Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Mangaphobia 03: The Movies of Evangelion

Last month, Mangaphobia tried to untangle the convoluted knot that is Neon Genesis Evangelion. It failed. To understand why it failed, check out this incredible easter-egg from the DVD, which helpfully lays it all out! Needless to say, this is not the kind of knot that can be unpicked. This kind of knot requires scissors.
The scissors in question are the various Evangelion films that have come out since, each of which tries to unravel the chaos of the series in different ways. The first two films present an alternative ending to replace the series' last two episodes which, you'll remember, were thrown together after they ran out of time and/or money. The rest of the films (currently three, but I've only seen two) constitute a full reboot of the series, starting the story from scratch. Let's look at those two approaches separately.

The End of Evangelion

Technically, the series' first film is a strange two-part compilation piece called Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth. We won't dwell on that one because the first half (Death) is a re-edited seventy-minute cut of footage from the series, presumably to get newcomers up to speed, and the second half (Rebirth) is just a preview of the first twenty-five minutes of the then-in-production second movie, The End of Evangelion.

The End of Evangelion (which finally drops all mention of noble gases from the title) also splits handily in two - with the first half covering the events leading up to the oft-discussed Third Impact, and the second half dealing with the catastrophe itself. One of these halves is surprisingly good, and the other is a nightmare. In more ways than one.

When the show began grinding to a halt, it was often easy to forget you were watching a giant robot show. About halfway through the series, the Angels stopped being animalistic monsters for the Evas to fight, and were instead often weird floating geometric shapes or fractals that shoot lazors. They looked cool and had some cool powers, but they didn't lend themselves to decent fight-scenes at all. The battles got shorter and less entertaining and the show began to focus on other things instead, like nonsensical lore and Shinji's lack of personality.
So when SEELE inevitably betray and attack NERV, as they were clearly always going to, we've almost forgotten about the mechs. With Rei missing, Shinji (being Shinji) ignoring the sirens and alarms, and Asuka bordering on comatose, the film itself doesn't remind us about the Evas either - all the fighting is between regular troops with maybe a couple of tanks or trucks.
When things finally do kick off - when Asuka flings a battleship across a lake and starts kicking helicopters out of the sky - it's like rain after a drought.

Watching the Evas fight blobby monsters through the series was satisfying, but seeing them pound real military hardware is somehow even more so. Maybe it's the scale, the novelty, or the real-world familiarity; but whatever it is it's awesome and it's my favourite fight in the series.
Then, when Asuka has singlehandedly destroyed all their dudes, SEELE send in their own squad of Evangelions. Nine identical white Evas with wings, broadswords, and freaky grinning lips (there's no longer any pretence that these are machines). And so we get our first battle between equally-matched Evas - there's even a brief swordfight in the middle - and it's as new and thrilling as the fight before it.

The absolute best thing about these battles, though, is that they finally conclude Asuka's character-arc. She started the series compensating for her fear and insecurity with a mask of bravado, but we slowly watched that confidence disintegrate to the point where she could barely control her robot. Then the series just ended, with no payoff for her (or anyone else's) story. Here, at last, we get to see her overcome her problems and finally become a fully rounded character - and a badass one, at that.
Asuka's is by far the most effective, but we also get closure for a couple of the other characters, too. Misato, who until now has dealt with all her problems by either shouting at them or sleeping with them, finally spurs Shinji into action by being honest and open for the first time - treating him as an equal rather than a child. She undermines this slightly by promising him sex afterwards, but it's still character-growth.
Later, we even get a tiny bit of lip-service to show that Gendo has realised and accepted what a monster he's become.
In all three of these cases the characters just flatly state their motivations out loud like they're in a David S. Goyer film. The dialogue is tone-deaf and unnecessary but, because it's driving both the characters and the narrative forward (and because this kind of clarity is so rare in Evangelion), it's incredibly welcome nonetheless.

Then, at exactly the halfway-point, Third Impact happens.

The reason SEELE are attacking NERV in the first place is to ensure that Third Impact begins their way, not Gendo's way. So, who wins? When it does begin, who causes it?
Confusingly, SEELE and Gendo and Shinji's Eva (but not Shinji himself) all seem to initiate Third Impact simultaneously but independently. Gendo's actions seem to maybe be the most significant, but I have no idea why.
How does he start this enormous, worldwide cataclysm, exactly? Why, by groping the pert, naked, underage breast of his wife's clone, of course. He's merged himself with Adam, apparently, so that makes it ok. Rei looks unhappy and lets out a gentle rapey sex moan and then the whole world goes totally mental.

