Monday, March 17, 2008

Neon Genesis Evangelion: "Pleasant Things on Rainy Days" (1x25-1x26)

“Even though pleasant things can happen on rainy days too.” Ritsuko

I just finished rewatching the Evangelion series finale. When I watched it through the first time, I went in with such expectations, a large part of the viewing was curiosity at finding out just what the hell this finale could be that it so confounded the people who viewed the show. Watching it again, I could appreciate it for what it was, and it is an astonishing piece of work, with the last episode standing as easily the best episode of the show, an alternate vision of humanity’s entrance into the supercontext.

The first time through, I missed a lot of details on the nature of the Human Instumentality Complex. I was just going with the flow of the piece, enjoying the images, and processing as much as I could. Rewatching the last few episodes, I understood pretty much all of it, or at least as much as one can. The narrative surrounding Lilith and the Angels is definitely missing a few details somewhere in there, but that’s not necessarily a problem. You’ve got to have something to argue about for years after the series.

So, as I reached the end, the nature of the Human Instrumentality Project became clear. The way I see it, the HIP is the merging of all of humanity into a single organism, a breakdown of the “AT Fields” that separate us and a fusion into a linked state. The AT Field is such a critical metaphor for the series, tying back to the idea of the “Hedgehog’s Dilemma.” In the EVA, the field you put up to protect yourself also cuts you off from the outside world, and that’s how it is with emotions too. We put up walls around ourselves so that we don’t get hurt, but those same walls prevent us from making connections with people. The whole idea was dramatized wonderfully in the assault on Asuka, where we saw how she had created a new persona to try and protect herself, but that wall was cruelly broken by the Angel, exposing her deepest fears.

Much of the last two episodes are wrapped up in exploring the nature of human identity. Earlier in the series, there were the psychological interludes where Shinji realized that he was more concerned with the “Shinji Ikaris” in other peoples’ heads than with the one in his own head. We also saw Rei struggle with her own identity issues. I wasn’t quite clear on the nature of Rei on the first viewing, but my read now is that she’s a hybrid clone, created by Gendo Ikari out of material from an angel and his wife. That’s why Kaworu identifies her as one of his own, and it also explains the frequent references to connections between Yui and Rei.

Ikari brings out a new Rei after she destroys herself to save Shinji. This new Rei is inserted into the world to be the same as the old Rei, they give her bandages to cover, but in reality, she was not injured. She has some vague notion of who these people are, but does not have the experiences the old Rei has. Rei’s situation functions as a metaphor for what everyone on the show is going through, does she define herself through something that is innately Rei Ayanami, or does she define herself by the way everyone sees her?

In “Do You Love Me,” she talks about ties as what defines people. The basic idea there is that the identity we have is shaped by the world around us, by the people we come into contact with. So, Rei is as much what she means to other people as what she sees in herself.

Most of the episode takes place in a mental space, on the border of oncoming instrumentality. We get glimpses of real events, including the apparent deaths of Misato and Ritsuko, as well as Ikari telling Rei that this is the day she was built for. The notion of purpose, of being built for something is a big issue for these kids, and once we get into the mental space that’s explored, particularly in “Take Care of Yourself.” For them, being an EVA pilot is their identity, they are so young that they don’t really have anything else.

The tragic fate of Asuka is that she sunk all her self worth in being an EVA pilot. That’s what’s saved her from feeling totally broken by the emotional rejection she received. But, as she tells Shinji in the last episode, what’s left when you’re an EVA pilot who can’t pilot an EVA. Asuka seems like someone who’s suffered Gulf War syndrome, she’s been used by society to achieve their ends, but when she returns, no one wants her. It takes them a week to find her when she’s hiding out in the broken city, lamenting her condition. She’s just not needed anymore, and that’s a horrific fate.

The penultimate episode ends with an interesting conversation between various mental aspects of characters. Misato is in a chair and Shinji appears, saying he’s the Shinji who’s in her head, but she says that she’s the Misato who’s in Shinji’s head. What is going on? My interpretation is that it’s the blurring of oncoming instrumentality.

