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.
The Asuka-Shinji odd couple routine continues, but no longer is it simply assertive Asuka vs. submissive Shinji. If the last episode witnessed Asuka blasting into Shinji's increasingly stable and secure personal universe, now it's her turn to adjust. Shortly after arriving in Tokyo-3, and being unofficially crowned the queen bee of the school (to the point where she can unbashfully refer to herself as "the gorgeous Asuka"), Asuka and Shinji are sent into their first official battle together. Just like their first engagement, improvised at sea, the life-and-death struggle is treated rather lightly, as a pretext for character growth and interaction. Unlike some of the earlier episodes, we don't really feel much is at stake here aside from the characters' egos (which in a teenage context, may be enough).
Initially, Asuka proves the top dog by impulsively lunging after the Angel and slicing it in half. Yet within seconds the Angel is reassembling and striking back - and then, in one of the episode's many clever narrative strategies, we view the aftermath in retrospect rather than real time: the two cowed pilots are presented with humiliating photos of their defeat, with the two Evas jutting out of the ground miles apart where the Angel has effortlessly blasted them. In front of these projected slides, the 14-year-old worldsavers bicker and for the first time we see Shinji standing up to Asuka, whose brazen arrogance rendered him mostly passive and silent in their previous outing. Now, her hotheaded aggression shown up in the heat of battle, Asuka's no longer able to batter Shinji into submission.
And so, just at the moment they feel themselves becoming enemies, they are forced to become close allies. Misato forces them to share her apartment, to dress in like fashion (80s girl workout get-ups, by the look of it), and dance DDR-style in perfect sync to audio-video prompts in the hope of perfecting their fighting instincts before the Angel's inevitable return. There's an interesting moment where Asuka throws aside her headphones in frustration and Rei steps in to demonstrate that perfect synchronization is possible - she and Shinji effortlessly match one another's movements, and an awed and frustrated Asuka vows to avenge this insult to her "pride."
As in the previous two episodes, Rei recedes in the background as a supporting character but after a one-shot cameo and complete absence she's at least something of a presence here. Mostly she serves as a foil for Asuka, who tries to introduce herself early on (to no avail) and is later intimidated by Rei's perfect compatibility with Shinji. For the first time, we are getting real evidence of Asuka's insecurity - particularly when she mysteriously appears in Shinji's bed in the middle of the night, apparently sleepwalking and talking in her sleep. He almost kisses her (the first time we've seen him respond to her romantically or sexually, after all her provocation) but backs off when she mumbles confused, pained feelings. Moving himself to the floor next to her, he grumbles to himself, "She's just a kid after all."
Of course in the end Shinji and Asuka achieve their perfect synchronization - well, almost. They defeat the Angel in the sixty seconds they're given, perfectly edited to a joyful Beethoven pastiche (the sound design of this episode is wonderfully creative and propulsive, from the score to the skittish sound of Shinji's tape player rewinding as Asuka's body rolls close to his under the sheets). Immediately after the attack is thwarted, however, the NERV staff members are holding their heads in their hands and groaning, faced with images of the intertwined Evas and sounds of the adolescents bickering in embarrassingly personal terms (Asuka gets Shinji to admit he attempted kissing her the night before, and her hectoring voice is represented onscreen by an amusingly angry hologram). Though their relationship will darken and deepen overtime, it is here that the strangely compatible yet combative connection between Shinji and Asuka first makes itself heard.
Conversation with Bob Clark and Murderous Ink
Bob: Well, my first thought is something that builds off of what you said before, about Asuka's first episode being very "cartoony". This one kinda goes out of its way to top that one.
me: In animation, or personality, or both?
Bob: Basically we have a very loose treatment of physics throughout, mostly in a jokey manner. Say, the way that the Evas are both toppled over by the Angel, feet sticking way up in the air in water and land. Or the way that Asuka yells at Shinji on his screen or via a hologram, and in both cases she seems to be able to physically accost him without actually being next to him. It's like something out of a Looney Tune, and it helps put into relief the absurd lengths of the premise here.
me: I agree about the cartoonish tone. I noted that in this & the previous episode, the Angel attacks seem less "serious" than before - more a blatant pretext for (often humorous) character development & interaction than genuinely world-threatening events.
Bob: Yeah, this Angel, and many of the others that will come, has a much more deliberate, self-conscious feel to it. The attack and its nature are part and parcel with how artificial a lot of the show is, a pretext for character development. And here, watching it again, I was really impressed by how deftly it interweaves the parallel strands of Shinji/Asuka and Misato/Kaji, and how well the comedy masks the pretty deliberate intercutting.
I mean, we've already seen in the last episode how both Asuka and Misato call their guys "baka", and it's repeated here. And the scenes of Shinji about to kiss Asuka in her sleep and the two adults making out in the elevator is also pretty obvious (elevators and escalators are pretty omnipresent symbols throughout the show). But the way that the Misato/Kaji story intertwines with the kids and the main Angel attack (Kaji coming up with the plan) is a neat little touch, and Anno handles it nicely delicate.
