the actions of which were referenced in the documentary when talking about the Daicon III opening, but unfortunately the brand was not directly named). So, while it is accurate that LaserDisc bootlegs of the Daicon openings do in fact exist, it is incorrect to claim that before General Products started selling official copies this was the method by which fans owned copies, as General Products itself was based on "the success of the Daicon III dealer's room," where Anno and the others directly sold copies of the work.

Thank you for your diligence in bringing these issues to light, and while we understand that mistakes happen, we are committed to providing accurate information in all of our content.

Hideaki Anno: The Early Years

Anime, even in its earliest days, was built on experimentation. Unlike nearly every other nation playing with animation at the turn of the 20th Century, Japan's foray was far more revolutionary, than it was rudimentary. However, in the coming decades its style and approach became largely dictated by external inspirations (such as Walt Disney) and state-mandated propaganda (both home-grown and pressured by foreign meddling). This wouldn't shift dramatically until after the Allied Occupation of Japan drew to a close, roughly in 1952.

Inspired by this long and turbulent period, the 1950s would see some of the most renowned names in Japanese film, being catapulted into widespread acclaim. The likes of Yasujirō Ozu, Ishirō Honda, and Akira Kurosawa were bursting onto the world stage; their technique, style, and direction eventually becoming models for a new world of moviemakers, including Sergio Leone, and George Lucas. Simultaneously, the newly created Toei Animation began cementing the foundations of the modern anime industry, though its initial efforts were lukewarm, both in their reception and in their execution. However, these earliest experiments in feature-length animating would come to inspire Osamu Tezuka, the Godfather of Manga himself, to found Mushi Production and Tezuka Productions in the early 1960s.

By the time the '60s were in full swing, anime was hitting its first major strides in modern technical innovation and cultural identity. These achievements were largely brought about by Tezuka's “limited animation” production method, whose reduced costs yet consistent quality made it more feasible for an animated series to be broadcast on television in weekly episodes. This methodology is so effective, it's still employed in anime production to this very day.

With these shifts came a modern tidal wave of household names in Japanese animation: Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki, Rintaro, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and the list goes on. A veritable renaissance sparked by a surge of singular perspectives, which were as deeply rooted in Japan's identity as they were influenced by worldwide multimedia. These new voices to the scene soon solidified the medium's unique style and cultural reflections. And in the midst of all this creation and innovation, Hideaki Anno would be born and raised.

“I became an animator by chance, really-it didn't happen by my will. Before I knew it, I was an animator. When I was a child, I wanted to be a bus driver or a train conductor; I never really had a specific vision or dream.”
-Interview with Ken Kawashima, Asahi Evening News, December 30, 1999

Anno was part of a new generation, born from a burgeoning middle class in post-war Japan. He became fascinated by manga and oil painting at young age, and though his family wasn't always supportive of his interests in the arts, he became an ardent member of his junior high school's art club. Upon entering high school in 1976, Anno reportedly became 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 schoolwork and his rebellious nature often labeling him a “problem child.” During his second 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, Anno was pressured by his family to finally apply for higher education. He would be accepted to Osaka University of Arts in 1980.

The 1980s

By the time 1980 had rolled around, the landscape was increasingly dominated by the robo-mecha genre, which would be supercharged by Studio Sunrise and their series Mobile Suit Gundam. That isn't to say this was the only genre gaining acclaim or mass appeal from anime fans, but its success wasn't fully due to the content of the series itself, since it had been abruptly cancelled by sponsors before the end of its run. But, much like George Lucas with Star Wars, it was the merchandising which helped it survive and thrive. The accessories and toys which were produced along with the series changed the game on how anime of this kind was engineered and marketed toward the contemporary shonen fanbase.

This series would highly impact Anno at this crucial juncture. His love for the anime, as well for the live-action Ultraman 80 series, would set the stage when he met and befriended Hiroyuki Yamaga and at Osaka University. Rather serendipitously, in 1981, the trio were invited to work on the opening animation sequence for the 20th Japan Science Fiction Convention, titled Daicon III. However, after realizing the funds required to purchase animation cels were well beyond their means, they centered their entire production on a single cel, a roll of vinyl, and their creative ingenuity.

Their production space for this three-and-a-half minute short was crammed into a back room in the home of a mutual friend, Toshio Okada. While credited with separate roles on the final product, Anno would share production responsibilities with Yamaga, Akai, and several uncredited tracing and painting assistants.

Centered 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, Diacon III combined an avalanche of characters from an array of properties, including Starship Troopers, Godzilla, Star Wars, and Space Battleship Yamato.

