Monday, November 10, 2008

Revisit Evangelion Episodes 1&2

(Note: I’m planning on writing about this series at about two episodes per entry. When it works to review them separately I will, when it works to write about them as one long rambling tangent, like today I’ll do that to.)

Let’s start with the theme song, in a lot of ways the series is summed up in that perfect ninety second mix of pretension, cheesecake, symbolism, violence, plot information, and striking imagery (some of which I’m still bitter never made it into the series). As bits of crucial information and terminology flit across the screen the delivery proves to be an object lesson, just enough to have you tantalized not enough to satisfy.

The series hits the ground running with a lot of what the series does right and wrong set from the beginning. There’s some striking stuff here, as well as some clumsy elements. An intriguing mix of elegance and amateurishness.

The series starts off with Shinji alone in a deserted city street mumbling about how no one wants him. Though many have complained about the main protaginist’s spinelessness looking back it only seems realistic. Take any fourteen year old boy with abandonment issues and have callous authority figures and peers literally put the weight of the world on his shoulders after shoving him in a giant monster to go fight another giant monster, it’s no surprise that he doesn’t take it well. Plus there’s a real vulnerability to Shinji that makes him work, little character moments like his sheepish pleasure at being told he’s home, make a truly rounded and to me at least, relatable character rather then a big bag of angst. Of course only time will tell if he’ll wear out his welcome before the series is up, but at the moment I can’t help but feel that the antipathy towards Shinji is due more towards Anime fan’s own insecurities then any flaws in the characterization.

The vision of Rei Shinji has in this opening scene, points out another frustrating technique of the show, the cool thing with many interpretations that is never mentioned let alone explained again. After the movie this vision could mean many things, is it a suggestion that the entire series is just Shinji’s remembrance of events during third impact? A projection by Rei in a time of distress? Or is it what’s left of Yui checking on her long missing son? Anyway you look at it it’s intriguing, and of course, it’s never gone into again. While thanks to a booming toy, fan fiction and art industry Rei gets a lot of crap these days, as symbolizing everything that’s wrong in anime fandom. A group of awkward males stuck in the cobra’s sway of a young, big boobed, teenage girl whose docile and gets beat up a lot. That said she’s one of the characters I’m most interested in getting a second look at. There’s a lot of stuff just below the surface in her character, the question of just what her nature is, and how much she knows about it are some of the most intriguing mysteries of the series.

Anyway back to the first sequence, the direction is top notch, shooting this and much of the first episode at ground level, when the battle between the UN Forces and the Angel cross paths with Shinji it’s truly a terrifying experience, shot entirely from his POV it only cuts away to wider shot to view the extent of the destruction. It gives the series an instant sense of scale, as the angel lays waste to everything in it’s path it’s clear that the stakes are high. Later shots, Shinji riding the escalator unaware of the giant hand he’s passing, the construction crews swarming over the giant broken Eva parts, Misato standing next to the bullet’s being loaded, Her and Shinji framed against the horizons of Tokyo 3 and The Geo Front, continue this neat trick of perception. Everything is shot just off center from where a normal series would focus.

As the episode continues, we are introduced to much of the supporting cast and the show does a pretty good job, of establishing who they are in the short time it has. I’ll have much more to say about them as this series goes on, but since I’ve already written way too much, I’ll cut it short for now. Suffice to say in my opinion a lot of what made Eva great was the way it took apart anime archetypes exposing the true character beneath the clichés, but to do that it had to establish the archetypes first, but from first glance on Misato, Ritsuko, Rei, and Gendo all fit their roles perfectly.

The series always get’s a lot of shit for going off the rails with it’s stream of conscience rants. But if anything what impressed me this time out was how arch the style was from the beginning. The reunion scene between Shinji and Gendo, where he receives his orders to pilot the Eva is pretty faux Bergman, from the blocking, to the angles, to the bizarrely on the nose dialogue, the scene has almost a dreamlike quality to it. It plays like Shinji’s worst nightmare of the encounter, with his beyond distant father treating at him like a spare part and speaking in clipped one word commands as though Shinji’s a naughty puppy, and even the kindly Misato turning on him.