Instrumentality is the fusion of minds into one. The psychological interrogation of these two episodes is all about forcing the characters to admit their basic problem, most of which boils down to a mixture of self hatred and fear that other people will hate or abandon them. They all seek to define themselves through their relationships to others, they seek the praise and approval of others, but as Shinji says, that praise doesn’t make him feel better. I saw a quote from one of the producers saying that Evangelion won’t mean much to you is you’re living a happy life, and I suppose if you were perfectly content, you wouldn’t be able to emotionally relate. But, I find the whole self interrogation process that Shinji goes through very powerful and relatable.

Most works of fiction focus on external drama, and use the external drama as a way to solve internal problems. Psychological exploration is tougher to convey on film and, as the reaction to this episode shows, doesn’t always go over well with the public. But, I think it’s better to have Shinji find peace this way than through pummeling something to death with his giant robot. It is a bit jarring to totally lose sight of the previous narrative, but to me, the show was really about the characters, and these last two episodes pay off those psychological interludes that had been set up through the show.

Shinji’s desire at the beginning of this episode is to rereat from humanity. His guilt at killing Kaworu, the one person who reached out to him, the one person who said he loved him, makes him want to commit suicide. The scenes with Kaworu and Shinji are interesting because it shows a character who is beyond the societal limits that keep Shinji in fear. Kaworu’s borderline seduction of Shinji works because it shows someone who’s at peace with himself and doesn’t fear rejection. Shinji can never reach out in that way to the person he actually has affection for, Asuka, because he’s too afraid of how she’ll react.

Shinji feels that he is worthless, and with the world spinning into chaos, he is forced to choose his fate. My reading of the last episode is that everyone gets their own choice, to join with Instrumentality, or cease to exist. The project is called the Human Instrumentality Project, and that name sums up exactly what it’s about, the fact that other people are instrumental to our existence. This is dramatized in the scenes with the blank space.

When Shinji is alone in a blank world, he has total freedom, he can go anywhere and do anything that he wants, but he also has no way to define himself. We form ourselves by looking at the world around us, by seeing other people and gradually creating a mold for our own existence. The first person we see, as shown here, is our mother. She is the first other, and our first model for existence.

As the blank world gradually becomes defined, our freedom diminishes. This is analogous to what emotional ties do. The more people we connect to, the more we are bound by our feelings for them. But, at the same time, it is those emotional ties that make our lives worth living. Asuka can declare that she will live on her own, but she can’t do it, she finds a void in her life where she needs emotional connection with others. Similarly, Shinji finds this blank world inadequate, he does need others.

The issue for Shinji is that he believes other people only want him for his skills as an EVA pilot. The whole show is a spin on the ‘chosen one’ narrative, with Shinji plucked out of the peaceful life he described to Kaworu to go pilot the EVA. The thing is, if you are chosen for some specific task, what does that do to your individual identity? The reason Shinji is there is to pilot the EVA, he wouldn’t know any of the people he does if he wasn’t piloting the EVA, and that makes him feel like they only want him around because of his pilot skills.

It’s notable that the series begins when Shinji takes on this responsibility, and in doing so loses the essence of who he was before he started piloting. Gradually, he realizes that he doesn’t have to be an EVA pilot, he could do other things, and that means there’s more to him than just being a pilot.

This leads into the interesting parallel universe/dream sequence segment of the episode. The first time I saw it, as Anno likely intended, I thought “Oh shit, it was all a dream.” After all my complaining about the goofy comedy, it still felt incredibly comforting to hear that goofy house theme start and to return to the regular animation, and the comic tone of those early episodes. Eventually I realized that it was not all a dream, but the question remains, what is the nature of this universe? I would argue that the force driving humanity towards instrumentality showed it to Shinji as a way of helping him come to terms with his psychological issues, and prepare for the move to Instrumentality. The universe is specifically designed to make Shinji realize that no one has to be exactly what they are in the world, that they are a product of their environment, and if they so choose, they could change their existence.

