Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episodes 25 & 26 - "Do you love me?" & "Take care of yourself."

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episodes 25 & 26 - "Do you love me?" & "Take care of yourself."


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.

Even if it had just stuck to the teenagers-fighting-robot formula and alternating-action-and-contemplation style of its early episodes, Neon Genesis Evangelion would have been an excellent series. The first six chapters of the saga offer rich characterizations, stunning visuals, and an intriguing mythology which are enough to sustain our interest. Enough...but Hideaki Anno had so much more up his sleeve. The introduction of Asuka, a fiery personality who startlingly alters the tempo and tone of the show with her dynamic introduction. A series of deceptively straightforward yet clever monster-of-the-week episodes in which we can almost believe that Evangelion has settled into its routine. And then things get truly weird. The appearance of genuinely avant-garde sequences like Rei's vision or Shinji's escape from inside an abstract Angel, moments of bold visual and conceptual exploration that are barely contained by the surrounding genre trappings. Character moments that dive deeper and deeper into their despairing hearts, suggesting things may not turn out well after all. Spectacular meltdowns. Dazzling montages. Unbroken still shots and stretches of silence. Titles flashing across the screen, voices cascading across the soundtrack, samples of sublime classical music juxtaposed against images of visceral violence. Whispers and hints of a tangled mythology unraveling and reassembling before our ears and eyes like the Lance of Longinus as it is hurled beyond the limits of earth's atmosphere.

And then finally...these episodes, ideas and images and sounds so wild and sensorily overwhelming that they can't be even be contained within a single unit of the show, spilling out over the final forty minutes of Shinji's journey from the empty streets of a seaside city to the echo chambers of his own entangled consciousness. For twenty-four episodes Shinji has been told - and told himself - not to run away. Now as space itself folds and expands and disintegrates, running away is no longer even an option. There's nowhere left to run, no surface to run across, he is everywhere and nowhere.

Welcome to the Human Instrumentality Project.

The reasons for these episodes' strange shape - the still shots, the sketchy drawings, the wide range of styles, the lack of a clear, grounded story, the stream-of-consciousness approach - are vague and varied. Hideaki Anno may have experienced depression while the series was in production, reshaping its narrative and style to suit his newfound interest in psychoanalysis. The script could have been altered last-minute, so that there was no time to fully animate new episodes. Or Gainax, the production company that often flew by the seat of its pants, may have ran out of funds. Some even accuse Anno of "trolling" fans, giving them the exact opposite of what they wanted, because of his frustration with the socially withdrawn, sexually-obsessed otaku culture. Some of these explanations overlap, others contradict each other, and depending which source you ask, you'll get a different emphasis. Hell, even Anno himself has changed his explanations on different occasions.

Ultimately what matters is the effect of the episodes themselves. And "Do you love me?" and "Take care of yourself" are as brilliant as they are frustrating, as exhausting as they are enrapturing. The sheer volume of information thrown at us in less than an hour can feel overwhelming; paying close attention, I'm sure I missed about 50% of what was said, shown, or suggested...and this is at least my third full run-through of the series. Oddly enough, I barely remembered most of the content onscreen despite those several viewings (the last in the summer of 2012; this is being written in the spring of 2015). I eagerly awaited these episodes more than any other in this rewatch, and was constantly surprised by what I saw and heard.

Lately I've been reading up on the lore of Evangelion - the various theories, the historical context of Anno's creation, the plot and characters details I hadn't picked up on before (moving from the slow, hypnotic pace of Twin Peaks to the hyperkinetic visual assault of Evangelion has required a bit of an adjustment). But all of that new information, that wider understanding of the Eva universe, evaporated as I plunged into these episodes. Despite the heady concepts presented - often verbally - these final chapters are really meant to be processed not intellectually, but viscerally.

So far I've said very little about what's in the episodes, focusing instead on my own reaction (appropriately, given the introspective nature of episodes 25 & 26). We begin by plunging into case studies of Shinji, Asuka, Rei, and Misato which unfold over the course of episode 25. I've heard it said that these episodes unfold entirely in Shinji's head but that does not seem quite accurate. The other characters speak and move in ways that suggest they have an independent existence and that they are not only his mental impressions (at one point he and Misato note that both of them are "the versions that exist" inside each other's heads). But any semblance of physical reality has fallen by the wayside. These episodes resemble the visions experienced by the three pilots in episodes 16, 20, 22, and 23, but with a difference. This time, boldly, there is no outside context, and no introduction to smooth us from an Angel battle into what we can identify as a dreamscape.

