Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 21 - "He was aware that he was still a child."


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.

This entry covers the Director's Cut version of Episode 21.

Origin story, flashback, even prequel - call it what you will. After twenty episodes of allusive hints toward the shared history of the characters, dropping cryptic clues about various motives (both personal and organizational), and constantly reminding us that the past which haunts the present cannot be recovered...Neon Genesis Evangelion recovers the past. And it's surprisingly effective; in fact, this is probably my favorite episode of the series up to this point. Above all, I'm a sucker for backstories - especially when we get to visit them firsthand. Motion pictures, be they cinema or television, live action or animation, even narrative or experimental, root their approach in observing moments unfold in physical reality. Just as in everyday life, movies and TV episodes give us a sense that time moves forward as a general rule. But of course memory works differently onscreen. As I wrote about Fire Walk With Me, the film which rewinds Twin Peaks to before the TV show began: "Movies have a unique and potent ability to break one of the surest laws of our existence. Time can be shattered, history unearthed, the past rediscovered."

Episode 21 is structured more like The Godfather Part II than Fire Walk With Me, leaping between past and present. The flashbacks are framed by human drama rather than Angel attack: it has now been two full episodes since the last battle, although the story is actually growing more intense without angels on the horizon. Kaji's intrigue finally comes to a head when he helps to kidnap - and then personally frees - Vice Cmmdr. Fuyutsuki for Seele. That ominous consortium, by the way, is no longer represented by cartoonish villains gathered around a table, but Kubrickian monoliths hovering in a Stonehenge-like circle around their prisoner. We learn more about their shady past -  probably predicting the Second Impact, lying to the public and concealing the first Angel, and supporting a more cheerful but hardly less sinister Cmmdr. Ikari before he was either commander or "Ikari."

Indeed, Gendo took his wife's name upon marriage, but does he truly respect her? We see that even when Shinji was a boy, his father left the upbringing mostly to the lovely Yui, a brilliant scientist as well as a devoted mother. Does Gendo even love Yui? It is suggested that he used her for Seele's purposes and yet after the enigmatic "accident" that takes her out of his life, we see him transform into the cold Cmmdr. Ikari in his grief. We also get our strongest hints that perhaps Rei has something to do with Yui. Ritsuku's mother, Ikari's jealous lover, seems to kill the little girl before taking her own life so Rei can't be merely mortal, can she? The episode explains much (it's an elaborate info-dump, albeit a very elegant and exciting one). But it also opens up new questions. Most notably, what exactly happened to Yui Ikari in 2004? Did she die? Simply vanish? What does her disappearance have to do with the monotonous blue-haired girl, whose cruel baiting of Ikari's mistress makes her seem less naive or innocent than she ever has before?

"He was aware that he was still a child." is a perfect title even though Shinji barely appears in the episode. We glimpse him as a toddler by a lake with his mother (we don't see his face but we see him grasping at her breasts - a reminder of his visions in the previous episode), observing her on the day she will mysteriously disappear, and then finally at the end of the episode when he witnesses Misato's breakdown. She bursts into tears after listening to Kaji's final answering machine message (funny how Anno zips way ahead of the actual 2015 in some technological touches, but falls way behind in others). Shinji can't hear the message and even if he could he wouldn't understand its significance. More than ever, the strange, hidden world of the adults baffles and embarrasses him, reminding him of how little he comprehends. "He was aware..." pays very little attention to Shinji's generation, reducing him to a cameo, using Rei to reveal the older folks' foibles, and for the first time ignoring Asuka entirely (the preview tells us she will play a leading role in the next episode however).

Instead the episode focuses much attention on the older generations, ranging from the still youngish but authoritative Cmmdr. Ikari (and his late wife, who would be roughly the same age) to the very middle-aged Fuyutsuki, who emerges as the closest this episode has to a protagonist, at least in the early sections. We see their lives unfold in the normalcy of the twentieth century, a year before the Second Impact changed everything. But we also devote much attention to the in-between generation, Misato, Ritsuko, and Kaji, witnessing their college years and observing their own confusion among their elders. Misato is described as ephasic in her teen years, following the death of her father, and exuberantly outgoing when Ritsuko meets her several years later. We catch far more of the nuance in Ritsuko's relationship to her mother, eavesdropping on their correspondence, and realizing that Ritsuko knows about her mother's affair with Ikari. And Kaji's burning desire to know the elders' secrets, cloaked in cavalier diffidence, comes to its fateful head.

