Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Neon Genesis Evangelion - Evangelion 2.22

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Neon Genesis Evangelion - Evangelion 2.22


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.

If Evangelion 1.11 is the pop song cover that tries to hit all the same notes (while upping the production value), then Evangelion 2.22 is the jazz version, following the same rough structure but unafraid to cut loose and go off on wild riffs and tangents. Approached in the right spirit, this can be a whole lot of fun. Anno mostly seems to be using events and images from the series as touchstones to shoot off in new directions. The first time I watched 2.22 I was mostly frustrated and disappointed by these departures. True, the film corresponds to the more light-hearted monster-of-the-week episodes of the series (roughly episodes 7 - 13) but it also overlaps with the darker, deeper episodes 14 - 19. The more playful tone of 2.22's first half didn't seem suitable as buildup for the drama; I had been expecting a big-screen version of the Evangelion series (not necessarily in plot, but in "feel"). Knowing what to expect this time, I still wasn't entirely sure what the point of the film was, but I enjoyed it much more.

First off, as spectacle Evangelion 2.22 is pretty, well, spectacular. Maybe even more than 1.11 this is essentially an action movie and it delivers one dazzling setpiece after another, beginning with the opening prologue that introduces Mari, a new pilot, as she destroys both the Angel and her own Eva in a battle inside a tunnel. Shortly thereafter Asuka is introduced inside Unit-01, easily slaying an Angel that took her and Shinji, together, an entire episode to defeat on the show (the revisualization of this Angel is also a treat, taking Ramiel's geometrical mutations to another level). Maybe the most dazzling Angelic transformation is the eighth (Sahaquiel, the outer-space "eye" Angel on the series). Its resolutely CGI redesign looks quite literally like a visitor from another dimension (the third, in this case) and when its multicolored "petals" descend from the sky and settle softly across the countryside before self-destructing, the effect is a gorgeous mix of realistic texture and heightened stylization.

As in this section of the series, the most important Angels, dramatically speaking, are the two last ones: the possessed Unit-03 and the nearly undefeatable Zeruel. Here is where the Rebuild both sticks closest to the original script, and makes the most shocking departures. Toji is no longer Unit-03's pilot, a fact revealed via a few playful winks and nudges (he reads his popsicle stick and whines "I didn't win!" and later we see him reunited with his sister, giving his character's arc a conclusion so absurd, joyful, and anticlimactic, that it becomes genuinely comical). Instead, Asuka is in the pilot's seat - and her "transformation" into an Angel - wings of light and all - is conveyed in one of the film's sharpest visual flourishes (although apparently the storyboards offered something far more striking...and disturbing). As in the series, Shinji is ordered to destroy this Eva/Angel and then forced into standby as the dummy plug takes over to do the job. This time, he knows the pilot ahead of time - this plus the fact that it's Asuka, ostensibly a much more important character than Toji - raises the stakes, right? Unfortunately in the world of the film Asuka has only recently been introduced and somehow this scene, which should be so impactful, didn't especially resonate with me on either viewing.

The next battle, with Zeruel, follows a similar structure with Unit-02 (piloted by Mari rather than Asuka now) losing its arms and Rei launching a suicide mission which fails to destroy the Angel. This time, though, it really does result in her death - or so it seems - when the Angel devours her Eva and transforms its body into that of the Giant Naked Rei we saw briefly in the director's cut of the series (and extensively in End of Evangelion). Already, the imagery and dramatic stakes feel more apocalyptic, fusing the important turning points of episodes 19 and 23. As on the show, Shinji has quit piloting but this time it is Mari, carrying him in the palm of her ravaged Eva's hand, who gives him a pep talk rather than Kaji. Again, he gets back into his Eva, drives the Angel from Central Dogma, and runs out of battery when he is just about to destroy the Angel's core (we even get a repeat of several iconic shots, including Gendo half-covered in blood, watching the battle intensely). Again, the Eva reactivates in an animalistic berserker mode - but this time Shinji and his Eva go further. Determined to rescue Rei, his Eva eventually pulls her gigantic form out of the Angel and apparently triggers the Third Impact; the film ends on this cliffhanger (save for a quick post-credits tag in which Kaworu pierces Shinji with the lance and descends from the sky in his Eva). Now the script is really flipped, and we can expect 3.33 to depart even further from our memories and expectations.

