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.
It's all about intimacy...fleeting, insecure, perhaps impossible, but yearned for nonetheless. For the late-twentysomethings attending yet another wedding, this intimacy is located in the past, a hazy, alcohol-fueled remembrance of carefree college days. These memories may be as chimerical as the guests' own tipsy reflections in the lounge's glass windows, hovering against the dreamy cityscape beyond. For the bratty, boisterous teenage girl this intimacy exists in her restless imagination, perpetually contradicted by the messy facts of life - an older man entirely uninterested in her childish crush, or an awkward roommate whose suffocating kiss is "definitely not something to do to kill time!" For the lonely boy at the story's center this intimacy is buried somewhere beyond reach, his bond with his father emphasized by the anniversary of his mother's death yet only made more elusive by her absence.
On the surface this is one of the least dramatic episodes so far, yet it remains one of the strongest of the entire series. For the first time, there are no Angels in sight (unless you count the dramatic reveal at episode's end). Instead, we have small character-driven stories, a refreshing touch after many of our heroes were relegated to background action during the recent run. Remarkably, we manage to keep tabs on - and learn more about - Shinji, Rei, Asuka, Misato, Kaji, and even the more cryptic Ritsuko and Cmdr. Ikari. While the stakes in these storylines are no longer life-and-death, somehow the characters' vulnerability feels more real than in the increasingly familiar battles we've been witnessing. When we return to Angel attacks in the next episode it will be with a greater sense of emotional weight and personal risk, because of the time off we took here.
The episode opens by delving deeper into Kaji's intrigue. Not only does he take a side trip to Kyoto to dig into NERV's shady background, but we learn from Cmdr. Ikari and Fuyutski that NERV is aware of his betrayal and still feels they can use him, for now. Throughout this episode, as we attend weddings and graveside vigils, witness first kisses and reminisce with old lovers, there is a feeling of suspension, a Damocles' sword hanging over all the characters (a great cut comes between the liveliness of the wedding reception and the desolate, ominous row of anonymous markers on an open plain, where Shinji's father takes him to visit his mother's grave). One of the reasons I'm drawn to the show is its War and Peace quality, the way that the vast, world-shaking events and the private lives of the characters unfolding between these events complement and enrich one another. The personal stories make us care more about what happens in the big battles, while the fact that millions of lives, millions of personal stories, hang in the balance amplifies the importance of the human drama we witness.
Shinji is cut off from much of that human drama, but as always it's Asuka who begins to draw him out of his shell. Their first kiss, on a bored dare from Asuka, is a classic of affectionate comedy, one of the most wonderfully executed little sequences in the show. Notice how she sits out in the light-filled common room while he crouches, half-hidden, in the dark doorway, nervously wrapped in his headphones (they continue to blare up-tempo beats once he stands up, adding the perfect sonic touch to the unfolding moment). The close-ups in which the characters pucker up and lean toward the viewer play as nonchalant observation rather than coy fanservice, and Asuka pinching his nose is the pitch-perfect cherry on top. The scene is also nicely juxtaposed against Misato's and Kaji's kiss on the starlit road. The cherry on top of that embrace is probably Misato's dirty socks, revealed when she removes her grown-up heels in drunken disorientation. This episode not only achieves a number of excellent character moments, it expertly weaves them together.
In the end, we return to our grand scale. Kaji discloses the monstrous Adam, a mass of muscle with its eerie eye-filled mask, hung from a cross in the bowels of NERV (here too there is an effective visual juxtaposition, because this moment immediately follows the reveal of Rei floating in a tank several levels above, exchanging warm gazes with Cmdr. Ikari). Even the gung-ho Misato, almost ready to blow her ex-lover's brains all over the NERV hardware, is overwhelmed by the sight of this massive being, this huge pound of deformed flesh just hanging there like Snowden's secret in Catch-22. The two characters are reminded of the human heartbeat behind all the mechanical muscle. Through this efficient, entertaining and empathetic episode, so are we.
Conversation with Bob Clark (with additional observations from Murderous Ink)
Bob: And the first episode without an Eva being activated, or anything surrounding it. Even "Rain, Escape and Afterwards" had that brief flashback to Shinji being chewed out.
me: They do that one test for like 2 seconds.
Bob: Yeah, that's the only scene that would let you know that this is that type of show.
me: It's a character episode, with a mythology reveal at the end, no action and...goddamn, I'm with you, this is probably my favorite episode so far.
