It takes a fanboy

The conversation about animation studios being irrelevant floats around the blogs every so often; recently it even came to the ridiculous conclusion that following creators is futile. Obviously it’s barely a conversation worth having — first off, “studio” is too vague a term on which to base a judgment. On one hand you have a Madhouse, a big joint with lots of resources but powered by freelancers and not tied to any particular directors and creators. On another hand, you’ve got someone like a Sunrise, a large, technically multi-studio enterprise built on the back of Gundam.  Out in left field, you have someone like Shaft who’s tied somewhat implicitly to Akiyuki Shinbo, or like Gainax, joined inextricably at the hip to Hideaki Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki (and later Hiroyuki Imaishi) — even without either of them directing.

Volume 3 of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann was just recently released, and I was watching it recently, along with my newly-purchased Gunbuster box set. And I realized something.

We’re all a bunch of losers.

Bear with me. My other revelations might be less obvious.

noriko_by_mikimotoWe’re bigtime fans. The kind that buy piles of videos and DVDs, download current shows we can’t even get in our countries, read or write about them on the Internet. And compared to the superhardcore otaku of Japan, well, we’re not even that bad. Ever find yourself among “straights” with the urge to make a reference to “over 9000” or a drill that will pierce the heavens? You know that lonely, kind of pathetic feeling after you decide to say nothing because no one will get you? This is why Gainax were created. This is why they still exist. And this is why studios can matter.

Gainax, like an obsessive artist, have continually painted the same picture over and over again, especially in their super robot works. It was a trait I’d previously attributed to Anno himself — thanks to countless reworkings of Evangelion — but the two being tied so closely, sometimes looks like an academic distinction. Not to mention, the continuous refining of that picture culminated with a series creatively helmed by neither Anno nor his protege Tsurumaki: Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.

There will be minor spoilers for the Aim For the Top! series (Gunbuster and Diebuster) and TTGL. There will also be a lot of damn words. Nono’s here to help, though.

What’s in the picture?

So what is this story that’s continuously being retold? It’s fairly simple, in essence: “Hard work and guts,” (as Coach would say) plus a blind devotion to what you believe in, will save the world. That’s not much different from any other anime. But the Gainax experience is unique because of a few common attributes, all filtered through the lens of the first studio founded by and for the otaku generation. The people who understand you.


Size matters. Gundam may have spearheaded the “real robot” genre that remains popular these days, but Anno and Gainax have always remained devoted to the comparatively quaint or childish idea of the super robot, like Mazinger Z. Questions of physics and mechanics are the stuff of earth-grounded mecha, and if you can swallow the wild abilities of giant robots whose pilots shout out their superpowers before using them, you’re more easily set up to believe what happens later. Gunbuster‘s Jupiter bomb. Diebuster‘s self-contained naked singularity. Otaku no Video‘s simple garage model kit maker taking over the world. And of course, Gurren Lagann’s battle with the anti-spirals, with entire galaxies being thrown around. Somehow, through the use of ramping up and multiple climaxes, the magnitude is actually conveyed to the viewer. My guess? It’s a reflection of the love Anno and co. had for the super robot shows, and the invincible feelings you get from watching them as a kid. Everything is bigger when you’re small, so Mazinger Z is positively ginormous — and if you want to get back to your otaku roots, then feeling like a kid is essential.

Forsaking your savior

In each of the major Gainax stories, the hero is forsaken by the very people he saved. Ken Kubo, Simon, and Lal’C all go from hero to leper through no fault of their own. Any standard fiction story arc features the low point for the hero, but this is a very specific theme of betrayal, of an “et tu Brute” factor. Normally, you’d expect a writer to bust out the Christ card, but I’m not a writer, and this is still Gainax, so it goes back to my otaku theme. To the hardcore, the world’s against them. No one understands your lifestyle (probably because, let’s be real, you’re a fucking weirdo), and the “straights” out there are after you. Stuffy Japanese society is trying to get you to conform, and it’ll do so at any cost. But whether he drops out of corporate life or unites with a former enemy to save humanity, the otaku reigns in the end.

Growing up

Otaku are the perpetual children, and someone needs to tell them to grow up. Hideaki Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki have been telling them to for quite some time, but not without acknowledging the difficulties inherent. FLCL‘s entire multi-layered storyline (written with the great Yoji Enokido) was, at its heart, about puberty and the hard road to adulthood, the same adulthood that hampered Topless’s powers in Diebuster. The only way to truly stay young in one of these stories is to do it the way Kamina did.

