Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion

The End of Evangelion is a really srange, ambitious and powerful film. It’s not an easy film, even compared to the series at its most abstract, but it’s a truly great piece of art. I’m not sure it needed to exist, it adds a lot of material and takes away some of the power of the emotionally focused two part finale. But, at the same time it has so much amazing stuff, I’m glad it exists. I need another viewing before I can really delve into the film, but I’ll throw my first impressions out there, and start the process of unpacking the film.

The film begins with a strange live action sequence. I’m not sure what the deal was with this, if it was added for the DVD, or what it’s significance is. There are untranslated Japanese titles on screen, and I thought it might be an ad for another movie. But, the same visual style returns in the life action sequences later in the film, so it’s in there for a reason. I’m not sure quite what that reason is though.

From there we segue to a scene that announces pretty quickly this will be a different experience from the TV series, a guilt ridden Shinji yells at a comatose Asuka, then masturbates over her comatose body. The best moments of both the series and the film cut so deep into the characters’ minds that you feel kind of uncomfortable being there, in a place that’s usually secret. This scene is a great example of that, as viewers we shouldn’t be here, but we are, watching Shinji at his worst.

It’s a pretty bold way to open the film, I don’t think you’ll see too many American movies starting off like that. After watching the film, I was thinking how avant garde and crazy it was, how strange it is that this film would be hugely popular and successful in Japan. I think part of it is cultural differences, it’s very rare that you’d get something so psychologically raw in a big American blockbuster. The only big film I’ve seen that hits these same kind of beats is the first two Matrix movies, Reloaded in particular. Both verge on avant garde, while dealing with issues of human psychology and identity. But, they’re both safely ensconced in the world of sci-fi, while this movie exists on the bleed between genre narrative and real psychology. The focus is on universal emotions, not the robots.

The comatose masturbation scene is put there to set up the guilt and depression that’s plaguing Shinji. He is unable to really talk to Asuka, to tell her how he feels, so he sees this as a perfect opportunity to take advantage of her sexually. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me opened with a TV being smashed, a sign that this wasn’t the TV series, the wank over Asuka serves the same purpose.

I see a lot of similarities between this film and Fire Walk With Me. For one, End of Eva may supplant FWWM as the most difficult film to follow, what with an entire series piled on top of its already abstract narrative. And, in each case, the film takes a darker turn than the series that preceded it, creating a really dark vision that rips its characters to shreds. They are both brilliant, challenging films, films that are frequently hard to watch. In each case, the films shift seamlessly between abstract fantasy elements and very real psychological trauma.

The first half of this movie is devoted to showing what was going on out in the real world during episode 25 of the series. It shows the full versions of scenes we got glimpses of, like Asuka underwater in the EVA, as well as Misato and Ritsuko’s deaths. It’s closer to an early episode of EVA, with the focus back on giant robot action. I’ll admit I was a little worried that we wouldn’t get any of the psychological stuff in the film, but it was still very cool to watch NERV get invaded. The whole sequence has a powerfully apocalyptic quality, with everyone knowing they’re about to die, and struggling to find a way to do so with dignity.

Two scenes really stand out from the first half of the film. One is Misato dragging Shinji through the complex, trying to get him to the EVA. He’s so completely broken at this point, she lifts his arm and it just falls back down to the ground. He has no will left. Along their journey, we get some badass action moments for Misato. I particularly like the scene where she rushes down the hallway gunning down guards to save Shinji. These faceless guards are like a plague on the complex, they can resist, but it will fall eventually.

For Misato, it all leads up to the moment where she has to convince Shinji to get back in the EVA. She’s always been a hybrid of mother and girlfriend for him, never moreso than in those last moments. After treating him like a child and carrying him along, she treats him like an adult and kisses him with “a grown-up kiss,” promising to do the rest when he gets back.

The scene raises the question of what Misato’s motivations are, and how Shinji feels about it. Earlier in the show, we saw her try to comfort Shinji with physical affection, to Shinji’s horror. Does she see herself as the hot older woman he’d be happy to sleep with? My reading of it is that Shinji is attracted to her, but he also sees some of his mother in her, and that freaks him out. The same applies to Rei, he’s caught in this weird place where everything seems to tie back to his mother. He can’t grow up quite yet since every time he goes back in the EVA, it’s like going back into the womb.

