Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 8 - "Asuka Strikes!"


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.

In the discussions accompanying these episode guides, Bob Clark has said that Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno grew tired of taciturn, enigmatic Eva pilot Rei, whose mystery envelops much of the first six episodes. Supposedly he was ready to move in a new direction. When it comes to episode 8...mission accomplished. The title character, a German redhead/hothead who is Rei's opposite in every way, commandeers the series down an interesting detour and enriches the themes already developing in its early episodes. Anno has gently guided our hero Shinji along the path from cowardly isolation to mature interaction, but Asuka Langley Soryu batters this quiet character development with a Teutonic hammer. By the end of "Asuka Strikes!" the Second Child has forced Shinji into her cockpit, manhandling him physically and psychologically, even forcing him to wear a double of her own, busty flight suit. But it will only be the beginning of her assault on his privacy and hesitation.

Continuing the trend of the previous episode (which was otherwise a one-off), episode 8 shows NERV officials interacting with older, distrustful international authorities. In this case, Misato is confronted by the UN Fleet transporting Asuka and her advanced Eva-03 (a red mecha-beast as bold and angular as she). Misato doesn't seem too flustered by the admiral's gruff complaints about "babysitting" Shinji and his classmates (who are oddly along for the ride), but she is more alarmed by the unexpected appearance of Kaji. He is a lanky, ponytailed fellow NERV officer who has some shady links to Gendo and a much-exploited sexual history with Misato herself. One of the more cartoonish interludes in the episode occurs when he makes a crack about sharing the bed with her, and everyone's face freezes in a funny-pages exaggerated expression of shock and discomfort.

Misato is not the only one dealing with sexual tension - from her first appearance in a billowing skirt which unintentionally flashes her masculine peers (and provokes Toji to drop his pants in return), Asuka notably increases the hormonal pace of the Evangelion universe. And yet this is a sexuality the otherwise horny 14-year-old boys seem determined to resist - Toji's provocation results from revenge rather than lust, Shinji appears more uncomfortable than aroused by Asuka's teasing threats and aggressive proximity, and the boys are horrified rather than delighted by Asuka's appearance in their classroom at episode's end. Clearly Asuka's assertive demeanor doesn't really fit their fantasies of demure, submissive schoolgirls.

If Asuka will represent both a threat and an opportunity for Shinji (unlike the - sometimes - mature Misato and distant Rei, she's a peer who must be grappled with in a different way), he will also challenge her. Even this early, there are suggestions of jealousy and insecurity - most notably when Kaji (the only man she openly crushes on) casually reveals Shinji's Eva-handling skill. If Asuka will develop into Evangelion's most compelling character it's less because of her symbolic value to the other characters, or even her dramatic personality, and more because of her own all-too-human flaws; in some ways, the self-loathing desperation revealed beneath her bluffing braggadocio will render her the most relatable member of the show's ensemble.

For now, however, she retains her shock value and as the episode races by, we get a new Angel attack in which she's able to prove her mettle and collaborate with Shinji for the first time. This Angel is a toothy sea creature blithely ploughing through an armada of battleships, and we're so focused on the outcome of the battle that we may not notice this is the first time Shinji has shared piloting duties with another person. (Furthermore, buried beneath that level is the realization that Asuka is relying on his assistance; she drags him along so arrogantly and authoritatively that he - and we - forget to ask why she's so determined to share her first triumph with the "dull" boy she dismissed on the ship.) They defeat the Angel, of course, at the last possible second, allowing a safe return to Tokyo-3 and a disturbing rendezvous between Gendo and Kaji which reveals a fetal creature described as "Adam, the first man." Though the episode ends on a lighthearted note, Asuka's charismatic and entertaining debut plants the seeds of destruction for the early episodes' fragile stability.


Conversation with Bob Clark (w/ additional comments from Murderous Ink)

me: And then there was Asuka.

Bob: I was gonna say "...and God created Asuka". More fitting with the religious overtones, and it makes Asuka look a lot less bitchy to compare her to Brigitte Bardot.

me: What interests me about this episode is how lighthearted her introduction is. She very much brings a down-to-earth levity to the increasingly mystical, eccentric Eva universe and yet... ultimately she's a harbinger of destruction for the fragile stability established in the first few episodes.
There was a rhythm established in the first arc which she disrupts. Necessarily so in a lot of ways, for both Shinji's personal development and for the false sense of confidence in NERV imposed by that early arc.

Bob: Yeah, that's part of what I was getting at before. The first 6 episodes constitute an arc of Shinji getting into the groove of Nerv and Tokyo 3. Episode 7 shows him in that pleasant groove, and it's possible to imagine a whole show that shows him meeting all his challenges in that spirit. Then episode 8 throws a monkeywrench into that with Asuka.

me: Kaji plays a part in that too. Moreso than we initially realize, but even here he disrupts both Misato's alternately carefree & lonesome bachelorette persona, and the authoritarian but supposedly good-guy world of NERV (already the previous episode poked a few holes in that).

