Sunday, January 20, 2013

Neon Genesis: Evangelion

I am watching the series again for the first time in nearly ten years with my girlfriend, a casual Anime fan who has never seen it.  I was infatuated with the series when it first made its way to the states.  It has been interesting to revisit it as well as see it through the eyes of one who is seeing it for the first time.

Following are some observations about what, to my knowledge, remains one of the most controversial and influential Anime productions of the last 20 years.

What is it?

Evangelion is
  • A story about a teenage boy who pilots a giant robot in order to defend the earth from giant monsters
  • A satire of giant robot shows
  • A story of how life on Earth came to be, and how it may end.
  • A character study showing how a group of unique people deal with their insecurities
  • A coming of age story
  • A science-fiction take on early Judeo-Christian mythology
  • A series of metaphors for loneliness
  • Cute girls and fanservice
  • About a character trying to answer the questions "Who am I?" "What is my purpose?" and "Is life worth living?"
At least, this what it tries to be.  How effectively it manages to be any of these things is certainly up for debate.  Like "Lost," it is frequently inscrutible and many questions lack clear answers.  However, I have to give the show's creators credit for trying to tackle so much and bring some maturity to a genre which had little intellectual substance.

What it did well

For first time viewers, it successfully grabbed a large audience by appearing to be a new entry into a popular genre - big robot shows (Gundam, Macross,  It maintains a mostly light tone through the first act.  However it also took a lot of time with characterization.  Evangelion's characters are its strongest point.  Shinji isn't a cool gorgeous guy with spiky hair who kicks ass.  He's a shy, awkward boy that viewers can identify with.  If you weren't a bit like Shinji growing up, you knew someone who was.  Many other characters that at first appear two dimensional turn out to have more complex motivations.

It effectively used the tools of animation to visualize a variety of psychoanalytical head trips.

It gives its viewers a lot to discuss.  Of course, this is in no small part because of the ever increasing tide of unanswered questions, in which one answer often leads to a new question, and a great many of these questions lack clear answers.  However, I prefer a story that makes one think and leaves things open to interpretation to one that wraps everything up in a neat package and tells the viewer what to think and feel.

Where it fails
 Evangelion tries to be too many things and leaves too many questions unanswered.  You find yourself invested in a great number of chracters, but it's really only Shinji who gets his due.  While many of the show's mysteries can be solved through repeated viewings, others remain a complete mystery.  And yet, there is still filler.  In more skilled hands, the story could have been told more clearly and concisely.  The elements of the show that satirize big robot shows are too different in tone to the rest of the show to really fit in.

I haven't watched it.  Should I?
I think anyone who has any interest in anime should see it simply for how tremendously influential the show has been.  The characters are vibrant, the story is intriguing, and the animation is quite good.  If you enjoy a head trip, it shouldn't be missed.  I also strongly recommend the English dub.  Not every English voice is top notch, but there are more quality English performances than Japanese.  I particularly enjoy Gendou's English voice.

What in the hell is actually going on?
 The real point of the show is to discuss how humans deal with loneliness. How we create barriers around ourselves, and how we are hurt, and hurt others as a result.  At the core, it's about Shinji's loneliness and search for purpose.  That's the only story element that gets truly resolved by the end.  Unfortunately, we'd also like to know what the hell was going on around Shinji, and that isn't terribly clear.

A special state of spoiler emergency has been declared...

Ok.  So millions of years ago, a race of superbeings sent giant eggs out into space. Half of the eggs contained a creature called Adam, and the other half contained a creature called Lillith.  Creatures that evolve from Adam become giant beings called Angels, and creatures that evolve from Lillith become the kind of life we have on Earth.  Plants, animals, human beings.  In Biblical terms, Lillith represents the fruit of life, and Adam represents the fruit of Knowledge.  Each egg also contains a spear, called the Lance of Longenus, which prevents the superbeings (Adam / Lilith) from being able to act.  (We've already got some sexual imagery going on here - spears and eggs...). Adam's egg contained the dead sea scrolls, instructions that explain how to use Adam and Lilith to cause the boarders between souls to disappear and combine all consciousnesses together. 