This is a brilliant maneuver, even if it was conditioned by economic limitations (and the same goes for the static frames, repeated shots, and childlike drawings that compose most of the visuals). The earlier visions were shocking but we still felt we had one foot in the world of "reality." Episodes 25 and 26 demolish the standing of that reality, suggesting both explicitly and implicitly that it is no more real than other possibilities and that the essential truth isn't bound by physical limitations, but rather conditioned by psychological circumstances. Through harsh mutual interrogations, the characters identify their issues and the sources of their trauma - group therapy meets self-criticism meets re-education meets psychological warfare (prodding us to wonder if the distinctions between those terms are facades for the same phenomenon). Misato joins the adolescents, revealing that her composure and desire to please conceal a soul as broken as theirs, but we already knew that. Indeed, this psychodrama doesn't tell us anything particularly new about the characters - it consolidates and crystallizes our existing knowledge into a series of case studies. The age-old adage "show, don't tell" has always been under fire in the talky world of Neon Genesis Evangelion (though many memorable moments display character through action as well). But Evangelion gets away with "telling" because its didacticism is so dynamic, presenting info-dumps as audiovisual overloads with a distinctly Godardian rhythm.

The two episodes bleed into one another and overlap, and taken together they are so radically different from the rest of the series that it makes sense to discuss them simultaneously, as I am here. Nonetheless, there is a distinction to be made between them. Episode 25 feels more a bit more rigorous in its organization, like an animated dossier presented to the unseen conductors of the Human Instrumentality Program, as they probe for weaknesses in the subjects' egos and seek to open them up to a collectivized consciousness. But Episode 26 plunges into the stream-of-consciousness that the previous episode only dips a toe into. We may very well be fully with Shinji this time although initially it is suggested that he and Asuka together are the central subjects. Perhaps this is since Misato is older and possibly (one alarming and bloody still frame suggests) dead, while Rei is not quite human. Shinji and Asuka, meanwhile, emerge as the two most plausible protagonists, opponents in much of the drama only because they truly have so much in common.

We travel with Shinji through a beautiful collage ranging from actual still photographs to gorgeously sketchy animations (his body floating through the white space of the blank canvas, magically mutating into various forms) and finally to my favorite part of the episodes, a sequence at once shockingly ordinary and aggressively disorienting. Shinji...wakes up. Ah, it's all a dream! Asuka nags him as a platonic buddy with barely hidden romantic designs. Yui and Gendo hover in the kitchen, mom in an apron at the sink, father with his nose buried in the newspaper. Here their devastating indifference is transformed into lovable distraction. And you were there, and you were there, and you were there too: even Pen-Pen appears as an alarm clock, a rational explanation for why a penguin wormed its way into Shinji's mecha nightmare.

In the street Shinji collides with Rei, perhaps the most incongruous figure in this whole alternate reality: the mysterious clone has been transformed into a sweater-clad schoolgirl, rushing to class with toast in her mouth, groaning with pain when she bonks her head against Shinji's, and shrieking in embarrassment when he sees her panties. At school, girls fight over our usually timid hero, who cracks jokes with his friends and mocks them for being "whipped." The foxy Miss Misato marches into the classroom to preside over the unruly class. This entire passage is a riot, cleverly playing on our associations from the series we've just watched. An astonishingly bold gesture in one sense, but we also worry that the entire series has been retconned into a wild dream, its psychodrama safely recontextualized in a teen-comedy anime. Not quite.

We emerge into the nether-realm of Shinji's consciousness as he discovers this is but one of many possible realities, over which he has more control than he realized. He towers over the model-sized cityscape of Tokyo-3, takes his place on a stage surrounded by his fellow cast members (in a kind of acid-fueled Japanese take on "This is Your Life, Shinji Ikaru"), and then stands on a Little Prince-sized planet (some have suggested this is Lilith's black moon), safely surrounded by his friends, family, and enemies - not that those categories are mutually exclusive. Shinji realizes he can love himself, everyone applauds, and the episode ends on an upbeat high note or else a completely inexplicable mind-fuck or...why not both at once?

Many hate these episodes or find them disappointing. Here is roughly what I wrote when I first saw them nearly four years ago:

The last two episodes were pretty interesting, and I liked how far avant-garde Anno was willing to go, though I had some mixed emotions as they reminded me of screenplays I wrote in my late teens and early twenties, which is not necessarily a good thing! On the same subject, but from a different point of view, I was awfully intrigued by where he went with Shinji at the end of the penultimate episode.
I'm not quite sure what to make of the series' final moments - I suspect that this is supposed to be in some sense ironic since everything I've gathered suggests that End of Evangelion is not a happy ending, besides which this whole "instrumentality" thing is built up fairly ambiguously.

