Hello there, and welcome to another issue of Your Japanese Film Insight. Monday (8 March 2021) brings with it the release of the long-awaited final movie in the Rebuild of Evangelion series with the release of Evangelion 3.0+1.0. The long gaps between releases mean more time has passed between the premiere of the first Rebuild of Evangelion movie and this film than the time between the original TV series premiere and the first movie, with the wait only somewhat mitigated by Hideaki Anno’s live-action film Shin Godzilla.
Discussions of Hideaki Anno’s career in an English-language context tend to overlook the director’s live-action output. Yet not only are Hideaki Anno’s live-action films some of his best work, but the director’s hyperactive editing style and creativity are on full display, whether exploring humanity and self-worth from intensely personal perspectives or indulging in a passion project.
With Anno’s latest animated feature just a few days from release and his fifth live-action production, Shin Ultraman, hitting cinemas this summer, let’s explore how these overlooked live-action films play into the director’s career.
Hideaki Anno and the Shift From Anime to Live-Action
The story of Hideaki Anno’s career prior to the release of his first live-action feature, Love and Pop, is well-documented. He made early inroads into the animation industry by working as an animator on shows like Macross and movies like Ghibli’s Nausicaä, while creating pop-culture mashup fan films in the form of DAICON III and DAICON IV. The team working on these shorts eventually formed anime studio Gainax, with Hideaki Anno working as an animation director on Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise before directing Gunbuster and Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water.
While popular, for most people it was his work on Neon Genesis Evangelion that fundamentally changed his career. I touched upon this briefly in a recent article on Evangelion’s success at going beyond the confines of animation and deconstructing the creative process to further advance its story, but Evangelion came about creatively as a series that used mecha tropes to explore the antithesis of a power fantasy as Anno told a story that represented himself and his struggles with depression.
They say, ‘To live is to change.’ I started this production with the wish that once the production completed, the world, and the heroes would change. That was my ‘true’ desire. I tried to include everything of myself in Neon Genesis Evangelion-myself, a broken man who could do nothing for four years. A man who ran away for four years, one who was simply not dead. Then one thought, ‘You can’t run away,’ came to me, and I restarted this production. It is a production where my only thought was to burn my feelings into film.
Anno’s experience living with depression informed the shape and direction taken with Evangelion, and the public reaction to the initial ending of the series resulted in death threats and the vandalism of the Gainax offices that left him frustrated in a way that production issues on His and Her Circumstances only further exacerbated. In a biography post, it was admitted he broke down after the production of Evangelion due to the pressure and response to the series. It resulted in time away from animation and the creation of the director’s first live-action feature, Love and Pop, with this and later live-action films being heavily influenced both tonally and thematically by these pressures and his work on Evangelion.
Love and Pop is a unique film for several reasons. This movie uses the topic of compensated dating involving four high-school girls to analyze and critique the image of the self and 1990s Japanese society. On the surface, this is a film about an inherently unequal and structurally misogynistic society that fosters male entitlement for the attention and adoration of women. Yet the film places this in the context of Japan’s ‘lost decade’ following the bursting of the economic bubble and uses this to tackle similar issues as his seminal work, like self-worth and the concerns of mortality and perceptions of the self.
Aged by the poor visual fidelity of early digital cameras, the film benefits from the director’s experience in animation and lack thereof with live-action mediums, and his interest in new technologies like personal digital cameras. The latter can be seen through Evangelion’s deconstruction of the creative process by interspersing photography and live-action video footage. However, the growing accessibility of filmmaking technology and the opportunities they provided allowed Hideaki Anno, in both mediums, to blend to formats together to explore beyond what they were traditionally capable of.
Through the use of fisheye lenses to distort the image, unusual camera angles to transform the viewer into an unwanted observer, handheld digital photography and more, Love and Pop is a film that experiments with the limits of filmmaking at the time and expands the potential of the medium.
