Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 14 - "Weaving a Story"


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 blogger Bob Clark (Murderous Ink will return next week).

In many ways, this feels like a filler episode: re-using previous footage, retracing past events, attaching several disjointed sequences, and limiting the central dramatic crisis to a few minutes of screentime. Even the ending - Unit-00 marching down a long corridor with the never-before-mentioned "Lance of Longinus" - initially strikes us as a non sequitur. Certainly this has less of a narrative throughline than any of the earlier chapters, especially considering the last few episodes were settling into the groove of "standalone adventures with our Eva pals."

And yet the episode serves a subtle and effective purpose, consolidating the ground we've covered and re-contextualizing it as part of a grander narrative. Indeed, the ominous overlords of SEELE, and the only-slightly-less-ominous Cmdr. Gendo Ikari, repeatedly refer to a "script" - suggesting that there is a much bigger story in play, but also that the storytellers themselves have lost the thread. After all, both SEELE and Vice Cmdr. Fuyutsuki refer to events going off-script. Only Cmdr. Ikari seems confident in the direction of recent events. This may be the most disconcerting fact of all. For the first time in a while, we are getting the sense that beyond the battle-to-battle concerns of our main characters, a deadly clock is ticking.

We open in businesslike fashion with a long overview of all previous Angel battles - basically a highlight reel cutting out most of the human drama and focusing exclusively on what maneuvers and strategies were employed to defeat the enemy. From this perspective, the Evas have a kind of brute majesty and mechanical efficiency: only a few moments emphasize the pilots within. Turns out we are in a SEELE meeting, as the sketchy-looking elite society presses Cmdr. Ikari for answers. They are particularly concerned about the last Angel attack, in which a hyper-intelligent computer virus nearly destroyed the Magi computer system. But a cocky Ikari simply denies such an attack occurred.

Meanwhile, NERV headquarters is running a routine operation - switching the pilots around so they can test their synchronicity with various Evas. (Asuka is forced to stay in Unit-02 and seems a bit hurt by this confinement; Misato ominously reflects that she is not interchangeable like the others). Then Unit-00 goes berserker with Shinji inside, punching the glass window of the command center. It looks like the Eva is trying to kill its blue-haired pilot, but Ritsuko seems convinced that its actual target was not Rei, but Ritsuko herself.

Why would the Eva target Ritsuko? What are the Evas? What is SEELE's plan? Who else knows about it? As Asuka essentially asks, what's with Rei? And why does Rei's Eva react so strongly to Shinji's presence (and vice-versa)? Flailing about in a violent fury, gripping its head in agony with lanky arms, this supposedly mechanical giant demonstrates a very fluid, human physicality. Full of vaguely disturbing images and eerie suggestions, "Weaving a Story" sets us up well for the last, long sustained stretch of the series. The fragile external composition of NERV and the even more fragile internal compositions of the pilots will both begin to unravel.


Conversation with Bob Clark

me: I kind of enjoyed watching the first half of this, like a highlight reel.
It was interesting to see the battles presented not as a mix of human emotion and technological prowess, but simply as exercises in brute force by powerful machines.

Bob: Yeah, basically a corporate briefing synopsis of the basic facts, ignoring the human cost. The way every battle is capped with "Angel Defeated", it's a rubber stamp. Very bureaucratic. A good way to really inject the psychology of SEELE into the series. Not bad for what's basically a clip-show assembled from existing material.

me: There were some really effective images & moments in the 2nd half though.
Particularly that really creepy shot where Rei is floating towards Shinji in his mind - and then her eyes bug out. But also her own weird inner vision.

Bob: Yeah. But except for the the floating-Rei and the last image of Unit 00 with the lance of longinus, I think they're all repurposed sequences or new animation from already existing cels. The most obvious part is when Unit 00 is attacking Rei-- it's obviously the same cels as from when it attacked Gendo, but with Rei put in his place. It shows how some of the experimental tone of the series was dictated by the cost-cutting-- it's very effective to come up with a psychological nightmare sequence like what you have in the second half with existing material. It would've been much harder to string an entire, normal episode around that.

me: Why did they take that approach - to reserve more budget for upcoming episodes? It's funny because I tend to like that stuff more.

Bob: Partly. I think a big part of it is they could afford to have a clip show in the middle, and recap the events for everyone. The fact that they come up with a good narrative reason (SEELE's briefings) helps it feel more nuanced than the typical anime compilation. But some of the experimental stuff-- maybe most of it even-- was borne out of Anno's sensibilities as a whole. You can see weird, avant-garde stuff in Gunbuster and Nadia, as well. In the next couple of episodes we'll see that experimental side of him come out much more in the concrete events of the show (Splitting of the Breast and beyond), so the budget concerns aren't what created that side of the show. Rather, it's more that the experimental side was something Anno could resort to.

me: What usually happened when anime shows faced budget constrictions? Why did NGE face these? 

Bob: I really don't know. I think there's documentation about it on evageeks. One usual thing that can happen when a show faces budget constrictions-- you get shitty animation farmed out to another team, another studio, under another director. That's what happened on Nadia, Anno's previous show-- it got so popular the broadcaster increased the episode order, but Anno didn't have the time or money to oversee the additional episodes himself. The end result of which is they aren't terribly good.

me: What do you make of the interchangeability tests? Obviously from a budgeting perspective, they are easier to do then new battle scenes, but thematically and narratively there is something compelling about them as well. For one thing, it increases our sense of Asuka as the odd one out.