When I say totally mental I mean stuff like this. And this. And particularly this.
There is tonnes of crazy nonsense from this point on, as those pictures should illustrate, but the main important details are that Rei merges with Lilith, who takes Rei's shape and grows to the size of the Moon, then Shinji's Eva becomes both a giant crucifix and a giant tree and also merges with Lilith-Rei, and then everyone melts. Everyone. In the world.
You see, our human bodies are held together by something called an AT-field, which is generated by our soul, and not by the molecular bonds that hold together normal animals and every other form of matter in the universe. Angels and Evas are powerful enough that they can actually project their field (or their pilot's?) for use as a weapon or shield. Oh, and it stands for Absolute Terror field, because why not. When, in the series, Shinji melted in his pilot-seat, that was his AT-field collapsing and that, on a global scale, is what happens now.

This, at last, is what SEELE meant when they talked about the Human Instrumentality Project: the removal of unconscious psychic barriers between individuals and a return to the primordial soup. One enormous sea of souls, with shared experience and emotion; it's the end of pain and suffering and, most of all, loneliness. It's even accompanied by an upbeat, happy song - presumably to show how wonderful and euphoric it is.
It's also utterly demented.

I'll give it this, though: crazy madness it may be, but at least it's clear. We understand what's happening at all times - though NERV's second-in-command does outright narrate most of it to us (how does he even know this stuff?) lest we get totally lost. For perhaps the first time, we clearly and unambiguously understand what is happening in Evangelion, even if we're still not quite sure why it's happening.

What I don't understand is the sudden and jarring use of sexual imagery. There's nothing wrong with using sexual imagery in itself (at least, not if you have a point to make), but when you've been using another type of imagery - say, religious imagery - as strongly and as frequently as this show has, why throw a different and previously unused kind of symbolism in there too? What are you trying to say with that?
I get that giant naked Rei would be giant and naked - that's fine, and it fits the themes of Adam and Lilith and humanity's return to Eden ("Neo-Genesis" is almost right there in the title) - but why does she swallow Shinji's painful-looking Eva-tree into her face-vagina? Why does she have a stomach-vagina and hand-vaginas, for that matter? Why must we demonstrate the breakdown of AT-fields by having her sat astride Shinji, basically her own son, with their bodies merged at the crotch? Why do SEELE's Evas, who for some reason now all have Rei's face, writhe and moan orgasmically as they impale themselves on their spears? Why does Gendo grab her boob?
How does any of this fit with the Biblical myth motif that we've stuck with until now? I want to believe there's a valid reason for it, symbolic or otherwise, but I'm honestly not seeing one. It just feels gratuitous and gross, especially since it's all Rei - a passive, emotionless, child-like sex-doll.

I have heard theories that this unpleasantness is actually intentional; that the show is subverting anime-viewers' desire (perhaps even expectation) for sexualised fanservice. By giving them exactly what they want, but putting it in a highly disturbing context, it makes those viewers uncomfortable and disgusted in themselves.
That's the theory. My only response is to quote Yahtzee Croshaw: "Talk about it being 'ironic' all you want, but that doesn't change the fact that someone's rubbing themselves off to it even as we speak."

Fittingly enough, The End of Evangelion opens with an infamous scene where Shinji masturbates over Asuka while she's unconscious and injured in the hospital.
Many people use this scene as the go-to example of everything that's wrong with anime. Personally, I have no problem with it. It's icky, absolutely, but it's a very intentional character beat - showing us that Shinji is, in his own words, "so fucked up".
What I do have a problem with - what is an example, for me, of everything wrong with anime - is that it took us twenty-six episodes to reach this point. That's roughly thirteen hours with this character and, after all that, our best and only understanding of him is that he's pretty messed up.
Even worse is that, after a further ninety minutes, that's still the best we've got.

It doesn't look that way, though. It really seems like Shinji might have an arc this time, like Asuka and Misato before him. Unfortunately, this potential arc is delivered via the same introspective dream-bollocks the series wasted so much of our time with. As Shinji is absorbed by Lilith, his consciousness merges with Rei's and they talk over his problems. Yet again.
Despite the movie's increased budget, these dream sequences still devolve into the same characters-talking-on-a-minimalist-background that the series ended with. We also get incoherent scenes from Shinji's childhood (maybe), a montage of crayon drawings and the backs of animation cels, a bizarre fight with Asuka in their flat and, worst of all, a sequence of live-action clips of real people going about their lives. That live-action sequence is actually rage-inducing, as Shinji and Rei have an entirely nonsensical voiceover discussion about the nature of dreams that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything else in the film. Then, somehow, this navel-gazing causes giant-Lilith-Rei's neck to explode and she bleeds all over the Moon. Oh there you are, obnoxious ambiguity! We missed you.

