Thursday, March 13, 2008

Neon Genesis Evangelion: 1x20 - 1x26 (An Initial Reaction)

So, I am now finished with Evangelion. I watched the last five episodes of the series in a row yesterday, a dazzling, trippy experience that ended with the two instant classic, frustrating and brilliant final episodes. I read that Anno had a mental breakdown halfway through the show, and you can see the change, the overall narrative fades into the background, a mess of ideas and themes that never quite coalesce into a satisfying narrative. They’re replaced by an intense examination of the characters’ psyches. I loved it, I think the last two episodes are some of the most powerful psychologically subjective filmmaking I’ve ever seen, and the series on a whole is absolutely brilliant. It was an at times shaky start, but the last half of the show is as strong as anything I’ve seen.

Episode 21 gives us a bunch of backstory on the characters and completes the show’s shift in focus from its teen pilots to the older characters. There’s three generations involved here, Gendo Ikari and his era have left major scars on both Misato and Ritsuko and the younger pilot generation. At first, I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the backstory stuff, it lacked the psychological depth of the subjective interludes we’d been seeing over the past few episodes. However, as we got further into it, the twisted nature of all that was happening became clear and it got pretty interesting.

When I first watched it, I read it that Rei was a clone of Shinji’s mother, created by Gendo after she’d died. Her mysterious appearance as a ‘daughter of his friend,’ plus the wonderfully twisted nature of that idea made me think it. At this point, I still can’t tell you exactly what Rei was, but it appears she was actually some kind of clone, possibly created from the angel DNA, an early experiment by Gendo. But, was some of his mother in there too? I think it makes sense, both thematically and from what we see of Ikari’s relationship with her elsewhere in the series.

My favorite scene in the episode is the incredibly harsh moment where young Rei tells Ritsuko’s mother she’s “an old hag.” Ikari is so utterly devoid of humanity, he would use this little girl to mess with the woman he got tired of fucking.

The show does a great job of creating iconic images and cycling through them as the series goes on. The chalk outline of her body is one of these, a warning to later generations not to mess with Gendo Ikari. Almost all the episodes in the latter half of the show start off solid, but unspectacular, then kick up their game in the second half with a dazzling series of moments that leaves me wowed. Every episode in this run, and the second half of the show in general, had something that awed me, and that’s a testament to just how bold and exciting the filmmaking was. The story had interesting twists, but the real enjoyment came from the characters and the way their mental states were portrayed. Anno does a great job of making these characters feel totally real and relatable, despite the fact that they’re caught up in this crazy robot-angel war.

The flashback episode also features some interesting stuff with young Misato and Ritsuko. However, the question that’s been vexing me since the first few episodes remains, is Ritsuko in love with Misato? So much of the show is telling me she is, the way she behaves towards her both in those flashbacks and in scenes like the driving scene in episode 20, where she says Misato has no shame for going to be with a man once Shinji’s out of the Eva, but who’s she to talk?

So, the revelation that Ritsuko was sleeping with Ikari came out of nowhere for me. I can understand the desire to have the sins of the mother repeated with the daughter, but it just didn’t feel right. I thought that Ikari was sleeping with Rei, the fourteen year old clone of his dead wife! Things are twisted, perhaps the director’s cut versions of 21-24, or End of Evangelion will give me a definitive answer on the issue. But, there’s just too much there for me to say I’m reading a lesbian subtext into it that’s non-existent. Maybe she’s sleeping with Ikari as part of her desire to both be like her mother, and have power within the organization. She hated her mother, and yet she becomes her in every way.

So much of the show’s final episodes are consumed in this weird Freudian angst that plagues all the characters. In Episode 20, there’s a radio broadcast that discusses the “oral stage,” in which a man wants a woman who’s like his mother in every way, except we can sleep with her. This is woven in with Misato and Ritsuko’s dialogue for a scene that’s pretty tricky to view with subtitles. The oral stage concept is clearly tied to what almost all the characters are experiencing, particularly Shinji who has a weird relationship with a bunch of mother figures.

That same episode features a strange hallucination in which Shinji retreats into the Eva, and seems to go back into the womb and meet his mother in Heaven before being birthed out again. I’m sure it bothered a lot of viewers, but I love the fact that the show essentially abandons trying to construct any kind of coherent mythology around the angels and Evas, and instead turns the whole thing into an examination of these characters’ minds and the damage within. There’s less overt dramatic tension, but more emotional engagement for me. In a way, the end of the show is like climbing into our own Eva and merging with the characters, experiencing the world like they do, and finding out that their issues and mental workings are quite similar to ours.

I’m going to delve deeper into the exact happenings of Episodes 21-24 after I watch the director’s cut versions of them. There’s so much in these episodes, it was impossible to process it all in one viewing. Let me just discuss two sequences from those episodes that absolutely owned. The first is Asuka’s failed battle against the angel. She walks out there to battle the angel and all of a sudden Handel’s “Messiah” hits on the soundtrack, a beam of light cuts through her and we’re plunged into her mind. I was horrified at what was happening to her, but the sequence on the whole is dazzling. I felt like I was watching a Kubrick movie, with the juxtaposition of this joyous classical music and the violent psychological destruction.

Asuka is essentially raped by the angel, he drags up all the bad memories in her head, and leaves her there to suffer in the Eva. It’s hard to watch her sitting alone afterwards, talking about how he “defiled” her. As the series continues, she becomes completely ineffectual, and the last we see of her, she’s in some kind of coma, her spirit broken.

