Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 23 - "Rei III"

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 23 - "Rei III"


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 23.

The final stretch of Neon Genesis Evangelion presents a cascade of revelations. No longer are we leaping from episode to episode, battle to battle, against the backdrop of slowly unfolding mysteries and suggestions. The feeling is that we are building toward a climax, as characters die physically (Kaji), spiritually (Asuka) or both (Rei). Although in Rei's case is it "both"...or "neither"? The preview at the end of the last episode informed us (in a disarmingly cheerful delivery) that Rei was going to sacrifice herself to save Shinji, and indeed this is what we appears to happen in the battle with the sixteenth Angel. Just as the previous Angels infiltrated the minds of Shinji and Asuka (in the first case ambiguously, in the second case with a clearly destructive purpose), so the latest Angel literally crawls inside Rei's skin on the way to her mind.

This time, however, the Angel doesn't seem as interested in destroying Rei as it does in using her to attack and infiltrate Shinji: when its tentacle touches him, creepy, crawly little Reis bubble up on his hand like an army of ants infiltrating a host and then metastasizing beneath the surface. At this point the Angel's outstretched tendril even shapes itself into Rei's naked form, a giant being of light embracing Shinji's Evas on the field of battle. Even Rei recognizes the ambiguity of this gesture, asking "Is this what my heart wants? To join with Shinji?" As in all of its most potent moments, Evangelion recognizes an uncertainty in Angel action: do these threatening outsiders seek destruction (as the characters all seem to assume) or are they offering a gift to their human "enemies"? Before they can find out, Rei destroys herself and the Angel, apparently ending both her character's role in the story and the episode's dramatic arc...but the episode is not over yet.

"Rei III" begins with the characters separated from one another, isolated into pockets of loneliness and depression. Misato listens to Kaji's answering machine messages over and over again, surrounded by beer cans as empty as she feels. Ritsuko, on the phone with her grandmother, learns that a pet cat has died and confesses she has not visited her mother's grave in three years. Asuka, withdrawn and incommunicative, sullenly absorbed in mindless videogames as Hikari looks on helplessly, cries herself to sleep. Hikari attempts to comfort her by offering, "You did your best." She doesn't realize that this is precisely what Asuka doesn't want to here: that it is her best which simply isn't good enough.

This impression of Asuka's inferiority is reinforced on several occasions in the upcoming battle. First Cmdr. Ikari ruthlessly launches Eva-02 as a decoy (his indifference to the German pilot has never been more crystal-clear). When the Angel focuses its attention on Rei and refuses to be distracted, Asuka cannot even defend Rei in the battle, her sync rate having dropped to zero. Finally Shinji is sent back into battle to save Rei, with Asuka herself sadly observing that she was not considered important enough for Shinji to save last time. Her Eva sinks back into the ground in a humiliating final gesture of solitary impotence.

The episode continues in this vein, as Shinji recoils from Misato's touch, Misato realizes that even Pen-Pen the penguin can't comfort her, and Ritsuko is stripped and subjected to a harsh, sneering interrogation by SEELE. The characters seem vulnerable, detached, degraded. But then then this isolation starts to crack. First, and most shockingly, Rei is "discovered." Shinji greets her in the hospital but she does not seem to understand or even remember what has happened. Is she suffering from amnesia? Regarding Gendo's glasses in her room, she simultaneously experiences dissociation and deja vu. Earlier, we see Cmdr. Ikari and Futuysuki staring at the tube that held a naked Rei several episodes ago, and the vice-commander sighs, "The result of my despair has become the engine of your hope." Who, or what, is Rei?

The final scene depicts characters finally come together rather than splitting apart, even if their union of three characters is hostile: Misato is holding a gun to Ritsuko's back as Shinji mutely tags along through an Eva graveyard in the bowels of NERV. A fourth character - or characters - reveals her face when Ritsuko leads them into that chamber we glimpsed earlier, with the central tube. Now, through the surrounding glass we witness an acquarium of Ayanamis, we learn the ghoulish truth. The Rei whom we have just been reunited with is not the same Rei who died in battle. We are confronted by dozens of Rei clones floating in the ether, grinning and giggling until Ritsuko hits a button, causing their limbs to detach and disintegrate. Misato is shocked, Ritsuko breaks down, and Shinji merely gapes in horror. Don't worry, we are told, these clones are empty shells - Rei is soulless.