For Misato, I see the kiss as a last act of desperation. She just wants Shinji to go back into action and get out of his depression. So, she tries to do what she can, give him an incentive to return. She is able to stand until he leaves, then the door closes and she collapses to the ground, dead.

The other scene from the first half I loved was Asuka’s rebirth. The last time we saw her in the series, she was underwater in the EVA, apparently totally broken. So, it’s nice to see her surge back and get one last shining moment. The notion of the EVA as womb has been implicit in a lot of the series, Gendo apparently put a lot of Yui into Shinji’s EVA, and a part of Asuka’s mother found her way into Unit 02. I’m unclear whether this was meant to be taken literally, like her mother’s soul was always there, or if it was more of a metaphor, like Asuka found a piece of her mother’s soul in herself. Either way, I love the image of the EVA underwater, seemingly in a womb.

I wrote earlier that I admired the show for leaving the giant robot battles behind to focus on character psychology, but there is still something satisfying about watching robots beat the shit out of stuff, and Asuka’s battle with the other EVAs is as satisfying an action sequence as I’ve seen in the series. For a moment, she reclaims the fury and power she held at the beginning of the show, and in a glorious burst of blood and violence, she is alive.

I’ve been reading a bunch online about the show, and a lot of people seem to find Asuka an annoying character. I could see why, but she’s easily my favorite of the main gang. Shinji gains a lot of psychological depth over the course of the show, but I think Asuka is the best example of the divergent personalities between the internal, external and other peoples’ minds. She has this tough exterior, and it’s so painful to watch it get gradually worn down as the show goes on, to watch her get broken. So, seeing her reclaim her agency in this moment, and kick some serious ass is great, particularly because her only role in the rest of the film is to get wanked over or choked by Shinji.

But, I don’t consider that a flaw of the film. Asuka’s mind was thoroughly explored in “Don’t Be,” and this robot battle is a brief moment of light before her inevitable death. At least she finds a kind of peace by reuniting with her mother before she dies. She is not alone in dying, at some point in this film, every single character in the show dies.

The film really is an almost impenetrable wall of strange content, deaths and dreams collide into one to the point that the semi-coherent reality present at the film’s beginning is completely gone by the end. While I really enjoyed the first half of the film, I think it’s a bit too straight ahead next to the total insanity of the show’s last two episodes. Luckily, the final portion of the film returns to the intense psychological examination with a work that tops even the strangeness of those final episodes, a truly baffling, challenging and exhilarating piece of art.

I really need to see the film again before delving into the treatment of instrumentality and the Lilith/Adam mythology, so I’ll just go through some of the scenes that really stood out to me. I loved Rei appearing to people in the form they chose as they died. Again, I think back to entering the supercontext in The Invisibles, these moments could easily be concurrent with Jack Frost’s speech in the falling snow. Good and bad alike are given the world they want as they die.

If there’s one thing I always love in fiction, it’s works that fuse so called low culture with high art. This isn’t the sort of film that’s going to receive critical acclaim because no matter how much psychological depth it has, it’s still on the surface a work about a bunch of giant robots attacking each other. A lot of critics seem to think it’s impossible that a low genre work could reach psychological depth that goes beyond virtually anything I’ve seen in narrative cinema. Really, the only work I can compare this film and the last two episodes to is Inland Empire, and even that has something more of a traditional narrative. The show is so psychological, it becomes almost a Rorshach test for the viewer. It’s not going to work for everyone because a lot of people don’t necessarily want their view of themselves challenged by a work. They just want to enjoy a regular story, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but for me, this work is perfect, keeping the thrills of traditional genre storytelling, but adding this psychological interrogation on top of it.

I respect and love a show like The Wire, but Evangelion hits me on a deeper level. On the surface, The Wire is the more realistic show, but it’s real in a way that’s external to me. It’s real like the streets are real, like buildings are real. They exist external to me, and are visible to everyone. The streets and buildings are important, but do they really impact my life? Evangelion is in some ways more real to me than The Wire because I see more of myself in it. The various characters’ traumas, their loneliness and struggles feel full o the things that torment my own mind. I face the sort of issues that Shinji faces, in my own way, and watching the show feels like peeling back my own consciousness, and elements of the collective subconscious and staring at this messed up organism called humanity.

