Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 18 - "Ambivalence"

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 18 - "Ambivalence"


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.

We pick up exactly where we left off...the Eva-03 is on its way, and Toji appears morose. Wonder why? Everyone but Shinji seems to know who the next pilot will be, even as the show half-attempts to keep the audience in the dark. We are never explicitly told until the end of the episode when we see Toji's half-dead body extricated from the wreckage. This could have been a powerful reveal, but the hints are telegraphed too many times beforehand. Nonetheless, Shinji's stunned reaction hits home as does the NERV staffers' shock and horror as a routine test turns into something else entirely (c'mon - how many tests end up routine in Evangelion?). This crew, seemingly unshaken by the disappearance of thousands in the previous episode, is deeply disturbed when they must turn their firepower on one of their own machines...and the young boy piloting it.

By now we are officially into the final third of the series and the emphasis is on demonstrating the ambiguity and complexity of Eva warfare. No longer are we certain about the division between good guys and bad guys...nor about the division between Eva and pilot. On the one hand, both Toji's Eva - due to the Angel - and Shinji's Eva - due to the Dummy plug - trap their pilots inside as helpless hostages. But is that all there is to it? Does Toji's anxiety about piloting an Eva "activate" the Angel inside? Certainly Shinji, for all the responsibility he feels, has no power over his Eva in the finale (that's made about as explicit as possible) but there is a fascinating ambiguity about who actually is in charge.

The Dummy plug is explicitly linked to Shinji's father numerous times: through cross-cutting, Cmdr. Ikari's vocal commands, and even Shinji's own screaming, outraged accusations. Misato is MIA, knocked unconscious by the activated angel and after a notable absence, the senior Ikari is back in charge. Coldly if necessarily issuing ruthless orders, Cmdr. Ikari turns the Evas on their corrupted compatriot, demands that Eva-00's arm be severed even though Rei is still synced, allows his son to be strangled while badgering him to fight back, and finally takes over the Eva completely, forcing Shinji to watch as his own machine batters its fellow Eva. But if the plug is associated with him, why when does its label read "Rei"? What's really going on here?

Rei herself is subtly humanized throughout the episode. In her revealing conversation with Toji, she essentially admits to caring about Shinji. Later when she is ordered to fight the Angel/Eva, she easily acquiesces and we shudder to think how calm she can be about slaying a classmate. Before she can pull the trigger, however, an unexpected inner voice speaks up to recognize that Toji is still in there. This is the moment that Eva-03 leaps towards her: does her concern open her up to attack? Asuka is also ambivalent. Realizing Toji is going to be the next pilot, her emotions fog up and she is more pensive than bratty. Although she is usually very professional in battle, she is especially somber this time. Suspiciously, her communication cuts out right as she's about to tell Shinji what everyone else already knows.

After many episodes of action-packed Angel attacks, with fast cutting and intense music, Evangelion realizes that blasting us with kinetic/visceral thrills is not going to impress. Instead it wisely goes for an intense, dread-inducing buildup. Eva-03 slowly marches through the countryside towards its peers, recalling the comic gait of JetAlone. This time there is no Cheshire cat grin, only a tiger's toothy maw as the predator approaches its prey. When the action arrives, it is sold not so much by the pyrotechnics but by the terrified gasps of the bridge crew. Although I would prefer if we didn't even know who was in there at all, the fact that we never actually see Toji inside (his presence is left to our imagination during the bloody battle), makes the intensity even more grim. Everywhere onscreen in this episode, omnipresent on the series going forward, is a sense of "My God, what have we gotten ourselves into?"


Conversation with Bob Clark (with additional comment from Murderous Ink)

me: How did you feel about Toji this time, given that you're not that keen on his character? Did you find the climactic battle lacked potent drama?

Bob: Not really, because the important dilemma of the episode isn't really that Shinji doesn't want to kill Toji. It's that he doesn't want to kill anyone. I kind of wish that we didn't know at all who the pilot was before the reveal, though I suppose Anno teases it out as much as he possibly can. Shinji himself is in the dark, and I suppose if you aren't paying attention you might be, too. 

me: Yeah it bugged me that they don't explicitly tell us yet it's made so blatantly obvious from the very beginning of the previous episode. And then hammered in again and again. I don't think it's possible for anyone, even the most lackadaisical viewer, not to catch on...
But I wish it was. That could've been a pretty effective reveal.
I wish they could've found a way to do that without making the pilot stuff so obvious. Like just have him going through a dark time, maybe starting a few episodes earlier and also not build up so much suspense about who the pilot will be. Just oh by the way, there's a new pilot. 1 or 2 scenes speculating about it and then almost like we forget and then - bam! - it's Toji. But, 20/20 and all that. 

