Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Episodes 1-7 Review, plus Historical Context (by Murderous Ink)


A re-introduction to my Neon Genesis Evangelion series
 •
A reflection on the phenomenon of Evangelion in Japan, written by Murderous Ink
A discussion with Bob Clark and Murderous Ink about episodes 1 - 7

This viewing series actually began back in 2012, a year when we were supposed to experience an apocalypse (remember the whole December 21 thing?). So it is appropriate that my posts resume in 2015, another apocalyptic year - at least according to the show itself. Neon Genesis Evangelion, which premiered in 1995, is set in 2015; in fact, the very first episode apparently takes place two days ago (June 22). Of course in this version of 2015 the world has been nearly destroyed by a mysterious cataclysmic event called "The Second Impact" and the remnants of society are now being attacked by terrifying giant creatures called "Angels." Only teenage pilots can save humanity by piloting Evangelions, weaponized robots (or so it seems) that sync up with their nervous systems. That is the premise of Evangelion, but by the end of the series it has gone far, far afield from mecha action and adolescent hijinks into the realm of avant-garde animation, hallucinatory psychodrama, and intense, poignant character study. Now that my Evangelion series has returned, weekly reviews of each episode alongside extended discussions with bloggers Bob Clark and Murderous Ink, we will finally be able to reach those episodes and the even trippier film, as well as the recent Rebuild movies which extend and complicate the legacy of the show.

I know what you're thinking: you abandoned this episode guide two and half years ago - who is to say you'll complete it this time? Well, the good news is I already have completed it. In fact that's partly the reason why the series took so long to come back: I didn't want to resume until I was sure I would see it through. Several weeks ago, I reviewed the most recent of the Rebuild films and before that I held my last discussion with Bob, a massive two-part analysis of The End of Evangelion. While I still have some editing to do, and Murderous Ink may offer some further feedback, the bulk of the work is complete, scheduled behind-the-scenes in Blogger for every Wednesday through December 2. Therefore, barring an actual Third Impact, you will absolutely see a full episode guide for Neon Genesis Evangelion. If you decide to watch the show alongside us, you should be okay - we avoid any big spoilers though there are vague references to forthcoming characters or events so be warned. (That said, I doubt you'll be able to limit yourself to one 22-minute episode a week!) If you haven't watched the show yet, or haven't even heard of it, you probably shouldn't read any further - but keep your eyes peeled. I'm hoping to produce a very short video later this summer, introducing and recommending Neon Genesis Evangelion to those who haven't seen it yet (and celebrating it for those who have).

The upcoming posts were written in several installments, beginning last year - taking a break as I devoted most of my time and energy to Twin Peaks - and then resuming this spring for the final ten episodes. As such, I think you can see my perspective and knowledge of the show evolving over the course of these write-ups and discussions. I still have not seen much anime, but I have learned much more about the context of the show, the fan culture, and the mythology onscreen. Hopefully these posts can be enjoyed by Evangelion newbies and veterans alike - best of all would be to hear back from readers who have their own thoughts to share. In recent months, as I approached the final stretch of episodes (my favorite in the series) and began to really explore fan theories and analyses in depth I was blown away by the passion and insight of Eva fans. Although I've seen the show four or five times by now, my impressions will mostly by those of an outsider to anime and (at least initially) Eva. Hopefully that curious, fresh-eyed perspective will prove interesting, but keep in mind I will also be joined by two Eva fans whose histories with the series, and understanding of its world, go back much further than mine.

Bob Clark, who has been a participant in these posts since the very first one, is the blogger who introduced me to Neon Genesis Evangelion with his "Operation Yashima" essay on Wonders in the Dark in 2011. I don't incorporate dialogues into my blogging, but I knew when I tackled this series that I wanted him onboard. Bob's recent work can be found on NeoWestchester, a witty, inventive daily webcomic mixing sci-fi, politics, action, and affectionate satire of fan culture. Murderous Ink, a Japanese film writer who witnessed the Evangelion phenomenon firsthand in the mid-nineties, brings a much-needed socio-historical context to bear in his own analyses of the show, examining their resonance for Japanese society and their relevance post-Fukushima. When I discovered these essays in 2012, I invited him to join this discussion. He did not participate in the chats with Bob and I, but rather emailed his thoughts afterwards (to which we ourselves often responded). I have woven those longer reflections in with Bob's and my conversation and hopefully the presentation flows smoothly. MI's pereceptive, penetrating essays on classic cinema (particularly postwar Japan) can be found on his blog Vermillion and One Nights.