Upon its reveal at the convention, it was met with considerable fanfare. It gained such a rapid word-of-mouth reputation that the film was shown privately to Osamu Tezuka, who was in attendance. While he applauded the bombast of pop culture references, he noted they had forgotten to add any of his characters. This observation ultimately affected Anno and the others, with them ensuring that Tezuka's characters would be included in their next project.

Anno's personal biography claims that 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, this solidified his devotion to anime, and more specifically to otakudom.

According to the 2017 compendium, Cool: Style, Sound, and Subversion, written by Greg Foley and Andrew Luecke, before the 1980s, the Japanese word “otaku” was simply a pronoun meaning “you.”

The moment where otaku entered the larger lexicon as a reference to the overall fandom, was when essayist Akio Nakamori published a largely derisive article series in 1983, titled "Otaku no Kenkyu", in the monthly hentai magazine Manga Burikko. For the first decade after this formal introduction, it was used mostly as pejorative slang against fans.

This negative connotation reached a fever pitch with the 1989 arrest of the notorious Tsutomu Miyazaki, a serial killer, cannibal and rapist, who was dubbed the “Otaku Murderer” by the national press. Japanese news outlets and political entities would come to use these high-profile events as fuel in their attempts to enact widespread bans on anime and manga, as well as incite a moral panic against the fandom. The ramifications of which would be felt far into succeeding decades, even while the production of anime and manga improved in both quality and mass appeal.

Concurrent to the increasing negative reputation the anime and manga communities were garnering from the general public, Anno would be among several other prominent fans and creators who would eventually come to be major figures in the reclamation of “otaku” as an endearing term. This would come to pass not only within the fandom, but eventually the international stage, where the term “otaku” has now become synonymous with everything anime and manga. Though, it can be argued that his journey from fan to icon firmly began with his friends' exhibition of Daicon III, not only due to the success of the short animation, but because of how it succeeded in entrenching the amateur animators deep within the culture they would come to define.

Shortly after Daicon III's premiere, Anno was invited by Studio Nue to join as a key animator for the pilot episode of Super Dimension Fortress Macross. When he wasn't playing mahjong, Anno spent so much time at the studio, that he would sleep in vacant offices. Though, while exploring this process, he'd also meet Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and Mahiro Maeda, two future collaborators who would greatly influence and assist Anno throughout his subsequent career. Anno would rejoin the series' staff for episodes 24 and 27, while simultaneously creating a pair of short, live-action Ultraman fan films with Yamaga.

This string of events was making the future bright for the young artists. However, the production of Daicon III had forced the team into debt, and they resorted to selling VHS and 8mm-reel copies of the animation, as well as their Ultraman fan films, to make up the difference. They started referring to themselves collectively as Daicon Film.

Their minor reputation would continue to rise upon being invited by the 1983 Japan Science Fiction Convention to (again) produce the opening animation. The subsequent Daicon IV follows an adult version of the previous main character, now in a bunny outfit, made famous by Playboy models. The short was soundtracked by three songs: one from the Japanese musical artist Kitarō, and the others from the British rock band Electric Light Orchestra. The use of which made an official release of the film for home consumption impossible. Though, for a time, that wouldn't stop fans from bootlegging it to laserdiscs.

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. Many staff members were 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 comprised a relatively more lavish and complex animation style, and was able to accomplish quite a lot with severely limited production support. The uptick in quality and scale almost mirrored its reception at the convention.

Mandy screenwriter Aaron Stewart-Ahn would write for Polygon in 2019, “As DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and the Sugarhill Gang synthesized the music they grew up with into a new art form through the use of turntables and samples, Anno and his team did the same in the frames of DAICON IV.”

As Anno's work with these projects had completely taken over his life, he was subsequently expelled from Osaka University for unpaid tuition, 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 segments of the movie: the God Warrior's attack sequence. He would subsequently spend almost every waking hour at Studio Top Craft'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.

Anno would grow so close with Miyazaki throughout the course of the production, that their friendship has endured to the present day. Nausicaä would go on to receive massive critical acclaim and a strong box office, and has continuously been ranked as one of the greatest animated films of all time.

Anno's contributions to the movie 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 the theatrical film, The Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love? The film would release to critical acclaim and a fantastic box office, and 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 the two would also work together on episode 156 of Urusei Yatsura. According to Anno's personal biography on the Studio Khara website, the two then created Studio Graviton to gather freelance animators. Anno reportedly lived at the Graviton offices for a time, and only worked “when he was broke or when something caught his fancy.” These fancies would consist primarily of key animation work for a variety of different projects.