The moment in the film that felt the most like this for me was when Shinji confronts Asuka in the kitchen. It’s one of the most intense scenes in the film, and a perverse subversion of the dynamic between these two in the series. Asuka tells Shinji he wants her because he’s scared of Misato and Rei. She is the most accessible to him, so he tries to channel his affection towards her, but does he really care for her? It’s a question he can’t really answer, and all his uncertain feelings about women get wrapped up in this awful mess that leads him to choke Asuka. It’s intense and hard to watch. This is the ostensible hero of the piece and he’s caught in this psychological hell, choking the heroine to death.

This leads into the trippy reality bending sequence that brings the film towards its climax. We again return to the mixed media flashing image style of the last episodes for a series of complaints ostensibly against Shinji, but that really feel more about Anno himself channeling his issues into the film. We hear women telling him that “I don’t love you that way,” “Let’s just be friends,” that kind of stuff. On one hand, the sequence took me out of the narrative, is this really what Shinji’s facing? But, on the other hand, who cares if it takes you out of the narrative, it’s dealing with the same sort of messy psychological issues Shinji’s got, and at this point, the film has become as much about the viewer as it is about the characters within it.

This is elaborated on with the live action shots of an audience in a theater watching a film, staring back at us. I would love to see this movie in a theater, both because the visuals deserve a big screen spotlight, and because that moment would play so much better in an actual theater. The audience in the theater seems unengaged, like Anno knows that people will be angry at his high art exploration and is throwing their own critique back at them. I love that he has turned a film that was made to soothe sore feelings about the show’s finale into a work that’s even more avant garde than that finale.

The live action sequence raises some questions for me. I want to see more of it, to find out its purpose. The film is so grainy, deliberately meant as a contrast to the inherently artifical world of the animation. All the signifiers of filmic realism are used. But, what exactly are we seeing here? Is Shinji glimpsing our reality? I’m not sure what it means, but it was excellent nonetheless.

I think that’s how you have to view this film, everything won’t necessarily connect, but as a visual experience, it’s virtually unparalleled in the history of cinema. The images we get during the cosmic sequence, the EVA forming the head of the tree of the life, the giant Rei rising up and going to the stars, it’s all absolutely dazzling. I struggle to think of a work that feels so psychologically altered as this one, that’s working on a totally different level than normal humanity. I want to exist on the level that Anno is here, just letting the images flow.

I’ll do another post exploring the way the film fits together with the end of the show, and more in depth thoughts on the cosmology of the film. There’s so much in here, it’ll take more than one viewing to absorb it. So, let me close by discussing the final scene. A lot of people take issue with works that close on an ambiguous note, just look at the furor over The Sopranos earlier this year. But, I love works that leave you questioning, talking and debating after they’re over. That scene seems destined to provoke arguments for years, and I don’t know that there is a true answer. Is there a definitive reality to Evangelion? Is this film any more ‘true’ than the series end? The upcoming ‘Rebuild’ raises questions as well.

But, as we saw in the series finale, there are many worlds, many possible people that each individual person can be, and we choose and guide our lives towards different ends as time passes. I find it hard to reconcile the Shinji here, who dismisses Instrumentality, with the Shinji we saw in the series, who embraced it. One could argue that the series end occurred concurrently with the scene with Rei, and after it ended, he left the unified organism. Or, you could argue that the scene with Asuka takes place on his journey through realities and the whole story ends with his journey towards Instrumentality. It’s impossible to choose a definitive conclusion because it’s all real, it all exists and it all tells us something about the essential being that is Shinji Ikari.

Shinji chokes Asuka as they lie on a postapocalyptic beach. Why? I honestly don’t know for sure at this point. It’s likely wrapped up in his guilt, he feels he’s ‘used’ her, and is now left alone with her. She knows he was masturbating over her, and in the middle portion of the film, she says that she’ll even watch him do it. Maybe they’re both so fucked up that she’ll take any kind of acknowledgement she can, acknowledgement that she’s desirable even if it’s just Shinji using her to pleasure himself. The film begins with Shinji masturbating next to a comatose Asuka, it ends with him choking her. And, by that point they’re both so worn out, she barely seems to care.

