Thursday, August 14, 2008

Evangelion: The Rewatch

I just finished rewatching Evangelion, the TV series. Watching those final few episodes again was, as before, a humbling experience. Nothing else I’ve seen so precisely sketches the realm of the mind, mashing up internal trauma with operatic robot action. The last six episodes of the series are arguably as strong a run as in any series ever.

But, how do the early days play knowing where it’s all going? The short answer is it all makes a lot more sense, and is generally easier to take. Watching the show the first time, I was baffled by a lot of logic questions. Why was it that they needed kids to pilot the Evas? Why did the Eva pilots go to school? Eventually, the show answered those questions, however, at the time there was no way of knowing if they ever would. So, it’s easier to skim over some of the more illogical things in the series. Even the goofy stuff that really bothered me on the first watching works fine now. It’s nice to see the characters at a time when they all haven’t been utterly torn apart.

But, there’s a clear divide between the first and second half of the series. Everything between the Rei poem is an entertaining, but fairly straightforward story. The Rei poem in ‘Weaving a Story’ is where everything changes. It’s the first of the hypnotic visual poem scenes that explore a characters’ psychological makeup, and become a signature as the show progresses.

Rather than comparing film to books, I think it’s most useful to compare it to music. Those are the only two arts where time is a dimension, where it’s up to the creator to control the pace at which the viewer experiences the art. Beyond that, I think they’re the most structurally similar. In music, I generally listen to songs with lyrics, but it’s rarely the content of the lyrics that interests me, it’s the sound of the music. As such, it’s usually the instrumental breakdown or guitar solo that’s my favorite part of a song. The lyrics exist to let us get to know the song, but it’s that moment where the music transcends the lyrics and exists on its own that’s most satisfying.

In film, it’s the same way. The narrative is the equivalent of the lyrics, if you have a film without a narrative, just like a song without lyrics, it’s hard to emotionally latch on to it. Abstract movies have merit, but it’s hard to ‘hook’ the viewer without any kind of throughline. Just like lyrics give you a quick way to remember the melody of a song, the narrative gives us the emotional inlet to characters, and a linear way to experience the various images. However, the narrative should actually exist to provide a spotlight for filmic experimentation that enhances our emotional experience. In the case of Evangelion, the narrative is frequently set aside for those improvisatory psychological subjectivity moments.

The brilliance of the series is that it’s able to use those psychological sequences, the ‘guitar solos,’ to tell us so much about the characters. Anno uses film in a way I haven’t really seen it used before, drawing on European art films, but going further. He uses the science fiction conceits of the narrative as a way to plunge us into the characters’ heads, and leave us there. Think of the amazing sequence in ‘Don’t Be,’ where Asuka is mentally assaulted by the angel. It’s a tour de force example of cutting to tell a story, but it’s the climax of her character arc.

The best moments in cinema are those where the emotional peak and the stylistic peak occur at the same time. Think of Magnolia’s “Wise Up” sequence, a directorial triumph that would be totally satisfying on its own, but also serves as the climax for the film’s second act. People often say that “style” can get in the way of the emotional content of the film, that’s the classical Hollywood aesthetic, doing everything you can to convince the audience that these events are just happening with no outside influence on their presentation.

In the case of Evangelion, the conceit of the characters’ psychological self exploration provides the opportunity for sequences that tear right through the fourth wall. Particularly in the last two episodes, you’re always aware that you’re watching something constructed, in some cases, barely even constructed, just the storyboards or unfinished drawings. But, that awareness only seems to enhance the experience of the narrative. The last episodes are about taking us on a psychological trip, and the breakdown of the diegetic reality is a major part of that.

There’s potential for a near endless intellectual analysis of those last few episodes, on a psychological level, a filmmaking level, a cultural level. I love the series for all those things, but what makes it so special for me is that it really hits me on an emotional level. I mentioned it when talking about the series earlier, but the psychological dilemmas faced by the characters remind me a lot of myself, in a way that very few film protagonists do. The reason for that is the focus on internal life as the source of problems.

The last episode is largely about the inevitable unhappiness that comes when our perceptions of our own lives bump up against the social ideal, and we find ourselves lacking. It is only when we measure our lives against what we should have that we feel bad about what we do have. All of the characters are trying to live lies, simultaneously deluding themselves to believe that they need other people to be happy, and that they are unhappy because of other people. I relate to Shinji the most, but it’s Asuka who just breaks me in the later episodes of the series. She’s so distraught after Episode 22, a single line, like her wondering why they sent out Shinji to save Rei, but not her, is devastating. Her perception of herself clashes against reality and she is destroyed.

Watching the show again, I tried to better follow the whole Angels/Adam/Seele/Lilith side of things. I was doing pretty well until ‘Rei III,’ when Ritsuko goes down into the chamber of Reis and tells Misato and Shinji what was up with her. My interpretation of things at this point is that in 2000, Misato’s father created a form of life, which produced the second impact. That creation was the crucified white creature they call Adam, who was in actuality Lilith. Was there a real Adam? I don’t know, but there is a difference between the Lilith creature and Adam.

It was from Lilith that they created the Evas, hence the human soul in the Evas. Each Eva seems to have been imbued with the soul of a woman, in the case of Unit 01, it’s Yui Ikari. So, that Eva is a fusion of Lilith and Shinji’s mother. But, so is Rei. She was built by Gendo Ikari to help bring about the fusion of human and higher level being, the transcendence of human loneliness on the road to godhood. There’s that mysterious shot where his hand has an eye growing in it. He is trying to become like Rei and Kaworu.

And yet, isn’t Kaworu different from Rei? He serves Seele, who have this master plan involving the angels. They want to use the angels to bring about the third impact. They decided it was inevitable, and fear that Ikari has his own agenda. They are loyal to the actual Adam DNA, not the human tainted substitute that is Ikari’s Lilith. In the end though, Kaworu realizes that life and death mean the same thing, and he chooses death.

Or something, I’ll perhaps have a more definitive view after watching End of Evangelion again. Either way, it doesn’t particularly matter. The whole convoluted mythology underlining everything is really just an excuse to get the characters to points of psychological crisis. The biggest takeaway from the Seele investigation of Rei’s ‘death’ isn’t any sort of mythology thing, it’s what it does to Ritsuko, the way her sacrifice echoes what Gendo Ikari did to her mother. Her pain is what’s interesting, but that betrayal converges with the narrative in the Rei clones revelation. So, the mythology and personal stories perfectly intersect, each enhancing the other. That’s the beauty of the series, and seen as a whole, it’s astonishing how perfectly all the character traits that are set up as fun quirks, or minor troubles become magnified with the passing of time and eventually become devastating tools of self destruction. More after End of Eva.


Adam Arnold said...

"That creation was the crucified white creature they call Adam, who was in actuality Lilith. Was there a real Adam?"

It's been a long time since I watched Eva, but I recall Lilith being the creature nailed to the cross, and Adam was the little embryo in the case that Gendo carried (and later grafted to his hand in an attempt to join with Rei/Lilith in the movie).

Patrick said...

Yeah, that makes sense. It's seen briefly in Episode 24 of the series as well. The mythology of the Adam/Lilith thing is a bit confusing, but ultimately besides the point. It's all a metaphor, and in that capacity, it functions flawlessly.