Director 101: Contemplating an Unfamiliar Ceiling with Hideaki Anno

Images courtesy of Gainax

Hideaki Anno is an iconic anime director and one of the co-founders of Gainax who produced such classics as Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise (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. 

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 show's fans. 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.

He destroys everything in a glorious and batshit insane fashion--the last thirty minutes of this film have to be seen to be 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 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 it back in their faces. You've got to respect that if anything else.

Love & Pop (1998)

Anno's first foray into live action is an experimental art piece that explores his fascination with portraying different viewpoints and depicting the mayhem that is life and one's mental state. The narrative follows a young high school girl named Hiromi Yoshii (Asumi Miwa), who by all accounts is a normal teenager. Like most people at that stage in their lives, she feels like she has no direction, and she worries that her peers are more focused and accomplished than her. 

The film takes place in 1998 which is part of the "lost decade" in which Japan's economy stagnated after the bubble burst in the early 1990s. Hiromi feels the pinch and is always low on funds, so she and her friends dabble in enjo kōsai, or "compensated dating" in which the young girls go on dates and outings with rich older men in exchange for cash, gifts, and expensive dinners. The film follows Hiromi and her friends as they go out with these men, often finding themselves in strange or even dangerous situations.

Anno's film is a lot more disturbing than the cute title implies, as the men who buy these types of services tend to be unsavory and maladjusted. The vast majority of the film was shot with handheld digital cameras, allowing Anno to put cameras in unexpected spaces. He plays around with aspect ratio a lot as well and overlays a lot of the shots with various types of text. The experimental nature obfuscates the story a bit, but it’s not a complex narrative, just a coming-of-age tale where the protagonist discovers that she can monetize her sexuality and the repercussions it entails. The constant POV shots make it feel like a high school girl “simulator” of sorts or a visual novel, it’s intriguing. The extreme fetishization of some of the situations could be somewhat off-putting for modern audiences, but the intent is to put the viewer into Hiromi's headspace, warts and all.

Shiki-Jitsu AKA Ritual (2000)

“The human heart is fragile and is easily captured.”

Depression is a prison that can ensnare someone and freeze them in time. Every day feels the same when the love and light have been sucked out of it and the body is essentially automated, passing the day and just surviving. Shiki-Jitsu swirls around two unnamed souls: a mentally lost young woman (Ayako Fujitani) and a melancholy director (Shunji Iwai) both of whom have lost their direction in life. The Director happens upon the Woman lounging on a set of train tracks, as part of her daily routine. She appears to exist in a fantasy world of sorts, and she happily tells him "Tomorrow is my birthday!" He quickly discovers that she says this every day, perpetually postponing her birthday and reliving the day before endlessly.

The Woman has gone through some sort of trauma, and she refuses to acknowledge it head-on, instead focusing on her ultimately meaningless daily tasks. Her eccentricities intrigue the Director and he eventually falls in love with her and is drawn into her fantasy world. Seen under a modern lens, her character is definitely a "manic pixie dream girl" a trope that has come under criticism for undermining female characters to prop up male characters, but in this film, both of the characters feel fleshed out enough that it doesn't ultimately matter. 

Shiki-Jitsu is based on Tōhimu a book written by Ayako Fujitani which was inspired by the conflicted feelings she had working with her father Steven Seagal overseas. She has often expressed the idea that she wants to be known for her own work instead of just being the daughter of a famous actor, so her stand-out role in this film was satisfying to her even if it wasn't a box office success.

The Director is an obvious stand-in for Anno himself; he is a jaded anime director who is tired of creating (in his words) disposable media and longs to make a "real" film. It's no secret that Anno at this time had grown weary of the fandom and culture surrounding anime and wanted to branch out into other ventures. 

Shiki-Jitsu has gorgeous cinematography, and the camera work is much more reserved than Anno's earlier film Love & Pop (1998). The Woman lives in an abandoned multistory building that she has lavishly decorated and taken over. The building is a metaphor for her fractured psyche, and she invites the Director to stay with her, giving him a breathless tour of each floor, and letting him examine her deepest secrets. Together they enrich each other, as they both work through their issues and fears.

Anno has a fascination with transportation and industrial aesthetics, very often focusing on tangled power lines, train tracks, and busy cityscapes. He stops the narrative in its tracks to describe a train in intricate detail, having the Director wax poetic out loud about the joys of riding one. The contrast between the intimate organic relationship of the characters and the cold buzzing wires of capitalism and technology demonstrates the inherent dichotomy of modern living. The technology that brings us together also ironically pushes us apart. What we need is connection and validation, and once we acquire these things we can finally step forward and live our lives freely.

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), a scientist's daughter, can 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 ridiculous 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. 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, but the extreme stylization makes it work. 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 a while 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 used 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 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.

--Michelle Kisner