Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Neon Genesis Evangelion - Evangelion 1.11

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Neon Genesis Evangelion - Evangelion 1.11


This series is an episode guide to the Japanese anime television show Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 - 96) and the spin-off films. Unlike the previous essays, the Rebuild films will not be accompanied by chats with other bloggers.

We're back at the beginning. Sort of. Almost everything about the early part of Evangelion 1.11, the "rebuild" feature film released in 2008, is identical to the first episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion. The same Angel attack, the same appearance of Rei in the abandoned city streets, the same Misato-Shinji rendezvous. But there are subtle differences. The first deviation is that the sea from which the Angel emerges is red, like the LCL concluding The End of Evangelion (one of the first clues for a favorite fan theory, that the Rebuilds actually take place after the original series, in a kind of reincarnated alternate universe). There are other subtle detours form the first two episodes: Sachiel the Angel (who is referred to as the "fourth" rather than the "third" Angel) reformulates in a different, more textured fashion; the Eva does not deflect debris from Shinji by releasing its hand; the berserker attack occurs in real-time rather than flashback. As the film continues, it will stray further from the original script but overall this is very much like a recap, gorgeously animated but suffering from some of the limitations inherent in the digest approach.

I've seen Evangelion 1.11 (a slightly revised version of the theatrically-released Evangelion 1.0) twice now, and still am not really sure how I feel about it. Its approach generally feels distracting: as I sit through the movie, my mind is constantly drawn back to the series, whose storyline it follows so closely. Although the increased budget pays off in bravura setpieces and decorative flourishes, the comparison is generally not to the film's benefit. The first six episodes of the show had a "miniseries" feel to them, progressing from Shinji's terrifying entry into this world to his slow adjustment and alienation and finally his connection to Rei Ayanamil at the end of Operation Yashimi. And yet somehow the film, boiling this narrative down into its essential components and structuring them into a feature, actually feels more episodic than the series to me. It loses the gradual feel of Shinji's adjustment and so it sometimes seems like he is being shuffled from one event to the next, rather than growing naturally as a character. But again, this may just be because I'm watching the film so soon after the series. Perhaps if I watched it in isolation, when the show was not so fresh in my mind, it would flow better as a movie?

There are definite advantages to the film. Or rather, opportunities that prove equally effective. I wouldn't change anything about the series: not the at-times elemental animation (including the diamond-like Angel Ramiel), not the long static frames and slow pacing, not even the goofy, cartoonish details that threw me the first time I watched it. But it's still very cool to see the film's alternate take, especially on the final battle. Ramiel becomes a mutating, morphing, genuinely frightening visual phenomenon. Indeed, it's in the final passage that Evangelion 1.11 most commits itself as a movie and an expansion of the show's visuals. In comparison to the cinematic climax, the show's execution of Operation Yashimi - the attempt to divert all electricity in Japan into a battle with the deadly Angel - actually feels a bit rushed and light. Onscreen here every detail is treated with lavish attention, and we get a deep sense of the immense weight behind this effort, the endless convoys, the gargantuan machinery, a whole society comandeered in an effort to save itself. The battle itself is also fleshed out and extended as Shinji's and Rei's Evas are engulfed in a cascade of light and heat. If at times Evangelion 1.11 betrays its TV roots in terms of storytelling, this ending feels like a true movie ending. I can only imagine its power on the big screen.

Where the film is most routinely criticized is in its characterization. I'm inclined to concur, yet I can't exactly say why. So much of the action and dialogue remains - theoretically there should not be a noticeable difference. Yet the pacing feels a bit off, even if it's just the breathing space of the opening and closing credits between each narrative beat. Somehow, when Shinji moves in with Misato, or when he attempts to talk to Rei, or when he befriends Toji and Kensuke, it feels less like a natural evolution of the characters and more like a plot hitting its obligatory checkpoints. In the last case it's explicable at least: the mundane charms of Shinji's school life are very much circumscribed in the emphasis on action and even lore (SEELE's monoliths and the gigantic Lillith - properly identified - appear far ahead of the show's schedule, and the movie ends with Kaworu emerging from a coffin on the moon, one of the most noticeable changes from the original material). But even when the show's events are traced meticulously, the presentation is a little off-kilter. Part of it might be all the lavish technological detail - when we spend an extended sequence watching all the buildings of Tokyo-3 rise and descend in loving CGI detail it becomes harder to fixate on the characters and their relationships. Whether due to budget or aesthetics (or both), the show was very economical in its storytelling and there was less to distract us from the personal aspect of the story.

I can't help but feel that I'm judging the film unfairly, yet it rather stubbornly invites comparison to the series so perhaps I'm not to blame. It would certainly be interesting to watch the film before the show (and I would love to hear from anyone who did just this); questions of similarity pushed aside, does Evangelion 1.11 actually work as a standalone feature film? Take, for example, Shinji's runaway adventure. It consumed an entire episode of the series, but here it essentially unfolds in a few relatively short scenes. Though the TV episode has been dismissed by some fans as filler, to me it was one of the crucial keys in unveiling Evangelion's themes and general mood. While its shortening provides an interesting intellectual provocation (we discover that NERV has been following Shinji all along, and that he probably knew it), it also makes the film feel a bit more like a highlight reel. On the other hand, can these variations - as well as the consistencies - tell us something about both the show and the film? Will the future films (at the time of writing this, I have only seen 2.22) underscore Evangelion 1.11's relationship to the series? We'll see. When I first watched this movie, I had been eagerly anticipating it as a "correction" to some of the show's flaws (what I saw as its occasionally excessive cartoonishness and reliance on static frames). I'm a movie buff rather than TV fan, so I figured a cinematic Evangelion would be the perfect distillation of the show's best qualities. Instead, it made me appreciate the extended format and low-key focus of series all the more. I'm glad the Rebuilds exist, especially for that spellbinding final battle. But I'm not yet sure how necessary they are.


Next week: Evangelion 2.22 • Previous week: The End of Evangelion

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