Better known today as the director of the Japanese media franchise Neon Genesis Evangelion, which began in the early 1990’s and still runs, Hideaki Anno initially gained acclaim as a highly talented animator of vehicles. For instance, his student-film At the Bus Stop (1980) depicts a detailed bus falling onto a considerably more cartoony female figure. In Neon Genesis Evangelion, commonly referred to simply as Evangelion, trains are a particularly recurring vehicle motif, with the protagonist Shinki Ikari often boarding them when he considers running away from his responsibilities. As the animated series progresses and begins to engage in an increasingly surrealistic internal psychodrama, Shinji’s mind-space is often depicted as an empty train at sunset. This fascination with trains has even become embedded in the marketing of the franchise, with one of the major posters for Shin Evangelion (2021) depicting derelict tracks (see figure 1). Together with Evangelion’s tendency to isolate and psychologically pick apart its characters, one can start to see this imagery of psychological drama as evocative of the series’ diegesis in terms of a complex and intricate train set, re-arranged at the creator’s whim (see figure 2).
In fact, Anno has actualised this imagery of the train set several times throughout his career. The ending credits of Love and Pop (1998) features footage from a small digital camera mounted on a miniature train that moves through a complex array of set-pieces. A less complicated version of this idea is used in the ending credits to Kare-Kano (1998), which is composed of live-action footage from what seems to be a toy car moving through a school room. Both endings are essentially a miniature version of the “Phantom Ride” effect popular in cinema of the 1920s and 1930s: “extended tracking shots (usually literally filmed on train tracks) that show the landscape through which the train travels, without showing the train (Cammer 2018, p.149). Anno’s decision to use the Phantom Ride effect is notable considering his style is usually dominated by static compositions, i.e., ones in which the camera does not move. Ending his works with these extremely kinetic set-ups creates a sense of significant change and acceleration. This effect is further compounded in the case of Kare-Kano, where the viewer is also experiencing a shift from animation to live-action. The use of live-action to puncture animated set-pieces is a recurring motif in Anno’s filmography, and we often find it connected to imagery of trains. In End of Evangelion (1997), a series of live-action shots of urban environments are used during an elliptical montage that ruminates on dreams and meaning-making, a prime of example of the series’ metafictional qualities in which “the narration frequently breaks down, revealing that both the background/world and figure/story depend on a volatile set of narrative and imaginary choices, vague references, and simulations” (Ballús and Torrents 2014, p.286). Many of these live-action shots are images from train carriages.
Once again, train imagery is invoked in Anno’s final Evangelion film, Shin Evangelion (2021). Its final image is an aerial drone shot of a train station in Ube, Hideaki Anno’s hometown. The shot is live action, but in it are two animated figures, the main characters Shinji and Mari, who run jubilantly out of the station. As they run into crowds of people, the camera moves swiftly away, taking a bird’s eye view of the city, before a hard cut to black. In the original series, the interior of the train carriages provided a paranoid, encapsulating location for our characters, locked in their neurosis. In this final scene of the film, however, the release from the liminal space of the train provides a liberating ending to the animated series. The mixed-media approach emphasizes this effect, the aesthetics of the work blurring and coming undone as the protagonists find agency. Cultural critic Hiroki Azuma (2021) has argued that this final Evangelion film Shin Evangelion functions as an “I-Novel”, drawing allusions to a lineage of Japanese works of autobiographical confessional fiction that often explore themes of depression and suicidal ideation. Within this framework, the train becomes a particularly charged signifier, one of movement, change, transformation, and growth.
Cammaer, Gerda., “Phantom Rides as Images of the World Unfolding”. Critical Distance in Documentary Media, pp. 149–167. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Ballús, Andreu and Torrents, Alba G., “Evangelion as Second Impact: Forever Changing That Which Never Was”, pp. 283-29. Mechademia, 9, 2014.
Azuma, Hiroki., “「シン・エヴァ」評 批評家・東浩紀の場合：朝日新聞デジタル”. 朝日新聞デジタル (“Shin Eva” review by critic Hiroki Higashi: Asahi Shimbun Digital”. Asahi Shimbun Digital, March 19 2021).
Dr River Seager earned a PhD in 2023 for their thesis on the films of Scottish screenwriter Alan Sharp. They have published articles on Sharp in edited collections by Bloomsbury and a forthcoming collection from Palgrave. They also have an article forthcoming in the Journal of Anime and Manga Studies on depictions of the body in the mecha genre. They are currently working on a monograph on Sharp, which will explore masculine archetypes in his screenplays. They also recently directed the 2023 documentary “I Am a Cyborg: Conversations About Queerness and Anime Fandom”, shown at SQIFF 2023.