Friday, November 2, 2012

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 1 - "Angel Attack"


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 (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 (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), 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:


 me: OK, Bob. You go first.
 
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?
 Bob: Depends. I think when it was first released it was in a timeslot geared to younger audiences, which raised problems with later sexual stuff. When it was moved to something later, I think the audience approached it on a more mature level.

 me: One thing that struck me watching the intro (especially with the subtitled lyrics) was how emphatically the show immediately established itself in a heart-on-its-sleeve adolescent mood. It seems to me that Americans are a bit more self-conscious and uneasy and apologetic about exploiting teen culture. It seems like Japanese culture is less ironic in this regard. Maybe Asian culture in general - I always think about the contrast between The Departed's big death scene, which is played ... almost like black comedy vs. Infernal Affairs where the same incident is overlayed with sentimental music which, to my ears anyway, sounds quite earnest.
 Bob: Yes. And it does have an irony about itself, and the absurdity of its conventions. It just uses that to heighten the lengths to which it's taking things seriously. The way that halfway in the episode Misato says "I hate wearing skirts in this place" after they get a blast of air on one of those endless Geo-Front conveyor belts, or how she's obsessing over her car payments during a possible end-of-the-world crisis. They have a self-aware humor about how over-the-top all these shows are, but that only puts a more down to earth human face on it.

 me: I love how the character intros are economical yet evocative. Not just the initial moments, but the characterizations throughout. We really feel like we know Misato, and we've just met her. Of course other layers will be revealed, but we get the essence of her quickly, without it seeing too much like an empty stereotype.

 Bob: Anno does a lot with economy in this episode. He pulls the same "animate the blur" technique Chuck Jones used all the time to save on frames, too.

 me"Animate the blur" - yeah, one thing that impresses me about this episode is how it seems to be composed of still images in succession rather than fluid motion. How much of this was budgetary vs. stylistic?
  
 Bob: Probably both. A lot of what the series became was motivated by the budget dwindling, especially after some investors dropped out after the sexual stuff. 
But here, it's probably because they were squeezing every ounce of animation and special effects into the battle sequences. They put a lot of frames into even clouds of dust blooming. I think at this point they were as solid as they'd ever be. But Gainax was notorious for cutting corners, even then. ... [On another note,] I'm also impressed by how Anno focuses on the repeated "UN" on the tanks, then soon cuts to the Shinji "ID" card. We get this little tidbits of Freud and Jung terms almost subliminally in the show's texture. The design of the Angel itself is also something that's got a nice modern, yet classical feeling to it. I first looked at it as a Mummenchanz mime, but it also has a strange Bunraku puppet feeling to it. Also worth noting-- here, and in other parts, the human forces make all the first attacks. The Angel just defends itself for a long while.

 me: Wow, that's a really interesting point. One just naturally assumes the Angels are the "enemy." In fact this goes remarkably unquestioned.
 Bob: With good reason, as the show gradually reveals. But it's still a telling detail. Much like in the "Star Wars" movie, Palpatine going out of his way to tell Maul-- "Let them make the first move". 
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.
 Bob: Yeah, we never see him break out of that persona, either. Even Bond villains or Palpatine know how to cut loose a little. Ikari's so joyless in his pursuit. There's a real sense of Oedipal guilt in what he's doing, this grand Abraham sacrifice he's absolutely willing to carry out.
 me: Great analogy. One thing that's fascinating about this series is to consider how we COULD be seeing it from Gendo's perspective but instead we see it from Shinji's. As if Genesis narrated the Isaac near-sacrifice in the frightened boy's voice.
 Bob: Yeah. But then, it's also appropriating a whole mess load of Christian imagery, so seeing it from Shinji's perspective makes sense.
 me:Yes, that brings up the Christ thing too ("why have you forsaken me," etc). I heard Anno picked the Gnostic strand as a kind of "well, the Japanese don't know this so well so it'll be fun" thing (I think you've mentioned this before too) yet in some ways it seems pretty deeply ingrained.
 Bob: Yeah. I don't think that Christian stuff is terribly complicated to figure out, but who knows. He could've just watched "Last Temptation of Christ" and gotten a lot of it (especially seeing how EoE and the show's ending mirrors that attempt to "run away from reality"). One thing Shinji and Christ definitely have in common-- they prefer redheads.
 
 me: Here's a personal question - how sympathetic did you find Shinji on first viewing? Understandably anxious or irritatingly whiny? I know you watched it out of sequence, so maybe your experience was colored by that. It's funny how, it seems anyway, he gets judged for being a crybaby here. Yet really, how many people, let alone 14-year-olds, would want to pilot a giant robot they haven't been trained in with the responsibility of saving the world?

