Friday, March 14, 2008

Neon Genesis Evangelion: 'Don't Be' (1x22DC)

I bought End of Evangelion yesterday, but I want to hold off on watching it until I get a chance to see the four director’s cut versions of the series episodes, and watch the last two episodes of the show one more time. I watched those episodes so fast, and they’re so dense, it’s great to see them a second time and unpack them a bit more. So far, I’ve seen the director’s cuts of “He was Aware that he was Still a Child” and “Don’t Be.”

“Don’t Be” is one of the best episodes of the series, and really benefits from the added director’s cut scenes. What struck me initially, as I mentioned in the previous post, was the use of Handel’s “Messiah,” the visual splendor of the scene. What struck me this time was just how dire Asuka’s plight is. Part of that is the additional scenes, which make something that was already pretty awful much worse.

Asuka’s central issue is that she doesn’t want to be a child, she suffered the death of her mother as a young girl, and decided that she’s not going to cry anymore, she’s going to be an adult and not deal with those emotions anymore. So, she sinks herself into piloting the Eva and creates an entire self identity around being the best Eva pilot in the world. This notion of her self is gradually destroyed as the series proceeds because Shinji keeps getting better and better, it becomes clear that he is the ‘chosen one.’

Writing about the start of the series, I complained about the random gratuitous nudity, but the scene where she stands naked by the bath, talking about how much she hates Shinji doesn’t feel gratuitous at all. The entire episode is about stripping away the layers she puts up to guard herself from society and finding the raw nerves underneath. No longer the center of attention, no longer “the best,” she finds herself hating everyone around her, resenting the entire power structure that brought her to this place.

The characters in the show remind me of child stars, they’re all thrust into positions of power beyond their years, and struggle to define themselves outside of their profession. Kids shouldn’t have to work like this, they shouldn’t have to narrow their identities to this one facet of their personality, but that’s what happens. Asuka has always loved her work, but now she finds two utterly joyless people surmounting her dominance. They don’t want to be the best, but they’re beating her, and that kills her. I love how raw Asuka’s emotion gets in the scene by the bathtub, and the cut to Misato, who understands how she feels, but can do nothing.

Asuka is a victim of the fact that she wants to be like an adult, but isn’t physically or emotionally mature enough to function on that level. This is conveyed wonderfully in the episode’s opening scene, where she and Kaji lie together before she goes to Japan. Her attraction to Kaji has always been treated as something a little more than a teen girl’s crush, the show is aware that she is very emotionally invested in him, and it’s killing her to watch him go with Misato instead of her. She doesn’t quite understand that it’s not possible for him to be with her, and I think she’s more in love with the idea of him than with the actual man, if he actually was to sleep with her, as she wants, I think she’d feel uncomfortable and wrong about it.

But, she’s not able to deal with all these conflicted feelings. She feels so alone throughout the series, and just wants someone to love her, but no one will, and that makes her hate them. In the Kaji scene, she throws herself at him, and rips open her shirt and yells at him. For her, desire and violence are wrapped up in a mess of emotions. This all ties back to that moment when we see the child her looking tough, saying she won’t cry. Every thing she does later on is an attempt to control her life, and never become a victim like she was in the moment when she finds her mother hanging. If she tells someone how she feels, she’s opening herself up to potentially feeling like she did in that moment, when someone else’s action absolutely destroyed her. If she remains in control of every situation, she won’t have to suffer like that again.

That’s what makes the psychic assault on her so brutal. As they say in NERV, this is her last chance to prove herself, to reclaim her role as lead EVA pilot. Shinji is grounded and she can prove that she doesn’t need him. It’s very rare that you’ll hear someone say “this is her last chance” in a piece of fiction, and then have the person totally fail, but that’s what happens to Asuka.

The beings that attack the world are called angels, and in these later episodes, they do seem to have a kind of divine power. Kaworu doesn’t seem evil, he acts with purpose, and the use of “Messiah” to back the sequence gives this scene a similar sense of God himself intruding into the world. But, why would this divine invasion be so sinister? One could argue that the angels come to Earth to bring about human instrumentality. They are agents of this end, at which point the notion of individual identity will end and everything will merge. I’ll ponder this more after watching the last two episodes again.

But, clearly there is some menace since contact with the angel totally destroys Asuka. All these psychological interludes involve characters struggling to deal with the multiple aspects of themselves. It was made clear when Shinji was the in the angel and he talks about the different Shinjis that exist in various peoples’ minds. Shinji is someone who’s very concerned about pleasing others, and has something of a void at his core. His issue is that he doesn’t know himself, and his experience in the last two episodes finally helps him discover the essence of himself, separated from others’ perceptions and his roles in the world.

Asuka’s problem is that there are many versions of herself within her mind, and she can’t make the ones she hates go away. The image she wants to have of herself is the badass number one pilot who doesn’t need anyone or anything. Her entire psychological tumble begins when Misato tells Shinji that he’s “number one.” It boosts Shinji’s ego, and Misato doesn’t realize how much that hurts Asuka. Asuka puts up a brave face for the world, but inside she’s barely hanging on.