That's me though. I'm not really a TV guy. My favorite parts of my favorite TV shows are when they seem most like films.
Bob: What? No, the next one is my favorite. This doesn't do much for me.
It's got some classic NGE moments, like Shinji and Gendo visiting the cemetary. But for the most part it feels filler.
me: So many things I like about this one: the cemetary yes, but also the wedding and Misato puking and getting a piggy-back ride home, the hilarious kiss between Asuka & Shinji (with Pen-Pen shrugging as only a penguin can), and the pretty cool reveal at the end along with all the hints along the way that Kaji is not what he seems.
I definitely don't think this is my favorite episode overall but I love that it indicates where the series is headed.
I think stuff like the Sea of Dirac is enabled because they're willing to get so character-y with an episode like this.
It's like Twin Peaks - at its best when the supernatural and the personal/psychological converge.
But anyway...what about it feels filler-y to you?
Bob: Simply that we have an episode that's very character driven yes, and has lots of exposition, you might say, but doesn't find a way to put it into the action. In a sense, it's better than shoehorning the false action of Jet Alone or the dodgy experimentalism of the SEELE briefing, but in a sense it still feels like we're getting a lot of "deleted scenes" apart from a genuine plot. Maybe that's a good thing, to have a reprieve from the standard genre trappings of the mech-action but it takes away just a little bit of the conceptual elegance.
me: That makes sense. I think we'll be getting lots of conceptual elegance in the coming episodes, but as you say it's a relief from the standard genre trappings, and that was getting a bit tiresome to me (but again, maybe that's just me).
Bob: It's not as big a departure as, say, Cooper in plaid or any of the bullshit monster-of-the-week episodes of X-Files that I always hated (I'm odd like that), but it's just enough to make you antsy.
me: Yeah, Cooper in plaid was pretty bad. But the TP-NGE analogy is weird for me, because I LOVE the latter part of NGE so much; it's almost as if they detoured from Laura's murder for a while and then focused on it at the end of the series instead of early on. For me, all the stuff they delve into as NGE comes to a close is analogous to that - the characters' psychology, and the dissolution/disorientation they experience as the firm footing of NERV comes loose underneath them, is what I love most about the show.
Bob: Part of the filler thing to me comes from how much we're simply given information that we've been wondering about for a while. Kaji's loyalty, the visual evidence of what NERV's doing with Adam. It's shown to us almost literally, rather than it being discovered by Misato. Kaji basically draws open the curtains for her.
me: You mentioned the cemetary scene as something you liked - what did you appreciate about that?
Bob: Seeing how Shinji dreads it, and seeing how it's what he's doing when everyone else is off enjoying themselves, more or less, helps offer some contrast.
me: How he's still entrapped in his own anxieties & insecurities?
Bob: And his family, I suppose. Everyone else is off in some kind of social context-- Misato with Kaji and Ritsuko at the wedding, Asuka with Hikari on the double date (even though she's bored to death with it-- the important thing is Hikari). Even Rei's weird-ass experiment with Gendo is evidence of a social connection that Shinji lacks.
me: There are some interesting reveals in this episode. Shinji playing the stand-up bass is one.
Bob: Mhm. The first time that Shinji and Asuka really connect on a friendly level. Or actually, the second after the music episode. Both times, music plays a big part.
me: Rei with Cmdr. Ikari is another.
Normal school attendence. "Ayanami? Ayanami? Oh, she's absent again today." Cut to her floating naked in a tank with Shinji's creepy father smiling at her.
Bob: It's only creepy of course because he smiles. The "floating naked in the tank" thing is such a classic anime and sci-fi trope. It's common enough that you see it in Empire Strikes Back, Altered States. Even the Maria transformation scene in Metropolis has her laid naked on the table, which feels like a water-less precursor to this sort of thing.
It's common enough that you don't really think much of it the first time you see it here. It's a classic trope. But having him smile-- it makes explicit the voyeurism that's implicit in all those other ones.
me: By the way, I love her reaction when Shinji observes her wringing the towel. I think it's may be the first time we see her get embarrassed - act human in a sense.
Bob: But again-- a water image is what you're talking about with the towel. Water imagery, maternalism.
The sub translation makes the scene a lot more interesting and less hackneyed-- it seems both more and less creepy for him to say she'd make a good housewife, rather than mother.
me: The subs used both. He first says she was very motherly, she blushes, and then he says she'd make a good housewife.
