Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 22 - "Don't Be."

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 22 - "Don't Be."


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 22.

You've heard the term "mindfuck"? Perhaps it was coined specifically for Asuka Langley Soryu. Not only does she experience a monstrous psychic invasion in this episode, she also characterizes it in explicitly sexual terms. "Don't come inside me!" she screams, and in the Director's Cut version of episode 22 she opens the episode, in flashback, by propositioning Kaji and yelling angrily, "I'm an adult! So look at me!" He won't, but the Angel will - orbiting in outer space it captures her Eva in a cascade of blinding light, accompanied by the "Hallelujah" chorus from Handel's "Messiah." We may be reminded of a particular antecedent in religious art: Bernini's Ecstacy of Saint Teresa, with its highly sexualized image of the gasping saint being pierced by heaven's arrow, wielded by an angel who seems to be mounting her. Or rather, we may be reminded afterwards - at the moment the immediate impression is too viscerally overwhelming to take in much more. Because if Asuka is being mindfucked, so are we.

As we race into the final, insane stretch of Neon Genesis Evangelion everything is coalescing magnificently - and on this show "everything" covers quite a lot of ground. "Don't Be." is loaded with plot twists, organizational intrigue, mystical allusions, intense battle action, psychological characterizations, interpersonal drama, avant-garde visuals, rapid-fire montage, and ingenious use of static imagery. Let's start with that last point, crystallized in one of the most memorable images in all of Evangelion: Asuka and Rei's interminable elevator ride. Neither character speaks or moves for nearly a full minute, their perfectly placed positions with the frame emphasizing negative space in both senses of the phrase. Earlier, Anno turns Asuka's back to Shinji to craft a perfect image of intriguing unknowability. As she speaks to her stepmother on the phone, flipping her hair side to side, her face turned away, chatting amiably in German (but what to Shinji's ears might as well be gibberish), he wonders who she really is.

That moment is ironic for a couple reasons. First of all, Asuka isn't revealing her true self to her mother while ignoring Shinji - the reverse is essentially true. The bubbly teen girl she presents over the phone is a facade, while the angry, insecure, temperamental rival that Shinji experiences is much closer to the true Asuka beneath the self-assured surface. Indeed, in this very sequence she admits the truth about her familial relationship before exploding in rage at Shinji ("WHY THE HELL AM I TELLING ALL OF THIS TO YOU?!"), a one-two punch of self-exposure. More importantly, though, the scene is ironic because it's perhaps the only moment in the entire episode when we actually enter Shinji's consciousness and see Asuka from the outside. There are some other scenes where we're attuned to Misato's mind but for the most part we ride this meltdown all the way to the end while strapped into Asuka's pilot boots.

The spunky redhead who dominated Evangelion's middle stretch has been fading away lately (she didn't even show up in the previous episode) but she dominates Episode 22 in a way no character other than Shinji ever has. Surely, the ever-competitive Asuka would appreciate that fact - indeed take a shot every time someone, usually her, mentions "losing to Shinji" in the previous battle and you won't make it to the end. And the comparison is apt because she goes through something only Shinji has experienced so far: a mental, rather than physical, battle with an Angel. Sadly, she loses where he succeeded (in "Weaving a Story Part II: oral stage"), most likely because she sees it as a battle. Not just between her and the Angel, but between her and (take your pick) Shinji, Rei, her dead mother, her own Eva, and perhaps most importantly, herself.

We learn why, through a series of flashbacks and psychotic visions. Asuka's mother lost her mind in a vague "contact experiment" which sounds more than a little like Asuka's own traumatic experience at the end of the episode. The sexual associations of Asuka's identity crisis and personal sorrow become clearer too as we listen to her father explain her mother's condition to a doctor: explanation shades subtly into flirtation (accompanied by dismissal of Asuka as a mere "doll" rather than a person) and then into noisy love-making offscreen as Asuka stares at her mother in the hospital room. Worst of all, her mother plays with a doll whom she addresses as Asuka. Later it is implied that when she killed herself, she begged her daughter to join her. The tormented little girl finally agreed, even to be rebuffed in death: the mother hangs the doll instead and ignores the flesh-and-blood child whom she no longer considers her daughter.