But as we learned early in "Rei III" the Rei who shed tears inside her Eva before destroying herself does have a soul. And so does the Rei who cries over those familiar yet foreign glasses. We are learning new truths and discovering new mysteries and as the familiar concepts dissolve before our eyes, we aren't sure what will replace them.


Conversation with Bob Clark (including comments from Murderous Ink)

me: So, to start with, "Rei III"...who was Rei I?
The little girl that Ritsuko's mom strangled?

Bob: Right.

me: So ever since then we've had Rei II?

Bob: Some of the things we see in this episode make me wonder if there are others.
The fact that Rei comes back with the same bandage we see early in the series... What does that mean?
Does that mean that the Rei we saw in the first episode was a brand new Rei? Does each Rei come with a fresh eye wound? Is that why there are so many bandages in her apartment?

me: Yes, I wondered the same thing about the bandage.
As we mentioned in the episode where Rei I (?) is strangled, the clones must age alongside the one who is in use. Because each time she is replaced, the clones keep aging at the same rate.

Bob: Right. It's a confusing system.
But we also see that the clones are connected to the dummy plug system.

me: They are the dummy plugs, aren't they?

Bob: Well, not physically. Mentally I guess. Shinji was in a dummy plug during the Toji battle.

me: Hm, that's confusing haha. The dummy plugs and Rei are made from the same material?

Bob: (Well, the dummy plug's AI components must be from Rei clones)
We get this time what might be the most abstracted Angel of them all. Well, next to the Sea of Dirac, anyway.
The Angel's form, or its beginning form at least, is a giant glowing halo. There's something really beautiful and disturbing about that as its starting form. You can imagine the NERV personnel going "what the hell is the NEXT one going to look like?"
It's not for nothing that the most abstract Angel results in some of the most shocking physical tolls, the most legitimate examples of body horror and transformation we've seen so far.
This is one of the reasons why I've never taken the "Asuka mind rape" thing too literally the way some people do, because here you have an actual, literal physical violation. You even have that huge flashing "penetration" graphic at NERV. But the sight of the Angel invading Rei's body underneath her plug suit (something we saw before in the Toji scene I think) is something that's taken to perverse extremes here, at least in the Director's Cut.

me: We also have the ambiguity of the Angel's attempt. When it emanates from Rei and starts "attacking" Shinji, something even Rei wants to stop, her interpretation of its action is to the effect of "my heart wants to connect with Shinji."

Bob: Right. It's also sort of a physicalization of what happened to Asuka. It takes what's inside her, and gives it physical form, rather than just force it to the forefront of her mind.
But really, I wonder if the Giant Naked Rei is a whole can of worms that exceeds even that.
Given the position it has later.

me: Yes.
At this point it's going beyond an individual's personal psychology it seems. Not as much time is spent in this episode with Rei's inner experience of the Angel's assault. Instead the emphasis is on how this transforms physical reality.

Bob: Well, sort of. We spend as much time as I guess you can in Rei's inner psyche without spoiling what she is. Besides, we see enough to see that she's an empty vessel who's aware that she's an empty vessel. We get that primarily through the tour with Ritsuko of her foundational areas, you could say. And the brief glimpse we get into her mind with the Angel (which is probably the most predictive thing for EoE, along with GNR).

me: Rei, the introvert, is ultimately an extrovert and vice-versa with Asuka.
Rei's importance is largely in relation to other people - be they individuals like Shinji or, eventually, the whole world. In that sense it's a surprising reversal of the idea you were talking about earlier in the series. That Rei emphasizes Shinji's withdrawn, introspective qualities while Asuka pushes him outward to engage with the world.
But it's also true that Asuka is associated with the social world, which is ultimately superficial (basically a scab covering up the pain beneath), whereas Rei's significance is more spiritual, exposing Shinji (& ultimately everyone) to the stronger, threatening but maybe necessary forces outside the limits of conventional society.
She's a bit like the Angels in that regard.
Speaking of Asuka - this episode really doubles down on how marginalized and broken she has become.
And how, sadly, she means nothing to these people.

