Monday, 1 June 2009

On: Neon Genesis Evangelion

The series starts out looking like it's a shallow minded mega-mecha romp, catering to a Japanese obsession with giant humanoid robots. Only a few subtle pointers suggest otherwise: some non-linear story telling, and a focus on paralysing psychological problems on a part of the main character.

Pay attention to the details that flash past in the lengthy titles if you want some early clues about things. The title music is a purpose written, cheesy, Japanese synth-heavy song (with often indecipherable translation), and the outros are (sometimes amusingly) different versions of “Fly Me to the Moon” in 'Engrish'.

The "Eva" mecha things, each piloted by specific kids, blunder through 1 battle per episode, each against a unique "Angel". It begins to get formulaic; a cross between that awful 70s TV sci-fi "UFO" and Zoids. The whole set up seems pretty arbitrary and silly in many ways. But hidden depths are slowly revealed, until, by mid series, the episodes undergo a phase change, to earnest plot development.

There are no explicit explanations by the end; the last 2 episodes are almost entirely a surrealistic exploration inside the psyche of the main character(s) mind(s). Considering, at length, the meaning of personal existence and the identity, finally resolving into acceptance and connection/merging will all other character[']s [minds/souls]. This is the Human Instrumentality Project, that has apparently been the mysterious goal of the powers that be all along.

There's many Judea-Christian references throughout, mostly symbolic to start with, then more explicit and apocrypha (outside of modern Biblical Cannon) as the plot progresses. The Dead Sea Scrolls predicting Angel attacks (and more), the Eva's being clones of Adam (not robots at all) and humans being referred to as Lilims (i.e. from Judaism: Daughters of Lilith (Adam's first wife) and the Angle of death)... Christianity represents only 1% of Japan's population, so all these references are, I suppose, a mirror of the western portrayal of Eastern Mysticism: exotic, strange and scary.


Part of the popularity of this series is, I imagine, that 3 of the 4 main characters are attractively drawn females, 2 of which/whom are about 15 years old. These could be murky waters to tread, but I think it's covered artfully, tastefully and realistically. Certainly the earlier episodes do offer a serving of titillation from the self-consciously sexy “Misato” (adult), but this is all part of lulling the viewer into a false sense of security, later broken as the depths of this character out. “Asuka” is a fiery girl desperately hung up on, and continually offering her body to, an older guy, to no avail. “Rei” is the quiet enigma (and prime selling merchandise figure), a total loner. Will she eventually fall into Shinji's arms, or perhaps turn out to be his sister (Starwars Style)? The closer she's inspected, the odder she seems: caring less about Shinji accidentally falling on her naked body, than the safety of a pair of broken spectacles. All nudity is purposeful and tasteful (unrealistically so, with nipples sometimes absent).

Shinji's orientation is a little ambiguous: he appears to lust after each of the female leads at some point. But “Kaworu” turns up towards the end, a charismatic boy who invites him to sit and talk naked in the showers, later holding his hand, then saying he loves him... I think Shinji is just relieved to find someone he can talk to and trust. And Kaworu saying “I think I was born to meet you” is clearly more about the fate of the world, given that he's an Angel and all.

Future Technology Compliance:

It seems like a complete failure at first: IRL we're 6 years from the primary setting (2015), and there's no sign of gigantic robot warriors, or sky scrapers that can be lowered into a subterranean abyss (leave alone “2nd impact” that happens in 2000). But given that the Eva's aren't actually mecha, but rather supernaturally derived entities essential to the core of the plot, this is excusable. Also, the enormous underground (lost world style) cavern, is implied to have been a [divine] creation (probably 1st impact; where Lilith, the 2nd angle usurped Adam, and gave birth to the human race, according to Wikipedia), and the city has been planned from scratch as a defendable fortress.

The near-future time-line being so close to the creation of the series (1995), presumably came about because it was so tempting to tie in the “2nd Impact” with the turn of the millennium, associated with a 2nd coming of Christ. Also, the plot relies heavily on having post pubescent child pilots, so that sets the main time frame at 14-15 years after 2nd impact: 2015. So not just arbitrary use of artist licence there.

On predicting everyday tech (in 2015) the series does OK (on balance), though perhaps it didn't bother at all, and that's just what *Japan* was like in 1995 (being so ahead of us): there's a total lack of flat screen desktop computer monitors, and “Shinji” (main character) continually listens to a cassette walkman. But the kids do all use little laptops in school, and the infrastructure of society (transport, electricity, most buildings, construction engineering) seems down to earth and sound enough (apart from a few niggles, like how exactly entire, massive Eva units are recovered from from smoking wrecks, out in the field).

Mobile phones are almost common enough, but there's no particular signs of Internet (in stark contrast to the anime film "Ghost in the Shell" from the same year), with heavy reliance on traditional voice only communications: answer machines and such. This is feasible, and anyway ties in with portraying aspects of emotion/psychology during certain events.

In fact, psychology is arguably the main theme of the series; all 4 main characters have enormous difficulties with self worth, identity and/or social interactions. (apparently resulting from writer/director Hideaki Anno's previous major depression.) These problems are impossible to ignore, when watching the series, getting frustrating almost to the point of annoyance (that the charters just can't console each other, or even get along civilly in the face of annihilation!). But there's undisputedly a beauty to the darkness, particularly with “Asuka” going from super-confident, bossy, show-off down an unrelenting spiral as her ego unravels towards suicide.

