September 2021 – You Can (Not) Sell Out

A bit of a break from the usual this month. I spent September preparing for a big trip, and then going on said trip, so this was actually written in August. No videogames this time, but I hope you still enjoy this very simmered take on a topic everyone has moved on from, and next month will be back to game mechanics!

In a two-part documentary on the nine year effort to finish the fourth and final Evangelion Rebuild film, there is a moment where director Hideaki Anno reviews all the footage compiled by a pre-vis team for a scene in the film. Animation does not typically make widespread use of pre-vis techniques (the process of filming actors in mocap suits) but Hideaki Anno had decided to forgo storyboarding and exclusively used pre-vis to prepare the rough material for this greatly anticipated movie. 

He had experience with the process before, having just worked on the award winning live-action film Shin Godzilla, but what drove him to this decision was that if he stuck to the same old method of making an anime movie, then it would come out the same way his previous work had. This final Evangelion film had to be different. He had concluded the story for the first time in 1996, when the Neon Genesis Evangelion television series aired its last episode; then a year later he provided an alternate ending in the film End of Evangelion. Twenty years after that, Anno has made four brand new “Rebuild” films that reanimate and remix the original story with matured technologies and sensibilities, making this final film Hideaki Anno’s third attempt to tell a definitive ending to this story that had become a cultural touchstone. This new pre-vis process was supposed to open up the possibilities of animation by capturing things an animator would not normally imagine. Stuff like unusual camera angles, nuances in an actor’s performance, and the volumetric physicality of a space. When he looks at the footage, though, Anno says something I will repeat back to myself for the rest of my life.

“It’s a lot of effort for boring results.”

Several years into development, and it seems like the gambit might not pay off. Hideaki Anno makes a decision to reshoot the entire thing, but this time he’s going to take direct control of the camera during filming. This is a big disappointment for him. One of the reasons he initiated the Evangelion Rebuild project was to set the franchise on a course where it would not need him. Scene after scene in the documentary show Anno attempting to delegate, and failing. After sending a cut of animation in for retakes, he remarks to the camerawoman that it would be simpler if he’d just animate the cut himself, but that would defeat the purpose. 

Hideaki Anno created Studio Khara so that he could foster new voices and give them opportunities. Their first project was to be “Rebuilding” Evangelion because it guaranteed investment money that could go towards establishing the studio, and even fund creators for a weekly online short film exhibition. Anno made his break in the industry at a young age thanks to a short film he helmed for Daicon, and it seems to me that he wants to replicate the opportunity for the next generation. Unlike his friend and mentor, Hayao Miyazaki, Hideaki Anno seems genuinely interested in the success and well being of other animators. He chastises the documentary crew for focusing on him rather than showing the misery of the people suffering from his insufficient direction. The responsibility of being depended on weighs heavily on him.

Suffering under responsibility and struggling to communicate have always been the primary themes of Evangelion. Beneath a comical amount of technobabble the story of Evangelion is extremely digestible. A lonely kid with a special talent has the weight of the world put on his shoulders by all the adults around him, and is confronted with an impossible choice: if he does what is asked of him it will destroy him, but if he doesn’t then it will destroy the world. Does he want to die or live? Is the world more important than he is? Should Shinji get in the robot, or not? 

The story feels real because it is creator Hideaki Anno’s story. Even at a young age he was an unbelievably talented animator, a practice developed as a result of his desire to escape from the harsh real world, and particularly his spiteful father. As a kid his skill was recognized by many adult professionals, who then pushed him to take those skills to the limit. While he was still in school, he was entrusted with animating the climax to the two largest anime films of 1984 (Nausicaä and Macross: Do You Remember Love?). It would be a high pressure responsibility for anybody, much less a student, and he would be expelled before he could graduate due to missing assignments and class. It must have seemed like life was zero-sum. This experience forever tied his sense of worth to his abilities and gave him some severe self-esteem issues and depression. The weight of the world resting on Shinji’s reluctant and nihilistic shoulders are a clear reflection of Anno.

The original 90’s television show ends with Shinji finding some sense of self-worth, as the fabric of the fictional universe dissolves around him. Personally, this always read to me as a triumph of a real person learning how to love himself after the worst case scenario pressures of leading a hit show catastrophically broke the production. Famously, Anno suffered panic attacks while trying to storyboard the last two Evangelion episodes, and they took so long to complete that there was no time for the studio to animate them. The result is a finale that is creative, broken, insulting, sincere, and wraps up all the themes of the show while also discarding every plotline and character. But it is the most complete answer there can be to the core thematic question. If there is a zero-sum game for Shinji and for Anno, between preventing the apocalypse of the world of Evangelion and his own mental health, I can’t fault a guy for saying to hell with anime — real life is more important. 

