If you can pinpoint an origin of this thing – this unending feedback loop, this nth generation Xerox copy, anime influenced by nothing but other anime, multiple-decade-long cycle of shit – it’s probably at a coffee shop in Osaka, around 1981, by a group of nerds who would eventually call themselves “Gainax” – a name virtually devoid of meaning, chosen because it “sounded good.”
These future college dropouts were pop culture junkies, influenced not by Kurosawa, Ozu and Welles, but Star Wars, Gundam and tokusatsu. Intensely apolitical and untouched by the war and occupation, they thought of military machines not as tools of terror, but things of beauty. Solidly middle-class (and of the first generation in Japan where such a thing existed), they enjoyed a protracted adolescence unimaginable by their creative predecessors.
And so the works of this by-fans-for-fans studio, from their earliest animated and live-action shorts to the mega-hit Evangelion, were filled with structures, archetypes, references and in-jokes, that, for the first time, were cribbed directly from other Japanese animation.
These were fans who, at the very least, decided to get off the couch and make something, and make they did: shorts, OVAs, video games, toy shops, and eventually, just about the biggest hit the anime world has ever seen. So while they might be the most visible embodiment of that post-Yamato otaku culture, they also preached and practiced something that was inherently un-otaku: making something of your own.
Like many artists who start unfortunate trends, Gainax are insulated by this simple fact: they did it first, and they did it really well.
There’s been plenty of ink spilled talking about Gainax and especially about Evangelion, but the first decade of their existence was littered with failed projects, weird ideas and the surprisingly mundane. This is the secret history of Gainax.
THE PRE-OTAKU GENERATION
By the start of the 1980s, the anime industry was changing. A demographic shift, spurred by the popularity of Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam had created the beginnings of what we’d think of as otaku–they just hadn’t started calling themselves that, yet. Anime was still for young children, but these two shows helped carve out a new audience of fans in their teens and early 20s. Once those young fans started getting older, they decided that they wanted to start making their own anime, too.
Space Dimension Fortress Macross really got that ball rolling in 1982. Created by a group of young fans who had come together and created a Gundam doujinshi called Gunsight, Macross was the first solid example that this new generation of anime fan was working their way to the top; not just working in anime–creating anime. While Gainax would later be known as the studio that was “by fans, for fans,” Macross had sort of done it first.
Plenty of young people creators got their professional start on Macross, but for the purpose of this article it’s worth pointing out one in particular: a young key animator named Hideaki Anno.
Under the supervision of Studio Nue, Tatsunoko and Noburo Ishiguro, young creators like Shoji Kawamori and Haruhiko Mikimoto infused Macross with an energy and modernity that both Yamato and Gundam lacked. On the surface it was stuff like characters wearing realistic clothing, or a giant robot that looked a lot like an F-14 Tomcat, but more than that it was animators and creators coming up weren’t the old guard, trained in the halls of Mushi Production or Toei, they were fans who had grown up with anime.
Prologue and Twilight
Here’s where the Gainax story begins in earnest: In 1981, a group of Osaka-based anime fans operating out of Kinki University applied to host the Japan Sci-Fi Convention, a convention that was held each year in a different city. Their bid was successful and marked the third time that the convention would be held in Osaka. Tradition dictated that the Japan Sci-Fi Convention have a new nickname every year, related to where it was held, and previous and the two prior Osaka events had been called “Daicon,” a pun referring to the kanji used to spell “Osaka” and a type of Japanese radish. The 1981 event was to be called Daicon III.
While the Japan Sci-Fi Convention accommodated all aspects of sci-fi fandom, the group of organizing fans, lead by Yasuhiro Takeda and Toshio Okada, decided that their convention needed an animated short for the opening ceremonies. Takeda and Okada soon got in contact with another local fan, Anno, after hearing that he knew how to animate. At their first meeting, Anno impressed Takeda and Okada by quickly illustrating a flip book of a powered suit in action. As production began in a small room attached to a factory owned by Okada’s family, two more local fans joined: Takami Akai and Hiroyuki Yamaga. Faced with a minuscule budget and looking for ways to cut costs, the amateurs animated the thing entirely on vinyl sheets instead of the traditional acetate.
The result was a 5 ½ minute love letter to the science fiction they loved; including references to everything from Yamato and Ultraman to Star Wars and Star Trek. It was so popular that when Osaka hosted the Japan Sci-Fi Convention again two years later in 1983, Takeda, Okada and crew got together and did it all over again while calling themselves Daicon Film. The Daicon IV video surpassed the original in both technical ability and ambition, having upgraded to acetate cels and featuring a more refined art style and even more in-jokes and references.
