Lost in the Movies: Neon Genesis Evangelion - Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0

Neon Genesis Evangelion - Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0

This concludes my episode guide to the Japanese anime television show Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 - 96) and the spin-off films after ten years.

Does this little town nestled into the mountains have a name? Does it need one? The place where a gently perplexed Rei, embittered Asuka, and near-catatonic Shinji find themselves near the start of Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0 provides a bracing break in the action and opportunity for reflection to these traumatized characters. A community founded after the devastation of the Near-Third Impact, this cross between a desperate refugee camp and a determined early settlement has simply been dubbed Village-3. While down-to-earth in its pragmatic daily activity, it carries a vaguely enchanted air, a fable-like flavor reinforced by the pink walls of chemical fairy dust protecting the villagers from roving monsters and the presence of a princess released from her dungeon - only to discover that the evil king has conditioned and limited her existence with a kind of techno-spell. Not to mention the uncanny "curse of the Evas" which traps our protagonists in perpetual adolescence while their former classmates grow up, raise families, and find their places in the world. This village is the sort of spot you drift upon by accident, settle into on a temporary basis with the intention of mere rest, and then never leave. You tell yourself the stay is only temporary, but the years go by, your roots sink into the ground, and suddenly you look up to realize how much time has passed, and that a lifetime of the same stretches before you. Regret may mix with a surprised sense of relief - after all, there are worse fates than this.

Certainly the trio of dislodged Eva pilots - whom we meet again while wandering the country after the truly explosive events of Evangelion 3.33 - have reason to think so. When a matured Toji drags the limp Shinji into his home in Village-3, the boy is about a broken as he's ever been. "About" because, of course, that bar has already been set pretty low. How many times has he huddled in a corner unable even to cry, or stood with his bags at a train station, ready to leave it all behind? Could any bottom be lower than Misato dragging him around the bowels of NERV headquarters while death squads sought to eliminate him? Far way from the nearly one-to-one narrative repetition of Evangelion 1.11, this fourth and final Rebuild is essentially making up a new story to complement the old one (not replace or necessarily "build upon" it); nonetheless, there are still familiar beats being echoed in the narrative. At this point all that's left to reference are episodes 25 and 26 of the series and The End of Evangelion, so perhaps Shinji's state is meant to recall the latter. If so, the contrast is striking; this environment is welcoming rather than hostile and, curiously, all the more melancholy for it. At least all that gunfire reinforced Shinji's sense of worthlessness and despair; how much more does he ache when the only soundtrack is friendly chatter, the scraping of spoons in wooden bowls, and a blanket of chirping cicadas? (Or is my memory deceiving me, and the familiar cicadas have been wiped out - by Shinji's hand no less?)

By contrast, Rei's blank slate is available for the villagers to lightly scribble across - occupying her attention with work in the fields, daily chores, and guileless questions about her name, interests, and experiences. They cobble together an identity which she slowly adopts her own - too slowly, in fact, to fully enjoy its fruits before she tragically self-destructs (remarking that she wishes she had more time to participate in the rituals of village life before - like Kaworu - her collar detonates and she disintegrates). Every day before that fateful farewell, she visits the sullen Shinji by the ruins where he rests, bringing him food and other tokens of goodwill like his old cassette player, as non-judgmental of him as Asuka is hyper-critical. As for Asuka, she is in her own way as removed as Shinji but for different reasons. Staying with the now-grown Kensuke far from the village center and traipsing around his house nude but for a jacket and bandana, she is disinterested in her surroundings not out of a sense of surrender but because she doesn't need what the village is offering. She knows her purpose and restlessly awaits returning to it. Although physically the same as when she met them - well, aside from the eyepatch and Angel energy waiting to be untapped - Asuka has aged in a way Shinji and Rei have not. She spent the past fourteen years living out each day and earning physical and emotional battle scars rather than being frozen like Shinji or reproduced and secluded like Rei. (That said, this film confirms that she is also part of a clone series, putting a new spin on the character's perpetual loneliness even though she's no longer a traumatized orphan.)