Anno had experienced a meteoric rise in a fairly short amount of time, and was obviously a distinctly talented artist with a creative muscle to flex. He would conclude 1984 on the highest point of his early days: co-founding Studio Gainax. Reconnecting with his former Osaka chums Yamaga, Okada, Sadamoto, Takeda, and Shinji Higuchi, this band of otaku would turn the industry on its head, and become a defining voice in anime throughout the 1990s and 2000s. But that journey wasn't assured, with the studio's lifespan fraught with crisis, scandal, controversy, and corruption.

Gainax

The studio's name was suggested 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. The fact that all these creatives were not members of an existing animation studio shattered standards of the time, circumnavigating the standard industry hierarchy, and being a collective designed by otaku, for otaku. Headquartered in a residential apartment in Tokyo, the team produced a four-minute promotional short, to sell a feature-length film idea to Bandai Visual. Bandai was so impressed by the trailer, that production was greenlit with an 800-million-yen budget (roughly $3,077,830 US dollars in 1985), a record amount at the time for an anime film. After Anno, and many other members of the crew, travelled to the United States to research aviation and spacecraft, they fully dedicated themselves to Gainax's debut feature, Royal Space Force - The Wings of Honnêamise. Anno was only 25 years old.

During this time, Anno would outsource his key animation talent to the first Megazone 23 OAV, a cyberpunk mystery with a focus on simulated realities. He would conclude the year by designing and conducting miniature work for a seventy-two-minute, 16mm special effects kaiju movie, and the final fan film the team would release under the Daicon Film label. This film actually became so popular, that it was released on video (and eventually DVD) by Bandai. Though since Gainax ceased its sales, circulated copies inside and outside of Japan have become increasingly rare.

After nearly 18 months of grueling work developing the visual designs and screenplay, animation production finally began on Royal Space Force, which roughly coincided with the gang moving the studio to accommodate an expanded staff (many of whom were recruited by Anno himself). Anno was involved in nearly every element of Royal Space Force, with the same being said of the entire team - each person shared many responsibilities, and were given multiple final credits within the film. Royal Space Force was released in 1987, with an advertising campaign designed to mimic the one used for Nausicaä. Even though the movies share plot and thematic elements (and some of the same staff), it arguably was a poor decision, since Royal Space Force was unable to make enough at the box office to break even with its budget. However, that didn't stop it from instantly achieving near-universal critical acclaim on an exponential scale, eventually becoming solidified as an anime classic.

It could have been possibly the first anime film to seriously break through to Western audiences. Though, that isn't to say that anime production outside of Gainax, around this time, was found wanting for innovation and talent. By 1987, anime's popularity and quality had exponentially risen along with the economic bubble, and numerous landmark films were being released in very quick succession, the most notable of which being Katsuhiro Otomo's masterpiece Akira.

Though the work on Royal Space Force had thoroughly satisfied and exhausted Anno, he made a brief return to freelancing, which included key animating, serving as assistant animation director, and being hired by Nintendo to direct a three-minute promo for the 1987 FamiCom game, Valis. Around this time, he would come across Yamaga's screenplay for the second episode of what would become Aim for the Top! (also known as Gunbuster), and was reportedly “moved to tears.” Anno eventually felt compelled to direct the project himself, though while its pre-production stalled, he slid over to work on Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies. 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 a severe depression that would last roughly seven years. While also working on mechanical designs for the feature film Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack, he dove back into leading Gunbuster, a jumble of tropes from the popular American action film Top Gun, and the famous tennis manga Aim for the Ace!

While the OVA has become defined by its exploration of faster than light space travel, it's also equally known for its lowbrow comedy and copious amounts of fan service. In addition to his roles as Gunbuster's director and storyboard artist, Anno also co-wrote and key animated two episodes, additionally planning and co-writing the two bonus science episodes, which were included in the eventual laserdisc release.

Anno has claimed that Gunbuster challenged him more than any earlier point in his career, and that he faced grueling obstacles that he hadn't anticipated or prepared for adequately. However, he was able to consistently rise to the occasion, much to his own surprise, and provided Gainax with its first commercial success, which was recognized by the larger community as seemingly the first OVA genuinely made by and for otaku, and that anime could finally “be made for its own sake.” This OVA became the first flagship of Gainax's evolving style, and contained tropes which not only came to hallmark the studio, but would send ripples across the anime industry for the majority of the 1990s.

While embroiled in early power struggles within Gainax, 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 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. However, coupled with the demands and pressures of leading a full anime series, the complete lack of creative control over what Anno was producing made him disassociate completely from the project.

In 1991, after departing Nadia, Anno's intensifying depression would result in long stretches of wasted days and self-sabotaged projects and collaborations. While he was originally brought on to direct the proposed Nadia theatrical film, his involvement was short-lived, and Anno soon found himself doing guest animation, and some minor uncredited acting in Gainax's iconic Otaku no Video. The OVA parodying otakus and the media they obsess over, was also a highly introspective look by the Gainax staff at their own careers, even going as far as to include their very own Daicon III and IV opening animations.

