Exclusive Screening Report: Shin Seiki Evangelion Movies Death (True)2 / Air / Magokoro Wo, Kimi Ni (The End Of Evangelion) At animecs T!FF In Akihabara 2006
By Jonah MorganDrops of rain were beginning to fall on the evening of Sunday, October 22nd as I made my way up the stairwell from the Hibiya subway line platform to an exit of Akihabara station. Some kind of remodelling project was going on around this area and there was plastic and diagonally stripped black and yellow hazard tape along the walls. I had come this way the day before when I made my first visit ever to the Tokyo Anime Center and I would make the same journey at least a dozen more times during the coming 8 days of excursions to Akihabara for various Otaku culture research and animecs / Tokyo International Film Festival / EntaMatusuri functions.
Darkness was falling on Tokyo but the brilliant neon hue of "electric town" would soon bleed out most of it. The street crowd was slightly less than the day before, probably because it was going to start raining profusely and probably because it was Sunday evening and a holiday on top of that. Walking up to the UDX building which houses the Akiba 3D Theater and TAC I first caught a glimpse of a mysterious feature there I had only read about before online. Similar to some of the buildings in Times Square, UDX has a sort of a static information ticker system for pedestrians which manifests itself upon a thin series of digital screens which ring the outside of building. The readout is very thin, about a character high and bright green like an LED alarm clock. As the story goes, at nigh time recently the ticker has begun to exclusively show a sequence of seemingly unintelligible number combinations. No one seems to know the purpose or meaning.
I was here to catch back to back screenings of the Shin Seiki Evangelion Movies Death (True)2 / Air / Magokoro Wo, Kimi Ni (The End Of Evangelion) at 18:45. Before the days of YouTube, file sharing networks and high quality video codecs I was among the first Americans to see the Death And Rebirth movie just a few weeks after it's theatrical release in Japan in 1997. The medium at that time was a VHS cassette copy of a Chinese VCD with Chinese subtitles and the method of video capture looked to involve sneaking a video camera into a theater. Since then I probably have seen the Evangelion movie series 10 times or more, but we all have though right? It's one of those seminal anime works that has defined my generation of otaku. Now, this said, I had never seen Eva in a theater so the experience was to be a new and highly anticipated one.
Getting access into anime films was not a cut and dry procedure and this is one of the very few complaints I had regarding TIFF. I must preface this by saying it was due on no part at all to the outstanding staff of the Tokyo Anime Center And Akiba 3D Theater who did an exceptional job and who went out of their way at every opportunity to accommodate my wishes and requests. I had a full week's press pass to TIFF and in years' past this could get you into any film being shown at the event. This year however the rules changed and TIFF had a series of "ID only screenings" seperate from the general screenings in which members of the media and other VIPS could see some of the films. The tradeoff was special ID holders (press included) would not be granted access to general screenings. The downside to this was the ID screenings were an extremely limited cross section of the total number of films being shown at the festival (mostly the works up for awards) and their number sadly included no anime films at all. A pretty frustrating predicament for someone who was there to cover anime and manga / anime based live action more or less exclusively.
The work around involved either paying the 1,500+ Yen general admission or putting in a special request at the reception area prior to a film's start. In some instances we even got a proper ticket (ie: Eva) and some not, just being ushered into the theater. For Evangelion we initiated this procedure a day before on Saturday at the main TAC desk. Phone calls to several other TIFF staff were made and then special approval given. We were told we might be able to get entry if the show didn't sell out completely. So, even at this time returning to the TAC just before the screening I didn't even know if I'd be granted access. Actually, my mind was made up around 90% that I for certain wouldn't be allowed in, surely the EVA films would sellout the 174 seat theater.
I decided to not even worry about the ticket until 15 or 20 mins prior to screening. If I didn't make it in it was really no big deal, I would just observe as much as I could. Before the show start though I allowed myself a good hour and some change to hang around the Anime Center and the theater lobby itself. I wanted to do some coverage of the buildup before the actual movie, to take pictures and talk to Japanese fans about EVA and the impact on their lives. Beyond this though, I wanted dig around some for something special. The strange thing is I didn't even know what that was. I'm of the mind set that just by injecting yourself into situations in life you can allow interesting people and things to come to you. And in this case, they did in spades.