Soothed and then shocked by Rei's interventions, Shinji re-commits himself to his job despite being prohibited from actually doing it. (Everyone onboard the floating Wunder ship wants to keep him as far away from an Eva as possible.) The second half of the film is one sustained conflict between Misato's Wille and NERV in which Shinji must eventually - of course - get in the damn robot. Gendo has become an Angel using the Key of Nebuchadnezzar (not so sure I can explain that one), with a glowing cyclops eye behind his visor. Ritsuko shoots him as in End of Evangelion - again a plot echo with very different context (there's no particular personal history between them this time) - but he merely scoops his brain off the surface of the ship and squishes it back in his skull. Here the measures and maneuvers get quite complicated - new models of Evas battling each other with new capabilities, new combinations of human and Angel (Asuka unleashes her own inner Angel but is swallowed up by the doomsday Unit-13), new revelations, or at least hints, about Mari's history with the founders of NERV (Fuyutsuki calls her Maria Iscariot, a name referencing both Jesus' mother and betrayer). I've been out of the Evangelion universe for quite a while and while I re-visited my reviews before writing this one, I haven't watched the films - or the series - recently enough to be conversant with some of the more in-the-weeds details. As Shinji hops in his Eva and follows Gendo into the "Anti-Universe" while a wounded Misato attempts to back him up and Mari pursues him into this dimension, it's the themes and impressions I want to relay more than the mechanics of these events.

Although this all unfolds soon after the events of Evangelion 3.33 (in contrast to that film's fourteen-year timeskip) everything about 3.0 + 1.0 - its production, themes, and approach (and even, for what it's worth, my own personal experience viewing it) reflects the passage of a much longer time. Consider that the entire Rebuild project took seventeen years from conception to the last release, whereas the twenty-six TV episodes and original feature film were delivered at a breakneck pace in just two years. The End of Evangelion was barely a decade old when the series was polished off and re-fashioned for a new generation; almost as much time has passed between the third and fourth Rebuilds. There are many reasons for this interval. In the mid-teens, Hideaki Anno experienced another bout of depression alongside doubts about how to proceed with his most famous creation; he was also delayed by the projects that helped him bounce back and find new confidence in his mission - lead voice work in The Wind Rises under the guidance of mentor Hayao Miyazaki, and the blockbuster success of his own live-action Shin Godzilla. There's also the simple fact that things just take longer when you're older; the thirtysomething wunderkind of the nineties is now over sixty. While the dazzling action setpieces and adolescent angst onscreen demonstrate the director's continually youthful spirit, 3.0 + 1.0 also exudes a sense of gravity, scope, and contemplation suggesting hard-earned wisdom. The first part of the movie in particular sustains a certain serenity that Anno could only grasp at for fleeting moments in the earlier Evangelions.

In one of the film's most haunting images, headless, zombie-like Evas trudge aimlessly across the broken landscape, dangerous but kept at bay by makeshift electronic shields. Dubbed "failures of infinity" by Kaworu in the previous installment, these sad behemoths materialize a running theme of the Rebuilds (inherent in their very conception). No longer does Evangelion tell the tale of a society constantly on the precipice of annihilation. Rather, this is a story of survival: the perpetual recurrence of endurance. Mortality too - exhibited in the most heartbreaking fashion by Rei's limited time in the village as she sees her own bioengineered clock ticking - comes with an understanding that the world will continue to stumble along without one's own presence. (We also learn that Kaji died at the end of 2.22; at least, I don't think this was revealed in the previous film; certainly the revelation that Misato was pregnant with his son - a friendly fourteen-year-old whom Shinji meets in 3.0 + 1.0 - is new.) This acceptance of continuation can be as upsetting in its own way as impending Armageddon. There's something almost comforting about knowing that the end is nigh, a heightened exhilaration in living for the moment - a focus and sense of purpose that inflates the ego and crystallizes the environment. But the world Shinji must grapple with here seems broader, wilder, harder to wrap one's hands around; the precarious but impressive sci-fi mastery of the show and earlier Rebuilds has been mostly effaced by a humbler, more hardscrabble form of existence. Although 3.0 + 1.0's requisite apocalypse initiates Human Instrumentality yet again, this time it feels less like a real threat of extinction and more like a new opportunity for evolution.

