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June 1, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

Of all the relatively obscure auteur directors in the world, Japan’s Hideaki Anno has to be the most fascinating. In the mid ’80s while in his early 20s, his drawings so impressed Hayao Miyazaki that he was hired to work as a chief animator for Miyazaki’s Nausicaa. That same year he became one of the co-founders of the notorious Gainax Animation Studios, whose reputation is somewhat that of an autistic younger brother rebel to the much more mature Studio Ghibli. After the success of 1988’s Gunbuster and 1990’s Nadia, Anno fell into a four-year depression, resulting in his disillusionment with anime and the Otaku sub-culture. His mental state manifested itself in his watershed masterpiece of personal art-therapy that was 1995-1996’s Neon Genesis Evangelion.

It’s difficult to overstate Evangelion’s impact on anime as an art-form and the industry as a whole. It was a work that revitalized the very medium and culture that it criticized. It simultaneously deconstructed and reconstructed the sci-fi mecha genre, turning it into an immense, mythological allegory for loneliness, depression, psychological trauma, and the dark sides of the human condition. It set a new standard for intellectual substance, artistry, cinematic craft, and experimentation in anime that still resonates today. But, most importantly, it connected on a profound level with a whole generation of viewers who saw their own lives reflected in Anno’s deeply self-critical portrait of what he described as “self-imposed autism”— an escape into a self-constructed fantasy as a means to deal with an untenable reality.

It had to have been strange for Anno to see Evangelion, a work he himself said was driven by his desire to “burn his feelings into film”, to become such a monstrous success. It’s the classic case of having that which was so intimately yours become everyone’s. Perhaps because of that, his post- Evangelion work has been fraught with difficulties and mixed critical responses. His 1998 Kare Kano aka His and Her Circumstances was a considerable success, but ended in disaster when Anno left the production after a disagreement between himself and the original manga’s author. Anno’s first live-action film, 1998’s Love & Pop, was a fascinating exercise in experimental cinema verite filtered through a Godardian lens, but it’s been little seen, even after its DVD release by Kino. In comparison, 2000’s Shiki-Jitsu (The Ritual) is a much more mature, sophisticated and focused effort, one that more closely revisits his wonted motifs and themes.

It opens with Shunji Awai’s character meeting an eccentric and bizarrely dressed young girl (Ayako Fujitani, whose autobiographical novella “Tohimu” was the source for the film; she’s also the daughter of Steven Seagal!) on the train tracks who insists tomorrow is her birthday. This insistence becomes the titular “ritual” of the film, a self-imposed loop that the girl finds it impossible to break out of, like a defective, skipping record. Iwai, a real life director, plays “The Director”, and turns the girl into the subject for his first live-action film. As he tellingly says in one voiceover monologue:

“Images, especially animation, simply embody our personal and collective fantasies, manipulating selected information and fictional constructs; even live-action film, recording actuality, does not correspond to reality conversely; reality, co-opted by fiction, loses its value. ‘The inversion of reality and fiction.’ None of this matters to me anymore. My consciousness, my reality, my subject, all converge in her. Certainly, she longs to escape into fantasy. Certainly, I long to escape from fantasy.”

It’s that subject that dominates throughout and echoes strongly with Evangelion, drawing an obvious parallel to Anno himself as a director obsessed with escaping from fantasy, yet finding a way to express that desire in a medium that exists in the realm of fantasy. While this kind of postmodern metafiction has become a cliché in too-self-serious, artsy-fartsy fiction, what separates Shiki-Jitsu and Anno from the pack is the emotion behind it all. For Anno, this kind of self-awareness isn’t merely fodder for intellectual masturbation, but an integral aspect of his psychological affliction, recovery, and how he’s able to use his very means of fictional escape to face reality. As Rei says near the end of The End of Evangelion : “(your dream) is the continuation of reality… (your reality) is at the end of your dream.”

Given that paradoxical relationship of fantasy and fiction as both a means of escape and of facing reality, it’s appropriate that one of Anno’s favorite motifs is trains. They’re devices that allow you to escape while forcing you to confront the origins of psychological trauma that triggered your desire to escape. The girl even takes to drawing train tracks in chalk inside her place, and when the two discuss train-tracks they have equally provocative reasons for liking them. The Director likes them because they’re fixed. “As long as you ride them you needn’t choose a path,” while the girl likes them because “the two rails will never come together, and yet the two are one.” Outside of trains, Anno’s Ozu-like pillow shots are frequent in the film, but the subjects of modern architectural milieu (factories, buildings) is more in line with Antonioni.

Shiki-Jitsu is nothing if not a visual tome of psychological symbols manifested in real life, standing as landmark clues that hint at The Girl’s traumatic past that provoked her to escape and live inside her constructed fiction. Her spacious dwelling is awash in frames-within-frames, obstructions, passages, stairs, all set in stunning, deep focus compositions, Escher-like in their labyrinthine, pictorially complex architecture. It’s also filled with a variety of objects from toy trains to mannequins to The Girl’s signature umbrellas (a “shield from reality” in the vein of Evangelion ’s AT Field). It’s decorated in an appropriately paradoxical precise minimalism and gaudy, chaotic excess reminiscent of the sets of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, which can easily be seen as a representation of her own headspace that she permanently lives in.

The Clockwork comparisons stretch even further, such as the juxtapositions between wide-open exteriors that are strangely devoid of life and the hermetically sealed interiors. Anno also favors Kubrick’s penchant for perspective-distorting wide-angle lenses, which emphasize the loneliness of the characters being swallowed inside ominously immense spaces, as well as the claustrophobia that results from those empty spaces. He also favors tracking shots that are constantly shifting perspective, adding a restless, uneasy tone. In one section, where the girl is showing the director around her place, Anno directly alludes to Clockwork by speeding up the film as the camera virtuosically weaves in and out of the variably lighted spaces, creating a kaleidoscopic blur of kinetic movement.

