Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 16 - "Splitting of the Breast"



Earlier this week I published my video "The 3 1/2 Minute Review of Neon Genesis Evangelion"

Also, I'm on Tumblr now! Mostly tumbling in a vacuum though, so please follow & share the stuff you like, if that's your thing.

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.

I was going to begin this entry with the comment, "This is where Neon Genesis Evangelion goes off the rails, in the best sense possible." Before doing so, a little internet research turned up the fact that, indeed, this is where the series began to depart dramatically from the original series script - in part based on Anno's own interest in psychology following a period of depression. If the previous episode returned us to character study after a long stretch focusing on action-packed Angel battles, "Splitting of the Breast" fuses this character study with the larger, overarching sci-fi context. The result is one of the strongest episodes yet and, as I was originally inclined to write, a feeling that the self-contained world of the show - with its ever-battered but ever-resilient NERV infrastructure, characters whose flaws and strengths we love in equal measure, and hinted-but-not-quite-explored atmosphere of intrigue and treachery - is starting to disintegrate.

The episode begins, innocuously enough, with shimmering water in a bathroom (subtly setting up the watery shot near the end, when Shinji is rescued from the Eva after a near-death experience). Shinji, Asuka, and Misato banter in their Odd Couple quarters, and then we're off to another Eva test in which Shinji scores off the charts. Misato praises him, Shinji's confidence starts to build, and Asuka alternately mocks his accomplishments and expresses her frustration by punching a locker. Her arrogance is growing transparent; at one point later she will even shout revealingly at Rei, "I don't pilot the Eva for the praise of other people. I do it because I want to be able to praise myself!" Her self-esteem is extremely low, and her boasts are an increasingly thin cover for this weakness. Soon they won't even be that.

When an Angel attacks - our first in three episodes - Shinji volunteers himself for the front and charges it with impatience. Like Asuka, this shallow form of assertion is not enough and he's swallowed by the Angel's shadow, which turns out to actually be the Angel itself. Ristsuko, who has been cheerful and teasing all episode, turns cold and professional, telling Misato that rescuing Shinji is not their priority. They must focus on retrieving Eva-01. Misato responds by slapping Ritsuko (a moment nicely emphasized by a chopper roaring through the background) and the cool technician breaks, scowling at her peer and then warning ominously - after a long pause (this episode's hectic first half nicely underlines the extended silences of the second) "Misato, trust me."

And then we are inside the "Sea of Dirac," the extradimensional world within the Angel/shadow. Shinji begins to suffocate and as he does so, he is confronted by his own insecurities - obviously this "shadow" Shinji is confronting is metaphorical as well as literal. Shinji's inner voice (or the Angel, or the Eva, speaking through him?) tells painful truths: "There's no way you can live by linking just the enjoyable moments like a rosary." Compared to what will come, this is actually a relatively brief metaphysical encounter, but it's still a shock to the system. As Shinji prepares to die, a ghostly feminine figure hurls out of the abyss, embraces him, and thrusts him forward. The Eva then punches its way out of the Angelic sphere floating above the "shadow," in a truly awesome shot which echoes the "berserker" scene in the first episode but seems to frighten NERV officials even more.

Touchingly, Misato doesn't even try to hold back her tears when she hugs an exhausted Shinji in the pilot's seat - he tells her he only came back to see her again (at least that's the implication of his rather enigmatic "you"). Cmdr. Ikari (yet again conveniently absent for his underlings to display both their personalities and their executive decision-making - impotent or interrupted in this particular case) and Ritusko mutter to one another about the Eva's increasingly ambiguous true identity: "Are the Evas really on our side? They may hate us?" Shinji meanwhile wakes up in the hospital to find both the usually aloof Rei and an embarrassed Asuka attending to him. As the support system underneath these teenagers starts to give way, they will have only each other (and the increasingly emotionally-committed Misato) to rely upon. Will it be enough?


Conversation with Bob Clark (with additional comments by Murderous Ink)

me: Remarkably, I've never read the Eva entry on Wikipedia until now. It's pretty informative.
Apparently this was the episode where Eva went dramatically off-script, in part because Anno wanted to focus more on the characters' psychology than was planned.
Good God but the more I learn about the series, the deeper its parallels appear to Twin Peaks.