This week, in preparation for next week's resumption of the episode-by-episode approach with episode 8 ("Asuka Strikes!"), I wanted to share one of MI's more recent emails in which he replied to my inquiry about the state of the fandom in Japan. His response is presented here in its entirety, as a prologue to the conversation Bob, MI, and I had about the first seven episodes.

Neon Genesis Evangelion in Nineties Japan (and Today)
by Murderous Ink

As far as I know ... and I haven't been that much familiar with NGE fandom, to be honest ... the peak of the fandom was around late '90s and early '00s. Of course, there is still a huge fan base and activities, but I don't think the movie generated another big wave.

Kenichi Yamakawa, a cultural/literature critic, reminiscences the path of NGE popularities over the years in the book "The Catalog of Anime (Kawaide Shobo, 2014)":
It has become a social phenomenon; this means the anime (NGE) was discussed among non-anime fans as well. I, myself was one. ....

The last episode was aired in the end of March, 1996. The average rating was 7.1 %, which was not that high. However, the third soundtrack CD released in May of that year climbed to the top in Oricon chart, and major magazines at the time (Shuukan Bunshun, Shuukan Yomiuri in June and Schola in July) carried articles on the phenomenal sales of the soundtrack CD. The related franchise, such as CDs and the comic by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, recorded high sales figures, which triggered the wider recognition of EVA.

Many insiders in sub-culture industry had been already alert about the NGE/Eva phenomenon very early. For example, Hideshi Ohtsuka had written an article on the series in Yomiuri Shinbun (Newspaper) already during the TV series. This phenomenon manifested itself in August of that year, 5 magazines (SF magazine, Across, Quick Japan, Yuriia, Dela-Beppin) carried the article on Eva.

The general public had not been that kind to Otaku culture at the time of NGE TV series. Of course, manga had been established as a part of culture and anime by Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuhiro Otomo were esteemed highly, but anime and manga with typical graphical features of Mecha and Bishojo anime were considered as Otaku-ish and as vulgar back then.

....

It is rather being forgotten, but Episode 21 and later had never been on VHS nor on LD until 1998, the next year of the first movie. The versions aired on TV had been considered need reworking due to the poor production at the time, so they added many scenes upon the media release.

As I have stated earlier, the rating at the time of original TV air was not that high. So there were many people who missed these later episodes. There were many areas (in Japan) where the show had not been aired at the first place. Even if these people got interested in the series, video rental shops and others carried episodes only up to Episode 20.
Yamakawa's view is probably quite accurate.

Many people cite 1995 as the pivotal year in recent Japanese history.

Kobe earthquake in January of that year and Sarin attack in Tokyo subway in March really shocked public. I finished my graduate study in Denver and came back to Japan in July of that year, and all people were talking about was Aum Shinri-kyo, the religious cult which had done a series of criminal activities and the Sarin attack. And many critics today consider NGE was also pivotal point among younger generation at the time.

However, I think it is more important to look the gradual change in Japanese society over the course of '90s. '80s and early '90s saw unprecedented boom in economy, bubble economy, in Japan, which busted in '92 or '93. But it was much later, much much later, that the real effect began to creep into our lives in general. In fact, there was still optimism, incredibly naive optimism, if I may say, during late '90s and early '00s. NEET (not in education, employment or training) became a buzz word, as media tried to paint Otaku as introverted, sick and anti-social. Another important event in the sub-culture was serial murder of girls in 80s and subsequent arrest of Tsutomu Miyazaki. Miyazaki, who murdered 4 girls (mostly under 5 years old) in the most gruesome manner, was reported to be an avid fan of anime and Kaiju. In mainstream media, his actions were suggested as Otaku's desires fulfilled ... violent pedophilic fantasies. Even to this day, it is the stigma among Otaku and anime fans.