This ending continues to be controversial thirty years later. I am sympathetic to arguments that it is selfish for the director to waste the efforts of the staff by mismanaging the production that badly. I don’t think Hideaki Anno would disagree with that one! But that was not the loudest criticism. Fans who had become invested in the fictional world felt betrayed, and the animation studio was sent a deluge of death threats. Forum posters discussed ways they would kill Anno. Evangelion had already grown to be anime’s Star Wars — a massively popular work that would reshape a blockbuster industry — except this one had an ending that people could not accept. As a result, Anno was given a chance to redo the end of Evangelion for a second time, in the theatrical film End of Evangelion.

Given the chance to tell a new ending for the television show, free of budget constraints and the time to make it exactly what he wanted it to be, Hideaki Anno chose violence. End of Evangelion is probably the most upsetting movie I have ever seen. Every minute of it is hostile. I almost puked the first time I saw it, not because of gore but because of psychological anguish. The movie is angry. Angry that the world said Shinji had to get back into the robot. Angry that people care so much about its fictional characters, that they care so much about its superbly animated action, that they care about the convoluted lore, that they are so moved by the craft of it all that they demand more, but refused to listen to any of what it was trying to say. So everyone gets a character assassination. So the animation is removed, again, without excuse. So the theater audience is reflected and projected back on the screen. So the death threats the filmmakers received are posted on screen. This time, no one gets a happy ending. Except for me, I love it.

Hideaki Anno tried to kill Evangelion twice. It wouldn’t last, though. Evangelion was going to be Rebuilt. Four new films, retelling the story from the beginning for an audience new and old. Why come back so many years later? Returning to Evangelion was about money, and I say that without cynicism. It again shares commonalities with Star Wars

It isn’t uncommon to hear that the Star Wars Prequel trilogy was created to sell out and make lots of merchandise. This is, in fact, true, but put dismissively it misses part of that motivation. In a series of blog posts which have unfortunately been shut down by Disney, Lucasfilm’s in-house author of the Star Wars’ behind the scenes books, J.W. Rinzler, gave a more candid account of the state of the studio between the inception of the prequels and the acquisition by Disney. He describes the simple business of the matter: Lucasfilm was going to have to downsize unless they brought in more money. George Lucas had created Lucasfilm to be a nearly autonomous haven apart from the Hollywood studio system, but even though it is easy to look at Star Wars as a monolithic juggernaut, by the late 90’s the licensing could not sustain the livelihoods of everyone who had been brought into the fold. Many of the people who were there had been there for a long time. There needed to be more Star Wars, and fast. If there wasn’t, the dream of a secluded little campus in Ricasio, California, was going to die. 

At the same time, George Lucas also wanted to transform the industry technologically. The Prequels pioneered digital filmmaking across cameras, editing, and CGI. These were also business choices — if Lucasfilm can demonstrate mastery of the next generation of technology then it assures they will have clientele in the years to come. This is where the priorities were, and if it managed to tell an entertaining story about how fascism rises out of liberalism then that would be a sweet cherry on top. 

Media criticism talks a lot about the sanctity of storytelling, but the Prequel scripts were being written after concept designs were going through approvals and digital sets were being built because those jobs materially mattered more. If employees are valued over a fictional world, then Lucas’ script was not as important as a costume design. A script might paint a believable emotional journey for a future Darth Vader, but a distinct and vibrant costume will sell figures, and an outfit that can be easily blended between CGI and live action shots will help sell future compositing contracts.

I get why it is easy to be cynical about this. George Lucas chose to be a businessman ahead of an artist, and audiences shouldn’t have to just put up with that. But we assume a materialist read is about greed, rather than about material. Art is made of stuff and people, and a materialist lens is good at seeing the relationship between the two. With that lens you can debate, then, whether it is more or less authoritarian to put a director’s script ahead of everything else, to risk other’s jobs so that your artistic vision is developed and uncompromised, or whether the integrity should be discarded, so that you can keep making money and continue to support a little empire that, at the end of the day, you control. At least until Disney comes around.

I hope you forgive that long tangent, but I do think it is important to understand the Evangelion Rebuild films from this lens. Because the similarities are numerous. Hideaki Anno, like George Lucas, transitioned into a studio head and businessman. He wanted Evangelion to become a franchise pillar, like Gundam, and outlive him. But unlike Star Wars, Evangelion is deeply personal. You can take Lucas out of Star Wars and still make billions of dollars, but you can’t take Anno out of the robot.

The first two Rebuild films, Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone and Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance succeeded at making money, but are artistically vacant. The first film is an almost shot for shot recreation of six episodes of the show, but worsened by ugly digital coloring and a chronological edit that saps the careful momentum of the original. The second film is filled with new scenes, but sands any harsh, disagreeable edges from the show. The uncomfortable psychosexual tension is gone. Characters are less obstinate, more pleasant and straightforward. It feels like wish fulfillment for those who just wanted to hang out in the world and be with the characters. Without the bite that made the original personal, 2.0 succeeded at making Evangelion just another anime. 

