by Chris Perkins.
Despite being founded as recently as 2011, Studio Trigger’s modest filmography comprises some of the most talked-about anime of recent years. And a lot of the credit has to go to the studio’s co-founder Hiroyuki Imaishi.
Imaishi’s early career is intimately tied up with the latter-day success of Gainax. He got started when he worked as an in-betweener and key animator on crucial episodes of 1995’s Neon Genesis Evangelion. Over the next few years, he continued to work at the studio as key animator, storyboarder and screenwriter. 1998’s His and Her Circumstances (aka KareKano) saw Imaishi graduate to Animation Director for the first time. It was on Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno’s rom-com that Imaishi first began to make a name for himself, with stylistic flourishes that would mark out his career. Imaishi probably contributed more to KareKano than anybody outside the directors, racking up an impressive eight credits on the production in one episode.
His style continued to evolve but was really let loose on FLCL. As well as working as a key animator on the whole run, he was also an animation director on the second and fifth episodes, and his frantic style was allowed to come to the fore.
Imaishi’s work is known for being highly stylised. The artwork generally leans towards the more cartoonish side, with strong lines and more of a western influence than seen in a lot of anime. This is fused together with a distinctly retro, old-school feel to much of his work. Go Nagai is clearly an influence, and Imaishi himself cites the little-known (in the West) series Dokonjo Gaeru (“Gutsy Frog”) as his main touchstone. His animation tends towards the hyperactive side, with a kind of punky, anarchic charm that his earned him a dedicated following. Imaishi’s productions put the animation itself front and centre. With so many anime today based on light novels and games, it can often feel that the animation is just a means to an end, and the story is king. Imaishi conversely makes the visuals the star. This lead to accusations of style over substance but has also won him many admirers among both fans and industry professionals.
Imaishi continued working through the early Noughties on some of Gainax’s best known titles of the era, including Mahoromatic and Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi. Yet when Imaishi finally made the step up to the director’s chair in 2004, it was not at the studio where he had made his name, but at the equally legendary Production I.G. The resulting movie Dead Leaves is something of an acquired taste (to put it mildly), but it allowed Imaishi truly off the leash, creating an anime not quite like anything you’ve seen before.
He returned to Gainax later the same year to direct an episode of the video series Re: Cutie Honey. A modern remake of one of Go Nagai’s most famous creations, it saw him working with Anno once again. It also marked his first collaboration with screenwriter Kazuki Nakashima – previously best known as a playwright – in what would prove to be a very successful partnership. 2007 saw Imaishi’s biggest gig to date, directing the Anime Limited licence Gurren Lagann. With Nakashima on scripting duties, Imaishi was able to combine his visual style with more conventional, classic mecha-drama storytelling to create something with wide appeal. Although distinctly an Imaishi creation it feels much more mainstream than some of his other work.
The same cannot be said however, of his next directorial gig, Panty and Stocking With Garterbelt. Crude, rude and provocative, the infamous series is chiefly influenced by western ideas of ‘adult’ animation, creating something that resembles the illegitimate offspring of South Park and Sailor Moon.
A year after Panty and Stocking (dis)graced screens, Imaishi finally left Gainax behind, establishing Trigger with fellow escapee Masahiko Otsuka. The fledgling studio quickly began making waves with fans around the world. In an industry that can often seem tied to old-fashioned distribution methods, the new company’s eagerness to embrace digital distribution is refreshing. Their early works Little Witch Academia and the Imaishi-directed Inferno Cop were both made specifically for online audiences and distributed internationally.
Trigger’s origins feel very reminiscent of the earliest days of Gainax itself. Before becoming the giant it is today, Gainax was a studio founded by fans, embracing the latest technology while paying tribute to the anime that made them otaku in the first place. Otsuka spoke of the studio being born out of a “paradigm shift” in anime and a desire to have the freedom to take creative risks.
With their reputation building, and a following growing Trigger then made the leap to TV with Kill La Kill. Helmed by Imaishi, and written once again by Nakashima, it is many ways the defining show of his career so far. Combining the insanity of Panty and Stocking and Inferno Cop with the retro-styled visuals and battle manga feel of Gurren Lagann, it creates something that feels at once fresh and timeless.
Kill La Kill only cemented Imaishi and Nakashima’s working relationship. Imasishi claimed his collaborator “balances out his childish impulses” going on to add he’d “like to work more with Nakashima loads more in future, if he doesn’t mind”.
We don’t know exactly what future delights this dynamic duo will produce, but post-Kill La Kill, Imaishi’s career continues to flourish. As well as working on Trigger’s latest Ninja Slayer, he contributed the short Sex Violence with Machspeed to Anno’s Japan Animator Expo project. He was even asked to helm the opening sequence to US Adult Swim animation Black Dynamite’s second season. Wherever Imaishi’s career takes him next, you can be sure animation fans everyone are going to want to pay attention.
Chris Perkins writes about anime for MyM magazine and is the editor of Animation For Adults.