The Anno Age: Moving On From Hideaki Anno (Part 2)

Read Part 1 here.

IV: His, Her, and My Circumstances

Anno’s burnout after Evangelion is well-known. Many fans have interpreted the last half of the End of Evangelion as nothing less than a raised middle finger at fandom, the product of a cynical and angry mind sick of otaku pandering and the merchandising juggernaut that the franchise had already become. Death threats that were emailed to the studio, along with graffiti sprayed outside Gainax offices, flashed by in the film. The suicide anthem “Komm, Susser Tod” played over scenes of the earth’s destruction told of a level of suicidal self-hatred that is still unsurpassed to this day in anime songs. Reputedly, Anno wrote the original lyrics in therapy.

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So when Anno decided to follow up this festival of nihilism with a high school love comedy, adapted from a shoujo manga, fans like me must have been puzzled. Moreover, he interviewed dozens of high school students in preparation for the project, in order to get in touch with the youth he felt alienated from in his time as an animator.

The result, Kare Kano (or His and Her Circumstances), is both a masterpiece of genuine comedy, genuine emotion, and genuine wasted potential. It was even more ragged than Evangelion in its production quality, littered with lengthy recaps, animation lapses, and later a resorting to figures mounted on popsicle sticks. Anno was fired two thirds into its production, under pressure from the unhappy manga-ka. The ending was essentially still shots from the manga with voice overs.

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And yet: I felt transported back into high school once more, with all of its highs and lows, as I watched Kare Kano. Jon, who had given me Evangelion in the very beginning, commented: “this is just like our school.” We had been in the International Baccalaureate program, which was filled with overachievers like Yukino and Arima, perfect on the outside but seething with vanity and insecurity on the inside. The types were immediately recognizable to us. I laughed heartily at the way Yukino’s perfectionist mask slipped at home, and felt heartbroken over Arima struggling with never feeling good enough in front of his distant, formal family. They are perfect for one another in a way few anime couples are, and it was easy to root for them.

Some of the best moments in the series, though, are the quieter ones, where they are in clubs, preparing for the festival. I felt the joys of slice of life, a genre that had yet to fully coalesce in anime at the time. The two of them were not always obsessed about their relationship; they had lives outside of each other and I felt that, as imperfect as it was, Kare Kano presented the most comprehensive emotional account of high school I had seen. I still feel the same way.

Though Anno was only partially involved in a way, his work had once again opened a door: a realization that beyond the emotional trauma of Evangelion and the heroics of Gunbuster, anime could also simply depict ordinary life well too. Other titles would continue that tradition—Honey and Clover, Toradora, the good parts of Sakurasou, to name a few—but Kare Kano arguably helped make that possible.

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Doesn’t that pose look familiar

V: Interlude

Kare Kano was Anno’s last anime for many years, as he began to experiment with art house film, to varying degrees of success.

After college, I began to drift from anime fandom. There were only so many times one could rewatch Evangelion, Gunbuster, and other titles. The new titles that were being released at the time, the early 2000s, were of only sporadic interest to me. It was the golden age of the harem and dating sim anime, with the slice of life age waiting in the wings, and while I watched and enjoyed some of them, no title ever captured my head and heart the way Evangelion had. Fullmetal Alchemist came close, but was compromised by a muddled ending. I watched part of Ideon to see the inspiration Anno had taken for Evangelion, but I got a formulaic robot show instead. RahXephon is a polished show and compelling in its own right, but it is still just a response to Evangelion at the end of the day. It cannot exist independently from it: for one, Anno and its director, Yutaka Izubuchi, are good friends….

Shiki-jitsu: that's so Anno
Shiki-jitsu: that’s so Anno

I remember trying hard to track down a copy of Shiki-jitsu, Anno’s second live action film. I remember little about the film itself, other than a red umbrella and Anno’s continuing obsession with trains. The wild creativity that had fueled such emotionally intense experiences in animation felt tired and even tame in the much larger world of film. As a fan of arthouse cinema as well, and judged on those terms, I found Anno’s work lacking in emotional resonance. The symbolism was clumsy. Not even Shunji Iwai, who starred, could save it. The idol was toppling.

Welcome to the NHK and Honey and Clover brought me back into anime fandom. I remember thinking that the former title was as intense as my memories of the latter parts of Evangelion, but this time grounded much more closely in real life, in the ennui of being in your 20s and the desperate search for meaning. Honey and Clover also did that, in a more poetic and gentle way. Looking back, there was something very teenage about Evangelion’s angst, one that I couldn’t identify with anymore: the raw wound of youth mellowed with age into wistful melancholy, a mood that H&C and the best slice of life shows capture so well.

So by 2006, arguably the last golden year of anime in the past 10 years, I was back in anime fandom once again. But my Age of Anno was over.