Bob: Right. A big part of that is probably aided by the fact that Anno storyboarded this, and most other episodes. Animation tends to be driven as much, or more, by its storyboards than scripts. For instance over here, I don't know how many Looney Tunes actually had scripts from the first stage. Guys like Chuck Jones would storyboard and keyframe things out, maybe writing dialogue along the way-- but they composed it visually first, I think.
So, it'd be easier for Anno to go off script here than it would be for most live action people. Also, besides the animation budget issues which we keep talking about, there's the fact that Anno and his crew wanted to eschew some of the cliches inherent in sci-fi that they might've had originally.
There's an interview somewhere where Kazuya Tsurumaki talks about how they wanted Shinji's conversation with the Angel to be something other than a generic sci-fi thing, complete with him imitating a cheezy voice. Instead, it becomes Shinji talking to himself.

me: You've mentioned this is your favorite episode, or at least high among your favorites. Why?

Bob: I think that if I had to say one reason, it would be that in this episode you have about a dozen things reaching a head all at once. The Angels manifest their most bizarre form yet, something that seems to defy the laws of physics and takes their abstract nature to an even higher plateau. Anno's direction is pushed more and more into an avant-garde spirit, not only with the sequence where Shinji communicates with the Angel, but everything up to and after it as well-- his framing and composition are just......as abstract in the suspenseful stuff leading up the Shinji's capture as the "Third-Impact"-y stuff during it. Moreover, almost every character seems to have a major arc pivot-point here-- Misato goes from wanting to chew Shinji out to bawling over his safety; Rei has a moment of lucid wisdom with Asuka; Ritsuko has to answer (or at least offer telling silence) to Misato's distrust; Asuka has at least two or three different character arcs at once it seems, and it's hard to even fathom how many for Shinji.

me: What are some of the compositions that specifically stand out to you?

Bob: Everything in the build up to Shinji being taken, as the Evas play hide-and-seek with the Angel. Anno does a great job of putting you in the action by fragmenting things just enough to put them off center, at the edge of frames as they're hiding behind buildings, the Angel peeking out from between things. Remarkable especially because it takes up such a small part of the episode. He could've built a whole set-piece out of this (especially the bit where Asuka's cord gets caught between buildings......it's almost like he's building the grammar of what the rest of the action will be). But instead it's just a dodge, and the plausibility of how that action could carry the episode makes Shinji's capture feel so much heavier.

me: Speaking of the buildup - I noticed that this time we jump right to the Evas in action. No boarding or launching scenes. It's like the last run of episodes set us up well enough to know all the mechanics of Eva-Angel battles. Now we're thrust in to the implications.

Bob: Allows them to save time that can be better spent on all of the weirdness that follows, or even the domestic comedy at the front of the episode.

me: Anything to say about the animation in this episode?

Bob: Well first of all, we have to acknowledge that the copy we have here is of significantly lower picture quality. Unfortunately, Gainax lost the negative for this episode, and had to resort to a dupe print. Which really sucks, for such a pivotal one.

me: Wow, I was wondering about that. The colors seemed less sharp than usual.

Bob: It really disappoints me here because there's so much that's being done visually. You can especially see the drop-down of quality when you just look at the preview of the next episode-- everything's so fucking sharp and vibrant. Anyway, having a largely static Angel means that there's a lot of character animation here, and a lot of it goes to Asuka, which helps sell all her character moments. We see more of her frustration with losing to Shinji in the synch-rates from her movements in the locker-room. We can see more of her frustration earlier in the extra keyframes her body language gets as she's chewing him out for apologizing all the time.
The moments that stick out most of all for me however are when she's yelling at Rei in the early stages of the emergency situation-- her face is engulfed in shadow, but the blues of her eyes remain striking clear. There's something scary about that, the real heart of danger inherent in trying to act calm during a crisis.
And then there's the cartoonish reaction we see of her when Rei leaves Shinji's room, revealing that she was waiting outside his door as well. This is where the drop-down of picture quality really bugs me, because it's so interesting to see a moment like that done in the light pastel colors reserved for the hospital moments. It's an exaggerated reaction, but in a more subdued, realistic hue-- Shinji's reaction to laugh feels really earned there. It captures the volatility and sweetness of youth.

me: Well, you touched on a few things I was just thinking. 1) While you were typing that (and before I read it) I was choosing that exact same shot of Asuka's face in shadow as one of screen-caps for this entry. 2) I was also just thinking that, despite the drop-down in print quality, the animation seems much more detailed here than in recent episodes, especially in terms of facial expression.
As for Asuka's face being in shadow, the whole episode of course uses literal shadow as a metaphor for the classic Jungian "shadow self."