And Asuka herself determines to become both more a person, and more a doll. On the one hand, she asserts her adulthood and independence consistently, boasting that she doesn't need anyone else and referring to both Rei and her own Eva as "puppets" (as if to say she is not). On the other hand, Asuka avoids all the messier aspects of her own humanity, both physical and mental. She is having her period, as Misato reveals, and we even glimpse her shouting angrily at her own reflection "Why do I have to go through this? I don't even want to have kids!" She also tells herself, by her mother's grave, that she will never cry again. The episode constantly reminds us of her physical and especially her psychological vulnerability.

The final attack is heartbreaking and spellbinding at the same time, depicting Asuka's breakdown in a breathtaking tour de force laying waste to the comparatively gentle approach of the Eva/Angel toward Shinji. At every turn, Asuka is confronted by her fragmented personality, a painful collage of humiliation and disorientation. Meanwhile, in a cityscape devastated by its own wild gunfire, Eva-02 trembles and twists in the light (a stunning sign of how far the show has traveled from traditional mecha action), a stuttering Saul not yet ready for his Damascus conversion. Rei warned Asuka earlier in the episode, "The Eva will not respond unless you open your heart." But Asuka's heart has been torn to shreds by childhood trauma and the panicked conviction that her worth relies on the impression she makes on other people, an impression of aggressive strength to conceal the devastation within.

In its gloriously metaphysical denouement, the battle takes a turn toward Grail lore as Rei removes the Lance of Longinus from Adam in the bowels of NERV's headquarters (revealing to Misato that contact with an Angel did not cause the Second Impact), and hurls it skyward where it pierces the Angel above earth's atmosphere and then launches itself into orbit. In the legends of the Grail, the Fisher King was struck by the Lance of Longinus (which originally pierced Christ on the cross). He remains wounded until a sensitive soul could cure his wound with compassion and curiosity. Onscreen we see Adam regenerate with the removal of the Lance, while the Angel's AT Field is destroyed by its piercing. But the one most relevant to the Lance's destructive powers (and the implicit restorative power of a Grail) is Asuka herself. And at episode's end the only one who seems to care about her is Shinji. If she could see him as a friend rather than a rival perhaps the healing could begin.

Instead, the waste land stretches before her and it seems no one can hear or understand her cry - least of all herself.


Conversation with Bob Clark (including a comment from Murderous Ink)

me: What an episode! On this viewing, it's my favorite so far.
So many things, so many very DIFFERENT things that this episode just nails.

Bob: It's both the beginning of the next, and last stage of the series, and a recapitulation of so much that's come before. Especially, it feels like a climax point of the previous "angel connecting to eva pilot" episodes we had in Splitting of the Breast and Oral Stage.

me: Isn't the next episode an "angel connecting to eva pilot" one too, though? The preview made it sound like that.

Bob: I can't recall exactly. But this is definitely the type of episode that previous ones prepared us for. They build on what the Sea of Dirac and Shinji melted into the cockpit give us before. And that Asuka mentions the second one really makes this a part two of that.

me: Shinji's experiences set us up for the perfect contrast, yin/yang. He survives, even triumphs, in those experiences because he is more attuned to the Eva's (and Angel's?) soul. Asuka completely neglects it, and implicity, her own.
Which is also an interesting reversal of gender expectations even on the show itself (think Shinji's mother vs. father). Because usually the female/anima is depicted as more in tune with the spiritual realm, while the male/animus is turned outward, aggressively fighting for dominance and clinging for the ego. Which is so very much Asuka's role here.
For me, this episode confirms that she is the most interesting character in the series.

