This series is an episode guide to the Japanese anime television show Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 - 96) and the spin-off films. Each entry includes my own reflection on the episode, followed by a conversation with fellow bloggers Bob Clark and Murderous Ink.
As every Hollywood romantic comedy has taught us, the ideal couple must bicker and clash before they come together. Although Asuka's and Shinji's entaglement won't necessarily follow such a clear-cut outline, they are at least true to this principle. And as is often the case in such tempestuous trysts, the female initially overwhelms and overshadows the cowed male. As "Magma Diver" begins, Asuka is still the new star of the show (three episodes into her arc, it's clear Anno is still far more excited by her presence than that of Shinji, Misato, or especially Rei). We see her shopping with her bemused and much older crush Kaji, who teases her about her obsession with revealing bathing suits (she's preparing for a school trip to a hot springs resort). Kaji isn't the only one teasing - the episode drops numerous hints that Asuka will soon be diving and swimming in something far less refreshing than spring water; and sure enough before long her trip has been cancelled and she has volunteered to extract an Angel egg from deep beneath the earth's surface. Is it really a spoiler to say things don't go well?
The first sign of trouble, as far as the teenage pilot is concerned, comes when her magma-proof suit is revealed: at the press of the button it balloons into a rolly-poly protective shell which may keep her safe but also makes her look like the Stay-Puft marshmallow man (or perhaps the bratty Violet Beauregard blown up into a giant blueberry). Humiliated by her appearance, she nonetheless demands to be given the duty - when Rei responds, Asuka slaps her hand away. If losing her figure is bad, losing the glory of a dangerous mission is far worse (Shinji, by contrast, glumly accepts but doesn't relish the - wrong - expectation that he would be tapped to capture the Angel). When Asuka drops, she boasts of her skills and fearlessness over the intercom, and only briefly worries about the consequences of failure (under Ikari's orders, the Angel, Asuka, and NERV would all be instantly destroyed to avoid a second apocalypse).
Initially Asuka succeeds, barely surviving the pressure, arriving at her destination (that would be floating in an endless field of underground lava) and entrapping the fetal Angel in its massive chrysalis. However, no NERV mission has yet been easy and this one will be no exception. Within moments, the Angel has birthed itself, attacked Asuka and withstood numerous counterattacks. For the first time in three episodes she's truly in need of rescue. Well, sort of - Shinji must drop a knife down to her Eva for use, but it's still up to her to use it. And so she does, stabbing the Angel relentlessly and then improvising when that's not enough. She destroys the Angel just in time, but as it distintegrates, it severs her tether to the overworld and, stunned, she begins to drop to her inevitable demise - until a giant hand grips her tightly and she looks up to see Eva-01. She smiles up warmly, the sarcasm washed out of her system, and this is the first moment of true, conscious tenderness between her and Shinji - even if mediated by the giant mechanical suits they wear.
If this begins as Asuka's episode, it climaxes (no pun intended) by focusing on Shinji who is aroused for the first time while eavesdropping on Misato and Asuka skinny-dipping near him in the resort they've finally arrived in, just over the partition. He blushes and dives underwater, humiliated by the unexpected experience (as is pet penguin Pen-Pen, whose comic presence frequently enlivens "Magma Diver" and also inspires a number of creative non sequitur shots). Again we have the fascinating contrast between the timid boy coming of age and the massive super-robot he pilots. Encased in Eva-01, Shinji saves the world and the girl he's increasingly becoming attracted to. Stripped of that outfit (indeed, of any outfit) he can't even control his own body. Following this scene, the episode ends as Asuka notices Misato's scar, and the older woman casually acknowledges its origin in the Second Impact, also alluding to Asuka's apparently dark backtory. There's a lot Shinji doesn't yet know about the women in his life - not only their outer sexuality but the inner suffering remains remote at this point.