A line had begun forming around the long hallway to the Akiba 3D theater which is all indoors, the crowd was already dense with 50-60 people mostly made up of Japanese males in their early-mid 20's. Based solely on physical appearance I spotted some true otaku, some a-boys (Akihabara boys), some otome and many very commonly dressed Japanese youth. Not uncommon for foreigners in Japan, being the only 6 foot tall, yellow haired, blue eyed gaijin I got alot of looks and stares. As it turned out, I would be the only non-Japanese person to occupy one of the 174 seats and attend this screening. (oddly enough this happened several other times at TIFF) It was a very special honor and something I will cherish for the rest of my life. Through the sea of gazes of curiosity something else I also noticed were the many, many smiles that told me they knew why I was here, to partake in this most powerful and almost spiritual example of Japanese animation storytelling.
I noticed a group of young otaku guys checking me out and then to my surprise one asked in English: "Are you a fan of Eva"? In Japanese I replied "yeah, since the beginning". They all agreed Eva was their favorite animation made in Japan. Then I asked them "are you looking forward to The Rebuild Of Evangelion movies next year". All of their faces lit up the one English speaker asked "do you already know"? I whipped out my wallet and presented him with my meishi, I told him I was the first person to write about the project in the English language for my internet news service. We talked about Death Note creator Obata's recent arrest and Taro Aso's near miss of becoming Japan's first otaku Prime Minister. I told them of my plans to go out to Otome Road and Nakano the next day to research the new otaku sacred grounds and they all agreed I was far knowledgeable on such subjects than many native Japanese.
After the walk from Ropponggi and a lengthy verbal exchange my throat was pretty dry so I needed something to drink. Unfortunately, The Akiba 3D Theater doesn't have a traditional concession stand like larger theater complexes. There are however many restaurants and cafes in the UDX and you can buy drinks and maybe smaller stuffs from them and bring them into the theater itself. On the first floor is a place that caught my eye. It has a sign that simply reads Pizzeria on the outside. I walked up to the bar and ordered a coke. Drinking the coke I noticed another Japanese guy came in behind me, he ordered some kind of wine and I heard him mention Evangelion to someone. So I walked over and asked him about it. He spoke fairly decent English, and said yeah he was here related to company business, he worked for a rather large anime production company (we'll keep the title private due to the nature of our interaction). Apparently they will be partnering on the rollout of new Evangelion films. We exchanged business cards, his name was Iijima.
Iijima-san and I discussed the animation field, including Gainax and Evangelion's roles therein for several minutes in English, then he dropped a bombshell, telling me Representative Director of Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Shinichiro Inoue and Evangelion Executive Producer Toshimichi Ootsuki (how the man spells his family name on his own business card although some more "authoritative" encyclopedias and such spell it "Ohtsuki") were going to give a stage greeting and small talk event in-person just before the movie screening that night. Ootsuki-san was the central figure interviewed in the October issue of Newtype Magazine who broke the big Rebuild Of Evangelion scoop a few months ago. He's the Managing Director of King Records.
Working directly with Director Hideaki Anno in the past Ootsuki-san said he often handled all the running and business related matters on the projects while he left Anno to the creative process of actually making the animation. I was asked if I'd like to be introduced to Ootsuki and of course saying yes, we quickly finished our drinks and left the pizzeria as the best chance for meeting him would be to catch him before the start of the show, there were about 30 minutes to go.
Walking up to the TAC main desk Iijima told reception he'd like to introduce an American to Ootsuki and we found out where we may find him at that specific moment. I also found out for the first time I would actually be able to get into the show and was presented with a TAC envelope with a note on the front which read "T!FF Press - to Jonah Morgan san". Inside were a movie ticket and another ticket with a number 12 on it. Iijima then walked over to the goods shop and introduced me to his lovely young lady friend in her early 20's who was a big anime fan. She had never seen the Evangelion movies.
