There is anime before Neon Genesis Evangelion and there is anime that came after. Hideaki Anno's opus is only one thread in his vast tapestry of accomplishments and contributions to the anime industry, ranging from his collaboration with other creators, the animation studios born in his wake, and the immense influence he has had on the writers, directors, and animators behind virtually all receent anime. Today marks Hideaki Anno's 58th birthday, so it only feels fitting to take a look at the beginnings of this creative mastermind's career, and how his talent and passion have left a mark on the world of anime forever.
Beginning his career working as an animator on projects such as The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Anno’s talent and passion wasn’t truly recognized until his work on the 1984 Hayao Miyazaki film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The production studio had been running short on animators, and Anno was one of many who answered a help wanted ad in Animage (a well-known anime magazine). Miyazaki was so impressed with Anno’s drawings that he hired him to draw one of Nausicaä’s most challenging (and arguably the best) scene: the God Warrior's attack sequence. Since Nausicaä's release over 30 years ago in 1984, the God Warrior's attack has become animation legend.
At the end of 1984, Anno - along with fellow university students and collaborators on earlier projects such as Daicon IV - founded the animation studio Gainax. Anno’s first project at Gainax was working on the feature film Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, which, while not a commercial success, is regarded as a cult classic. Gainax eventually went on to be a well-respected studio with hundreds of thousands of fans across the world, due in part to such classics as Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, His and Her Circumstances, and Gurren Lagann, just to name a few.
Most notable of all Anno and Gainax creations is the 1995/1996 apocalyptic mecha anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. To this day, Evangelion has risen to a level of ubiquity most creators only dream of. Its place in Japanese culture could justifiably be compared to Star Wars in the West: even those who haven’t seen it were aware of it through endless advertising tie-ins, seeing it on various bits of merch in stores, or simply as one of many ubiquitous pop culture references. If you haven’t seen Star Wars, there’s still a good chance you know what a Jedi and a lightsaber is, right? It’s like that, but Unit 01 and Angels instead.
Since its release, Evangelion has spawned various manga adaptations, video games, a film that re-tells the controversial original ending, and a four-piece movie reimagining that diverts greatly from the original storyline.
Among many achievements, Evangelion is credited with reinventing (and rejuvinating interest in) the mecha genre, influencing Japanese animation at a time when the industry was in a slump, and impacting the overall global spread of anime. The mature, nuanced way the series handled themes of depression, nihilism, and existential horror ushered in a new era for anime. The years following Evangelion's release saw an increase in dark, psychological dramas aimed at more mature audiences. Movies like Perfect Blue, and TV anime such as Serial Experiments Lain walked the path paved by Anno's groundbreaking series. The series also left a huge impact on the way anime was televised! Shinya anime is a term that refers to anime series scheduled at late night or early morning hours created for an adult audience. Scheduling blocks for these series was hugely expanded after the massive success of Evangelion, setting the stage for anime's TV distribution to this day.
Beyond critical and scholarly acclaim, many anime creators themselves are proud to credit Evangelion as a creative influence. Most notably is Your Name auteur Makoto Shinkai, who believes anime owes a cinematographic debt to Evangelion, also believes Evangelion taught him that anime wasn’t just about lavishly animated action sequences, but could simply be about the words - whether they were spoken or not.
Though Anno’s mark on the industry is largely related to Evangelion, he has also left a lasting influence in a different way -- the creation of production studios. Anno founded his current studio, Khara, in 2006, and officially resigned from Gainax in 2007. While Khara’s flagship title is (and likely will always be) the Evangelion Rebuilds, the studio also collaborated with Dwango to create the critically revered Japan Animator Expo series of shorts. Khara also cooperated with other studios to co-animate, provide in-between animation, and offer up various odd jobs for productions such as Ponyo, From up on Poppy Hill, The Wind Rises (of which Anno is a lead voice role), Star Driver, Persona 4: The Animation, Flowers of Evil...the list goes on.
If Anno's cultural footprint is intwined with that of Gainax, his legacy expands to some of the most important studios of modern anime. Before Khara’s inception, the animation studio Gonzo was formed in late 1992 by former Gainax staffers. Perhaps most famous of all Gainax offshoots, however, is Studio Trigger. Founded by highly-regarded ex-Gainax employees Hiroyuki Imaishi and Masahiko Ohtsuka, Trigger has blazed a trail in highly stylized, beautifully produced animation. Since its inception, Studio Trigger has produced a number of shorts (Little Witch Academia movies), ONAs (Inferno Cop and Ninja Slayer From Animation) and television series (Kill la Kill, Kiznaiver, Little Witch Academia, and the currently airing Darling in the Franxx).
Beyond studios, Kazuya Tsurumaki -- Anno's protege and Evangelion assistant director -- went on to create one of anime’s most well-known series that follows a coming of age story of a young boy as he struggles through puberty, love, and the robot in his head. That’s right: the disciple of Anno himself went on to create and direct FLCL, a series held so dearly in the hearts of fans worldwide, that it spawned two additional series that air really, really soon (and look really, really good).
While Evangelion fans wait patiently (or not so patiently) for the final Rebuild film’s release, one can only speculate so to what’s over the horizon for Anno. Whether it’s more Evangelion, another entry into the Godzilla franchise, or something new entirely, we can only hope it contains the amount of creative talent, passion, and energy we’ve come to love and expect from him. So here’s to you, Hideaki Anno, for your creativity, your undying influence on anime through the years, and to your 58 years of life. Happy Birthday Anno-sensei!