Humanity the Virus

Gunbuster‘s Coach first posited that the space monsters were in fact the white blood cells of the universe, rushing to intercept the large-scale STD we call humanity. In that same universe, even humanity’s AI defense system evolved to see its own creator as a threat. And Gurren Lagann‘s anti-spirals will stop at nothing to contain spiral energy, convinced it will destroy the galaxy. I suppose this goes back to the same theme of not letting the Man keep the otaku down, but this intrigues me even more because it’s kind of self-aware.

I mean, whether it’s Buster Machine #3 or the galaxy-chucking Chougin-Gurren-Lagann, aren’t the repressive enemies really right in the end? Is this an acknowledgment of the self-destructive nature of a hardcore otaku lifestyle?

What’s really in this picture?

There are two conclusions you can reach here. One is that this continually-evolving story is the story of the otaku, a message to keep doing what you’re doing, to be the best super robot fanboy you can be. Unfortunately, there’s the Platinum-boxed elephant in the room, Neon Genesis Evangelion. There’s no ganbatte spirit, there’s no rising up from nothing to achieve higher and higher goals until you’re using your robot to throw the Earth at a giant monster. There’s just some Gnostic mumbo-jumbo, a Jungian mess inside your head, and a big pile of disdain for the human race.

So here’s where I get a little skeptical. Being otaku themselves, Gainax know that they can not only obsessively tell the same story, but continually sell it. President Toshio Okada said of Gunbuster that it was a commodity work, not a creative one. We heard the same story for TTGL, which was created with the goal of selling robot toys a lá Gundam. This can possibly explain the Evangelion anomaly — though it eventually sold toys and videos better than almost anything else, maybe it wasn’t created to do that.

It seems depressingly cynical to postulate that NGE was the only series Gainax created without the idea of selling something. It would transform all those amazing moments — every “Welcome back,” every “Who the hell do you think I am?” — from tear-squeezers into cheap products for otaku to eat up. I’d prefer to look at it like this: Gainax’s body of work is built from a series of stories designed to show their love for otaku (since, after all, otaku means them), excepting one story that represents Anno’s self-indulgence. Fanservice was second nature to Anno and Gainax by the time of NGE, so it retains many of the qualities of earlier and later works. But the realism of animation, the dark tone, and the lack of assurance that your hard work and guts will get you anywhere is a different story.

Perhaps it’s even simpler: It’s well known that at the time Anno was disillusioned with the otaku subculture that Gainax helped perpetuate. Perhaps he was still talking to them, but what he wanted to say wasn’t quite the same. That still makes it an anomaly, but at least an honest one.

[Toe-chan’s note: The jury’s still out, but the current Rebuild of Evangelion series of movies share the characteristics outlined in this post, and by the time it’s done I might be able to remove this section… who knows]

The point

To get to the point, or rather two points (if indeed I have any), you have to go back to the beginning: We’re losers, right? We need someone on our side. And at the risk of being just a little too fanboyish, Gainax have been there for 25 years. Second, studios can matter. When Gainax formed, they enabled similar otaku factories to start up in Japan as well. Many of today’s most-beloved studios and their products owe a debt to the fanboys who could. And they’re still giving us what we want, continually refining that desire and honing it into a shiny diamond. That diamond was TTGL. So what happens the next time they do an original (super robot) story? I don’t know, but I’ll be watching.

Post-script, 2012.

I’ve amended my thoughts about the Gainax oeuvre to include the Evangelion reboots, partially discussed in this post on We Remember Love, and it is starting to seem like the story fits more smoothly into things now that it’s something made by a more well-adjusted guy. As for Gainax… well, I hate to say it after this, but the legacy seems pretty thin now that Imaishi has left. But it hasn’t been that long and there hasn’t been an original production since the marvelous Panty & Stocking, so maybe they’ll pull through.

Fuck these (30) Comments.

  1. D.J says:

    I think studios matter, it can certainly make a difference as to whether or not fans are interested in a project.

    I know if I see the name Bones attached to anything I’m all over it and I know if I see the name gainax its enough to peek my interest.

