Sunday, March 02, 2008

Neon Genesis Evangelion: 1x01 - 1x05

Anime is a mixed bag for me, I absolutely loved Cowboy Bebop, it’s one of my top ten shows all time, and I really enjoyed the followup series, Samurai Champloo. However, there’s a lot of formal tics that bother me when watching animes. But, I’ve heard really good things about Neon Genesis: Evangelion, and hearing there was much debate about the abstract ending put it over the top for me. I love to experience a work that demands interpretation, so I picked up the new DVD set of the series and have watched five episodes. So far, it’s pretty great, but there’s a few things that bother me.

What I really like about the show is the mood. There’s frequently goofy stuff that bothers me, but every episode has at least one sequence that does a fantastic job of creating a feeling. The show uses silence like few others I’ve seen, making these oppressive moments of loneliness that just hang in the air. I’m thinking of Shinji lying in bed, reflecting back on the battle, or the scene with Misato after Shinji’s running away. Even a scene like Rei coming out of the shower, which feels more than a bit exploitative, is saved by the pain and distance that hangs over the scene.

Along with this atmosphere, there’s a lot of moments of fantastic psychedelic spectacle. I’m not as interested in the giant robots themselves as I am in the things they do to the pilots inside. The scenes where Shinji and Rei merge with the pilots are fascinating, with a Cronenberg like dirty, organic feel. The opening credits feature a random appearance of the Kaballah’s tree of life, so I’m hoping there’s more crazy psychedlic metaphysics to come.

What bothers me most about the show is the illogical nature of its premise. I’m sure there’s some justification for why these fourteen year old kids are piloting the ships, and on an extranarrative level, it’s just a genre conceit, but it still bothers me. I think what makes it really troubling is the fact that they still have these kids in school. If these kids really are such valuable assets, wouldn’t they have private tutors, not go off for doofy comedy segments with other school kids? Every school scene takes me out of the story, and the rampant misogyny of those scenes doesn’t help.

If there’s one thing that really bothers me about anime, it’s the constant sexualization of female characters. Rei is supposed to be fourteen, yet we see her wandering around her apartment naked. It would be one thing to just sort of gloss over that, but we’d just seen her in school. It maximizes that dirty old man element of watching the show. I have no problem with showing the female characters as sexual beings, but I don’t like seeing them presented solely as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewing public.

Other than that I really like Rei. I love the idea of her as this victim of scientific experimentation, and the scenes with her and Shinji’s father hint at a potentially complicated relationship. The best way to deal with the premise that fourteen year olds have to pilot these ships is to turn it into an allegory for war. Are these kids so different from the eighteen year olds we’re sending to Iraq? No, and if the show took away their life in the outside world, it would make the allegory more powerful.

Another issue for me is that Shinji is a pretty bland protagonist. He’s sort of a blank slate, constantly numb to the world, and I don’t have a particular stake in him. The other characters are much more interesting, and I find myself wishing they’d spend more time on Shinji’s father and the blond woman.

So, the show’s got a lot of potential right now. The animes I’ve seen all get much better as they go on, so if these are the weak episodes, that bodes well for the future. I’m eager to see this trippy finale as well and find out just how bizarre things get.


nicholas reed said...

Things get VERY bizarre. And often without explanation.

The closest thing I can get to explaining it is that, sometimes, it's like reading The Invisibles, but starting from the middle of volume three and going backwards.

I might be overstating this a little, it's been a few years since I watched the series.

Patrick said...

Sounds interesting. I'm curious to see how crazy stuff will get. The show's got a lot going on already, but I've heard it kicks things up a notch around episode 8, I'm eager to see that happen.

Anonymous said...

Some of your concerns get addressed later on actually... I won't spoil which.

Eva is one of seminal works of art for my teenage years. Just an utter mindfuck that paved the road to Grant Morrison actually.

I actually think Shinji is an interesting lead. I can't think of many self-loathing introverts but so front and center.

And 8 does indeed kick it up a notch. I liken it to the first Death story in Sandman, it's a great series already but then everything just clicks when some new elements are introduced.

