Anno was born in Ube, Yamaguchi; he attended Wakō Kindergarten, Unoshima Municipal Elementary School, Fujiyama Municipal Junior High School, and Yamaguchi Prefectural Ube High School where he was noted for his interest in artwork and making short films for Japanese Cultural Festivals.
Anno is an agnostic and has stated that he has found Japanese spiritualism to be closest to his beliefs. Anno is also a vegetarian.
Anno began his career after attending Osaka University of Arts as an animator for the anime series The Super Dimension Fortress Macross (1982–1983). Wrapped up in producing the DAICON III and IV Opening Animations with his fellow students, he was eventually expelled from Osaka.
Anno did not gain recognition until the release of his work on Hayao Miyazaki's 1984 film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Running short on animators, the film's production studio posted an ad in the famous Japanese animation magazine Animage, announcing that they were in desperate need of more animators. Anno, in his early twenties at the time, read the ad and headed down to the film's studio, where he met with Miyazaki and showed him some of his drawings. Impressed with his ability, Miyazaki hired him to draw some of the most complicated scenes near the end of the movie, and valued his work highly.
Anno went on to become one of the co-founders of Gainax in December 1984. He worked as an animation director for their first feature-length film, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise (1987), and ultimately became Gainax's premiere anime director, leading the majority of the studio's projects such as Gunbuster (1988) and Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (1990–1991). However, Anno fell into a four-year depression following Nadia — the series was handed down to him from NHK from an original concept by Hayao Miyazaki (of which Castle in the Sky is also partly based upon) and he was given little creative control.
In 1994, the minor planet 9081 Hideakianno was named after him by his old friend Akimasa Nakamura.
Anno's next project was the anime television series Neon Genesis Evangelion (新世紀エヴァンゲリオン, Shin Seiki Evangerion) (1995–1996), which would be touted as an influential animated series.
Anno's history of clinical depression was the main source for many of the psychological elements of the series and its characters, as he wrote down on paper several of the trials and tribulations of his condition. During the show's production, Anno became disenchanted with the Japanese "otaku" lifestyle. For this and other reasons (although perhaps by design as well), Evangelion's plot became increasingly dark and psychological as the series progressed, despite being broadcast in a children's television timeslot. Anno felt that people should be exposed to the realities of life at as young an age as possible, and by the end of the series all attempts at traditional narrative logic were abandoned, with the final two episodes taking place within the main character's mind.
The show did not garner high ratings in Japan at its initial time slot, but after being moved to a later, more adult-oriented venue, it gained considerable popularity. Budgeting issues at Gainax also forced Anno to replace the planned ending of Evangelion with two episodes set in the main characters' minds. After these last two episodes were aired, Anno received numerous letters and emails from fans, both congratulating him on the series and criticizing the last two episodes. Among these were death threats and letters of disappointment from fans who thought Anno had ruined the series for them. In 1997, Gainax launched a project to re-adapt Evangelion's scrapped ending into a feature-length film. Once again, budgeting issues left the film unfinished, and the completed 27 minutes of animation were included as the second act of Evangelion: Death and Rebirth. Eventually, the project culminated in The End of Evangelion, a three-act film that served as a finale to Neon Genesis Evangelion.
In September 1999, Anno appeared on the NHK TV-documentary "Welcome Back for an Extracurricular Lesson, Senpai!", answering some Evangelion-related questions, including the origin of the name Evangelion, and teaching children about animation production.
On April 15, 2015, Anno spoke about his feelings regarding Asuka and Rei. He claimed: "The truth is, I have no emotional attachment to Rei at all. In the midst of making Eva, I suddenly realized that I had forgotten her. Her very existence. For example, in episode seven, I remembered and added one shot with Rei. I had no attachment to her at all. I think that was okay, because in episode eight, she didn't appear. Not even in a single shot."
After Evangelion, Anno directed a significant portion of the 1998 anime series Kareshi Kanojo no Jijō (known in English as His and Her Circumstances or Kare Kano for short) — the first Gainax work to be directly adapted from previously-written material — until disputes with both the show's sponsors and the original manga author ended in the director's departure, leaving the show in the hands of his protégé, Kazuya Tsurumaki (see also FLCL). Since that dispute, Anno has gone on to work with Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli on several short films which have been shown at the Ghibli Museum. He also voiced the main character Jiro Horikoshi in Miyazaki's 2013 feature film The Wind Rises.
The director has also made forays into live-action films, beginning with Love & Pop (1998), a cinéma vérité-style film about enjo kosai ("compensated dating", a form of teenage prostitution) in Japan, of which a major portion was shot on miniature digital cameras with constantly shifting aspect ratios. He won Best New Director Award at 1998 Yokohama Film Festival for the film. Asumi Miwa who played the lead role won Best New Talent award respectively. His second live-action film, Shiki-Jitsu (2000) ("Ritual Day" or "Ceremonial Day"), is the story of a burnt-out former animation director (played by popular indie director Shunji Iwai) who falls in love with a woman disconnected from reality. Though an experimental work like Love & Pop, this film was shot using the more traditional 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has a generally more polished presentation, eschewing the cinéma vérité grittiness of Anno's first live-action film. This movie earned him Best Artistic Contribution Award at Tokyo International Film Festival and very positive reviews.
