Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Neon Genesis Evangelion - Evangelion 3.33

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Neon Genesis Evangelion - Evangelion 3.33


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.

And so my Neon Genesis Evangelion coverage finally comes to a close...for now. This is the only remaining Evangelion film or episode, at least until the release of Evangelion 4.0 (or 1.0 + 3.0, which is possibly going to be the title, whatever that means). This is also the first piece of Evangelion I have watched fresh for this series. In fact, by the time I tuned up 3.33 for this review I'd seen the the entire series run at least three or four times (some episodes five or six times), watched The End of Evangelion at least four times (three of them in the last few weeks), and watched the two earlier Rebuild films at least twice. Though I did not know much lore or history when I began this endeavor, this year I explored the world of Evangelion more deeply, learning about various theories, interpretations, and opinions. How exciting, then, to plunge into new (to me) Evangelion for the first time in four years! That's ultimately the pleasure and promise that the Rebuilds hold: the opportunity to experience this familiar world through new eyes. On that front, Evangelion 3.33 delivered more than any of the other Rebuilds, and I think it would be fair to call it my favorite of the three films.

This doesn't mean I love it to the same extent as the series or End of Evangelion even though in some ways it recalls their sensibility more than that of the first two Rebuilds. This is a much darker Evangelion, set in a truly dystopian future in which hope has almost been extinguished. Visually, 3.33 calls back to the stark minimalism of the show: gone is the sparkly Disneyland aesthetic of 2.22 in favor of a bleak, elemental design. We even get a bit more stylized abstraction than in the previous two films, though nothing like we had in episodes 25 or 26 (either on the show or as End of). This is the grim, grueling side of Evangelion that Anno always seems to gravitate back towards, and that stylistic decision is given narrative justification by the fallout (literally) from the end of 2.22. I knew a few things going into this movie: that there was some sort of fourteen-year "time skip" (though I didn't know how that would unfold), that the characters were all angry at Shinji, that Rei would not be the same Rei we saw in 2.22 (I'd call her "Rei III" but I'm not sure Ritsuko's mother ever strangled a "Rei I" in the world of the movie), and that Kaworu would play a big role in the film and at some point release Shinji from a collar he was forced to wear.

That's a fair amount of surprise taken away - especially knowing the "timeskip" aspect. But I still wasn't quite prepared for the shock of Shinji's "return" early in 3.33. After an early space battle involving Asuka and Mari, Shinji is somehow retrieved in an object that fell from the sky. Full disclosure: I'm still not totally sure what happened there (if he got lost inside Eva-01, and Eva-01 is now the engine of Misato's ship, how did he end up in space?). But I'm trying to give my initial reaction without much filter, so bear with me. When Shinji's Rip Van Winkle act ends, and he emerges into the future (or, well, the future's future) one shocking revelation follows another. Toji's sister, now older than him, is his medical officer. Misato and Ritsuko (whose blonde hair has been cropped tight) lead a group called Willen, which is now fighting against NERV. Everyone is in a bad mood, always; we even get a humorous glimpse of surly (!) Maya on board one of the battleships. And they all hate poor Shinji, who doesn't have a clue what he's done - the last thing he remembers is attempting to rescue Rei from the Angel. Now he is their prisoner, fixed with that electronic collar, and threatened with death when he tries to escape.

The biggest change is Misato. The talented but dysfunctional party girl we met in the series and the Rebuilds has become an entirely different person. I can't really understate this fact. She looks different (cloaked at all times beneath a commander's cap and behind dark shades), she talks differently, and God knows she acts differently. It's like Shinji's nightmare of Misato during her more overbearing, disapproving moments has taken on a life of its own. Indeed, the entire film seems like Shinji's worst nightmare. Everyone threatens and berates him, without telling him why. Then he discovers that he triggered the previous apocalypse (referred to as the "near-Third Impact" though from the looks of it, it was much more than "near"), probably killing millions of people including - implicitly - his friends and schoolmates. The Rei he meets has no memory of him, and none of the character growth observed in 2.22; a fact explains when he discovers the Rei cloning system (in an info-dump which also reveals that Yui is inside Eva-01 and Gendo is planning to trigger a Fourth Impact). And finally, in the end, when he thinks he is undoing all his mistakes, he triggers another world-ending event; no wonder as the film ends he is limp and speechless, Asuka dragging him around this twice- (or I suppose, thrice-)wrecked world by his palm. At least this time Shinji doesn't have to blame himself for Kaworu's death; the Angel/Child still loses his head but it appears to be a suicide.