Aum Shinrikyo was a gradual phenomenon as well. It may well have been just another New Age Cult with its charismatic leader. Some of the contemporary thinkers at the time had endorsed some of the "post-modern" aspects of this cult, reinforcing the spiritual relativism as a counter-culture against and beyond the Cold War era rhetoric. Not only that this cult turned out to be a spiritual hoax, but also we realized that "post-modern" was just a word and didn't have enough cultural strength to survive the violence of the post-Cold War era. As we all know, the end of Cold War revealed the naked ugliness which had been covered under the blanket of ideological/political dichotomy, kicking us into another cage of power struggle, - and this time, it is much more close to our home - though amplified multiple times in its magnitude. 911 is just another point in time of this long violent voyage through another era, to which "post-modern" had offered little solution. In micro-scale of Japanese society, the loss of cultural center of gravity had scattered many bits and pieces of "sub-cultures". And many writers and thinkers tend to reinterpret these bits and pieces along the long course of post-Cold War society, including Kobe earthquake, Aum Shinrikyo, unemployment, long recession, 311, Fukushima, resurgence of political right and racism, and so on. And NGE/Evangelion is still the largest bits of all.

Many Japanese assert NERV being very Japanese. It is quite efficient, but each individual tends to "follow the unwritten aim of the organization" rather than argue. Gendo is not as charismatic (say, as Hitler), but each NERV personnel just instinctively knows what the organization expects him/her to perform. And Shinji, who would not fit in any society, feels completely out of place, even if he is one of the chosen. He searches for recognition, not any recognition, but personal - from his father, or from a girl or girls, - even if he is saving the world from Shito.

Well, my view is, Japanese organization is not efficient, precisely because each personnel thinks he/she is doing some good to the organization, by adjusting his/her thinking and being silent. The organization like NERV will never exist precisely because genius is hard to come by, and only mildly talented people populate the world. And the real problem is that people who think they are extremely talented (they are not), actually behave as if they are part of NERV, creating more discrimination and inequality in the society. People who seeks recognition (who doesn't?) realizes what they need is not only personal but also social recognition, otherwise they just can't survive, literally. My point is there are many people (at least among Japanese writers) who tend to read parallel between NGE and Japanese society, but I think the world of NGE is so alien to our actual daily surroundings. But, as I have discussed before, the self-sacrifice fantasy is still intact.

Today, there are some core fans of NGE and Evangelion series. But I don't think (as far as I can gather) the younger generation (meaning teenagers today) are picking up the phenomenon. I think they see it as dated. The main generation of Eva fans are in their thirties and forties, which is fine for franchise, since these older generation have purchasing power. As we all know, the major part of fandom is created by marketing, and the marketing knows how much their prospective customers can spend. In that sense, Evangelion is a huge business. At the same time, I guess the younger generations are picking up more of Death Note, Ansatsu Kyositsu, One Piece, Naruto and others.

• • •


There was a long gap between my last conversation with Bob Clark (on ep. 7) and the resumption of this series. To catch up, we decided to discuss ep. 1-7 collectively before moving on to ep. 8 (which will go up next week).

Conversation on Episodes 1 - 7 with Bob Clark and Murderous Ink

me: What particularly consolidates these episodes together for you, how do you see their collective arc, or theme?

Bob: Well, 1 - 6 have the strongest arc out of any 6 episodes, in one sense. They very clearly show Shinji's growing adjustment to NERV and the Evas, and his attempt and gradual success at connecting with people, particularly Rei, who at this point seems to be the major female character, aside from Misato.

me: Do you see a progression in those connections? I know before we discussed him going from Misato to his schoolmates to Rei - which in a way represents him getting closer & closer to himself (mother figure to peers to someone who at times seems like his female stand-in).

Bob: To an extent. What's odd of course is that both Misato and Rei are ambiguous mother figures-- they're both very sexualized, of course. Misato does have a nurturing side to her, though, and she takes the role of guardian seriously, for the most part. And then Rei ... what we have is Shinji beginning with one Oedipal figure, then going out into the world of his peers, and then returning to another Oedipal figure.
Then with episode 8, we have the first real break from that.

me: Without particular spoilers, if that's possible, how do you see the neat arc of 1-7 setting up the thematic shifts in the rest of the show?

