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.
We begin exactly where we left off last time: with 14-year-old Shinji, untested in combat, manning a giant robot in the streets of Tokyo-3, ready to battle a chilling Angel from outer space. How will he defeat it, as we know he must for the show to continue? His initial forays are unpromising: one small step results not in a giant leap forward for mankind but an embarrassing collapse as the Eva trips over itself, faceplanting like a gigantic klutzy teenager. Then the Angel makes quick work of the Eva while the NERV controllers look on in horror from their underground bunker. After thrusting a sharp poker through the palm of its hand into the Eva's skull like a medieval log-ram battering a castle door, the Angel tosses the Eva aside, letting the giant purple machine slump against a skyscraper, where some kind of cyborg-blood spurts from either end of its head. The commanders shout, Shinji screams and then...nothing. Silence. White. An empty hospital room.
It's a brilliant stroke, and indicative of why Hideaki Anno's narrative sense will consistently transcend the conventions of action-setpiece storytelling. It's also very suggestive of Neon Genesis Evangelion's many disjunctures: the way it thrusts us right into the action unexpectedly (every Angel appearance will seem alarming and unexpected), teasingly withholds vital turning points to string the viewer along (and also perversely frustrate the dramatic flow of the material, at least temporarily), and cryptically suggests crucial information in a sidelong fashion, allowing us to catch up with characters who seem to know more than we do (the exception generally being Shinji himself, whose confused yet central presence serves as the anchor for a viewer). In this case, like us, Shinji doesn't know what happened - he wakes up in a clean, empty room in a massive clinic, unable to recall how he got there or how the Angel was defeated.
But defeated it was, as we soon find out - subverting any sense of climax, Anno shows the humdrum clean-up crews disposing of post-Angelic debris. Right away we are confronted with the mundane flip-side of the all the high-stakes drama: for all its apocalyptic action and sci-fi fascination, Evangelion is equally in love with the casual flow of the everyday. Misato and her more (seemingly) straightforward coworker Ritsuko bicker about bureaucracy and air-conditioning while Shinji sits alone in the vast waiting room and stares in wonder at his arm, which only the night before seemed to be severed (the Angel savagely separated the Eva's arm from its body which is psychologically connected to the pilot's nervous system).
The episode continues at this more low-key, slower-paced tempo and after the intense, mile-a-minute pace of the premiere, it feels like we're finally getting our bearings. This is not an uncommon television tactic, especially with shows which alternate between the cinematic sense of ongoing, escalating stakes and the tune-in-weekly charms of a conventional TV series. It reminds me of Twin Peaks, a show similar to Evangelion in many ways; the Peaks pilot reeled us into a strange new world, using the dramatic sensibility of a mystery movie, while the second episode took a casual, no-rush air as it relaxed into an environment that had already been established, and could now be explored.
"The Beast," despite its ominous title, is full of small-scale and subtle character touches fleshing out the people we met so abruptly on the previous episode, in the midst of action. Particularly developed is Shinji's nervous and uncertain relationship with Misato: she both commands adult authority at work and displays adolescent immaturity at home, chugging beers, burping, and shoving her cleavage in Shinji's face (she's invited him to be her roommate out of pity and also, perhaps, her own loneliness). The bachelorette pad scenes are played for broad comedy, complete with a towel-draped pet penguin and penis jokes anticipating Austin Powers (naked Shinji's crotch is blocked by a beer, which Misato picks off the table to reveal...another, smaller jar, still blocking Shinji's privates; this one's labelled "toothpicks").
Only after this goofy interlude does the mood grow somber again. Already we've seen Misato take Shinji to the mountain pass overlooking lonely Tokyo-3, where they watch in awe as skyscrapers shoot up from the earth, clicking into place against a gleaming sunset, saved along with its citizens from an existential threat by this young boy surveying the scene in awe. Another scene, preceding Misato's alcoholic looniness, takes us to the grocery store with this odd couple (at times Misato seems like a big sister or even mom figure for Shinji, at others a sexually provocative hot chick, and the series will make the most of this tension). Shinji overhears customers fretting about the dangerous battle that threatened them the previous night and it seems strange to think of him both as the operator of a complex, powerful military weapon charged with saving the world and a quiet boy in a normal situation (well, relatively normal; most 14-year-old don't have 28-year-old females, let alone penguins, for roommates).