Yet, tedious and annoying as this stuff is, Shinji does actually seem to be making headway as a character. He starts this psychoanalysis stuff unable to face life as an individual - it's all misery and pain, and everyone hates him. This comes to a head when he and imaginary Asuka have a weird argument that's mostly non-sequiturs, and he ends up strangling her. This is what drives Rei to make all the humans melt because, clearly, they just can't get along.
But then, after that insufferable live-action interlude, Shinji, straddled by his mother's naked clone child, begins to realise that life without individual people is no life at all; that his identity is defined by relationships to others. Without the potential for conflict, there is no potential for joy.
It's a simple, obvious point, but it's the closest this pretentious cartoon ever comes to being profound.

One interesting thing, for me at least, is that this is the complete opposite of the point the series was making. The original ending seemed to show Shinji embracing Instrumentality - welcomed into a communal dream-world by people both alive and dead. Here he rejects the process, choosing to remain an individual. I'm not sure what this change means exactly, but I thought it was interesting enough to mention.

With some basic truths finally figured out, Shinji's Eva bursts free from Lilith-Rei's eye (her normal eye, not her forehead vagina-eye) bringing an abrupt end to Third Impact. The giant Rei begins to fall apart, the souls go free, and Shinji's body reforms itself in Earth's new primordial sea. As he floats to the surface he has a positive life-affirming conversation with the soul of his dead mother (I've stopped trying to understand what, who or where her soul is at this point). Showing a hitherto unseen level of self-awareness, Shinji tells her that he'll always have doubts and fears about being alive, "But that's just stating the obvious, over and over."
Honestly, Shinji says that. Finally, this character seems to have evolved. He found some of the answers he was after, he figured out his crippling insecurity, he got closure with his mother, and he decided life is worth living. Character development! I may not have liked much of the fourteen hours it took us to get here, but I'm willing to give it a pass because, in the end, we did complete the main character's arc. There was a point to all this. That, at least, is something.

Except, of course, that the film's not over. There's one last scene, later, as Shinji wakes up on a beach of the new sea, with the remains of Rei's giant head decomposing in the background. He's lying beside an unconscious Asuka, who must also have reformed herself from the goo. Then, in a sequence designed to mirror the opening masturbation scene (random shots of the scenery over Shinji's quiet grunting) he strangles her. Just as he did in the dream, before he figured himself out. Then, when she unexpectedly moves, he stops and just cries pathetically to himself. Then Asuka calls him disgusting. Because he is.
Why does he do these things? What reason has this film given us for him to do them? There's only one answer we have: because he's pretty messed up. This is not a new, less insecure Shinji; it's exactly the same confused mess of a character from the start of the film. Which means that, ultimately, this is the same confused mess of a cartoon that it always was.

With that, all goodwill that The End of Evangelion earned evaporates. It gives us a great first half, with some of the best action and character-beats of the entire series - it even clarifies some of the show's more obscure loose ends - but then falls back into the same cycle of pretentious, repetitive nonsense. There's some imaginative imagery but, ultimately, it's just a meaningless parade of giant white boobs.
This film dealt with enormous, life-changing, world-shattering events. And Shinji learnt nothing from them. It seems Evangelion learnt nothing from them, either.

Rebuild of Evangelion

Ten years after the disappointing end of End of, Evangelion got rebooted. Still developed and created by much the same team that worked on the original version, Rebuild of Evangelion would be a series of four films that would retell the entire story in a shorter form with better production values. I was planning to avoid it - this franchise has wasted more than enough of my time - but, since the whole point of Mangaphobia is to give this stuff the benefit of the doubt, I clenched my teeth, downed a pint, and watched it anyway.

At the time of writing, the first three Rebuild movies have been released, but I have only been able to get hold of the first two. The first film is either called Evangelion: 1.0 or Evangelion: 1.11 - both titles are used and I don't know what the difference is - both with the subtitle You Are (Not) Alone. Because it just wouldn't be Evangelion without a title that doesn't mean anything.
1.1 is essentially the first five or six episodes of the series crammed into ninety minutes, with a few minor design changes (see: Lilith) and improved visuals. There's more CGI, for one thing, and some of the backgrounds are improved. It's basically the same, though, with the majority of it either using or possibly tracing the same animation.
I won't dwell on it, except to say that it's weird being reminded how great this show was at the beginning, back when it was fresh and interesting and full of promise. Maybe it's because this is streamlined into movie format, losing all the unnecessary stuff, or maybe it was always this good. Either way, the mysteries haven't gone stale and the characters haven't started annoying us yet. I still hated Shinji, of course, but that was residual hate from my prior knowledge, not because of anything he actually does in the film.
1.00 is good, in other words.