Honestly, I still don't know if episodes 25 & 26 represent an alternative perspective to the apocalyptic tenor of End of Evangelion, if they offer a genuine beacon of warm camaraderie for the lonely little boy, or if they cynically present a successful (and dangerous) operation of Instrumentality at face-value to make us think that Shinji is successfully integrating his personality when he is in fact crawling up his own (or Anno's) ass. That is left to our interpretation and imagination - just what you would expect from the master, Hideaki Anno!

Should the episodes be more clear? Is their ambiguity a virtue? I'll discuss these questions in a moment with Bob Clark, my erstwhile partner in this whole Evangelion enterprise, but for now I'll just say that whatever criticisms can be made against these episodes...man oh man am I glad they exist!


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

Almost by necessity, this conversation SPOILS End of Evangelion. It is recommended that you view the film before reading the following.

me: So, putting aside End of Evangelion (for the moment)...does the show have a happy ending?

Bob: Putting aside End of Evangelion, I'm not even sure you can say the show has AN ending, at all. It really does read as a summary of events not shown. It's more an epilogue than an actual ending.
It's like an extended "To Be Continued". It has a summation of the themes of the show up to now, sure, and does so with tremendous visual gusto. But it blithely overlooks a whole lot of development the show was leading to, and really is only capitalized on by the movie.
Looking at it now, a good contemporary analogue is the episode "Epitath One" from the Joss Whedon show "Dollhouse". It follows a big climactic "finale" episode (that actually was a finale, as EO wasn't aired), and shows an extended future scenario aftermath that only gets filled out by the next season.

me: What developments did you feel it overlooked?

Bob: Well, the connection between Yui and the Evas, for one thing

me: He does refer to the Eva as his mother in one scene.

Bob: Yeah, but it's something that only really makes sense after EoE. There's so much that goes on here that is completely opaque the first time you see it.

me: That's what I like about the episode though. It's less about making sense and more about the experience. A bit like the Black Lodge at the end of Twin Peaks.

Bob: On one hand, you can see it as a capitulation of an aesthetic that Anno has been developing and building on ever since Splitting of the Breast. And at its best moments, he really nails it. But it's hard to believe that this was always the intended ending. At the very least, I buy the idea that Anno decided to let loose and play as much as possible because he knew he was going to follow it up with EoE.

me: I though EoE was only commissioned after the fallout from the series though?

Bob: I'm not sure. One theory I think is that they began planning for EoE as the series was winding down. There's some credence to it in that both Gunbuster and Nadia's endings are done in 1.85 (sadly I don't think the DVD of Nadia has it like that), and that's how EoE is done.

me: Do you buy the theory that 25/26 is the "internal" version of what we see externally in EoE?

Bob: I think it makes sense, yeah. I don't think a one to one correlation is quite so easy or interesting, but it works to an extent. And a lot of the two endings do feel tremendously linked. There are significant questions, though.
Like, let's assume that everything in these endings is "what's going on inside everyone's heads during Instrumentality."
Can Misato and Ritsuko even be a part of that? If you die before Instrumentality, can you really be a part of it?

me: I was wondering that too. But doesnt the film also play with that idea?

Bob: I don't remember. But the finality of Misato's death is a big blow at the end, I think.

me: There's another question about this episode. Are we JUST in Shinji's mind? Or are we in others' as well? Are they bleeding into one another - the process of Instrumentality unfolding in super-slow motion perhaps?
Interestingly, they show Ritsuko and Misato dead here, without context.

Bob: Yeah, that's why I mentioned them.

me: So if it's an inconsistency it's a conscious one.

Bob: Well, they definitely tease the question. There's some overlap in the "Shinji in Asuka's mind talking to the Asuka in Shinji's mind" thing.
But then Shinji's shown all of that happening on a stage, so the question is really still if it's all still in him. One of the reasons why this ending is a little unsatisfying is because (as they admit to, with time) we only focus on Shinji at the end.

me: They play with the idea a lot. At the beginning of ep. 26 they say "now we will focus just on Shinji" right? Or something to that effect? But then aren't there still parts in there where we seem to be exploring other characters' minds? Or am I just remembering parts from ep. 25?

Bob: There might be a little, but they really hammer in on Shinji. And that card seems to be a full admission of "we had more planned, but we had to scale back, hopefully we'll be able to do the rest."

me: Well they do give everyone the stage for a bit in ep. 25.
Or at least the big 4.

Bob: Right. But after that they bottleneck.
And even in 25 there's lots of stuff that is suggestive of things that happen in EoE, like Unit 2 in fetal position in water.

me: And of course the Misato/Ritsuko shots.
How do you feel about the episode in the larger context of EoE existing? Do you feel it's complementary, or redundant?