Finally, in the closing minutes, the preceding battle is finally revealed, in a flashback Shinji experiences while lying in bed, listening to his Walkman. It appears the Eva took matters into its own hands, reattaching its arm, viciously attacking the Angel until it was provoked into self-destruction, and then striding unharmed away from the detonation site. As the Eva rests inert, waiting for its helpless human handlers to arrive at the scene, Shinji catches a glimpse of its jagged helmet and sees the dead black mechanical eyes of the "beast" suddenly open with a decidedly animalistic vitality. The machine appears alive, and what's more its living eye seems not only to regard Shinji's eye but to reflect it. For a moment, they seem one in the same. There's two sides to everything, and yet everything is one. The central paradox of Evangelion is underway...
Conversation with Bob Clark
me: One thing that interests me about this episode compared to the last is how Anno slows down the pace even to the point of starting where we left off and then - bam! - skipping over the climax of the battle to focus on the aftermath.
Bob: It's a perfect illustration of post-traumatic disassociation. It even coincides with Shinji waking up, in bed, in a hospital. It's one of the first suggestions of "is this really happening?". So much of this second episode is almost like out of Godard. The scenes of Tokyo 3 rebuilding after battle, with emphasis on cranes and the big weapons being carried around, remind me specifically of 2 or 3 Things I Know About her, and the Alphaville-futurism that was representing. The emphasis on the futuristic city, with apartment buildings rising out of the ground, and the look at Misato's home life helps with this, too.
me: Yes - it definitely combines severity with an almost ludicrous lightheartedness that is very Godardian (although not nearly enough people think about it as such)
Bob: There's definitely a lighthearted tone to this episode. What I like is how it furthers characterizations and feelings we get throughout the episode, and helps make them feel a little less threatening. Most of the comedy in Misato's apartment" is really there to show how insanely broken and fragile a person Shinji is, but it comes off as jokey because of how extroverted Misato is.
me: Yup, part and parcel of its TV-thing. TV is probably by its nature more of a hang-out medium than movies, though there are definitely hang-out movies too. In introducing Misato's apartment, we're finally getting a domestic area (so much of TV is domestic, isn't it?) where we can unwind, explore character, reflect, have some comic relief, and go off on tangents. It's the first time the intensity of the opening scenario really loosens.
Bob: If anything, the everyday stuff is more threatening and dramatic than the sci-fi stuff. The sci-fi is what viewers tune in for, but the drama is what's aimed to try and drive the otaku/nerd audience out of their shell.
me: This is an interesting perspective. Because I would've thought many teenagers tuned in precisely for this element, the relatability. But you kind of pose it as a challenge, rather than an affirmation.
Bob: Yeah, teenagers tune in for the relatability, but they want to see the best in themselves, not the awkward stuff.
me: Another interesting question, especially raised by the eye-exchange at the end: how much is just the Eva acting up on its own, and how much is Shinji's Id or whatever taking over, both him and the machine? During the battle, I don't think we get any shots of him. The immediate impression is that he's not controlling the robot, that it has a life of its own, but in fact something else, something more compelling, is probably going on. But he doesn't know what to make of it yet, how to digest it, so of course neither do we.
Bob: It's very purposeful that we never see Shinji during the attack. And the Eva is certainly coming to life on its own, and not the only time that'll happen.
me: But do you think any part of it is an extension of himself? Not the obvious moments when it is, when he's in explicit operating control, but particularly those moments where "apparently" it has a life of its own?
