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The Early Anno

Andrew Osmond on the adventures of Young Hideaki

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

22nd June sees the first ever British release of Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water on Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of Animatsu. Nadia is a splendid adventure on its own terms, but it’s also an insight into the development of Hideaki Anno, who made Nadia five years before he unleashed Neon Genesis Evangelion on the world.

Anno was one of the main guests at the Tokyo International Film Festival last October. We were there, and we’ve already covered his talks on his anime, including his memories of making Evangelion, Nadia and Gunbuster. We also had a face-to-face interview with the director himself. But for readers who want to understand Anno’s career in greater depth, he also spoke extensively about the lesser-known parts of his work, where he developed creatively and professionally.

The first of Anno’s talk sessions was titled ‘Early Work,’ including several mini-films drawn on paper during his gap year (1979 to 80). You can see bits of them in the trailer above. One of the films was “He Who Shoots Often, Hits at Last!” which is the kind of film that would have caused British tabloid journalists to pronounce young Anno a psychopath who should be sectioned for society’s protection. The film features a boy student posing like 007, shooting everyone in sight, including an office’s-worth of salarymen, to a Seventies-style funk soundtrack.

The other films showed a clear fixation with tanks, missiles and explosions. ‘Water’ seemed inspired by the Tezuka short ‘Drop,’ while Anno himself cited the lengthy Time Bokan franchise by Tatsunoko as an influence on his work. More obviously, there were Anno’s fan tributes to the fantasies that he grew up to: Space Battleship Yamato (which inspired his first amateur animation, of the eponymous ship), Gundam and especially Ultraman.

Anno’s live-action Ultraman from 1980 is basically a long fight between two supermen, with trick effects like laser beams (created by scratching off the film’s top layer with needles.) Anno himself was one of the combatants, who viewers might think was the hero. In the talk, he explained his character was actually the baddie, but Anno still wanted all the cool fight moves!

Hideaki Anno

“Daicon Film’s Return of Ultraman” was first shown at the Daicon convention in Osaka in 1983. The film was full of wire-frame graphics and extended model mecha scenes – Anno has a liking for wireframe graphics, saying they were good at conveying movement. The film also features impressive destruction of miniature buildings, and a monster foreshadowing Nausicaa’s God Warrior, which Anno would draw soon after. At the climax, an unmasked Anno fights the monster across tiny houses, Ultraman- (and Eva-) style.

In addition, the film has a human monster-fighting team operating from an (ostensibly!) high-tech base, foreshadowing Evangelion’s NERV. This team consisted of Anno’s friends, all double- or triple-cast, although Anno commented on the difficulty of finding chums with filmic good looks.

“I’m a little embarrassed, I want to go home,” Anno joked of seeing his juvenilia up on the big screen. Of his fixations with mechanics and bombings, Anno explained he loved exploding objects, tracing the paths and patterns of debris through the air. “Things I love drawing, I just draw.” He pointed out that drawing the same things again and again means you get very good at drawing those things.

Anno’s earliest animation was drawn on cels, until he saw paper-animated films at a festival and promptly switched to paper and felt-tip. He bought the paper from 100-yen shops, drawing straight ahead; he wouldn’t encounter an animation time-sheet until his first pro work on Macross.

Works like Anno’s 1980 fan Ultraman required more expensive kit. Anno recalled the days of buying film and other equipment with his parents’ allowance, or (later) with the investment of a wealthy college friend. This was before video playback – “You had to be super-rich to have a video.” 8mm film was his prized asset. There was no microphone in his camera, so Anno relied on cassette tapes to produce sound.

Anno progressed when he started to work with others, joining other artists on the 1981 opening film (“Daicon 3”) for Osaka’s Daicon convention. Anno admitted thinking the work would be too much of a burden, but he got the position by drawing a flipbook animation of a robot suit in moments. He specialised in mechanical effects on “Daicon 3”, and came back for “Daicon 4” in 1983, following his stint on Macross. Anno described “Daicon 4” as a new apex in his animation, when he focused on rising dust and side-effects, the dots and particles thrown up by the explosive action.

Shiki Jitsu

To date, Anno has made three live-action feature films, including his 1998 Love & Pop (about the lives of schoolgirls and the contentious issue of “compensated dating”), and his 2004 version of Go Nagai’s Cutie Honey. However, the Tokyo festival focused on Anno’s middle film, Shiki-jitsu (aka Ritual), released in 2000. It never seems to have come to Britain or America, although an English-subtitled DVD is available from Japan.

