Friday, November 23, 2012

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 4 - "Hedgehog's Dilemma"


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.

In both style and thematic depth, this is one of the finest episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Unsurprisingly (this is often the case with exceptional examples) the episode is a bit of an aberration  There's no Angel attack, unlike the last three. The tone is meditative rather than immersive: even while the last two episodes withdrew from the mile-a-minute pace of the premiere, they still piled on information, character development, and story advancement. This time we're allowed to pause, to soak in the environment, along with Shinji who has run from his duty. Although "run" may be too active a word.


When the episode begins, the boy pilot has simply disappeared from the apartment he shares with the suddenly quite concerned Misato (sometimes she's a party girl Shinji must clean up after; at others she is a kind of mother figure for him - this episode is one of the latter cases). We find him sitting morosely on the subway, with a series of innovative dissolves establishing both the time that passes as he rattles along on the underground railway, and his total isolation from his surroundings - as schoolgirls gossip, old men snore, and workers pile into the car with weary relief, Shinji remains totally removed and unmoving, playing and endlessly restarting the audio on his headphones, drowning out the universe around him.

Later he will pause in a movie theater, watching a movie which - from the sound of it - involves the Second Impact. Again we have effective examples of the discrepancy between the apocalyptic stakes of this future society and the mundane everyday incidents which occur within it. No one pays any attention to the hysterical disaster film, focusing instead of catching some sleep, making out with a date or - in Shinji's case - morosely reflecting on his misery and occasionally looking up to bewilderingly absorb his surroundings.

This is a very painterly episode, filled not just with compositions which border on abstraction and impressionism, but outright quotations from famous artworks, from Van Gogh's sunflowers to Friedrich's wanderer above the clouds. There's something stirring about the subjectivity with which the series suddenly evokes Shinji's surroundings - broad but gorgeous strokes represent the landscapes through which he ambles, until he comes across good old, dreamy but down-to-earth Kensuke, playing war out in the fields.

One of the striking things about this episode is how willing it is to go off-course. Not only does it eschew Angels for the first time, but it sends Shinji packing; he quits NERV at Misato's bitter and half-ironic request. Deciding that he isn't equipped to be the 21st century's Messiah, even as we know he must change his mind (how could the show continue otherwise?), there's an effective finality to the scenes in which he heads for the train station and waits for his ticket out of Dodge. Somehow this sequence plays as if Shinji really has given up, accepted that he's not up to the job asked of him; I'm not sure why but, even knowing what's to come, we can't help feel with a melancholy twinge that the gig is up.

Of course, when the train passes by, Shinji is still there. And Misato is there to great him (this episode clinches their odd familial bond). But our quiet moments with him, wandering the landscapes on the outskirts of Tokyo-3, emphasize the fear and tense anxiety which hold him in their grip - and will make us feel even more deeply the dramatic stakes to come in the ever-more-nerve-wracking episodes ahead.



Conversation with Bob Clark

Bob: First thing I'll say right off the bat-- it's a great episode to understand the differences between cel and background/plate animation. It's so watercolor heavy in the locations. I think so far, and throughout the series, episodes function in pairs. The first two tell a connected story with Unit 1's first Angel sortie, these two tell the story of Shinji connecting with others, his classmates. The next two are mostly about Rei. There's only a couple of episodes that really function totally independently. They're setting up the paired episode format right away, and that'll follow right up to the end, and arguably through the movies, too.
 
me: What's interesting is that this is one of the least written episodes period. At least in terms of dialogue. It's very visually-driven.
 
Bob: This is a great example of how to do minimalist animation and make it work. And it's a perfect way to express the static feeling that Shinji's in here, depression as a lack of activity in life.

 me: There's a lot of shots I noticed where the composition has a "still" feel yet, for example, Shinji is consistently moving through the field or Misato's mouth is moving. Compared to previous episodes where there's a lot of cutting but within the shot the characters are rather locked in a pose. Not sure what that says, but it's interesting.
 
Bob: Yeah. Studio Ghibli did some animation on this series (Anno's close with Miyazaki) and I wonder if they had any hand in these, which are very landscape heavy. The stuff on the train, the fade-ins with people surrounding and leaving him in the foreground, are all very reminiscent of some of their stuff.
 
me: A lot of these landscapes don't even attempt "realism" they are VERY impressionistic.
 
Bob: That place where Shinji stands above the city, I think that's a well known area where people commit suicide in Tokyo.
 
meThis is also the only episode so far where we don't see an Angel. Suddenly the role of the pilot becomes very existential. It's about Shinji facing up to his fears and doubts, full-stop, rather than combining this with battling an external foe. Which brings up another note: it really seems like he's going to quit here. I'm not sure why; I haven't analyzed it in detail - yet that final scene really plays like "it's over; Shinji's given up." [Despite later attempts, I feel this one is the most "real" departure. In the sense that he hasn't accomplished all that much yet, because there's no Angel attack going on, we don't feel there's that much at stake - so somehow it feels like if he was going to call it quits, this would be the moment to do so. Later there's a grandiosity to the gesture - him refusing to fight has real implications, and is as much of a protest as a genuine decision. Whereas here it seems like "Ok, you want to go? Fine. We don't need you." Like it's over before it began.
 