Anno's third live-action film was Cutie Honey, released in the summer of 2004. A stark contrast to his earlier, more realist live-action works, Cutie Honey is a lighthearted fantasy/superhero movie. Later in 2004, Anno supervised but did not direct the three-part OVA, Re: Cutie Honey. The directors are Hiroyuki Imaishi (part 1), Takamichi Itō (part 2), and Masayuki (part 3). The movie is based from Go Nagai's 1973 manga and anime Cutie Honey.
Also released in 2004 was the movie Funky Forest (ナイスの森, Nice no Mori), in which Anno makes several acting cameos: as the student in the front row of the "Home Room!" skit sitting next to Hataru, in "Who's the Director?" as an animator who feels he is being overworked, and finally in "Singles Picnic" he is among the men awaiting females who never come.
On August 1, 2006, Hideaki Anno's official website was updated with job listings for key animators and production staff at a company he founded, Studio Khara. In September 2006, it is reported by the October edition of the Japanese animation magazine Newtype. On September 9, 2006, GAINAX's official website confirmed that Rebuild of Evangelion was in the works. The first three movies would be an alternate retelling of the TV series (including many new scenes, settings, backgrounds, characters), and the fourth movie would be a completely new conclusion to the story. Kazuya Tsurumaki and Masayuki would direct the movies while Yoshiyuki Sadamoto would provide character designs and Ikuto Yamashita would provide mechanical designs. Shinji Higuchi would provide storyboards for the first movie. The first was launched in Summer 2007, and the second and third were planned to be launched in 2008, however, the second installment was released by itself on June 27, 2009. The third movie was to be released simultaneously with the fourth, instead, the third movie was released on November 17, 2012 and a release date for the fourth movie has yet to be announced. On February 17, 2007, Anno published an official statement on the Japanese Yahoo Portal for the films regarding his personal involvement and goals in their production.
In October 2007, Hideaki Anno resigned from Gainax. In 2011 Anno co-produced the Koinobori Pictures movie Kantoku Shikkaku ("Failed Director"), directed by Katsuyuki Hirano featuring Yumika Hayashi.
In 2012, Anno was the curator of an exhibit entitled Tokusatsu- Special Effects Museum-Craftsmanship of Showa and Heisei Eras Seen Through Miniatures, held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, featuring actual props and suits from many of Japan's tokusatsu films and TV shows. Anno also produced a short live-action film for the exhibit, entitled A Giant Warrior Descends on Tokyo, featuring the Giant Warrior-God from Studio Ghibli’s animated film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
Anno designed the Space Battleship Yamato 2199 sci-fi anime television series opening sequence. In 2014, Anno and Studio Khara launched Japan Animator Expo, a series of original net animations made by various directors.
In March 2015, it was announced that Anno will team up with close friend and Gainax cofounder Shinji Higuchi to write and codirect Shin Godzilla, the 2016 reboot of Toho's Godzilla franchise.
Anno has appeared in manga twice, both created by personal acquaintances. His wife, Moyoko Anno, wrote Insufficient Direction, a chronicle of their courtship and marriage and depicting Anno's "true face" as "the founder of the otaku cult". In 2007, a college-age version of him appeared alongside other Gainax founders Hiroyuki Yamaga, Takami Akai, and Toshio Okada in the Kazuhiko Shimamoto manga Aoi Honō. Anno attended Osaka University of Arts with Shimamoto. Aoi Honō was adapted into a live action television drama in 2014, where Anno was played by actor Ken Yasuda.Gunbuster (1988)
Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (1990–1991)
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995–1996)
Evangelion: Death and Rebirth (1997)
The End of Evangelion (1997)
Kare Kano (His and Her Circumstances) (1998)
Love & Pop (1998)
Anime Tenchou (2002)
Ryusei-Kacho (2002) (Short film)
Submarine 707R (2003) (director of the episodes' openings)
Cutie Honey (2004)
Re: Cutie Honey (2004)
Rebuild of Evangelion (2007–)
Shin Godzilla (2016)
Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (1990–1991)
Kare Kano (His and Her Circumstances) (1998)
Mahoromatic: Automatic Maiden (2001)
Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi (2002)
Diebuster (Gunbuster 2; 2004–2006)
Sugar Sugar Rune (2005–2006)
Space Battleship Yamato 2199 (2012)
The Super Dimension Fortress Macross (1982–1983)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Urusei Yatsura (Episode 133) (1984)
Cream Lemon (Episode 4) (1985)
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise (1987)
Crystal Triangle (1987)
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Crimson Wolf (1993)
Macross Plus (1994)
Macross Plus Movie Edition (1995)
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996)
Sugar Sugar Rune (2005–2006)
Return of Ultraman (Parody) (1983), (Ultraman)
Otaku no Video (1991), (A Portrait of an Otaku interview, uncredited)
FLCL (2000), (voice of Miyu-Miyu, uncredited)
Frog River (2002) (bar owner)
Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi (2002), (cameo role in Episode 12, uncredited)
Cutie Honey (2004), (office worker)
The Taste of Tea (2004), (cameo, anime director)
Koi no Mon (Otakus in Love) (2004), (cameo)
Funky Forest (2004), (actor)
Nihon Chinbotsu (2006), (actor)
Welcome to the Quiet Room (Quiet room ni yôkoso) (2007), (doctor)
Death Kappa (2010), (actor)
The Wind Rises (2013), (voice, Jiro Horikoshi, main character)
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (documentary film) (2013)
Kantoku Shikkaku (2011), producer
Rebuild of Evangelion (2007-), executive producer
Japan Animator Expo (2014-2015), executive producer
The Dragon Dentist (2017), executive producer, sound director