Bob: Definitely complementary. In some cases, really strong. Some things in this episode scream "recycled animation", and other things really feel like brilliant repurposings.
That moment when Shinji's outline is surrounded by red, and filled with subliminal glimpses of all the angels and images of the series is really interesting.

me: Do you see the ending as sincerely hopeful? Or an illusion?
Let's separate from EoE for a moment if we can.
Is the "congratulations" a lie?

Bob: I think in a sense it's addressed to the audience, the kids who were watching at the time. It seems that it's directed at the kids Shinji's age who might have watched this around the time they would be graduating from middle school.

me: So, sincere?

Bob: I think so yeah. I think it's holding back some, but sincere mostly.
I will mention something that's looking forward to EoE, however.
Both endings are making a crucial allusion together I think.
Know what I'm talking about?

me: No.

Bob: Okay, in this ending, everybody's standing around Shinji clapping
In the next ending, we have one character straddling another, mimicing sex.
Put them together, and what do you have?

me: Clockwork Orange?

Bob: That's it.
Add to that Instrumentality's likening to brainwashing. Add to that Ludwig Van.
And even add to that "congratulations" being a kind of mark of maturity.

me: Lot of Kubrick in this series...

Bob: Yeah, that's why I thought it really stands out.
Hell, the eyeball in Gendo's hand, as well.

me: That makes it sound more like the ending is cynical or an illusion.
i.e. "Congratulations, you've just been successfully brainwashed!"

Bob: It's more like "you've successfully beaten brainwashing."
Remember, that ending of Clockwork Orange is meant to show the return to freedom in Alex's mind.

me: I feel like it was probably supposed to be more ambiguous/ironic (it is in the book, as I recall). But that got kind of bungled. I think Clockwork Orange a bit hamhanded and misguided as a message movie, but viscerally brilliant.
But yeah if we're tracing Kubrick - we could find strong obvious connections to 2001, and arguably as you've pointed out Clockwork. Also Strangelove I would say.
Lolita is obviously there (esp Gendo w/ Rei, not to say they are having sex but still).
You could also throw in The Killing, the idea of this operation going off flawlessly and then everything is bungled afterwards and everyone kinda falls. Think Gendo when he achieves Instrumentality. But at that point we're into plot/themes not visuals. And anyway that's mostly coincidence I'm sure.
Can't think of any Barry Lyndon links. But Full Metal Jacket inasmuch as the soldiers are dehumanized/bullied/broken down.
Anyway...
The school sequence. Thoughts?

Bob: Ha, I feel like we're getting ahead of ourselves.

me: Well, behind technically, since we started with the ending!

Bob: All of the sequences in the second episode, or most of them, I think are expressions of different ways to experience and alleviate social anxiety, and the way that Anno plays with the medium really pushes the message as much as the substance themselves.
Everything in the school fantasy is self-consciously playing on genre tropes in anime, putting all the characters into roles that are much more comfortable fits in the domestic/school comedy settings. Not just more comfortable for Shinji, but for the audience as well.
Asuka is still a tsundere, but is now unambiguously his childhood friend and romantic potential. Shinji is more expressive. Rei is practically a bimbo.
It's practically an Archie comic in these scenes. And it's a situation pretty familiar to a lot of wellworn anime, even respected ones and mangas from masters like Rumiko Takashi. This is really making good on all the harem-comedy teasings we had before.
The bit where Gendo and Yui are in the kitchen and we never see their faces is a big tell, for me. It reminds me of Project A-ko-- another big parody-pastiche anime-- where parents are self consciously not present. It underlines how much anime trades off the fantasy of adolescent independence. And how much Eva has been rug-pulling it, revealing how painful that would really be.

me: The funny thing about it too is on its own terms, it works. It doesn't play like a parody but there's that extra level of parody there because of how we entered into the sequence. It is simultaneously the most conventional part of these 2 episodes and the most incredibly surreal.
And it feels like even as Anno is using it for a larger purpose, he's having fun with it too. There's genuine affection there for the characters. Almost like he's writing fanfiction of his own work.

Bob: Urusei Yatsura would be a good example of something that both obeys these tropes, but does so with a lot of art and creativity. Especially the parts of the anime that Oshii did.
Everybody's out of their roles, but not out of character. Even Shinji doesn't seem too out of himself. It's like this is how he imagines he'd be if he weren't so withdrawn. This is how he wants to be... or at least it's how he think the world expects him.

me: Yes, exactly. It's the characters in a new, fairly absurd situation (at least absurd in the larger context of the series) but they are still themselves.
Well, except for Rei.

