Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Neon Genesis Evangelion - The End of Evangelion, Part 1 of 3: My Review (discussion w/ Bob Clark begins tomorrow)



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.

From its first few minutes, Neon Genesis Evangelion has alternated between meditative stillness and frenetic activity. Appropriately then, it's hard to tell if The End of Evangelion - the feature film produced a year after the series ended - takes its sweet time or moves so fast that it leaves us in the dust. Hideaki Anno certainly enjoys making us wait, even if he isn't always to blame: the nature of this vast co-production forces us to sit through a full minute and a half of logos before the film actually begins (aside from this litany of production companies, there are no opening credits). The DVD edition makes us wait even longer by attaching the film's trailer to the beginning of the movie - a trailer which perversely features only live action; the women onscreen are the voice actors appearing as their characters in a mundane alternate universe mostly cut from the movie. Shinji is the first character we see in the actual movie, but the broken boy's eyes are hidden by his bangs in the first shot, and they will mostly remain hidden for about thirty minutes. Likewise, Shinji will barely speak in the first half of the film even though his banshee-like scream closes it with a bang. And yet while Shinji sleepwalks, the world around him collapses.

Four minutes into the film, the show's simmering but latent sexuality has burst forth in ugly fashion - Shinji masturbates next to a comatose Asuka in the hospital. Thirteen minutes into the film, the violence has been escalated too: government forces invade NERV headquarters, creating a bloodbath so brutal and relentless that it could serve as the climax to any other action anime. But we're only getting started. Twenty-five minutes into the film, Asuka (who until now has been as passive as Shinji) gets to fulfill her arc by discovering her mother's AT field and launching the Eva battle to end all Eva battles, demolishing not just the Japanese military but eight Mass-Produced Evas whose toothy grins are no match for her Teutonic fury. Again, this gloriously-staged fight sequence could conclude any lesser anime but as we reel from this disorienting onslaught of action and anxiety, it all comes tumbling down. Thirty-six minutes into the film, after uncomfortably propositioning her teenage ward (mortally wounded, she is hoping to motivate him to escape into safety), Misato dies. Forty minutes into the film, Ritsuko is shot to death by Gendo. Forty-three minutes into the film, Asuka's Eva is torn to shred by the reactivated Evas - with her inside. Forty-five minutes into the film, the end credits roll...and we're only halfway through The End of Evangelion!

Rei's arm falls off at the fifty-minute mark (shortly before Gendo stuffs his hand inside her breast and apparently impregnates her with Adam, the fetal god implanted in his hand - yes, the fetal god implanted in his hand). She is absorbed into the goddess Lilith fifty-six minutes into the film. For about ten minutes all hell (or heaven?) breaks loose as a ghostlike giant naked Rei (with some help from Kaworu) shatters Shinji's ego in the sky, where he has been transported by the SEELE-controlled Evas, forming a luminiscent hologram of the Tree of Life high in the earth's atmosphere. An hour and eight minutes into the movie, Shinji - inside a vision, possibly shared with her - strangles Asuka and Instrumentality begins in earnest. Within five minutes, the entire population of the earth explodes into orange goo, Gendo is bitten in half by a giant beast (operated by his wife's soul) and three clones of Rei contemplate the dead commander's glasses to the upbeat poppy tempo of "Komm, Susser Tod" ("Come, Sweet Death," sung in English, lyrics penned by Anno himself). I'm pretty sure the world has ended an hour and fifteen minutes into the movie - but another fifteen minutes remains. The End of Evangelion is the kind of movie where you won't be able to catch your breath until the final frame, at which point you may want to rewind it to the beginning and start it all over again. I've watched it three times in the past four days.

I had seen the film maybe two or three times in the past. The first time, I was confounded not just by the insane imagery (which I didn't even attempt to figure out) but by what should be taken from it. Was this, as I put it at the time, "a kind of super-Buddhist perverse happy ending" in which all the fragmented, lonely characters are joined in blissful nirvana? The cheerful-melancholy music, luminous crosses bursting forth from the beleaguered planet, and the eerie inhuman smile marking the humongous Rei-goddess all establish this ambiguity, but so does the first half of the movie - and, to a certain extent, the show before it. Think about what we've witnessed up to this point. Halfway through the show, Shinji has made new friends while establishing a (relatively) enjoyable daily routine, settled into an incredibly important job that he excels at, and established an offbeat but dynamic family unit with Misato, Asuka, and even the remote Rei, an alternative to the broken biological family he has been running away from. For the first time since he was a little child in his mother's arms, the fourteen-year-old Shinji has hope. The remainder of the series strips away these accomplishments, and the rest of the cast suffers too. Ritsuko is betrayed by Gendo, Misato loses Kaji, Toji is mutilated by Shinji, Asuka's confidence is finally shattered by an Angel, and Rei dies - only to be replaced by another Rei whose grasp on her identity appears even flimsier than the previous clone's (although this films prompts us to question that conclusion). A broken Shinji is embraced by Kaworu, the new kid whose unconditional love and warm presence finally convinces Shinji that love and hope are real...until this potential love-of-his-life turns out to be an Angel whom Shinji must annihilate. Everyone is utterly broken by episode 24 of the series - even the sheltered city has been destroyed - and so the stage is set for Instrumentality.