We darted out of the TAC and down the hall to the AJA offices which are directly adjacent to the Akiba 3D Theater and share some hallways and doorways, knocked on the door and peeked inside, maybe Ootsuki-san would be here. All was quiet though and no one answered our calls, lights and computers were on and running but the office was empty. So then it was back to the actual theater, about 15 minutes to go. The crowd had filled a small glass encased lobby of the Akiba theater and the full expanse of hallways local to the venue. The press director said that the best time to catch him would be just after he gave his stage greeting announcement.
Instead of single-file lines the Akiba theater uses a sequential number system for actual admission to the theater. People who are gathered to see any given movie are grouped together in the lobby usually behind a blue rope gate and then numbers are called out in order. My number was 12 and when it was called I presented my green number ticket and movie ticket, the stub of which was torn off and kept by the theater staff. Having been admitted I walked few steps and into the theater itself for the first time. The day before when I did my proper tour of the TAC I tried to get into the theater to explore and take photos but several other animecs T!FF films had been running regularly during the daytime open hours so it was impossible. I made my way to a seat near the front. Seats are not assigned once you gain admission.
So now looking around I must say that the theater condition was indeed elaborate and luxurious in a pristine shape and very brand new (having just been constructed a few months prior) looking, smelling, and sounding. The 174 seat layout is non-stadium style with the seats instead staggered in a way as to allow a perfect view of the screen from any location. Looking up and around to the back in the projector room I could quickly tell they were using the latest audio and video equipment. Dolby Digital SRD-EX Surround, a top brand speaker system, movie screen and dual digital and 35mm film projectors were immediately evident. The screen was huge too compared to the size of the room. I later found out they use a 10.5m x 44m screen. You can even rent the theater out for an event for around $1,900 minimum. So in my review of the Akiba 3D theater facilities it gets top marks as a state of the art and world class facility capable of reproducing audio and visuals at the highest quality currently common. Definitely try and catch a movie (preferably one of the 3D digital ones if you can) here if you come to Tokyo.
It was now well past 18:45 and it took around 10 minutes for the for the theater to fill. Ootsuki and Inoue would still have to give their talk which would take around 15-30 minutes. During the this time I realized how the timing system for all the movies showing at TIFF differed from the regular movie screenings I was used to seeing in America. For US movies usually if you weren't in your seat by the time indicated on the ticket you'd miss the first part of the previews for sure. But here in Japan all the times listed usually only meant you'd need to be at the theater, with any sort of film rolling only after 15 or so minutes when people had time to get seated.
After everyone was seated the talking quickly died down eventually along with all other people generated noises. And this gets me to another point I got to see over and over again in and out of movie theaters during T!FF. Watching a movie in a Japanese theater with a wholly Japanese audience is a much more enjoyable experience than watching one in America. Everyone is infinitely more courteous of others' space and right to a pleasant viewing experience. You don't have Sally Soccer mom juggling whining kids and a hot latte in her lap and talking about being a desperate housewife, you don't have the paris hilton wannabes chattering into a cellphone at twice the normal volume of a typical conversation about who they are boinking and sure as hell don't have Joe Six Pack and his crew of fratboys constantly clearing their throats and snorting and sniffing as loud as they can out of jealousy anytime another guy walks in with his girlfriend or belching on beer and talking about some mindless ballgame. Instead, what you do have is near total silence with all attention on the movie at hand, and most importantly, with no distractions, you're allowed to do the same.
The main house lights dimmed, a spotlight was focused towards the front, 2 men appeared to walk out a door near the left side of the front of the theater, very close to our seating position. One man, (Inoue-san) I didn't recognize at first but the other (ootsuki-san) I did recognize immediately from his most recent picture in the Evangelion Newtype scoop piece. Ootsuki talked at length about working on Eva in the mid-late 1990's leading into the films we were about to see. Some of the conversation I could pickup on and some I couldn't. Luckily, I was sitting next to Iijima-san and he provided on the spot translation (A big thanks!!!!!). Having covered Eva's past the conversation then turned to the new Rebuild of Evangelion project and series' future. Familiar still images from the spreads in the October issue of Newtype appeared on the big screen as he recapped alot of that info. The slide show stopped on the cover image of Kaworu and Rei, it was at this point that it was mentioned the 2 characters would play a feature role in the "first part" of the new film series and that the story would focus on a school setting prior to the angel arrival.
