TOKYO - Once regarded as a geek-only niche market, Japanese animation movies have shot to worldwide success thanks in large part to Oscar-winner Hayao Miyazaki's whimsical tales of fantasy.
With Miyazaki having retired, Japan has a new king of 'anime': Hideaki Anno.
Famous for the hit sci-fi franchise "Evangelion", Anno draws inspiration from the darker recesses of the human soul, haunted by the threat of nuclear holocaust growing up as a child in Japan during the Cold War era and in the shadow of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
"The fear of the Cold War was in essence the fear of nuclear war," Anno told AFP in an interview during the Tokyo International Film festival, where 53 of his films were being showcased.
"There was a real sense that if atomic war broke out, the world would be destroyed. If someone pushed the nuclear button it would lead to the destruction of the world -- that was the reality at the time, that fear of Armageddon."
Miyazaki, whose 2001 box-office smash "Spirited Away" became the first anime to win an Academy Award, passed the torch to Anno after saying that last year's "The Wind Rises" would be his last feature-length film.
The "Evangelion" series, about gigantic bio-machines piloted by teenagers battling monstrous giants that are terrorising human survivors of a global catastrophe, has produced five feature movies and spawned manga comics, games, character merchandise, and even a theme park attraction since it was first broadcast in 1995.
"I sincerely thought that the world would end in the 20th century," said Anno.
"It was a big influence on "Evangelion", which is about what happens after the world has been destroyed. At that time a lot of Japanese anime dealt with what happens after a nuclear holocaust."
A tsunami also wreaks deadly havoc in "Evangelion", which is permeated by religious references.
"Japan is a country where a lot of typhoons and earthquakes strike," said Anno, who was given his break by Miyazaki as an animator in 1984.
"It's a country where merciless destruction happens naturally. It gives you a strong sense that God exists out there."
Anno, who has collaborated with Miyazaki on various projects, speaks in hushed tones about his mentor, describing the master storyteller as a one-off.
"Miyazaki-san's animation can be enjoyed by children and adults, a very broad demographic," he said.
"Miyazaki-san's works have had a major influence on Japanese film. They can never be replicated, and nobody will make movies like that again.
"Watching his approach to film-making -- he sacrificed himself for his work. His principle was that his art was everything, the movie was more important than anything. That was special."
Miyazaki has been compared with Walt Disney, but Anno insisted that the depth of the themes tackled by Japanese anime, often chillingly dark, were a major factor in their enduring appeal, not just their enchanting nostalgia and humour.
"Japanese animation is not just for kids," said the 54-year-old.
"If it were just for children you would stop watching when you get older and it would be like watching American cartoons."
Anno, who bristles at comparisons to "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, believes his work would not make the transition to "Pacific Rim"-style live action movies.
"I don't think it would work," he said.
"The concept of "Evangelion" was that of an animation and it would be very difficult to express in live action. You would have to remake it totally and then it would be something different, so I don't see it ever happening."
Anno shrugged off the weight of expectation after the co-founder of Miyazaki's celebrated Ghibli animation studio, producer Toshio Suzuki, proclaimed that Anno would "lead the anime world for the next 10 years" following Miyazaki's retirement.
"There is no pressure," he smiled.
"It's what other people say, not me. I just want to continue making stimulating movies and I'd like to give something back to the industry.
"Hopefully I can help the culture and art of anime become even bigger and contribute to society in some way, leave something that will last."