Lost in the Movies: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 3 - "A Transfer"

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 3 - "A Transfer"

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 blogger Bob Clark.

"A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told — in the English phrase — to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself." - Arthur Schopenhauer

"I am going to America to catch sight of a wild porcupine and to give some lectures... Whenever you have some large objective in mind, it’s always good to identify a secondary, less demanding goal on which to focus your attentions in order to detract from the anxiety associated with the search for the true grail." - Sigmund Freud
The next episode will be titled "The Hedgehog's Dilemma," ("hedgehog" being the anglicized version of the more Latinate porcupine) but it's in this one that we first hear about the philosophical allegory. Ritsuko uses it to explain Shinji's isolation from his peers: "Even though a hedgehog might want to become closer to another hedgehog, the closer they get the more they injure each other with their spines. It's the same with some humans. The reason he seems so withdrawn is because he's afraid of being hurt." To which Misato replies, "Part of growing up means finding a way to interact with others while distancing pain." This firmly places the reference in the Schopenhauer camp. Yet by the end of Episode 3, we may be just as inclined to see Shinji's hedgehog dilemma in the Freudian sense.

While the first episode thrust Shinji right into the action, and the second established his loneliness and isolation in a quieter milieu, the third places Shinji in a broader social context. He begins to attend school, where he keeps to himself (like the still injured, and still resolutely mysterious, Rei Ayanami), attracts unwanted attention when he's asked if he's really the Eva pilot, and gets punched in the face - twice - by an angry classmate, Toji, whose sister was grievously wounded during Shinji's haphazard battle with the last Angel. Later, Toji and another student, the uber-geeky Kensuke, will get caught in the midst of Shinji's second battle, when an amphibian-looking Angel descends upon Tokyo and tests Shinji's training (since that first trial-by-fire battle, the pilot has been subjected to endless and monotonous training exercises, which we witness in the first scene as he tediously fires upon virtual-reality opponents).

Ultimately, it won't be Shinji's training which saves him - or the two hapless teenagers whose lives are (literally) in the palm of his hand. (Ironically one of them punched him in the face earlier - another compelling way to highlight the discrepancy between Shinji's dual role as a wimpy teen loser and world-saving warrior). Instead, he'll be motivated by sheer protective fury, wanting both to prove himself and preserve the lives of his classmates, no longer intimidating peers but helpless children under his protection. Finally he'll disobey Misato's orders by charging the Angel with a knife, barely killing it in time before his Eva robot's massive but shortlived battery runs out. He does so by declaring to himself, through gritted teeth, "I must not run away...I must not ran away," and then screaming like a banshee as he charges the bizarre-looking creature waving its electric-snapping tentacles across the horizon.

In a sense, Shinji combines the Schopanhauerian and Freudian senses of the porcupine into one. Yes, he is fearful of drawing too close to others, lest he be wounded and - perhaps more importantly - wound them too (see Toji's sister and, in later episodes, Toji himself). But just as Freud seized on hedgehogs as an appropriate distraction from his intimidating lecture tour, so Shinji focuses on saving the two frightened young boys under his protection (and also, perhaps, to prove his worth to them after getting humiliated on the playground). This sharpens his attention and resolve, whereas merely fighting an Angel to save the world was not sufficient motivation (the Angel quickly throws him off guard; only after discovering Toji and Kensuke on the ground beneath him does Shinji gets some fire in his belly). Shinji's heroic role may be too much for him to bear, but when it comes to protecting specific individuals suddenly he knows exactly what he wants to do - and why he wants to do it.

Thanks to George Prochnik's article "The Porcupine Illusion" for background.

Conversation with Bob Clark

Bob: One thing that struck me this time was how much of this episode was told from others' points of view, observing Shinji. He's very passive in this episode, just doing what he's told, until the final moments when he kinda snaps. But until then, it's all seen through Misato and Ritsuko, or Toji and [Kensuke]. It's a good commentary both on the passive nature of Shinji in this episode, his psychological and emotional withdrawal from people (the hedgehog dilemma) and a nice way for the show to self-consciously get into the head of this stock teen-mech-pilot character, mostly from the POV of two kids his age. They're stand ins for the kids watching, watching Shinji. So much of the episode is shot through foreground elements, too. It's all about watching or observing from a distance. And the old-school photographic elements, plates upon plates of cels that can go in and out of focus naturally, really drive that home subtly.

me: Now I know you're not really fond of Toji. Do you feel the same about Kensuke?
Bob: Toji I don't feel one way or the other as a character. I'm ambivalent. But I like the way he's used here. Exploring the roots of the bullying behavior before it manifests. Kensuke's interesting because if anything he acts the most like what you expect from a hero kid in this genre. Very excited about war and technology, but in an innocent way. Lots of people have noted that he's a dead ringer for Jean, the main male character from Anno's previous series, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. Both are very tech-obsessed.
me: It's interesting that the first episode thrusts Shinji unwillingly into his heroic role, the second takes a step back and looks at the lonely little boy, and this one forces him into social scenarios for the first time beyond the rather unusual Misato relationship. We're both getting into the routine and still establishing situations.
Bob: Right. And in fact this is the first time we're actually seeing him in a heroic role, not just build up or dissociating from the event.
me: That's something I expected to come up in my piece, but it didn't. That last time we have to question whether he played any role in the Eva's actions or was just a passive passenger, but this time it's perfectly clear that HE takes the initiative.
Bob: Yes, he takes the initiative AGAINST orders, specifically. He's not just a passive switch, though he gets chewed out for it. I'm sure you can read that in Freudian/Jungian terms. He asserts his individuality at first in negative terms.
me: Why do you think he takes the initiative this time?
Bob: Mainly I think it's all the pent up frustration and anger throughout the episode. From the last episode, even. He's completely passive, until he snaps, and then he isn't.
me: Doesn't Shinji talk, at some point, about how saving a specific person motivates him whereas saving the world does not?