    Although I am one of those weird breed of fans who hates Neon Genesis Evangelion, blasphemy I know, but there it is.

  2. JLeeson says:

    I couldn’t agree more that studios do matter. However, in my mind the only studio that really makes me want to think that studios even matter is gainax. With TTGL out of the way I can only expect greater things from them. Hell, they even earned their own folder on my external outside the “Anime” folder that plainly reads “Gainax”

  3. coburn says:

    Goodness, it’s hard trying to read this properly without spoiling stuff for myself. So, I guess I don’t have the the knowledge to agree or contend with your idea.

    Still I think the concept of a studio having an idea of target audience is absolutely likely. Especially when it’s one based in appealing to people who are like them. It can allow them to sell things better as well as attract new employees/converts through fostering a sort of accepted vision for their creations.

    I guess this line could also be used to explain Eva as a classic gateway series – less in love with and less marketed towards us losers, and so more open to others.

    And it’s interesting that D.J. mentions Bones. I’m not sure how I’d picture their ‘angle’ – since most of the stuff I know by them is adapted, and the Gainax stuff I’ve seen has been original.

  4. Omisyth says:

    Studios will always matter; though there are many famous directors out there, most of the time people look to the studios in order to be prejudice against a series bfore watching it. Whether you can take that as a positive or a negative (i.e people not giving studios a chance as based on past works) is up to you.

  5. char says:

    Give me something Gainax and I will pounce \O_O/

    Seriously though, Gainax is the first studio I knew (that and Sunrise but the only Gundam series I watched is GWing). Currently it is the only studio I know and follow. I know of other studios but if you name a series I can’t name the studio or vice versa unless its Gainax (Gundam’s obvious though, of course).

    I haven’t watched all of their series but there’s just something about their works that attracts me. Besides Gainax, I don’t really check the studio/director. I go for the animation style, consistency and story.

    As for being a fangirl loser, I’m sure that my classmates back in highschool made fun of me behind my back but hey, who’s the one who — never mind. Judging = bad.

  6. Yes. Yes. YES! Thank you GAINAX. This post really summed up a bunch of feelings that have yet been articulated but I’m sure exist in some extreme form among us fans.

    I started watching anime really early, syndicated and dubbed Voltes V early (though it was a few years after actual air dates in Japan), and SDF Macross in 1984 (love at first sight).

    BUT I WASN’T AN OTAKU UNTIL EVANGELION. I was enthusiastic about anime all those years in the 80s and 90s, but I didn’t refer to it as a distinct form of culture. It was just better cartoons made in Japan. But after watching Eva I instinctively felt that it was both okay and not okay to be obsessed with this particular cultural product. I feel that there’s so much to say about the awesomeness in this post – but for the most part I’ll just be agreeing.

    And yes, it’s possible to like anime and manga and not be otaku. I have two younger brothers who are both “straights” even though we watched Eva together among many awesome anime.

    @ char

    Look up “Kareshi no Kannojiyo”

  7. char says:

    @ ghostlightning : I ♥ Kare Kano! It was the second Gainax series I watched after NGE. I liked the first two eps the best. The ending left me hanging and I can’t even remember it XD

    My high school best friend and I used to discuss the significance of the traffic lights in the story as well as the other seemingly random things such as broken faucets, flood water/drain pipes and the warning sound of an incoming train.

    Speaking of the latter, that sound is playing in my head… not to mention the ever-present cicada chirps >.>a

  8. Rakuen says:

    Madhouse = Good stuff

    Sunrise + Necromancers = Code Geass R3

    Gainax = Good stuff x2

    @char: KareKano had a crappy ending, it was depressing.

    Yes, studios, it’s the first thing I check after picking a lineup every new season. And yes, I’m always a victim of otaku marketing. I’m sucker for these stuff.

  9. @ char

    It’s really too bad that Kare Kano ended the way it did. It’s actually not one of GAINAX’s best moments. I had read that there were disagreements between Anno and the mangaka over the direction of the story, with the former wanting a zanier, cheerful narrative while the manga took a decidedly emo and darker turn. End is satisfying nonetheless and Yukino remains one of my favorite characters.

    @ otou-san

    I really can’t get enough of this post and have told any who would listen about it. Made a new friend who plays tennis with us who turns out to be quite the otaku herself. It was interesting that Eva went over her head the first time she watched it considering she’s a professor of psychology. I suggested that it merited a second viewing, considering the rebuild is already ongoing.