Bob: Yeah. It's also an odd thing because the past few episodes have been emphasizing the connectivity between the kids, especially Shinji and Asuka (their high synch rates, their performance in the dance episode, etc). Even the way Asuka is shot here-- staring at her ceiling in bed-- shows her as being on the same wavelength as him. But they have a chemistry that can get aggressive (and usually is, outside of a mission), whereas Shinji and Rei have the unspoken mother/son bond (well, it sort of IS spoken here, but only as a snide joke from Asuka).

me: The Shinji-Asuka chemistry is based on them being two different people - it's that hedgehog thing. Which might not normally be a problem, but w/ 2 very insecure adolescents from fucked-up family backgrounds in the middle of a life & death struggle with not just their fates but that of the world in the balance...the idea of negotiating personal differences is potentially a dealbreaker.
And with all the weird stuff going on - the pseudo-religious subtext of SEELE's oversight, the still not-quite-understood connection between Eva & pilot, even that strange ending with Rei's Unit marching down the corridor carrying "the Lance of Longinus"...it's only natural that Shinji's connection to Rei comes more to the forefront and Asuka begins to fall by the wayside.

Bob: It's not that Asuka falls to the wayside here-- but rather, as you said, he and Asuka are both separate people. Or rather-- they're both actual people, and Rei is so submissive and mysterious we never really know what the deal is with her. She's non-threatening and non-assertive to the extreme, which means she's not going to push any of her needles into Shinji. She doesn't have any. She's an ideal Eva partner, but as we saw in previous episodes, there can't be any real personal connection with her.
No risk, no reward.

me: I'll have to re-watch these upcoming episodes to be sure, but I feel like there IS a deep connection with her, it's just more spiritual and metaphysical, than here & now. I see his relationships with Asuka & Rei fulfilling very different - but equally important - needs for him. Asuka helps (or challenges) him connect to other people, Rei helps him connect to himself.
What do you make of Cmdr. Ikari's defiance of SEELE here? How does it relate to what we've seen in recent episodes?

Bob: We've seen some implicit hints that Ikari and the others at NERV don't completely trust SEELE (the blackout episode). He's hiding the truth of the last Angel's infection of the Magi, hoping to keep his part in the ongoing Instrumentality plans secure so he can repurpose them to his own ends. If SEELE thinks he can't handle NERV, someone else gets the position and he loses his chance to gain his goal.

me: Remind me what happened in the blackout episode to demonstrate distrust.

Bob: Ikari and others, I think, make oblique comments about how some mysterious "they" were sabotaging the Geo-Front during an Angel attack. Somebody even says-- "the first real infiltration of the Geo Front wasn't from an Angel, but from one of our own kind". That's clearly SEELE.

me: Right.
As for them firing Gendo...
Who else would they trust with NERV though? It seems part of his comfort in lying to them stems from a sense of job security.

Bob: Partly. But if they ever had concrete proof that he was lying, it would mean his job security is a lot less.

me: They're playing a high-stakes game where neither can really afford to push the other too far it seems.

Bob: They "need" him, yes. But they also probably have a plan on the books that makes allowances for him being gone.
As for "firing"-- he'd probably just be executed and replaced by somebody like Fuyutski or Ritsuko, somebody they think they can control.
I mean, some things aren't quite clear. It's hinted occasionally that SEELE might be behind the Angel attacks themselves, so it's a little like trying to figure out what Palpatine would've done if somebody had ended the Clone Wars early. That's what plan B's are for.

me: Yeah I guess I meant "firing" figuratively haha.
Or maybe all-too-literally...
That's another thing about this episode - to what extent have we really seen them describe a "plan" and a "script" before?
Because it's pretty explicit this time.

Bob: Well, the second episode lays out some of it, I think. They flat out tell him the Angel attacks, which could destroy the world, are secondary to this other plan they have on the books.

me: Well, but in this one they make it seem as if the Angel attacks are actually an integral part of the plan they have on the books. So it becomes less a matter of secondary motives than actually knowing/controlling what's happening before it happens.

Bob: Right. We're seeing the false-flag, illusionary aspect of the Angel battles, here. It is very much the same kind of Palpatinian "all according to plan" logic. Which is to say-- all it does is underline the idea that "these guys are the REAL villains of the story".

me: Another ominous note - Ritsuko's comment that Eva-00 was trying to kill her, not Rei.
It kind of makes us look back on that image of Rei standing calmly at the window almost less as a matter of defying a threat than commanding an act.

Bob: Also, her mention of the dummy system. Seed planted here.

me: That went over my head, I was thinking it was just some jargon about the Eva. But yeah, that makes sense.

Bob: You could also say that the lance of longinus thing and how mysterious it is stands as a deepening of the "Angel battles as part of some arcane ritual" aspect. It's literalizing what they're talking about.

me: I was going to ask you to decode Ritsuko's fairly cryptic comment about that objection to the dummy system. But it seems less cryptic in the english dubbing than the Japanese translation.
Basically telling her, "You'll get your hands dirty like the rest of us sooner or later, and moral objections won't matter much at that point."

Bob: Pretty much.

Visit Bob Clark's website NeoWestchester, featuring his webcomic as well as a new animated video related to Star Wars.

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