However, around this time, Japan's national economy was dragged into a devastating financial crisis, which would last until roughly 2001. Largely brought on by reckless financial deregulation throughout the 1980s, this recession would be later known as The Lost Decade. As Gainax moved on with other properties, continuing to try new avenues in anime design, they also would create several games for the PC- 98, and eventually the PlayStation console, in order to stay afloat. They would become embroiled in some controversy in 1992 when their 1989 pornographic game Dennou Gakuen was the first of its kind to be banned in a Japanese prefecture. With their lawsuit to get the ruling overturned on constitutional grounds being denied, these close events seemed to be the harbinger of troubling times for the young studio.

Anno would begin working on a feature film titled Uru in Blue, which was to be a sequel set 50 years after Royal Space Force, 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. With Uru in Blue cancelled, Anno reportedly 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, serving as a key animator and animation director. Takeda would describe the next major development for Gainax and Anno 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 told him, “Bring me something, anything, and I'll make sure it gets greenlit.”
__________________

“Do you like the anime you make?”
“Like… well, I like some, but hate others.”
“What parts don't you like?”
“The parts where I see myself.”

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Anno would draft a statement of intent in 1995. In it, he declared:

“I tried to include everything of myself in Neon Genesis Evangelion — myself, a broken man who could do nothing for four years. A man who ran away for four years, one who was simply not dead. Then one thought. 'You can't run away,' came to me, and I restarted this production. It is a production where my only thought was to burn my feelings into film.”

Neon Genesis Evangelion was an exhausting roller coaster of technical compromises and on-the-fly creative decisions. Centered on the 14-year-old boy Shinji Ikari, the series navigates a post-apocalyptic future, where giant robots are the only effective line of defense against an alien enemy force, known as the Angels. While he's ordered by his autocratic father to pilot one of these machines, called Evas, to defend humanity, Shinji bucks with anime tradition, and initially refuses. He's not a bravado-defined shonen hero who proudly shows down against his foe, he's a highly withdrawn and passive protagonist, crippled by severe pathological fear.

Compounded by the series' adult-oriented themes, such as sexual shame and existential crises, moving the show to a later time slot, Evangelion suffered a massive setback due to the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack by the doomsday cult Aleph (formerly Aum Shinrikyo). Anno was forced to sharply alter the plotted narrative of the show, as it was too close to the events of the tragedy, which put even greater creative and technical strain on his cast and crew.

In fact, the whole of Gainax was getting closer to the edge of folding completely. This detail was so evident, that Anno even had initially considered producing Evangelion at a completely different studio, but remained with Gainax for “old times' sake.” It would be later revealed that there were only three employees at Gainax who were working full-time on Evangelion, with most of the production taking place at the much larger Tatsunoko Production.

These challenges (among numerous others) further strained Anno's mental health. However, these also were the factors that would slingshot the series into surprise international acclaim. Before being moved to a later time slot, Evangelion had received lukewarm critical responses and middling ratings, not yet finding its niche. Though beneficial, this decision did not alleviate Gainax's budgeting woes, often resulting in a scattershot scale of animation quality. This inconsistent aesthetic was further stressed (and made further obvious) by its breakneck production pace hardly keeping ahead of each episode's release, resorting to numerous recap and flashback sequences.

This would all come to a head when Anno's planned ending of Evangelion was forcefully scrapped and replaced by a pair of highly abstract episodes set inside the minds of the four main characters: Shinji, Misato, Rei, and Asuka. When they were released, Anno received a steady stream of emotionally-charged correspondence from fans, with some being heartfelt thanks and adoration, and others expressing severe disappointment - there were even death threats, and several public defacements of the Gainax offices. However dramatic the reactions were to the finale, Anno stood firm by his decisions, quoted in Issue #43 of the Canadian anime magazine Protoculture Addicts:

“Most anime fans are furious. I understand their anger. I can't help laughing when hard-core anime fans say that we did a very lousy job, with intentional negligence. No we didn't. No staff members did a lousy job. In fact, every member at Gainax gave more energy than anybody can imagine. I feel sad that those fans couldn't see our efforts. Personally I think the original TV ending we showed ended up beautifully.”

However, Anno took the creation of Evangelion rather hard, with his Studio Khara biography claiming that:, “…immediately after the series finished airing, he broke down.”

He reportedly contemplated suicide during this period, though was ultimately consoled by a painful telephone conversation with Miyazaki, where his mentor said to him:

“I've felt the same way. It's OK to rest. Until you are able to create something again, it's OK to rest as much as you want. Because if it's you … both people and money will gather.”

