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Andrew Osmond quizzes anime’s wild child

The sun’s setting in a milky Tokyo sky as I and my fellow foreign journalists are greeted by Hideaki Anno, the man who made Evangelion. This is not the Anno you may have read about, the one portrayed as an awkward, gangly, neurotic geek. Maybe Anno was like that once, but the cream-suited director we meet is sleek and authoritative, composed and confident, quite at ease talking to foreign hacks like us. He doesn’t adjust his glasses intimidatingly, but it still feels like the onetime Shinji has quietly metamorphed into his father Gendo.

Anno has taken time out to talk to us during a massive showcase of his work at the Tokyo International Film Festival – his animation, his live-action films, and a series of live discussions covering his career. I’m reminded that one of Anno’s recurring themes, from Evangelion to Kare Kano, is the ‘fake’ protagonist, who builds a false personality to hide his or her true nature. But would the people at this festival, seeing the whole scope of Anno’s work, get a fairly good idea of the real Hideaki Anno? “So desu ne…” hmms the director when I ask him. “I would hope that they do.”

We’ve been warned against asking Anno the questions we all wonder about Evangelion (like what is Pen-Pen really up to?). The director is reluctant to discuss his ongoing opus. But we can’t resist sidling up to one of the controversies. Nearly twenty years ago, when the original TV series came to its contentious ending, Anno reportedly said in interviews that anime-loving otaku should return to reality. Does he still think that today?

“I still feel the same as I did at the end of the TV series,” Anno replies. “At the end of the TV series, I was really putting that to the forefront; however, I think that now I have kind of given up on putting that in the forefront. At the end of the day, people will not really change, regardless; they’re just people. At the time, I felt that message was necessary, that people will need to go back to reality; and in a necessary time, I will give out the necessary message. But I think that now it will be a different message that comes to the forefront, although (the original message) is still important.”

We’re in a Tokyo hotel room thirty-odd floors up. The buildings in the twilight below suggest one of Eva’s most memorable images – the city of Tokyo-3, retracting gracefully into the ground like a submerging Meccano set. I ask Anno what prompted such a wonderful idea. At first, it seems like he’s answering a different question. “I enjoy artificial products, man-made products: buildings, electric poles (the Japanese-style telegraph poles which dot Evangelion’s cityscape), anything with concrete and metal. And with what I like, if I were to draw it, I want to be thorough and perfect at it. I may exaggerate it in terms of the animation; however, I would make it to be as true to reality as possible. I will not do a halfway job in drawing them; I would perfect them. For example, if you were to draw a train track, there would be trains going both ways, and there are certain ways that the train system is set up, and I want to be true and real to this.”

The relevance of all this to Tokyo-3 becomes clear with Anno’s next words. “For example, in Thunderbirds, there’s Tracy Island; in UFO, there’s SHADO headquarters. They’re very good and thorough, not a halfway job. I wanted to do something like that.” Yes, Anno is a Gerry Anderson fan, citing the master of Supermarionation as a childhood favourite, beside the likes of Space Battleship Yamato and Ultraman. “I watched Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and UFO when I was growing up. I especially liked Thunderbirds and UFO, and I would have to say my favourite is UFO. It’s from England, and shows the elegance of the British way. That’s one of the things I like, as well as the reality in the expressions, I think it’s very well done. I don’t know if I would call it an influence. I just liked it a lot; I grew up seeing it and I know it. It’s hard to see how it influenced me, but it may have affected me.”

Anno also confirms that ‘Shado,’ the name of the amateur film group he started in his high school days, was named in honour of UFO, even though the letters stood for different words than the SHADO of Anderson’s series. In a later aside, Anno mentions that he enjoys a rather different piece of vintage British culture: the film The Italian Job, “with all the Mini cars.”

But then Anno’s influences come from all over the map. “Whatever I have seen, experienced, learned, is effectively inputted into my mind. This includes the books I read growing up, and the images of my home town… Everything influenced me, so it’s hard to pick out the biggest influences.” The medium of animation was inviting to Anno as a child. “I really liked the images of animation, I always watched it. For me, drawing a picture would most accurately express what was in my head. It would seem to be the most accurate way to express oneself. I also liked drawing pictures as well….”

Anno’s early amateur films, such as those he made with the ‘Shado’ group, included drawn cartoons. For Anno, the step from that into commercial anime – he freelanced animation on Macross as a college kid, then created the stupendous God Warrior in Nausicaa – was no big deal. “When I moved on to commercial anime, of course the professional systems were different, so that may have been the startling point for me. However, as for the drawing itself (in a commercial studio), it’s not that different. Emotionally, there’s no significant difference just because it’s commercial. The atmosphere in the studio twenty or thirty years ago was not that different to now. The ambience has not really changed that much. Of course the system has changed to digital, but outside of that, it’s pretty much the same.’

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In Japan, Anno’s early career has been featured in a live-action TV drama, Aoi Honoo (Blue Blazes), which has just finished airing in Japan. It was based on a manga by Kazuhiko Shimamoto, Anno’s real-life classmate. Anno is played in the TV version by Ken Yasuda. Coincidentally, Aoi Honoo follows on the heels of Insufficient Direction, a manga by Anno’s wife Moyoco about their shared lives. Given that Evangelion is often regarded as Anno’s fantasy autobiography, it ironic that he’s being turned into semi-fictional characters twenty years on.

“Regarding the manga that my wife wrote,” Anno says, “it is based on fact. It’s just been coloured and elaborated, made more fun and entertaining, so in the end it is kind of like a fiction. As for the TV drama, I did not watch it so I cannot comment – sorry!”

Yet while Anno may cross to manga and live-action – he’s made three live-action cinema features, including a Cutie Honey remake – anime has a special significance for him. When a journalist asks about the density of Evangelion’s themes and emotions, Anno replies: “Anime is kind of a mix-up of different kinds of signs, and it’s how much raw humanity we can portray through animation. That was pretty much the whole aim of, especially, the television Evangelion. My big challenge through the Evangelion series was how much I could express to the audience through that animation, and if the audience could feel that it was complex and expressed a lot of human emotions in anime, then I could feel it was successful. I just wanted to hit the barriers, the limits of what could be expressed through anime.”

Today, Anno continues butting those barriers through his Khara studio, founded in 2006 to handle the new Evangelion films. “It is not that I necessarily wanted to change the flow of anime, but to really sustain the anime environment, to stop it breaking down, and there is still a lot of work to do. (The industry) is starting to break down somewhat, with a lower number of people working in anime and less money, and we need to prevent the anime world shrinking. The varieties of expression have become narrower, less diverse, closed up in a world called ‘Japanese anime’ and I want to break through that and keep on expanding.”

Shortly after the interview, Anno announced a new Khara project – no, not that one, but a new series of online short anime pieces of around 5 or 6 minutes, to be made freely available each Friday at the project’s Japanese site (scroll down for a teaser trailer). The collective name of the project is “Japaese Anima(tor)’s Exhibition,” presented in collaboration with the media company Dwango. The first film, “Dragon’s Dentist,” will be released on November 7. I saw an early screening; the film conveys an epic-level scenario with images to match.

Anno says his involvement with these films will be limited to composition and editing, though he backs them as a way to ‘liberate’ expression and creation in anime, and give a platform to young animators. Will there be any quailing young Shinjis among them? If so, they can take heart from where the original “I must not run away” kid is now.

Evangelion 2.22 is available in the UK from Manga Entertainment.

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