I started this post with the simple intent to share/comment on the two videos below. I ended up writing an(other) essay on Gainax. Oops! Click the videos to view. Scroll down if you want to read.
Getting to know Gainax
For over two decades now, fans have been talking about, picking apart, and generally obsessing over Neon Genesis Evangelion.
I am no expert on that particular show/franchise. I look to otaku like Eva Monkey ( http://www.evamonkey.com ) and the good folks at Eva Geeks ( http://www.evageeks.org ) to keep me informed and educated on the vast world of Evangelion fandom and lore.
I am, however, very interested and decently aware of things related to old-school, pre-Evangelion Gainax. Over the years, I've had the opportunity to see, meet, and in rare cases interview a number of Gainax staff and collaborators, including but not limited to Toshio Okada, Hiroyuki Yamaga, Takami Akai, Yasuhiro Takeda, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, Kazuya Tsurumaki, Hiroki Sato, and Toren Smith. In 1996, I got to see Hideaki Anno speak on two panels at Anime Expo--a general panel about his own work, and an Evangelion-only panel.
The Gainax sensibility - the role of references in postmodern storytelling
Anno, and all the folks mentioned above - they are otaku through and through. They were part of the first otaku generation and helped define the otaku ethic for the rest of us, not just via self-referential shows like Otaku no Video, but in everything they produced. The way they see the world, especially visual media, and reflect it back us in their own work resonates with otaku of all stripes.
The Gainax creative sensibility might be described as postmodern*. Focusing on their earlier work, it is heavily and unapologetically referential, not as a cheap way to cash in on the goodwill of fans (of the works being referenced), but simply because the act of referencing was part of their creators' toolbox. Those creators, as fans themselves, liked what they saw and wanted to incorporate it, but differently and hopefully better, with a certain mix of reverence, nostalgia, and parody.
For the most part, the references they used are "hard", not really intended to be understood by the majority of the audience. "Too bad", Anno might say. That's because they are there to help tell the story, not because fans begged for (or creators promised any) fun "easter eggs". You don't need to be a fan of everything Anno, Okada, et al. enjoyed to be entertained by their works. But if there's any overlap, or you simply like looking for references, it does add an extra dimension to the enjoyment and appreciation. The stories work at the surface level, but they also offer a lot to those who like to dig (e.g. upon repeat viewings).
Here's an analogy to illustrate the point further. You don't need to be a fan of Flash Gordon or The Hidden Fortress to enjoy Star Wars, but it would probably change your experience of it. On the other hand, based on how they were written, the prequel trilogy almost requires a person to have seen Eps. 4 - 6.
Hideaki Anno's visual culture influences
One day, someone (perhaps Anno himself) will catalog all the things that influenced his work. For now, we can only find scattered clues and guess if they are relevant. I will offer up a few random observations, obviously conjecture and potentially flat-out wrong, but hey...it's fun!
My friend Sean at Zimmerit already covered Hiroyuki Yamaga's music video for Fence of Defense - Data No.6. It does include things that look like precursors to some visuals in Evangelion. Nadia too, for that matter! But I'm surprised not to have seen much talk about the intro of Gerry Anderson's Space: 1999, referenced in both Evangelion and Otaku no Video. Anno's Gerry Anderson fandom is well-documented.
Stylistically, the Space: 1999 intro feels so similar to the opening of Evangelion. View both videos and judge for yourself:
A film Eva fans might want to check out is Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970).
An Evangelion fan noticed a scene in which the audio played backwards comes from the final scene of that film.
Based on that, it seems pretty likely that Anno has seen Colossus: The Forbin Project. Here's a scene from that movie that required nudity to be covered up:
Sorry for the poor quality image, but that's a wine glass covering up the nude protagonist of the film. Obviously, that's similar to the scene familiar to all Eva fans below:
Clever censoring of this sort is not unique to Eva and Colossus: The Forbin Project (see http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SceneryCensor?from=Main.PeekABoo ), but let's be serious. Anno did not rip off Austin Powers; he is far more likely to have seen and been influenced by Colossus: The Forbin Project (or not).
We could go on and on. I've been sitting on an Evangelion/Nadia/Illuminatus analysis for years. Who knows if I'll ever write that up! In the meantime, perhaps we should all check out Anno's latest work: Godzilla Resurgence (2016).
* My favorite film director, Sergio Leone, was dubbed by Jean Baudrillard as the first postmodernist film director. Leone, a fan of American westerns, transformed the genre by using the elements of Western mythology in new and subversive ways. On a side note, Anno himself proclaimed his love of westerns at AX96 and bragged that he probably knew more about them than anyone in the room. Perhaps one could argue that Macross was the first major postmodern anime; it wasn't created by Gainax, but it was creatively spearheaded by two of their own generation - Shoji Kawamori and Haruhiko Mikimoto - and Anno, Yamaga, and Akai got their professional start working on it.