For nearly six months, Anno didn't create much of anything. During this time, his relationship with Gainax's management had also started to sour. He would state in 2019 to Diamond, that in 1997, with merchandising and licensing rights being passed from the Evangelion Committee to Gainax, the studio started receiving a sizable income. However, mismanagement and poor investments soon led to a highly publicized tax evasion case against Gainax in 1999, which further spoiled the studio's image. Anno would end up apologizing to TV Tokyo, Evangelion's broadcaster, though he stated that he didn't understand why he had to so, until sometime later. As a measure to hedge falling confidence in the studio, Anno was made an officer of Gainax's ruling board, though this title was almost entirely honorific, and every effort that he made to try and improve the working conditions and pay for the animators, all fell on deaf ears.

However, driven by the profits from Evangelion, Gainax convinced Anno to helm the theatrical cut of Evangelion's original finale, for which the series' fans had been clamoring. While the production was greenlit, with help from both Tatsunoko and Production I.G, budgeting again became the biggest antagonistic force, eventually causing this initial attempt to be abandoned after only twenty-seven minutes had been completed. This was not due to woes similar to the first outing, but of management refusing to allocate the proper resources. This new material was partnered with a sixty-seven minute compilation of the entire original anime series, and was released in theaters as Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth on March 15, 1997. The film would go on to rake in over ¥1.8 billion yen (almost $18 million USD, adjusted for inflation), and would be decently reviewed by critics.

However, many audience members would comment on how the film's non-chronological reorganization of events, and an abandonment of several nuanced plot details, lead to a considerable amount of confusion for those not already familiar with the property. The production woes and audience-driven detractions continued Anno's spiral into doubt and high anxiety, but the decent financial success of Death & Rebirth made a true theatrical ending for the series all the more possible.

In July of the same year, the infamous theatrical film The End of Evangelion came to theaters, Gainax's closest answer to a proper send-off to the series, though Anno's exact reasons for producing the film have remained elusive. A sizable portion of the film is comprised of the twenty-seven minutes that concluded Death & Rebirth, helmed by Kazuya Tsurumaki, now labeled as "Air/Love is Destructive." The remaining chapter of material, "Sincerely Yours/ONE MORE FINAL: I need you" was directly created and managed by Anno.

While the series was always characterized by its controversial violence and broken characters, this theatrical conclusion pushed the envelope as equal parts horrific tragedy, and cathartic indictment of the Evangelion fandom. Stewart-Ahn wrote for Polygon, “End of Evangelion is a brutal experience. The animation is technically astounding but seems composed of otherworldly, iconic imagery that, in mutating canonical and religious depictions of the end of the world, feels at times forbidden, as if gazing upon it is a violation of things better left secret to the human race.”

The film fared well at the box office, and would snag the 1997 Animage Anime Grand Prix. However, Anno was already less focused on how people were receiving the work and more so on playing with new toys. Digital video and photography cameras were breaking heavily onto the consumer scene, and live-action filmmaking was democratizing the world over as part of the influential DIY filmmaking movement, bringing Japanese filmmakers such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Miike onto the international stage.

Anno's 1998 live-action feature film, Love & Pop (based on the Ryu Murakami novel Topazu II: Love & Pop) centers on the high school student Hiromi Yoshii entering the world of teenage prostitution. Presenting an overdramatic and over embellished representation of Japanese new-wave sex industries, the film was shot freely on digital handycams as a fever-dream succession of highly unorthodox camera angles and editorial choices.

After Anno won Best New Director at the 1998 Yokohama Film Festival for Love & Pop, he journeyed to Morocco to see the Sahara Desert - one of the few times he has ever traveled outside of Japan, and even met up with Miyazaki. Upon his return, he would take on directorial responsibilities for Gainax and J.C. Staff's newest series, His and Her Circumstances - the very first manga adapted by Gainax.

The 1998 anime series centers on the budding romance between Yukino Miyazawa and Souichiro Arima. Adapted concurrently from Masami Tsuda's manga Kare Kano, Anno's direction shifted the shoujo romance to a commentary on how humans affect one another through their relationships. He called back to many aspects of Evangelion, including pencil sketches, dialogue emphasized with on-screen text, long inner monologues, abstract animation exploring characters' mental states, and live-action footage and photos. The drastic aesthetic shift, as well as a far heavier focus on hilarity rather than the actual romance, put Gainax at odds with Tsuda.

Anno would abandon the series early, with only a few episodes remaining incomplete. He would be replaced with Hiroki Sato, who did his best to keep the series in the vein of what had come before it, but budgetary issues and continued internal studio conflict made the going rather difficult. The series concluded in 1999 to strong critical and audience acclaim, being cited (among other things) as “probably the most disarmingly honest shoujo romance ever made.”

