Hiroyuki Imaishi

This week in Director Spotlight: Hiroyuki Imaishi


The last of our “Newbie” section of Director Spotlights, and fittingly the one riding the largest hype. Hiroyuki Imaishi’s career, much like his animation, has skyrocketed to a name recognition that few get to experience. Beginning his career on the largest anime of the 90’s, NGE, following it up with a distinct classic, FLCL, and launching a revolutionary first series in TTGL. His studio, Trigger, gained brand name recognition before airing the first series and managed to dominate views and discussion among the fandom. Few people will have such a spotlighted rise to prominence as Imaishi.

The Action Comedy Star

Starting as an in-between animator, and moving to key animation, for Neon Genesis Evangelion under the direction of the fantastic studio Gainax and Director Anno. Joining the last great series of the “80’s OVA” generation and gritty dark styles of that era, Imaishi made a name for himself as a scene chewing animator with some visually comedic talents.

This got him noticed and soon was asked to join the fantastic Lupin III series. Working on Lupin III: Walther P-38, Lupin III: Tokyo Crises, Lupin III: Alcatraz Connection, and Lupin III: Operation Return the Treasure, gave Imaishi the chance to flex some of these skills in comedy. Extending scene cuts, expanding camera scope, breaking through scene barriers, all of these skills now signature to his style were tested here. Eventually leading to scenes like this one from Redline.

His and Her Circumstances

Hideaki Anno’s return from NGE, and the man was in a bit of a somber and dark place. Imaishi was brought in, based on their relationship from NGE and some impressive Lupin work, to direct and layout a few of the episodes. Notably episode 19 in particular is one of the first uses of Imaishi’s “Paper cut out” style that becomes quite prevalent in his solo works.

Directing a short with Anno around this time, Imaishi made Anime Tenchou. 

Fooly Cooly, FLCL

Brought together some of the great names of the era. With Imaishi acting as Storyboard, Animation Director, and Key Animator for portions of the series, as well as doing episode 5 as a solo Director. Taking parts of Anno’s referential, homage based storytelling and talent for having messages laid within the art. Learning from Yuasa and the surreal, rule breaking use of screen space. Making this all his own, Imaishi cemented himself as an up and coming icon, from the school of Anno, and Yuasa, style.

Imaishi followed this up with work on Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, with an all star cast of directors and animators. Watanabe, Yuasa, Yamamoto, and many others. By this time, Imaishi had established his style and was able to show off his work in Lupin.

Dead Leaves

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Following Yuasa’s Mind Game idea of over indulgence and unhinged enthusiasm, Imaishi brings out all the insanity for his first OVA. Injecting a cavalier shot style

with slapstick humor

and ignoring standard framing transitions.

The story follows two characters with memory loss as they smash, steal, and shoot their way through the world. The entire story is wild, attempting to attack your expectations, and acts as a sort of ending rejection of the gritty 80’s and 90’s anime trends. No more would the GitS, NGE, and Jin-Roh’s rule, as the era of referential, slapstick and brightly animated series enters.

While Imaishi wasn’t the only person trying to change the dynamic of the industry series, but his western influenced action and over the top sexual comedy was one of the sparks to begin the explosion.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann

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If NGE marked the death of the gritty older era of anime, TTGL is the birth of the new one. Coming off of the first episode of Re: Cutie Honey, Imaishi built a relationship with his now long time writer, Kazuki Nakashima, to create a sort of magical connection. Imaishi’s love of 70’s Mecha, western comedy, and aggressive story structure, merged perfectly with Nakashima’s love of stage plays, Go Nagai, Ken Ishikawa, and Space Opera’s.

The story begins with humans living underground, and eventually leads to epic space battles where entire galaxies are destroyed by a swing of the arm, and the action is always to the extreme.

The series is not a masterpiece, I don’t think Imaishi has earned that title yet, but it is a perfect merging of everything needed at that time. The return to 70’s era Mecha anime with it’s lighter inspection of characters and larger metaphorical meanings, while updating it to the newer generation’s love of referential humor and over the top action. It is no masterpiece, but an iconic series to be remembered.

Speaking to that, the Gainax standard these days is the converting of the series into film with TTGL: Gurren-hen and TTGL: Lagann-hen. Both offer this same level of direction and writing, but are rarely mentioned due to times shifting, unlike the constantly discussed NGE Rebuilds or the ever popular Ghost in the Shell series. The original TTGL is still a perfect meld of everything it needed, and is a timeless entertainment, but the formula is specific and will be hard to repeat.

Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt

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Power Puff Girls, Samurai Jack, and Dexter’s Laboratory, iconic series in western animation that essentially created the Cartoon Network and the like. Panty & Stalking is a send up to these great series, and their creator Genndy Tartakovsky. With a touch of the Blaxploitation styles of Black Dynamite, Imaishi offers his own entry into this great genre.

One of my favorite things in anime, is when a creator uses a series with simple narrative to expound his love of fellow artists. With over 20 different directors, script, storyboard, and key animators, the series launched a massive number of collaborations including Teekyu, Black Rock Shooter, Yozakura Quartet, and led to the creation of Studio Trigger under Imaishi.

Kill la Kill

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Don’t lose your way! Someone should have told Imaishi this.

One of the difficult parts of doing spotlights on Directors is that you have to usually leave out the many collaborators that work with them. In Kill la Kill, you can really feel the missing components.

Masahiko Ootsuka was the episode director that guided Imaishi through NGE, TTGL, P&S, and even His and Her Circumstances. His touch of humanity and heart, that made the characters of TTGL stay in our memory is really lacking. You can find him working that magic on a different Trigger series, Inou-Battle.

Akira Amemiya’s Animation Direction gave the humor in TTGL a touching aspect, ala Louis CK, and his cohesion of comedy timing can be found in the entertaining Inferno Cop, or the upcoming Ninja Slayer.

Being the first major series from Trigger, the eyes seemed to big for the wallet. With massive production issues, a mid season re-write, and a general lack of cohesion, Kill la Kill makes it clear that the magic of TTGL is not going to be repeated easily. The story hints at what could have been.

That does not mean the series is a complete failure though. Even with these missing components, the series still has some highly entertaining parts, and has the same bone structure that made TTGL great. Paying homage to Osamu Dezaki, Kunihiko Ikuhara, and the battle shounen/shoujo genre’s, Imaishi again finds that heart of the old series.

Final Thoughts

Hiroyuki Imaishi is a unique director who seems driven to make series that scream to his soul, apparently ripping up scripts and yelling “I can’t drill to the heavens with this!” Making these very detailed, multi-layered metaphorical series to pay homage and change the dynamic of the genres that he loves. I’m not sure we will ever see another TTGL iconic series from him, but I think every chance he takes will be to the extreme.


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