    Eva, as with most vintage works has many flaws – but it is its ability to inspire us fans to overlook such flaws and revel in its awesomeness that is remarkable. Gurren Lagann was a take-it-or-leave it anime due to its unapologetic aesthetic. There seems to be no middle ground: you either love TTGL or don’t care. And for the life of me, not caring is utterly impossible.

  10. D.J says:

    @ coburn

    The fact they do adaptations is probably why I like Bones so much, since I’m eager to see what they’ll do with material that is known.

    I’m usually pretty happy with the results, but I agree it does make it hard to figure out their ‘angle’ :)

  11. char says:

    @ Rakuen : gah, oh well XD

    @ ghostlightning : yep, Yukino’s one of my fave characters too ^_^ I love her quirks ^o^

  12. Baka-Raptor says:

    For me, Studios are a tiebreaker, about 2 away from flipping a coin. The picture looks something like this:

    1. Negative review from an untrustworthy source

    2. Positive review from a trustworthy source

    3. Plot

    4. Characters

    5. Title

    6. Yuki Kajiura

    7. Number of groups fansubbing

    8. Lesbians

    9. Violence

    10. Strength of schedule

    11. Studio

    12. Mamiko Noto

    13. Coin flip

    For most of the time I’ve been watching anime, I never knew a studio’s name. Now that I know about four, I can’t say that my life has gotten any better.

  13. biankita says:

    studios can matter because it is a factor (however minimal) when i choose shows for a season. art is not really a factor of my watching. i can watch so-so art with a god story but can never watch a crap anime for the sake of the art. but yes, there are instances i go “OMG! *Insert studio!* I will definitely watch.”

    i have certain word associations to them like,

    JCStaff = art looks like sketches weren’t properly erased + fanservice + shitty second season.

    SHAFT = fruit colors + randomness.

    Production I.G. = fluid art + outrageous premise.

    GONZO = No.

    but now that i think about it, i don’t watch much gainax stuff, probably because they’re a super-roboto studio.

  14. Akiraman says:

    Interesting Post! Evangelion is what made GAINAX so I don’t think they are done with the Super Robots Genre yet

  15. otou-san says:

    @DJ and Coburn – Bones is another pretty good example of a studio with a “corporate identity,” if you will, and if you haven’t seen much of their original stuff then by all means do so. Eureka 7 is a great one, and RahXephon is one of my favorites. It’s something I didn’t really touch on in this wall of text, but Anno really genuinely hoped that he could create a lasting impact on the genre with Eva, and so far only Bones has really run with it to any extent.

    I guess this line could also be used to explain Eva as a classic gateway series – less in love with and less marketed towards us losers, and so more open to others.

    I don’t know what the intent was, but it definitely achieved that “gateway” status, possibly more than any other series.

    @Omisyth – I don’t think prejudice is too awful in this case; people don’t want to feel like they’re just wandering aimlessly from one download or DVD purchase to another. Direction is good.

    @char and ghostlightning – Going to have to check that out myself. I haven’t always felt too awesome about Gainax’s adapted works, although Shikabane Hime seems to be turning out ok. As far as TTGL having an uncompromising aesthetic, I think that’s another commonality for a lot of the Gainax stuff. FLCL definitely comes to mind.

    @Rakuen – Let’s not even imagine R3, at least not until the R2 wounds have healed. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it but… anyway, that’s another post.

    @Baka-Raptor – That’s what I like about you, you’ve always got a damn system. I feel like I’m flying blind on pure guesswork (or your #13) at the beginning of every season, but like H. Ross Perot, you always seem to have charts and graphs to fall back on.

    @biankita – More of that Gonzo hate. But then again, they are another studio responsible for a lot of original works, and those works do tend to have commonalities. So if you’re not into those traits, I can understand.

    @Akiraman – I don’t think they are either. They are still in love with the idea, and still able to make money off it — plus the whole thesis of my post goes out the window if they’re done with giant robots!

  16. Yamcha says:

    I’m not as strung up on Gainax as you are, but I’ll admit that they can do a lot with a little, selling shows on minimalism while including meticulous details that fans will look too deeply into. For Gainax the devil was always in the details, even when their budget would run out near the end of a show’s run in the early days.