Bob: I'm interested in the way that this episode treats Toji and Kensuke, the latter of whom gets a great intro in the field, mimicing his own death in battle. Then later on, he talks about how he didn't bother fighting the Nerv personnel, even though Toji and everyone else in the class is kinda pissed at him for wussing out and not helping Shinji. "Only an idiot fights when he's sure to lose. Balls have nothing to do with it". That's a very non-traditional Japanese sentiment, but its treated matter of factly, as common sense. At the same time, Toji bonds with Shinji by asking him to punch him, to close the loop of violence.
 me: Interesting observation about Kensuke's statement, which is probably the most memorable quote from the episode. This is the episode where we really see Misato's authoritative, almost parental side come out.
 
Bob: Yeah. And the way she pushes back actually strains a bit of credibility for me. Arguably she's doing it for his sake, but his rationale for piloting the Eva just to save Rei from having to do it makes just as much sense as anything. Why is it so important to only have an Eva pilot who WANTS to be an Eva pilot? Really just for the sake of this episode, but who knows. They have Rei and Asuka waiting elsewhere. This episode also introduces the idea that only 14 year old kids can pilot the Evas.

me: I was surprised to see her encourage him to drop out here. I didn't remember her taking that tack - esp. when he himself hasn't suggested quitting. It's almost a sign of desperation, like she just doesn't know how to handle him.

Bob: That makes a certain amount of sense. Misato's uncomfortable in the role of an adult caring for somebody else. The absurd pet she has as some kind of coping mechanism for her maternal instinct doesn't do her much good, either.

me: Yeah rewatching these early episodes it really hits home how huge a part of the series she is. Like basically at this point her and Shinji are the only really fleshed-out characters.
  Toji and Kensuke get a lot of screentime in ep. 3 & 4, but essentially as comic relief.
 Bob: Yeah. Ritsuko comes next in terms of development I guess, with Gendo looming large in importance, but purposefully a blank mostly.
me: It's pretty much the Shinji-Misato show at this point. And I kind of like that...they have a very compelling relationship I think.

Bob: But at the same time I like the fact that what we get here, though touching and tender, very intimate, is also very lonely and really emotionally unhealthy. It's two people living alone together, child and adult. And in very static, undynamic lives. Especially in the next episode, we'll see Shinji have the same kind of non-interactive interaction with Rei.


 
 


me: One interesting scene in Shinji's lonely journey through the night is the movie theater. The movie is about the Second Impact. Everyone seems totally disinterested - and I use the term "everyone" advisedly - there's like 4 people in the theater.
 
Bob: Yeah. I also like how the shot of the light from the projector mimics an eye, at first. This episode also fleshes out the post-SI world of Tokyo 3 in nice ways. We see that entertainment is obsessed with the Impact's cover story, but nobody cares about it. We see signs on the street about elevators on the ground, presumably for the buildings that lower into the Geo-Front. I even have to wonder a little bit about what Kensuke says, during the camping bit. "A mother? Oh, I don't have one of those!" Is that because he's an orphan, or is he a test tube baby?



 
meI didn't notice that. Are there any mothers in the show? The only ones I can think of appear in flashbacks, and they all die tragic deaths - two by suicide. Not even just "mothers". Women over 30. Non-existent. Interesting.
 
Bob: It is very noticeable, actually, that we don't have the type of Old Woman archetype that you see all the time in Miyazaki films and ones that are modeled after them. There's no wise, crazy old crone to help guide anybody. I think a part of this is the urban focus of the show. We don't see much of it, but there's always a lot of talk of people leaving Tokyo 3, but where to? We see emergency broadcasts in the countryside during Operation Yashima, and I think we might see a couple of elderly people then. The city's really for the young, the ones trying to rebuild the world.
 me: Looking at the episode list, the next few will delve into the Rei mystery. It strikes me that perhaps in addition to coming in pairs, the episodes come in broader sets as well. And this is an end to what might be called "the establishing episodes." We've seen Shinji thrust into battle, defeating a foe and settling into an unfamiliar domestic milieu, establish himself socially with his peers, and face a solitary internal challenge. Now it's time for a new route.
 Bob: Well, the next two episodes will close the first 6 episode arc, and given that your average OVA is 6 episodes most anime series tend to be arranged in units of 6 like this. So those two will help close the establishment as well, because it's when we'll see Shinji work with another pilot for the first time, and it'll finally make good on showing Rei in an Eva, which we've wondered about since the start. That will also help explore the last of the major characters introduced to us from the first episode. After her, we've got to get some new blood, which we'll get in the form of Asuka and Kaji.

Next week: "Rei I" • Previous week: "A Transfer"

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