Filmed (in 35mm) in the industrial town of Ube where Anno grew up, Shiki-jitsu is the lengthy but hugely compelling story of two troubled people. One is a burned-out male director who’s returning to his home town, a clear self-insertion on Anno’s part. The other is the eccentric, moody, perhaps dangerous girl he encounters. Shiki-jitsu sometimes plays like a dark, minor-key variant on themes in Anno’s Eva and Kare Kano, with suspense added by title cards counting down days to some unknown event.

The woman is played (excellently) by Ayako Fujitani, who also wrote the book on which the film was based. Thankfully, Fujitani plainly didn’t inherit her acting ability from her father, Steven Seagal. The male character was played by an actual film director, Shunji Iwai; soon after acting in Shiki-jitsu, he made the acclaimed teen drama All About Lily Chou-Chou. Anno claimed Iwai can actually be seen typing Lily Chou-Chou in the film. He chose Iwai because he wanted someone with the authority a director would possess. Later, Anno acknowledged this as a strange precedent for his own surprise voice-casting as the lead in Miyazaki’s Wind Rises.

In the talk, Anno recalled how he turned to live-action features after being burned out by End of Evangelion, with no ideas left to animate. For Anno, the chief difference between live-action and animation is that live-action allows so much more leeway in editing; assembling and cutting material, using alternative takes, in ways impossible in animation. The subject of CGI came up, with its potential for creating lasting virtual assets. Anno described CG as between animation and live-action.

Hideaki Anno

For Love & Pop, shot on video cameras, Anno often filmed the actors without telling them the camera was on, to elicit more natural performances. In the same spirit, a crucial three-way confrontation near the end of Shiki-jitsu was filmed without a script, improvised round story points, reminiscent of the method of Britain’s Mike Leigh.

As well as the actors, Anno also spoke about the importance of the surrounding infrastructure in his films. The child Anno lived with the sounds of Ube’s railways and train barriers, so integral to Evangelion; train tracks are also prominent in Shiki-jitsu. For Anno, the appeal of the railway is that one can only go where the lines go. Anno links this to the power of the cut in a live-action film. An audience might expect to see more of a given scene, but it’s the remit of the director to cut it and shunt the viewers somewhere else.

Anno conceded the transfer to live-action features was not always easy for him. In Love and Pop, he and his crew were obliged to chase running girls with hand-held cameras, and became exhausted trying to keep up – not a problem Anno had faced as an animator! On his Cutie Honey feature, Anno talked of how the film’s money was cut and cut, but he failed to modify the script to compensate, not knowing how to budget in live-action. Of course, Anno said ruefully, if it had been an anime project, he would have known at once…

Anno also spoke of his love of Japanese electric poles, and his loud complaints that they’re being phased out from the Tokyo landscape – though they’re much in evidence in Eva’s Tokyo-3.

The final talk session of the festival, “Director and More” showed odds and bobs which Anno had helped out on over the decades. These included helping his wife Moyoco on the titles (opening and closing) for the anime of her manga Sugar Sugar Rune; the credits for Re: Cutie Honey, spun-off from Anno’s film of the Go Nagi strip; and Ryusei Kacho, a satisfyingly mad cartoon short with live actors, applying wild superheroics to the morning commute.

A couple of items reflected Anno’s continuing relationship with Hayao Miyazaki. He made “The Invention of Imaginary Machines of Destruction,” a steampunk short that was part of a temporary exhibit at the Ghibli museum, with plenty of explosions for Anno. The better-known “A Giant Warrior Descends on Tokyo” features a real (puppet) version of the God Warrior which Anno had animated for Nausicaa.

Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo

The God Warrior film was part of Anno’s Tokyo exhibition on film effects in 2012, which we covered on this blog back then. Anno has clearly lost none of his enthusiasm for practical special effects, even ones most of us would run away from. “One of my dreams is to put gunpowder across my whole body, and ignite it,” Anno declared.

Anno recalled that “Imaginary Machines” was made around the time of his marriage to Moyoco. In return for Anno’s work on the film, Miyazaki made a speech at Anno’s wedding. “He was very long… He kept on speaking,” recalled Anno. Worse, Miyazaki brought up all Anno’s faults as an unkempt young animator, complaining that Anno didn’t bathe and slept with roaches. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Wrapping up, Anno expressed his appreciation for being able to review his work in the round, from his student experiments to his mature expressions. Let’s hope the experience has recharged his batteries as he takes on Evangelion once again, not to mention the next Japanese Godzilla movie…

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water is released on UK Blu-ray on 22nd June.

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water – Complete Series Collection Trailer

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