Is this what we've come to? (Then again they once did sell
Is this what we’ve come to? (Then again they once did sell “LCL Fluid” OJ…)

VI: You Can (Not) Return

It was announced not long after that that Anno would return, to remake Evangelion. Nostalgia stirred within me when I heard the news. By this time, Anno had married, inviting his mentor Hayao Miyazaki to his wedding. He had given a controversial interview with the Atlantic decrying porno manga readers, Japan’s lack of military forces, and the overall lack of maturity in society. The article praised Evangelion as being as influential in Japan as Star Wars was in America. I was amused, and wrote a commentary article in the early days of Anime Diet about it. Anno, my old hero, still had a whiff of the orneriness that had created those unfiltered works I had so loved, once. But it was now directed toward the outside world, and in a way that was utterly conventional: the opinions of an ordinary center-right middle-aged individual in Japan.

Which is why, despite their flash, polish, and excellent choreography, there seems something exhausted and lifeless in the Evangelion remake movies. Maturity, age, and happiness appear to have smoothed out Anno’s edges. Shinji is still confused and hurt, but not for too long. Asuka is no longer tortured with feelings of inadequacy and rejection, just angry. Rei wants to cook now. The only element that is original to the series–the new girl Mari–is hardly even a character. An attempt to steer the story in a new direction in the third film falls flat by no longer being focused on the vital heart that beat throughout the original series: the search for identity and place to belong in a collapsing world that places impossible expectations on you. The operative emotion in the new films, instead, is guilt: after everything is already collapsed, how do you put the pieces back together?

Anno, reputedly, felt tremendous guilt after having finished the lengthy Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water series in the early 1990s. He thought he might be wasting his life making subpar children’s entertainment, though the amount of creative control he managed to wrest from NHK in the concluding episodes still surprises me: it is almost a direct foreshadowing of Evangelion in every aspect. The darkness had already begin to creep up on him, but he used that darkness as fuel, which propelled him toward his masterwork.

Yes, this is from Nadia.
Yes, this is from Nadia.

The problem is that he stopped there. Anno would never make another original work after Evangelion: everything since then has been an adaptation (Kare Kano, Love & Pop, Shiki-jitsu) or remake (Cutie Honey, Eva). It is as if he had only one story in him, and left with nothing else, he has returned to that story to try another variation. Now older and wiser, presumably, but Evangelion was and is not supposed to be a work of age or wisdom: it was a cry of frustration that resonated with an entire generation of frustrated Japanese youth in the 1990s. That, more than pictures of Ayanami Rei, or merchandising, was what made Evangelion so enduring and popular, even outside anime circles. No anime had been so emotionally and psychologically raw, capturing the zeitgeit of the post-bubble years.

And no anime had so spoken to me so directly, in those weird drifting years between childhood and adulthood, a time that is now wrapped in emotional gauze by the anime nostalgia masters like PA Works, Makoto Shinkai, and a million lesser imitators. Otaku today, it seems, prefer the safety of such works, and there is a place for them: I enjoy many of them myself. I watch a story penned by Mari Okada and recall the more melodramatic moments of my teenage years, when every emotion is new and explosive; I watch Makoto Shinkai or Ano Natsu de Matteru and remember the yearning romanticism of those days.

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But it was Anno who spoke to the fear, the shame, and the self-loathing: the parts of life that cannot be borne for too long by anyone, but need to be brought to light and confronted. A human being cannot live in that state forever, which means that a show like Evangelion, and the Age of Anno, has a built in expiration date for a fan. We all, hopefully, grow out of it, as Anno himself has. Now he’s a successful husband, voice actor, dramatized character, car salesman, and more. But he was our companion once, the one that understood, and thus, in its own way, gave real comfort.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.

–Leonard Cohen

The Anno Age: Hideaki Anno and My Early Fandom (Part 1)

I: Insufficient Depression

The problem with Hideaki Anno these days is that he seems too happy. At least that’s the impression one gets from reading his wife Moyoco’s account of their life together, Insufficient Direction, which was only recently released in English translation. Granted, the manga is actually about a decade old in reality, but if the account is true, Hideaki and Moyoco share about as tender and settled life as two insiders of the anime/manga industry can be. Anno freely does Ultraman poses at home. He plays CDs full of anisons in the car and sings along, at the top of his lungs, the words to various tokusatsu series. The couple’s dialogue is peppered with references that require a lengthy glossary in the back of the book to understand. Moyoco makes Hideaki lose weight, after living a well-documented diet of pizza and beer in his Gainax days. He acts like a big baby sometimes, but then again, so does she–she even portrays herself as one, nicknamed Rompers.

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“Her manga accomplished what I couldn’t do in Eva to the end,” he writes in the foreword, with the hyperbole only a loving husband can summon. “I’m amazed by my wife. I feel like she has more talent than I do.”

And I think, reading this affectionate tribute: great for him. Isn’t this what we all want in our lives, to find someone who not only understands but even shares our deepest loves and passions, and redirects them for good? Hideaki Anno is living the otaku dream, the one that seems so unattainable for many that 2D is the alternative: fiding an ota-wife and being fans together.

Yet. Just a few lines later, Anno writes:

After Eva, there was a time when I wanted to stop being an otaku. I was sick of the stagnation of the anime industry and fans. I was filled with self-hatred back then. I was desperate.