Reading up on the series and films recently, I've discovered that 2.22 might be the most unpopular of the Rebuilds - or at least its critics seem to be the loudest (3.33 also appears to be controversial, but I've seen it defended more often than this film). Despite the carnage in the film's second half, the film's tone is described as being too light (and too focused on sexualized fanservice). Just as in 1.11, characterization is accused of taking a backseat to the action - and the new character, Mari, is widely seen as not a character at all but a half-baked attempt at merchandising. Asuka's development is also bemoaned - she has even has a different last name in the movie, and it's hinted that she might have different backstory (playing with a doll-like puppet in bed, she doesn't seem to have the same troubled family history as she did before, and when she climbs into bed with Shinji she doesn't offer a pathetic, sleep-talking "Mommy" but an actual conversation). Much of the first half is consumed by cutesy school-crush plotlines in which Rei and Asuka cook for Shinji and Mari - for some reason - parachutes out of the sky to land on top of him. I can see merit in most of these criticisms, and share many of them. But for whatever reason, they didn't bother me as much this time around.

Indeed, I would rather see the Rebuilds offer alternate takes on characters, battles, and even themes (the films are, so far, pushing in a far more positive, optimistic direction than the series perhaps reflecting Anno's own improved state of mind). After all, we've already got the series and if we're going to draw from this well again let's do something new with the water. One of the most interesting turnarounds is Rei. Anno famously said that he ended her first arc too early on the show, allowing her to smile in episode six and then sidelining her for a very long stretch because he didn't know what to do with her. In fact, there are hints of deep, rich character development with Rei throughout the series (read this fantastic set of essays for evidence of such growth) but it is usually buried beneath the surface or hidden in subtle background details.

The Rebuilds decide to make this development more obvious and so Rei shows more emotion (as best she can), actively reaches out to connect the various characters, and openly voices her devotion to Shinji on several occasions - as she only would in episode 23 on the series (and even then, with typical Rei restraint). Between Rei's more active characterization, Asuka's chummier attitude, and the general feel-good vibe at the school, Evangelion 2.22 doesn't feel terribly far from the "normal" alternate universe shown episode 26. This isn't necessarily a good thing, though it can be fun, but in Rei's case at least the change is subtle enough to be compelling and rewarding - and in some ways an improvement on the series' desire to sideline her for so long.

At the end of the film, when Shinji rescues Rei, her character actually seems to be the most important to him. By this point in the series, her connection to Yui was being heavily underscored but - aside from one shot from Gendo's perspective - this link is mostly submerged in the film. (Indeed, as someone pointed out in the Reddit Rewatch discussions, the mother-Eva link is barely even hinted at in these films, although Yui's link to Unit-01 is at least established. However, Asuka can pilot both Unit 02 and 03, and Mari hops into Unit-02 without a hitch.) As a result, Shinji's love for Rei (and Rei's love for Shinji) seems less idealized/displaced than it was in the series, more emphatically about their own affection for one another as friends. At times 2.22 seems determined to "undo" The End of Evangelion, which firmly established Shinji's and Asuka's relationship as the most important to Shinji, and Rei definitely seems to be taking her place here (although there are indications that 3.33 will bring Kaworu back, with a vengeance).

Indeed, Asuka feels much more like a supporting character in the film than she did in the series. Still arrogant and brash, her attitude results more from childish overconfidence than terrified insecurity. Other characters also suffer, though more from the shortened runtime than any refocus. Kaji's spy maneuvers are barely hinted at this time and Ritsuko's character remains more functional than fleshed-out (the Magi are largely ignored in these films). Gendo, on the other hand, is softened a bit - he seems more lonely and aloof then actively harsh and cruel. Misato, meanwhile, is the same and gets plenty of screentime. Her role mostly involves supervising the kids and commanding the missions. Nonetheless, we do get a glimpse of her experience in the Second Impact - in a flashback that eschews elaborate CGI for suggestive sketches; it's one of this lavish film's most gorgeous moments.

Overall, Evangelion 2.22 is wonderful to look at, but its imagery lacks the dramatic weight and visionary power of The End of Evangelion. What's missing, I suppose, is not only the deep emotion of the film but a sense of precision. Compared to the budget-troubled series, The End of Evangelion was fairly lavish but everything we saw seemed to exist for a reason - even if we couldn't pinpoint that reason. I can't say the same for 2.22 ; as in the first Rebuild, there are countless flourishes which give the film a nice texture and atmosphere but also seem to lead us astray from any central narrative throughline. This isn't necessarily a flaw, but it is a limitation. I had a good time watching Evangelion 2.22 and I'm sure I'll watch it again at some point. But its awesome surfaces feel a bit...shallow. And you could never say that about Neon Genesis Evangelion at its best.


Next week: Evangelion 3.33 • Previous week: Evangelion 1.11

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