Bob: And we get to see more of the damaged social instincts that Asuka has underneath, and how little they're helping her as time goes on. She knows how to navigate the world of people, but without being true to herself beyond those social ambitions, she's ultimately unable to function, even with Hikari. The most devastating blows are all about failed connections here-- she can't pilot the Eva anymore because she can't synchronize with it...
...and she's delivered perhaps a fatal psychic blow when she sees NERV send Shinji to go rescue Rei, while for her they did nothing. And of course the fact that we saw Shinji so eager to go help Asuka in the previous episode makes it even more painful for us-- does she know how much Shinji wanted to save her?
I think the positions they have while sitting in their cockpits in the two episodes are similar. He's bent up curled in a ball or something out of impotence, and so is she here.

me: Gendo's comment about using her as a decoy. So ruthless. Her realization that they see Rei as worth saving, but not her.

Bob: Well, the sad thing about them all is that Gendo sees them ALL as disposable commodities. Even Shinji is only necessary up to the point of Instrumentality.

me: What did you make of Misato's gesture to Shinji in his bedroom, and his reaction?
It would seem pretty innocuous I think except for the context of End of Evangelion.

Bob: It's also definitely picked up a lot as fodder for the Shinji-as-gay theory.
I think Misato's gesture is more telling, and more disturbing. Shinji, frankly, is having more of a natural reaction to the death of a beloved comrade and friend. The ambiguity of Misato's intentions and her thoughts are, to put it mildly, very dark.
After all, why think those things if there isn't at least the possibility of reading that as her "making a move" on him, something that she joked about way back early in the show?
Lots of fans like to read the show purely as Anno deconstructing the basic elements of anime shows (and therefore any media storytelling really, at their deepest cores)-- Asuka as the reality of a fiery tempered tsundere, Rei as the truth of a selfless tragic heroine. Shinji here is put into the emotional reality of a young boy who's romanticized and sexualized in any given harem comedy-- it's all laughs when hot older women are flirting and coming on to you...
...but in reality, somebody like him, straight as an arrow or not, is probably going to flinch at it.
(And we keep getting shots of that gun)

me: Now this is also the episode where we really get under Ritsuko's skin for the 1st time. If I'm not mistaken. Where she truly loses her composure and we see how vulnerable she is too.

Bob: To an extent I think we get under her skin in the Liliputian Hitcher episode. But yeah, she gets a breakdown here. The lighting in those scenes, and in much of the episode, are really interesting. Very harsh, playing off deep contrasts. Between that and the newly sharpened character drawings (something I think is really deepened by Anno and Tsurumaki working together on the storyboards) this episode really feels like an early indicator of what EoE's styles will be.
A lot of the character models here have a sharper look to them in the face. Both more angular, but off from what we've seen of the Sadamoto designs before. Pointier, perhaps. It resembles what we see in EoE, which is more realistic in a lot of ways.
The contrast and brightness is also a big thing. Look throughout the Ritsuko portions (and elsewhere maybe?) and you'll see this haloing effect of the characters in the darkness. That's a visual scene that appears in EoE a bit, too. Maybe it's just the darkness, but I think there's more to it.

me: Ritsuko becomes the latest in a long line of breakdowns. We are really thrust by this point into the notion that this world is totally beyond the control/comprehension of our characters. Only Gendo Ikari seems to have a sense of mission/understanding. The character who initially seemed like an outlier in his humorless intensity now seems to have the best grasp of what is really going on and where it is all headed.

Bob: It's woven into the story there. She gets to keep her cool, but she's engaged in a behavior that's almost psychotic in how it defines her relation to her mother.

me: It's becoming increasingly clear that the separation from the mother is a defining trait for close to everyone in NGE (even the characters for whom it isn't a significant development don't have mothers - see Misato, Gendo). And specifically the pilots.
I've heard it suggested that both Shinji and Asuka are chosen as pilots because their mothers have somehow been embedded with the Evas. Although in Asuka's case, something of her mother obviously remains - physically, if not quite mentally.

Bob: Mothers are the linchpin of a lot of this. Have we talked about how that theme feeds into the NGE as deconstruction of mecha genre theme?

me: When Ritsuko destroys the Rei clones at the end of the episode, does that mean only Rei III remains? Or can they easily be replenished and it's more a symbolic/representative gesture: "hey, here's what all these bodies really are": soulless flesh.
I forget: does she imply that Rei is completely soulless even when she's out in the world? Or that she is imbued with soul every time she is rotated out to replace the previous one?

Bob: No, she's imbued with the same soul over and over again. Which is why she seems to remember things each time (but not all things).

me: Ok, that makes sense.
It seems like in a lot of fan commentary, the emphasis is on Yui being in Eva-01. But not so much on her being in Rei. That Rei is more Lilith, given Yui's physical form whereas Yui's soul is stuck in the Eva. Maybe?

