Director 101: Contemplating an Unfamiliar Ceiling with Hideaki Anno

Hideaki Anno is an iconic anime director and one of the cofounders of Gainax who produced such classics as Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), Royal Space Force: The Wings of HonnĂȘamise (1987), and Gurren Lagann (2007). Anno is known for his post-modern take on various anime genres and for exploring and depicting the inner thoughts and mental states of his characters. I decided to pick a few films that demonstrate different aspects and styles from Anno's filmography.

The End of Evangelion (1997)

Neon Genesis Evangelion started out as a rather generic giant robot show and morphed into a subversive deconstruction of the genre and its tropes to the dismay of some of the fans of the show. When Evangelion ended; there were many fans who were not satisfied with the somewhat ambiguous nature of the last two episodes. They wanted more giant robot fights and less introspection. Series creator, Hideaki Anno, decided to remake the controversial episodes as a feature length film, but interestingly enough, the fans didn’t quite get what they were expecting. I fully believe that The End of Evangelion was Anno’s middle finger salute to annoying fanboys everywhere. You know the ones, those entitled whiners who demand that a creator make art that conforms to their expectations.

Anno took everything beloved about Evangelion and decimated it in this film. Shinji goes from achieving self-actualization in the TV series to becoming an empty nihilistic shell of himself in the movie, learning absolutely nothing and rejecting singularity only so he can inflict pain on others and himself. If Shinji is supposed to be the stand-in for the audience then it shows how much Anno's view on them soured after the blowback from the ending of Evangelion.

He destroys everything in a glorious and batshit insane fashion--the last thirty minutes of this film have to be seen to believed. What makes it even better are the insanely high production values as you get to see your dreams being crushed with smooth animation and epic set-pieces. The visuals are amazing and in the last third of the film approaches 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)  levels of  surreal experimentation. I am one of the few people who adored the original ending to the TV series, but I love this version too because Anno wrestles his vision back from the greasy mitts of fanboys, stomps all over it, and throws in back in their face. You've got to respect that, if anything else.

Cutey Honey (2004)

Cutey Honey was one of the proto magical girl anime shows that premiered in the 1970s (first as a manga then as an anime adaptation). While it was definitely aimed at men, it has many of the tropes that are common in modern magical girl shows such as Sailor Moon or Madoka Magica. After directing the live action adaptation Anno also directed a three episode anime OVA called Re: Cutie Honey.

The basic premise is that Honey Kisaragi (played by the adorable Eriko Sato), the daughter of a scientist, has the ability to transform into the superhero Cutie Honey using a contraption called the Imaginary Induction System. She is trying to defeat a villain known as Panther Claw and her minions. The story is incredibly silly and campy with copious amounts of fan service thrown in via Honey's sexy outfits and demeanor. Sato's bubbly personality is infectious and she plays Honey with such glee that you can't help but fall in love with her.

As far as anime live-action adaptations go, Cutey Honey is one of the better ones and it captures everything that makes the anime series so entertaining. It feels like a long episode of Power Rangers with each of the villains having a goofy gimmick to their look and attacks. Anno has an eye for visual flair and the set-pieces in this film are creative and flamboyant. The CGI wasn't very good even for the time, and has aged poorly, but the way it's presented makes it more tolerable. It's interesting to see Anno depart from his more depressing and maudlin work and embrace something so carefree and amusing. 

Shin Godzilla (2016)

It's been quite awhile since Godzilla has stomped his way across Japanese cinema. The last iteration was Godzilla: Final Wars which came out way back in 2004. It was directed by Ryuhei Kitamura (Midnight Meat Train, Versus) and while it wasn't terrible, it was extremely cheesy and campy. Japan's favorite giant monster was overdue for a reboot, and directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi stepped up to the plate to answer the call.

Most people will know Anno's name from the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, a surreal giant robot series he directed in the mid-nineties. Higuchi directed last year's live action adaptation of Attack on Titan and he has done some work in anime as well. These are definitely the dudes you want working on a kaiju film and you can see their touches and trademarks all over Shin Godzilla. Anno penned the screenplay and Higuchi was in charge of the visual effects--this is a dream team. As an aside: Anno initially rejected Toho's offer to direct the film due to his depression (which he has suffered through his entire life) but Higuchi talked him into it. 

The plot is fairly basic--the Japanese coast guard discovers an abandoned boat and when they go to investigate it they are attacked by an unknown monster. Said monster turns out to be Godzilla and the rest of the film follows the Japanese people's struggle to deal with the giant, stompy lizard. It's nothing we haven't seen before in a Godzilla flick, but this is supposed to be a reboot, so I see why they went with the classic concept. Now, this is Anno we are talking about here, and he loves him some technobabble and control room scenes. We spend a lot of time in this film sitting in on meetings and watching people interact with each other. It seems like Anno was making a commentary on the inefficiency of bureaucracy and "red tape" though he does depict all the officials as being upstanding people. Japanese hierarchy is based on mutual respect (and age) so it's interesting to see everyone hash out how they are going to deal with Godzilla. Some people might find this tedious and boring though. There are definitely a few issues with the pacing in the first half. 

Godzilla's redesign is the best I have seen in the franchise in a long time. Mahiro Maeda was responsible for the new design and he made him look damn terrifying. The biggest difference is the glowing red cracks all over Godzilla's scales and his extra long tail that he uses to cause havoc. He also has a few cool new attacks that he uses from time to time. They used a combination of puppets, animatronics and motion capture/CGI and it looks awesome. It's the perfect mix of realistic and campy and gives the film a 1980s retro feel. Godzilla is in just the right amount of the movie and the human characters have some depth and humor to them.

Veteran composer Shiro Sagisu (Neon Genesis Evangelion, Casshern) provided the bombastic and epic music score. While Sagisu did a lot of original pieces for the score, he also uses some of Akira Ifukube's iconic music from the original Godzilla films and they fit seamlessly together. I swear I heard a few music cues from Sagisu's Evangelion score tucked in there as well. The sound effects are great too and they kept the retro-sounding Godzilla roar intact. The one negative is some of the Japanese characters speak English from time to time and it sounds pretty terrible. To be honest, it's always sounds cringe-inducing no matter what the film.

It's common knowledge that Godzilla was a metaphor for nuclear weapons and the tragic events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This new reboot has a similar allegory but it uses the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami as inspiration. These films have always been about the indomitable Japanese spirit and resolve in the face of disaster. They are patriotic but not in a heavy-handed way and though it can be a little hokey, I love them for it.