Bob: Well, by episode 7, Shinji has kinda found a sense of normalcy in NERV. Enough that we can see him being embarrassed and kinda sarcastic even with Misato. He's stopped being weirded out by the premise of the show that he lives in, which positions him now to be pushed right back out of his comfort zone by Asuka in episode 8.
The same is true of the viewers. By 7 weeks time, we're probably familiar enough with the beats for a new element to be thrown in. And by and large, we won't have another new element tossed in like that until the Kaworu episode, which is mostly an outlier.

me: What do you think is the purpose of that? Beyond just upping the dramatic stakes to keep viewers watching & the story interesting? Does it have implications for Shinji's personal development or Anno's thematic thrust?

Bob: In one sense, I think it's a structural thing that you see with a lot of anime. Say, whenever you watch an anime's opening introduction montage, you can always bet that some of the characters you're seeing won't be introduced until the first 6-episode unit is finished. I mean, some, like "Cowboy Bebop", have characters you don't see for the first time until almost a third of the series is done (Radical Ed).
So, taking the time to show us the bulk of the cast in 1-7 before dropping the Asuka bomb in 8, that's a standard thing, even though she's right there in the intro of each episode.

Murderous Ink: This is true and one of the basic 'hooks' they use for TV anime. One of the recent examples is Samurai Flamenco, which is currently running on midnight TV here. The opening montage anticipates the typical hero-robot anime, but its first 6 episodes were nothing but an offbeat comedy. Then, suddenly, it turned into a full-blown, somewhat gruesome hero anime, without any forewarning. In many contemporary animes, some of the basic clues for this kind of narrative 'detective work' are usually given in these opening montage, and fans discuss the details of these cuts to decipher them. It is usually acknowledged that NGE did contribute to unique placement of opening sequence in overall narrative.

Bob: This is also something that Anno did to a somewhat gentler effect in his previous series "Nadia", didn't he? Unfortunately the American DVD set I have only includes the same opening montage for every episode, but from what I've seen each arc looks like it had its own. At any rate, even the earliest montage leaves a lot of clues for later in the series-- we see Captain Nemo, the Nautilus and Atlantis many episodes before they're introduced in the show, as well as other characters and pairings that don't feature until later, some until quite late in the series (Nadia in her nude-glowing Atlantean form). I can also think of other series that more or less might've tricked audiences with their opening montages-- Anno's "GunBuster" promises a light, bouncy bit of girl mecha-pilot fanservice, but quickly turns into a somewhat deeper, weirder bit of semi-hard sci-fi; on the opposite end of the spectrum, Oshii's "Patlabor" OVA promises a lot of mecha-police work in the opening, but never really gets to that until the very last episodes, the bulk of the show beforehand being more like a rookie-academy comedy.
Anno's great at it, but it feels like the strains of the "detective work" montages existed for a while, too.
I think it's also important that Asuka is the disruptive element within the series. Something we'll get to when we do episode 8.
Another thing is that episodes 1 to 6 especially have a very emphatic beginning middle and end. It's little wonder that when they did the Rebuild movies, those episodes were barely changed to become a feature narrative.

me: That ties into something we'll get to in a moment, when we discuss where the show was heading in terms of style & budget (& how those were related). But narratively as well, NGE seems to have gotten more experimental as it went along. Obviously there are unusual, maybe even avant-garde elements in the first few episodes but within - as you say - clear narrative bounds. Even within the clearer narrative lines themselves, our understanding of characters and institutions will shift, and the bottom will often fall out from under expectations.
To what extent, to your knowledge, was all of this intentional from the get-go, with the first 7 episodes establishing (as you say) a relatively stable universe (or rather an oasis of stability within a dangerous, chatoic universe) only to purposefully subvert it later? And also, did this depart significantly from anime series conventions of the time, or was it fulfilling them?

Bob: Well, there are a number of animes that Anno was drawing heavy inspiration from, to the point that he was kinda seen in the same vein as Tarantino when it first started-- the remix anime. Other shows like "Ideon" have alot of the same gradual build up to an apocalyptic "bad end" finale. But a lot of it, I think, was influenced not only by that and the usual disruptions from Gainax's budget problems-- it was also to an extent, I think, caused by Anno's occasional boredoms with the story he mapped out...
Apparently, for example, there was a bigger role envisioned for Rei, but after episode 6, he was more or less done with her, as a character.

me: So what I'm getting is that the narrative shifts weren't really planned - and to a certain extent he was winging it as the show wore on?
Was his original plan more in the spirit of episodes 1-7? Regardless of storytelling approach, did he always intend for that stability to break down?

