It’s 2019, and Neon Genesis Evangelion is hot again. A whole new generation of fans is discovering the philosophical mecha-but-technically-not-mecha anime that inspired some, irked others, and confused basically everyone. It came from the mind of acclaimed anime director Hideaki Anno at the end of a four-year battle with depression, and — whatever your opinion on the series as a whole — it can’t be denied the guy is a genius storyteller with an amazing eye for animation.
Now imagine going to art school in the 80s thinking you’re hot stuff, and discovering this guy sitting in the front of your class.
That’s the subject, in large part, of the live action series Aoi Honoo, based on the manga of the same name by Kazuhiko Shimamoto. Shimamoto has a decent manga career of his own, penning Blazing Transfer Student and creating designs for the video game Samurai Shodown and the Animate store mascot Anime Tenchou. He also happened to go to the Osaka University of Arts with Anno, and in 2007 wrote a manga based in part on the experience. The result is a bizarre cross between Otaku no Video and Amadeus, but with even more shouting than you’d think.
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A Legend in the Making
The star of the series is ostensibly Moyuru Honoo, a hot-blooded aspiring artist with lots of hot takes about anime but very little drive to see a project through. He’s convinced he will be the best at anything he does, and any evidence to the contrary immediately takes all the wind out of his sails.
Moyuru constantly hams it up, trying to impress upon his classmates the importance of animation choices in Cyborg 009 and taking dating tips from Lupin III. Honestly, everything would probably be fine if it weren’t for the presence of three of the future founders of Gainax in his class, including a young Anno.
That’s Ken Yasuda, by the way, absolutely nailing it with the look and mannerisms of the young director-to-be.
Thus, what begins as the story of an over-the-top wannabe trying to fast-track to stardom turns into a history of some of the most influential creators in the anime industry. Moyuru doesn’t fade into the background, but rather becomes Anno’s self-proclaimed Salieri, watching his mediocre creations pale in the face of some genuinely brilliant work.
The projects you see Anno execute in Aoi Honoo, incidentally, are actual projects he did at art school. His introduction in the series comes by way of a flipbook presentation, with the contents of his book coming from his 1980 short animation “Tough Tire! SHADO Tire.” The series also features recreations of scenes from his Ultraman film, in which he himself plays Ultraman.
The Artistic Struggle
When the future founders of Gainax are first introduced to the story, they mostly exist as a frustration to Moyuru. He wants to find what he’s good at from Day One, do it, and skyrocket to stardom. Of course, he doesn’t realize that there are very few people in the world who are naturals at any art, and even they have to apply themselves day after day, so his school life is initially a series of failures peppered with anime references.
Over time, though, Moyuru’s journey becomes a convenient backdrop against which to place the evolution of Anno and his friends. We watch him, like Moyuru, hop from project to project and medium to medium — not for quick and easy success, but to challenge himself and to learn new things. Anno and Moyuru, after all, aren’t all that different: both comprehend and appreciate the nuances of anime, both want to integrate as much of what they love as possible into their careers, and both are talented.
In the five years since Aoi Honoo originally aired, Anno’s career has continued to grow and develop. His live-action work hit new heights with 2016’s Shin Godzilla, he’s launched Japan Animator Expo to give new animators a chance to shine, and he has the next Rebuild of Evangelion movie coming (it seems) very soon indeed. Via Studio khara, he’s releasing new title and even getting in on the world of video games with titles like Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
Aoi Honoo is absolutely over-the-top and exaggerated at times; it’s based on a manga, after all, and you can’t have a character like Moyuru in the lead and have it be completely serious. But as an introduction to the early days of one of anime’s most influential creators, it holds up. We get to see Anno as a classmate remembers him: experimental, talented, driven, and fanboyish. And boy, did he love Ultraman.
Making It Big
In case you’re wondering, there is something of a happy ending for Moyuru, as well. It’s worth seeing for yourself, but I’ll say this much: he doesn’t get to take an easy road, and he does eventually find the drive to devote himself to something and improve at it honestly. This happens in parallel with the future Gainax team creating their now-famous opening animation for Daicon III, featuring an appearance by Gainax’s own Toshio “Otaking” Okada in the role of Osamu Tezuka.
The ending of the series is bittersweet, but all too relatable for dedicated creators. The more devoted to your craft you get, the less likely you are to be satisfied with your work at any given stage. You end up aiming higher, not because you think you’re the best and are trying to assume your God-given standing, but because you crave improvement and the next experience. Your changing attitude toward your own work can be demoralizing at first — seeing that “going legit” isn’t necessarily the magic life-changing event you thought it might be — but ultimately the road ahead is an exciting and fulfilling one.
Sadly, though streaming service Viki runs the series (localized as Blue Fire) with English subtitles, its availability by region is iffy. If you do have a chance to see it, though, it’s worth your time — especially once you’re done with your most recent marathon of Eva.