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‘Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone’ and the Indisputable Mastery of Hideaki Anno

Written by Eli F. on September 7, 2017 

evangelion

Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

In the world of Japanese pop auteurs, there are few rising stars as unpredictably eclectic, temperamental, and consistently fascinating as Hideaki Anno. Anno began his professional life in the early 1980s as a young animator working literally out of his friend’s garage, sketching meticulous tributes to the beloved sci-fi films, TV shows, comics and novels of his 70s childhood. His fanatical dedication to his craft and genius instinct for visual storytelling was recognized early on – both by his peers at the up-and-coming collective of ambitious “otaku” at Studio Gainax, and by the discriminating eye of his future friend and mentor, one Hayao Miyazaki. Through the ensuing decades Anno has long been a revered figure within the world of Japanese animation, but recent years have seen him break out increasingly into the mainstream, most recently enjoying popular success with his masterfully dense action spectacle Shin Godzilla and the public endorsement of Miyazaki as eventual heir to the world-renowned Studio Ghibli following Miyazaki’s perpetually-delayed retirement. The past decade has seen Anno emerge from enigmatic cult figure to recognizable pop icon in his native country and abroad, yet the breadth of his roughly 35-year career is impossible to neatly categorize, spanning dizzying professional highs and grim personal lows; animation and live action; grandiose sci-fi spectacle and intimate human psychodrama; geek fetish objects and arthouse curios – and all the while imbued with a rich, multilayered interplay between such seemingly contradictory extremes. And no work better exemplifies the conflicting forces of Anno’s artistic psyche than his ever-expanding opus, Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Evangelion, first conceived as a 26-episode television series in the mid-90s following the success of two previous serials under Anno’s direction (the jubilant erotic sci-fi video series Gunbuster, and televised adventure story Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water inspired by Jules Verne novels and Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky), was to be an affectionate, sophisticated homage to the animated giant robot sagas of Anno’s youth (think Gundam and Voltron) in much the same way as George Lucas paid tribute to 1950s space opera serials with Star Wars. Somewhere in production, however, personal and professional struggles converged in a way that would leave lasting marks on both the series and Anno himself: sponsors began bickering and pulling out, animation budgets ran tight, and Anno became increasingly consumed by an ongoing battle with major depression that had come to a head with his newfound professional recognition. The result was a spectacular artistic derailment the likes of which are without comparison in the realm of popular culture. What began as a story about teenagers in robots fighting a monstrous alien menace became an increasingly intimate, violent and unnerving drama, a postmodern meditation on alienation and despair, and a metatextual commentary on the creation and consumption of anime itself. Familiar character archetypes were figuratively (and sometimes literally) torn apart to reveal disarmingly complex inner workings of all-too-recognizable human wants and desires; alien monsters became increasingly psychedelic and disturbing, attacking the characters by plunging into their psyches and exposing the hidden contradictions of their everyday personas while intoning mystical Judeo-Christian portents of doom; formal techniques borrowed from avant-garde cinema and theater assaulted the very boundaries between genre and literary fiction, between artist, artwork and audience. In a stunning move, Anno responded to escalating controversy and funding troubles by completely abandoning conventional notions of plot for the final two episodes, dedicating the remaining screentime instead to resolving the characters’ complex inner struggles through a series of theatrical-style inner monologues set to montages of semi-abstract imagery.

In a Japanese pop zeitgeist so recently shaken by the 1995 Sarin gas attacks in Tokyo and the bizarre Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult that perpetrated them, something about Evangelion struck a nerve. Against all odds it became a massive popular success, saving its producers at Studio Gainax from bankruptcy and birthing a multimillion-dollar empire of unlikely merchandise (from action figures to video games to fast food tie-ins to lingerie) that still persists to this day. Fanatical viewers got online to analyze, praise and bitterly attack the finale, some even going so far as to assault Anno and Gainax with graffiti and death threats. Within a year of the series’ conclusion, enough interest had been generated for Gainax to begin work on a theatrical feature to complement (or replace, depending on who you ask) the series’ divisive final episodes – this time with the assistance of major animation studio Production I.G. (of Ghost in the Shell fame) and all the production money they could ask for.

But Hideaki Anno still wasn’t happy. The final feature, The End of Evangelion, was a stunningly bleak affair, filled with brutal violence and grotesque imagery, cruel and tragic character deaths, confounding narrative assaults on the fourth wall, and a surreal climax in which one character’s decision to commit suicide corresponds with the literal end of the world. By the end it less resembles any prior anime film than the narrative meltdown of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. or the devastating final page of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. It is also one of the greatest animated films ever made.

Following its conclusion, Anno began to distance himself from anime for the next decade. He became disinterested in the romanticism and spectacle which had so preoccupied his younger mind, focusing his energy instead on live-action arthouse dramas. He became reclusive and disdainful of the “otaku” geek subculture from which he had emerged, viewing it as a dead end of escapist consumerism which was producing a generation of emotionally stunted adults. In 2004 he wed successful manga artist Moyoco Anno, his first and only marriage. In public he was most often seen merely as company for his more outgoing old cohorts from Gainax, and his similarly misanthropic “sensei” Miyazaki. So in 2006, when he announced his intention to create a brand new animation studio by the name of Khara (Greek for “Joy”) and christen it with the release of a new series of Evangelion feature films, fans across the globe reacted largely in astonishment.

Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone was released 10 years ago on the first of this month, and was intended to be the first in a proposed four-film series “rebuilding” the Evangelion mythos from the ground up. A decade later the series is still awaiting its fourth and (allegedly) final film, yet 1.0 endures as an odd, stand-alone beast. While the subsequent films have consisted primarily of all-new material, 1.0 sets out to reset the groundwork for the story with a faithful (often down to shot-for-shot fidelity) recreation of the television series’ inaugural story arc. In a world devastated by climate and nuclear catastrophe, depressive teenager Shinji Ikari (Megumi Ogata in Japanese, Spike Spencer in English) is summoned by his absentee father Gendo (Fumihiko Tachiki/John Swasey) to travel to the city of New Tokyo-3 on behalf of a shadowy paramilitary organization, NERV. There he is taken in by voluptuous NERV agent Misato Katsuragi (Kotono Mitsuishi/Allison Keith) and given the mission of piloting Evangelion Unit 01, a vaguely demonic biomechanical titan, in the defense of humanity against hostile otherworldly entities known only as Angels. Another young pilot, the beautiful and taciturn Rei Ayanami (Megumi Hayashibara/Brina Palencia) and new schoolmates eager to single him out for his fateful duties further complicate Shinji’s already tangled emotional world as a succession of bizarre, Lovecraft-cum-H.R. Giger Angels assault the futuristic metropolis.

As in Shin Godzilla, Anno and his colleagues have no misgivings about embracing schlocky storytelling precedents set by the vintage pulp from which they draw inspiration: tumultuous melodrama, burlesque cheesecake sexuality, and colorful orgies of mass destruction densely populate the film’s 100-minute running time (give or take some slight differences in length between various cuts). And as in Shin Godzilla, an odd percussive poetry reveals itself in the elegance with which Anno recreates the genre ingredients that so enraptured his early imagination: his favored visual motifs of baroque metal machinery and pulsating organic goliaths, both sculpted into mesmerizing, even mystical forms, populate endless awe-inspiring frames. Anno delights in imagining these fantastical creations in spatial terms, obsessively illustrating each construct’s myriad moving parts with the specificity of an architect while placing towering lattices of metal and flesh in strikingly expressive, painterly shots. Human figures are consistently dwarfed in frame by the dense structures, entities and interfaces in furious motion around them. The plot is littered with oddball references to Judeo-Christian mysticism and apocalyptic beliefs, often well-researched but rendered strange and alien by their distant cultural context (Anno himself, needless to say, is not a member of any Abrahamic religion); whatever the particulars of Anno’s spiritual concerns, the notion of isolated human figures in the grasp of awe-inspiring structures and entities beyond their ken is made starkly apparent in visual terms.

With the new theatrical presentation, Anno sets out to further streamline and compress the TV story into a form more immediately accessible to general audiences. At times the pacing is confoundingly fast, as narrative arcs which once constituted self-contained buildups, climaxes and payoffs over the course of one or two half-hour episodes become merely a series of plot beats in the film’s restructured story: the two-episode plotline introducing Shinji and the primary cast, for instance, is cut down by a sizable fraction of its original running time to serve as the opening act of the film, with exposition, character development and mood-building scenes shaved down or excised entirely for better cinematic pacing. Banking on his formidable skill as editor of his own work, Anno often relies on small gestures and illustrative cuts to pick up the storytelling slack, a method he would take even further with Godzilla.

Few could accuse Anno and his production staff of laziness, however. While shots and dialogue are often recycled verbatim from the TV series, each and every image is recreated from scratch and every line re-recorded with the original cast. (Even some of the English dub voice actors, originally vetted by Gainax for the charming low-budget American adaptation in the 90s, return to the lead roles wizened by years of voiceover experience in and out of Hollywood.) Images originally hand-drawn by animators are painstakingly recreated on a digital canvas, with new levels of visual detail not possible with the production budgets and schedules available to Gainax the first time around. Examined side-by-side, the upgrade in production and artistic resources is immediately visible in backgrounds, character modeling, and – in one case – a meticulously drawn rack of underwear.

Unlike his friend Miyazaki who notoriously liquidated Studio Ghibli’s digital animation department and even trash-talked digital animation at the Oscars, Anno appears eager – perhaps overeager – to experiment with the continuous forward march of technology. Fully 3D CGI animation is used frequently in 1.0 – not always with clean results, but most effectively in the rendering of the uncanny Angels. The climactic battle with Ramiel – a floating, luminescent cube – is upgraded considerably from the source material, with 3D modeling allowing the once-static creature to assume a succession of mind-boggling forms as it assaults New Tokyo.

