Hideaki Anno is one of the rogue forces that shaped the anime industry in the 80s and 90s. He's best known as the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but he's had a much richer career so far than most people appear to realize. In the early 80s Anno was picked up by Miyazaki to work on Nausicaa as an animator. That same year Anno would cofound Studio Gainax, one of the leading animation companies during the 90s. As a director Anno first got noticed when he released Gunbuster, a short but fun OAV that followed a bunch of young, female mech cadets. But it wasn't until Anno directed Evangelion in '95 that his fame exploded. Evangelion is still considered one of the all-time landmark anime releases and while personally I'm not a big fan, it's simply impossible to ignore its impact on Japanese animation (and international geek culture as a whole).
Anno's first steps into feature film territory were directly related to Evangelion. The End of Evangelion was a rework of the series' finale (to clear some thing up, as people were quite confused by the way the original series ended), Death & Rebirth is an almost abstract compilation of the entire series into a single film. While these are interesting additions to the Evangelion universe, they offer very little to people who weren't too impressed by the original series.
With the whole world going mad over Anno's creation, the man himself surprised friend and foe when he decided to make a 180, suddenly turning to live-action cinema. Love & Pop was his first attempt and turned out to be an interesting experiment, with Anno tirelessly exploring the different possibilities of live-action cinema. The film itself is a little uneven, but it was already clear back then that Anno wasn't interested in simply copying existing conventions. He made that even clearer when he followed it up with Ritual [Shiki-Jitsu], a beautiful, creative and original drama that still stands as one of my all-time favorite films. As an added bonus, the film features director Shinji Iwai as one of the lead characters. It may be somewhat of a challenge to track down, but it's definitely worth the effort.
But Anno isn't one to get stuck in a particular niche, so from there on out he went back to animation, directing the somewhat obscure Submarine 707R and following it up with a Cutie Honey revival (consisting of an animated anthology and a live-action feature film). The animated anthology (Rec: Cutie Honey) is definitely the stand-out of the two, but I'm sure that had more to do with Hiroyuki Imaishi's involvement. The live-action feature is a pretty cheesy anime adaptation, quite cheap and childish and only worthwhile if you're a big fan of the original series.
In 2007 Anno finally returned to the series that brought him his fame. With three new feature films spread out over 5 years, Anno set out to reimagine Evangelion for a third (and final?) time. The first film is pretty tame and remains quite close to the original series, only adding some improved animation. But part 2 and 3 is where things get more interesting. Anno went for a more dynamic and exuberant visual style and really upgraded the films in such a way that they became true stand-alone entries in the Evangelion franchise. They may still cling to the original storyline, but the experience of watching them is quite different and in fact marks the first time I managed to actually enjoy something Evangelion-related.
Not too long ago Anno set out to reboot the Gojira franchise, together with up and coming director Shinji Higuchi. The result was Shin Gojira, a fun and worthy addition to the long-running Gojira franchise that didn't quite reinvent the series, but did showed enough potential for possible future remakes. At the very least, it's a lot better than what their Western counterparts are currently up to with the Gojira franchise. Up next is the fourth and final instalment in Anno's third Evangelion reboot, though no specific date is set for that one.
Even though Anno's name will forever be tied to the Evangelion franchise, he has a much wider range than most people give him credit for. Evangelion is a curse and a blessing, though ultimately it allowed Anno to venture out and do what he wants to do, with surprisingly little restraint, which is something I'm sure many other directors are quite envious of. Not everything he touches turns into gold, but it's always interesting and often surprising to see where he goes next.
Best film: Ritual [Shiki-Jitsu] (5.0*)
Worst film: Evangelion: Death & Rebirth [Evangelion: Shito Shinsei] (1.5*)
Reviewed films: Ritual
Average rating: 2.60 (out of 5)