Again, in contrast to GITS, there is no (strong) AI, instead there are a trio of massive super computers based around biological brains, copied from an existing human. Even the “dummy plugs” (to control the Eva's without a pilot) turn out to be have been driven by soul-less clones of “Rei”. (Though it's far from clear on exactly what was supposed it going on there.)

There was super intelligence though; the ultimate goal of (the illuminate esq) “Seele” and the conclusion of the series: the “Human Instrumentation[/Complementation] Project” appears to be the merging of (all) human minds/souls into one, heavenly mind. There doesn't appear to be any physical method for this, purely the metaphysics the series is predicated on: breaking down of inter-personal AT fields, that boarder and protect human (and apparently angel) souls, allowing a merging referred to as the next stage of “evolution” and a return to the “primordial soup” (by far the worst mincing of science in the whole franchise...eww!).

Apart from this metaphysical silliness and the pseudo-religious references (to some extent), I quite like their definition of self: formed and shaped by interaction with others and self. Episode 25 and 26 even seem to feature versions of other characters that exist within the mind/soul of Shinji in a way reminiscent of Douglas Hofstadter's “I am a Strange Loop” (perhaps Hideaki Anno was influenced by "Godel Escher and Bach"); little doll-like personality simulations, in one's brain, that can be considered themselves to be little souls.

* Death and Rebirth

It may seem to be a summary of the series, but that's an impossible task to fit a 1 hour format. Instead it mostly just flushes out the main characters a little in readiness for the End of Evangelion movie. It almost exclusively uses footage from the original series, but in very short clips, flashing back and forth anachronistically. The result is a completely different beast to the series; simply being no time to explore the subtle development of the expansive emotional landscape of, loneliness, fear, anger and small reconciliations (that mean so much when they eventually come). Instead an impression of frantic adventure comes across. For example: among the rapid fire of clips, there is an indulgence in including the long silence, in the lift, between Rei and Asuka, which hints at the nature of the series, but I think it misses it's mark here, it's too incongruous, there wasn't the necessary context to appreciate it's emotional depth.

It might serve as a good reminder for those who've seen the whole series a while ago, but I'd imagine that naive viewers would get no idea of the chronology of events, it seems to me that it would be impossible to tell what had happened at all, even confusing which characters were being shown at times (e.g. it kinda looks like Misato accidentally goes back to bed next to Shinji, not Asuka). There is no mystery or build up to revelations, certainly there is no time for the false sense of situational stasis characterising the first half of the series.

* End of Evangelion

There is a blatant disconnect between the end of Episode 24, and the (controversial) mysterious ending, which is basically a dream sequence, explaining nothing. There's brief imagery that suggests both Misato and Ritsuko have been shot, but that's about it. Apparently Hideaki Anno was unable to finish the series to his satisfaction, due to practical limitations put upon him. There's even some imagery in the episode's title sequence that only later turns up in this 2 hour movie (e.g. Unit01 unfurling it's yellow wing things). Part 1 fills much of that gap with an emotional-roller-coaster-come-meat-grinder of solid events and a genuinely spine-tingling battle.

Be warned, if you've watch (and enjoyed) the whole series, you're about to see everything ripped, painfully to shreds with great style and tragic finesse. At the intermission we're left wondering if Shinji's about to kick some serious arse in an apocalyptic looking Unit01?... Part 2 holds no such promise, it's purely the final lament towards Armageddon (and beyond) that's been inevitable since the beginning. The Lilith/Rei goddess is (re)born very stylishly, supernatural essences merge, and the fate of humanity rests entirely in the mind of a boy who's gone way past post traumatic stress disorder, into the realms of crippling psychosis.

This was a brave ending: an epic tragedy, done the way only anime does (I've not seen a Hollywood blockbuster dare to *actually* go through with ending the world!). The fact that the series *has* an ending, and was indeed written to be a discrete (but comprehensive) statement, gives it major kudos with me. I'm not very keen on the use of real world footage towards the end (it kind of breaks the '4th wall'), but that was probably just to help really bring his message home...

“Human souls create their own bodies.”... etc, is clearly a crock of shit if taken literally. I doubt it's meant to be. “Imagination and creative power will create the future for us, and the flow of time.” Is something I believe in; our future is primarily shaped by our desires, which are only limited by our imaginations, the Singularity cometh and these will be realised, and so on. But, I reckon Hideaki Anno sees his work more philosophically as a metaphor for every-day social interaction between people; their inherent loneliness; a built in incompleteness. And probably an examination of personal difficulties he's had; the recurrent theme of running away, deliberate isolation from fear of being hurt; translates to the ultimate defensive technology: the “AT field” standing for “Absolute Terror”; the intangible boundary between minds (AKA souls), that may seem impenetrable to any possible exertions, when one's clinically depressed, has some other mental illness, or is just alive. Neon Genesis Evangelion is an olive branch extended to the world.

1 comment :

  1. Anonymous13:56

    The sad thing about Evangelion is they can't leave it well alone; like any major franchise its being continually re-made for the sake of squeezing a few extra bucks from the fans. There's a series of films on the go essentially re-writing the entire series.

    - Stephen.