Life is an Unfamiliar Ceiling: A look at director Hideaki Anno

Author: Pan-Chan
Dated: May 15, 2003

Japanese directors are rarely noticed in other parts of the world, but the works of some directors are so compelling that they cannot help but gain attention. Hideaki Anno remains one of the most interesting directors of our time, and everything he has worked on has become successful and memorable. Very few directors find themselves in the spotlight quite like Hideaki Anno has managed to do. It can be said that his works are a reflection of himself, and this piece of who he is comes through his controversial, yet profound story-telling abilities. Hideaki Anno has become one of the most acclaimed directors in Japan due to his impressive resume of masterpieces, his work on Neon Genesis Evangelion, and his unique style of direction.

Born May 22, 1960, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan, Hideaki Anno was not interested in animation or production as a child. In fact, it was not until he was fourteen years old that his life took a turn that lead him to the path of becoming one of Japan’s greatest directors of all time. When Anno was fourteen, he first watched the anime Space Battleship Yamato, and for the first time in his life, he felt as if he was filled with inspiration. By age seventeen, Anno had made his first film using a simple 8mm camera and a group of his friends. Three years later, at age twenty, Anno enrolled at Osaka College of Art where he met his future partner and friend Hiroyuki Yamaga. After his graduation, Anno and Yamaga moved to Tokyo where, in 1984, Anno was hired as a key animator by Oscar winning director Miyazaki Hayao, for NausicaƤ of the Valley of Wind, and later worked on Macross: Do You Remember Love? – two of the most popular anime titles of their time. In December of the same year, Anno and Yamaga formed their own animation studio known as Studio Gainax. The studio’s first project was the theatrical anime film The Wings of Honneamis, in which Anno worked on everything from the key animation, to the special effects. The Wings of Honneamis became a hit and put Anno’s name on the map. In 1988, Anno made his first directorial debut in the anime series Gunbuster, and followed its success with another series in 1990, entitled Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. After Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, Anno fell into depression. He spent the next four years as a “wreck” doing nothing but what he described as “simply not dying”. However, he did use this time to question everything about his life and his existence, and it was this introspection that eventually evolved into what is considered the most popular anime of all time – Neon Genesis Evangelion. After Evangelion, Anno was not inspired to work with the medium of animation and moved on to direct two live action films – Love & Pop and Ceremonial Day. Although each of his works have acted like rungs on the ladder to greatness, without a doubt, it is Evangelion that made Anno what he is today.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is arguably the most popular, controversial, and philosophical anime of all time. Anno has described Evangelion as his “child”. Anno created the characters, the story, wrote most of the scripts, and even directed it. Evangelion follows the story of a young boy named Shinji who never felt love and is frightened of his own shadow. He is a very unlikely hero, yet Anno made him into one, and Anno, himself, has admitted that Shinji is a reflection of himself. Shinji has trouble putting his mind to doing anything at all. He constantly chants the words “I mustn’t run away!”. Nevertheless, he always finds himself running away from the battlefield. Anno came up with the plot during a four-year period of depression, and it shows in the anime. Despite a few whimsical moments, the show is incredible dark, graphic and violent, and clearly shows the darkest side of humanity. The Evangelion television series premiered in October 1995, and concluded in March of 1996. The ending became the most controversial ever created, and Anno was swamped with feedback from fans asking him what the confusing ending was about and begging for more. A year later, Anno directed and released a new Evangelion ending in the form of a theatrical film entitled The End of Evangelion. This film brought the Evangelion saga to a close. When asked if he would ever continue Evangelion, or explain the ending, Anno replied that if you didn’t understand it, “too bad”. Despite some negative feedback and a number of confused fans, Evangelion has remained one of the highest praised animes of all time, and it’s rare to find an anime fan that has not seen the series.