Is this how the story ends? I need to see the film again. But, after one viewing I know that it’s a masterpiece, full of incredible images, bold stylistic experimentation and a lot of emotional impact. This is the way you end a show, using the world created in the early episodes as the base for an improvisational exploration and breakdown of the characters. It’s brilliant, undeniably brilliant. I’ve called Grant Morrison’s work Pop Avant Garde, using the tropes of action movies and superhero comics to explore deep psychological issues. This work does the same thing, Anno’s Evangelion is the closest thing I’ve seen to Grant Morrison on film, and I don’t think there’s a higher compliment I can give a work.

2 comments:

arcus said...

I've said before that I don't find the series' mythology to be particularly important, since I view the show as more of a character study, but there are a few open questions in-universe that I'd like to bring up and do my best to address. I'll try follow this comment up with a more worthy spiel on why I feel that movie is an unworthy coda for the series later.

----

The intention, I believe, is that Yui Ikari and Kyoko Soryu's souls were actually resident within units 01 and 02, respectively - and, of course, that the "soul" is something that can be physically studied and manipulated by the scientists at NERV. There is some excellent evidence for this:

*Yui was absorbed into unit 01 by the failed contact experiment in 2004, witnessed from young Shinji's perspective in episode 21 - we can hear Yui's voice from within unit 01 during this scene, shortly before Naoko Akagi writes to Ritsuko that "a freak accident wiped her [Yui] from this existence." Earlier, in episode 20, we learned of a previous "salvage operation" that failed to recover someone's body and soul from an Eva ten years ago - "during my mother's time", Ritsuko says.

*Kyoko's soul was apparently absorbed into Unit 02 in a similar accident, albeit one that left her body behind, empty and insane, as seen in the flashbacks from episode 22.

*The mothers of all of Shinji's classmates were deceased - Kensuke mentions this in episode 4. Touji pointedly fails to mention his mother among his sister's potential caretakers in episode 3, and says in episode 17 that there's nobody to cook for him. In the same conversation, Hikari says that she prepares lunch for her sisters. Also, in that episode, Ritsuko tells Gendou that the fourth child's [Touji's] "core" can be prepared immediately. This presumably refers to his mother's soul.

*The Evas are always referred to as female entities. In episode 24, Gendou addresses Unit 01 by name, as Yui - "our wishes may be born soon Yui; please have patience."

*Asuka's sync ratio falls as memories of her troubled relationship with her mother resurface. Rei alludes to this in episode 22:

Rei: "If you don't open your mind to her, your Eva will not move."
Asuka: "You saying this is my fault? I'm blocking myself?"
Rei: "Yes. Eva has it's own mind."
Asuka: "It's just a big toy."
Rei: "Then you don't know."

*Shinji himself realizes that his mother's soul is in Unit 01 in episode 20 - "That's right. I already knew Eva! I already knew Eva and then I ran away, leaving my father and mother behind."

*On each of the three occasions when Eva 01 activates itself without power (which Misato reviews in episode 20), it does so to protect Shinji - from falling rubble in episode 1, and from angels in episodes 2 and 19.

So from this, we get a picture of what "synchronization" actually is - the Eva, animated by the captured soul of the pilots mother, activates itself to protect the child based on the maternal instinct. Apparently, all the skills they learn as pilots are secondary to this innate ability to synchronize - in the first episode, Ritsuko says "He just has to sit in the seat, we don't expect more than that."

So, the next question is, what is Rei, and whose soul is in Unit 00? This has apparently baffled fandom for some time, and most of the fanon explanations don't seem to have any basis in the series itself.

It appears that Rei is basically a clone of Yui. This is alluded to when Shinji sees this prototypical mother figure in Rei, in episode 15: "Hey, when we were cleaning, that cloth, the way you wringed it, it reminded me of a mother, when you squeezed it." Naoko recognizes Rei's face as Yui's in episode 21 - "She resembles someone. Yui?". Shinji finally figures it out in episode 24: "Rei Ayanami. There's a feeling about her, almost as if... my mother." (The blue hair, red eyes, and her ability to fly under her own power in the movie, all reminiscent of the angel Kaworu, are hard to account for. Fans have suggested that Gendou used material from Lilith in creating her, but it's hard to guess why that approach was necessary or useful.)