Subtitled "Thrice Upon a Time," the film raises the question of how a third conclusion to Evangelion could possibly top the wild avant-garde experimentation of the series finale or the epic spectacle of destruction wrought in End of Evangelion. There are certainly some vivid visuals along the way: a realistically-rendered CGI Giant Rei head; wild, cascading spirals of enemy machines and Angel energy as Wille battles NERV below Antarctica; and perhaps especially the identically composed shots of identical Eva-01s (piloted by Gendo and Shinji) engaged in a futile, repetitive, symmetrical clashes amidst disproportionately-sized familiar settings like the old Tokyo-3 schoolroom, Misato's apartment, and Kaji's watermelon patch. But the boldness of 3.0 + 1.0 is conceptual, finding a new angle for the no-longer-shocking spiritual journey that Shinji takes at each Evangelion cycle's inevitable conclusion. This time, the boy's gestures of inquiry and understanding are directed more toward others than at himself. Most notably, the narrative offers as close to a reconciliation between father and son as we could ever imagine - even, in one moment, allowing Gendo to embrace the four-year-old Shinji he infamously abandoned in the train station. Above all, the teenager discovers how much his father was and still is like him. Though many of the climactic sequences indicate Shinji setting other characters free, in this case Gendo still seems lost in his own intense, desperate grief; it's the younger Ikari who gains wisdom from the experience.

Shinji returns to the End of Evangelion beach to tell Asuka he liked her, and he also shares crucial moments of comfort with a morose Kaworu (who indicates, via a line of lunar coffins, that he's doomed to repeat this story for eternity) and a long-haired version of Rei in the Eva where she's been trapped (like Rapunzel - again with the fairy tales connection). Throughout the movie, beyond the important day-to-day psychological struggles of Shinji and the others, the big conflict has been between Misato's/Wille's determination that humanity must keep slogging through as it has for millennia, and Gendo's fanatical devotion to transcendence of the human condition. As I've said about earlier depictions of the Human Instrumentality Project, there is something potentially admirable in this yearning for the spiritually sublime (as well as in Misato's more earthly stoicism); indeed, the entirely subjective experience represented in the series finale suggests that...perhaps Instrumentality is even a positive experience for Shinji? 3.0 + 1.0 strikes a similar note in its final sequences, combining the personal revelations of the series finale with the grand scale of the original Eva film. But if episodes 25 and 26 allowed Shinji to finally be content with who he was and End of Evangelion sent him back to make his way in what was left of the world he left behind, 3.0 + 1.0 goes one step further.

Mari, a character often dismissed by many viewers as shallow and pointless, turns out to be the perfect companion in this final passage. Relentlessly cheerful and confident, shorn of any baggage from the more depressive and toxic relationships in the old story, she more than anyone is situated to guide Shinji into adulthood and then greet him there. The final scene depicts a grown-up Shinji in that quintessential Evangelion location, a train depot, where Mari arrives to playfully cover his eyes, flirt, and then take his hand and run off into the city as a breathless pop love song plays. There is no better way to end what Anno tells us will be his last incursion into this world; like Twin Peaks: The Return (but in a far more optimistic manner), the Rebuild series - and this film in particular - serves less as an essential component in the already powerfully complete original cycle and more as an imaginative set of flourishes and footnotes, amplifying what existed before, drawing out new qualities, and carving enticing little avenues to explore using our familiarity as a premise. All contribute to the sense that both of these follow-up projects are "late works" - loose, slightly unmoored meditations from aging artists less concerned with crafting a completely cohesive structure than in playing with various strands.

I mentioned at the outset that my viewing experience - and for that matter, the writing of this review - was itself embedded in the passage of time. My focus on Evangelion reached a crescendo in 2015 when I used the prior Rebuilds to conclude (until now) the episode guide I'd begun in 2012, covering a show I watched for the first time in 2011. Back then, that four-year stretch seemed enormous, a long time to wind up such a project. Now, of course, seven years have passed since I wrote about Evangelion 3.33, almost double the time I explored Neon Genesis Evangelion from first viewing to last review. What was once a rich, almost overflowing engagement has become stretched-out and diluted, fleeting, wispy encounters dotted here and there over the landscape of years. This expansion of time has been countered, for me at least, with a tightening circle of experiences - less geographical range and variety than before (compounded by the Covid period which further circumscribed such literal and figurative wandering). All of these conditions can make the same quantity of time feel entirely different, and even a long but quiet span of years feel shorter than a busy if brief passage. In other ways, of course, these years have been cluttered and varied; seldom is everything entirely one way or another. From that vantage point, I look back on my immersion in Evangelion with a sense of both immediate recognition and wistful distance; a seven-year span may lend itself to that sensation better than any other number.

In the end, the film tells us, how one engages with and conceptualizes the past may be primarily useful as a means to pivot into the present moment. Where do you want to go now? Or, perhaps, where do you want to leave? Figure that out and then take someone's hand and run.

Seven years ago: Evangelion 3.33

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