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.
Every now and then, Evangelion likes to test its futuristic, techno-savvy characters by robbing them of their basic resources. They typically prove themselves inventive, if not exactly cool under pressure. Perhaps our cast has an advantage over most sci-fi ensembles in that they are all (at least those in adulthood) survivors of an apocalypse; while they may be blessed with sophisticated technology, they don't particularly take it for granted. Even the children have had the carnage of the "Second Impact" drilled into them, with the recurring challenge of Angel visitations keeping them on their toes. As in Operation Yashima the machine city of the future loses all electrical power. But this time it is not a military decision and the cause is unknown (sabotage is suspected - as Cmdr. Ikari sagely muses, "Mankind is still its own worst enemy"). The results display a fair amount of admirable ingenuity, if also some inadvertent ridiculousness as the challenges mount.
The episode begins as NERV staffers describe the city's reliance on machines, not just for maintenance but for actual governance (the "Magi" computers are consulted by elected leaders, who then merely enforce their decrees). Unsurprisingly - especially in a show where narrative developments occur swiftly and without warning - the power falters soon after. There's a dramatic correlation here too; Shinji notices the outage when a phone call cuts out. He's talking to his father about some sort of parent-teacher conference, and the distant commander is rebuking him for bringing up such a petty matter. At the exact moment Shinji is reminded of his father's almost robotic removal from normal human society (and hence, his own), the authority and efficiency of his father's technocratic world flickers and fades.
The rest of the plot has fun subverting the supposedly smooth operations of NERV and Tokyo-3, sending its teenage pilots crawling through air ducts and bickering over petty matters while normally cool, cerebral scientists sweat and grunt to load up the Evangelions. The Evas themselves are made to look ridiculous when the Angel's acid sends them clattering down the release chute they were previously climbing like monkeys ("This is so uncool," Asuka remarks as the machines crawl on hands and knees through the duct leading to that chute, gigantic monster machines reduced to toddler tactics). There's a humorous echo as we saw the immature pilots clatter and collapse in similar fashion just a few scenes earlier; by the end of the episode, an elevator will open to reveal Misato and Kaji similarly (un)composed on the floor, due to the sudden restoration of power and the elevator's jerky movement although their positioning looks positively post-coital. Whether human or mechanical, child or adult, the episode delights in reminding us, we're all just stumbling and fumbling along.
Meanwhile, "The Day Tokyo-3 Stood Still" finally offers Rei a character comeback; after relegating her to a distant third in the adolescent pilot drama, she finally gets her second wind as an appropriate foil for Asuka. As the German redhead brags, blusters, blunders, and ultimately braves her way through the plot's challenges, Rei remains almost comically composed and focused, ignoring Asuka's assertion of leadership, accepting her assignment in the final showdown, and landing gracefully on the floor while Asuka and Shinji collapse in a tangled mess after flirtatious bickering in the fragile duct above. It's been said that Hideaki Anno grew tired of Rei after the first few episodes, and came to prefer Asuka's adolescent and all-too-human antics. Perhaps; but Episode 11 allows Rei a way back into the plot, her alien assurance providing comic counterpoint to Asuka's bossy bravado. Shinji, by contrast, takes a backseat again after slowly re-emerging in the previous episode - he mostly observes and obeys, and his reticence (if not his nervousness) puts him in league with Rei rather than Asuka.
What we have here is an episode that works in classic TV series fashion (not always the case as Evangelion focuses on a larger arc and shorter lifespan especially near its end). A challenge and theme are introduced early in the episode, and the characters are allowed to respond and reveal themselves in a particular self-enclosed scenario. Meanwhile, some of the more overarching themes are advanced, particularly the notion that NERV may be betrayed from within and, on a more personal level, the erotic/hostile relationship between Misato and Kaji. Most importantly, even as our heroes survive and even excel under pressure we are witnessing the holes and blind spots in their centralized, technology-reliant society - if human beings can conceive creative solutions at the spur of the moment, they can also crack under the stress eventually. As Cmdr. Ikari reminds us, the true enemy may be within.
Conversation with Bob Clark and Murderous Ink
Bob: The first thing I thought of when watching it now was how much this episode ramps up the pace, although to an extent that's true of most of the episodic ones so far, the Asuka ones. An angel is introduced and defeated over the course of one episode, rather than spreading it out as the first and third angels did. What's different here from the second, fourth, fifth and sixth ones is that this episode takes place almost in real time, rather than covering a larger timespan (Both of You Dance Like You Want To Win, for example, covers about a week).
me: Interesting point. What mainly struck me was the delight this episode has in subverting the future world's technological self-assurance, while also respectfully revealing their ingenuity under pressure.