The last episode forced Shinji and Asuka to collaborate and hinted at their mutual attraction for the first time. "Magma Diver" - while mostly avoiding either confrontations or connections - subtly deepens both aspects of their relationship. Professionally, Shinji openly saves Asuka (and for the first time she expresses something other than resentment, irritation, or jealousy toward him). Personally, his physical attraction manifests itself, but on a less bawdy level - his concern and care for her also emerge in his wordless rescue (there is no hint that he is diving down to rescue her, or even considering such a move; he's just suddenly there). In the end, it isn't just Asuka who is the magma diver of the title, it's Shinji. And so we begin to subtly shift back to his central perspective. Not that Asuka is going anywhere...
Conversation with Bob Clark and Murderous Ink
me: I'd make a "let's dive in" corny pun to start off, but really it wouldn't be any less obvious than the hints Episode 10 drops early on about where Asuka is headed. This an episode with a lot of foreshadowing. I feel like there's probably more significance to her deep-earth diving than I realize right now.
Out of curiosity is there a subgenre of action animes dealing with underground missions, or lava or anything? I get the weird sense that this episode is tying into some larger phenomenon. "Magma Diver" is such a specific title too, especially after some of the previous ones involving philosophical phrases and such.
Bob: Well, there's definitely a theme in anime of "the spa episode", which we get a teasing glimpse of here. Lots of shows have them, featuring the female characters luxuriating naked for the viewer and getting into over-the-top antics. We only get a bit of it here. A more prominent example would be something like "Tenchi Muyo."
As for "lava episode"-- I can't think of any really. There's a part of me that sees a lot of this as an inversion of some of the Bond instincts in the series-- instead of being a glory-girl sexy figure for the duration, Asuka is turned into Violet from Willy Wonka. Part of my thought here is mainly from the title-- "Magma Diver" sounds like a possible title from the cheesy hey-day of the sixties. And for how it's marketed to anime fans-- there are whole lines of figurine sets of the girls in their swimsuits loudly emblazoned with "MAGMA DIVER"-- makes it seem like it ought to be its own franchise, like "MOONRAKER" or something.
Murderous Ink: As far as I know, Anno borrowed its title from Sundiver by David Brin, though he admitted he had never read it. Since Japan is located on the 'Ring of Fire', volcanic activities, including earthquakes, are frequent and often drastic. These geographical characteristics must have been a basis for numerous myth, legends, and folklores involving volcanoes and inspired many contemporary artists to create their works on that theme. You may recall, for example, Kurosawa's The Bad Sleeps Well brings its most dramatic moment on the top of the volcano. Also, underground magma activities are always considered a mysterious source of nature. Even though I am not aware of any 'subgenre of action animes dealing with underground missions', many mysterious entities (from Godzilla to evil empire) have their origins in deep underground.
me: re: spa episode, I thought it was kind of amusing how the fanservice here mostly involves an inversion of the voyeuristic concept. It's really Shinji who is more exposed here (and even when the girls are sitting poolside, it is to expose physical and psychological scars).
Murderous Ink: What I find quite fascinating (not necessarily in critical way) is that no female characters in this story reacts to the 'fetus' of the Shito being developed in lava/womb just like other vertebrates. I don't think Anno was/is particularly sensitive to gender politics of post-political correctness world, and this series was well before such discussion was brought into literal and art criticism. So, its gender concepts or gender fantasies can be sometimes offensive or even ridiculous to our eyes (like embarrassingly outdated hot-spa antics you mentioned). Here, Misato, for example, has no remorse whatsoever to terminate the life of the fetus. If we consider her hatred toward Shito, maybe it is understandable, but no other character shows any emotion whatsoever, either. I am not saying they should, but I guess it must have never occurred to Anno that the role of maternity instincts might have brought an extra dimension to the story ... just a tiny fraction of Mia Fallow in Rosemary's Baby. I am quite certain that many women -scientists or not- would react or show intense interest in how the fetus is formed. Maybe I am wrong.