Bob: I'm pretty sure you can look up his original outline for the show at EvaGeeks and other databases. But a lot of the show was meant to be more conventionally done, I think. I mean, it's hard to say because both "Gunbuster" and "Nadia", which came before this, have very strong experimental streaks. But they're more grounded in narrative experiments as well-- "Gunbuster" especially is actually one of the most interesting portrayals of the accidental time effects of hypothetical deep space travel
Obviously experimental storytelling is in 1-7, and it's especially there in more conventional terms in later episodes like the Sea of Dirac one. But if it weren't for Gainax's issues, we very well might have seen something just a bit more conventional in the series-- at the very least, we might've seen the events of "End of Evangelion" play out on the show, instead of the minimalist stuff in the last two episodes.
However, a lot of the storyline in 1-6 is probably influenced by one of the failed projects that Anno had been attached to at one point, the sequel to "Royal Space Force", which he said the "you cannot run away" refrain came from.

me: Stylistically, how would you define or describe the first seven episodes? Do you see a development or shift within these or do they appear of a piece when compared to later episodes (or continuous with those as well)?

Bob: I think one of the most impressive things about these first few episodes, stylistically, is how they're able to marry a kind of realism to all of the high concept action and world-building. It's even moreso than in "Akira", which was ground breaking for all the right reasons, but still has this veneer of exaggeration to the way it presents the real world. With NGE, if you cut out all of the Eva fights, what you'd have is a pretty straightforward depiction of a modern Tokyo not that far removed from reality.
There was more that I probably could've added around the time I was seeing "Akira" in theaters and catching up on the manga again after so long. As much as it's plain to see that there's a lot of elements in NGE that come straight from Otomo, it helps to better see what makes Anno's series work in contrast.
The 3rd Impact supposedly wipes out almost the entire world's population, but it results in a new Tokyo that at times looks very much like contemporary Japan. Contrast that to "Akira", which has a pretty standard WWIII scenario that results in an overgrown urban explosion that looks like "Blade Runner" on steroids.

me: Why do you think that is - and what's the effect on the viewer?

Bob: You'd have to ask MI for his take on when it first came out. But I guess I'd say it's the same difference between "Blade Runner" and say "Alphaville"-- one is a very constructed, hyperreal depiction of a future, the other one is so down to earth it barely even feels like it's depicting the future at all. With NGE, of course, you have all these truly alien and abstract things happening with the Angels and Instrumentality, whereas with "Akira" you have a merely exaggerated version of stuff from reality, with the exception of the more climactic psychic acts and mutations.
But it's also easy to see a fair deal of "Akira" in some of the more emotional stuff in NGE. The childhood unhappiness and abandonment, the nightmares of loneliness on the playground, the kinda bizarre existential turn at the end.
But again there's a big contrast, say, in how something as shared as the kids-as-guinea-pigs theme. You see that in "Akira", but there, you have adults to treat the surviving children very tenderly, compassionately. Whereas in NGE...

me: Do you see Akira as Blade Runner vs. NGE as Alphaville?

Bob: Yeah, pretty much.

me: OK, thought that's what you were saying. Both atmospherically and thematically, that makes sense to me. Although NGE has a lighter feel at times than both, not only in terms of comedic touches but literally with visuals - so many scenes take place in daylight.

Bob:  Yeah. That's one of the interesting effects that a lot of the world is visualized. You can tell that they're using photographs as heavy reference for some scenes in a way that obviously isn't happening in "Akira", and that gives it a denser feel, especially when you see things in bright light like that. It also helps you see the influence from all of the "special effects" shows and movies that Anno is so beholden to. Godzilla tends to attack during daytime.

me: There's also more open space than I remember seeing in Akira, more of a pastoral feel at times, or even when locations are urban or indoors, few people around. Which also brings it closer to Alphaville at times.