A year ago, I posted a visual tribute to this episode amidst some other posts focused on coming-of-age. I wrote the following as an introduction, and now it can double as a conclusion:
There are several layers to the long strange trip: Episode 21 features numerous flashbacks but when the show originally aired in 1996, these memories actually belonged to the future (the show's "present" takes place in a post-apocalyptic 2015, and the flashbacks begin in 1999). For me the timeline is even more interesting: had I watched the show when it aired, I would have been roughly the same age as the youngest characters but in terms of actual chronology I am the same age as the slightly older generation (who are around thirty in the 2015 scenes and went to college in the mid-00s). As is often the case, the sci-fi elements of the show provide an intense, amplified backdrop for the drama but the humiliations, heartbreaks, and losses are all too human. The trip down memory lane is not always a pleasant one.


Conversation with Bob Clark (followed by Murderous Ink's thoughts on Kaji)

me: We learn a lot in this episode, but it also opens so many questions.

Bob: Yeah. The best kind of answer episode.

me: I was just going to say that!

Bob: It helps that we start off right with one of the show's most iconic appropriations-- the Seele monoliths.

me: Why are they monoliths now?
Or I guess, why AREN'T they the human figures we met before?

Bob: The key, I think, is the "SOUND ONLY" label on them. Suddenly they care about anonymity for some reason. Even the voices are conspicuously masked (they sound like some of the "god animal" voices from Princess Mononoke, to me).

me: Aha, good point. Especially since the episode unmasks their past.

Bob: I mean obviously it's an homage to 2001, which feels thematically right in an episode that lays out a lot of the mythology and ties it discretely to classic science fiction. But I think there's more to that, too. It's basicaly Anno interpreting the monolith from 2001, saying there's a kind of anonymity at work there. Kubrick's monolith is the hand of aliens trying to keep their faces, and agenda, from being seen.

me: Maybe you can explain the whole Seele-NERV-Fuyutsuki-Ikari-Kaji nexus to me. I'm a bit lost there.

Bob: I'll admit, the nexus of the plot is a little confusing. Lots of fans have even been confused as to who shoots Kaji. I even thought the Director's Cut added stuff to make that clearer (I guess it doesn't).
I guess in the end, though, it seems that Kaji is ultimately working for Ikari, which is why he frees Fuyutski from Seele. The distrust that some in NERV have had in Kaji works against him here.

me: But he kidnaps/gives Fuyutsuki to Seele too, right? Anyway, why do they want him as their prisoner? Isn't he already working indirectly for them anyway?

Bob: I don't think he does give him to Seele. NERV assumes he did it, probably on behalf of the Japanese government.
And Seele, at this point, has been covertly working against NERV for a while now.

me: Hm. Maybe we'll have to get into this further in future episodes!
Who does shoot Kaji, though?
I can't quite remember. My thought was maybe Ritsuko?
As I was watching, it occurred to me that maybe it was Misato but...

Bob: I think the implication is pretty clear here-- it's Misato.

me: Oh woah ok maybe it was then.

Bob: Hey, Chekov's gun.

me: Yeah, I got that impression this time but not others. Definitely adds an extra oomph to her last scene.

Bob: Kaji probably expected to be killed. By whom, who knows. Apparently Anno said it was a third party, somebody working for NERV or Seele. So officially, he doesn't know. But that also kind of strikes me as classic evasiveness. Maybe the implication that it was her upset people too much.
Ultimately the fact that his killing is unresolved makes him a victim of his own tradecraft. He's killed not by any one assassin. He's killed by the job.
One thing that's interesting in the treatment of his death-- though we'll get more of it in the next episode I think-- no reaction from Asuka.
No presence of Asuka at all in this episode. Which surprised me, because I thought we got some of her mother's backstory here, before.

me: Is this the only episode where one of the 4 central characters (if I guess we define that as Misato-Shinji-Asuka-Rei) isn't present? I mean, after she is introduced anyway.

Bob: Which is why it's so isolating, this episode-- Shinji and Misato are the only characters we see the whole time. And they're both children mostly. Misato is a shell shocked survivor who goes from being comatose to a bipolar party girl, and Shinji is just a baby, and then later... a stunted young man, suffering from a trauma he can't even properly understand.
Fuyutski's story really does a good job to flesh out the human dimension of what life is like after the Third Impact.

me: And what life was like before, too. I just love how much this episode spans.
Yet it doesn't feel like an info-dump to me. It feels like a lot of fascinating glimpses into different times and places, each fully realized, however fleetingly.