Bob: I mean, they have to make it sort of obvious so Toji himself has an arc, so he isn't purely a linchpin in Shinji's plot. That's the humanistic side of the show. We see that he's more than just Shinji's friend, more than collateral damage. He's caught up in his own story with Hikari, his sister, etc. When I watched the scene where he's remembering how he hit Shinji, it struck me how he really could die here, and he's had a significantly developed arc here.
And at the same time, if the show went longer, it would be very easy to imagine him as a true Eva pilot, long term. The same way you have musclehead Gundam pilots, etc.

me: That said, I found the actual battle sequence surprisingly powerful. NGE tends to go so kinetic with its confrontations, especially as the show carries on, that the slow boil works really well to build a sense of dread and import.
I think we've brought this up recently, how with every Angel battle getting more and more high-stakes and dramatic at a certain point the anxiety level drops. How does one overcome that? By scaling back, I guess. And an Eva makes a great Angel as it turns out. Plodding along like it's JetAlone and then bam striking out.

Bob: Scaling back-- that's a great observation. It's also very fitting, theme wise. Misato is becoming more and more suspicious of the Evas and NERV, so why not turn one of the Evas into an enemy, itself?
You'll notice that the animation in this scene even recalls the first two episodes. Its movements both mimic the way that Unit 01 jumps when it goes berserk, and the way that the third Angel lifts itself from the ground. It's echoing both.

me: I noticed the silhouettes called back to some of those early battles too.
In fact - come to think of it (and this is a really cool connection) - the shot in which the rescue is arriving and the Evas are frozen in a crouched position is very similar to the one in which Shinji's Eva ran out of power immediately after killing the angel. Except in that episode, he had just saved Toji's life. In this one, he may have killed him. 

Bob: It's similar, but not really all that close. 

me: The shot's not similar compositionally but it's the same idea. Eva frozen in the middle of violence. Except first time it's violence to protect Toji, second time the opposite.
It's a nice way to remind us how far we have traveled from the battle between good and evil with NERV on the side of the angels (pardon the pun and lower the case).
This is the first time Gendo Ikari has been in charge for a while, isn't it?

Bob: I think it is. That's a very big thing, too. Even in the Operation Yashima episode, we only really see him approving Misato's plan.
He's also there in the Day the Earth Stood Still episode, but he's so active you don't really see him as the commander as much there. 

me: The relationship between Evas and pilots is interesting here. On the one hand, it gets blurred with Shinji feeling so responsible for what his Eva has done. On the other, both Shinji & Toji seem to end up as prisoners of the Evas, hapless hostages of the machinery and whatever the fuck else is going on there... 

Bob: One thing that struck me was how much Nerv is essentially victimizing all the pilots in this episode. We know clearly that Toji, Shinji and Rei are all victimized (Toji as the pilot of an Eva that becomes an Angel, Shinji for having his agency robbed when the Dummy Plug is invoked, Rei for her Eva's arm being amputated in battle), but it's also sort of implied that Asuka may have been cut off by command, and not the Angel, as she was just about to say who the pilot was. 

me: That's part of the episode's power. We don't really know what the dummy plug is yet, but boy is it ever associated with Shinji's father.
It gives it extra drama and psychological resonance, making up for the fact that Shinji isn't REALLY the one to attack Toji (which could be seen as a little bit of a cop-out). The fact that his father simply overrides him and basically launches a vicious attack which his son can't prevent, even though he's ostensibly piloting the machine, works pretty well as a metaphor.
And of course we get Shinji's conversation with Kaji about his dad, shortly before. 

Bob: Another great metaphor for disassociation. We already had that with the Eva going berserk before, and even with the way Shinji sleepwalks through his training. So many of Shinji's big accomplishments are really all divorced from his conscious mind. The biggest one so far was him basically giving into death in the Sea of Dirac, spurring... something to go berserk again.
On a symbolic level it's all about giving into the id and unleashing your full, uncensored self, without the ego getting in the way. 

me: Divorced from his conscious mind, yes, but this one feels different because the Eva is really totally separated from his control, conscious or subconscious. His father invades almost as an alien force taking over. 

Bob: This one is something happening contrary to his active, conscious will. It isn't something that can be any part of himself, really. The others are more ambiguous.

me: I guess you could say Shinji's mother corresponds with his Id whereas his father corresponds with the Ego. Fairly obvious way to split it, but the series does well with it I think.
Or Superego maybe would be the better term.
Overriding the instincts completely.

Bob: I also want to underline... and this is just personal opinion, not really a studied thing... that I think there's a difference between the pure Freudian unconscious and what you might call the more Jungian dream subconscious. The unconscious are those urges we're genuinely not aware of unless we go into a fugue state. The subconscious is something that we can gain access to in dreams, which the Sea of Dirac episode really hammers in on. There's no dreams to offer a sieve here though. It's more schizophrenic. 

me: Yes, I think the difference between Freud and Jung is another great way to analogize the conflicts on this show. Maybe personal unconscious vs. collective unconscious - the self as a collection of nervous tics and compulsions and the self as something much bigger than the conscious individual.
But yes, you have these hyperconscious, super-controlled attempts to access & manage these unwieldy Evas and then slowly the prospect emerges of something else, a more synchronous and fluid possibility.
Have you read about earlier plans for how Eva was supposed to unfold? I think you said the manga gives a good indication of this.
I read that Anno got heavily into psychoanalytical concepts halfway through the series, personally, and that it changed course at that point. So it would be interesting to compare the plan with what actually unfolded and tease out the differences that way.