Bob: Yes, that's what I mean.
me: It's almost like he subconsciously knows where he's going, despite the nonchalant tone, and then checks himself.
Bob: It makes more sense than "you'd make a good mother."
me: I felt like the difference between Asuka and Rei was highlighted pretty efficiently in this episode. Between her reticence in the elevator, and Asuka lounging on the floor watching a soap opera. A lot of nice contrasts, which highlighted the strengths of both as characters.
Bob: Yeah. The level of genuine reluctance to enter into a conversation with Rei, and the way Asuka loudly proclaims it so Shinji notices.
That's something she always does. "This is the wall of Jericho!". While Rei just doesn't say anything. Which one is more successful, and more sincere?
me: There's an interesting contrast here between the 14- and close-to-30-year-olds. I really liked all that stuff. You have that moment with Rei, where Shinji calls her "motherly," an odd combination of older and younger generations. And a lot of cutting back & forth between Shinji's first kiss and Misato's & Kaji's (semi-)reconciliation.
Bob: I'd be willing the wager it might be Asuka's first kiss, too. It's ambiguous because of how she says "don't breathe, it tickles"-- is it from experience, or is it because, in that moment right there, his breath is tickling her lips? I prefer to think the latter, because it's such a great physical detail for the scene. And also because Asuka is so supremely traumatized emotionally that I doubt she'd have let anybody touch her until now, where she has absolute control of the situation.
me: Yeah, it's a great scene. I was going to ask you about that. I feel like it's one of the show's iconic moments.
Bob: Well, here's one of the other really important things I realized about the episode, just now-- that scene, the kiss. It seems so throw-offish, so comedic, especially their reactions. Part of it, I think, is Asuka's comfort zone of "I'll kiss you, but only because I can insult you after and you don't threaten me at all". I honestly think that if Kaji actually made a move on her, she'd go crazy, because she'd have no control in that situation.
But the really important thing is-- that scene is really the one comedic bit in the whole episode. It's the release valve. And you need that, especially without an Eva fight.
me: What's that weird phone message she leaves with him? Is she trying to make like somebody's hitting on her, to make him jealous?
Bob: I think she's desperate for attention, plain and simple. She probably knows that he's not interested in her, so jealousy isn't an option. She just wants to be noticed. And the fact that she knows, consciously or otherwise, that he's really interested in Misato, means that he is her way to run away from reality. He's her Iceman.
The intercutting between Shinji/Asuka and Misato/Kaji is really essential, especially because we get to see them play out different kinds of the same experience, at different ends, at different stages of maturity. And especially because the adults are so concerned with correcting the mistakes of their youth, while the kids repeat the same ones, perhaps with different outcomes.
me: In a way it really emphasizes one of the most interesting qualities of the show - its depiction of characters going through (or attempting to go through) the normal stages of life against the completely disorienting, skewed backdrop.
It's one of the few postapocalyptic works I know of where it isn't just a completely exaggerated everything-normal-is-over environment. Yes, things have changed drastically but they also continue in some form like they used to. That's why I like this episode so much, I think. It's normality set against a backdrop of ominous uncertainty.
What do you think about the whole wedding subplot?
Bob: Hm, I'd like to say that's kinda a comedic bit too, but it seems so deadly serious to Misato. Not wanting to be the last one who isn't married. Not wanting to age out of her youth into spinsterhood.
This is where it might be interesting to get MI's perspective, as I'd like to say it might be a commentary on the Japanese obsession with youth culture and attractiveness, but I really can't offer anything more than having seen "Only Yesterday", where being in your late twenties is seen as a mid-life crisis.
The only funny bit is the montage of wedding moments.
And that's only really "wry, clever" type funny.
me: I love the abruptness of it, and it seems kinda unusual even for NGE's rapid-fire pace. I also like how when she calls Asuka she's at the "third afterparty." These folks don't want to go home.
Bob: It's unusual because really, it's an odd scene for NGE to begin with. The only one I can compare it to is the Jet Alone committee thing.
me: Any observations about Ritsuko in this episode?
Bob: She seems like the only one who's a genuine adult. Partly because she has a card to play with Kaji. But everyone else is in some form of arrested development. Even Gendo, but especially Misato and the kids.
me: What do you mean by "a card to play"?