First Impact
Shablams!  An egg of Lilith and an egg of Adam slam into the Earth.  Adam's egg lands at the south pole, and Lilith's egg lands on what will become Japan. The stuff of life, which in the show is called LCL, flows out onto Earth and life begins to evolve

Second Impact
In the late 1990's, human scientists discover the eggs, which they call "Geo-fronts" and the creatures inside them.  They begin experimenting in secret. Two groups are involved, Sele and Gehirn.  Sele is run by a committe chaired by a man named Keel, and Gehirn is run by Gendou Ikari and Dr. Katsuragi (Misato's father).  While there, Sele scientists remove Adam's soul....somehow...and place it in Koaru, who is an infant.    Meanwhile, Gendou has learned that if Adam and Lilith come into contact with one another, they explode.  Dramatically.  Because human beings come from Lilith, it only takes human contact with Adam to cause this.  Gendou takes all the data prior to this and leaves, but warns no one.  Kablamo!

Back in Japan, Gendou and his team begin constructing Evangelions which are clones of Adam. They have no souls and cannot function without a will.  Gendou's wife Yui allows herself to be absorbed by Eva Unit 01.  Gendou creates Rei, a clone of Yui, and inserts Lilith's soul into her....somehow.  Meanwhile, at a base in Germany, the mother of Asuka is mostly absorbed by Unit 02, leaving part of her soul in the Eva, but her body, and some of her soul remain.  She goes mad and ultimately hangs herself.  Back in Japan, Ritsuko Akagi's mother copies her mind into the Magi computers, kills Rei in a jealous rage, and then kills herself.  I'm still not certain as to whether it is her soul that winds up in Unit 00 or if it is enough of Adam to sense Lilith's soul inside Rei.  Whichever the case, it hates her.

Angel Atack
Angels, presumably from other planets where life evolved from Adam, sense Gendou's plans and begin attacking. They are drawn to Adam and Lilith, and are either seeking to stop Gendou or perhaps simply wish to unite with them just as Sele wishes.   Rei, Shinji, and Asuka fight back.

As the show progresses, Kaji steals Adam, which was reduced to a small embryo, from Sele, and Gendou retrieves the Lance of Longenus from Antartica, and it is revealed that the "AT Field" is merely the boarder of a person's soul.  While this is never mentioned in the series, It's worth noting that in the opening credits there's a quick flash of "Absolute Terror Field."  This plays into the theme of how we put up barriers around ourselves in fear of being hurt by others.

Human Instrumentality & Third Impact
Gendou puts the Adam embryo inside Rei.  Rei now has both the fruit of life and knowledge and becomes a god.  This triggers Third Impact.  Everyone's AT field vanishes and all humanity's souls flood together.  Individuality vanishes.  All organic life on earth melts back into LCL.  However, Shinji and Asuka are inside their Evas, and shielded from this.  Asuka is unconscious and on the brink of death, and it falls to Shinji to determine what will happen.  He can either accept instrumentality, give up individuality and become one with all humanity, or he can choose to remain an individual, accepting that with it comes pain, but also hope, and the possibility of joy.  Ultimately, Shinji chooses hope.  Shinji and Asuka find themselves washed up on a shore of a primordial sea.  At first, he sees Asuka and reacts as if she is the hateful persona he imagined her to be in his mind, and he begins to strangle her.  She caresses his cheek, however, and he relents.  They are now the only humans on a new Eden - an Adam and Eve.


  1. You left out the part where Shinji jerks off over Asuka's unconscious body... Asuka's nude 14 year old body that is.

  2. Yes well, I was trying to be succinct.

  3. Ok, my original comment was crude, but it was also via a mobile device, so I wasn't about to write an epic reply.

    First; where did you get the explanation of what the heck was going on? I remember searching back in the day for that info, but never found anything talking about space eggs and what not. Assuming there's even more here than you posted I'd be interested in reading it.

