Author: Amos Wong
Source: Aerial Magazine, January Edition
Dated: January, 1997
"It's strange that 'Evangelion' has become such a hit - all the characters are so sick!"
Not exactly the kind of words you'd expect from director Hideaki Anno about his 1995 production 'Neon Genesis Evangelion'. Taking him by surprise, it's been hailed by critics in Japan (and later in America and Europe) as the landmark Japanese animated TV series of the 90's. The modestly budgeted production has also become a commercial success, grossing over 800 million dollars in video sales and 400 million in merchandise in Japan alone.
Set in 2015, Earth is under attack from mysterious entities known as Angels. NERV, a covert organisation headed by a ruthlessly pragmatic Gendo Ikari, possess humanity's only hope for survival: the giant biomechanical Evangelion units, piloted by teenagers Shinji Ikari, Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley.
Indeed, the basic premise is identical to a plethora of 'giant robot shows' popular in Japanese animation (referred to by fans as 'anime') since the industry's inception in the 1960's. But its a genre which Anno has sought to redefine.
"The people who make anime and the people who watch it always want the same things," he explains. "The creators have been making the same story for about 10 years; the viewers seem to be satisfied and there's no sense of urgency. There's no future in that."
With 'Evangelion', Anno has infused the de riguer futuristic hardware and attractive cast with a depth of characterisation often lacking in recent science fiction films; enough conspiracies to out-do 'The X Files'; and complex themes addressing the fragile human condition and man's attempt to harness the power of a God.
The result is mix of ferocious battles, slapstick comedy and titillating angles of female cast members (called 'fan service' in Japan), contrasted with intriguing philosophical and religious concepts as the series builds up to its climax. The clashes against enemies become shockingly brutal, tensions amongst NERV personnel and with outside forces reach breaking point. The web of conspiracies unravel to devastating consequences.
Its soon apparent that the technology behind Earth's giant saviors is far from stable. As early as episode 2, Shinji's Eva runs amok against the pilot's will, defeating an Angel in a manner which a savage beast rips apart its prey. Anno's concept behind the Evangelion units hint towards the darker events that will come to light.
"There's a monster in Japan called the Oni; it has two horns sticking out of its head and the overall image of the Eva is based on that. I also wanted to give the impression that beneath this 'robot monster' image is not so much a robot, but a giant human."
Anno often deconstructs the main casts' mental states, via abstractly presented interrogations within each character's mind. Re-opening hidden emotional wounds from the past and uncompromisingly addressing their personality flaws, 'Evangelion' offers a fascinatingly complex character study that is rare indeed, especially in popular animated entertainment. Returning to write and direct the series after an extended hiatus - reportedly due to depression - there is an acute sense that 'Evangelion' is a very personal statement.
"Shinji does reflect my character, both the conscious and unconscious parts," Anno admits. As a pilot of Earth's most advanced weapon, Shinji is far from the archetypical hero. Abandoned by his father Gendo at a young age, he eschews human contact so that he cannot hurt others, or in turn be hurt by them. The comparison, however, isn't to be taken too literally.
"I wasn't thrown out by my father or anything" he laughs. Nevertheless, Anno has referred to the plotline as a metaphor of his life.
"In the process of making 'Evangelion', I found out what kind of a person I am," he says candidly. "I acknowledged that I'm a fool." He stresses the importance for anime artists to have diverse interests in things beside animation.
"Anime makers have to try and reach out and truly communicate with others. I would guess that the greatest thing anime has ever achieved is the fact that we're holding a dialogue right here and now."
'Neon Genesis Evangelion' is an immensely powerful and uniquely personal work; a perfect example of how animation and its storytelling can be pushed beyond the artform's common perception of being just for children.
For those who wish to experience 'Evangelion' as it was originally broadcast, a Japanese language, English subtitled version will be released on video from January 11. The English dub premieres on SBS Saturday January 2 at 8.30pm
Interview conducted at Hideaki Anno's Anime Expo '96 press panel, Los Angeles, which included writers from EX, Animerica, and Protoculture Addicts.