Bob: This actually did eventually spawn a whole manga series of what that world would be like.

me: Haha I'm sure.

Bob: The other thing is it's fairly common for anime and manga to have plenty of these "alternate universe" stories told, even by the same creators.
(Project A-ko is again an example of this)

me: And that's a reason it rings true. Because it's exactly the kind of mundane fantasy so many people compose about themselves. Especially when they are jr. high age.
It's telling that this is a story of a kid who pilots giant robots - but the part that is most clearly a fantasy is the ordinary, jaunty, fun day at school.
Why do you think Rei is so different in this alternate universe though?
Any significance to it, since the other characters all seem so much like themselves (or at least the aspect of themselves they present to the world)?

Bob: It's the ironic counterpoint to prevalent themes in anime, I think. She's turned into a bit of a ditzy sexpot. The way she runs with toast in her teeth is a pretty common trope to show how ditsy and busy she is.

me: I get that part but...it's interesting that every other character is kept somewhat consistent and she's like an alternate version completely. I'm trying to figure out if that says anything about Shinji's view of her and/or about her.
Like his way to include her in his happy, fun fantasy reality would be to bring her down to earth (and totally change her character as a result).
It's like maybe Rei and what she represents are the hardest part to reconcile into his idea of a totally "normal" life. Even more than his cruel father and dead (well, sort of) mother. She's kind of the embodiment of everything beyond human reality in the series. As the film shows, she's certainly the embodiment of Instrumentality. So bringing her down to earth is a way of resisting it, maybe.

Bob: I think this is one of the areas where Anno's commentary about fan culture gets in the way of the characters a little. But it wouldn't be out of Shinji's character to imagine her like that, necessarily. Especially since he then says this is only one of many possible worlds he could create/imagine.The fact that there's no room or presence for Kaworu in this scene, or in anything besides the very beginning of the 25th episode is another telling absence, by the way. Especially since there's plenty of well worn room for some kind of prince-of-school worship if they wanted to shoehorn him into the fantasy.
It's also interesting that he imagines a role for Asuka where she's always been at his side. As though he has her there both as friend, romantic partner, and protector. That's what he imagines a friend and lover is essentially-- somebody who guards you from all the world's terrors. Who else would you want in your corner but Asuka?

me: We've talked about what's represented by him gravitating toward Asuka vs. Rei. In this situation, Asuka is really the possibility of the social, human world for Shinji. Which has its own limitations just as the ethereal spirit realm of Rei does, if taken alone.
I like how the school stuff also toys with the "it was all a dream" idea for a bit. The whole Wizard of Oz "you were there, you were there", etc trope - even Pen Pen, as an alarm clock which makes a bit more "realistic" sense than an actual pet penguin. (Although I guess a dream theory would be shot down when we see Rei, who would have been in his "dream" before he met her).

Bob: True. Although, the way he sees her in Tokyo 3 before he sees her... that's an interesting dream element.
And again, that's another thing that the series ending doesn't follow up on. It would seem that's a foreshadowing of Instrumentality, but it's never followed up on here. Only in EoE.
The question of what Instrumentality is, by the way, is something that is really plumbed in an interesting way in both episodes. Early on, the way they describe Instrumentality, it feels like they're describing social structures, communities. That one can lose one's individual identity to those larger structures, stop being one's self.
The way that the two episodes here break down the way people try to deal with loneliness-- through personal relationships (Kaji/Misato), through fierce independence (Asuka), through commitment to a cause you may not understand (Rei and Gendo), and then finally everything Shinji goes through in the second episode, which to an extent I think is breaking down what it's like to be an artist.

me: How so?

Bob: Well, the preponderance of self-consciously drawn imagery is one thing. It's obviously to help save on animation, but it's too nakedly noticeable not to be more meaningful. You can even see it as the school fantasy gradually breaks down from full animation, to those copic-marker drawn images, and then...
...what looks like what might be a pure script. His fantasy is breaking down into storyboards, then a script-- his act of fantasy is the creative act of trying to understand the world around him and connect to it through expressing himself.
That's something that really screamed out at me during what you might call the Bill Plympton section, the very sketchy animated portion. Before that we get a lot of still photographs that look like they might've been trace-reference images for the various photoreal images in the series. Then we get the copic-marker section of all the girls screaming at Shinji. Then the sketched animation, which winds up being a step by step breakdown of how to express yourself through systematic restraint and limitations.
The way that Anno constantly changes angle after the horizon line is added, it's as though Anno/Shinji is playing with all these different possible angles for how to look at the world, it feels like the director speaking directly to the audience, giving them a little art lesson to try and better understand how to express themselves and socialize through art.
The whole morphing-section by the way is such a great consolidation both of the body-horror of Instrumentality, the body breaking down into liquid form, but doing so in a way that's a lot easier on the viewer, and affords such a great summary of the fluid nature of personality, and artistic expression.