Bob:  Absolutely. The closest you get to pastoral in "Akira" are the flashbacks to the children, which have a very melancholy air to them. It's actually even more stunning to think about the pastoral in NGE, because they make such a big deal over the fact that the world is supposed to be decimated. And it doesn't really seem like that-- I mean, episode 4 takes place in a veritable Van Gogh wonderland. That's perhaps a commentary on the fragile state of nature in our world, always under attack, but flourishing as far as we can see.

Murderous Ink: Talking about Akira vs. NGE as Blade Runner vs. Alphaville ... it's a fascinating comparison, I think. You mentioned 'pastoral feel' of NGE, as opposed to dark, dystopian landscape of Akira. 'Pastoral feel' is exactly the kind of landscape we have in suburban Kanto, especially the western Kanagawa where NGE 's Tokyo-3 is located. The world of NGE is the result of creating fictional world as an extension of the real, or rather, drawing the ordinary world and twisting it a little. The writer for NGE, Noboru Aikawa said in an interview,

"Actually what we did in Eva is not that new. It was still a continuation of what OVA (Original Video Animation) had been doing, - remembering the old animes and special effects TV our generation loved, taking them as sources, and refining them in today's environment. For example, the settings of Tokyo-3 or Shito were simply born out of the idea how real we could draw the Photon Energy Laboratory (in Mazinger Z) or Kaiju."
(Manga Vol.1 Ch.2 Page 2 Himawari, Inio Asano)

I think this obsession with 'reality' is quite unique in Japanese animes and mangas and I wonder if there are any parallels in American comics and animations. This juxtaposition of 'reality' and 'manga/comic/anime' really had gained its momentum during '80s, when some of the manga writers had began using photography as reference materials in their works. This trend not only continues but is cherished, even pushed to the limit by some manga writers, such as Inio Asano.

Bob: This is something I've noticed in anime and especially manga, as it compares to American comics. It's easy to look at the heavily detailed and at times almost photo-realistic imagery from guys like Otomo and Shirow and see the clear difference between the more exaggerated sense of graphic design sensibilities in American artists like Jack Kirby or Will Eisner. When American comics illustrators have opted for realism, it's always a different kind than you have in manga-- rather than the aggressively drawn mechas and such in "Appleseed" or "Ghost in the Shell", where the detail seems to be there to help ground the high-concept imagery and help you take it seriously, an American artist from a similar period like Frank Miller might be illustrating his super-hero worlds with a detailed, but sensationalistic and exaggerated brand of street/gutter level grime. It makes me wonder if this is due to specific influences in each area-- Miller was taking a lot of cues from films like "Taxi Driver" and "Dirty Harry" at the time, these nightmares of urban decay, but he was also clearly being influenced by manga as well.
Of course, there's also perhaps an even simpler reason for some of the differences here-- manga are typically purely black-and-white affairs, whereas mainstream American comics (and European as well) are in full color. The limitations of manga necessitate a certain level of detail that many American comics of similar periods avoided (sometimes with equally stunning effects-- Steranko was pretty much overdosing on pop-art and surrealism in his "Nick Fury" comics).

me: Anything else you'd like to add?

Bob: Well, you're definitely looking at this from a long-term perspective. I suppose one thing I'd ask is your initial reaction to thise arc of episodes when you first watched them.

me: Good question. It was about 2 1/2 years ago - I feel like I was intrigued (if at times confused) by the first episode arc, and I would say the show pulled me in more, and I became more invested in the characters, as it moved along. For that among other reasons, I'm looking forward to picking up the thread and resuming with episode 8 soon.

FURTHER READING



Reddit Rewatch Discussions (for each episode and film - this link is for 3.33 but the others are linked up top)

(there are a ton of great analysis I could link, from this site and others but this piece is particularly outstanding)



And just for fun, here is a radio play that Hideaki Anno wrote after the series ended. It is performed by the entire vocal cast of the show and it is pretty hilarious to hear them spoof their own show, like a Mad Magazine comic come to life. The audio was subtitled and brilliantly illustrated by fans in this video (make sure you watch parts 2 & 3 as well).



See you next Wednesday!


Next week: "Asuka Strikes!" • Two years ago: "A Human Work"


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