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Neon Genesis Evangelion

The most influential Japanese cultural product of the last decade is an animated cartoon series called Neon Genesis Evangelion, originally broadcast on national television during 1995 and 1996; it has shaped the psyches of Japanese under 40 like nothing in recent Western cultural experience except perhaps the Beatles and the first Star Wars movies. The series, produced by a collective called Gainax and directed by the cult animator Hideaki Anno, is a dark, fractured narrative of the postapocalyptic adventures of four badly damaged young kids who join with powerful new technologies to save what remains of the Earth from the Angels, 17 heavenly immortals who spread terror and destruction and seek to bring about the end of humankind.

Distinguished less by the quality of its animation than by its dark subject matter, nonlinear storytelling, and heavy, depressive stoner vibe, the series is regularly praised by animators, novelists, cultural theorists, and visual artists as the flower of Japanese pop culture. It has been credited with defining gender roles, influencing attitudes toward the environment, and spawning the madly obsessive—and immensely profitable—otaku subculture embraced by tens of thousands of geeky fans who spend their lives unraveling the larger message of the show and collecting pornographic comic books featuring the show’s female characters.

In person, Hideaki Anno, dressed in a military-green jumpsuit and black boots, slouches deep in his battered office couch and glowers. In a country where conformity is still a virtue, Anno stands out on account of his curly black hair and large, cauliflower-shaped ears, which, in combination with his jumpsuit, give him the appearance of an angry hobbit in black-rimmed glasses. Before creating his famous anime, Anno went through a four-year-long depression, during which he did no work and spent most of his time alone in his room. In 2003, Gainax sold the live-action rights to Neon Genesis Evangelion to a film producer that is collaborating with Weta Workshop, a company whose principals include Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. I am particularly interested in talking to Anno about the character of Rei, a depressive, suicidal girl whose big eyes, girlish body, and blank expression have been the model for the central female characters in Japanese anime for the past decade.

“Rei is someone who is aware of the fact that even if she dies, there’ll be another to replace her, so she doesn’t value her life very highly,” Anno explains, slouching ever-deeper into the couch. “Her presence, her existence—ostensible existence—is ephemeral. She’s a very sad girl. She only has the barest minimum of what she needs to have. She’s damaged in some way; she hurts herself. She doesn’t need friends.”

Anno understands the Japanese national attraction to characters like Rei as the product of a stunted imaginative landscape born of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. “Japan lost the war to the Americans,” he explains, seeming interested in his own words for the first time during our interview. “Since that time, the education we received is not one that creates adults. Even for us, people in their 40s, and for the generation older than me, in their 50s and 60s, there’s no reasonable model of what an adult should be like.” The theory that Japan’s defeat stripped the country of its independence and led to the creation of a nation of permanent children, weaklings forced to live under the protection of the American Big Daddy, is widely shared by artists and intellectuals in Japan. It is also a staple of popular cartoons, many of which feature a well-meaning government that turns out to be a facade concealing sinister and more powerful forces.

Anno pauses for a moment, and gives a dark-browed stare out the window. “I don’t see any adults here in Japan,” he says, with a shrug. “The fact that you see salarymen reading manga and pornography on the trains and being unafraid, unashamed or anything, is something you wouldn’t have seen 30 years ago, with people who grew up under a different system of government. They would have been far too embarrassed to open a book of cartoons or dirty pictures on a train. But that’s what we have now in Japan. We are a country of children.”

The children of Anno’s generation meet in places like Loft Plus One, a basement party space in Shinjuku that is decorated like an East Village dive and smells of chlorine. The occasion in this case is a book party for Karin Amamiya, a beautiful, right-wing punk-rock singer turned cultural gadfly who has recently written a memoir about wrist cutting, a behavior that is currently trendy among young girls. The scene in the basement is a flower-power nightmare version of the daytime variety shows on Japanese television. A singer named Akira, decked out in a lizard-skin suit, tan buckskin jacket, and straw hat, strums a guitar and sings, “Yes, this life is difficult to live.” Below the stage, a high-school girl is smoking a joint alone. She is dressed in a dark, romantic costume of bustled black skirts and a lace bonnet, a popular style known as Gothic Lolita.

The host for this section of the evening is a writer whose pen name, Con Isshow, means “the endless now.” A chain-smoker, dressed in a grubby green corduroy jacket and John Lennon–style glasses, he is a heavy drinker as well as the country’s leading expert on the social behavior of Japanese youth, even though, or perhaps because, he never graduated from college. His personal hygiene is terrible. Sweating under the lights, he surveys the room.

Presented by

David Samuels, whose last piece for The Atlantic was a profile of Yasir Arafat, was a 2006 Japan Society Media Fellow.

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