Bob: We get another inversion here with Asuka's crush on Kaji-- she keeps throwing all this attention to him, and he keeps treating her like a child, ignoring her. I thought it was interesting that here we see more of his spy-side for a little bit, while Asuka expects him to watch her "debut" battle. Using the light subplot of her teenage crush to mask his more serious subterfuge, the way he has to put on a false face to her, and everyone.
me: And it also paves the way for Shinji to swoop in unexpectedly and play the swashbuckling hero for the first time, rescuing the damsel in distress (albeit after giving her a shining moment of bravery & ingenuity). Most surprisingly (well maybe not considering how close she is to fiery death) she seems pleased. It's definitely the tenderest moment between them so far even if they have gigantic mechanical suits between them.
Bob: To an extent it's a continuation of something we had in the previous episodes-- in all of her sorties, she's been dependent upon Shinji in some way. In fact, that's kinda one of her major themes-- her coming to terms with how much she needs him (and other people in general) in order to get by.
me: But this is the first time we've seen such an overt rescue. Before they were working together.
Throughout the episode, mostly the focus is on her. And then he swoops in out of nowhere. And then of course we get that last scene with him. It feels like in this episode we're shifting our focus a little bit back to Shinji by the end, after 2-3 episodes in which Asuka was really the star.
Bob: Mhm. We get it bit by bit-- seeing Asuka react violently to not being allowed on the trip to Okinawa, while Shinji's blase, and seeing Shinji expect to be chosen for the mission, only for it to be Asuka. We can read into that either relief, or jealousy, or whatever.
The character building is there in bits and pieces. We learn Asuka's improbably some kind of a child genius, although it never really factors in the story, just another way for her to lord it over Shinji. And as much as she's infatuated with Kaji, she seems equally obsessed with getting Shinji's attention throughout (all her diving entries). This is a lighter episode. The lightest so far, even moreso than the dance one. It shows how much the show is playing with its format and trying out the episodic route after being so serial for 6 episodes before.
me: So you don't see this quite as much of a 6-episode arc as the previous one? Or just an arc of a different sort (episodic, as you say, rather than serial but still interconnected)?
Bob: It's less of an arc so far, and more of a variation on themes. Next episode will be a bit of a climax point with the three kids being forced to work together, and that will become one of the new themes that they'll work with.
me: Yeah, Rei is practically non-existent at this point.
Your description of the show as "light" makes an interesting point. They constantly harp on how high the stakes are on this mission - triggering a Second Impact, destroying all of NERV if there's a mess-up - but it does kind of seem like hype for what is relatively speaking (certainly compared to the first few missions and also the ones to come) a breather.
A few points to make before we finish: 1) This raises the question, on a show in which every single episode/battle could result in the end of the world - how do you preserve a sense of high stakes? I think especially as the series proceeds, it derives from the individual characters more than the global stakes. 2) I would have said previously that the Jet Alone episode was the most trivial or light, but actually that has some major reveals about NERV's mission whereas here - other than that glimpse of Kaji chatting up a stranger - we aren't really breaking new plot or character ground (except for the Shinji rescue thing, which is subtle). 3) This is probably the most provocative we've seen NERV be - here they are literally going into the Angels' territory rather than waiting for them to attack, and it isn't even framed as pre-emptive measure, but rather some kind of scientific exploration. It's the most blatantly aggressive we've seen NERV be yet.
Bob: Yeah. And their provocative move here has a slight cause-and-effect in the next episode, as SEELE becomes more of a threat, though somewhat unspoken. NERV's offensive posture here makes them more of a power that needs to be clamped down on.
me: This is a memorable episode in many ways, but perhaps not a particularly important one.
Bob: Like the last one, it does a nice job of making it look like any other anime, which is cool, for how it can just spin off of a theme and not have to always be about the master plot.
me: Do you think that serves a larger purpose as well? In terms of where the series is headed, if Anno even knew completely at that point?
Bob: I think this serves its place pretty much like the last one did. Next one will be a bit more progressive, though.
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