For some reason, handwaved as the "curse of the Eva," none of the pilots has aged in fourteen years, so Asuka is still the spunky, irritable showoff, Rei is still the petite, emotionless adolescent and Mari is...well, whatever Mari is. To be fair, she gets a little more development this time - revealing a near-sociopathic cheerfulness and bantering camaraderie with Asuka - but her characterization still feels the most lackluster of anyone. Anno does not really play with the idea that these characters are fourteen on the outside, but much older on the inside; instead their agelessness provides an excuse to keep something familiar in this strange new world. Once again, Rei proves the most interesting of the Rebuild pilots, this time for an entirely different reason than in the last film. She has completely reverted to robotic monotony, even less engaged than she was in 1.11 - a seemingly soulless doll who has no problem with being a doll. But as she discovers her clone identity, a certain humanity begins to flicker behind her stoic expression, creating a identity crisis for the girl who only does what she is "supposed" to do. In one of the more interesting moments, as her Eva battles Asuka, she asks "What would Rei Ayanami do?" and Asuka responds, furiously, "How the hell would I know? Do what you want to do!" (Rei ejects her plug before the Eva is destroyed). I'll be interested to see if and how the new Rei develops in the final chapter, especially if she comes face-to-face with the previous Rei - who may be trapped inside Eva-01.

Unlike the previous two films, Evangelion 3.33 focuses more on character than action, although of course there are still intense battle sequences serving as bookends. Kaworu's character is unusually human in this film, and perhaps more sincere in his attempt to reach out to Shinji. His overtures seemed like a possible ruse in the series, but in 3.33 he genuinely wants the best for Shinji, thinking that they are doing the right thing by removing the lances from Lilith. Kaworu's pensive, troubled expression as he realizes SEELE's (or Gendo's?) true intentions is unlike anything we glimpsed in the show, even when he recognized that the creature in Terminal Dogma wasn't Adam. Shinji is determined to follow through on Kaworu's initial plan despite his new friend's last-minute second thoughts - having lost so much and been dragged so low, Shinji simply has to believe he can (as the title references) "re-do." On the show, Shinji's spirit was broken by his own repeated attempts to save the world, at the command of others. In this film, his spirit is broken by the opposite: his (repeated) destruction of the world, in defiance of others. So much for the idea that the Rebuilds push toward a happier, more positive Evangelion; if that is still where they're heading, I'm not sure Shinji will be the vessel for this transformation.

If my first-time viewing of Evangelion 3.33 has been the most satisfying of all the Rebuilds, this is partly due to the third entry feeling the most like an actual movie. Obviously the previous two films had a cinematic sheen, but they didn't quite have a cinematic shape. 3.33 frames itself as a real narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end, less episodic than the last two movies - helped by the fact that Anno no longer seems much interested in mimicking the structure of the show. We get some of the late-series information, about Yui, Rei, Gendo, and so forth, and we get one major late-series event, Kaworu's appearance and death. But for the most part, a unique film plot has been concocted to make this the most efficient and self-contained film so far. Anno also makes good use of his 2.35:1 framing (the first time he has gone so wide), creating panoramic compositions conveying both open space and classical restraint. Although this is the most intimate of the Rebuilds, it somehow feels the least like television in its visual strategy.

As a movie, 3.33 still sacrifices some of the qualities of the series. Characters who were explored in-depth in the show are limited to supporting roles here, most notably Ritsuko (at this point any potential relationship with Gendo is a no-go, and I doubt we'll find out anything about her mother either). We also don't see Kaji at all, though I have to imagine he'll reappear somehow in the final entry. Asuka is still rather one-note compared to the series, and we'll probably never know much of value about Mari (though some interesting fan-theories suggest otherwise). I do hope Misato's arc is not complete, and I doubt it is, given a telling moment or two - especially when she has the opportunity to kill Shinji and silently refuses to pull the trigger. The Rebuild series is carefully choosing its emphasis: Shinji, Rei, and Gendo - whose role has been limited but very important so far, suggesting that in this version of the story he has more power and purpose than SEELE (their monoliths turn to stone in this film, and I'm not totally sure what that means either, except that they appear to be "dying"). Outside of that essentially familial trio the other characters are there to provide support. In Kaworu's case this entails a lot of screentime - more than he got on the show, in fact, but he is the only character this could be said about. In that supportive function, at least, Fuyutsuki actually does get a surprising amount of attention here; his short but essential speech to Shinji serves the same function as his flashbacks in the series.

So if we're still attempting that game of "parallel the show" (however loosely) we have now reached the final two episodes. How will 4.44 - or whatever Anno wants to call the final Rebuild - represent Human Instrumentality? Will it continue an emphasis on storytelling, characterization and action sequences before reaching that point or will the final film be one big feature-length mindfuck? Despite the Rebuilds' visual grandeur, they have been largely conventional in their stylistic range - will the conclusion allow us to see live-action, children's drawings, non-computerized experimental abstractions? Will Anno break the fourth wall? Say what you will about 3.33, it leaves us less certain than ever what to expect from Evangelion...and that's a good thing.


Next week: Episode guide round-up • Previous week: Evangelion 2.22

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