Bob: Yeah, also the various tropes of the genre, all the practical military stuff. I loved that bit-- "I thought those service ladders were just a nostalgic decoration" or something-- it both sends up the military fetish genre, but by bringing the tech down it also underlines and solidifies the admiration in it.
me: Also, we get to see more of Rei again. As a foil for Asuka, she actually seems to get more attention than Shinji.
Bob: Yeah, Rei gets a fair amount of back-burner subtle development here, as does the NERV-vs-SEELE plot. We understand that the Geo-Front has been hacked by an outsider element, and we understand Rei a bit more from her cryptic comments and strange calm under pressure.
me: It's interesting how, while exemplifying the NERV team's performance under pressure, this episode also plants the seed that they are fallible and, ultimately, fragile.
Any thoughts on the Angel, and its significance? The form it takes, or its tactics?
Bob: Well, the whole acid tears from an all-seeing-eye motif is interesting. Tactically, it's sort of a replay of the Operation Yashima angle, though sped up tremendously. It shows that the angels are learning fast.
me: What do you think is the significance of the increased pace - the "real-time" aspect? It reminded me a little of the episode where Shinji has to rescue his classmates. In episodes like these, there is a sense of the necessity for improvising - and also a strong sense of the Evas not as godlike machines but oversized humans (or even animals), extensions of their pilots for better or worse.
Bob: It heightens the danger and stakes for each encounter to come, and to an extent erases the accomplishments of past encounters. Who cares about the last time you saved the world-- you have to do it again now, and in half the time. The pressure's up, and as it keeps going up, the kids are more likely to crack. NERV's other crew as well, and the fact that we see more of an off-base life for some of them at the start here isn't an accident. Both those little things like walking to work, doing the laundry and the increased effort they have to do in activating EVA units without electricity are there to humanize the "bridge bunnies".
me: Yeah, I've mentioned before some episodes seem more like "TV show" standalones, others seem to play a part in some overarching arc. This is definitely one of the former types. It fleshes out characters, puts them in unique situations and allows us to explore a world as if we have time to spare.
Bob: It's especially more of a "TV show" standalone vis-a-vis most anime, as in it's not explicitly part of a larger arc full of filler material (being that a lot of popular anime is based on manga and spread out over a looooooooooong period of time).
me: Why is that?
(that Eva functions in that "TV show" way I mean, in contrast to other animes)
Bob: Well, it's original for one thing. And it has a more limited episode order than say, Anno's previous show, Nadia, did. Every episode has to count. But it's also more than an OVA, so there's just enough room to explore and experiment a little.
There's more continuity here than in a show like Cowboy Bebop, which aside from maybe four or five episodes is pretty much all stand-alones.
me: Any significance for you in the power outage occurring as Shinji's father reprimands him?
Bob: Not really. It's a good moment to hint that the power's going out, as it involves a character moment and action. Though I do like the idea that we've now had two episodes dealing with large power-outages-- first NERV creates a nationwide blackout during Operation Yashima to bring down an Eva, then SEELE targets Tokyo 3 with an outage to test NERV's defensive capabilities.
me: For some reason I thought it was a saboteur.
Bob: Even so, they'd probably be working for SEELE. Anyway, all the redundancies were cut too, so it'd be more than just one person.
me: I didn't think they did as much with the Misato-Kaji elevator sequence as they could have, but then I guess it's hard to have too many developed subplots in an action-heavy 22-minute episode.
Bob: Well, we already had one elevator make-out sequence with them previously. This is just here to be a joke. That and-- we get to see the kids without any real leadership from the adults. Misato's isolated from them even more than the NERV crew. That allows the moment when Asuka finally turns into a real leader to hit us a lot harder, feel like a more genuine moment of character development.
me: Yeah this is really her highlight - she even says so in the scene, something to the effect of "This way I won't owe you anymore for rescuing me."
Bob: Yeah, and even so, it's treated with a kind of maturity. They all get serious, very in the moment-- no more bickering when they have to do the job, just instinctively falling into the right roles and doing what they have to do. It's the first time they all work as a team, and it makes you want to see more of their teamwork, because it allows them to take out an angel in record time, and overcome great hardship.
me: The episode earns that moment too because it also lets us see the Evas not as flawless super-machines but extensions of the sometimes clumsy teenage pilots who command them. Specifically there's the mirror imagery of them crawling through the duct on hands and knees, and then the figures falling and colliding as they lose their grip. So when it comes to that final heroism it's clearly them as human pilots, not just their military hardware, saving the day.
Bob: Although I have to admit they kinda screw the pooch on the "EVA batteries only have 3 minutes of life" thing there.
me: Re: battery life, because of all the crawling before the battle begins?