me: It was interesting watching this after that video in which Anno goes into a classroom and literally teaches kids how to animate. Because I did see a lot of continuity there.
There's a shot in the transformation-of-the-sketch sequence that looked almost exactly like what he animated himself in the classroom.
It's worth watching in full. A great portrait of him in an interesting light.
And different from some of the stuff I've been reading which makes him sound like Lars Von Trier on steroids haha.
Although I kind of think Von Trier may be more of a softie than people realize too.
I just mean stuff like this, which I literally just read.
Not being conversant w/ anime at all I read it and am like, oh ok, really? Hm. Well then...on w/ all the stuff in the series that has nothing to do with meta-commentary on the anime community and still works perfectly well on its own & can be taken at face value, you know?
It sounds honestly a hell of a lot like the people who accused Lynch of trolling fans with FWWM. His most personal movie, probably, and they concluded it was a cynical gesture to either a) rake in additional $ on his flash-in-the-pan series, b) an elaborate hoax to express his boredom w/ his own material, c) a sarcastic attack on the people who liked his work.
Sound familiar?

Bob: I think a lot of this is true broadly, but I also think that there's a little too much being read into here. Yeah, Eva is a meta commentary and accusatory at times. But it's also intended to be a fun adventure show in parts. It is the very thing it's deconstructing.
I agree that he was angry with the way Asuka and Rei are sexualized. I think that Kaworu is much more than just trolling the fans. But yeah, so much of this is interesting, but shallow.
It is similar to the TP fans who could only read the whole thing in an ironic context, but fail to appreciate just how... Boy-Scout-y Lynch really is.

me: Before you said we were getting ahead of ourselves. Let's rewind to earlier, maybe back to 25. What did you want to address?

Bob: I think it's really interesting that we DON'T see SEELE in the ending at all.

me: And the fact that we are totally in medias res. To the point where there's no "here's reality and now let's pass through the gateway into another vision"...no, this is the only reality we get beginning to end.
I really, really loved that. To be in that confused state, it really helps to not remember/know how you arrived there.
Plus it contributes to the sense that this isn't a "dream" or "hallucination" or whatever. It's, in a sense, a deeper level of reality than the physical universe we've inhabited for (most of) 24 episodes.
It turns the whole concept inside-out. Instead of the physical universe as a gateway into inner visions, it's the reverse.

Bob: Right. But the fact that we've been prepared for this by all the other moments-- from Splitting of the Breast and Oral Stage to the "Mind Rape". It's the climax of that aesthetic.
What's also interesting is how grounded some of it is. Where the hell is this stage from? All this backstage stuff? Nowhere in the show previously. It's just there out of nowhere to give context to the artificiality of it all.

me: It's both a mindfuck without a context and a mindfuck whose context is the rest of the series.

Bob: And without concrete explanation of what Instrumentality is, it feels like Shinji's response to everything that came before. Killing Kaworu, a human being ostensibly, causes him to finally break. But again, that just makes it more interesting how completely absent he is from all this.

me: Definitely. I don't remember if, on first viewing, I really had a clue that this was supposed to be part of some bigger thing happening at the time, that this was the Human Instrumentality Project and not just Shinji's personal catharsis/psychodrama. I mean they do say it's Instrumentality in the episode but they say a lot of shit that flies right past. Anyway, that's such a cool way to do it.
To experience it from the inside.

Bob: And to have so much of what is elaborated later rendered in an impressionistic way. Shinji does say it's like melting, as he's going out of focus slowly. Really effective use of minimalism.

me: That was a beautiful image.
It's really hard for me to imagine liking this episode more if the budget was higher. I mean I guess if it was just End of Evangelion (but then again, that works so beautifully as a film and I have to feel it would have been somewhat compromised by being limited to 2 TV episodes). Basically I think we got the best of both worlds.

Bob: I think that if we got the original ending, whatever it might've been, it probably would've been a little of both these things.

me: Maybe...but that might have diluted both.
Rei's monologue is interesting. I was almost a bit surprised they gave her one side-by-side with Shinji and Asuka almost like she is another teenager with problems. But her "problems" are a whole different ballgame.
What's your take on what Instrumentality means for her?