Bob: Right, because most of the info is dumped in drama, not as information.
We learn so much about the condition of the world from how Fuyutski goes from a college professor and experimental project guy to an unlicensed town doctor living on a boat.
Even the NERV stuff is mostly given to us in the emotional story of Gendo and Yui, Ritsuko and her mom (they go to great lengths to capitalize on the backstory alluded to in Lilliputian Hitcher).

me: It's fascinating to see the layers of the generations on top of one another too. Like Gendo/Yui's relationship to Fuyutsuki, then Ritsuko's relationship to her mom (and Misato's and Kaji's to these shady organizations run by older folks in the "know"), then Shinji's relationship to Misato - and Rei's to Ritsuko's mom...and so forth.

Bob: And all the layers of attraction. Ritsuko's mom and Gendo (and how he's using her). Fuyutski and Yui. Even Gendo's marriage to Yui has a sinister tone to it, now, given her connection to Seele.

me: Glad you brought that up. The Gendo-Yui thing - Fuyutsuki seems to think Gendo was using her. Yet in this episode, as in previous ones, we do get the sense that Gendo genuinely loved her. Not so much through his interactions with her - in fact, if I'm not mistaken we don't really get to see them interact do we?

Bob: That is Fuyutski's assumption. Given that we see him in police custody, it almost feels like the more likely scenario is that when Gendo married Yui, he was taken into her plans, adopted her purpose. And then when he lost her, he winds up perverting them in an attempt to bring her back.

me: Well that was something I couldn't quite get. It sounded like Fuyutsuki was saying that Gendo already worked for Seele and Yui worked for another organization that Seele wanted to infiltrate. But it was the opposite? She already worked for Seele and he wanted to be a part of them?

Bob: It sounds like Seele was backing Yui's research.
I think it really is more like Gendo "marries into" the Seele business.
Or rather, he marries into Yui's plans. And then without her... etc.

me: Well, he does take her name.
From the annals of Yahoo! Answers: "There are two traditional systems in modern Japan. Most commonly, the wife takes the husband's family name. More unusually, the husband may alternatively take the wife's family name (Nyokei system). The later typically happens when the wife has no brothers and the wife's family still wants to pass down the family name."

Bob: It's curious, what Yui's plans might've been before Gendo took over, before she died. It doesn't even seem like Seele was the one that really came up with Instrumentality. We clearly see here that Gendo manipulated them into it.
They also flat out say there that this plan is intended to raise a god, or make man into god. There is never, not once, any notion of "these terrible things called angels are going to attack us and we have to prepare."

me: Well in the beginning Seele says they don't want to make a god.
"Creating a new god is not on our agenda."

Bob: Seele want to "evolve" humanity into something completely new and different. Gendo, apparently, wants to use it completely for himself.

me: The Rei-Naoko scene is fantastically fucked-up.

Bob: Especially because the word that apparently means "hag" sounds a lot like the Japanese word for "mother".

me: And of course it hearkens to the episode where Rei's Eva goes berserker and Ritsuko suspects it was striking at her.

Bob: Right. And-- another strangling.

me: It definitely casts Rei in a darker, less naive light. Not naive exactly but the sort of "reserved, unaware" state she seems to usually be in.
Any thoughts on the animation in this episode?

Bob: [In the director's cut] I was really impressed by the limitations of the information. It works really well to give you a bit of information, but not overload you. The video-feed thing really works well, even if it's a gimmick.

me: What are the technical challenges of animating characters to look like younger versions of themselves? I was struck by how they did such a good job with that.

Bob: The biggest character thing in the animation, I felt, was just how huge Gendo's eyes look when he's younger here. Primarily because he hasn't yet reached the point where he's constantly putting distance between himself and others with glasses, and he's still got some kind of youthful innocence, with Yui. When she's gone, he goes all squinty.
It's such a revelation to see him as this combative Young Turk, this rebellious, take-on-the-world guy who's getting arrested, wooing a powerful young woman. There's a very romantic character to him that we only get hints of. And then when she's gone, it's gone.

me: Even Misato they manage to make look a bit younger. It's all done very subtly, and then aging them over time too. Am I correct in assuming this was one of the more expensive episodes, even though there isn't really any action?

Bob: Maybe this is one of the reasons why the monoliths were introduced. They require less animation.

me: There is also a lot of cutting it seems. Not so many long, sustained shots as in previous episodes. This one really moves along. Impressive how it can be both fast-paced and immersive. I think that's why it's one of my favorites: just feels like it contains worlds.
You mentioned a little while back that this isn't really one of your favorites (I think you said it was too much of a downer). What was your take on it this time?

Bob: I like it, but over time I've come to really love the "let's fight an angel!" episodes. NGE is a good show when it's deep like this, but it's easy to forget that it can also be just plain a lot of fun, too.

me: Would you say you've come to prefer the episodic to the serialized when it comes to NGE?
I mean, it's all serialized but that middle section is more episodic in feel than the bookend stretches of the series.