However, the experience so soured Anno's impressions of the industry, that even though he has continued to work in animation in many forms, His and Her Circumstances remains the final full-scale anime series Anno has helmed.

Upon departing the series, Anno became chief director on the behind-the-scenes featurette for Gamera 3, where he would reunite with producer Miyuki Nanri. Nanri had met and worked with Anno during the production of The End of Evangelion, and would continue a working relationship with the maverick director for several years. Anno would spend the remainder of the year key animating a pair of episodes for Tsurumaki's hit debut series FLCL. He also served as the show's mecha design director and supplied the voice for the Nandaba family cat, Miyu Miyu. This was simultaneously completed alongside his sophomore live-action feature, Shiki-Jitsu.

The 2000s

Co-written with Ayako Fujitani, based on their novella Touhimu, and the very first of Anno's films on 35mm, Shiki-Jitsu exploded onto the scene as an arthouse gem. Focusing on the creative process and mental illness, it made its debut at the Tokyo Photography Museum in December 2000. Starring indie filmmaker Shunji Iwai and Fujitani in the lead roles, Anno became “absorbed by its delights, both in terms of visual impact and the enhanced qualities of filming 35mm in the field.” Anno poured his signature visual onslaught and esoteric story structure into the narrative and it was such a resounding success that Anno picked up recognition and awards at the Tokyo International Film Festival.

Anno would work on a handful of short videos over the course of the next year, and while his production life seemed to be gearing up to be an ever-constant procession of projects, on March 26, 2002, Anno married manga artist and Happy Mania creator Moyoco Anno. All of the idiosyncrasies and quirks of their courtship and married life would eventually be immortalized in Moyoco Anno's 2005 manga essay Insufficient Direction. Their effect on one another has remained beneficial ever since.

After working on a couple episodes of the 2002 series Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi, and creating the Ghibli-produced short animation The Invention of Destruction in the Imaginary Machines, Anno began working on what would become the 2007 feature film Evangelion 1.0. However, much to Anno's delight, more immediate emphasis was placed on his live-action Cutie Honey film, which had been trapped in development hell since late 2000. When greenlit in the spring of 2003, he was also serving as supervising director on Masahiko Otsuka's Petite Princess Yucie and opening sequence director on the Submarine 707R OAVs. This became Anno's first opportunity to make a professional tokusatsu film, channeling the pulse of his early Daicon Film days with his Osaka University chums. Known as Cutie Honey: Live Action, the film follows the titular superhero, who possesses the ability to transform into anything using her necklace, and her battle against the Panther Claw terrorist organization to avenge her father. It is loosely based on the 1973 shonen manga by Go Nagai.

Anno's Studio Khara biography describes this time:

“Overcoming the harsh reality that a film could languish in development for over two years while its actual production could take a mere six months…Anno shed tears of joy over watching the rush print of his first live-action special effects scene that featured miniatures. It was a moment where he reaffirmed his love affair with the tokusatsu genre.”

This live-action film was the first part of a three-stage reintroduction of the property to newer generations, and compounded by the Gainax-produced companion anime, Anno had an increasingly cathartic experience creating it all. While reactions to his live-action sendup spanned the spectrum, with most fault found within the film's perceived voyeuristic properties, and (at times) half-baked effects work, Cutie Honey proved to be one of the most otaku-centric films to made in Japan that year.

After a bout of storyboarding, key animating, and supervising the editorial team for Tsurumaki's Diebuster (a sequel to Anno's very own Gunbuster), Anno decided to change course somewhat and briefly pursue acting, kicking off with supporting roles with indie filmmakers such as Katsuhito Ishii, Suzuki Matsuo, Shinji Higuchi, and Akira Osaki (who had been Anno's assistant director on Shiki-Jitsu).

By 2006, after working as a storyboard artist, episode director, and key animator on the anime adaptation of his wife's award-winning manga Sugar Sugar Rune, Anno departed Gainax to launch his own studio: Khara. Anno would later reveal to Diamond in 2019, that among the core reasons prompting him to leave Gainax, the central driving force was his desire to manage the production costs, and provide proper compensation and benefits to his employees. This would also include rewards to those individuals who produced the best work. Ultimately, the diametric opposite to the culture that he was leaving behind.

Though he would continue to collaborate in some capacity with the studio on the first two Evangelion rebuild films, his intrinsic connection to Gainax was now severed after roughly 23 years. Though, later developments further revealed how painful the split was; first in 2016 when Anno brought a lawsuit against Gainax for unpaid royalties on the Evangelion franchise, as well as a negligent loan Khara had given his old studio in 2014. Greater revelations were delivered in 2019, when he reacted to the arrest of Gainax's representative director Tomohiro Maki for acts of indecency, distancing Khara's production staff on the Evangelion rebuilds from Gainax.

