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...
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.