After a little further exchange the talk was concluded. The crowd offered up a hearty round of applause. Ootsuki disappeared, literally exit stage left. It was at this point that my new friend Iijima was making motions for me to hurrily "go go" and follow him backstage through this door at the very front of the theater. I hesitated for about a split second because the act seemed rather unusual. The man just finished speaking about 20 seconds prior and now I was to chase him backstage like some kind of stalker almost! I can only imagine what the crowd was thinking as they saw the gaijin dart to the front of the theater in clear site of everyone. So bending down as to not obstruct the view too much I hustled through the opening. And there I found a hallway connected to several adjacent rooms. I waited there at the entrance of one of the rooms that was obviously "the one" as it had several people gathered around it. Iijima was right behind me, I was relying on him to lead the introduction and I dare not even attempt to barge into the personal space of these people so I intentionally paused a ways back in the hallway. I couldn't see inside this room from my vantage point but Iijima quickly introduced himself and advanced into the room where Mr. Ootsuki currently resided. I was introduced and said in English "it's very nice to meet
ou". Making eye contact, I then quickly reached for my business card holder and pulled out a meishi, Ootsuki-san was already doing the same and we made the exchange. After a few more words we parted company and made our way back into the cinema where the lengthy company promos for Death (TRUE)2 were already rolling.
I won't get into the content of the Evangelion movies but I will say that all of what Anno-san and GAINAX have created here was definitely made to be best experienced in a proper commercial theater environment with a 35mm projector on a large light reflective screen in a dark room and through a massive sound system. The Eva films deliver the maximum theatrical experience, with the storyline able to extract almost every human emotion from its viewers and they still represent the pinnacle of modern Japanese animation film making even 10 years after they were made. Having seen them 10 times or more, I knew the story by heart, no English subtitles were neccessary and none would be provided for the sole gaijin viewer anyway. Not having to focus so much on subtitles along the bottom of the screen though my eyes got to wander the full expanse of this high resolution montage from beginning to end. And yes I was still picking out minute details for the first time. As quiet as the audience was throughout, such is the content that there were some fairly widespread tears and audible sniffling. Between Air and
Magokoro Wo, Kimi Ni some people got up and left, maybe the forthcoming ending in the final part was too painful to bear..... One other crowd oddity, I did think I heard one person sleeping towards the end.
I thought "when was the last time these movies were shown back to back in a theater in this way? In Japan? America? The World? It had to be years right???" As a segway my thoughts drifted to this version of Eva now being referred to by Anno and the GAINAX inner cricle as "Kyuu Seiki Ban" (Old Century Version). I think it's highly significant that this particular point in time was chosen for this screening, a final big screen reflection if you will before the new century version's Rebuild Of Evangelion "1st part" comes out in Japan in the spring of 2007.
I guess it was close to 22:00 when the final credits rolled, also unlike America, the crowd sat tight and silently attentive throughout the entire credit sequence. As the lights rose, an emotionally drained audience collectively realized they were back in the "real world" and not actually part of the surreal and psychedelic experience that had just unfolded before them. I scanned the crowd who were now gathering their belongings and making their way back to the exit. There were alot of sad and long faces, some looked back, maybe they thought "can the gaijin mind understand this story? How does he perceive it?". I admit it's very hard to do if you try to read too much into it like I did the first time around as a teenager, but if you sit back and take in the tragic and beautiful imagery in as purely artistic storytelling and leave all your preconceived notions and expectations to one side it's alot easier.
Iijima-san and his charming lady friend invited me back to the Pizzeria on the lower level for drinks and chatting afterwards. Last call came and attention turned to making our way home. The rain was really pouring by now. The Pizzeria gave Iijima-san an umbrella which he turn gave to me. I would be taking the subway home and face a much longer walk, Iijima and his friend would grab a Taxi right there on the corner. I parted ways with my new chance friends and now wish to sincerely thank them, the Tokyo Anime Center Staff, T!FF Staff and Ootsuki-san for a special night in Akihabara.