Studio Khara

The first three Evangelion rebuilds were designed as a retelling of the original series, with the fourth film setting up a completely new ending. It was reported by the Anime News Service that because he was no longer “…constrained by technological limitation of 12 years ago, director Hideaki Anno is said to be happy that he can finally recreate Eva 'as he wanted it to be' in the beginning.”

Though many sequences play out as they did in the original run, many aspects have been altered, dropped, or added, with numerous sections redesigned with newly available computer animation. Released in 2007, Evangelion 1.0 was met with considerable positive feedback from fans and critics alike, eventually becoming one of the most lauded and highest grossing anime films of that year. It received a heap of awards and honors, including a nomination for the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year, but lost out to Michael Arias' stunning adaptation of Tekkonkinkreet.

As with most of his passion projects, Anno was deep into numerous departments, credited as chief director, screenwriter, storyboard artist, and key animator; duties which would remain constant as the film series continued.

Evangelion 2.0's first teaser trailer was tacked on as the post-credits scene of Evangelion 1.0, made up to be a “next episode” preview, structured like those in the original series.

With roughly the same production staff as the first film, the release date was tentatively set for January 2008, and included a whole host of new characters and mecha designs, with many original plot elements either being partially redesigned or altered completely. However, Anno's notorious habit of pushing back release dates began to additionally hallmark the franchise's production. Eventually released on June 27, 2009, Evangelion 2.0 reached number one at the Japanese box office its opening weekend, eventually becoming the third highest-grossing anime film of that year, behind Pokémon: Arceus and the Jewel of Life and One Piece: Strong World.

The film also did considerably better than its predecessor overseas, pulling a higher box office return, greater critical response, and further solidifying the ever-constant international desire for Evangelion-related media - something Gainax had subsisted on for well over a decade with their extensive branded merchandising, and their pachinko machines. The film was nominated for the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year, but lost out to Mamoru Hosoda's masterpiece Summer Wars.

The 2010s

Roughly parallel to the release of Evangelion 2.0, Anno took to the producer's chair for the 2011 documentary Kantoku Shikkaku, centered on pink film actress Yumika Hayashi. While nearly fully devoting himself to the film that would become Evangelion: 3.0, Anno would also produce and write Higuchi's 2012 short film Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo, in which the God Warrior from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind attacks Tokyo. The short was created for an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, which Anno curated.

Just as with its predecessor, Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo was previewed as a post-credits trailer in Evangelion 2.0. More than either of the two preceding entries, Evangelion 3.0 changed the foundations in which the original anime was built, exploring even more newer characters, scenarios, mechas, and conflicts - though Shinji remained as self-defeating and noodle-spined as ever before. Critical and fan responses were more mixed than the previous two installments, as the many deviations from the original series so heavily altered the world in which fans had already become accustomed, that some took to it less gracefully than others.

That didn't stop the film, upon its release in Japanese theaters on November 17, 2012, from quickly becoming the second-highest grossing anime film of the year, behind One Piece Film Z. It was nominated for the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year, but lost out again to Hosoda, this time for Wolf Children. Evangelion 3.0 was still included in the cohort of Excellent Animation of the Year winners, so Anno didn't go through the year without some serious notches on his belt.

While Anno was reaping the profitable rewards and accolades of his years of effort with Evangelion, he wasn't slowing down on the production front. He would end the year designing, storyboarding, and directing the opening sequence for the 2012 revival series Space Battleship Yamato 2199, and snagging the lead voice role in Miyazaki's biopic The Wind Rises. While he publicly declared that the fourth Evangelion rebuild movie was well underway, Anno would also spend a good deal of the next year executive producing a handful of short films for his groundbreaking Japan Animator Expo, an online showcase employing a cohort of vastly contrasting animators, produced between Studio Khara and the media company Dwango. The Expo would run until late 2016, but as of this video, it is not publicly available online.

By the end of 2014, Anno had assisted with the original concept for what became the live-action series Ando Lloyd, wrote the Evangelion short film Until You Come to Me, and executive produced a slew of short films for the Japan Animator Expo. But that would hardly be the extent of his contributions, becoming apparent with an historic announcement in March of 2015.

Shin Godzilla

Arguably, Anno's greatest recent creative achievement apart from the whole of the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise is Shin Godzilla, co-created with his Gainax co-founder Higuchi. Sweeping over half of the Japan Academy Prizes it was nominated for, this bold reinvention of the classic Godzilla formula married the real-life disasters of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami as a basis for exploring kaiju in modern Japan. While it wasn't as widely accepted in international markets, Shin Godzilla was almost universally adored in Japan, quickly becoming the nation's highest grossing movie of the year.