Bob: For Shinji especially, but even for her. It makes you question the certainty with which she always blusters through everything. She's insistent upon shouting down Shinji when he's gone almost as if she needs to convince herself that he'll be there in the end for her to yell at.

me: You're right about Asuka. We've gotten hints, but if I'm not mistaken this is the beginning of her downward trajectory in which her kinda lovable arrogance starts to just plain seem pathetic.
And I love that line, which I mentioned in my intro - "I do it because I want to be able to praise myself!" She says that like it justifies her, but it's actually so revealing.

Bob: And the crisis moment gives it a nice context that allows us to appreciate it without it taking over the whole episode.

me: Indeed, this is an escalation of the process of looking at the shadow side of NERV & the world we're presented w/ as being the "good guys."

Bob: I think this is the first time that we've gotten a confirmation that the pilot is expendable here. Ritsuko wants to give him some more time, but still, he's expendable.

me: One interesting thing I've learned is that the series was modified following the terrorist attack on the Japanese subway system in the 90s. They wanted to make it less cavalier about violence than they had originally planned.
Hm. Not sure about Wiki's sourcing on that though. The attack was in '95 and the footnote is for a (not-online) article from 1991. But I'm sure it impacted them somehow. That was a pretty big event for Japan.

Bob: Well they always do a good job of showing the consequences of violence. But that might be a reason why we've gone a few episodes without really having a lot of Angel action, why that's downplayed in favor of the psychological stuff.
Also-- here's an episode where traditional combat doesn't even work against the Angel. Everyone's guns fail to hit the target. Shinji winds up bursting out from the Angel, and I can't stress this enough, in a way that defies normal physics. He's traveled through a fucking wormhole, there.

me: Shinji's encounter inside the Sea of Dirac feels like a real breakthrough moment for the show. And I feel like compared to what's to come, it's just a taste.

Bob: Absolutely. That's why I think that the previous taste we got of the experimental side in the SEELE episode was kind of a feint, covering the budget limits. Here, we have the first real dive into the weird stuff, and it's handled with a nice amount of ambiguity, as will the next similar moment. Shinji's encounter is something like a sensory-deprivation tank scene out of Altered States.
There's a legitimate question as to how much of this is him talking to the Angel, or himself. The striped shirt that his younger "self" wears is a tell that this is the Angel, but it's still kinda up in the air.

me: Why does that tell it's the Angel?

Bob: The striped appearance of the Angel.
I think that Anno or or Tsurumaki have talked about this.

me: Rei has an interesting part in this episode.
In quite a few ways.

Bob: Yeah. We see her automatic instinct to stay in the field and protect Shinji-- Asuka has the impulse too, but Rei is the one who voices it concretely.

me: She confronts Asuka, appears by Shinji's bedside (this was an unusual scene but we'll get to that in a second), and when Ritusko and Cmdr. Ikari are talking about "the truth" of the Angels, Ritsuko says "If Rei and Shinji were to find out the Eva's secrets, they'd never forgive us, would they?" Which is odd because up till now, Rei has been subtly implicated as knowing about "it," whatever "it" is. But suddenly she's identified as being in the dark, with the other young pilots, instead of being enmeshed in NERV's intrigue.

Bob: And Asuka's left out of it, though we'll see that she has her own psychological, tortured hang-ups outside of NERV's master plotting.

me: Yes, further and further outside.
As to that hospital scene what do you make of Shinji's reaction to Rei's line, "Well, that's good for you"?

Bob: I suppose that's a reaction to seeing anything other than a robotic unemotional response from her.

me: Which is funny because it's still said very coolly and distantly.
But it's almost like the fact that she is there watching him speaks for itself.

Bob: Same thing with the brief glimpse we get of Asuka at the door-- all we get out of her is "oh shit, he saw me!". In both cases, we get a scene that looks like nothing in terms out outward emotion, but for either character is a huge leap forward.

me: Any other thoughts on the episode?

Bob: Actually, right at the same scene, when we see Asuka hiding behind the wall, from the outside-- it's a kind of repeat of the battle, when Shinji was hiding his EVA behind the buildings looking at the Angel.

me: Misato has a strong episode here. We REALLY see her shifting from the cocksure commander to someone who unapologetically cares more about the pilots than the mission.
Especially as she starts to wonder what that mission really is.