Bob: It certainly can represent a kind of symbol of disassociating from yourself and letting instinct take over. That's I think what the viewer can assume from the first viewing, and impart a kind of heroic nature of this accidental victory. me: Yes, "accidental victory". One of the ambiguities of this episode is how much responsibility Shinji actually bears for what happened. And whether or not it's a good thing for him to be the active instigator or passive observer. Bob: It's also a nice subversion of the "act on instinct" element that drives so much action/heroic storytelling. It shows how you can act on pure animalistic instinct, and be a passive observer to your own success, and how horrifying that can be. I'm reminded a little of some of the auto-pilot heroism that the Jedi have in the Prequels. Some of it can be kind of purposefully threatening, ambiguous. The way Anakin runs in and smacks poisonous bugs crawling on Padme with his lightsaber, nearly killing her in the process, or the way he and Obi-Wan just jump out into this bottomless pit city to chase after someone, risking life and limb at the drop of a hat for a vague hunch.
me: I really like how empty this episode is. Like I think particularly of that escalator scene or Shinji alone in the waiting room or that weird office in the sky, with all the glass panels looking down at the foliage beneath (which reminds me a lot of a Zhangke Jia film, The World). Or even when they're in that supermarket listening to the other customers, and we don't actually see them. Some of this is just a kind of classically Japanese economy, but it's also very indicative of the loneliness, the way Shinji is isolated, maybe the way Misato too - beneath her bravado - is as well.
Bob: Yes. That's a great scene, especially because it shows a whole range of things in something like 2 or 3 frames. It's Japanese economy, but it's also "we literally can't afford any more animation"
me: By the way, what's with the dual episode names? And why are the second ones always listed on the DVD exclusively? Is that misrepresentative of what the episodes "actually" should be called? I kind of like the first half's tag, "Another Ceiling".
Bob: I think it's that they had two names for every episode, because they knew they'd be selling this overseas to America. Oftentimes the names are the same ("Angel Attack") and sometimes the English title is alluding to something else ("The Beast" referencing Eva Unit 1). I always think of this as "Unfamiliar Ceiling" because of how great the cut between the line and the title is.
me: Right, "Unfamiliar Ceiling." And then how he actually articulates it in Misato's room. It just gets at something very evocative, this dislocated sense of not knowing where you'll be next, feeling unrooted. At its heart, that's one of the most important things this show's about - not just an idea but a mood.
Bob: One thing I want to point out is how well the episode shows what happens during an Eva launch and a battle, but tells very little. We're shown the Eva is attached via an electrical umbilical cord. We're shown AT fields and how they work. Even seeing the Eva go berserk is functional like that, we see Gendo and Fuyutski going "all according to plan" essentially. In the next episode we'll get Ritsuko explain the rules of Eva combat explicitly, but here we see them in action really well.
me: That's something I've realized I like about these early episodes maybe more than the later ones (although generally I think the last third of the series is my favorite): they show a lot, whereas eventually Evangelion gets heavily into telling. Maybe even early on.
Bob: Something else I want to point out however is the physicality of the effects in the show, and I mean that in a literal sense. The lens flares we see during the battle, or the heat rippling effect from fire later on, I expect those are very practical effects we're seeing there. Anno was the special effects head on Gainax's first film ("Royal Space Force") and it's easy to take for granted just how much traditional light-in-camera stuff is done on 80's and 90's animation like this. It's all celluloid shot. So I think a lot of the effects for those things are actually photographed. It's before digital, so they couldn't synthesize it like they do now.
me: Ok, final thoughts: Misato's role with Shinji in this episode: if it has a singular storyline, it's how she kind of takes him under her wing. Particularly how it relates to the overall unfolding of his character. What's her role vs. Rei's vs. Asuka's? How does she figure into the overall growth of his character, and why does she come in now, at this point? It seems like she's the motherly figure (esp in an Oedipal sense, where she both cares for him and sexually provokes him), a necessary step before the more mysterious Rei and then the all-too-real Asuka. Like they're all steps in his understanding of femininity. And somehow by extension himself.
Bob: They're also each steps up in terms of engagement. Misato's very warm and bubbly, Rei is detached and benign, and Asuka wants to bite his head off. You can tell that Asuka is the one he'll end up with, of course, because she wants to bite his head off. She's the tsundere, and they tend to be the most engaging characters.