In the light of this physical carnage and (even worse) psychological devastation, why is it such a bad thing for the boundaries between individuals to be shattered, for living and dead to be united in the warm bath of Lilith's bloodstream, for the souls of humanity to be stored away in a Black Moon where misunderstanding and aggression and loneliness are forgotten in the bliss of everything and nothing? What hedgehog wouldn't leap at the chance to lose its quills, finally huddling with other liberated porcupines in a protective mass? And yet...Shinji resists Instrumentality throughout the film. He is frightened inside the Eva as Rei/Lilith hovers before him (to be fair, who wouldn't be?). As is his ego wears down, he confronts Asuka in the "Hell Kitchen" - a replica of the spot where they shared that unsatisfying kiss, and where she finally realized Kaji had died. There he asks for her to accept him as himself: he doesn't want to join with her in mutual understanding - he wants to pull her into his world. Only after she spurns this fumbling advance does he lash out and strangle her, unleashing Instrumentality out of a desire to punish, rather than embrace, humanity. And inside the womb of Lilith, even as everyone else is sucked into the sea of LCL, Shinji decides that he needs other people so he can feel real. Is it his selfishness, rather than his bravery, which ultimately saves him from destruction? After breaking free from Rei's comforting embrace he escapes his mother's protective shell. Shinji drifts back to earth as Yui (in her Eva ark) floats off into space: both are essentially rejecting (or rejected by) Instrumentality in favor of individuality. The mother's individuality will be immortal but lonely. Shinji's will be fragile but, at least potentially, connected to other individuals.

The End of Evangelion is not so much about a two-way battle between individuality and Instrumentality. Instead there are at least three avenues facing the characters: isolation, surrender, or engagement. The first avenue, extreme isolation, is experienced in the early scenes of the film, in which every character is cut off from one another, with violence established as the only viable form of contact. Anno, whose well-publicized bouts of depression found their expression in the Evangelion characters, conveys the obvious limitations of this state with palpable despair. The second avenue, extreme surrender, appears in the simultaneously horrifying and tempting form of Instrumentality. This is represented in literal terms as the union of all souls but framed figuratively as an escape into an illusory protective shell, in which our socially-shaped identity can only wither and die. For Anno, the relevant example of this is the "otaku" culture, devoted to anime/manga entertainment, which he embraced well into his thirties (and which in turn both embraced and rejected his work on Evangelion). Working within the confines of the mecha genre, he demolishes its comforting conventions through narrative and stylistic experimentation, challenging his audience to wake up from the dream and look at the world around them. Hence the extended live-action sequence near the end of the film, in which we see not only the locations that inspired the animation (and the actresses who link these drawings to human reality) but an actual audience in a theater, staring back at us from the same screen we are staring at.

Where do episodes 25 and 26 fit into this framework? On the series, we are plunged directly into Instrumentality without the build-up offered by the film; the experience is both more challenging and more comforting than what we encounter in End of Evangelion. The abstraction of the final episodes can be disorienting for many viewers (I've noticed that, despite its own controversial reputation, End of is more popular among fans than 25 and 26). However, there is also something soothing about this approach: most notably the cheerful "Congratulations!" chorus of the TV conclusion vs. the intensity of a muttered "How disgusting." The episodes don't actually force us to watch the characters die despite brief glimpses of Misato's and Ritsuko's corpses. And nothing in the series is as vivid or hallucinatory as the feeding frenzy of the Mass-Produced Evas, the wholesale slaughter of NERV, the literal disintegration of the bridge crew, and the swirling cosmic light show conducted by an astral Ayanami. By framing its issues so philosophically, the series provokes us on a cerebral level while End of Evangelion tackles the same subject viscerally (not to make too clean a delineation: the film provides many moments that force us to think hard, and the final episodes contain many images and sounds that hit us in the gut). Some see the film as a "replacement" for the unsatisfactory episodes, which should henceforth be ignored. Others see the two endings as alternatives, equally valid, neither one definitive. Others consider them parallel narratives, the interior and exterior versions of the same story.

