Even in the age of digital film, with its bountiful excesses of footage and takes, it is rare to find a director who treats their films as things that are always in motion. There are only a handful of directors who consider their work never finished— they can’t let it rest. To be clear, I’m not talking about the director’s cuts that come out with a film’s home release and include two or three minutes of “never-before-seen footage” that ultimately changes nothing about the film; I mean full-blown revisions that change the meaning of the work and the effect of the viewing experience. It’s somewhat admirable to watch these perfectionists push forward in pursuit of a goal they subconsciously know they can never reach— the legendary intended viewing experience— but it inevitably invites controversy.
Japanese director Hideaki Anno is one such figure. He is a director so obsessed with revision that it even becomes a subject of some of his work. And, while he’s reworked some of his films in the traditional sense (leading to a filmography with a rather confusing naming convention), on the whole his pursuit of perfection is unique because he tries to achieve it through reinvention, both from within and without his films. He even reinvents the work of those who came before him; in 2016, he helmed Shin Godzilla, which presented the best take on the King of the Monsters in decades. Anno did so by restoring Godzilla’s roots as a terrifying, near-unstoppable force of nature, yes, but also by reinventing the nuclear monster as one more closely informed by the Japanese Triple Disaster of 2011 than the nuclear bomb testing that hangs over Ishirō Honda’s original 1954 film. As if to emphasize that this is a reinvention of an old monster, the adjective shin literally translates into english as “new.”
But nothing compares to his magnum opus, the Evangelion franchise.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is a work that is about reinvention and that has been reinvented by Anno again and again— tellingly, his 1995 anime series’ Japanese title is Shinseiki Evangelion, literally “New Century Gospel” (starting to notice a pattern?). This seminal anime is a deeply personal work that explores depression and self-loathing at its core; Anno almost disappeared completely in the four years before the show’s release and rather famously fell into a deep depression during the show’s production. These ideas therefore plague Shinji Ikari, the show’s protagonist, as well, and from the very first episode he struggles to learn the simple lesson that he repeats to himself over and over: “I mustn’t run away.” To reinvent himself into someone that he can love becomes Shinji’s main task from the outset, even above the initial mecha-style premise of getting in a robot to stop aliens from outer space.
Evangelion’s first reinvention takes place due to reasons beyond Anno’s control. In addition to the bout of depression that he faced, the show also had a famously troubled production— they often worked right up to deadlines and had a tight budget as well as almost no in-house animators (Studio Ghibli, where Anno once worked as an animator on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, was responsible for most of Episode 11’s animation). So, about halfway through the show’s production, Anno abandoned his original story and charted a new course. The show’s pace slowed to a crawl as it began to favor deeper character explorations and psychological analysis, culminating in the last two episodes of the show eschewing narrative altogether for the “Human Instrumentality Project”: a trippy, postmodern dive into Shinji’s psyche. By the end, he finally learns that he can grow and change and one day love himself— he’s able to at least begin to reinvent his self-image. Although it was not the plan, it was this first reinvention that would cement Evangelion’s place not only in the canon of anime but in the broader canon of film and television as well, as it laid the groundwork for its second reinvention.
As I said earlier, the pursuit of perfection is oft accompanied by controversy. Neon Genesis Evangelion’s original finale was met with an extremely polarized response; those who thought it bad apparently found it so terrible that Anno received many death threats for how he chose to end the show. Anno’s response to this controversy? Reinvent what Evangelion is. The result is 1997’s The End of Evangelion, a landmark film for the medium of animation. Anno employs reductio ad absurdum— a rhetorical strategy that essentially consists of taking an argument’s counter and extending it to the extreme in order to demonstrate its absurdity— in film form to present an alternate ending to the show, complete with its own episode title cards. It is almost the complete opposite of the original ending, cynical in tone and somehow even more experimental (Anno even briefly includes scans from some of the death threats he was sent). It is bitter and depressing, a monkey’s paw, Anno totally re-envisioning his show out of spite— and it is a dark masterpiece.
So effective was this strategy of reinventing his work and leading it to disaster that Anno did it one more time in his Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy, which itself is a reinvention of the show in film form. Reinventions within reinventions: a reinvention-ception, if you will. 2009’s Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance. was the second film in his proposed reinvention of the show (complete with shin in the Japanese title), but where the first film was a relatively faithful and straightforward adaptation of the show’s first six episodes, 2.0 presents fragmented elements from the other 20 episodes within an otherwise wholly original story. This time, like the last, he devoted the space of an entire film to again respond to fans of the franchise; however, where The End of Evangelion was Anno taking the fans’ demand of an alternate ending and flat-out refusing to give them one the way they wanted it, You Can (Not) Advance takes a subtler approach. He seemingly caves to the audiences, presenting a film in his precious franchise that is all-too generous with its fan service, showing a Shinji that acts how people want him to— and it yields an even worse outcome for the characters in the end.
So, okay, the controversy part is pretty clear now. But what exactly is the point of all these reinventions? How does this indicate Hideaki Anno’s relentless pursuit of perfection? What’s the lesson here? Aside from their merit as individual works— and in my opinion, reader, both End of Evangelion and You Can (Not) Advance are both 5-star films; the former is my favorite film ever— they can be read as imperfect knockoffs that would be the result of catering to an audience’s desires; disasters in the world of the films warn of real-world disasters, whether that may be a boring and unintelligent film or a docile audience unable to think critically about the media it engages with (which may perhaps be even worse than an angry audience). Anno’s refusal to give fans exactly what they want allows him to use these reinventions to show what Evangelion isn’t, and therefore to reassert his vision in a work that ultimately succeeds precisely because of how personal its premise is to him.
After nearly a decade, the final film in the Rebuild series, Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time, was released in Japan in March 2021, marking what Anno has said will be his final work with the franchise. Who knows if he’ll stick to that commitment? Perfectionists can rarely ever stop. Anno’s own idol and old mentor, Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki, is a perfectionist himself who came out of retirement after a few years. Anno may never achieve perfection with Evangelion— whether he chooses to come back to the series or not— but he’s damn close.