He writes of that time in the past tense, of course. But it was that Anno who created that work of self-hating desperation, that classic pile of frustration and chaos that we call Neon Genesis Evangelion. It was that Anno and his work that drew one 18 year old kid, just out of high school and on his own for the first time in college, into the world of Japanese animation at the turn of the millennium. That kid would search the nascent world of anime websites searching for all the theories about the meaning of Eva’s ending, the Kabbalistic and Jungian references mixed with the ersatz Christian symbolism, about the controversies it stirred throughout fandom, and most of all about the man who had created it: that crazy director who put his name in huge block characters in the credits, HIDEAKI ANNO. He was my first anime hero.

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II: Neon Genesis Evangelion is Too Bad

It was my high school friend Jon who gave me those two CD-ROMs, with faded silkscreens depicting Rei, Shinji, and Asuka. They were packed with all 26 episodes of the TV series, as well as the Death and Rebirth and End of Evangelion movies, in the now dead VIVO format. The video playback, by our standards, was choppy and blocky, the subtitles sometimes barely readable.

The year was 1999, and I had just entered college. I had picked, not entirely willingly, computer science as my major. Every once in a while, in between classes in the engineering building or at late nights in my dorm room, I’d sneak in a few episodes to watch. I’d also watch them occasionally at home on weekends, where my mother seemed rather non-plussed by this new phase of watching Japanese cartoons.

The show seemed fairly ho-hum to me at first, a typical boy-meets-giant-robot tale. I vaguely noted the rather prominent notes of parent-child conflict and the slightly non-linear way the story was being told, but it was really episode 6—where Rei almost sacrifices her life for Shinji, and he rescues her in a way reminiscent of his hated father, that stood out to me. Here was a bit of character complexity that I was not expecting from animation.

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I kept watching, laughing at the clumsy symbolism, the lack of technical knowledge. Soon, the end of the year and the end of the millennium loomed. We went to Chicago to spend the rest of the year at a Christian retreat. The youth speaker there tried to make us anxious about Y2K. I carried, pretentiously, carried out a copy of Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death with me during most of the sessions. I had also brought my laptop, my very first, to the retreat, and it was either on December 29 or 30, 1999, that I saw episode 17.

My relationship with animation changed forever after watching that brutal, bloody episode. Up to that point, I had seen Evangelion as a compelling, interesting character study of a typical Asian teenager: buffeted by distant parental expectations, forced to bury his feelings much of the time, wanting to run away but being unable to escape. Shinji is desperate for even a scrap of praise from his father. But the betrayal in episode 17, as he watches his own Eva tear his friend apart, was on another level altogether. It cemented the feeling of powerlessness and despair that had I had yet to put a name to in my overly busy high school years, being alone with only my putative writing talents and chuunibyou imagination to give me solace. The screams of Megumi Ogata, Shinji’s seiyuu, chilled me both in its intensity and its resonance.

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From that point forward, I was a fan. How much of one? I even loved the original ending. For many, it was no-budget pretentiousness. For me, it was therapy, words that I had longed to hear.

Who made this masterpiece? I had to know. Gainax, Hideaki Anno: the new stars in my constellation, next to Orson Scott Card and Terry Brooks and Isaac Asimov.

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III: Buster Beam

In the early 1980s, Hideaki Anno was a student at the Osaka University of the Arts along with his friends Hiroyuki Yamaga, Takami Akai, and later Toshio Okada (the Ota-king). He loved Ultraman and loved sci-fi and loved Space Battleship Yamato, and Space Runaway Ideon. He had a remarkable ability to draw dynamic animation scenes, the talent that is wildly on display in the Daicon III and IV films as well as his early key animator work for Nausicaa and Macross. But before that, he was a fan, an otaku, a connoisseur.

My interest in anime and especially Anno’s anime ignited, I began to search for his other work. The first one I tried was his directorial debut, the 6 episode OVA Gunbuster. Gunbuster, which was written in part by Okada the Ota-King, is nothing if not the work of otakus and connoisseurs. My knowledge of anime and manga being limited at the time, I did not recognize the Gundam references, the Ace wo Nerae parody, or the other cliches that were lovingly sent up in the series’ first half. Or rather, I had read about them, but I did not feel them in my bones with way Anno and his comrades surely had. Like many things in my life, my intellectual knowledge of anime outstripped my experience.

Nevertheless, the story of Noriko’s evolution from clumsy crybaby to self-sacrificing heroine was as moving as it was traditional. I remember sitting slack-jawed at the ending, as the screen filled with the lights of homecoming and the black and white became color. Then I cried.

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Years later, when I watched it again, I still cried. Who doesn’t want to be welcomed home after a long, long time away?

And at the very end, in almost modest small lettering:

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That man, again. I’m not sure how much he had to do with the directorial choices in the final episode, but his name was cemented in my mind as the author of this masterful conclusion. After all, he was arty, with the strange angles, the Godardian flashing text in Evangelion. From black and white to color, that was like The Wizard of Oz. It had to be him.

It also showed that there was a time when he was so earnest, so hopeful. The heart of darkness in Evangelion had spoken to my own darkness at the start of my anime journey. But now, moved back several years, it seemed that the young Anno had something to say to me too, that sacrifices were worthwhile, and that there will be someone waiting for you when you come back.

To be continued: Kare Kano, and what comes after Anno.