Anno, Evangelion, and the Fleeting Intersection of Creators and Trends

The story of Neon Genesis Evangelion is partly one of a creator who tapped into the zeitgeist of his viewers, who then began to travel along a path divergent from the very people that called themselves his fans. Anno Hideaki is not an isolated incident. Any time a creator makes a sequel and it’s considered to do more harm to the series than good by some (J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, Tomino Yoshiyuki and Gundam), there’s a sense that ideas and sensibilities did not align as well as they could have.

Of course, fans are individuals too. What one might call the general fan reaction to something is akin to an aggregate or a median of all of the different values that exist, and one might even argue that there’s no such thing as a singular “audience” or “fandom.” However, I think that’s a significant contributing factor to why it’s so hard for so many characters to achieve great success more than once, why there are so many flashes in the pan. Even when they’re attempting to chase their audience and please them, it doesn’t necessarily work out as they might hope. How likely is it for one person to tap into the collective feelings of a group, and do so consistently over a period of years?

Love ’em or hate ’em, this I think this situation is why production by committee/audience testing exists. If you want lightning to strike twice, why not try to find out as much information as possible? Why not try to approach the group mindset with a smaller group of your own? It’s safer and arguably more reliable.

The issue with this approach is that it’s more likely to discourage risk and experimentation. This doesn’t mean it can’t ever result in strong works, but the Mr. Plinkett review of the current state of the Star Wars franchise explains it well. Disney knows exactly what the fans love about their beloved far, far away galaxy, and will keep tapping that well for as long as they find if feasible. These can be favorite characters, changing trends in how people perceive media (gender and racial diversity), or something else, but rarely would a work like this try to challenge or anger its audience.

This, I believe, is the danger zone that Anno saw all those years ago as fan response to Evangelion became one that encouraged an objectification and consumption of its characters. That conversation is more complex than this post is going to get into (and keep in mind that I’m not necessarily against either side), but it keeps me thinking about the divergence of creators and fans.

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The Price of Art: Miyazaki Hayao’s “The Wind Rises”

It’s been a few weeks since I took the opportunity to see Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. For personal reasons I’ve been unable to write about it until now, which makes me a little sad since my memories of the movie are no longer as fresh. Nevertheless, the film made such an impression on me that I can still remember its effects on me, the mild trembling and near-existential crisis I experienced after leaving the theater that I feel compelled to write about it. This is because while other Miyazaki films have been beautiful, profound, poignant, heart-warming, and intelligent, The Wind Rises is challenging.

I’m going to spoil quite a bit. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend this movie.

The Wind Rises is a highly fictionalized account of the life of Horikoshi Jirou, inventor of the “Zero,” the most famous Japanese plane of World War II. We first see him as a child in love with the idea of flight, though sadly unable to ever truly take to the skies due to his terrible eyesight. Instead, in a dream where he meets Caproni, a famous Italian aeronautical engineer, he realizes that if he can’t fly the planes, then at least he can build them. The movie is thus the story of a man with a passion that stays with him throughout his life. The main issue is that he lives in the 1930s, and Japan already has an alliance with Nazi Germany. We know what Jirou’s passion will lead to, and this aspect of his story is how The Wind Rises confronts its audience with difficult questions.

There is a sort of romantic image surrounding the artist who lives for his craft, and over and over again the movie shows how Jirou would rather not think of anything but the plane itself. However, The Wind Rises juxtaposes this quality in Jirou with the era in which he lives. Given the imperialist and militaristic nature of Japan at the time as depicted in the film, it is clear where Jirou’s inventions will eventually take him, and yet given the context of his society, it’s also the only opportunity he really has to fulfill his dream. He makes the best of his situation, pursuing his life-long goal using the means available to him, and though on a personal level this can be seen as the emblematic of the adaptability of the creative human mind, it also comes at a very real cost of millions of lives, claimed essentially by Jirou’s imagination. At the end of the movie when Jirou returns to his dreams of the sky and we see the clouds in the sky transform into his greatest invention, there’s a clear sense of tension on the screen between the beauty of the Zero and the ugliness inextricably tied to it. This is why when I see people accuse this film of being militaristic, I feel as if they did not bother to actually see what was happening in the film.

Can art truly be made for art’s sake? This is one of the central questions of the film, and The Wind Rises answers that this passion, as much as we might want to bottle it and isolate it from the world, is nevertheless still a part of it. Even the refusal to compromise ends up being a type of compromise in itself, and the film makes this point clear not only through Jirou’s profession but also his personal life. Falling in love with a woman suffering from tuberculosis in a time when there was no cure, throughout the movie they make sacrifices between their immediate and future happiness. When ultimately they decide to live together despite knowing that this will shorten her lifespan, the parallel is clearly established that, whether it is at home or in another country, Jirou’s passion in a sense destroyed lives. And yet, it is impossible to see Jirou as a “villain,” or as morally reprehensible. There is no guarantee that we would not have done the same thing, living in the here and now while hoping for a brighter future. Jirou’s choices cannot simply be divided into “right and wrong.”

The very fact that Miyazaki himself is an artist making some of the most successful animated films ever makes the ideas of The Wind Rises feel both self-critical and targeted toward society at large. One of the more interesting decisions for the movie was that Anno Hideaki, creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, animator on Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and otaku extraordinaire was cast as the voice of Jirou. Anno is no voice actor, and it shows in his amateurish performance, but I think this was a deliberate choice because Anno is also a “passionate person” as an otaku. Evangelion was Anno’s attempt to tell otaku to get out there and confront the world, and in certain ways the opposite happened, so I believe that Anno in the role of the protagonist speaks to the idea that otaku are generally considered obsessive people in some sense “cut off” from society. There is an earthquake at the beginning of the film, and when the ground begins to crumble and shake, it looks like the old Gainax style more than that of Ghibli, and I have to wonder if it was animated in this way to call attention to the otaku. As with Jirou, the question would be if we can call otaku a pocket of society, a subculture, or if that passion should be contextualized. It’s a confrontation with both otaku and non-otaku.

I saw this movie at a period in my life where many things are in flux. The future often looks uncertain, the present looks frightening, and more than a few people I’ve known have become ill or worse in recent years, and this movie hits me hard in those areas. Moreover, as someone who has spent his life in creative endeavors, whether it’s art or writing, I feel as if this movie peered straight into my soul, asked me about my life, and forced me to ask myself what a human being really is. In spite of this—or perhaps because of this—however, The Wind Rises may very well have become my favorite Miyazaki film ever (which has been Laputa: Castle in the Sky for the longest time). In fact, when I think about it, the last time I felt this profoundly affected by any anime was the masterful Turn A Gundam. If I had to summarize my thoughts on the film in three words it would be: beautiful, deep, painful.