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.

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?