I'm sure that MI can tell us more about the certain kind of scruffy anime male that Kaji represents. So far in the show he's such a caricature of rugged masculinity, but not one that's used for any comedy really. He gets to keep his confidence and not get made fun of at all, and often you see guys like him played as fools to some degree.
me: One thing that interests me about this episode is how we're kind of now on Asuka's arc, rather than Shinji's.
Unlike him, she begins on a high note with her victory at sea. But just as he has to rise from his lack of confidence, she has to fall from her overconfidence. And both had/have to learn how to relate to other people.
Bob: Oh yeah. This episode is really about Asuka finding a connection. We focus on her throughout the first stage of the mission. We see her hassling with Japanese customs of privacy. We see her pout when it seems Rei might get the mission instead of her.
me: The envy of Rei's synchronization with Shinji is a nice moment. Not least for how it finally lets Rei have a moment (however brief) after 2 episodes of non-existence!
Bob: Likewise here, when Rei synchs with Shinji perfectly, it makes Asuka's hurt reaction really sink in. Maybe she won't get to be a star of the show, after all.
me: Same time, Shinji's more of a character here than he was last episode where he played the most background role he's played yet. That said, I'm trying to think if we see him at all outside of Asuka's context. I don't think we do. Even if he's more of a co-player this time, we still see everything in relation to Asuka.
Bob: Well, that's part of the whole nature of the show from this point on. All of the kids are co-players, and that's part of the subject of the show. Socializing with others means you're not always the center stage.
The way that Shinji retreats to the background or middleground of this episode and the way that Asuka's place on the mission is threatened by Rei helps make this an episode that subtly introduces the idea of the kids' mortality in a way that previous episodes, even with more dire danger at hand, didn't quite. The math is there in our heads now that future episodes will capitalize on later.
me: What math do you mean?'
Bob: The mental math, I mean. Looking at this, it's easy to see some of it as foreshadowing of how these kids are pretty expendable to the adults.
me: Do you feel that's highlighted more in this episode than previous ones?
Bob: I mean that there's elements here that are subtle, but help introduce the expendability thing later on. Shinji is more receded in importance here, and Asuka's place on the mission isn't totally secure. Add those together, and it's easy to imagine how the show could've evolved (no matter what its plans were in production) with either one of them dying off without the end of the show in sight.
me: I think we get some of that earlier though, with Commander Ikari. Speaking of which - where is he, and whence (dramatically, narratively speaking) his absence? Notably, the last 3 episodes have felt less intense, anxious than the first 6.
Bob: I think it's mostly about that. Obviously it's possible to try and fill in the blanks and imagine what the hell he's up to vis a vis Seele and all the various plotting, but mainly him being gone just allows for a much lighter feel.
It lets the characters come to the forefront and allows us to not really think about the ongoing mysteries as much.
me: This feels like a very creative, clever episode in terms of how much of the information is presented and the visuals & audio are designed.
Bob: Yeah. And the level to which visuals are used informatively and expressively really highlights how well the animation is parcelled out. They have to scrimp and save in a lot of places. The way the episode begins with the two boys' photographs is a really clever way to reserve animation but still have something that works creatively.
A lot of Asuka's posturing expressions might be motivated by having cool design moments that still don't require a lot of movement, but those bits also help draw out how "normal" she can look, and how vulnerable that makes her. It's kind of hard to see now so many years after she and the rest of the characters have become iconic, but those little moments in Misato's appartment stand out to me because in those bits she isn't the "Asuka" that we know of after years and years of fandom.
me: Which moments specifically?
Bob: An easy indicator for me is any moment where she doesn't have her trademark hair-pins-- I doubt we ever see her without them in the Rebuild films, where she's pretty much Iconic with a capital I. But more deeply, any moment where we see here genuinely vulnerable and hurt, rather than just a pissed off, sexed up version of Lucy Van Pelt-- her childish demeanor at the table when Misato lays out the plan, or how she runs off almost crying when Rei shows her up.
me: Anything else you want to say or point out about this episode?
Bob: "Both of You Dance Like You Want to Win" sounds like it ought to be the most awful dance-reality competition TV show ever made.
Additional observations from Murderous Ink:It is well-known fact that, for NGE's title sequence, Anno borrowed the design elements from Kon Ichikawa's movies. It is an image of white big letterings of Kanji characters against black background, informing names of casts and crews and the title of the episode etc. This design template was staple format for Kon Ichikawa's movies title sequence, which gave them distinctive style and atmosphere.
This graphic-design oriented approach to the title sequence reminds us of another great creator, Saul Bass. In his case as well, the use of specific font (typography) carried a substantial weight. A certain typography invokes a certain atmosphere, a feel, a context. NGE redefined such functions of graphic design elements not only in Anime, but also in pop culture.
The use of Mincho font is a cunning one. This set of font family is used in school textbooks for liberal arts, literature and history (as opposed to the use of Gothic fonts in math and science). I myself find Mincho font to be more literary, somewhat neurotic, definitely engaged.
I believe NGE was one of the earliest examples of total design coherence providing the feel of the world it is describing.