Monday, May 31, 2010

Rebuild of Evangelion 2.22: You Can(not) Advance

It's interesting to write about Rebuild of Evangelion as an American viewer since, what I'd consider one of the biggest film events of the year happens in a weird sort of vacuum. There's no hype for the film coming out, it just shows up online and you roll from there. Normally with a big franchise film, you have that collective rush of anticipation, but not for this one!

As longtime blog readers know, the Evangelion series and its subsequent film followup, End of Evangelion, were personal favorites of mine. However, the notion of 'rebuilding' the series to make a more coherent version seems to run against every strength of the series proper. The first Rebuild mostly revisited territory from the series in a slightly more focused way, this one branches out into new stuff, and generally succeeds. It rambles a bit along the way, but ends with a transcendent scene that makes up for most of the problems along the way and opens the door to something radically different in the final two films.

The first Rebuild film expertly focused on Shinji's internal struggle to deal with the duty thrust upon him, his father's expectations and his duty to the world. This one branches out a bit more, into an ensemble piece focusing on a loose love triangle between Shinji, Rei and Asuka, as they each struggle to reach out beyond their own issues and form connections with others. That's the emotional core of the film and it works really well.

However, it takes a little while to get into that. The opening introduces new character Mari, who doesn't do that much to distinguish herself in the film. She feels like a somewhat unnecessary plot device, though I'm hoping her larger purpose will become clear in the next films. She's a much more competent, seemingly untroubled pilot, and there's potentially interesting material in there, contrasting her carefree devotion to duty with the other kids' trouble adjusting to their role. But, without underlying emotional traumas to define her, she's out of place in the show's solitary universe, and her flitting in and out of the narrative means that she remains just a surface cool, not a fully developed character.

Once we get back to the main character, there's some strong material introducing Asuka, but it takes a while to really get going. One of the problems with watching the film version of the story as opposed to the TV series is that digressions feel much more out of place. A scene like the trip to the aquarium works better in a TV format, where you expect new stuff to happen every episode. Here, it didn't feel like the best way to forward the character relationships. I liked elements of the scene, but in general, it felt like there were a few too many goofy elements in the early going and not enough substantive character interaction.

Asuka was always my favorite character during the series, and I think she fairs pretty well in the film translation. The essence of the character is transferred, and you still get a sense of her relationship with Shinji. However, it was frustrating to lose some of the intense personal examination we got during the series. One of my favorite moments in the show is when Asuka is sleeping with Shinji and says “Mama,” the first moment when her tough exterior breaks and Shinji can see her vulnerability. The scene where they sleep together here works, but not as strongly as the original.

That raises the question of the artistic intention behind this project. Is it better to have something different than the series, even if it's not as good, just because the series already exists and we don't need to see it again? The moments that are taken directly from the series often don't play as well because they don't have the context of the series.

It's also frustrating to see the continued focus on exploitative angles and frequent random nudity for no apparent reason. It always felt awkward during the show to have fourteen year old characters depicted naked, and that continues here. It can work, as in the moment near the end of the show where Asuka sits in a bath tub depressed, but that's a moment that's about her character, not the audience being given an invitation to leer, and there's too many of those moments in this film.

The story picks up quite a bit once we get to the middle section of the film where Shinji and Asuka become a 'married couple,' and he plays the woman to all the women in his life. It's an interesting flip of typical gender roles, and I like the way that the simple act of cooking makes Misato, Asuka and Rei reconsidering their own cold attitudes towards the world. Asuka's jealousy is well played, she thinks that she's special when he makes food for her, but when she sees him serving Rei, she gets angry. I like that plot beat because it resonates with the way that small routine things can build up a close relationship, and a kind of possessiveness.