Bob: It's a bit like why I like The Phantom Menace over Empire Strikes Back. I like the parts of Star Wars that are more concerned with the fun, rather than all the dark gloomy stuff. "Yeah, yeah, there's an evil empire that's gonna happen and there's all sorts of bad people that are going to torture the people you love. But hey, let's go watch pod-racing and sword fights!"
To an extent, the episodic really impresses me here. It's amazing to see each of those episodes as a kind of mini-movie, complete in and of itself, even as it adds more to the overall story.

me: It's funny, I always love the dark stuff. But that's a bit why I like Star Wars (you know which one I mean by that title). It feels like the most graceful in a way because it's not trying to be heavy-handed or somber, it's embracing the swashbuckler aspect and just taking it to the hilt. I feel NGE on the other hand really hits its stride the crazier/darker it gets.

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

Murderous Ink's thoughts on Kaji:

Who killed Kaji?

According to Anno's own explanation; Someone. Not with a name or a face. Not Misato.

It is general consensus among fans that Seele ordered the murder. Well, it is fairly evident that Kaji was an unwilling double agent. To Seele's eyes, he was simply incompetent. Though we don't really know why he acted as he did (we can guess), but he was so fed up with both Seele and NERV, but he had no choice but follow the order. Seele probably perceived Kaji's action regarding to Fuyutsuki's kidnapping as an act of disobedience, even double-cross (well it is), so it is natural to assume Seele eliminated its agent.

The role of Kaji has been a topic of debate among Japanese fans as well. He is a sort of a playboy while acting as a double-, triple-agent. This kind of a lone wolf with almost laughable antics of womanizing can be seen in some male characters in '70s and '80s anime. Probably one of the most notable examples may be Lupin the Third. In case of Lupin the Third, the trait was exaggerated to the point of comedy, with amusing results. Most notably, Lupin has his own code of ethics, which he never explicitly declares but he acts accordingly. The 'philosophy', you might call it, is evident through his actions and is observed even if he loses his game.

Then, what is the code of ethics which Kaji follows? Ken-ichi Yamakawa, in his book, Eva, classified Kaji as 'an outsider who doesn't think much of the rules of the system', and parallels him to Grandis in Anno's Nadia. I am not convinced of this description. We see that he is on to something, but information is only fragmentary and incoherent. We are not allowed to see his intent, but we know he is trying to do something. A lot of his actions were through Seele's orders, but we sense he might have his own agenda. But that's about all. His eventual demise later in the series seems to explain some, but can we trust that kind of reading? He was an agent after all, he knows a lot more than most of the characters do and we viewers do. At least, he didn't reveal what he was until the end.

The only episode, which may suggest Kaji's 'philosophy' is about his watermelon garden. His comments to Shinji sound ominous, more so than it may actually be. Through that episode, we realize Kaji is the only person who is intelligent enough to hide his true self from the bureaucratic class system of NERV and Seele. He plays his role given by the megalomaniac tale of the system. This may be a reflection about the status of an intelligentsia in hyper bureaucratic capitalism in general. The system knows he is intelligent, clever and, most importantly, disillusioned enough to do their dirty jobs, - like playing both sides, being brutal and charming at the same time. And Kaji knows the system knows it. He is trapped in this endless circle of cruel joke. The system differentiates these kind of people from unintelligent, stupid and fanatical assholes.

I always find the parallel between the world of NGE and Nazi Germany. The systems of NERV and Seele resemble the bureaucratic nature of Nazi regime. Yamakawa's book pointed out that the character of Keel Lorenz was conceived after Konrad Lorenz, a famed zoologist. Konrad Lorenz was a Nazi party member during WWII, who researched the domestication of animals in the socio-political context of Nazi-occupied regions, namely, domestication of people in occupied territories. Yamakawa pointed out that the fascist nature of NERV and Seele is present, though Gendo Ikari does not have a charisma of Adolf Hilter. He also pointed out that the elites at NERV are so relaxed and immersed in the day-to-day business at NERV (you can call it domestication), they seem desensitized, which is pretty alarming. I agree. In many fascist countries, brutal realities of oppression becomes norm as days go by, and people become so desensitized by these repeated events. If you look at escapist movies of Nazi regime, you would never know there was a horrible massacre taking place. People were shielded from the realities, while only elites of elites knew what was really happening. In that sense, to me, Kaji somewhat resembles Albert Spear, who was a central figure in the regime, but intelligent enough to avoid fanatical brutalities as much as possible. It never exonerated him from being the part of the regime, though. So why does an intelligentsia behave as he does? Stupidity wins in the end.

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

Next week: "Don't Be." • Previous week: "Weaving a Story 2: oral stage"

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