Much about Anno’s personal life remains a mystery. He is reluctant to speak about himself, and on his rare visits to anime conventions, he hides behind baggy clothing and sunglasses. However, it is possible to learn about Anno’s life through the reflection of himself present in Evangelion. Anno once described Evangelion as “ life and I have put everything I know into this work. This is my entire life. My life itself.” If Anno portrays himself as Shinji as he says he does, it is possible to analyze Shinji’s character to understand Anno. Shinji’s has no will of his own, and when given affection by others, he shies away from it. Shinji spends most of his time by himself staring up at the ceiling. Since he’s never found a place he can call “home”, he always finds the ceiling “unfamiliar”. This is very similar to what Anno spent his time doing in the years before Evangelion. He merely stared up at the ceiling questioning everything about his life with questions such as “Who am I?”, “What is reality?”, What is destiny?” and “Is their free will?”. Evangelion raises these questions, but doesn’t give them any define answers. Each question is explored, and Anno’s personal answers are given, but it is made very clear that these answers are merely one point of view. For example, the question “What is reality?” is answered first answered with “What it is created to be”, and later with “What I make it to be”. Many fans of Evangelion have explored the series to better understand how Anno’s mind works. He appears to be someone with a lot of potential who lacks to courage to use his potential to its full extent. Anno likes to hide behind the camera, and despite his talent and success, he is incredibly shy. Other people’s opinions of him matter to him, and after the first ending of Evangelion, Anno received so much negative feedback that he shaved his head in the hopes of appeasing his fans. It’s impossible to understand every aspect of Evangelion, but it is clear the show is a clear reflection of Anno. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from Anno’s introspection, and even the camera angels reflect who he really is deep inside.

Anno’s style of direction has evolved over the years and his unique usage of camera angles, timing, text, and philosophical questions have made his works memorable. Anno’s manipulation of the camera’s perspective is truly amazing. For example, in Evangelion, the camera takes the perspective of the main characters, security cameras, and odd viewpoints such as the ground under someone’s feet, or focusing in on the ground or ceiling that a character is staring at. In his live action film, Love & Pop, Anno recorded the motion picture much a like a documentary and it appears as if the camera is stalking the main characters. Anno even places the camera within microwaves, and looking up within bowls with soup being poured in them. Anno is also known for creating tension and suspense by focusing on one aspect for a long time. In a later episode of Evangelion, the camera watches two of the female characters traveling upwards in an elevator for two minutes. During this time, there is no movement, and the only sign the audience has that their DVD player has not frozen is that the background music continues. After the two minutes, one of the characters moves quickly and unexpectedly shocking the audience. In episode 24 of Evangelion, Anno uses this technique to show Shinji’s inner turmoil. Shinji holds a character at arms reach and is one the verge of killing him. If he kills him, the world will be saved, but he will lose his only friend. Anno keeps the camera rolling while nothing is happening to show that Shinji is really debating whether or not to kill his friend. Text plays a large role in most of Anno’s works. In Love & Pop and Ceremonial Day, Anno divides scenes using black screens with white text written on them. Similarly in Evangelion, Anno uses black screens with English text on them to get his story across. In the last two episodes of the television series, philosophical questions such as “What is reality?” are present on the black screens. The characters then give their respected answers to the question and it is up to the viewers to come up with their own conclusions. It is in this way that the philosophical aspects of his works shine through and make the viewer think and question everything about themselves. It is this introspection that makes his works one of a kind. No other director has made the audience think so long and hard about what they are watching while they are watching it. It also makes his works immortal, since this introspection leads many viewers to have epiphanies.

Anno’s work on numerous sensational features, the part of himself he put into Evangelion and his unique style have all contributed to making Hideaki Anno not only one of Japan’s top directors, but one of the greatest and most acclaimed directors in the entire world. Animators, directors, and voice actors who have worked with Anno have all said that he is one of a kind, and many of his fans eagerly await his next feature due out within the next few years. Practically everyone who has viewed his works, whether they liked them or not, agrees that he is able to make the audience think, without letting them know that they are on a philosophical journey of self-discovery and acceptance. Perhaps the reason Anno’s works appeals to so many are because they are much like everyone’s individual introspection. And perhaps Anno’s works are not merely a reflection of himself, but a reflection of humanity in general.

"If a person truly wants to live, he can make anyplace he wants a heaven."
-Yui Ikari, Neon Genesis Evangelion