Bob: It gives some idea...? I think Sadamoto abandoned that at some point. I have to read it in full. But you can find outlines for the original plan, I think.

me: It's interesting how the Angel/Eva-03 attacks Rei right as she contemplates Toji inside, one of her most human moments.

Bob: Right. Especially since she's been connecting with Toji more in these episodes. It implies another transcendental connection between the humans and the Angels.
The scene between Asuka and Hikari feels like an eerie echo of it, as well. Especially interesting that, I think, this is where we first get a glimpse at that sandbox that will be such a big symbol later on. 
I also think it's interesting that Asuka shows no interest in Kaji in this episode. Like without Misato to compete with, he's not on her radar as much.

me: There are some super-exaggerated reactions early on speaking of the Asuka/Hikari scene. Asuka's then and Misato's earlier. Kind of interesting they go that route when later everything will be somber and nuanced.
The reaction shots in this are great. This episode is really a great example of how to sell the stakes in a given sequence by the characters' reactions.That plus the pacing (since there are strong reactions in some other recent episodes, namely Sea of Dirac).
There's a fantastic feeling of dread here. The "sinking-in" of oh my god, what are we about to do...Something else - the previous episode highlights the idea that the pilot of the Eva doesn't really matter. This one makes me wonder, though, if it does. Would the Angel have taken over the Eva if Toji hadn't been the pilot? Did something about him going in there, with all his ambivalence about piloting, "activate" it?
It's making me think of Twin Peaks a bit though. How the divide between spirits and humans can at times seem really sharply defined/delineated, at others much more vague & psychologically-based. You get that here with the Evas. I always find the latter more compelling from a character standpoint.

Bob: It sounds reasonable. If they'd committed more to Toji as a center for an episode or two, we really could've seen this explored. 
But I think it's pretty clear this was going to be the next Angel. It's implied that it really happens when you see that little spark as the transport heads into the cloud.

me: Hm, didn't notice that. Like that was the moment the Eva got "infected" maybe? 

Bob: The choking-- for the first time, I think, we're really seeing an Eva and Angel fight without any weapons at all. It's as pure and brutal as hand to hand combat can get. Visceral, too. Shinji gets choked, then he chokes and snaps the neck of the Angel. 

me: Well what about Sea of Dirac though? 

Bob: True. But I don't even know if you can call that "combat" so much. And it's so transcendental what happens-- Shinji is swallowed by the shadow, then comes out in the spectral body, tearing his way out? It's brutal and bloody, but it also goes out of its way to defy the laws of physics. It's much more of a mind-bender scene than an action thing.
This is almost wholly, purely physical. We even see more of the blood and guts in the Eva than ever before.

me: Yeah THAT was pretty far out. You really think of it as a machine, mechanics despite all the sync stuff (and whatever they call the fluid they're steeped in - can't remember). But you watch that and it's like this is a real flesh-and-blood creature.

Bob: Yeah. I mean, we've seen that there's an organic base as far back as the second episode, but still. 

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

Murderous Ink
on Toji and Shinji

It is quite a fascinating discussion about Toji and Shinji. I always felt Toji's character had descended from the earlier Anime, those from 80's, while Shinji's character was much more relevant to the contemporary audience in '95. Though Toji was much more subdued, less energetic and sometimes more thoughtful than the hot-blooded, loud and frequently self-righteous characters in the earlier action-oriented animes, he was still drawn in the fashion of the convention, and the acting style seems to evoke those heroes. I don't think he was killed off (so casually) as a metaphor (i.e. the end of the hero anime etc.), but his death certainly has the eerie feel.

Especially Toji's dialect (Kansai-ben) is a direct anti-thesis to everything in NGE world view. NGE was about Tokyo and its surroundings. Actually, the dialect Toji's voice actor speaks is not even remotely close to the authentic Kansai-dialect, and that means something. In general, Kansai-ben is associated with comedians and entertainers, since the majority of Yoshimoto comedians speaks it. But Tokyo is the place where serious business is going on, not only in commerce but also in government and particularly in all the machinery of bureaucracy. So is the world of NGE. It is so serious, lacking in humor, and always somber. Some fans made the video with all the characters in NGE speaking Kansai-dialect, making fun of the dead seriousness of the series, which went viral sometime ago. It is a rather gruesome fact that the Kansai area, especially Osaka city, has been losing the financial and commercial momentum for the last two decades, slowly eroded by the Tokyo-centric cultures. So, the death of Toji may seem symbolic, today.

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

Next week: "Introjection" • Previous week: "Fourth CHILD"

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