It was also a movie that put Hideaki Anno on the map as a creative force even outside of animation. It earned the director recognition at the likes of the Yokohama Film Festival and charted strongly in prestigious Japanese film magazine Kinema Junpo’s best movies list for the year. By balancing introspective filmmaking with sensitive issues and bending the limits of the medium to place us into the character’s torn psyche as the world tosses them around, Hideaki Anno’s first live-action production was a phenomenal success.
His next two non-anime productions were both very different from one another. On the one hand, you had his second scripted production, Ritual (often referred to by its Japanese title, Shiki-Jitsu). While its camera work is far more standard, even shooting on standard 35mm film in an ultrawide aspect ratio, this film is far from standard in how it explores depression, suicidal intentions, and trauma through the eyes of a disillusioned cameraman and a girl he encounters while walking.
This 2-hour film is centered on the ways we close ourselves off from the world to avoid the risk of being hurt by others, projecting an idealized self to hide a painful truth even you may not wish to see in the mirror. The cyclical daily routine and the girl’s ‘tomorrow is my birthday’ escape from society puts in full focus our innate desire to run from that which hurts us, which for some may involve considering a permanent solution. It can be a grueling watch, but few films are successfully able to use the camera itself to visually represent what it’s like to wish you could no longer exist, capturing the beauty of a world you no longer wish to see.
Alongside this film’s production was a documentary on the development of the third Heisei Gamera film, an indulging of the fantasy and fandom side of Hideaki Anno that birthed projects like DAICON.
This carries into the manic Cutie Honey that couldn’t be further removed from his previous live-action films, yet showcases an understanding of the format and its limitations to blend animation and real-life together to bring Cutie Honey to life. The energy of the characters and concept of Cutie Honey is captured in live-action not by simply recreating the costumes but embodying the spirit that made fans fall in love with the franchise, even if capturing this energy requires a disregard for standard filmmaking praxis.
All while the film oozes passion from all sides.
These three films capture two sides of Hideaki Anno that aren’t mutually exclusive to one another: an appreciation for the escapism and joy of his favorite series, and a man balancing his career with his own issues. The creative output speaks for itself, but its existence is difficult to separate from this frankly spoken public knowledge.
Returning to the Evangelion franchise after Cutie Honey, Hideaki Anno’s creative force in the industry later allowed him to work with another of his favorite franchises, Godzilla, in his style. His passion for the creature and genre comes through as he blends his intrusive, active editing that places the viewer in the action with an understanding of what made Godzilla so appealing.
Godzilla has always molded itself on the society receiving its latest film, and in a country angry at government incompetence to the 3.11 disaster response and grappling with military constitutional revision in a way that shone the public spotlight on politicians more than ever before, this anti-establishment take on the once anti-war icon is arguably the best Godzilla film to date. Even despite its contradictory embrace of military might.
And yet, Hideaki Anno’s jump to live-action for the first time in a decade for this film was announced alongside a frank essay about how the production of the third Rebuild of Evangelion film was impacted by his returning depression to the point he could barely return to the office. Godzilla in the film grows in strength through the paralysis of a system creating rampant destruction we witness first-hand from the people who lose their lives and homes from it. It’s a film more focused than even the original film on tragedy and loss.
Just like when proposing the original Evangelion, the statement announcing this film’s production is prefaced by the same question: Why do we create?
It’s difficult to understand where, or if, the line should be drawn when it comes to balancing the clear links between Hideaki Anno’s longstanding battles with depression and his work, and separating the art from the artist.
As someone with their own experiences with depression and self-harm, the thought of psycho-analysis of someone’s output on this level can feel exploitative. Plus, even if these works are influenced by a director’s brushes with mental health or other personal issues, the final product is a canvas for the audience to draw their own conclusions, with a limit on how much we can ever truly understand of the director’s mindset.
And yet, the resulting films, with the deep-rooted exploration of trauma in Love & Pop and Ritual alongside the anger ingrained in Shin Godzilla, and the way they have impacted audiences, make readings of these films in this manner impossible to ignore.