Looking beyond the rolling cacophony of visual and plot information and repurposed pieces from the television series, however, a larger story structure becomes apparent that ties together the full running time of the film. Between the frenzied rush of plot and action in each of the film’s acts, it stops to breathe only as characters muse about the nature of loneliness, forming connections and conflicts with one another to the dreamlike, jazzy strains of composer Shiro Sagisu’s retro-flavored score. While the original series took ample time to explore different characters and the nuances of their relationships, 1.0 is ultimately structured around Shinji’s arc, simultaneously familiar and new within the context of the series. Shinji begins the story as a reserved, sultry doormat of an adolescent, stubbornly resisting the inherent chaos of both interpersonal connection and the heroic conventions of the plot – someone onto whom Anno has made no secret of projecting both aspects of his younger self and a large audience of alienated young people, adrift in a postmodern consumer culture and drawn to a subculture of escapist fantasy in place of social involvement and self-actualization. When confronted with turmoil and hardship and wounded adults who seek to exploit him, Shinji desperately resists the encroachment of the outside world by hiding behind an old-fashioned Walkman and a pair of earbuds – at one point, in a sequence greatly reimagined in visual scope from the show, he even embarks on a Holden Caulfield-esque odyssey through the seedy streets and suburbs of the metropolis to escape an emotionally perilous situation. But his well-practiced distancing mechanisms cannot ultimately resist the simultaneous intrusions of his silently terrifying father, his intimidating role of personal responsibility, and his fascination with a series of powerful, sexually exciting yet emotionally complicated women.

The character arc of 1.0, echoing without precisely reiterating the early portions of the TV show, is one of Shinji’s confrontation and acceptance of these facets of manhood. In the end he finds a reason for living beyond seeking the ephemeral approval of his father; he understands and accepts the magnitude (social, existential, personal) of the responsibility thrust upon him and faces it with dignity; and he chooses to explore frightening new emotions and make personal sacrifices in service to women who have made sacrifices for others. Familiar story beats of heroic coming-of-age genre fantasy, perhaps, but Anno – drawing from his own history of mental illness – knows all too well that such personal triumphs can be bitterly hard-earned and altogether too transient. The emotional fragility with which Shinji faces momentous choices is emphasized every step of the way as he suffers both the physical punishment of combat and internal trials of uncertainty, and it’s this struggle which 1.0 chooses to magnify with special intensity as the defining conflict of the film. The eerie pall of loneliness and gloom hangs as uncannily as it ever did over Evangelion‘s exterior of genre fantasy; yet compared to the original series, this reimagining feels subtly less fatalistic.

It’s telling that Anno’s only previous animated feature, The End of Evangelion, depicted the climax of this story in a tidal wave of dashed hopes and catastrophic failures, while this one begins that same story again. (And from the precise point where the ending left off – attentive viewers may spot the visual callbacks to EoE in 1.0’s opening shots, as Anno is never at a loss for purely symbolic storytelling.) Like life, and particularly life with depression, Anno has described Evangelion as “a story that repeats.” Characters and catastrophes come and go, life-affirming joy and life-destroying pain drift in and out with the tide. Beyond all that it borrows from the original work, the most thematically striking scenes and images in 1.0 are those which address the motif of repetition and those which break away with what has previously been established. Iconic images and subtle visual motifs from the original series pop up in new and unexpected places; character make cryptic allusions to events that happened “last time” while musing on the inevitability of fate, repetition, and change. Rainbows, an age-old symbol of renewal and rebirth, are a recurring motif new to this film. New scenes give added emotional dimensions to the existing story, whether staging new conversations between familiar characters or inserting new shots of average Japanese citizens living their lives on the periphery of the plot, depicting a world that keeps on turning even as the protagonists face down imminent disaster from without and within.

The most striking new scene is a quiet one, and saved for the film’s climax. Faced with overwhelming odds against a new Angel, Shinji’s guardian Misato devises Operation Yashima, a last-ditch gambit to drive back the alien menace. Desperate to inspire a wounded Shinji, Misato leads him by the hand to witness one of NERV’s darkest (and most visually arresting) secrets, and impress upon him the dire circumstances facing the human race – the same ones that robbed her of her own family. With fragile determination, Shinji affirms his understanding of what his duty means to the both of them; and in a carefully animated, silent close-up shot, two hands grasp one another, one of the first and only instances of direct human contact in the entire film.

Like the greatest anime directors, Anno understands that an enforced economy of time and movement produces its own language of stylized and potentially potent expression. When movement occurs on the animator’s canvas, it can only be the product of considerable forethought and exhausting follow-through; and between the constraints of time and resources, there is only so much temporal real estate available to the animator in which to construct a story. Thus every movement, and every image, is critically important; furthermore, nothing “natural” or “involuntary” can exist in the frame, and so every image is only as good as the greatest extent of stylized expression the animator is capable of creating. A gesture so minor as the twitch of a character’s hand, barely noticeable on film, can act as a crucial storytelling juncture for the animator bold and confident enough to attempt it. Anno, an indisputable master of his craft, understands this unique dialect of cinematic expression with an intimacy matched by few others. This is how, in a blockbuster film populated by hulking titans and thunderous fantasy violence, he finds his most powerful symbolic image in the twitching and joining of two human hands.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.


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