One popular theory holds that 25 and 26 can actually be nested within the film, since relatively little screentime is devoted to Shinji's experience "inside" Instrumentality in End of Evangelion, let alone the other characters' (Instrumentality unfolds over roughly eighteen minutes in the film vs. forty-eight in the series). I personally like this idea, and think it would make sense to place the beginning of episode 25 at the moment when the afterglow of "Komm, Susser Tod" fades into snatches of dialogue in which unseen people - speaking in the voices of Rei, Misato, and Asuka - "break up" with someone (Shinji? themselves? us?). This is shortly after Shinji's Eva, wrapped tightly in the LCL cross, penetrated by the Lance of Longinus, enters into Rei's third eye and encounters the sea of giggling Rei-like forms swimming in perfect harmony around a glowing core. Shinji is on the cusp of ego death, the perfect time to cue Instrumentality as we see it in those two episodes. The show, of course, ends with every character surrounding Shinji, applauding him and offering a hearty "Congratulations!" If we take this as Shinji's acceptance, not of Instrumentality but of his own individual worth, what could follow that memorable finish? Well, in this case, the live-action montage, in which Anno takes the show's directness a step further, pointedly asking us to confront our own identity, our own options, before pulling us back into the animated universe where Rei begins to bleed those souls back into their world and Shinji makes his final decision.

And so, finally, we reach that third avenue. Brilliantly, The End of Evangelion does not just end with a darker, more cinematic incarnation of the "Congratulations" send-off, affirming that, yes, life will continue to be difficult but the hope for happiness remains. Instead, we get another title: "The End of Evangelion - One More Final: I Need You." Shinji's resolution to live in the world, amongst other people, is put to the test in what initially appears to be a lonely, if gorgeous, wasteland. The sea is red with the bloodlike LCL, the impaled Evas are crucified across the horizon, and half of Rei's face fills the sky, a literal godhead drained of the life that animated it. Shinji is all alone again. Cmmdr. Gendo Ikari, the father for whom a dim hope of reconciliation once flickered, has proven himself completely incapable of supporting Shinji. This parent is a lost cause for his son because - ironically - he is too much like him, running away from intimacy and the pain that comes with it. Besides, Gendo pinned all his hope on a single idea, Yui - ironically, he may be the only one who won't ever be united with her. He's cut in half by his own desire, and we never see him join the sea of LCL. (One is reminded of Alice in Lost Highway, hissing "You'll never have me" in response to a pleading "I want you," because, naturally, the will is its own worst enemy.)

So Shinji is more an orphan than ever. What about his mother, who was - in a sense - his closest ally throughout the film? Their warm goodbye reinforces the notion that Shinji must escape the womb, literal and figurative, to be born into the world. His only confidence in the series comes from piloting the Eva but he can't rely on that crutch any longer. Kaworu, Shinji's shining ideal, is like the sun - draw too close and you'll get burned. He was a necessary, deeply rewarding, and deeply painful part of Shinji's development, but he is the very embodiment of escape from life's harsh realities. As Kaworu himself told Shinji, they cannot co-exist: one must obliterate the other. Rei, in many ways Shinji's soulmate, may be too much his soulmate - she is more inside than outside of him. She is the possibility not just of mutual understanding, but self understanding. Through their relationship each comes to comprehend and appreciate him/herself better. Now a physical reminder of Rei rests among the hills, her life force flows in the red sea (the lilim are of Lilith, after all), and her spirit flashes briefly into Shinji's view as if to usher him into a new stage of his life, just as she did in the opening minutes of the series. What will the stage be this time? Who will appear alongside Shinji, if not any of these other characters?

Where is Misato, who in her fumbling, well-meaning fashion has been mentoring Shinji from the first few minutes of the series? Their relationship is the one constant throughout Neon Genesis Evangelion - other characters occasionally slip into the background, but we never lose sight of Misato, the first and last person to offer Shinji encouragement and connection. Pushing him toward the Eva, she says, "Find out why you came here. Find out why you exist at all. And when you've found your answers, come back to me." She gives him her cross necklace and offers him a "grown-up kiss" before promising to "do the rest" when he returns. Creepy perhaps, but underneath the brazen sexual overtones is Misato's sincere desire to connect the only way she knows how. Now Shinji has found out - to the extent it's possible - why he came there and why he exists, or at least why he wants to. He can come back to Misato, the surrogate in-the-flesh mother to replace the spiritual mother from whom he has separated once again. Putting aside a literally sexual interpretation of her promised intimacy they can live together as friends, the only ones who have ever had each other's backs. Right?