Kubrick often said he only shot films so he could edit them, and perhaps Anno’s greatest cinematic strength is his editing prowess. His penchant for montage, which frequently recalls the theories of Eisenstein, feeds into the theme of the fractured, manipulated, and constructed form reality takes in fiction. This gives an extraordinary power to the moments when Anno allows his scenes to play in long takes, which accumulate in tension as they wear on. The penultimate scene, The Girl’s confrontation with her mother, plays out on a closed set; it’s a scene that’s both devastatingly realistic in its one-take, static composition and hyper-realistically inauthentic, admitting its own theatricality at the moment it’s reached the core emotions beneath the film’s surface.

But one trait Anno possesses that Kubrick lacked is a great empathy for his characters. Like Bergman, Anno’s cinema serves as a medium for exercising his mental demons, and his characters play like fractured representations of himself. He also writes and directs as someone who’s been there himself, but one who also recognizes the necessity of breaking out. A constant in Anno’s work, these are very fragile characters desperately searching for love and acceptance, but find themselves lost in a world that’s denied them, forcing them into their reclusive, fantasized walls. But Shiki-Jitsu is methodical in its pacing and patient in its revelations. It slowly peels back the layers of its characters and the pathos behind them, often in the form of symbolically imbued objects, like the ringing phone that echoes with The Girl’s traumatized memories of her mother’s criticism and rejection.

Bergman’s cinema was usually able to contain his expressions inside relatively traditional narratives, but for Anno fictional narratives have a limit to their ability to capture reality, to express thought and emotion. That’s where his subversive experimentation takes over, not as stylistic or intellectual exercises, but as means to explore the realms where fiction fears, or even fails, to tread. The animated sequences are judiciously timed and add to the surrealistic tone without intruding on the verisimilitude of the live-action. There are numerous aspect ratio shifts, alternating between the 35mm camera and the hand-held digital of The Director, a constant reminder that this is a film about a film in the making. The voiceover monologues seem at odds with the narrative minimalism, offering the illusion of exposition without really explaining anything, only offering a glimpse at a reality that’s beyond the reach of the camera lens.

This is a film full of illusions, typically in the form of evocative juxtapositions that seem incongruous yet unmistakably substantial. Take the Satie-like soundtrack, composed by Takashi Kako, that impregnates even the most banal of scenes with an unnerving aesthetic, hinting at an underlying emotion belied by the lack of surface activity. That lack of surface activity itself provides a sense of minimalism that, especially later, clashes against the melodrama during the uncovering of The Girl’s secret, flooded basement, her ultimate reality retreat with its womb-like bathtub, guitar-capped altar, and pervasive red umbrellas. The pacing, which feels amorphous, still gives the sense of an inexorable march towards confrontation and recovery. It’s echoed in the on-screen motif that tracks the progression of days even while the girl insists everyday that tomorrow is her birthday: the conflict between homeostasis (the desire for things to remain the same) and transistasis (the desire for change).

Most of Evangelion ’s motifs and obsessions crop up in truncated forms, like the scene on a playground with the shots of swings standing in as wistful reminders of the past. Anno’s favorite dual (and dueling) colors of red and blue return in vividly potent combinations. In one of the best scenes, The Director and Girl are walking under a junk-filled underpass when she discovers a porno mag. She picks it up and begins reading, nagging The Director about whether he likes that stuff. It’s a scene filled with an awkward humor that ends on a poignantly humanistic note when the girl says “I don’t like sex, ‘cause if you do you’re no more than male and female, like everyone else”. Like in Evangelion, sex in Shiki-Jitsu is just another outcry of loneliness and a deeper longing for genuine connection, perhaps best represented in The Girl’s preference for cuddling, of being close to someone you know will be there for you.

If Shiki-Jitsu most strongly forges its own identity, it’s in two arenas. One is the dramatic minimalism that ignites like a slow burn. As opposed to Evangelion ’s active dramatic engagement, Shiki-Jitsu lets the mystery slowly pull you in, wrapping you in its entangled enigmas. The second area is the method in which psychological dependence is portrayed. While both are about escapism, in Shiki-Jitsu the constructed world of fantasy descends to the level of self-denial and reconstructed memories. In one of the most emotionally charged scenes, The Girl fears she’s become her mother and tries to drown herself. In another scene, she actively takes on her sister’s persona (dress, guitar, attitude). In both cases, The Director acts as her lifeline, attempting to reel her back to reality without drowning in his own constructed fantasy in the making. It also provides for subtle dramatic tension, as The Girl’s cloying wears on The Director’s sympathy and patience. In one striking scene of silent, visual development, the two are walking together under an overpass as The Director begins separating from The Girl and her face slowly changes from giddiness to wariness that he’s attempting to leave her.

In a recent review of Help Me, Eros I stated that nobody renders the aesthetic of modern loneliness better than the Taiwanese masters, but while they present it from an observant distance, Anno portrays it as someone almost painfully and intimately acquainted with that feeling, that longing to be something more than human, something more than just “I, alone”. It’s a feeling that permanently lingers after the credits end. It’s strangely appropriate that the legendary voice actress Megumi Hayashibara has a “role” as a disembodied, unidentified, voiceover in the film. Here, her voice is the meditative, pondering ghost that haunts the characters and all that’s unexpressed. In the Evangelion film she played the role as the omnipresent “transition guide” that ushered characters from one state of existence to another; she equally feels like such a guide here, like an intangible force and impetus. She’s equally a potent reminder that the search for life, love, self, understanding and fulfillment is, in itself, a never-ending ritual.

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