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.
Neon Genesis Evangelion begins quietly enough. I was going to say "slowly" but it's only slow in comparison to the rest of the episode; cuts come quick, maybe one every couple seconds, and we've barely oriented ourselves to our surroundings (a brief title tells us we're in 2015) before the action begins. Yet in that initial moment, the city streets are empty except for Shinji Ikari, 14-year-old boy waiting alone with only a picture of some busty brunette babe to keep him company; he stares at it quizzically. Nearby, dozens of UN tanks perch along a winding coastal highway, their guns trained on the sea, but there are no shells exploding or frantic commands circulating via radio. There is a mood of grim, silent anticipation. One image, intriguing but difficult to make out, seems to show a quasi-animal, quasi-machine creature humming through shallow waters, toward the shore. The only sound we hear is the cawing of a bird; onscreen we see a seagull perched on the long gun of one tank, and this neat, spare composition has an air of Ozu about it (specifically the opening of Floating Weeds). And then it begins.
An explosion of water is captured not fluidly, but in a jagged succession of still images as if a boggled mind is only barely registering what it sees. The seagull flies away, and the guns open fire. A monster emerges from the sea, humanoid in its shape, gigantic in its size, its densely-packed upper torso and mosquito-like, hollow-eyed "face" reminding us of those creepy long-nosed island giants from an old Popeye short. This is a fantastic, fascinatingly strange beast, the first of our deadly angels, and - shocking as this may seem - it's actually the most conventional of the Angels we'll encounter. As it stomps from the ocean onto land, crushing tanks, absorbing heavy artillery fire, and effortlessly swatting away heavily armored choppers, its antecedents are obvious: from Ozu to Godzilla in the blink of an eye. This sets Evangelion's tone perfectly.
That young boy is still waiting in the city streets when the evacuation notices blare over a loudspeaker and the hot lady from his photo - Misato, the seemingly carefree yet authoritative NERV representative who will escort him to that headquarters. NERV is run by Shinji's estranged father, whose brief appearances in the episode make a strong impression, especially in a close-up of his cold, closed-mouth grin during a moment of extreme peril for his timid son. Misato has arrived as a deus ex machina (and "god in the machine" will be a term appropriate for Evangelion in more ways than one) to whisk the frightened teenager off to safety, or rather to even greater danger. But not before he witness an apparition, a young girl his age standing solemnly alone in the middle of an empty street only for a moment, before the general alarm is sounded. He will see her again at the end of the episode, heavily bandaged as she has been for some time; obviously this vision was not physical but metaphysical. To the monster movie mayhem and disciplined formal restraint Evangelion has already displayed, we can now add a touch of mysticism. Eventually it will be quite a bit more than a touch.
From there on, the kickoff episode of Evangelion barely pauses and yet somehow it never seems rushed; we are introduced in no-frills yet dramatic fashion to each of the elements that will play out over twenty-six episodes: the first appearance of the underground city, Tokyo-3, awes Shinji; the intimidating reveal of the Evangelion robot he's expected to pilot is certainly memorable (the lights in a dark room power up to reveal a massive metal purple face a few feet from Shinji's own), and the grand entrance of Rei Ayanami, blue-haired, fragile yet powerful in her swaddled, white-suited form, is an iconic initiation to one of Evangelion's most mysterious and intriguing characters. And yet, even as these accelerated story points leave a strong impression (not to mention the characters introduced to us with deft touches, so that their personalities become clear at a glance without seeming oversimplified - and as we'll discover, of course, there's more than meets the eye), we are not lingering over any of them.
The phrase that pops to mind watching the first episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion is "in medias res" - as with so many great stories, we are thrust right into a compelling, exciting universe that seems as if it always existed. Evangelion combines this tradition with another, that of the character who, like us, is a "stranger here," encountering all these people and phenomena for the first time himself. His hesitation and horror, when asked to pilot a gigantic robot and battle some sort of alien creature which is decimating the hardened warriors aboveground is made all the more plausible by our own disorientation in this rapid-fire narrative. If we are just barely absorbing what's going on, watching this safely on a TV screen, how must he feel asked to participate in this seemingly apocalyptic event? The appearance of Rei, the girl he saw in the street earlier in an apparent mystical daydream, convinces him he must pilot the Eva and the episode ends with him confronting the Angel on the street above.
We've come very far in twenty-two minutes, from a lonely boy on the street to that same child (ostentatiously dubbed the "First Child") planted in a huge machine without any physical training or even psychological preparation, asked to save the world.
Conversation with Bob Clark:
Bob: Depends where we want to start here. Talking about the intro sequence? That's a stalwart part of any anime series. What's nice here is it makes some of the references throughout the rest of the show clear, right up front, especially to non-anime material (though there's a lot of references to anime and Japanese fare besides). Say, the way that all the Eva girls are sillohuetted in nude. They're Bond title sequence girls.
me: You have a very strong grounding in anime ... my perspective will be much more man-on-the-street. So I'm interested, how do you feel the intro sets the tone for anime fans particularly, keying them in (or perhaps misleading them) as to what to expect?
Bob: I'm aware of some of the shows being referenced, though I haven't watched most of them. One of the big ones is "Ideon", which has a lot of cornerstones ... and I think it's available on YouTube. Also a big influence is "Space Battleship Yamato", particularly in the NERV sequences, and the whole resurgent Japanese military vibe of it. It sets up a lot of the anime references as obviously as the homages in "Pulp Fiction" or "Star Wars"-- that's one of the first things to understand about Eva. It's just as much a pastiche as those things. I think that Eva was called in Japan "the remix anime" when it first came out. People were very aware of the references, the associations. There was somewhat the same kind of cynicism that Lucas and Tarantino first faced, being seen as derivative. I think.
me: Was it seen as recontextualizing familiar cliches like, say, Twin Peaks (a show I think will come up a lot in these conversations, for quite a few reasons)? Or kind of consolidating them into one place?
me: I suppose this is an interesting analog to the WWII experience where the dedication to the expansionist cause had a fervent, emotionalist tinge which never really stopped to ask itself if its conception was correct.
Bob: Well, a general did say after Pearl Harbor, "all we've done is awaken a sleeping giant".
me: One thing that's so chilling about Cmmdr. Ikari is how sure he seems about everything. It makes him seem cold and indifferent, but at the same time it might just be extrahuman confidence.
Bob: Gendo is usually framed with his face obscured, or only in broken pieces.
me: I loved that shot with the debris flying in the foreground, as he kind of demonically smiles while Shinji almost dies but the Eva saves him.
Next week: "The Beast"