The most notable change is the addition of a new character, Mari, who represents all of the goals of the Rebuild project. She is sexy and flirtatious and lacks the barbs that keep all the other characters from getting close to each other. She was added to sell more merch, and no one on staff pretends otherwise. The co-directors openly discuss how difficult it was to figure out what her character should be, since Anno’s only direction was that he could not be the one to define her, and that she must “be the one to destroy Evangelion.” Anno has described each of the original characters as parts of his psyche, but Mari needed to be the new force that rocks the story from its course and makes it less rooted in himself. She remains a confusing presence throughout the films, though, and her motivations are never clear. She exists to titillate and confound. The merch sells well, though. The demystification and democratization of Evangelion progresses on course, mission accomplished. Unfortunately as a viewer, these two films left no impact on me.

Everything changes drastically with the third film, Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo. From the opening frames the film has transformed with a classy Cinemascope aspect ratio, artificial film grain, sharp digital lighting, geometric composition, and the return of obstinate character writing. The story is set fourteen years in the future, everyone’s personality has advanced, and it feels at last like anything could happen once again. It is thrilling and frustrating, at times moving and at others inscrutable. There is a scene where Shiji asks Kawaru to teach him how to get better at playing piano, and the brief conversation that follows carries some profound advice written by someone who has clearly thought a lot about the relationship between skill and happiness. Evangelion is back, and it feels like Anno is back too.

That brings us back to the beginning. The fourth and final film, Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon A Time, is Anno’s third attempt to end the story of Evangelion. It took nine years to complete. Every time he had tried to end the story before, people were furious at him. He almost committed suicide. The pressure of doing it right meant that the original goals of the Rebuild project were totally strained. If you want a profitable studio, you don’t stall production for nine years. If you are democratizing a franchise, you don’t take the camera into your own hands and reshoot it yourself. The desire is still there — he plainly agreed to be filmed for the documentary because it would be good marketing, and one of the reasons development was delayed was because he was rewriting large chunks of the film based on feedback and reactions to test screenings with the entire studio.

I love the documentary because you can see the tension of someone torn between wanting to delegate and trust other people, but who knows the only way he will be satisfied is if he does everything himself. It is the story of Evangelion, after all. Like Shinji, he can get in the robot. Doing it will destroy him, but the world could end if he doesn’t. It won’t make anyone happy, even if he does his job. You can see the anxiety on everyone else’s faces. So much money is being lost every day, because Anno can’t find the words to say something big and personal and profound again. The fans and the crew are all waiting for it. Evangelion is a gaping wound, cut open by a younger man. With all of Hideaki Anno’s accumulated maturity and earned peace, how will he heal that open wound?

The ultimate message of Thrice Upon A Time isn’t so profound. Believe in other people, accept connections, go outside and live life. It’s rather ordinary in its conclusion. In the documentary, the crew agrees. “Maybe boring is best.” It’s too much to expect profundity from anyone. We want to believe artists can give us all the answers, because they seem to see something inside of us that we didn’t see before. But artists are just people. People don’t know everything. Anno isn’t better at living than you or I. The story, at the end of everything, is that people have great expectations, and the weight of that responsibility can destroy you and others, so you have to believe in yourself, so that you can be okay when you disappoint other people. And recognize that everyone else is going through that same thing, so help them when you can.

Hideaki Anno does not watch the screening of the completed movie. Apparently, he never looks at a film once it is out of his hands. I imagine it makes him too anxious. While waiting for the screening to end, he tells the documentarian “I hope they are glad that they worked on it. That’s the only way that I can repay them.”


  • J.W. Rinzler tragically passed away this summer, so I don’t believe there is any hope of his blog content resurfacing. Luckily I managed to save some of the posts locally — after they started getting spicy I figured that Disney would send a cease and desist sooner or later, and it turned out I was right. Hit me up if you want ‘em.
  • Hideaki Anno as you or I can know him is just a character put together in front of a camera and edited by documentaries and interviews. But it is a character that I believe is more compelling and rich than the protagonists of Evangelion. I don’t know the real guy at all. But I feel like I do, and so do many other people. Hideaki Anno has appeared as a character in anime (Shirobako), live action drama (Aino Honno), and manga (Insufficient Direction). Writing so familiarly about someone real is probably a very irresponsible thing for me to do, no matter how much research I have done, but the development story of these films could not get out of my head. I hope this piece has humored you and has uniquely illustrated the tension between artistry and business!
  • Thank you to Kevin Wong and Katherine Duffy for giving feedback and helping me edit together this one <3

Other stuff this month:

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