But, an essence of the person remains. That’s the thing, humanity isn’t entirely a product of its environment, it’s a hybrid. And, if we come to know ourselves, understand what it is that is essential self, then we can better deal with other people. The idea in the episode is that our own feelings about our selves are reflected in others, so if we hate ourselves, we’ll think that everyone else hates us. This is the territory that really hits home for me, this idea that you can fall into a place where you feel bad about yourself, and even if people say something nice, you don’t really believe them, you think they’re just saying it because that’s what society demands. We all strive for those moments of real acceptance, when people cut through the restrictions that society places on us and express something true and real and emotional.

That’s what none of the characters can do in the real world, and it’s why Shinji feels so connected to Kaworu. Kaworu has none of those social training that society gives us, and Shinji feels his words are genuine, with no ulterior motive. All the characters in the show put up defense mechanisms to ward off loneliness, but to protect yourself from loneliness, you also cut yourself off from connection.

The alternate universe functions both as a curtain call for the characters, one final moment to see them away from the pain and horror, and just happy. There, everyone seems to have found their place. Shinji isn’t so wrapped up in his head, he’s able to joke around with his friends, and he’s got a healthier relationship with Asuka. She may still call him stupid, but she also acknowledges that their friends. She stands up for him, and that’s critical. In the world Shinji imagines, his father is still a bit remote, but he isn’t evil, and Rei is the mysterious new girl, but she’s not totally distanced from social reality.

It feels like a nice world, and part of the intention with the sequence might be to tell the viewer that their world isn’t all that bad. Sure, it would be cool to pilot giant robots, but after all he’s been through, all Shinji wants is a normal life, and by the time we reach that point in the story, the normal world really does seem like a great life.

But, this world ends and we return to that stage where the last episode ended. And, here begins one of the most beautiful series endings of all time. I imagine this scene taking place at the same moment as the end of The Invisibles, with humanity having recognized that its enemies were really fighting for the same side, and everything was moving towards this moment of psychological unification. The distance between us is collapsing, the AT fields are going down, and the world is uniting into one.

The various characters give a speech to Shinji about the way that society shapes our expectations, and can make us feel bad about ourselves. Shinji felt boxed in by the expectations others had on him, but glimpsing that other world, he realizes how nebulous that hold is. If we recognize societal strictures for what they are, it’s not that hard to move outside them and create our own reality. I particularly love the line I quoted above, about how society makes us think a sunny day is happy and rainy day is sad “Even though pleasant things can happen on rainy days too.”

So, it’s society that creates the restrictions on us, that prevents us from being our best selves. But, we can overcome that, and if we learn to appreciate ourselves, it becomes easier to appreciate others. Ultimately, that’s what the end of the show is about, Shinji coming to understand and love himself, breaking out of his suicidal spiral and realizing that the world isn’t so bad. He can still make himself better, and all the people he thinks hate him, don’t.

I absolutely love the final moments of the series, when Shinji breaks out of the theater and stands on top of the whole Earth as everyone around him cheers. He’s joining instrumentality, the world is uniting, the walls between people are breaking down and they’re understanding and appreciating each other. The loneliness that every single character on the show had is gone, and everyone can be together and happy. It’s so joyous, I just love watching everyone cheer him on and congratulate him as he moves into this new stage of existence.

This is how a series should end, in a glorious burst of emotion and intellect. The ending is certainly challenging, but it’s also very rewarding, and for me at least, very emotional. I can really relate to what’s going on here, and it’s a perfect example of how series storytelling can allow for a combination of surreal content and strong emotion. Taken on their own, these last couple of episodes are amazing pieces of filmmaking, but with the character base that the series built up, they become a huge emotional payoff, full of details and relevant symbols that make everything more meaningful. It’s like the last episode of Twin Peaks, the narrative may spiral away, but the emotion and symbolic side of things comes to a perfect conclusion.

Does that make End of Evangelion the equivalent of Fire Walk With Me? I’m not sure, but I’m about to watch it, so I’ll be finding out momentarily. Look for a blog about the film tomorrow, I don’t know that it can be as strong an end to the series as these episodes were, but I’m eager to find out. And, an NC-17 rating? That’s got me intrigued. What the hell does this film hold that could earn an NC-17?

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