Friday, November 19, 2010

That Gainax Brand Kevlar Vest

Finally got to listening to the latest Speakeasy Podcast from the Reverse Thieves today, which not only piqued my own wishes to expound a little bit on my own relationship with Gainax, but to also chime in on how much my feelings on the popular anime studio have metamorphosed over the course of almost twenty years. And seeing as how something like this can take up possibly more space than any blog can naturally handle, perhaps it may just be best to just say that with all the ups and downs I have experienced throughout the years with this at times supernaturally blessed group of artisans/marketing machines, I have learned to anticipate with something other than merely rolling eyes, or spontaneous gushing.

This may just be the words of someone who can now (shudders) consider himself a patch-wearing member of the old guard of anime enthusiast, but it possibly requires some historical context to clock just how deep an impression can help create the feeling of untouchability (even if history can provide evidence to the contrary). So when Hisui Narutaki wonder why it is that so many fans place the studio in a positive limelight whenever a new series comes to bat. And while I myself can remember a time when this feeling was somewhat familiar to my being, I can also recollect those first moments when that bulletproof flag showed a few gaps. Oddly enough, it was in the form of merchandise before any animated project ever did such a thing. And it was upon discovering the existence of the first iffy-Ayanami vinyl figures &  Cybernetic High School that tipped off to me that this was a company with about as much marketing irresponsibility, as irrepressible personality in animated form. And yet, there was still enough pull & charm for me to overlook such things.

Even as Ebichu kind of softened me enough for a flying knee-groin attack in the form of Mahoromatic, nothing prepared me for the kind of embittering pain that would come once another show came along in 2005. And yet, whenever there seemed to be some glimmer of hope that the Gainax of Nadia, Gunbuster & That (Other) Show emerged, I went ahead and bit, only to either react in near-horror, or with monster hugs (ala Furi Kuri & Gurren Lagaan). The disconnect has been so sporadic that apprehension is now often the most common reaction. And even in a time when their most significant creation is experiencing a new life as a multi-part movie series, I often look back at those times when the connect of their best properties reached an almost fever-pitch. They worked in ways that few to no fankid-centric works have ever been capable of duplicating. As mentioned recently on Twitter, there has always been a certain DIY spirit to the works of Gainax that renders them in a very unusual position in the japanese entertainment world. In the post Yamato/Gundam world, they helped create anime with a most particularly human face. Even as the merchandise began to torrent down in the years post-Evangelion, working for a US-based anime distro in cahoots with these folks helped me better understand that success can be a strange animal, especially when the industry was largely spearheaded in new directions wroth by your own creations. It can easily be said that they changed the landscape, and with it, fell into the pressure to pander harder and harder as the competition heated up.

The output suffered as a result as the bills piled up, and passion projects seemed to dry up. In the years before Gurren Lagaan, it truly felt as if the beast that was EVA continued to mutate the very spirit that led to the creation of their most notable shows. But if one took the time to peek into the production roster to see who was responsible for many of the decisions behind the scenes, it may help illuminate some of the more glaring problems as well as help us fine tune where the quality had gone. It's also no wonder that early guard have moved on, and even led to the formation of separate studios (IE-Studio Khara).

The point is, that there is a big difference between admiring from afar, and then when faced with it (no matter how indirectly) as part of your job. Being inundated with not only an ocean of merchandise, but of stories and decision-making within earshot, a name that was once something to hold up high as a standard of quality, one may be privy to a strange rollercoaster of emotional extremes. Which is to say that I remain a fan of them in their best moments, and lament when they opt for the easy sell. If there was anything I gathered from those halcyon days, is that the marketplace became a pretty foggy place to navigate, making it harder and harder for even a Kare Kano to get made. Groundbreakers can be broken, but the damage isn't always irreparable. I happen to have been consistently surprised by Anno/Tsurumaki's Sequel/Remixes of the Evangelion series. And like I had mentioned before, Gurren Lagaan worked well beyond expectations (especially in a time when this jaded fan's hope felt most lost). So it became something more of an educational experience on how art versus business can have near bi-polar effects.

And yet, why do I feel that Gainax tends to get a so-called "free pass" as opposed to so many other animation studios that have long since emulated their approach? Before anyone says "Hard Work & Guts", it likely is more a case of:

a) Frequency Of Effective Gateway Drugs: It is highly probable that the fervor that still comes when a new show appears is due to them having some of the most significant gateway titles in the last 15 years. There's just little denying the power of merely three shows with the kind of after effects that came in their wake.

b) No Armor Is The Best Armor: One of their most significant traits (especially in their early years) is that of the self-reflective otaku. Even as they were among the first studios to actively acknowledge their love of science-fiction/fantasy/horror & anime tropes, they also did so with a near scathing amount of self-criticism. Something that in the right doses can be disarming to viewers. As geeky as they are, they also are aware of the social problems that come with the lifestyle. Rather than blindly embracing their loser-status, many of their best works have enough baggage to grant us an almost Grunge-Music-era level of self-awareness & effacement.

It may be safe to go ahead and state now that my feelings on Gainax has been run though the gutters from time to time, followed by the occasional barrage of gunfire, and even an acid-bath in the form of He Is My Master. And yet somehow, not unlike so many others, whenever a new project is announced, I take notice. But if there has been anything learned from all of this, it has been to take less stock in company name recognition, and more in seeking out where the talent is. Looking up names of writers goes a long way toward figuring out what titles are going to work for us. The life of a company, especially one as small and tightly knit as this, is in a difficult position when the market is changing at such an alarming rate. Sometimes, the fan in me feels lucky that we even had the hits we did. As to whether or not we'll see something to the level of a Third Impact remains to be seen.

I for one, never expect, but am always hopeful.

(Even in lieu of P & S, always hopeful).

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