Bob: I don't know. Impressing his father motivates him.
me: But even that's specific, personal. Throughout the series Anno juxtaposes the abstract, global implications of what's going on to the very intimate.

Bob: Right. We're also given more definition of how the world has been living in the post Second Impact era. The scenario the teacher feeds them is almost comical in the kind of propaganda it is. Could the world really come back THAT much from what he's saying? Half the world dead, etc?

me: But do we really know how much it's come back? Really, the focus of NGE is very narrow indeed; we're NEVER given much of a sense of the wider global context except by inference from dialogue. What I mean is we seldom (maybe never) SEE the larger society. This is sort of part and parcel to Anno's general visual approach I think, though, which is economic and selective, always preferring the interesting angle to the establishing shot. I think there's a general sense of Japanese cinema, maybe art in general, that we could call synecdochal: a tendency to find that crucial part which can represent the whole. Which makes it kind of interesting that in today's cinema it's the Asian (though not necessarily the Japanese) which seems interested in the bigger picture vs. the western. But that's a digression, a whole 'nother discussion...
Bob: It's finding the microcosm. I really hate that word-- synecdoche. Or maybe I just hate the movie. Microcosm means almost the same thing, and it's so much easier to wrap your head around.
me: "Microcosm" still kind of suggests a world-within-a-world. I don't think that's exactly it, this Japanese phenomenon. It's resolutely a part, and only a part, which is nonetheless deemed sufficient to point to the whole. If that makes sense...

Bob: And yet, a big part of Eva is about worlds within worlds, that people use to escape reality. We start this episode in a virtual city training simulation, where Shinji just zones out. Kensuke plays with that toy of his in the classroom. The teacher feeds a false scenario that sounds like it's out of a Hollywood movie. Alternate reality construction is also a very Japanese thing in anime, deliberately showing non-continuity stories or building a new continuity for an internal revamp, the way that the Rebuild of Evangelion movies are doing.

me: In this episode, we get to see our second Angel. It's interesting how it's less humanoid than the last one, yet still kind of a "creature" vs. some of what will come later. But the "eyes" on its head are so obviously useless - just there as signifiers. It seems like, similar to the last Angel, it's sort of a parody of anthropomorphism: like the Angels are bunglingly trying to be "human" or at least "animal" to mask their alien identity. If the last one looked like those Popeye giants, this one reminds me of Kermit the Frog.
Bob: Well, that's a very insect thing. Having eye patterns on wings and such to fool predators. Almost as though it's trying to evade detection by the humans. Again, the human forces are the ones that attack first.

me: Yeah, I love that you keep bringing that up. It's such an interesting point. Combined with their weird appearances and the fact that they don't communicate, it begs the questions: what are the Angels really here for after all? And it reminds me how later Asuka will respond with impatient certainty to Shinji's inquiry about that. Something like "They're our enemy, of course we have to destroy them!"

Bob: Yeah. And he'll bring up the fact that they're named after "messengers from God".  Anyway, it's also interesting to note that in the Japanese version, they're technically using the word for "Apostle", I think. But in all of the English titling and whatnot, "Angel" is used. The whole Angel/God thing was something that attracted me to the show really. Though when I first passively watched it, I kinda just assumed they literally were Angels, especially with the cruciform explosions.
me: [By the way,] Rei is STILL very much a mystery character, isn't she?
Bob: Rei is definitely a mystery. If anything her presence at the school is the biggest question mark of all-- she's so alien, you wouldn't be surprised if she just lived at the base. The way she's used, cutting to her when mentioning the hedgehog dilemma, is great. A symbol of how people shut down when they're hurt too much. She's also very good when used sparingly here as a budding tragic moe figure.
me: Another interesting point about Rei, that you allude to by mentioning how they cut to her during the hedgehog explication. But also revealed when she shows up after Shinji's beaten up, and calls him to the base. She and Shinji are paradoxically united in their individual isolation. It makes them similar - but also cut off from one another. Well next time we'll have an episode actually called "The Hedgehog's Dilemma"...

Next week: "Hedgehog's Dilemma" • Previous week: "The Beast"


Sam Juliano said...

Wonderful new blog Joel! Great conversation with Bob. Best wishes for continued greatness a la Bocko style. This is be a great option for cineastes expecting just a little more and you are one that will never disappoint.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, although I'm a little concerned about the way the slider seems to slow down the front page. Still, it'll do for now until further tweaks. When you get a chance I'd love to hear your thoughts on A Dangerous Method which you praised last year, but only briefly. I went back and read Jim Clark's essay after I wrote this and felt he had some interesting observations.

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