 Bob: Considering I grew up on Luke and Anakin, not too whiny. And they do a good job of setting up the scale and stakes of his battles, especially the social ones. Shinji's practically Richard Roundtree compared to Luke.

 me: I also like how it highlights the fact that he's a kid. That's such an important part of the series - the youth of these characters in contrast to the responsibility and power they hold. And that really strikes at the heart of the show, and one reason it's intrigued me enough to devote a series to it. It expertly fuses everyday (yet no less, maybe more, vivid for that) experiences with a larger-than-life mythic context.

Next week: "The Beast"


4 comments :

Jeremy said...

Oh wow, a NGE series! This is right up my alley.

I saw NGE for the first time in 2008, and found myself enthralled by it. Move past the avalanche of shallow Christian symbology, get past the genre trappings, brush aside some of the filler episodes, and you'll find the core of this series is a character study. A character study of some REALLY mentally fucked-up people, to be frank. If a great story comes from interesting characters(and not the other way around), then NGE deserves all the accolades it has received; I haven't seen the show/End of Evangelion since 2008, but so many episodes, scenes, and moments ring with perfect clarity in my head. And that's mainly driven by my complete fascination into the world of Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Joel Bocko said...

Agreed, Jeremy. I'm not an anime guy at all (not anti-anime, I've just seen very little of it) but what hooked me to this show was the characters. The great story/great character paradigm is probably even more true on TV series where the stories and their hooks are even more character-driven.

That said, I'm also fascinated by a lot of the themes explored by the series and enjoy the visuals as well. It's a great all-around series. Hope you'll stick around for the rest of the episodes, we're just getting going here. Maybe you can rewatch some on Netflix and comment along as we go.

Out of curiosity (and we may be getting ahead of ourselves because they'll be covered eventually) what did you think of the rebuild movies, if you saw them (I'm guessing maybe you didn't since your NGE binge was in '08 and if anything only one had come out at that point, and probably not outside of Japan yet).

Complete sidenote but - when you click on the frontpage, is the slider all messed up? I found out it wasn't working on other computers and have been tweaking the template in html to try and fix it. Any feedback is appreciated - for some reason it all looks fine on my monitor, but apparently that's not a very good barometer...

Jeremy said...

Sidebar is all fine on my end!

As for Rebuild, I actually have seen the first two films! The first one was more or less a remake of the first six episodes, which was nice and all, but I wasn't seeing the necessity of this series.

The second one, however, makes a bunch of HUGE changes from the series. New characters, new story arcs, new characterizations for old characters, re-arranged plot elements, etc. It doesn't "replace" the original NGE show in my head, but it's been a fascinating watch, like some alternate universe of the same events. You kinda "know" what's gonna happen next, but at the same time it's a whole new experience.

As for re-watching the original TV show, ya know, I think I just might! I've always wanted to see the show again, and this just might be the perfect excuse to do it!

Looking forward to more, Joel!

Joel Bocko said...

Sidebar should be fine, it's the slider atop the homepage (just beneath the banner) I'm worried about...

Great to hear you may be re-watching the series. It could be a fun voyage, as you add your thoughts to our own (both Bob and I watched each episode right before chatting about it on gmail).

As for the rebuilds, I've seen both as well and while I was blown away by the visuals I was somewhat disappointed by the content of 2.22. The directions it went in didn't really work for me. But I'll be re-watching both for the series, so it will be interesting to note my reaction second time around. If I'm not mistaken 3.33 is already coming out in Japan. Maybe there will be a way to see it before I wrap up the series, which by my estimates will be in June (at the rate of one a week).

Incidentally, on a side note, but while I've got your attention: do you or anyone you know like to participate in film projects? Or more to the point, whether or not you have before, WOULD you like to? The project doesn't entail geographical proximity (I'm in L.A.) or physical participation but only photo submissions from pre-existing snapshots.

If you think you might know people who would like to participate, spread the word & share this on Facebook, LinkedIn, whatever! The new post that just went up today describes this as well as how to get in touch with me.

Thanks!