The Asuka/Shinji relationship in the series was an absolute favorite of mine, and we see hints of it here. It's very sweet when she is cooking, trying to reach out to Shinji in the same way he reached out to her. Shinji himself seems more uncertain. In the series he was always torn between women who represented various things to him, usually riffing on the desire he feels for his absent mother. Here, he seems more interested in his father than any female relationship. It feels like he's too damaged to open himself up to that kind of relationship with someone.

Rei's arc here is particularly interesting. After being saved by Shinji, she makes a conscious effort to open herself up and bring people together. She's the only person who can see how damaged both Shinji and Gendo are, and decides that she can use food to bridge the gap between them. Her decision to cook, rather than take the pills she'd typically taken, is an attempt to become more than just an Eva pilot, to become a person. The scene where she has dinner with Gendo is one of my favorite in the film, particularly the way Rei is juxtaposed with Yui.

The whole cooking plotline is a great example of the film bringing something new to the mythos. In the series, most of the characters wallowed in their own troubles, and made no effort to reach out. Here, they all make an effort, and for most of the film, things are actually fairly sunny. People are trying to define themselves beyond just their role within NERV, and to claim actual personal lives.

Of course, it all comes crashing down in the film's final act. The sequence with Asuka trapped in the malfunctioning Eva kind of worked, but didn't play anywhere near as visceral as the similar sequence in the series. Part of the reason is that in that moment, Asuka's story became subservient to Shinji's. I wanted to feel what she felt, and perhaps reprise one of the series' greatest sequence, the attack on her mind from Episode 22. Some of that subjective stuff with her may be dealt with in the next films, but I wanted to feel it here.

Instead it becomes another ploy in the battle of wills between Shinji and his father. The food based reunion is off, and instead their relationship totally breaks down. I loved the visual of Unit 01 standing on top of the pyramid, raging at NERV below, but the moment as a whole didn't totally work.

What did work beyond all measure was the final action sequence, in which Shinji reaches into the heart of an angel to try to save Rei. The reason this sequence worked so well was that it was one of the first times that the film abandoned literalism and moved into psychological subjectivity. The premise of the series never made much sense on a literal level, but as a Freudian psychological excavation, it's riveting. But, my biggest problem with the films prior to this, was that they never reached that transcendent place of pure subconscious, at least not until this final scene.

Shinji tears through the complex, then, as music echoing “Komm Susser Tod” from End of Evangelion starts to play, Shinji plunges into the angel, and the film becomes pure psychological vision. I love the visual of Shinji going through the tunnel of light, trying to reach Rei, who's alone in the darkness. At the same time, outside debri swirls and the sky opens to the Third Impact. It's a moment of pure visual poetry, like the best of End of Evangelion, and Shinji's dive into the abyss is the rawest emotional moment in the films to date, the first sequence that comes close to matching the series at its best.

If the last scene wasn't so strong, I'd classify the film as something of a disappointment. But, with that last scene, it opens up a whole new array of storytelling possibilities, and is evidence that Anno can still do the kind of intense subjectivity that made End of Eva such a great success. Hopefully that will be used more in the next two films.

What's particularly interesting is the final coda scene with Kaworu, which continues the idea from the end of the first Rebuild that this set of films isn't so much a restart as it is a continuation of what started in the first Evangelion. I'm thinking it could be a loop set to repeat until the characters finally become happy and resolves their issues. The first run through ended in an apocalypse and Shinji's personal transcendence (the series), the second ended in apocalypse, but hope that the Eva would still be out there. Perhaps this time the characters will integrate themselves and truly succeed. At least they are trying.

I'm not sure that interpretation will ever become more than subtext, but I love it, and when Misato said this is happening, just like fifteen years ago, I immediately jumped to the release date of the series. This film doesn't prove or disprove the sequel theory, and I'm still believing it.

I'll have to give the film another look before passing final judgment, but right now I'd call it mostly successful with an absolute stunner of an ending. But, it still can't match up to the best of the series or End of Eva. I want to see the more experimental Anno back in the next film. Let's hope he's still got something at End of Eva level in him.