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.
We’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.
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]
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.
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.