From a purely critical standpoint, charting the impact of these live-action films is a trivial task. Each film Hideaki Anno produced was met with critical acclaim with awards recognition, including movie and director of the year awards for Shin Godzilla. A retrospective at the 2014 Tokyo International Film Festival, that centered both their animated and live-action work, is proof of the legacy of these films and this director and showcases why we should celebrate this creative tour de force.
Whether we should analyze these films through the lens of Anno himself is one thing, but understanding his past helps us understand just why his work is so successful and powerful. By being willing to expose his flaws while also indulging his deepest passions, this personal touch defines Hideaki Anno’s entire career, both animated and live-action. And it’s why he’s one of Japan’s best living directors.
Film Flashback: Love & Pop (ラブ＆ポップ, Hideaki Anno, 1998)
Love & Pop isn’t just Hideaki Anno’s best live-action production, but arguably challenges Evangelion’s place as the director’s best creative work.
On the surface, as mentioned before, this is a story about compensated dating centered on four schoolgirls in the 1990s Japan. Yet with a cynicism that matches the decade’s vanishing hope in the wake of economic stagnation after the bursting of the economic bubble, this is also a film about lost time. Childhoods lost to the leering gaze of society that makes women grow up early, the worry that time is passing you by as you fail to leave your mark, all while everything and everyone around you chews you up and spits you out like worthless meat for a bit of self-pleasure.
Hiromi is one of these schoolgirls, a lost girl in a lost decade. Desperate to rise and find worth through money earned through compensated dating, this film reeks of disgust for everything surrounding the people who were robbed of the hope these streets once represented. One of the men she goes on a date with (she is not even 18), desperate for sexual gratification, forces her to give him a handjob in the middle of the store as the camera lingers on her semen-covered hand as she runs away. And it’s only one example of the disregard felt for her as a person, acting on the hope of dreams of a better life may give them purpose in an uncaring world.
The use of early digital cameras kept filming costs low and allowed Hideaki Anno to represent these lost emotions through the camerawork, playing with time and space to capture the feelings of being in a space that doesn’t hold a place for these young girls to belong. Fisheye lenses give streets an alien look as though we don’t belong, and we often survey the scenes these girls inhabit as a trespasser peering on these scenes from awkward angles, or on the moving wheels of a bike or model train. Aspect ratios shift constantly to enforce feelings of being trapped and confused and alone, distorting our understanding of space and time itself.
There’s a cynicism to the idea of growing up and the typical life progression, the typical standard, that permeates through the film and its hyperactive editing style as it practically begs that you join on this movie’s critical look at adulthood and the lost decade and childhood the film is set within.
Love & Pop is about being lost in a world you should be inheriting. While it doesn’t touch on the queer experience, I can’t help but find the way this film touches on the lost developmental stages for Japanese youth in the 1990s something that speaks as much to generational divides, economic disparity, and societal misogyny as it does the universal ideas of the queer experience.
Coming-of-age films appeal to me as a trans person because it’s a universal experience that I never experienced. Rather than coming of age as I became an adult, life began with a splutter upon seeing myself in the mirror for the first time at the age of 22. I don’t feel like my understanding of time and coming of age is the same as someone who is cishet (someone who identifies as the sex they were born as, and are attracted to people of the sex opposite of theirs), purely as my age infers a mid-20s adulthood that betrays my lack of sexual and personal understanding that would come from experiences growing up I couldn’t have.
I exist in this world, yet don’t exist in the timeframe my physical body exists within. This film is about capturing lost bodily autonomy and purpose in a world that marches on regardless, and that’s something my experiences as a queer person with their own mental health struggles can relate to. It also makes the almost hopeful ending all the more impactful.
For those who may only be aware of Hideaki Anno through Evangelion and a limited number of other works, Love & Pop transforms these ideas into a new medium while challenging what the medium itself was capable of in a period of flux. A stunning technical achievement, and Anno’s best work to date.
You can watch Love & Pop on Blu-ray through the Hideaki Anno Live-Action Film Collection 1998-2004 Blu-Ray Collection, a Japanese Blu-Ray set bundling Love & Pop, Ritual and Cutie Honey into a single collection. The set also features English subtitles.
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl !