Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 24 - "The Beginning and the End, or 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door'"


Note: The Back to the Future video I announced on Monday is now up, just in time for today (the "future" day that Marty McFly traveled to in Back to the Future Part II). Happy Back to the Future Day! Now back to another sci-fi story taking place an alternate version of 2015...

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 24.

In many ways the last (semi-)conventional episode of the series, "The Beginning and the End..." wastes no time reminding us how far the characters have fallen into doubt, despair, or destruction. Following an explicit flashback to her childhood trauma, Asuka is discovered lying near-comatose in a tub, naked and exposed to the sky in a derelict apartment building whose roof has been torn off (no "unfamiliar ceiling" this time). Rei, or rather Rei III, floats through the fog of her life/lives wondering who she is and for what purpose she has been sent. These are familiar human questions all the more confusing when you are a cloned person containing the soul of...a goddess? Possible answers flash before our eyes with dizzying speed and it is difficult to grasp any of them. Anyway, even Rei is more alone than she's ever been because her "spares" were just destroyed by Ritsuko. And Ritsuko's isolation is made physically explicit as Gendo Ikari visits her in a cold, metallic space where she he has been locked away as punishment for her betrayal. She reveals that she has been sleeping with the commander and joins the rank of broken souls that seem to clutter his dedicated path (Cmdr. Ikari refers to Eva-01 as "Yui" - his "dead" wife - further hinting at what that path may entail).

Against the backdrop of this miserable ensemble, Shinji stands on the shore, his confidence at as low an ebb as the tide before him. Wistfully, he realizes that he has lost all those halting and difficult triumphs of the previous episodes - his heroic rescues of Rei and Asuka, his refreshingly ordinary companionship with Toji and Kensuke, his slow carving of a home in the strange world, his growing pride as he piloted the Eva and earned his father's reserved praise. He cannot face Rei, feels that Asuka is lost, and is more alienated from his father than ever. As he gazes across a wasteland, all that remains of the empty but inhabited cityscape we experienced in the first episode, he observes that his schoolmates' homes have been destroyed and they have all fled elsewhere. And then, in this deep gloom...a light flickers.

Shinji's friendship with Kaworu is depicted as both spiritually elevated and suggestively homoerotic. He blushes like a schoolgirl when the handsome stranger recognizes him, and Kaworu later teases (?) the bashful Shinji by coyly questioning if they will go to bed "together" (in this scene, they are both naked in a bath, and Kaworu takes Shinji's hand, possibly the most intimate Shinji has been with anyone aside from Asuka's awkward kiss). From what I understand, there's a whole cottage industry of Kaworu-Shinji shipping fanart. But the physical component of their relationship is but one manifestation of a deep and immediate bond (it's amazing how briefly this distinctive and important character appears on the show). When Kaworu appears, seemingly out of nowhere, he is dressed just like Shinji; the same slacks and loose shirt, even though school is no longer in session and this uniform would not be necessary. He seems a bit like a doppelganger, Shinji's ideal projection of his higher self from which he has always felt alienated.

Kaworu's iconic aura is heightened by the speed and mystery with which he enters NERV's secret world. No one can glean anything from his past except that his birthdate confirms him as the long-awaited Fifth Child. His sync rate is extraordinary, he greets the otherworldly Rei as a peer ("I'm like you"), and when Misato spies on him he stares back up at her. Kaworu plows through the story like a bulldozer, bewildering the already-shaken NERV staffers, disconcerting the suspicious commander and vice commander, and communing freely with the monoliths of SEELE (who speak of themselves as if they - and Kaworu - are not human). We don't usually meet people this quickly; in the past whenever an entity has entered the episode with speed and drama it has usually been an enemy rather than a friend (think of all the lightning-fast transitions where battle music kicks in and some official proclaims frantically, "We've detected another AT field!"). And so it is here. The Fifth Child...is also the seventeenth, and final, Angel.

And so Shinji, who finally let down his hedgehog's defenses by allowing Kaworu's charisma to envelop him, faces the ultimate opponent. Just as he easily shoved his way into the storyline of this episode, Kaworu and the hijacked Eva-02 unit crash through the barriers between the Eva tank and Terminal Dogma. In a battle as physical as it is psychological, Shinji wrestles with Asuka's abandoned mecha while demanding answers from the still sanguine boy floating down the tunnel by his side. Only when he has finally reached the bloated, masked, and crucified being known as Adam does Kaworu seem surprised, even dismayed. "So it's Lillith after all," he mutters, suggesting that "Adam"'s mask conceals someone else's identity. When Shinji crashes through the wall, finally defeating the Angel-fied Eva and gripping the fragile floating boy in his fist, Kaworu recovers his composure. "Life and death are the same to me," he offers matter-of-factly, still wearing the same comfortable smile. To Shinji they are not, but he knows what he must do. In one of the show's best examples of a delayed effect, Shinji holds the last Angel for an extended moment that feels like eternity and then we cut to black as we hear the crushing of his bones - or whatever structure sustained his alien life.

The episode, which begins with many solo figures - some separated by short but impenetrable distances (Ritsuko and Ikari), some cripplingly alone (Asuka) - ends with two pairs. Cmmdr. Ikari and Rei, in matching slickers, stare solemnly at the Eva as it is cleaned. Both are single-minded but the object of their determination remains oblique, invested as it seems to be in Shinji's Eva. Together, they appear almost inhuman in their cold companionship. But then we cut to another pair. With Rei revealed, Asuka decommisioned, Toji and Kensuke exiled, and Kaworu destroyed, Shinji is left with the only person who has been there for him since the very first episode: Misato. They are the all-too-human, confused but tenacious, suffering but stoic counterpoints to Cmmdr. Ikari and Rei, and they cut a poignant pair against the poisoned sea. Misato sounds ruthless when she voices the survivor's creed to Shinji - Kaworu deserved to die because he didn't have the will to live, and only the strong can continue (a creed that implicitly casts Asuka aside as well). Ruthless, yes, but redeemed by the palpable pain she and her young ward feel. She stands and he sits on this shore, hedgehogs to the bitter end - whatever it may bring.

 
Conversation with Bob Clark (including comments from Murderous Ink)

Bob: When I first watched the episode, and I'm talking years and years ago... I figured from moment one that Kaworu was going to turn out evil or something, because he seems to play exactly into the anime/j-rpg trope of the bishonen villain. I remember specifically looking at him and thinking of Sephiroth from Final Fantasy 7.
I'm not quite as studied on this as I used to be. But you look at a lot of anime and games, especially rpgs, you'll find a lot of similarly styled, perfect looking male characters who can form a friendship with the hero, all while plotting their doom or being destined to turn against them.
So when Kaworu shows up perched on an angel statue, humming Beethoven and looking like an albino Peter Pan, I figured, "yup, this guy's gonna turn out to be an angel or something".

me: And he does, but it feels much more ambiguous than "evil trickster" to me.

Bob: It definitely is. I suppose that went over my head when I first watched it, a decade or more ago. But yeah, now that you mention it, he also feels like he has a little bit in common with the modern Marvel conception of Loki, the evil trickster. But less demonstrably evil. Hell, in the latest movie, they really do a great job of actually developing his character. Here, he's basically a self-aware plot device, which is one reason I never really took him seriously as a character in the past.

me: He's serious as a character inasmuch as he is seriously important for Shinji's character. I see him as kind of an idealized doppelganger projection, in a way, at least the form he takes.

Bob: Exactly, yes! That's the big thought I had watching this. I couldn't believe that when I watched this the first time, I didn't think of Tyler Durden.

me: He has the deep-welled confidence and charisma that Shinji lacks. The "falling in love" bit is in many ways Shinji finally have an idealized male to look up to.
One who resembles something he could conceivably be/aspire towards.
Kaji is the closest we've had before, though he's too roguish and too much older for Shinji to really emulate.
Kaworu the perfect gateway into Instrumentality for Shinji it seems.

Bob: Granted, the NGE creators (not Anno so much as later manga creators, maybe Sadamoto) play up the idea of "falling in love" because there's a big segment of the fandom for whom that is naked fanservice just as much as those horrifying body pillows are for Asuka and Rei fans.
But here, I couldn't help but see Kaworu more as some kind of older sibling for Shinji. They definitely play up the link between him and Rei.

me: Yes, I know what you mean about the older sibling. At the same time, there's a strong homoerotic...not even subtext, really, explicit. The holding hands, "do you want to go to bed together", Shinji's constant blushing. All of which is important because even if the primary significance of their brief but intense relationship is spiritual, this is really the closest Shinji has allowed anyone to get to him physically (aside from Asuka's super-awkward kiss).

Bob: Right. And still, Shinji always reacts in incredibly awkward ways here. He's constantly being weirded out by Kaworu, but in a way that isn't threatening enough for him to move away.
The crucial difference, I think, is that Kaworu himself doesn't move away, no matter how weird it gets. Shinji always seems to want to keep reaching out again and again to Rei and Asuka, but they're the ones who either don't respond to him or push him back. The difference with Kaworu is that he basically accepts anything Shinji does or says, right up to the point where he lets himself be killed.

me: Great, great points. Kaworu is like the only character who doesn't suffer from the hedgehog's dilemma. Except for Kaji maybe, but Kaji was fairly threatening in his assertion.

Bob: I remember leading up to this episode that the last depiction of Kaworu I'd seen, in 3.0, really reminded me of Hwi Noree, a character from one of the Dune books. It turns out she's been genetically designed explicitly to appeal to a grotesque, hideous monster god-emperor, and she's similarly selfless to the point of immolation.
And that really underlines what I think is the attraction of Kaworu to Kawoshin fans, and what part of his purpose is on the show. He doesn't represent a sexual or romantic pairing for Shinji, and thinking of him on those terms is as wrong-headed as it is to think of Asuka or Rei purely as sexual objects. Instead, he represents an embodiment of selfless, unconditional love, complete unconditional approval.
It's the type of connection that Shinji has been looking for ever since he lost it with his Mother, and always wanted but never found in his father. And it's something he's been thwarted with time and again with all the other characters in the show, who give him degrees of connection, but also come with their own personal barriers. Kaworu, aside from the AT field, has none.

me: At the point where he was floating alongside the battle and talking to Shinji it seemed almost like his physical presence was just a signpost of sorts. Although destroying that physical presence obviously had a real impact on his power. Dunno...Kaworu is a ball of confusion in this episode, that's for sure.

Bob: Yeah. That's what makes him both frustrating and exciting. He's a stick of dynamite to the continuity. He doesn't develop slowly over the course of the show. He's just suddenly there one episode, and already at the climax point.

me: I actually just found out this week that AT stands for "absolute terror"! Somehow I never really questioned what it meant before now. So that introduces a really interesting aspect to my mind. The AT fields are, in a way, manifestations of the hedgehog's dilemma.
A surprising reveal (especially since it was really there all along  [in the opening credits sequence], hidden in plain sight). Sort of like garmonbozia being pain and sorrow.

Bob: What's so interesting is that we get this profound realization about the AT field from somebody who, by all intents and purposes, would seem to have none at all. He's an angel, but he's also so completely selfless and giving. Which is a big reason why I've never thought of him as the grand love object, because no matter what he says, he still is basically trying to destroy the world. He still has that damn field. He's an emblem of unconditional love, in the sense that he gives it...
...but he also represents the question of it. His love is conditional, but he comes with a huge condition of his own. "Be my friend forever, Shinji! But I'm gonna kill everyone. 'Kay?"
The AT field essentially is what allows people to have separate identities from everybody else.
This is why I look at the figure of Kaworu, even if you take him at face value for what he says, and see him as a representation of the destructive qualities of constantly seeking unconditional love and approval. The unwillingness of being able to accept negative feedback from the people you care about, and want to care about you.
Kaworu represents a frankly psychopathic kind of affection, in that sense. In 3.0 there's a moment where Shinji says something like "You can do anything, Kaworu!" "That's because the only thing I think about is you!". Take that line of thinking to its logical extreme, and you basically have Fatal Attraction.
And by the way, we're meant to take that line literally. As in, Kaworu has spent his entire life thinking about somebody he doesn't meet until the third movie. He's designed to be the perfect friend of Shinji. He's basically like David in AI. His love is real, but he is not. That's ultimately what makes him a semi-tragic figure here, and even somewhat heroic in 3.0. All of the other characters so far-- everyone from Toji and Suzahara to Asuka and Misato-- represent the type of human love and social interactions you should expect from the world. You should expect to make connections with people who will for the most part like you, even love you, but are capable of being mad or cold with you. If you ask for somebody who loves you all the time, no matter what, you're basically asking for a monster.

me: So what are Angels exactly? They are not humans but they too have AT fields?
The AT thing is still throwing me for a loop, at least when it comes to Kaworu. I don't see the fear in him/why he would have an AT Field.
I could see the other angels being afraid, at least once they are attacked (we've talked about how, at least in the early battles, the humans always seem to strike first). But Kaworu seems to embody the idea of the Angel as something above petty human fears, anxieties - as a step toward enlightenment/instrumentality whether for better or (for the reasons you describe) worse, fear wouldn't seem to be a part of that.

Bob: I think we shouldn't think about the idea of "fear" in too literal terms. It simply boils down to "do you want to be a separate entity, or do you want everything to be one and the same".
If you want everything to be separate, then you have an AT field. But even so, everybody seems to be trying to destroy them by provoking another Impact. The humans want to create their own new world on their terms. The angels are essentially puppets to that, but obviously they have a will of their own in their continued attempts to connect to the minds of human beings. Those are them trying to reach beyond their AT fields.

me: But "Absolute Terror" is pretty explicit. It isn't "Absolute Territory" (maybe it should have been!).

Bob: I wonder if there's a commonality in the root.

me: Also, even in the sense of separate entity, it seems like Kaworu is leading away from that idea so again, why the AT Field? And earlier Angels too, like the mind-fucking ones, seem to be all about merging, pushing toward Instrumentality. So if the AT Field is all about keeping up defenses/divisions and the Angels are all about merging/penetrating/joining why do Angels have AT Fields?

Bob: Again, I think it's simply that every separate being has them, whether they like it or not. If you don't have an AT field, you don't have a soul.
The AT field is, as Kaworu says, the boundary of the soul.

me: So maybe...the Angels are "attacking" to get rid of their AT Fields?
Hm, I kind of like that idea.
But not sure if it works yet.
The Angels are a level of being that still has the AT Fields, but wants to lose it...type of thing.
Although then of course the Angels seem to be quite intent on using their AT Fields as defenses.
But maybe they aren't and it's just totally automatic? Or they know that until they reach Adam or Lillith or whatever they need the AT Fields and only when they get there can they afford to lose it.
It's sort of coming together!

Bob: I think in Kaworu we have as close as we can have to a summation of the Angels' motivations. He's so completely selfless to the point of self destruction, and I think a lot of what he talks about with SEELE is about eliminating the pain of humanity. He and perhaps the Angels as a whole see human existence as something that is inherently flawed and painful, and therefore the only logical answer is to eliminate all individuality, and therefore all pain.
It's not for nothing that we start the episode on Asuka's suicide attempt. This is really what the Angels are all about, and perhaps SEELE as well-- extinction level suicide.

me: Asuka's situation gives Misato's comments at the end a very hard, brittle snap.
Because in a way she is voicing the polar opposite of the Angel's philosophy, the other extreme.
The idea of sequestering the pain within, guarding it. It's interesting that early in the show she tries to draw Shinji out of his shell because she is ultimately revealed as having perhaps the greatest hedgehog's dilemma of all of them.

Bob: The way that she essentially has more sympathy for Pen Pen than Kaworu, and maybe Asuka, demonstrates that too. She really is frugal in her feelings.

me: It's interesting to consider Misato's role in the story. She's such an important character and her relationship to Shinji defines them both so well. But she doesn't have as clear-cut a purpose in Shinji's world as others like Asuka or Rei or Gendo or even Kaji and Kaworu do.
Like each of those have a pretty sharp and identifiable relationship to Shinji. But Misato's is the most ambiguous. I really like her for that.
In some ways she feels...the most "real"? I dunno exactly. There's something very affecting and poignant and tragic about her character.

Bob: Well, she's the only real adult among them. Even Gendo is defined by how he's trying to evade that role.

me: She feels the most multilayered, multidimensional - yeah exactly.
This episode has some really, really striking visuals. I had more of a sense of movement within the frame than I have in some other episodes.

Bob: I was really struck by how detailed some of the visuals are here, particularly of the light on Kaworu. Much more than the usual sharp, but kind of spare imagery we get in the past. There's a lot more detail here than before. It made me wonder if any of this was shot on 35 instead of 16.
Like, take another look at the scene where he speaks with SEELE. It feels like it's higher resolution for some reason.

me: There definitely seems to be more detail/texture than usual.
It has many compositions which could fit the whole static-shot approach of some of the more experimental and/or cost-saving episodes but instead they have movement within them, either of the characters or the frame itself (or both). Lots of wind rustling Kaworu's shirt sleeves I think.

Bob: Oh, it also has I think the most egregious example of "static shot" approach. It's like a fucking minute Anno holds on Unit 1 holding Kaworu before popping his head off.

me: Yes, although the music plays. Gives it a different feel than, say, Asuka-Rei in the elevator or those long cicada/train station shots in the past. Of course it's also a much more dramatic moment than those.

Bob: Well, it's also because those moments aren't held as long.

me: Well the elevator one is 57 seconds I think. I counted it!

Bob: Ha, I think the humor aspect there helps you not think about it as much.

me: No sound or music though. But yeah, it less about "intense" than "awkward."

Bob: Also the imbalance of the composition helps. Here, it's such a straightforward shot, holding it so long is a giant tease/torture.

me: I found it weirdly calming in a way though, almost meditative. Because of the music I guess but also the climactic power of the moment.
And then pop - I actually started in my seat w/ the cut to black and sound effect. Even though they prepare you for it with the music starting to fade down or something (can't remember what the effect is exactly). You know it's coming, but it's still so jarring.

Bob: To bring things back around a bit, the fact that Kaworu both represents an embodiment of pseudo-destructive selflessness, unconditional approval and also a doppelganger for Shinji makes him an incredibly complex figure for what he really ultimately means. He's a figure of learning to love yourself, but also winds up mixed in death. It's no wonder this makes Shinji shut down-- that and as we see, the continued lack of contact with everyone else, especially Asuka.

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

Murderous Ink on Kaworu

Well, Kaoru had been the center of female fandom for a long time, I think. Today, not anymore. But he is definitely one of the most influential in characterization of beautiful male characters designed for female fans. Here it is called BL (Boy's Love). To illustrate how big this BL thing is today, you just look at this big (I mean, big) market for Touken-Ranbu. It is web-based game started this January. This May, during golden week here, they had this big fandom event for the game in Tokyo. 4000 groups registered as 'participant', meaning they each prepared their own fan comic book. Now there were those who drew the fan books, probably more than 4000, possibly close to 10000. And there were those who were buying them. The event was far bigger than Naruto, One-piece and others combined. People talked about possible melt-down, because of sheer number of female fans lining up in the Big Site Tokyo. There was a crisis among small number of male Touken-Ranbu fans, because all male restrooms were converted to female ones. In any case, female fandom is now probably as big as male fandom with big pillows. And Kaoru is the one of those characters which started this trend.

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

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