The other moment that really dazzled me, happened in “The Beginning of the End.” This episode introduces the final angel, or is he the Fifth Child? Or are they the same thing in the end? Things get weird when Kaworu makes a pass at Shinji. This raises some interesting questions about Shinji. He rejects Kaworu, but not before agreeing to take a bath with him, but he snaps back at Misato when she reaches out to comfort him.

I’m unclear what both her intentions were in that moment, and what his interpretation of her intentions was. Was she just trying to take his hand, or did she have something more in mind? She wanted to comfort Shinji, and her statement after, asking if he’s “afraid of women” makes it seem like she had more in mind than just a touch on the hand. I imagine these are the kind of questions that have been pondered countless times since the show aired.

Anyway, Kaworu takes control of the second Eva, and moves down to find Lilith, with Shinji in pursuit in Unit 01. The whole thing is scored by “Ode to Joy” which lends the scene this operatic, absurd, brilliant quality. Again, I was feeling Kubrick’s spirit hovering around the sequence. The Evas descend and the universe moves closer to its end. Knowing that the last two episodes were some kind of surreal, mental piece, I was expecting them to reach Adam and destroy the universe, so the tension was really high.

But, visually the sequence is absolutely standout. Few images are as brilliant as Kaworu hovering in the air as the two Evas battle behind him. It was over the top and brilliant, particularly during that audacious minute long pause with no movement at all, just Shinji holding Kaworu in his hand. Anno and co. really outdid themselves with these last few episodes. Every episode had an instantly iconic image, and throughout there was a lot of formal and visual experimentation that generally paid great dividends.

Kaworu made a big impact in his brief appearance on the show, mainly because unlike every other character floating around, he seemed generally at peace with himself. He seeks Adam, finds out that Adam isn’t there, and has no particular problem being put to death. Now, I consider myself a pretty adept film viewer, but I was one step behind for much of the episode. Luckily, I had read an issue of Lucifer a couple of weeks ago which discussed the concept of Lilith, the first wife of Adam, who he rejected, prompting her to go out and form some kind of demon race known as the Lilim. So, this Lilith seems to be tied to that. However, how this figures in the overall picture of things I’m not quite sure yet. I’ve got to see the episodes again, and End of Eva, before I can more accurately assess things.

But, I shall still scratch the surface of those last two episodes. Closing out a TV series is a tricky thing, just look at the fact that they required another movie to end things here. Obviously I’m looking forward to that film, but I think this ending does a great job of bringing things to a satisfying close. The problem with an ending is that it’s arbitrary, the only ending in life is death, that can make for a satisfying series closer, just look at the all time classic finale of Cowboy Bebop, but it’s not for everyone.

The finales I love most are the ones that go out media res, with questions still up in the air and something left to ponder. It may be frustrating that we’ll never know exactly what happened to Agent Cooper after the last episode of Twin Peaks, but I’d rather have that kind of final burst of energy capping things off than a traditional closer. Much as I love The Wire, the finale never surprised me, it was what I was expected, a solid conclusion to the story, nothing more, nothing less. It probably helped that I was going in expecting a psychological experience, not a narrative conclusion, but I really loved the episode.

It reminded me a bit of The Prisoner’s odd finale, but taken to a whole different level. The last episode of The Prisoner is a powerful piece of surreal storytelling, but it’s not at the level of this work. I can’t think of any other film that is so totally enmeshed both in the characters’ brains and in the process of self examination.

The use of title cards is really interesting, a device that turns the episode into a psychological examination, both for the character and the viewer. I think you almost have to bring your own life into it for it to work, to think about how you relate to the issues the characters are engaged with. People who are totally happy with themselves and their lives probably won’t have much to relate to, but I think there are very few of those viewers out there. The rest of us can engage with the characters’ struggles, even if most people aren’t as desperately troubled as this bunch.

I’m going to delve more into the episode tomorrow. There’s so much in there, it deserves a thorough examination to make sure everything is covered. And, tomorrow I’m also going to check around the city and try to find a copy of End of Evangelion. I hear the Death and Rebirth movie isn’t worth watching though? Is that the case or is there something of note in there? How about the director’s cut versions of 25 and 26?


nicholas reed said...

Death and Rebirth is essentially a recap of the series plus the first half of End of Evangelion. You don't really need to watch it if you've seen the series.

End of Eva is amazing though. And leaves you with just as many questions as it answers.

Anonymous said...

The use of music and silence in this series is really incredible, isn't it? The title cards in the last few episodes reminded me vividly of "October: Ten Days that Shook the Word", by Sergei Eisenstein. He referred to the technique as "the kino fist".

End of Evangelion is basically a giant "fuck you" to the fan base that wasn't happy with the series' experimental ending. I personally found it totally superfluous; a crass parody of what had come before.

Patrick said...

Conflicting messages on End of Eva, I'll judge for myself and report back once I see it. I don't need 'answers' for what happens because I think the show was never really about giant robots fighting, it was about the people involved in the story, and I think their arcs are resolved well. Hearing about them before hand, I thought the last two episodes would be an out of the blue shift in tone and style, but they felt very natural coming out of what we'd just seen.

It's certainly more out there than what had come before, but it's just going further into that place, not going to some entirely new place.

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