The moment I love most in her mental breakdown is when she’s raging about how much she hates Shinji and she says something like “Why won’t he die, why won’t he die, why won’t he hold me?” That final statement killed me because it’s such a raw emotion right on the surface, she just wants someone to love her, but she can’t find the words to express that. When she kisses Shinji, she says it’s “because she’s bored,” but it’s more about wanting someone to connect with her, so that she’s not alone for just a little bit. It’s played as comedy then, but Shinji’s refusal to acknowledge that he liked it makes her take back that gesture and ridicule him again.

The tragedy is Shinji probably thinks that Asuka hates him. He doesn’t think that anyone would want him, and that’s why he refuses to emotionally open up to her, to hold her. He thinks she’d just laugh at him. In retrospect, one of the most powerful moments of the series is Shinji moving to kiss Asuka when she’s asleep, and stopping when she whispers “Mom…” Shinji should have seen how sad she was, and tried to reach out to her, but he’s scared. They’re both so scared, and that cuts them off from each other.

It’s no coincidence that this all occurs after she has her period. She is at an awkward period where she’s not quite grown up, she feels like she’s grown up, but the world doesn’t see her that way. The scene, and particularly its aftermath, are played like a rape. This is an example of how to use the genre well, her robot is an extension of herself, it’s invaded and she suffers because of it. It’s easier to watch this story than it would be to watch her getting raped, but the effect is essentially the same. She is defiled and the confident person she was is essentially destroyed, never to return in the series.

It’s notable that she says she doesn’t want to have kids anyway. She wants to remain free of attachment, and fears putting someone else through what she’s been through. So, the period is a curse to her, something she hates suffering through, something Shinji doesn’t have to suffer through. It makes her weak, and being weak is her greatest fear.

The entire mental assault sequence is a tour de force piece of filmmaking. The flash cuts of words and concepts, the looping images and surreal visuals all work to really immerse you in this hellish experience she’s going through. The story is told through visuals, I love the fact that we never have a scene where Asuka comes right out and tells people how she’s feeling. She never does, no one else knows all the problems she’s got, but we do because we’ve been in her mind. It’s a perfect example of show, don’t tell filmmaking.

In the end, Asuka is saved by Rei, which kills her even more. She hates Rei because Rei does everything right, she seems to have no internal conflict, she just goes about her business. Asuka’s red outfit is appropriate because she’s the most fiery pilot. She hates Shinji and Rei because what they’re doing seems so easy to them, there’s no evidence of internal conflict. Rei is ready to do anything for them, and Asuka just doesn’t get it. Asuka used to be the best, but she can never be adored by Ikari like Rei is.

Does Asuka really love Shinji? I don’t think so, I think she definitely has feelings for him, and I think she wants him to care for her. She’s jealous of Misato already, wondering what Kaji sees in Misato that he doesn’t see in her. The additional scene in this episode where she sees Shinji and Rei talking is critical because it makes clear how both jealous and troubled she is. She sees the two of them together and realizes she can never be like that, it hurts her that Shinji would be with Rei instead of her.

She calls Rei a puppet, which is accurate, and ties in with the image of the doll her mother had earlier. Asuka can’t live up to that doll, which never talks back, never cries. She sees Rei as the same as that doll, beloved by the higher ups, who prefer her easy compliance to the messiness of flesh and blood.

The episode ends with Asuka sitting on a balcony alone, watching her Eva returned to its dock, never to rise again. Shinji is there, and she rails on against Rei, furious that she was saved “by her!” Subconsciously, she wants Shinji to come over there and comfort her, to hold her and save her from being alone, but she has put up this wall, and Shinji is too scared to go to her. They are separated by that piece of caution tape, and Asuka will remain alone.

Watching this series makes it clear how much American series put the emotions and motivations of the characters at the forefront. In both this series and Cowboy Bebop, the characters don’t seem very developed at first, they’re all surface cool posturing. But, as time passes, we realize that those surface personas are very much designed to hide the pain underneath. When you’re doing a show that’s commissioned at 26 episodes, it’s a lot easier to do that. You can have clear arcs, make people change, and also be sure from the beginning that you’ll get a chance to tell the first story. In America, it’s such a struggle to get a show on the air, it’s not good practice to be like, watch fifteen episodes, then you’ll get to know this character. In most American series, people are out there from the beginning, with their conflicts in place, and they wind up playing out the same conflicts over and over again.

I wouldn’t say this show features character evolution, it’s more like character excavation. We find out how people became the way they are through these intense psychological experiences. Compare this to something like Lost, and the difference is massive. Lost seems to think showing one experience in the past explains how a person became who they are in the present, here, the actual experiences are wrapped up in psychological perception and other moments throughout time, all crossing over into the mesh that is a single human mind.

Asuka’s an immensely complicated character, but doesn’t look that way on the surface. It’s not until we get into her mind and realize that what could be taken for shallow cool posturing is actually a deeply wounded person who desperately wants someone to love her, even as she pushes away anyone who would.


Brandon said...

Hm. I stumbled upon this while trying to find a translated script of the DC of this episode, but it's really a very deep and perceptive analysis. I'm particularly fond of the comparison to Asuka's mother's doll and Rei. Kudos, it was an interesting read.

Patrick said...

Thanks Brandon. It's a really amazing show, and so conducive to analysis. I've got to do a rewatch soon and delve deeper.

Sergei Kolobashkin said...

Amazing writing.