When we say “Gainax”, what pops into your head? Angsty teens piloting mechas? Jiggle physics? Or maybe endings so mind-boggling that you still can’t understand them to this day? Well, today we’re going to show you how a small group of otaku college students grew from making short gag cartoons and tokusatsu parodies to becoming one of the most successful animation studios in Japan. Join us for a short history of Gainax!
By Otaku, For Otaku
In the early 1980s, seven college kids in Osaka got together to form Daicon Films, a fledgling studio dedicated to nerd culture. Their first works were animated shorts used to promote a Japanese science fiction convention called Nihon SF Taikai, as well as satirical versions of famous live action superhero shows like Super Sentai and Kaiketsu Zubat. These early films often directly referenced classic sci-fi and monster series like Star Wars, Gundam, and Godzilla in witty and irreverent ways.
One of our favorites is a tokusatsu parody called Aikoku Sentai Dai-Nippon (Patriotic Squadron Dai-Nippon). It used footage from the Super Sentai series Taiyo Sentai Sun Vulcan to make an absurdist commentary about the Russo-Japanese War. The heroes, who were named after things like geisha and tempura, fought to stop the evil “Death Kremlin” from brainwashing the children of Japan into becoming communists. It’s certainly off-the-wall, but you can see how this style would eventually evolve into Gainax’s signature post-modernism later on.
Daicon Films changed its name to Gainax in 1985, combining an obscure word for “giant” with an “x” suffix to make it sound cool and multicultural. And just two years later, they finally made their big film debut with Ouritsu Uchuugun: Honneamise no Tsubasa (Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise). This bombastic space opera, as well as their 1988 OVA Top wo Nerae! Gunbuster (Gunbuster), gave them enough critical and financial clout to work on the projects that would go on to cement them as a household name.
The Evangelion Explosion
After a fair amount of success with Fushigi no Umi no Nadia (Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water) and several OVAs in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Gainax found its golden goose with Shin Seiki Evangelion (Neon Genesis Evangelion). Hideaki Anno, who was one of the original seven founding members, created and directed this now-legendary deconstruction of the mecha genre that shocked and captivated audiences around the world.
Its unique imagery, psychological themes, and iconic characters have influenced countless works in the years since the anime’s release, and it remains Gainax’s most famous property to this day. New merchandise is always coming down the pipeline, the opening theme is considered by many to be one of the best anime openings ever, and the success of the countless reboots and spinoffs speaks for itself.
But things weren’t so rosy behind the scenes. Anno had been suffering from a four-year-long mental depression after working on Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water and a failed sequel to Royal Space Force, and in his shaky state of mind he ended up changing the ending from an Angel fight in space to a deep psychoanalysis of the main characters. This decision gave Neon Genesis Evangelion the dubious honor of popularizing the “Gainax ending”, referring to a series finale that comes out of nowhere and seems to make very little sense in the context of the show.
Anno’s odd behavior, as well as the tight budget and production schedule, made other Gainax higher-ups nervous that they wouldn’t have enough money to stay afloat. So when Neon Genesis Evangelion turned out to be an unprecedented cash cow, they hid most of the profits from the government and embroiled themselves in a huge tax evasion scandal that ended with the company president and accountant behind bars for accounting fraud. Oops!
The Golden Age of Gainax
Luckily, the company recovered from the rollercoaster that was Neon Genesis Evangelion’s production and continued to work on new projects. Over the years, they amassed quite the catalog of anime, OVAs, and movies that have become classics in their own right. They’ve made plenty of amazing adaptations of existing manga such as Kare Kano (His and Her Circumstances) and Mahoromatic (Mahoromatic: Automatic Maiden), but let’s take a look at some of their original works!
FLCL – 2000
FLCL (pronounced “fooly cooly” or “furi kuri”) may just be a short OVA series, but it packs an insane amount of content into its six episodes. It’s technically a sci-fi story, but the real appeal lies in its rapid-fire hodgepodge presentation and constant fourth wall breaking. The female lead, Haruko, rides around on a Vespa and uses her tricked-out bass guitar to beat down baddies and the protagonist Naota constantly spawns giant robots from his forehead while dealing with his brother’s pyromaniac ex-girlfriend and a robot with a TV for a face. FLCL is appreciated today as a cult classic, and we still don’t know if we fully understand it.