I look forward to reading what you think of it.

Patrick said...

The thing that bothers me about Shinji is that I don't really get a sense of how he feels about what he's doing. Perhaps it's a cultural difference, and there's more of a sense of duty over in Japan, but why's he just going along with this insane piloting business? Maybe that's one of the things that's addressed later. I just need that moment where he confronts his dad and is like "Why the hell do you make us do this?"

And I'm intrigued by these Grant Morrison references, I need more mindfucks in my life.

Anonymous said...

Hey there - I'm a fan of your blog and have posted comments here a few time before. I'm so glad you've finally gotten to this series. There are a few points I'd like to make as you watch the rest of this show:

I think that Eva is really the Watchmen of its genre, inasmuch as it embodies all the classic genre tropes while commenting on and subverting them. The primary trope Eva is built around is the "Gundam" plot, that is, the adolescent power fantasy - The hero, a 14 year old prodigy, pilots a giant robot, invariably built by his father, to victory against the forces of evil. What Evangelion does is take this absurd conceit at face value - what would actually happen if you put the fate of the world in the hands of a typical adolescent boy? How do you deal with that kind of stress, and what absurd sort of world do you live in where adults are forced to ask this of children? This aspect of Shinji's plotline seems remarkably parallel to Moore's exploration of the sexual/fetish subtext of superheroics. Although there is an excellent in-story explanation for the use of adolescent pilots, it's quite irrelevant on a metafictional level.

Regarding the sexuality of Rei, it is exploitive, in a way that highlights the background of her character. Sexuality is highly relevant to this series, and in addition to the teen romance angle between the three lead characters, it also comes up with regard to adult relationships (particularly Misato and Ritsuko), allusions to incest (or at least highly oedipal overtones), and even the angels (episodes 20 and 22). Like Shinji, Rei and Asuka's characters comment on (and reject) the depiction of sexuality in anime and anime fandom.

That said, the mind-bending mystical aspects of the series are essentially bullshit; and unlike the Invisibles, are easily the least interest aspect of the show. If you pay attention to them to the exclusion of the character drama, you'll be missing out on a lot.

Anonymous said...

One other thing to pay attention to is the use of genre. The first six episodes set a dark, pensive tone which is then totally forgotten as the next six adopts a romantic comedy aspect so quickly that it will give you whiplash. The shift, however, manages to create an enduring affection for the characters, so that when the series returns to its original mood and later begins to brutally disassemble each character, the results are totally horrifying.

Jacob said...

Arcus is right - don't expect great things from the "mind-bending mystical aspects", because Eva (while something I enjoy) is no Prisoner, Twin Peaks, or Invisibles; there isn't a discernible in-story mythology behind any of it, nor is it used in the service of any particularly coherent philosophical or artistic vision. It's pretty much what you'd guess would happen when a Japanese company starts flinging Biblical and Gnostic references at the wall, devoid of context.

I think the weird, psychedelic aspect of NGE gets a lot of attention because anime fans, who are just as desperate as comic fans for mainstream respectability, seized on it as proof that anime could be "deep" and have serious artistic cred.

But I think they were barking up the wrong tree: for me, Evangelion is undeniably art, but by dint of a clutch of memorable characters, some gorgeous animation and direction, and (as you pointed out) its skillful use of atmosphere. The series does action, low comedy, political intrigue, and a few genuinely chilling bits of horror, and it plays them all to the hilt. The disappointment I feel with the series is that the pieces never really come together into a unified whole, and instead seem to be working at cross purposes.

nicholas reed said...

A lot of the weirder aspects (the Kabbalistic themes, the psychoanalysis, etc.) come from the creator Hideaki Anno. He was doing some very intense therapy, and apparently that's where a good chuk of the series' oddness comes from.

Patrick said...

Interesting, I guess the mystical stuff is more a way of exploring the psychological? Either way, it sounds like there's plenty to look forward to. The characters are definitely growing on me as time goes by, and I'm getting more used to the things that annoyed me early on. So, it should be all smooth sailing from here on.

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