While numerous critics and audiences have criticized the film's long scene durations, massive cast of characters, and numerous “unneeded” subplots, the sheer power, resonance, and enjoyment experienced when watching the film seems to truncate most of the detractors.

As of this video, besides executive producing and directing sound for Tsurumaki's The Dragon Dentist OVAs, based off the original 2014 short of the same name, Anno has also served as a creative consultant on the 12-episode anime Virtualsan-Looking, a 2019 series focused on the shenaniganry of a gang of Virtual YouTubers.

Though his final remaining entry into his Evangelion tetralogy was slated to release in June of 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, its premiere was pushed back until March 8th of 2021. Evangelion: 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon A Time, with a 154-minute runtime making it one of the longest animated films ever created, released to sizable critical acclaim and quickly become one of the most profitable movies playing in Japanese theaters in 2021, beating out the immensely popular Mugen Train movie of the Demon Slayer franchise.

While the film would go on to receive the best box office returns of any film in the franchise (and actually stands as Anno's most successful film, period), the reactions to the conclusion have varied widely from fans and Anno's contemporaries. Some, such as the renowned cultural critic Hiroki Azuma, have labeled the film a “masterpiece” and considers it a solid end for the Rebuild narrative, while simultaneously serving as a meta-exploration of Anno's life, and the greater culture which surrounds Evangelion. Echoing the metatextual interpretation of the film, Mamoru Oshii shared in an interview with the website Pia in April of 2021 that he considers Anno, “more of a producer than a director these days.” He would clarify that while Anno remains true to expressing his own personal story through his works, much in the same way that Japanese I-novels are designed primarily to be emotional confessions with loose narrative structures, Anno's newer projects are increasingly lacking overall themes; a compelling reason for making the movie. While I personally do not believe this to be a completely accurate assessment of Anno's current output, especially due to the impressions the behind-the-scenes material exploring his process of leading the production has left on me, Anno would actually echo similar sentiments about himself in a “fireside chat” with the creator and comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, in a two-part interview released to Amazon Prime, where he confirms how his attitude toward creation has shifted as he's taken more to the producer's chair.

While Thrice Upon Time is often contrasted against 1997's The End of Evangelion, with claims of how the recent work lacks the stylistic cohesion, narrative finality, and emotional resonance of the former, the film has continued to engage and challenge audiences and critics worldwide. After its theatrical run in Japan, Thrice Upon Time eventually broke domestic single-day streaming records when it went live on Amazon Prime. And while there is considerably more behind the scenes that I am forced to leave out due to the constraints of this video, a fantastic resource is the two-part NHK documentary Hideaki Anno: The Final Challenge of Evangelion, which documents the final four years of production on Thrice Upon Time, and all of the challenges, crises, and compromises which came along with it. However colored by individual quantification and critique that the final Eva film has garnered, it's certainly not the end of Anno's tale.

The creator continues forward, having written and produced the latest Ultraman film with Higuchi, which promises to bring together many of the same elements which made Shin Godzilla so effective. This is doubled with the recent news that Anno is also scripting and directing a reimagined film of the 1971 series, Kamen Rider. Anno, someone who once made Ultraman fan films with his high school friends, and embraced his stature as an otaku amongst otakus, has managed to expand the zeitgeist from which he draws his inspiration, and gives encouragement and inspiration to newer generations of filmmakers and animators.

It can be said that Hideaki Anno has been, continues to be, and will always be remembered as one of the minds that shaped Japanese entertainment and pop culture as we know it. While we will continue to debate his work, his place in the worldwide pantheon of greatest artists is already assured.

“Dreams have to be found. Dreams hit you unexpectedly.”

Thank you to everyone who've taken the time to watch my little documentary. I deeply appreciate it. I first began researching Anno's career for ANN a couple of years ago when Evangelion was released on Netflix, so this has certainly been a labor of love. Also, while there is an abundance of information here, it hardly scratches the surface in many aspects of Anno's life and career, so if you are interested in going further into the projects I've mentioned, I highly recommend the YouTube channel Anno Cinema, who graciously let me use their archive of featurettes and interviews for this doc, and they certainly deserve more subscribers.

Leave a comment down below to let me know what you think about the retrospective, and if you haven't done so, be sure to subscribe to the Anime News Network, we have new content released every week from an array of different contributors, so you're going to get a wide variety of viewpoints which might pique your interest. Be sure to mosey on over to my personal channel Criticlysm for similar content, and, again, I deeply appreciate your continued support and feedback. Until next time.


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