I’ve always been a little surprised whenever some of my friends refer to me as an “Anime fan.” The popular connotations that come to mind when hearing such a phrase is underage girls or creepy, middle aged men who have posters of naked cat-girls plastered all over their bedroom walls. I suppose it isn’t all that different than the stigma attached to adult comic book fans, a group that I most certainly do fall into. Both of those stigmas are true in some cases, but like most stereotypes, it is unfair to apply to every individual.
But what really gets to me is this: yes, there are a few anime that I LOVE, but that’s no different than the American media I consume on a regular basis. For example, most of my favorite films and TV shows are American, but that doesn’t mean I’m an “American media fan.” Much like all forms of entertainment, the Japanese animation output can be summed up as 90% crap/average, with 10% going above and beyond to being true art.
That 10% can be attributed to such groundbreaking animation maestros such as Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kohn, Mamoru Oshii and several others. But the one I want to talk about here is the quirky individual named Hideaki Anno, and specifically, his most (in)famous work, Neon Genesis Evangelion.
As a co-founder and main creative force behind the animation studio Gainax, Mr. Anno soon made a name for himself directing some of the company’s more successful projects. Chief among them was the OVA series Aim for the Top! Gunbuster and the 1991 TV series Nadia: the Secret of Blue Water, both of which I highly recommend. However, shortly following Nadia’s completion, Mr. Anno entered into a deep, four year depression.
The causes of this depression are a source of some debate. Anno allegedly was dissatisfied with some parts of Nadia, as he didn’t have as much creative control as he would have liked. Others speculate that he was rejected by a woman he sought a relationship with. He also became disillusioned with the so called “Otaku” culture (hardcore nerds), of which he was a part. He even went so far to claim that their tendency to retreat into the world of their obsessions was a form of autism. Whatever the case, Anno began to recover around 1995, during which Gainax itself was on the verge of bankruptcy. As a last ditch effort to shoot themselves back to the top, Anno and Gainax began work on their next ambitious project: the giant robot show to end all giant robot shows.
When Neon Genesis began, it started out as a fairly straightforward series about angsty teenagers battling against alien invaders using giant, humanoid robots. It paid homage to several classic Mecha shows, most obviously the original Mobile Suit Gundam and Space Runaway Ideon. And it appeared to catch the attention of the Otaku group obsessed with that particular genre.
But halfway through production, Anno sprung his trap. The giant robot vs. giant monster trappings were used as a way to lure his audience in, before bombarding them with something they didn’t suspect. In his own words, Anno used Evangelion to “burn his thoughts and feelings onto film.” His four year battle with depression became his primary inspiration, turning the series into a bleak, psychological thriller that examined to neuroses of its main characters as the Apocalypse loomed in the background.
To say reactions to the series were mixed would be putting it lightly. Many fans who were attracted to the show for its myth arc with giant robots became disappointed when the show went off the rails towards the end. But on the flip side, many other viewers appreciated the artfulness of the series, and actually gained appreciation for it when it became more than just another action series aimed at young males. Despite mixed to low ratings during its initial broadcast, Neon Genesis became a cult classic when it aired at more adult oriented timeslots. In fact, despite only being 26 episodes and one theatrical film long, it is one of the most celebrated pieces of animation in Japan and maintains its popularity to this day. This is no mean feat, as animation has a childish stigma in Japan, much like it does in the West.
Objectively, I can’t say that Evangelion is superior to the works of the other Japanese creators I listed before. The individual works of Miyazaki and Kohn are perhaps more focused; the former has many films geared towards families, while the latter is all about psychological thrillers. Their animation quality is also leaps and bounds ahead of Evangelion’s, which was dealing with a limited budget from the word “go.”
But subjectively, it is my personal favorite anime series of all time. All the individual elements that come together just click for me in a way that few other series have. I love the complex mythology and world building, and I’ve loved giant robots and giant rampaging monsters since my early childhood. But the characters and the psychological elements in the latter half are just as much of a draw, if not more so. In fact, without those, I don’t think I would have stuck with Eva after my initial viewing. In short, any lover of sci-fi, film and/or animation should watch this series, regardless if they watch anime regularly.
Over the next few weeks-months, I plan on analyzing all 26 episodes of original TV series, as well as the 1997 theatrical conclusion, the End of Evangelion. Following that, I will most likely be examining all four films in Anno’s new take on the franchise.