    Second; my actual reply. I tried re-watching this recently and for me it simply doesn't hold up. It's too silly for what it's trying to accomplish. The narrative is heavy and deserves a strong and consistent tone. Every time the kooky music kicks in and there's some anime-isms I just check out. Imagine if in Schindler's List there were random scenes with chirpy music, bright colors, busty (beautiful) women bathing, and smattering of penis jokes. It would take you right out of the film.

    Most will counter my complaints and say "it's Asian, that's just the way they tell stories" but Kurosawa didn't make films that way. And to keep the example in the Anime genre, Cowboy Bebop wasn't that way.

    I don't disagree with you though that someone who is interested in anime should see it given how influential it has been. But for an old codger like me, it's unfortunately not up to my impossibly high standards anymore.

  4. First off, I found the space egg explanation some time ago when my interest was rekindled by watching it with Liz. Apparently, it's from Anno's production notes, some of which which came with some super-duper collector cards or some such. It's still not tremendously clear since there's also the whole Lilith / Cain hints and the weird mythology about all of their children being cursed with madness, and the "room of Gauf" with the limited number of human souls and.... *head a splode*

    And I'm still not certain why Gendou and Sele are at odds given that both Sele and Gendou -want- instrumentality.

    As for your objections to the series - you're absolutely right. And it doesn't help when trying to re-watch it that a lot of the silliness comes in the early episodes, which are in part a satire of traditional giant robot shows as well as an attempt to lure viewers with humor and fanservice. These could be sacrifices Anno made in order to get funding. Regardless of the reason, they definitely harm the overall piece. If it weren't for the strong characters and interesting directions the show ultimately takes, Evangelion would be completely forgetable.

    Part of me would love for a remake of the show that has a more consistent tone and less filler and silliness. We certainly didn't get that with the 4-part re-edit which came out recently *cough CASHGRAB cough.* Imagine the story reworked and directed by someone like Alex Proyas or Guillermo del Toro for example.

    1. Let's assume you take out the nonsense and get a trilogy of 2-ish hour films to reimagine Evalgelion live action. Do you still go with either of those directors?

      If not, who are your two top choices? I like del Toro's stuff, but I'm not sure he'd get the emotional tone right with all of the pieces in play.

      Alex Proyas is a better choice in my mind because he's worked in similarly confusing and epic material, and would take greater risks with the story.

      My first choice is a little weird. I'd love to see Terrence Malick tackle Eva! Would he get the technical stuff right? Hard to say. Or if I'm not being weird how about Neill Blomkamp?

    2. It's interesting to think about it as a trilogy. It makes me want to write a plot outline to see how it could all work.

      As to your director question, I agree that Proyas is more likely to do well with the story. I included Del Toro because he's proven himself very adept with unusual visuals and symbolism.

      Wow, Terrance Malick! I hadn't thought about it, but he would certainly be a great choice for the psychological aspects of the story. Perhaps if he was teamed with a cinematogrpaher and/or technical advisor with a lot of SF experience...

      Neill Blomkamp is also an interesting suggestion, sort of the oposite of Terrance Malick. He'd get the look of everything right, and the action would be good, but I didn't see anything in District 9 to suggest he would be adept at all the symbolism and pshychoanalysis.

      So, two top choices:
      Alex Proyas remains #1
      For my 2nd choice... how about this madness? Terrance Malick supported by James Cameron as a technical advisor. (not that Cameron would ever accept such a backseat role...)

    3. It's all about the direction you want to take the story. Is it a robot story with some deep thinking or is it deep thinking with some robot stuff?

      You probably can't do both. The anime proved that you can't do both and have it totally work.

      Malick would make the thinking movie with some robot stuff. Blomkamp would be the robot movie with some thinking stuff. Let's see how his next film, Elysium pans out.