Bob: The thing she's neglecting is her own soul, really. As much as I hear people talk about this as the "mind rape" episode, it really feels more like an inevitable emotional breakdown. All of the feelings and thoughts she's been bottling up and denying the whole series come exploding out when the light hits her, and it's something that is directly connected to what Rei says to her. She can't open up her heart to the Eva, because she can't open up to herself, be honest about what she wants in life.

me: I'm a bit uncomfortable with the "mind-rape" term too because what's happening here seems to be more complex than that. Rape, mental or otherwise, is obviously a complete victimization of someone, with all the responsibility on the perpetrator. What's happening here is more like beaming back her own insecurities and blind spots back at her, forcing her to confront herself the same way Shinji was forced to confront himself. It's an assault but also somewhat self-imposed.

Bob: Right. The fact that she refers to it, elliptically, in those terms is more telling on her part of the way she's internalized sex as both a method of independence and emotional closure. She was affected by how her father moved so quickly to another woman, and wound up projecting all of that onto Kaji, who we see here in the intro was really only ever a means to an end for her. He's just the vehicle for what she views as the only way she has to an independent adult life, without painful emotional connections.

me: Rei's comment in the elevator (about Asuka's need to open her heart) really emphasizes this.
That shot of Rei & Asuka in the elevator is one of the images I remember most strongly for the show. It's compelling, visually arresting...and hilarious. About 30 seconds in, I found myself laughing out loud. And then Rei speaks and it gets serious again. It's such an iconic moment.

Bob: It also shows Anno's talent for composition (well, and Tsurumaki too, he storyboarded this one).

me: And later, the Eva writhing in the light. Such a startling, unexpected image. This is a show about giant robots battling (maybe?) intergalactic monsters and we are watching one of the Eva's "dance" in agony to Handel's Messiah, intercut with the intensely subjective, avant-garde, almost Godardian interplay of words and images as Asuka's psychological freakout escalates. The episodes have been pretty experimental recently but I feel like this is the perfect melding of visual experimentation, direct engagement with the characters' emotional experiences, and the show's own increasingly mystical, metaphysical (and yet very psychoanalytical) lore.

Bob: The compositions throughout, like you said, are also really impressive, especially given how off-model they are with he character images we're supposed to expect.

me: What moments did you notice that in, and how did you feel that worked effectively?

Bob: Well, partly I think it's because we spend so much time looking at young Asuka, and even when we see her in her teen self she's drawn to resemble that little girl more. We see her face dead on, her nose reduced to tiny, tiny nostrils and not much else, her expression incredibly downcast from what we've come to expect from her extroverted personality.
It's reminiscent of how we saw Shinji when he was doing those early Eva tests, simply pulling the trigger.

me: Speaking of handling different elements economically but effectively, another good example is Asuka in the hospital.
All we see is her and the shot of her mother. Offscreen, the father delivers exposition about what happened, that soon doubles as exposition of Asuka's insecurities and then also reveals her father's character (as we hear him flirting, then having sex, with the doctor or nurse), and seeding her own anxious sexuality and the puppet theme.
Again, so much going on, handled with very simple visuals and sound.

Bob: Do we hear them having sex? I didn't pick that up. It would definitely explain some of her warped sense of what sex means.
I just was under the impression they were flirting. Maybe aggressively. There's so much dialogue there, and it's all wrapped up in this huge bombshell drop of her backstory, her mother's suicide.
Which is a huge needledrop, by the way, from Miyazaki's Nausicaa manga.

me: Yeah, they're definitely having sex. Not sure if it's literally supposed to be in a room right near where Asuka is standing but it's certainly implied she's aware of it.