Bob: That bit where she threatens him, playfully. Don't delve too deep, etc.
me: Maybe you can expand on the whole NERV-Kaji dynamic. I admit I'm a little perplexed. They know he's digging where he shouldn't be, working for someone else, yet they feel they're using him. Why?
Bob: Perhaps they feel any action he does might be useful as a counter against SEELE. Perhaps they want to string the authorities along and make them think they're digging deeper, without really understanding. The anime equivalent of Tinker Tailor chickenfeed.
me: I like that element of intrigue. It's like NERV/Seele vs. the world...except, really, NERV is kinda vs. Seele instead.
Betrayal and distrust layered upon betrayal and distrust.
What do you make of the early scene with Kaji? Him in the doorway?
Bob: You mean the one with his spy handler, or whatever? Well, he's checking out the different companies that are under the umbrella of NERV, and finding out they're all shells. It's just some basic spy stuff.
me: I thought it was interesting that he brings up the "16 years ago..." stuff. That plus some of the conversations at the wedding serve as good set-up for the flashback episodes to come.
Which are among my favorite.
Bob: Mhm. It's table setting, as is said in American TV.
me: Do you have any observations about the show's style/animation?
Bob: Well, this one is so based in the real world, everything seems very traditional. Laid back. It's really only in a few bits that we see glimpses of the usual Evangelion surrealness, and they become much more disturbing here-- Rei in the tank, the sight of Adam crucified, half formed like something out of Cronenberg.
me: Yeah this is really the first anything we've seen of Adam, isn't it? Unless I've forgotten something.
Bob: The first we saw was that embryo in the first episode with Asuka. The one that Kaji hand delivered to Gendo.
me: Any other observations?
Bob: Hm... the fact that Shinji is playing a stringed instrument, and the music that plays during another character's ultimate scene in EoE.
me: Another musical correspondence I noticed was the soft playing of "Fly Me to the Moon" in the background. I think when Misato is walking back with Kaji.
Bob: I think this show is the only reason I might ever tolerate that song now.
me: Well they never play the Sinatra version do they?
Bob: I don't think so, no. It's always women.
Visit Bob Clark's website NeoWestchester, featuring his webcomic as well as a new animated video related to Star Wars.
Thoughts on father/mother
In the episode 15, there are many references/suggestions to father-child relationships. Gendo-Shinji, of course, Kaji-Misato, and Kaji-Asuka. Strangely, Shinji mentions 'mother' - and later 'housewife' - in relation to Rei, as you guys discussed. I'm quite sure everyone agrees that the most of the characterization in NGE revolve around parent-child relationships, especially father-child. I believe this episode functions as a stage-gate for this character development. When Shinji talks about Rei being motherly, it is a bit weird, come to think of it. Shinji is specifically referring to the way she dries the dustcloth. Actually, some of us (Japanese of my generation, 40 years or older today) might have been able to relate to that statement, since the use of dustcloth in household was fairly common until some 40 years ago. Rei's handling of the cloth did look familiar to those generations. Another bit I found interesting was the casual mention of "getting married before thirty". This had been a common conception about marriage up to early 90's.
Actually, you may recall the father-daughter relationship in Yasujiro Ozu's "Late Spring", in which everybody thinks Setsuko Hara's character should get married before she gets too old. This view of marriage (especially for women) survived until '90s. Also, growing out of being a father's daughter to become a mother is considered a part of growing up. Or, growing out of a father's son to become a father. This traditional view of parent-child relationship, and its variation - finding a partner as a substitute for a parent - is a key to understand much Japanese literature and art. Today, you would have difficult time to find a married twenty-something, especially in urban area (in Japan). This change was brought about mainly by economical reasons: Having a family in his/her twenties has become a luxury for many, since they cannot earn that much to support themselves, let alone kids.
Maybe I should mention that many Japanese married couple call each other 'Dad', 'Mom' after they have kids. I noticed, in U.S., for example, a father does address his partner as "mother", but only when speaking to his kid "Ask Mom if it's Okay", for example. But, in Japan, many (not all) married couples address each other 'Dad' or 'Mom' directly. Like, a husband would say to his wife, 'Mom, where is my blue T-shirt?'. It may be related to the function of a male/female within a family, rather than a relationship to each other. I think this custom is becoming less common, but still exists. So, Shinji's shifting between 'housewife' and 'mother' does not sound too strange in Japanese, though it has a implication as you mentioned.
Murderous Ink writes about classic film, pop culture, and society on Vermillion and One Nights.