Kono Minikuku mo Utsukushii Sekai (This Ugly Yet Beautiful World) – 2004
This co-production with Shaft is one of Gainax’s less serious ventures, mainly focusing on the relationship between orphan Takeru and a mysterious little girl who fell from the sky in a beam of light. It’s a bit like Neon Genesis Evangelion in terms of its character exploration, but nowhere near as depressing. Check out This Ugly Yet Beautiful World if you like Gainax’s style, but wish it had more fanservice and cute girls doing cute things.
Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (Gurren Lagann) – 2007
Continuing on with Gainax’s obsession with space and mechas, Gurren Lagann turns the intensity dial up to 11 and the crazy dial up to 11 million. Endlessly quotable and iconic in all the right ways, this anime tells the story of how Simon the digger grows up to be the most kickass space pilot in the universe. Along with his friends and legendary mentor Kamina, Simon shouts and poses his way to victory against the Beastmen. It’s a spiritual successor to Gunbuster and a direct antithesis to Neon Genesis Evangelion, packed to the brim with excitement and boundless energy.
Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt – 2010
This wacky, sexy, violent show supposedly stemmed from the brains of drunk Gainax employees who were chattering about adult Western cartoons like Drawn Together after production on Gurren Lagann wrapped up. Two angels named Panty and Stocking use their holy power to transform their underwear into weapons and keep Daten City safe from harm. Panty loves sex, Stocking is a pig when it comes to sweets, there’s plenty of fanservice and toilet humor to go around, and the entire thing is almost one big parody of Gainax’s own clichés. Too bad we may never got a second season...
Games and More
Besides animation, Gainax also did some dalliances with video games and model kits. These were mostly made to secure funds for the studio’s bigger projects, but they’re still worth checking out. Gainax’s garage kits (types of model kits that were produced in limited runs by small companies) were sold at merchandise conventions like Wonder Festival. The figures were based on characters like the Playboy bunny girl from their very first animated shorts, and are difficult to track down today.
As far as video games go, Gainax took a stab at filling a niche in the adult market by producing H-games with highly detailed graphics. These mostly involved solving puzzles or playing simple games in order to get some cute anime girls to take their clothes off. But Gainax’s biggest success in the video game market was the Princess Maker series – raising simulators with RPG elements that still hold up as solidly fun and engaging to this day. Spinoffs based on Neon Genesis Evangelion characters soon followed, as well as a loose anime adaptation called Puchi Pri*Yucie (Petite Princess Yucie) that incorporated most of the series’ characters in one way or another.
The Studio Trigger Split and Gainax’s Current Projects
In 2011, Hiroyuki Amaishi (director of Gurren Lagann and Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt) left Gainax to form Studio Trigger along with some of his key staff members. Trigger is known for Little Witch Academia and Kill la Kill, as well as co-producing Winter 2018’s Darling in the Franxx with A-1 Pictures. Hideaki Anno had previously split off from Gainax in 2006 to form Studio Khara for his Rebuild of Evangelion films and other former Gainax employees had been doing their own thing as Gonzo K.K. for over two decades. But it was the foundation of the massively successful Studio Trigger that was the final nail in the coffin for the golden years of Gainax.
With their best talent gone (and making what many consider the next evolution of Gainax’s greatest work), Gainax has turned away from original material and chose to focus instead on adaptations of existing manga and visual novels. They released the seinen anime Piano no Mori in the Spring 2018 season, and are currently working on Rescue Academia (focused on bringing tourism to Fukushima prefecture after the 2011 earthquake) and the bizarrely titled Flying Babies (a slice-of-life about young hula dancers) for the rest of 2018.
There’s also talk of reviving Aoki Uru (Uru in Blue), the sequel to their first film Royal Space Force, as well as a future project called Zero Century – a three-part film series based on the works of Leiji Matsumoto. Even if Gainax doesn’t have the “it” factor that Studio Trigger took from them, they’re at least staying busy with some interesting new material.
After most of its best talent left for other studios, Gainax isn’t exactly as resplendent as it used to be. But even if it doesn’t make anything like Evangelion or FLCL ever again, we can still appreciate what the studio did for the world of Japanese animation. After all, without Gainax we wouldn’t have shows like Kill la Kill in the first place. So let’s hear it for the bizarre otaku-centric studio that gave us some of the best anime of the ‘90s and 2000s – Gainax!
What did you think of our overview? Did you learn anything new about Gainax? What are your favorite shows from the studio? Let us know in the comments, and thanks so much for reading!