Bob: One thing that I was struck by when watching this episode again is how disconnected it felt from a lot of what came before. It's definitely a case of episodic character study. Maybe it's because the past couple of episodes have all been very isolated in lots of ways-- a flashback episode, Shinji melted in the cockpit, Shinji about to leave again-- but Asuka really feels isolated from everybody here. You get the sense that she's desperately alone that wasn't quite the case in a lot of the other episodes.

me: In a sense the previous episodes - so disconnected from this one in plot - DO effectively prepare us for this, for that very reason. It's been so long since we spent much time with Asuka (indeed, she's totally absent from the previous one, right?) that when we essentially enter into her consciousness this time we're all the more aware of how desperately alone she is.
And that's also highlighted in pretty grim fashion but Cmdr. Ikari's totally indifferent reaction to her suffering, as well as Misato's somewhat callous disregard. To everyone else she really is just a pawn and it makes her meltdown all the more tragic.

Bob: We'll get to it at some point, I'm sure, but the only ones who really care are Rei, and tragically, Shinji. The one time he seems anxious, even eager to pilot the Eva and help her, is the one time he's not allowed out.

me: Even Rei's concern is more distanced, less personal and more cerebral. It really seems like Shinji is the only one who has genuine human compassion for her. Which brings us to the Arthurian/Grail links with the whole Lance of Longinus thing (something I mentioned in my write-up). Asuka is really the Fisher King here, the wounded soul who can only be rescued by the generosity of another. But unlike the Fisher King, who is simply waiting for help, she has to reciprocate. And she's too wounded to do so.
In a certain sense she is responsible for her breakdown because she's unable to open herself, admit to her own vulnerability and insecurity, face her shadow - be it the disintegrating doll she won't look at or the hordes of cloaked Asukas shoving past her. But in another very real sense she isn't - or at least the challenges are higher and the odds more dire for herself than anyone else - because she was so traumatized in her childhood that her emotional shutdown is a complete and near-unavoidable survival tactic.

Bob: Right. The Angel isn't the thing that's doing this to her. It's her whole emotional past, everything that's come before. Her mother, her father, the ties they have to the Eva program, etc. 

me: And of course the Angel and her past and all of that seems more deeply related than ever. The idea that the Angels are essentially a portal for humanity to confront itself, its own psyche, is really emphasized here.
I realized something this time that had escaped me before (or at least I had forgotten). Maybe I'm wrong about this, but it seems that what happened is Asuka's mother invited Asuka to commit suicide alongside her, Asuka resisted and then agreed, and then realized her mother wasn't talking to her at all but to the doll, and didn't even realize who Asuka was. Pretty brutal when you think about it: first the realization that her mother is going to kill herself, then agreeing to die herself, then on top of all that being told that she is not human and "replaced" by the hanging doll.

Bob: Right. That's something that I think is taken almost note for note from Nausicaa, by the way. The backstory of a mother's suicide, and the doll.
Which is a layered thing, because Anno was an animator on the Nausicaa movie, and at one point was going to direct a sequel which would've had this very backstory in it.

me: Also, love the bit where Rei removes the Lance and Adam regenerates. Everything seems so interrelated in this episode: the Angels, the Evas, Adam, the NERV-SEELE drama, the personal struggles of the characters, like different faces of the same jewel. We can really tell we're building toward a grand climax/showdown where it all kind of explodes into the soup of Instrumentality.
And her mother apparently lost her mind in similar fashion to Asuka: the vaguely-described "contact experiment." Which suggests that either Asuka fears the same fate as her mother, and has shut herself down, or else that like her mother she is predisposed to fail in such an experiment...or both.That's the essence of tragedy I suppose. Consciousness combined with helplessness. Asuka makes bad choices and resists helpful overtures but it isn't so simple as to say "If only she did this/that" because in a very real sense she CAN'T. This is who she is.

Bob: I think her mother lost her mind more in a situation like what happened to Shinji's mother.

me: Yes, which is another interesting contrast between the two pilots (or in this case, the two families). Yui's contact experiment results in, it's implied, her merging with the Eva, entering into something bigger than herself. Asuka's mother, on the other hand, falls back into herself, regressing to - as her husband puts it - an almost dolllike state (and literally seeing her child as a doll). As with the parents, so with their children. Shinji merges with the Eva in his own contact experience. Asuka is violated and plunged into even deeper isolation.