Unfortunately, the scene introduces another frustrating stock in trade trick of Eva, the use of quickly shouted made up jargon as a substitute for drama. Even at this low level I cringed at what I know will soon become whole scenes involving nothing but high pitched voices frantically citing made up statistics.

The film also brought out two more frequently used tropes, that of a beat up Rei and utterly shameless melodrama. On the latter let us not be too hard. It is after all a show made for adolescents, and as a result a fair bit of melodrama is to be expected. And whose kidding who? A bit of soap opera is always enjoyable. The moment really does give some nice character development to Gendo as well. A man who makes Dr. Venture look like parent of the year. “Sure it’s your decision whether or not you want to climb inside the giant creature to fight an unknowable unkillable menace, just know if you don’t I’ll shove this dying girl in your place.” That’s cold.

The awakening of the Eva is done with a great deal of style, also done “from the ground” it doesn’t quite allow you to see what’s happened until it’s all over, and Gendo has had his badass “I don’t blink for shrapnel” moment. The reveal of Shinji and the Eva in the same position, and life coming slowly to the depowered Evangelion’s eye are a prime bit of buildup.

Shinji finally consents to piloting the Eva, he’s inserted into the machine, shot to the surface, and stumbles out to do battle with a creature that has just destroyed the countries entire defense system, all with a body that operates about as well as a drunk on a bender. Things do not go well.

But before we get any further it stops, the second episode begins with a bitch of a cliffhanger, just as things get to their worst, the battle is over. It’s a good choice for what is a pretty slow and expositional episode, no matter how banal the on goings appear the knowledge that something terrible must have happened hangs over the the entire show.

The episode hums along, establishing character, soon to be reaccuring motifs (Another Unfamiliar Ceiling) and engages half heartedly in some “Comic Relief”. Evangelion has never been accused of being a particularly funny show and frankly the less time that is spent making dick jokes the better. The show also has some redundancies to get rid of, the first two episodes are packed with crew and officials who are never seen again. It also introduces “The Council Of Snide Guys” Just who these people are, the human avatars of SEELE, the envoys between The UN and Nerv, is never explained. It doesn’t really matter as they just come off as odd and then disappear halfway through the show. Their MO is always the same, they show up with some weird character design, say snide things to Gendo for awhile and then leave with a cryptic warning. My heart will not grieve when I see the last of them.

By the end of the episode, when we finally get back to what happened against the Angel we’re primed for it. And the show doesn’t disappoint.

Let’s talk about the Eva’s for a moment and what a fantastic and underrated design they truly are. Eschewing the usual high-tech and sterilely clean look that most Mechs use, the Eva’s from the beginning are clearly of a different breed. Huge, ungainly, clumsy, and brutal, these aren’t high tech war machines, but giant creatures, barely contained fueled by bloodlust, savagery, and instinct, without the faintest hint of reason. The way they are, both completely primitive, and utterly otherworldly, the way their binding’s crack or limbs casually extend when they get into the heat of battle.

The way the Eva’s move and fight is positively primal. It’s first tottering steps, piloted by Shinji, a newborn monster. And when “she” awakens, it’s like nothing that had ever been seen before, a newborn God. The Eva doesn’t engage in duels, or showdowns, it sees its prey and bludgeons it to death before fashioning it’s victim’s rib into a crude knife to finish the job. Unlike most mech’s whose ancestor is the duelist, the Eva’s predecessor is the Neanderthal and Mr. Hyde, and in the stunning climax Anno proves it. The Eva may occasionally use a weapon, but when it’s base nature is tapped, it wants no intermediate between it and the kill.

This style strikes a true and primal chord in the viewer and there are at least half a dozen times in the series when the Eva’s cause the hardest reaction to get in an audience, that of genuine awe. At the end the faceplate comes down, and self generating eye stares back at us. If we had any doubts at this point that Evangelion is just a typical Mech series, they should be erased at this point. It’s something different and the fact of the matter is that no matter how stunning the climax of the episode, we haven’t even gotten a hint of what’s to come.

Episode 1: B+
Episode 2: B+


Wolf said...

You know, I had just about completely written off this series after seeing the movies and deciding that I'd had my face spit in quite enough.

Now you've gotten me all notstalgic for the show and wanting to watch it again. Good show, sir.

Bryce Wilson said...

Thank you.