Bob: I suppose it really does mean the end of her as a person. Everybody else sort of becomes one in the sea of souls. Rei, however-- she's supposed to be completely subsumed into Lillith.
I think that if we got whatever the "hybrid" ending of the original might've been, it would've followed up on all the mythology the show had been building up, but in shorter form, and some of the gentler abstraction that we get here, than the absolutely aggressive stuff in EoE. I think in a sense it would've been a bit more unambiguously positive.

me: She says she desires death but must obey the will of her master, essentially, right?
What do you make of Asuka's and Misato's experience with Instrumentality? Is it just a recognition of their insecurities, or is something new actually achieved?

Bob: Well, with Asuka I think we only get the first half of something. We need the rest of EoE to really understand it. Mostly it's just a recap of her insecurities, but after that she kind of dissolves as a person (pun intended). And Misato-- she's treated similarly, but it's really hard to tell if she's actually present in the soup.
After a while they really just become mouthpieces for the psycho/philo mumbo jumbo that Shinji needs to bounce off of to become whole again. They stop being characters themselves. Asuka's still herself for a while, but drops away until the fantasy, oddly. She's most herself there.
It won't be until EoE that we really get a sense of people with their identities still intact, fighting to remain individuals, even in the midst of Instrumentality.

me: That's a good point about the slippage between these characters as distinct individuals vs. projections of Shinji's own psyche vs. messengers from whoever is implementing Instrumentality.
The charitable interpretation would be that this works to show Shinji slipping in and out of connecting to other people but more likely it's just sort of a kitchen sink approach.
I like the idea of the characters slipping in and out of being themselves, shells to probe Shinji, and/or projections from within himself. Though I'm not sure how well that would hold up under scrutiny.

Bob: Especially because we get Instrumentality without any idea of whose agenda is really being fulfilled. SEELE? Gendo? The Angels? None of that is addressed here at all.
There's hints of a conflict (Misato and Ritsuko dead) but nothing conclusive.

me: My main criticism of the episodes, especially the first one (though maybe the first part of the second one too) is the sheer volume of information. I mean, I'm not totally sure that is a flaw but at the same time it feels like a lot of the psychological/emotional revelation needs to be digested but its just machine gun fired at us. Pretty overwhelming.

Bob: This is the thing that really suffers in the loss of budget I think. The hybrid version would've been a lot gentler in this.
Like, maybe between the Sea of Dirac type stuff, we would've gotten more concrete glimpses of the bigger conflict that is shown in detail in EoE.

me: So much is explicitly stated, and so quickly. My favorite parts of the episode are probably more visually-driven than verbally. Or rather (because all parts of the episode are pretty visually-driven) the parts where the verbal is pared down.
Again, one could probably justify this but it's one thing to be assaulted/overwhelmed by tons of emotions and sensations and another to be assaulted/overwhelmed by descriptions/statements of said emotions and sensations. It's the tell-don't-show instinct which is sometimes NGE's Achille's heel.
The redemptive quality is that there's virtually always something interesting going on even during info dumps. Usually not shots of just people's faces with mouths moving at least.

Bob: Yeah, exactly. We get plenty of expressive visual accompaniment to the exposition. It's practitically German expressionism.

me: And that's true even in the more conventional episodes. If I can critique NGE for being too heavy on verbal expression it at least never skimps on visual expression.
Of course I also watch subs so that only adds to the overwhelming nature haha.
I don't have too much specifically to point out but the sound design and mixing of these episodes is fantastic.
Listened to it on headphones and I feel like it goes a long way to compensating for what could be seen as visual limitations (though of course I love how these limitations are used too).

Bob: They also do a great job of bringing back all the previous mindscape music. It all goes back to Splitting of the Breast.

me: Wonderfully scored.
Any other thoughts on the episodes?

Bob: Jeez, there's so much we could get into.
Like, the heightened prominence of all the Bridge Bunnies in the Instrumentality portions. Shinji didn't even really know them! What the fuck are they doing there!

me: There are parts where it feels it's really more for the viewer, summarizing, touching base, concluding, than for Shinji himself (this relates also to the slippage of the characters being mental images but also themselves - something Rei kind of calls out when she tells Asuka "that applies to you too" in the middle of her acting all objective & scolding Shinji).
Also aren't they the last people to say Congratulations to Shinji before his parents?
Kind of an odd choice. I guess going from most important to least, but then saving the actually most important for last.

Bob: I think so. I remember that in one bit where Shinji is hearing all of those people on the phone, Asuka's the first voice.

me: Here's a bigger question, that admittedly relates to the more we learn about Instrumentality in EoE...
What exactly does the outcome of the episode mean in terms of Instrumentality?
Has Shinji broken out of it, because he's confident in himself? Or is this his happier, more peaceful state in which he's connecting to other people (who seem more like idealizations of each other), hence he is fulfilling Instrumentality?