While the Daicon shorts helped make what was to become Gainax famous, over the years they’ve become notorious for how fast and loose Takeda and Okada played with legal concerns. Both the Playboy bunny suit design and the unauthorized use of music by the band ELO would make a widespread home video release impossible, although limited releases on VHS and laserdisc managed to make it out under the radar. In particular was the laserdisc release of both shorts, called Daicon III & IV Opening Animation, which was technically a bonus item accompanying a book about the animation’s production.
Of Rubber Monsters and Men
While Gainax is invariably remembered as an anime studio created by anime fans, the period in-between the two Daicon videos is a reminder that these guys loved more than just animation. After Daicon III, the group formed Daicon Film and worked on a series of amateur tokousatsu films, drawing particular influence from Ultraman.
The first of these was released a year after Daicon III and was titled Kaiketsu Notenki (thus providing the origin of the title of Takeda’s book, The Notenki Memoirs). Two more films followed in the gap prior to Daicon IV: Aikoku Sentai Dainippon and Kaettekita Ultraman. While these projects started off as low-budget parodies, production values increased as they tackled new projects, including two more films in 1984, Kaiketsu Notenki 2 – Minatomachi Junjo-hen and Hayauchi Ken no Daiboken.
Their final live action film, Yamata no Orochi no Gyakusha, was released in December of 1985, and featured special effects and production values that bordered on professional. Orochi was directed by Akai and shot on 16mm, a significant step up from the earlier films that used 8mm. That jump alone suggested some degree of professionalism, as 16mm was the same film used by professional tokusatsu shows.
While Orochi’s crew was comprised of unpaid volunteers, much of the production material and supplies were funded by General Products, a reminder of the intimate relationship between the two companies even before merging five years later.
By the time Orochi was enjoying a limited theatrical release, Daicon Film was in the midst of a massive transition, as the studio was moving from Osaka to Tokyo to facilitate the production of a pilot film for a project called Royal Space Force. They were also changing their name from Daicon Film to Gainax, a name that means effectively nothing, but has it’s roots in both the film Orochi and co-founder Akai’s past.
Orochi had been filmed in Akai’s hometown of Yonago, where, in the local dialect, “gaina” means “big.” Combine that colloquialism with the most famous giant robot letter of the them all, X, and you’ve got “Gainax.”
The company’s roots to Yonago and Orochi run deeper than most would expect: Years later, Gainax would organize their own convention called “Gainamatsuri,” where, in 1995, they would announce the release of Neon Genesis Evangelion. But ten years before that ever happened, the Gaina Matsuri was a very real local festival that occurred in Yonago and, of course, was featured in Orochi.
With improved visual effects and a decision to ditch the parody angle, Orochi proved, much like their Daicon shorts, that these guys had as much potential in live-action as they did with animation. Potential or not, things were about to change, as a generous offer from Bandai steered them back towards animation.
In addition to producing the opening animation for Daicon III in 1981, the proto-Gainax groups had also sold resin garage kits at the convention. Unlike conventional injection-molded kits, like the wildly popular Gundam kits that were causing mayhem at stores across Japan around the same time, garage kits were kits designed and produced by small outfits, usually with extremely limited manufacturing runs. These kits were often only available for a limited time, and typically only sold at specific conventions; a tradition that continues today with events like Wonder Festival. The success of their kit sales at Daicon III led to the group establishing General Products in 1982 with the intention of producing licensed models based on popular franchises.
Today, conventions like Wonder Festival operate on the notion of one-day licenses where kit manufacturers are granted permission to sell for one day only. In the early 1980s things were different and garage kits were largely unlicensed. General Products was the first company to secure actual licensing to produce kits based on big name properties like Godzilla.
Founded as a branch of Okada’s family business, General Products and Daicon Film (later Gainax) remained distinctly separate entities until they officially merged in 1990. As Gainax’s profile increased in the later half of the 1980s, General Products did double duty; producing merchandise based on Gainax creations while still pursuing licenses from other companies.
In addition to simply creating what we’d think of today as “character goods,” General Products operated its own shops in Osaka and Shibuya and helped organize the first Wonder Festival in 1985. The show was successful enough that another one was held later that same year, starting the tradition of a Winter and Summer Wonder Festival each year.
General Products remained the primary sponsor of the event until 1992, when the kit manufacturer Kaiyodo took control during the Summer 1992 show. Still held twice a year at Chiba’s monstrous Makuhari Messe convention center just outside of Tokyo, Wonder Festival continues to specialize in licensed garage kits and figures.
While Gainax and General Products would later merge, the General Products name was only used for a brief period by Gainax following the merger and would eventually be dropped from use. In 2012, the name was resurrected for a new Gainax-owned shop opening in the town of Yonago.
