'Opened-up' otaku opens up
The nation's - nay, the world's - foremost cyberanimator comes down to Earth to talk.
December 30, 1999
By KEN KAWASHIMA
"I think my friend wanted me to do this" is the sole, mysterious explanation offered for his new, one-night old hairstyle.
Meet Hideaki Anno-revolutionary Japanese animation auteur, film director and cultural hero to the hordes of animation-otaku who worship him.
Otaku - the Japanese term for those fanatics of manga, anime, high-tech gadgetry and such who tend to live as recluses, or in the company of other otaku - is how Anno has grown accustomed to being labelled for most of his life.
"Yeah, I fit into the otaku group-or at least I'm an otaku who has opened up. But maybe then I'm not an otaku any more because of that. It's hard to define ..."
Indeed, talking with the surprisingly tall Anno, with his punk-rockish Mohawk hairdo, in the surreally silent confines of the guest room of Gainax, the production company he started with his art-school buddies, is like suddenly playing a part in some weird otaku fantasy.
Upstairs in the Mitaka building on Tokyo's outskirts, dozens of his like-minded recruits are busily hunched face-down inside their private cubicles, drawing out, cell by cell, one of Anno's latest projects. Yet when the man who fronts this whole operation talks of his success, there is a reservation amounting almost to disdain or boredom in his voice.
"I became an animator by chance, really-it didn't happen by my will. Before I knew it, I was an animator. When I was a child, I wanted to be a bus driver or a train conductor; I never really had a specific vision or dream."
Not exactly the words one would expect from someone who almost single-handedly flipped the Japanese anime world upside-down with his monster hit "Evangelion."
Since starting as a television series in 1995, his sci-fi tale of epic proportions has already won numerous awards as well as spawning one feature-length film, countless character-related goods and books-and the biggest Japanese youth-culture sensation since the robot-animation classic "Gundam" in the 1980s.
"Eva was a fluke ...," Anno pauses for a moment, almost reconsidering his reply, then adds, "I don't think my stories are really meant for a wide audience. I guess what I felt at that time just happened to strike a chord with the youth."
"Evangelion," set in Tokyo in 2015, is a post-Apocalyptic vision of mankind on the brink of being wiped out by large unknown creatures called Shito, or angels. In reaction to these alien terrorists, "NERV," the United Nation's agency in Japan, creates a series of ultimate humanoid fighting machines called Evangelion, which can only be operated by selected children who possess rare abilities and talents.
Shinji Ikari, the story's main character and the pilot of the Eva-01 fighting machine, is a despondent and lonely teenage kid who grew up for the most part without his parents.
With his mother dying when he was a child, and his father having left him to work full-time for NERV, not only is Shinji an unusually complex character to appear on an animated TV screen, but he's a realistic personality worthy of any in-depth character case-study. Of course that's something the 60-odd Eva-related books already published waste no time in doing.
"Evangelion," which has been released on video and laser discs, has also attracted a big following outside Japan-especially in North America, Europe, Korea and Taiwan. Coupled with the recent success of Pokemon in the United States, Japan's animation community is definitely excited (in its otaku way) about its present and likely future impact on the world.
Perhaps predictably, though, Anno is remarkably objective about the whole affair.
"Japan is the only country in the world that actually has an anime industry, and can mass-produce animated works of a high quality for a large audience. It's only natural then, that this product would be in demand from the rest of the world."
"Japan is unrivalled in this sense. Disney is really no competition because Disney can only release one film at a time. They are not capable of handling the wide range of stories that we see in Japanese anime. Real anime exists only in Japan, and this is about the only original product Japan can offer to the world-anime, manga and computer games."
Anno, who has constantly tested the limitations of visual imagery and subject matter in celluloid animation for the past decade, is now getting ready to direct his second full-length non-animated movie next year. Although he is currently enjoying a small break period between making films-which appears to be his latest profession-he is in constant demand for interviews, and his opinions on society, youth culture and politics are held in just as high regard as the quality of his work.
So, when asked directly about the future of Japan in the next millennium, Hideaki Anno becomes the dark visionary that the kids know so well.
"Whether it be a few years into the future or 10 years in the future, I don't know, but there is going to be a radical change or event that will change Japan."
"There will come a time when Japan is going to go through a big shake-up-so much so that Japan may no longer be able to survive. But it won't be because of politics, and it won't be the result of any natural disaster."
"It's the Japanese economy; the backlash of our economy. Right now, people are always telling us that our economy is on the upswing and all that ..." (pause) ... "but I don't believe them."
Asahi Shinbun, December 30, 1999
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