This explains why Rei can sync with unit 01 perfectly well in episode 14 - Unit 01 contains Yui's soul, and Rei is made from Yui's body. It also explains why they don't bother to test compatibility between Unit 02 and either of the other pilots, since there's no reasonable expectation that anything out of the ordinary should happen.

DIgression: What about the soul inside unit 00?

Here's what we know:

*According to Misato in episode 1, "Rei Ayanami took seven months to synchronise with her Eva," and throughout the series her sync ratio is consistently the worst of the three pilots.

* Maya Ibuki says that "Unit 00 and Unit 01's personal data patterns are almost identical."

*Unit 00 goes berserk twice (the flashback in episode 5, and the sync test in episode 14), and each time tries to attack somebody in the control room. Between the two scenes, only Ritsuko is present in both, and she concludes herself that "Unit 00 wanted to attack me" in episode 14.

*Shinji experiences a juvenile version of Rei inside unit 00 in the same episode, and feels her attempting to penetrate his mind.

From this, the only two good guesses seem to be Naoko Akagi, whose materials would have been on hand in the form of the MAGI computers, and Rei I, the version killed by Akagi in 2010. Neither of these is satisfactory - if it's Rei I, how was her soul obtained following her death, why is it so difficult for Rei II to sync with it, and why does it want to attack Ritsuko? Has it mistaken her for her mother? And if it's Naoko, attacking Ritsuko in jealousy over her affair with Gendou, how can we square this with Maya's assertion?

End digression.

Knowing this about Yui and Unit 00 helps us understand Gendou's intentions a lot more clearly - he was intent on bringing about instrumentality in order to reunite himself with his wife, and didn't care if he had to end the world to do it. His goals were totally single-minded and selfish, and he was willing to use anyone available to him to achieve them. In the movie, Yui rejects him for this, and kills him in the form of Unit 01.

There were, at the same time, two other groups trying to bring about instrumentality for their own ends. Gendou's goals and know-how were apparently sufficiently consonant with SEELE's own needs that they were willing to supply him with the support and funds he needed to complete the Eva project, but their own goals remain obscure. Meanwhile, the Angels - "alternate humanities" were each apparently attempting to achieve instrumentality on their own throughout 2014 through uniting with Adam - a unification that would evidently have excluded humanity (and the other angels?), based on NERV and SEELE's need to stop it from taking place.

In the end, Rei III commandeers instrumentality and turns the process over to Shinji, who apparently accepts it in the series and rejects it in the film.

A last note on some numerological aspects - there are seventeen numbered angels, counting Adam and Lilith; seventeen planned Evangelions (units 00 through 04, constructed by the time of episode 23, at which point we learn that eight more are under construction, and a further four are not), and seventeen members of SEELE - the 15 monoliths seen in the director's cut of episode 24, plus Gendou and Fuyutski. Does this mean anything? What were the extra Eva's intended for, if three were enough to stop all fifteen angel attacks, and the nine mass-production Evas completed by the time of the film were enough to bring about instrumentality? I always suspected that the members of SEELE intend to transfer themselves into Evangelion bodies with working S2 organs, in an attempt to acquire godlike power and somehow symbolically replace the angels, but we can only speculate.

Patrick said...

That makes sense, the idea of the mothers being the essence of the EVA is a little nonsensical from an objective perspective, but in the context of the series it really fits, and does clarify a lot of the imagery we see during the series. It also makes it clearer why they'd use kids to pilot the Evas. In that case, the scene with Asuka in EoE is the big giveaway.

As for your thoughts on the film, I'd love to hear them. I would agree that it's not really necessary, I love both the messiness of the series' closer and the emotion we get at the end, when everyone links together and Shinji ascends. The film messes with that, for something that's a lot less symbolically cogent. However, I love so many of the scenes and images in the film, I'm still really glad it was made. I can think of very few other films that have touched the kind of places this movie did.