Bob: And one thing that stands out for me here is how she and Asuka are joined at key moments-- the domestic side, where they seem to be forcing different ways for Shinji to handle himself ("stop being so self deprecating!" "it's just his way!"), the fallout from her saying "You're Number One!" (the whole episode is really the aftermath of inflating somebody's ego, and then confronting that ego), and even when Shinji is rescued at the end ("weren't you going to chew him out?").
It's especially neat how Anno buries the lede there with comedy-- we laugh at how Misato's gone from wanting to yell at Shinji to bawling over him being okay thanks to Asuka's puncturing the moment, but it also disguises how we don't necessarily know who Shinji was talking about when he said "I just wanted to see you one more time"-- Misato or Asuka? Or somebody else, assuming it wasn't even someone physically present.

me: Yes that's a very cryptic comment.

Bob: Something else worth noting-- I think that the moment when Shinji's mother "meets" him in the Eva is something that happens early on in the manga (which Sadamoto did based on the anime while in production). So I don't know what came first there-- I think it's probably something intended for the anime that was used earlier in the manga, but worth checking out.

me: That was a really great moment. Sometimes when sci-fi tries to do "character" moments it comes off very generic. Think Leo's backstory in Inception.

Bob: Well the problem with Inception there is it's actually obscuring the more interesting story-- Leo's wife. I'm more intrigued by the woman who got lost in a dream and really wonders what side of the mirror she's on, not the husband who's left in her wake.

me: But here it really works. I think in part because we've gotten to know these characters over 15 episodes. The exploration of their inner lives feels earned instead of just an empty signifier.
And they've held so much back that now when it starts to be released it's really significant.
Same is true of Asuka in upcoming episodes.

Bob: And here we're just starting to see the threads come apart for someone like Asuka, who's really coasted for a long time as a pretty but bossy character, a similar type to Lucy or Peppermint Patty from Peanuts. Here, we get to see some of the facade crack-- sometimes it's when we see her face in shadow but eyes bright blue, unable to hide in the dark, and sometimes it's when we see her hiding outside Shinji's door, just on the edge of trying to make a connection.

me: How about Ritsuko here?

Bob: Well, with Ritsuko we get another one of those "symbolic slap" moments.

me: Any other thoughts?

Bob: "It still smells like blood"-- what does that sound like to you?

me: His hand? What do you make of it?

Bob: Out, damn spot.

me: What is he guilty about?

Bob: I'm not sure it's guilt, really. Remember, one of the big plot points of that play is whether or not somebody is "of woman born", and this was an episode that obliquely connected back to the mother, here.
However, it does help signal that NERV, as a whole, is an institution built on some rotten backstabbing and guilt, and that eventually they're going to get their own downfall.
I mean, it's also just a callback to the smell of blood from the EVA, and his growing distrust in that. But remember all of the ships named after Shakespeare plays.

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

The terrorist cult Aum Sinrikyo and Evangelion
shared by Murderous Ink

The following is the excerpts from Anno's interview by Hiroki Azuma in 1996. This is probably very interesting to you. (I added my note in parenthesis.)

Azuma:
... The enemy, "Angel", does not have a substantial image, being a pyramid, a bright ring or a virus. How did you come up with this idea?

Anno:
I wanted to express something shapeless, paradoxically. In my mind, the concept of 'enemy' is not clear. For my relationship with the world is not clear, ... maybe something like System. But my earlier generation taught me that it is useless to fight against the System.

Azuma:
It seems to me that it closely resembles the image of the enemy that Aum Sinrikyo had.

Anno:
I think (people in) Aum is as the same generation as I am. I understand them well.

Azuma:
I am about 10 years younger than you, and I find your generation really has a strong sympathy with the Aum. But don't you think you should differentiate between "something like the Aum" and the Aum itself?

Anno:
We sort of have rationalized or sublimated our Aum-like part (resentment in ourselves) through making things (like Anime). People of the Aum never have done that. They really hated the world, and closed themselves in their shells by their will, and practiced it (the act of revenge). They could have sublimated (their resentment) as a whole group, but the group itself had submerged into their own trap, and destroyed itself. They had some talent, but the group was pathetic as a whole.

Murderous Ink writes about classic film, pop culture, and society on Vermillion and One Nights.

2 comments:

Utritum said...

Actually, Shinji's surprised reaction to Rei's "Well, that's good for you", is more likely because it is the exact same line he heard/recalled his mother say to him earlier.

Joel Bocko said...

Interesting point - the seeds are being planted...