ROYAL SPACE FORCE, Honneamise and Star Quest
After Daicon IV wrapped, Daicon Film approached Bandai with a proposal to animate an OVA based on a new line of Gundam model kits called Mobile Suit Variation (MSV). Designed to fill the void until a new Gundam series was released, MSV kits weren’t based on designs seen in the original TV series, but were instead altered versions of familiar designs with different roles and backstories, fleshed out with all-new characters piloting them.
While Bandai was interested in working with Daicon Film, they weren’t interested in a Gundam OVA, and instead proposed that they tackle a theatrical film project instead. By 1984 the Japanese economy was taking off and big-budget animated films like Hayao Mizayaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Macross: Do You Remember Love? were hitting theaters. Bandai wanted a piece of that.
Work began on Royal Space Force with a generous budget of 800,000,000 yen. In 1985 dollars that was about U.S. $3.5 million, but this was back when the exchange rate was around 240 yen/$1, versus today’s 125 yen/$1 rate. In any case, it was a lot of money.
On Christmas Eve, 1984, Gainax was incorporated to facilitate the production of their new film. Daicon Film was no more.
While the addition of “Honneamise” to the rather drably-titled Royal Space Force has been explained for years within anime fandom as a suggestion by Bandai to help cash in on trend of films with made up, fantastic titles (like Nausicaä), the origin behind Star Quest is a bit more interesting.
After production wrapped on the film, Gainax attempted to shop it around for release in the U.S., eventually ending up in the hands of a company called Go East Productions. Retitled Star Quest, dubbed in English and severely rewritten, Star Quest premiered in 1987 at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and then promptly disappeared.
GAINAX Comes to the U.S. (Sorta)
With noted anime fan Lea Hernandez in charge, the creation of General Products USA (GPUSA) was announced during the 1989 convention season. The company’s business model was built around two focuses: operating a mail order service in the U.S. and offering purchasing services for fans eager to get their hands on specific merchandise in Japan.
At least, that was the plan.
According to anime historian Fred Patten in his book Watching Anime, Reading Manga: 25 Years of Essays and Reviews, U.S. fans at the time really only wanted merchandise from older properties, thanks to the lag-time of popular shows making their way across the Pacific. These older products were harder to track down and usually out of print in Japan, making it difficult for General Products to fulfill shopping request orders.
In the Spring of 1990, Hernandez resigned and turned over leadership of the U.S. side to Shon Howell and Craig York. According to Patten, Howell continued to try and convince the Japanese side to change their business model until he resigned at the end of 1991.
Making matters worse, the Japanese side had assumed, incorrectly, that U.S. fans would be so desperate for anime merchandise they’d purchase anything they’d ship over. The GPUSA catalog was stocked with merchandise from shows that Western fans either didn’t know, hadn’t seen yet, or simply didn’t care about. Either way you interpret it, as an excuse to drop unsold merchandise on U.S. fans or a misguided assumption that those same fans would want whatever whatever was hot that moment in Japan, it was a critical misreading of American fans and one that would lead to the company’s demise.
While GPUSA as a company wouldn’t last long enough to see 1992, it managed to leave one major contribution to U.S. fandom: it sponsored the creation of the first major anime convention.
As a sponsor of AnimeCon ‘91, GPUSA was able to help arrange Japanese guests for the convention like Okada, Yoshiyuki Sakamoto and Katsuhiro Otomo. Held at the Red Lion Hotel in San Jose, CA, the convention managed to attract about 2,000 fans from across the country.
Despite the convention’s success, infighting among organizers helped guarantee that there wouldn’t be an AnimeCon ‘92. Instead, staff split into two camps and ultimately started two competing conventions in the California Bay Area: Anime Expo and Anime America. In a way of thinking, Gainax may then me responsible for the first example of yet another U.S. anime fan tradition–serious con drama.
By the time AnimeCon ’91 started it was readily apparent to convention attendees that things weren’t going well for GPUSA, either. Despite USENET chatter assuring fans the company was still in business, the company’s imminent demise was readily apparent to those walking through the aisles of AnimeCon’s dealers hall; GPUSA was present, but their merchandise was being liquidated at significantly reduced prices.
While GPUSA and AnimeCon wouldn’t survive, the relationships forged there continued in at least one way: Okada continued to be a guest at Anime America until that convention folded in 1997.
ROute to Nowhere
Following the completion of Royal Space Force, Gainax staff began making plans to produce another, equally ambitious film named Route 20. Spearheaded by Sadamoto and Mahiro Maeda, Route 20 was to be a dystopian sci-fi story about bikers living in a polluted city. The box-office disappointment of Royal Space Force no doubt played a large part in scuttling the project, although the film’s premise also sounds a bit too similar to a film that was set to hit theaters in 1988. Whatever the reason, Route 20 was shelved but left us with two fascinating relics: a pilot film (not dissimilar to the one produced for Royal Space Force) set to The Doors song The Crystal Ship, and a short comic produced by Sadamoto that was released in 1993.