Then I watched Evangelion: 2.22 (or maybe 2.0) You Can (Not) Advance and, from the very beginning, it's clear that the game has changed.
We open with not just a sequence we've never seen before, but a character we've never seen before using an Eva we've never seen before to fight an Angel we've never seen before in a location we've never seen before. After a first film that stuck so close to the series, 2.20 is very very different. There are a few beats and events that we recognise, but they play out nothing like they did originally. This thing is very much its own beast.

It's not just different in the events of its story, either - its entire approach to telling that story is different. For instance: I now understand Second Impact. If you read my first post you'll understand just how big a deal that is. I don't yet know exactly what happened (in fact, what happened in Rebuild seems substantially different to what happened in the series) but I finally understand the significance and meaning of the event.

Second Impact was the literal wrath of God.

Whatever form the events took (the oceans turned to blood, for one thing) they left humanity with absolutely no doubt that God is real and that He is vengeful. This is something that becomes apparent while Misato says Grace and eats her lunch, and that unassuming little scene explains so damn much. This is a world where religion is an accepted fact - where it would influence everything, from science (souls, AT-fields) to business (SEELE, NERV) to politics (the Eva project, Instrumentality). This is a world where it actually makes sense to follow the instructions of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It explains everything.
Finally, after sixteen hours of dancing around its own premise and never giving an inch, Evangelion just hands us the information we need to put everything together, and it all suddenly clicks into place.

This was such a shock to the system that I wasn't really sure what was going on any more - and it was far from the only shock. Rei was smiling and showing emotion; Asuka was openly expressing her feelings; Gendo was acting like a human being; Shinji was displaying social-skills and even had friends! What the hell was I watching?!

The friends in question are a couple of boys from school, who Shinji saved from an Angel in the first film. He saved them in the series, too, but then one of them was almost immediately involved in a horrible event which almost killed him, and we never saw either of them again. In this film we actually get to see Shinji and these guys hanging out and having fun - Shinji actually has a personality, it seems, and he's beginning to come out of his shell.
The same horrible event does occur here, too, but it doesn't happen to a minor side-character - it happens to Asuka. This comes just as the three pilots are really starting to connect and bond, so the shock of the event, and its effect on Shinji, are far more powerful and earned than they were in the series. In both versions, it causes Shinji to quit - but where, in the series, he returned to NERV apparently on a whim, in Rebuild he makes a very conscious decision to go back and help Rei. It's driven by character choice, not by story requirement.
2.02 ends, incredibly, with Shinji Ikari personally causing Third Impact through sheer force of will, driven by his overwhelming determination to save Rei. This is pretty much the polar opposite of the passive introvert sociopath he's always been until now. In End, I considered it progress when Shinji learned the simplest of life-lessons, but now here he is reshaping the world through his own agency and choices.
I can't believe I used to hate this guy!

Evangelion: 2.202 is a revelation. It's what Evangelion always should have been. This cartoon always had such potential, but the show just left it there to stagnate. 2.2 is what that potential looks like when it's actually realised.
The characters are multi-layered and relatable, neither of which were true before, and they progress and change along actual arcs. Those arcs are then intertwined with the main arc of the story, so that the drama is always personal and engaging, and we always feel meaningful stakes. There's perhaps less fights - the Angels are mostly of the weird-geometric-shape variety - but the action is always informed by character and the final battle is spectacular and huge. It still has mysteries and weird mythology, but they're less invasive and, thanks to our better understanding of the world and our newfound investment in the characters, we find them more engaging. Actually, because of the new girl and her unknown agenda, even the mysteries are grounded in character.
After getting so much wrong for so long, it's ridiculous how much this movie gets right.

It's barely one month since I started Mangaphobia, and already this project is paying off. Left to my own devices, I would have stopped watching after The End of Evangelion and never looked back. But, because of the pledge I made on this blog, I forced myself onwards and actually found a smart, engaging anime that I really enjoyed. It's a start!

I'm now completely torn on whether or not to hunt down a copy of Evangelion: 3.?! You Can (Not) Redo. On the one hand, the Rebuild series seems to be blossoming into something fairly special but, on the other hand, I've been burnt by this franchise before. Twice.
It can't be long until Shinji starts repeating his issues ad nauseam and Rei starts growing extraneous vaginas, and I don't want to be there when that happens. But, on yet another hand, the preview shows Asuka looking badass with an eyepatch, and I would very much like to be there when that happens.

I think, rather than watching it now and having to write the third Evangelion post in a row, I'll hold off watching the third movie until the fourth one, Evangelion: Final, is released and I can watch them both together. I hope they change that title, though, because It Does (Not) Conform.

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