Bob: Something that stuck out to me when watching it in Japanese this time, instead of English, is that Misato calls Kaji the same thing that Asuka calls Shinji all the time-- baka.
I realized this time that his running away from the battle is played off comedically-- oh, Kaji, he's such a card, flying off in his cool jet when it seems like everyone else is going to die. But it stands in direct conflict with the main epigraph of the show ("You musn't run away!") and comes off mainly as a joking echo of Shinji's passivity.
It's also easy to see Kaji as a play on the archetype of the dashing rogue-- Han Solo with a ponytail. Plenty of those types in anime as well, and the [development of his spy persona] makes the way he's played with interesting. He's not just the dashing, sexy man's man. Or if he is, the way Anno plays with him is important.

me: Asuka disrupts Shinji's groove, but he disrupts hers too (passive as he is) - she's notably alarmed by his reputation and it's interesting that when she decides to face off against the Angel, she drags him along.
She does it so abruptly and with such confidence that we almost don't question it, but when we look back on it we realize she's kind of using him as a security blanket. It's an early suggestion of the insecurity which will eventually cripple her.

Bob: He actually disrupts her groove by being passive, sorta. Everyone else around her has such an outsized ego and personality (Toji even flashes his junk at her, for god's sake), and he's so introverted and inside his shell that she can't help but become almost obsessively aggressive towards him.
She's the irresistible force, and he's the immovable object.

me: And at the same time, it's the first (only?) time he'll share a cockpit with a co-pilot. The idea of him being forced to let down his hedgehog's guard is taken further than ever before.

Bob: We may be getting ahead of ourselves here-- when Ritsuko points out that their synch-rate was extremely high for both of them, in retrospect we can kinda see that it's the combination of the two of them together. So there's something to that match up, and something we'll see repeated in even more humorous terms in the next episode.
There's just so much to get to in this episode, though, we might as well start over from the beginning. What's the deal with the UN carriers all being named after Shakespeare plays, except for Asuka's one, which is named after a song from "Wizard of Oz"?

me: Ha, did not notice that at all. What are the names?

Bob: I heard Cymbeline, Othello, and Titus Andronicus. Or at least I read them in the subtitles. And I'm pretty sure those aren't in the dub at all.
Those are, by the way, two of the most fucking obscure plays of his. And this was before the Julie Taymor film, so they're legit in showing off their knowledge.

me: I remember Titus Andronicus.
What's Asuka's ship called?

Bob: "Over the Rainbow"
To me, that almost seems a perfect bow on something that I think bears out throughout the subtitled version of the episode-- she comes off a lot less as "Asuka from Germany" and more like "Asuka from America". There's much less of her actually speaking German, for one thing. Only that one scene in the cockpit, I think.
There's that weird country twangy guitar song that's played on the bridge and in the classroom (that was oddly used to introduce PenPen, of all characters).

me: Well, either way she's a Westerner so that's something.

Bob: Well, culturally there's a big difference between a character being presented as American and German in anime, even ignoring the WWII allusions (which are obviously there with the whole naval angle).

me: Interesting points. In an odd way, this may feel the least "Japanese" of any episode so far.
What do you feel those differences are?

Bob: What they mean, or examples from stuff outside Eva?
I mean, you can see a lot of nods to German and European culture in general in a LOT of anime. "Fullmetal Alchemist" takes place in some kind of alternate universe version of Germany, with lots of magic and steampunk. In one of the movies the main character even meets Fritz Lang and watches him direct "Die Nibelungen" at UFA.
It's fairly longstanding in other films, as well. Think of the waltz on the soundtrack of "Face of Another" and the whole Bavarian beer hall they go to.

me: And what do you feel that differences means - what's the particular significance of both German & American archetypes in Japanese works?

Bob: Well, I really feel like I'm talking out of my ass here, but there's the whole not-quite-historically-accurate story of Perry's American fleet opening Japan out from its cultural isolation, so the whole image of this girl coming across the Pacific with an American fleet is going to mean something right away, again even without the wartime analogy (although that's definitely there).
So it means something that Asuka is introduced as this cultural outsider on terms that are associated, somewhat, with breaking out of isolation-- that's what's going to happen to Shinji, and it'll have both good and bad effects.
The fact that she's an outsider and on a ship named after the song Judy Garland sang in "Oz" I think isn't entirely accidental. Another outsider coming to a bizarre world. And heavy association with the color red (she's wearing red slippers even).