WORK FOR HIRE
While Gainax built their reputation on the strengths of their own, internally-developed projects, sometimes you’ve just got to pay the bills. To that end, the company worked on commercials, music videos and anime for other studios, in-between working on their own projects.
In 1987, they produced animation for the music video to Marionette, a song by BOØWY. The production of this video would have roughly coincided with the work done on Route 20 and it’s not surprising that it seems to share at least some similar imagery of the imagery of that cancelled project– most specifically, the dark, dystopian city as a backdrop.
The music 9-minute video for FENCE OF DEFENSE’s Data No. 6 should at least be familiar to fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion, as it looks a lot like a test run for Evangelion’s opening sequence. Directed by Yamaga, the video itself is far less “anime” than you’d expect; with extensive use of rotoscoping and abstract, cyberspace-inspired imagery.
Princess Maker and porn
With financial woes causing trouble for Gainax in the late ‘80s (something the company would struggle with into the ’90s); the decision was made to expand into new markets, in particular, video games. According to Okada’s book Testament, this decision came about because of two factors: The first was that adult game developers were withdrawing from the market and, as a result, the graphical quality of adult games was decreasing. With its background in animation, Gainax was well-positioned to design good-looking games. Secondly, after using Hypercard on the Macintosh, Okada was inspired create his own games and was confident that the company would be able to pull it off.
The first of their foray into the industry was an adult game called Cybernetic Hi-School, released in 1989 for the Japanese-market NEC PC-88. It was a quiz game that pitted you against assorted girl characters; if you got the answers correct, they’d slowly remove their clothing until they were completely naked. The original game featured three different girls, each asking increasingly difficult questions, that you could challenge. The follow-up game, Highway Buster was released in late 1989 and traded in the high school setting for one focused on disrobing armored motorcycle girls. The third game in the series, released the following year, mixed things up by focusing instead on a Gainax OVA, Aim for the Top: Gunbuster! The last game in the series (at least until its revival in the early 2000s) hit shelves in 1991 brandishing the seriously bizarre title Apehunter-J and featuring a return to the high school setting.
Okada’s gamble paid off, and following the success of Cybernetic Hi-School, Gainax followed up with another adult game series in 1990 for the PC-88: Battle Skin Panic. Players controlled a transfer student from Peru named Susumu Arikawa in a pseudo-adventure game that featured card battle gameplay, rather than its predecessor’s quiz game mechanics. Despite the format change change, the goal was still the same: get girls naked.
Three sequels followed would follow–Super Battle Skin Panic, Mighty Battle Skin Panic and Battle Skin Panic 9821–and the franchise popped up on a variety of platforms, including the PC -88’s successor, the PC-98, and the MSX-2.
Around the same time, Gainax began developing regular, non-adult, games as well. In 1990, they released an adventure game for a variety of platforms based on Kia Asamiya’s Silent Möbius featuring a storyline involving the RMS Titantic. In 1991 they debuted what would become Gainax’s most famous video game series: Princess Maker. Players were tasked with raising a young daughter, and not just developing stats and skills, but choosing her attire as well. The game ended when she turned 18, and depending on the player’s choices, they’d end up with one of dozens of different endings. Princess Maker would spawn numerous sequels and turn up on just about every platform imaginable throughout the 1990s. The most recent game, Princess Maker 5, came out in 2008 on platforms like the PS2 and PSP.
The early 1990s were a hectic time for Gainax. Plans were made for a sequel to Royal Space Force only to be scrapped (and then rekindled 20-years later). A partnership with Japanese broadcaster resulted in the TV anime Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, broadcast in 1990. Then, of course, there was a giant robot show that premiered in 1995 that would change absolutely everything for the company.
But that’s for another article.
(Or, probably not)
- The Notenki Memoirs: Studio Gainax & The Men Who Created Evangelion, ADV Manga, 2005 [out of print]
- Watching Anime, Reading Manga: 25 Years of Essays and Reviews, Stone Bridge Press, 2004
- Interview: Gainax’s Hiroyuki Yamaga, Anime News Network
- Lost Anime: Route 20, Kid Fenris
- Interview: Lea Hernandez, PULP [WebArchive]
- Gainax Postmodernism – Evangelion, Space: 1999, and other things
Special thanks to my co-writer and co-researcher, Matt and the always helpful Carl Horn. Research for this article was originally compiled for a panel presented at Anime Los Angeles 2012, titled “The Secret History of Gainax.”