Bob: I'm also really struck by just how deep we go into Asuka's mind here. There's a long stretch where we go into her visions, which are much more detailed and less isolated than Shinji's in the train. That whole portion of her on the street in the crowd, the Face of Another scene, is something that's really impressive on that level. Shinji only creates a room in his head. She creates a whole city, one that's very much like the rainy city she's trying to escape.

me: Here's a question, since you're more familiar with anime than I: is it at all common to have menstruation mentioned as a plot point? At least in an action anime? It seems like one of those everyday things that nonetheless doesn't turn up in American entertainment all that much (unless it's a very female-focused rom-com or like maybe a jokey "she's having her period" thing or something in a sitcom.) But not like here, where it's made into an important part of the characterization.

Bob: It's not something I've run across a whole lot, to be honest. In most things that are aimed at girls, I wouldn't imagine you'd have a lot of time or detail devoted to that. Even though anime has a reputation for being more adult, there's definitely a space for innocence in a lot of it. So Asuka's period being a plot point, or at least a character point, is something that stands out. It helps make her more of a real character.

Murderous Ink: Some anime, frequently young-adult comedy, contain many reference to menstruation. Usually, the situation is like this: some girl is having a hysteric episode on something, then a mischievous boy ask her "is today 'that' day?" Since this routine had become so commonplace, it sounds somewhat outdated today (just like PMS gag in U.S. sitcom back in '90s). Another point maybe that it is not as uncommon as in U.S. that menstruation is referred, sometimes explicitly expressed, in Japanese mainstream TV, like in drama (target for adults). It was tradition in Japanese household (but not anymore) that when a girl experiences her first menstruation, her family celebrates it by cooking a special meal that night. These customs are sometimes used as a narrative device for a girl's life. And the other reference to this "becoming a woman" punctuates her sexuality in Japanese TV and movies.

Bob: It's also the type of biological detail that fits perfectly in the scientific and psychological avenues of the NERV people.

me: And it really emphasizes that despite the show implicitly being aimed at adolescent boys, in a milieu we'd expect the female characters to be mostly fanservice/fetish objects, Anno is interested in exploring the women and girls as well. This episode is pretty emphatically told from Asuka's point of view, the only exception being Shinji's moment where he watches her on the phone with her stepmom. Which is ironic for several reasons.

Bob: The Shinji moment is something I wanted to get into, as well. The way he's describing how she becomes a different person when she's speaking a language he doesn't understand, it's something that sounds very apt as a metaphor for the experiences people with autism go through, something that Evangelion has been talked about in terms of. His difficulty understanding her emotional turmoil, the faces she wears, is something that becomes all the more poignant at this moment, when he actually does try to reach out.

me: Plus she's putting on more of a disguise for the stepmother, not for him. The Asuka she shows him is much closer to the reality of her subjective experience. But he doesn't totally realize that.
He's losing the reality for the myth.

Bob: I mean it's more like he's realizing the different kinds of faces everybody wears. She tells him soon enough that it isn't her real mom, anyway.
He's seeing a skill that he doesn't have, and for a moment he's experiencing real isolation. Emotionally.
And yeah, maybe he doesn't quite understand that what he sees as her social skills are really a kind of crutch. But he's so deeply restrained he can't see it. 

me: And yet earlier when she's sitting there stewing, and even snapping at him he's seemingly oblivious. Or indifferent.

Bob: Or intimidated.
That moment at the end of the episode, where she's sitting behind the containment lines, and he's trying to talk to her, that to me is a crucial image in what the series has been doing. Boundaries have been such a big symbol hroughout the series-- the closing of elevator doors, the threshholds of entries, the sliding door in Misato's apartment. The AT field is the biggest example of this, and to have new one added here as Asuka pushes him away again is a key addition.

me: Next to Asuka, I think the character whose mind we experience most in this episode is Misato. In some ways she's been our throughline in the back half of this series. No matter who else is in the pilot's seat (literally and figuratively in the episode) she's there to offer a kind of overarching perspective.