    As for studios, they are very relevant if only because loyal fans flock to their favorite studios and gobble up everything they release. The same way that name brands generate brand loyalty, anime studios have their own brand loyalty too.

  17. D.J says:

    @ otou-san, RahXephon is one anime I absolutely fell in love with and it never grows old every time I watch it I fall in love with it again. It has this mystical element which I really enjoyed, kinda how I enjoyed the fantasy feel to Escaflowne, although of course that was produced by Sunrise.

    I love the designs of golems, I enjoyed the music and the story totally drew me in. Hemisphere is still one of my favourite OP’s, you gotta love Maaya Sakamoto. I was so happy to hear her sing Triangular on the recent Macross Frontier.

    I’ve also seen Eureka 7 and while I didn’t love it as much as RahXephon I did enjoy it.

    Eh I haven’t been too enamoured with anything Gonzo has produced lately but I wouldn’t say I hate them.

    Hellsing could have been better of course, but they did also give us the first season of Full Metal Panic. Not that Kyoto Animation has been doing a bad job with the subsequent seasons of that. (Although I would like to see more oh and while Kyoto is at it, more InuYasha please!)

    I thought Gonzo did a good job of Afro Samurai, Basilisk was enjoyable. Trinity Blood wasn’t bad, but suffered from having to have so much source material condensed so much. Reading the novels and getting a better understanding of what was going on, makes that anime much more enjoyable.

    Okay okay I’ll be honest, I’m a girl and I watch it because of Hugue and Abel XD because they are pretty!

  18. IKnight says:

    This is tangential, but I’ve never quite understood how commercial motives destroy the magic. If your enjoyment of an anime is determined by the motivations of the people behind it, rather than by its own qualities, what does that say about you as a fan? Especially with toy robot merchandise, which, after all, has to sell by looking cool: ultimately, the best way to sell lots of such toys is to make anime with very cool robots in it, and you’ll never hear me complain about a cool robot.

  19. otou-san says:

    @Yamcha –

    For Gainax the devil was always in the details, even when their budget would run out near the end of a show’s run in the early days.

    I’m still always afraid that’s going to happen. But Gurren Lagann seems to prove that they’ve mastered a simpler style that carries through an entire two-season series without looking cheap at all.

    @DJ – I’m always glad to hear about someone loving on RahXephon. It gets so much grief for being an Evangelion knockoff, but it has so many of its own merits (not the least of which is a cohesive, planned-in-advance story). Not to mention, that derivative quality can be seen as a tribute to a director who was openly asking for tributes.

    @IKnight – That’s not tangential at all, since I guess I probably gave the impression that I do think it spoils the magic. I don’t, because the impetus for a product’s creation is the starting point, and with enough creativity (and cool-looking robots) thrown in, it’s hardly relevant to the end result. That said, I’ve no doubt there have been cases where the sole motivation before, during, and after an anime’s creation was moving product, and it adversely affected the outcome.

  20. digitalboy says:

    first of all, my opinion on creators and studios, if you think they don’t matter, hang yourself for being a stupid douchebag.

    Next, yes, part of GAINAX’s magic comes in the form of relatability, but I’d be hard-pressed to say it’s just otaku relatability. anyone who’s been in the shit but never given up hope, or been without it and seeking to find it, can relate to GAINAX anime. Acctually, fuck this comment, I’m making a reply post to this.

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  23. @otou-san:

    I have not seen all of Evangelion. Considering my mental state of depressed loneliness it’s probably not a good idea right now. But I loved Wings of Honneamise. That movie was gold. It really was. And I can see what you’re talking about with Gainax in that one, the loser astronaut that nobody believes in actually goes into his rocket into space, and everybody including the people fighting with guns on the ground look up in awe as they witness something they’ve never contemplated before.

    Now that you’ve mentioned the otaku formula that Gainax has I can see what you mean about that in Wings of Honneamise. Could this have been a hint that they were making otaku formula stuff from the beginning?

  24. otou-san says:

    AAB – Not a hint, a definite indicator.

  25. @ Asperger’s

    I can’t believe I forgot about ‘Wings’! I’m watching Planetes and can’t help but be reminded about that really good movie. When I started getting deep into anime through Evangelion, Wings was one of my first stops.

    Someone please re-visit this title! I’d request it from Ibrevis but the last time I did she made me start a blog and write it myself.

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