Bob: That's a good question. Is this the defeat of Instrumentality, or the fulfillment of it? We barely even know what it is. For all we know, it might've been possible to create a new Eden with it, a paradise of all human desires fulfilled. Ultimately I think it's more that he's decided to coexist with others and not nullify his connection with them into something he completely controls, and which is therefore isolating.
By joining with people and being positive about himself, he's able to join the social human community without destroying his own individual spirit. He's able to express himself without negating his uniqueness through self consciousness or social mediation. In that sense, this really is the defeat of what Instrumentality was-- a prolonged, physical state of denial.
We also have to wonder how much of Shinji's inner vision in the TV ending is purely him. How much of it is everyone else? How much of it is whatever angelic medium is going through all this? Remember, all those "inner moments" in past episodes signified communion with Angels or Angel tech, like the Eva. So obviously what's going on has a mediating element of the divine. And that's what Angels are, after all. Messengers of god, the medium with which God communicates to man.
And finally, maybe that's why things have to get so abstract and expressionistic in the end. This is a final confrontation with the Angels, the messengers, the masters of the medium.
It'll be followed up on somewhat in EoE, despite it being more literal even in the dream stuff, but here, it really is about the conflict between the message and the messenger. When you're up against the angels of any nature, better or otherwise, it's going to get somewhat meta.

me: If Shinji DOES escape Instrumentality...why/how? It's clearer in EoE. Here it seems more like he's following a certain logical flow.
There doesn't seem to be a point where he fights and/or breaks free and/or is rescued and/or is even given the option not to undergo Instrumentality.

Bob: Well, it does arrive right after he imagines a world that works for him. So perhaps that's the step of positivity here-- if you can imagine a better world, a better life, why not take that positivity and live with it and use it?
Shinji breaking with Instrumentality in EoE is more about defiance, as I remember it. It's not about what he feels, as much, as about his resolve to remain himself, and not just be a part of the soup. Here, it's more that he can find something in himself that he wants to share with others. There-- the question is if you want to be yourself, on your own terms, even if it means loneliness.

me: Why the titles at the end? "Thank you father. Goodbye, mother." I get the part about the kids.

Bob: Hm. I wonder if Anno's mother had died at that point?

me: Well, she was in the classroom video so no! That's why it stuck out to me, because I had just watched that.
Makes it seem like it's almost Shinji saying that instead.

Bob: I suppose so.
God knows what he's thanking his father for though.
The children thing now-- if that's Shinji saying congratulations, it implies that maybe the children are the ones who are going to reject Instrumentality en masse and inherit the world.

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

Final thoughts from Murderous Ink (Part 1)
(to be concluded next week, with The End of Evangelion...)

As for two last episodes, I would like to introduce what has been said about them in Japanese anime critics scene. Significance of these two episodes have been discussed in so many occasions and the overview of these discussions may help to give us a better perspective on the issue. Frankly, I don't know if I agree with these discussions. But these two are often discussed texts on the issue, I believe.

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"In the last two episodes, Anno suddenly abandoned the narrative flow in the work in progress, and ended the TV series with Sinji's monologue and the description of his inner world only. All the service beautifully constructed up until Episode 24 were scrapped at the beginning of Episode 25 without any explanation. Particularly, the scene of the different Evangelion world inserted in the last episode - in this world, Eva does not exist and Shinji and co. are living a happy school life - made the work a meta-fiction and made a pointed criticism on the genre, laughing at desires of some particular group of fans. This ending created uneasy tensions among anime fans, and some pretty nasty insults and badmouthing toward Anno floated around in internet for some time.

But in my opinion, the essence of Evangelion is not in these episodes. First of all, it is unclear how much of these two episodes were planned in advance (there was a rumor that the TV stations demanded changes on the original gory ending in the script) and it was reported that the final ending of the narrative will be reproduced in the LD/VT version, we cannot take the naked meta-fictional strategy in the two episodes as Annno's intention. It is true that the development of the last two episodes actually showed Anno's direction (intention) directly, namely at the level of the narrative. However, even without these two episodes, I think the double structure of the NGE is obvious in its style, and its critical aspect is still intact. Actually, the problem of these two episodes might have camouflaged the real radicalness of the original series."

- "How Hideaki Anno finished 80's Japanese Anime" by Hiroki Azuma, 1996

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To be continued...

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

2 comments:

Kevin said...

look at the "on the next episode of NGE" at the end of episode 25. It shows early work of End of End of Evangelion which cues in on intentions.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, I saw that - pretty interesting! I have to double-check but I think it might only be on the Director's Cut that it does that (I think Bob might have pointed that out somewhere or other). And maybe had something to do with the release of Death and Rebirth? (or did that film end just before the Asuka battle, I can't remember...)