Bob: Well, she's there to move the story ahead with the Evas, which seems like a pure piece of background table setting at the moment. Not a lot of thematic connection I can make off hand. Although the bit about the idea of connection being what causes the Second/Third Impact (or doesn't) is a neat thing.
I still find Shinji's experience really interesting, even though he's in the background. He and Rei are particularly prominent in her mind, in ways that Asuka isn't even remotely close to being able to accept. With Rei, we can at least understand why she hates the idea of somebody so selfless, so entirely without any kind of self preservation instinct or ego, because she fears what'll happen to herself without that.
I think the main thing is that she hates Rei for being so self negating, and maybe that's a component of the motherhood thing. The period does come quickly on her saying she doesn't even want kids. Motherhood is a corrupt proposition for her.
Any kind of dependency is something she can't stand, and I think that's what's at the root of her hatred of Shinji in this episode, and how paradoxical it is. "He couldn't even hold me" is a perfect expression of how much she hates the idea of being emotionally dependent on somebody, as well as how much she craves it. Her infatuation with Kaji is a warped attempt to become independent, singular. Her obsessive love/hate with Shinji, and to a lesser extent her hatred of Rei, are all based on her fear...
...of becoming too reliant on him/them. They're expressed in a language of rivalry, competition, dominance, but what it really means is "if I accept that you're the better Eva pilot, it means I can't be self reliant. I have to depend on you for the protection of my life, even if it's only on a cooperative basis. Even if it's mutual."
And right from the start of this episode, we can see that this fear is rooted in how her primary connection and dependence were sliced apart when she needed it most.

me: Any final thoughts?

Bob: I think this is the first time we have classical music in the series. Really hammers in the religious overtones of the Angel this time.

me: It's such a weirdly brilliant needle drop.

Bob: Yeah. Completely on the nose, but it helps paint the scene in such a psychologically powerful register. It would be so easy to layer in dramatic, urgent music that underlines the danger. But this is all screaming the joy of God, it's almost perverse given what's happening.

me: Yeah it makes the scene both horrifying and elating at the same time.

Bob: And perfectly fitting the religious labels for everything. What else but horrifying and elating would meeting an angel be like?

me: Really reminded me of this:

Bob: Well, that statue's always been read as being about sexual ecstasy. That's clearly not what's going on here.

me: But the point is its not sexual orgasm vs. religious experience, secular/psychological/physical vs. religious/metaphysical/spiritual. It's an = rather than a vs.
And I think that's what NGE is doing in general with a lot of its themes and motifs at this point. Drawing them closer together so that they are really reinforcing one another.

Bob: Who was it who wrestled with an Angel? Jacob?

me: Yes, Jacob. He also saw the angels climbing a ladder to heaven for what it's worth.

Bob: Well again, I really try to resist the all too easy sexual reading of what's happening to her. To me it's really just opening up the pandora's box of emotions she's been bottling up, showing what was inside her the whole time and trying to deny. Each of these angel communals is really more of a mirror moment (apropos, the reflecting puddle Shinji stands beside when he's blocked from her by the tape).

me: Yes, but sexuality is a part of that. I think the problem is too often people make it like one thing is at the end of a hall of metaphors. But the most interesting allegories don't work that way. They are about multiple things at once, each of value & they mutually reinforce one another. So when we talk about Asuka experiencing a confrontation with her psyche vs. an outside Angel they are less different alternative readings than different aspects of the same phenomenon. In my opinion anyway...
But yes, agreed completely about the angels as mirrors.
It's interesting to observe how early on in NGE, the metaphors or the allegorical layer work in tandem with conventional genre readings. They're there, if you want to dig for them and they are also sometimes explicated in dialogue and such. But by the end of the series they are really becoming an integral, intertwined part of the show's texture. It's no longer like, on one level it works as an action-adventure mecha story, on another it's about human psychology and spiritual concepts.

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

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


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