Bob: Yeah. Rei does have trace amounts of Lillith. And has some connection to Kaworu, given End of Evangelion, which I've never quite understood (and maybe has been overlooked by current fans and the creators?).
But the maternal thing has been in the series all along. "Does it feel like being back in mommy's womb, stupid Shinji?"

me: It really struck me how the "battle" sequence in this episode resembles a pregnancy. Rei's Eva is bloated in its torso, essentially giving birth to the Rei-Angel that approaches Shinji.

Bob: That struck me too. Did you compare the Director's Cut to the original cut? The DC is Cronenbergian to the body horror here, the "Angel Tower."
Watching the GNR fused with the Angel, it made me think of both the umbilical cord, but also astral projection, where people are encouraged to imagine the link between their astral consciousness and their bodies as a silver cord.

me: I love that about the show. It manages to be both physical and metaphysical simultaneously.
And also psychological.

Bob: I think we get a pretty clear, flat out explanation of what SEELE intends with the Mass Produced Evas-- they mention the destruction of Tokyo 3.

me: Yes, although we don't really see yet WHY they want this...
Also, are they making Ritsuko a double agent at this point?
And if so, why did Gendo think he could trust her to send her in & speak to them?

Bob: I really have no idea what's going on in that scene. What's going on literally, I mean. There's so many layers of weirdness there. The nudity, the monoliths, everything. It's just a big slice of "wha-what?" that probably gets taken for granted by most anime fans, but to anybody who watches a broader slice of cinema it is absolutely eyebugging.
As I said before with the Misato thing, I think the nudity is intended so they can read her completely, perhaps similar to the way the Angels read the pilots. Or maybe it really is just a bald faced sexual offering in some sense. That's what it feels like subtextually, at any rate. Gendo needs to symbolically whore her out to keep them off his scent, or at least keep them at bay.
One more thing for her to feel soiled and used over.

Murderous Ink: Well, this is another one of the topics many still discusses, but here is my take. Seele knew something is going on with Rei (and Gendo), but there was very few things they could do. They wanted either Rei (if she is 'available') or Gendo to explain the explosion, but Gendo sent Ritsuko instead. Only thing Seele could do was to humiliate Risutko 'sexually (not in physical terms)' by making her naked (which indicates, in actuality, Seele really has little power over NERV, or more specifically Gendo). ... well, other than that, there is little explanation as to why that scene is like that.

me: Who is Shinji with in the scene before they go to see the Eva graveyard? Misato? Or Ritsuko? It seems like the natural assumption is he would have arrived with Misato since he lives with her (although why does she want him to tag along on a possibly very dangerous mission as she holds a gun on their colleague)?
But the way it is cut makes it look like Ritsuko was already planning to show this stuff to Shinji before Misato burst in with her gun.

Bob: I would assume Misato? She also goes out of her way to show him Lillith in Eva 1.0.

me: I thought Ritsuko was planning to show Shinji anyway. She does seem oddly insistent - and pleased - that he will see everything too. What's that all about? Revenge on the father?

Bob: I suppose. That and it seems like the plans are too far gone to be prevented at this point.
Do you think there's a possibility that Rei might've been found alive in her plug, but killed or something? The plug is found more or less intact, and Ritsuko seems pretty suspect and secretive in the way they find it.

me: That's a thought but I dunno, seems like too much of a stretch.
Like it requires too much reading into what they show us when there's already so much shown more up-front.

Bob: It is. But it seems conspicuously suspicious.

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

Murderous Ink on the preview for Episode 23 (shown at the end of Episode 22)

That is one of the oddities that people discuss even today. It looks like a rough drawing of Tokyo-3, explaining the catastrophe in the episode 23. It was in the original TV broadcast. The whole city caved in (it doesn't say why), prompting the water of Ashino-Lake to pour into the cave. Forests in the vicinity was burned down and some melted down buildings near the water. That's what it basically says. Now, some people believe this rough drawing was the indication of how horribly the production was delayed and went chaotic. It was said to be true that the production was complete mess at this point. But others claim that this was done as an offbeat act with artistic merit, completely orchestrated by Anno. In any event, it was effective, since this preview was one of many enigma that NGE still carries today.

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

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