Shinji might hope for this, but Misato is not so foolish. Like Yui, she can give Shinji an idea of what human connection means, but she can not actually fulfill this connection. After Shinji gets in that elevator, Misato slumps down to die, accepting that her role is to guide Shinji to the promised land but not to enter with him. She also tells her young friend, "From now on, you're on your own. You'll have to make your own decisions," before compassionately describing her own mistakes and pleading with him to move through his pain and sorrow, to accept them without surrendering to them. These are parting words, and she knows it. When we find Shinji on the empty beach at film's end, Misato's cross is nailed to a post. She has not re-emerged from the LCL, and maybe she never will. Either way, she - Shinji's closest human contact, yet separated from him by age and experience - is not what he needs right now. Guidance has gone as far as it can with Shinji, as have support, and unconditional love, and security, and authority. Neon Genesis Evangelion is the story of many but as the story ends, most of these characters have found what they needed (if not necessarily what they wanted).

But there is one other character besides Shinji whose story has not yet been resolved, who has not served her purpose for him, and for whom he has not yet served his purpose. Fundamentally, her issues are the same as Shinji's even if expressed in radically different fashion. One hedgehog, proclaiming his desire to connect with others, flees in fright from their dangerous spines. The second hedgehog, insisting she wants nothing to do with others, repeatedly and painfully thrusts herself into those spines. Again, the two extremes, the two avenues which Anno tells us must be rejected - or rather compromised, a balance found in between, maintained through hard work, faith, and acceptance. Frankly, I don't care if their intimacy entails sex or even romance - the possibility feels like a red herring. More important is that, by sheer necessity, it will demand simple human interaction. Anno could not have chosen better characters to send on that painful, ugly middle path, frustrating yet the only rewarding way forward. Rather than a broad highway between two extremes, perhaps we should see this avenue of engagement as a tightrope, easily giving way to either isolation on one side, surrender/escape on the other. Will they fall from this precarious path? Will they even attempt to stay on it?

Shinji sits up. Asuka does not move. Shinji begins to strangle her, sitting atop her in the same position as Rei's in Instrumentality. This time, however, the dominant figure is performing an act of hate rather than love. Asuka does not react for a while - just as she could not react when he pleasured himself next to her immobile form in the hospital. But then she reaches up and touches his cheek, and he slowly lets go of her neck. Shinji cannot look at Asuka. Asuka looks at him, lowering her one good eye in his direction to observe his pathetic weeping. Moments before the film ends, Asuka says something - depending on the translation it's either "I'm going to be sick" or (the most common interpretation) "How disgusting."

It is. A flooded landscape, everything useful turned to rust. A palm full of semen, webbed between the fingers as if mocking the desire for contact. Pools of blood intermingling as machine guns and flamethrowers lay waste to thousands of lives in a matter of moments. Guts and gore and eye fluid and more blood sprawled across a meadow, dripping from the jaws of inhuman killers. Orange goo exploding with a squish and splash, annihilating the intricate composition of the human body in one climactic shudder. A puffy living corpse nailed to a slab, with little half-formed limbs dangling limply from its amputated flesh. Cherubic bubble-faced monsters, piercing themselves as they moan in ecstacy. A stream of yet more blood spreading across the starry sky, a red milky way replacing one maternal symbol with another. An angel (who isn't an Angel at all) spraying the stuff of life and death from her neck, welcoming a holy stigmata into the cervix in her forehead, fusing with the body she strides as she asks what it wishes. All of messy humanity becoming one in a process as gleeful as it is gross. Remember, we are dealing with the human form, tossing and turning its way into the great unknown. Millions of souls finding their place in the stream, one body bobbing up to the surface. A broken body and a broken spirit alone together on a beach, the neverending story, oldest one in the book. Silence. Speech. Stillness. Movement.

How disgusting. And how beautiful.





2 comments:

Jonathan Politewicz said...

Just finished rewatching the End of Evangelion for the third time. I really appreciate the detail that went into this explanation/summary of the movie because it is pretty hard to follow.

Evangelion has something enchanting about it that makes it stand out from anything I've ever watched. It's truly something else.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks! Hope you're able to check out my conversation with Bob Clark as well - we really dug into a lot of the stuff in the film, especially the style, themes, and character. It's amazing how much is packed into a less than 90-minute movie. Such a spellbinding accomplishment.