Bob: Pushes it a bit.
me: Don't they show them with a little over 2 minutes left when the slip into the hiding space? Yeah, that would mean they'd been crawling, climbing, and falling for something like 30 seconds...
Bob: The way the kids become so dependent on each other in those last moments really helps make this next batch of episodes have a feel of the three of them working together, which then comes to a kinda climax with Shinji again becoming the stand-alone hero, though with more and more Eva-monstrosity.
me: I know you've said Anno lost interest in Rei early. How do you think that plays out here though, where he seems to find a new role for her (increased of course in later episodes where she again plays an important role)?
Bob: Well, right now she fits as a background thing. She has a big backstory that can't be revealed too soon, so little hints and clues is enough for now, and seeing how she develops as a part of the group. Even the comments she makes about humanity with Asuka and Shinji show her growing a lot.Those exchanges previously in the episode where they're nagivating the superstructure do a good job of showing their personalities-- Rei is resigned to her fate, but businesslike. Shinji follows them, but voices pretty serious concerns about what they do-- he seems like the first person at NERV to wonder why they call their enemies "Angels" (or "Apostles" in Japanese, I think). While Asuka is very gung-ho about it, desperate for action.
me: That was something I forgot to mention in my intro or in this conversation. The appearance of that questioning doesn't seem coincidental. That's where I think even the conversation with his father is partially related - the power failure in this episode seems indicative of a larger phenomenon, a hint of the failure of (human/institutional) power to come. The order of their universe is being thrown into question. Having established a pretty consistent pattern by this point, NGE can start to question & expose holes in its basic premises.
Bob: Yeah. And the basic premises of the various genres it inhabits, by extension.
But it's only a tiny question, of course. Asuka brushes it aside really quickly.
me: When I recall the final third of the series, it seems like everything kind of dissolves & becomes unmoored. The first third of the series establishes both the fragility of the world and the resilience of the system created to resist it. The middle third - which we're in now - explores characters and the world they inhabit while taking that system for granted, but also beginning to plant seeds of doubt. That "tiny question" will mutate into something far more disturbing by the end of the series I think - particularly by the time we get to End of Evangelion. There's a structure and framework within which the characters must operate to survive but ultimately its makeshift qualities and compromises will be revealed.
Bob: Yeah. Which makes the importance of the hard definition the characters have so important-- by the end, they're all we'll have to hold on to. And it shows maybe just why it became an essential classic so quickly-- the characters are anchors in a sea of chaos.
Murderous Ink: Your discussion pointed out that as the series progresses, the battles revolves around individuals rather than global crisis. This is particularly critical to understand why NGE made such an impact on Japanese subculture. These kids are going to school just like others, and NERV scientists are commuting on train and worrying about washing clothes just like ordinary people. Gradually, the fantasy of an ordinary man facing global crisis everyday becomes the central point of this series. In this sense, convolution toward the final episodes can be foreseen at this stage of the series. It is all the more fascinating that Shinji's unfulfilled sexual drives and his submissive attitudes are always laid out as undertones in this convolution. I think it was in the Episode 10 that Asuka criticizes Shinji being so "predictable" and "being domesticated" by authorities (schools). This 'domestication' - as in 1984 or Brazil, for example - usually drives the fantasies of being a savior, or at least of being liberated from authorities. Even though Japan in NGE world is not as totalitarian as in 1984, 'domestication' is more complete. Shinji questions his savior status, as if he doesn't want to be liberated from ordinary boring world of schools and domestic affairs.
me: Any final thoughts, uncovered business?
Bob: Hm, a few things.The blackout makes the sunlight effects at the start of the episode stand out in a really cool way. Something you don't see in digitally made anime nowadays.
Also, as with Operation Yashima, we have a prominent moment of watching the stars. Not an accident I think. Something that may be an accident, but feels cool anyway-- another little Bond trope. The four note melody that ends the episode (and the Jet Alone one, I think) is a match for "All Time High" from Octopussy.
me: This seems to be an episode where we see the kids more independently. They have to get to the HQ on their own, their mission is directed by themselves without any command, and there they are in the end, relaxing on the hilltop in the uniforms, without adult supervision.
Partly this is their growth, but maybe also a weakening of the adult roles - increasingly they don't seem all that reliable.
At any rate it begins to prepare us for the final batch of episodes in which not only do we see the kids forced to fend for themselves, but also flash back to the adults in their younger days and see the extent to which they are still stumbling & recovering (or not recovering) from youthful mistakes and confusion.
Bob: To an extent, yeah. Each episode is more and more of a crisis.
Next week: "She said, 'Don't make others suffer for your personal hatred.'" • Previous week: "Magma Diver"