Murderous Ink: The names of characters in this series also provide the cultural connotation not so obvious to non-Japanese audience. All characters first names are in Katakana, instead of Kanji (which is rare). Each name has a specific reference to historical or cultural background. For example, Soryu Asuka Langley, being three-quarter German, a quarter Japanese, has a strange combination of names. Soryu is the battleship of Japanese Imperial Navy, while Langley is U.S.'s. Asuka is one of the common names for girls in Japan, but it also carries the meaning, 'tomorrow'. Asuka is also the place of the earliest Japanese government in the 6th century. These provide a strange mixture of extremely Japanese-esque feel and straight-forward American (not German) rationality.

me: Why do you think Shinji's classmates are along for the ride? One thing I noticed - with their sharp reactions (especially Toji's) to Asuka, they distract us somewhat from the fact that Shinji doesn't have much of a noticeable response. In fact, he has very little to do in this episode - even his battle with the Angel is mediated through Asuka.

Bob: Mainly they're around just to serve as additional comic relief, I think, and to provide a context for the outside world that Asuka's coming into. She has a very different reaction to Toji and Kensuke than Shinji-- she slaps Toji, then whines about Kensuke when thinking either of them might be the fabled Third Child. Brings her reaction to him throughout the episode in stronger relief.
Kensuke's presence is also funny in the way it shows a particular Japanese kind of obsessive fandom for military hardware, something which I think Anno himself has admitted about himself at times, and something which has special meaning in a country where by law there is no standing army.
(And remember the pivotal role the "Special Self Defense Force" will have in the show).

me: I didn't know that (no standing army).

Bob: Something like that. It's still a matter of debate to this day. I think Miyazaki even made statements against trying to have an army again after "The Wind Rises" was released over there.
That's part of what Yukio Mishima was protesting in his coup/suicide spectacle.
At least I think.
Anyway, it's an interesting sticking point in the episode, and the emphasis on the naval conflict here brings into more focus the way in which all the Eva-versus-Angel battles so far have been preceded by some kind of military-bureaucratic pissing contest between NERV and some other agency.

me: Why do you think Shinji is so passive in this episode? I mean, other than when Asuka drags him into the cockpit, he says or does very little. Even when everyone has those very exaggerated reactions to Kaji's "bed" comment, he remains calm. It's like he's an observer the whole time.

Bob: That bit in the episode about her bringing him into the cockpit, and making him wear her plugsuit-- an implicit bit of crossdressing-- reminds me of stuff Camille Paglia has written about the implied female-domination overtones of a lot of romantic literature (romantic as in the historical period).
Yeah, it's necessary for him to take the backseat here as it's Asuka's intro, but remember that when they're in the Eva, he's the one who more or less takes the lead, with her reduced to acting immature and hitting him while he tries to pilot.
That's very different from how she's introduced in the "Rebuild" movies, also-- she's introduced right out of the gate as a virtuoso Eva pilot who can do pretty much anything and look cooler than anybody else. Here, she has a lot of bluster but she doesn't accomplish anything on her own.
That whole plan, by the way, is helping to cement a general pattern that will be repeated throughout the show for a while, and deceivingly feels like what ought to happen in every episode ad infinitum, if this were a regular anime (or regular show of any kind)-- an Angel attacks, the army is unable to beat it, Misato comes up with an insane plan that can't possibly win with Bond music in the background, and the Eva kids risk life and limb to accomplish it.
The way that the battle is handled does a nice way of making this a sort of "second pilot" of the show, a good way for people who didn't see the first few episodes to come in and get information. We see the importance of electrical power to the Evas, we see the underwater city and the implications of some apocalyptic event that happened before. It brings you up to speed at its own pace.

me: Stylistically we haven't talked about much - but I noticed how "cartoonish" - for lack of a better word - many moments are here. Particularly reaction shots.

Bob: Well, for one thing, it has a higher production value than a few of the past episodes. This is the start of a new "cours" in the production schedule, I think, which means more money went towards it (although ironically, I think the one is also famous for having repurposed shots from other Gainax shows-- Anno's own "Nadia" for one thing).
It's interesting seeing this episode with the full on conflict between Misato and the UN naval commander and seeing how she's developed in 3.0. They even have the same "hat drooping over one eye" look that's a nod to "Space Battleship Yamato", something Anno has repeated again and again in other shows (Nadia and Gunbuster).
The tarp-covering Unit 2 as it's introduced playing leapfrog on the carrier decks gives it a very stylish, mysterious "martial artist master in a cloak" look. I remember seeing that and thinking of Sheik-- shrouded alter-ego that Princess Zelda assumes in "Ocarina of Time", which came out around the same time as NGE did.
And that pose that the Eva makes as the prog-knife comes out-- it's almost exactly a match for the pose that Unit 2 makes in the intro montage. So it shows how we're catching up to the "clues" in there that MI mentioned before.

me: I like how the episode is a sleight-of-hand in many ways too. With Asuka, with Kaji. We're getting to know them in broad strokes, but it's also suggesting more subtle character points we won't really understand till later.

Bob: Right. We get everything about them in a high comedic register.

me: Yes, they seem to be bringing some down-to-earth, lighthearted pizzazz to the Eva world. When in fact their ultimate role will be anything but that.


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