Friday, November 30, 2012

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 5 - "Rei I"


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.

For four episodes, Rei Ayanami has been a mystery. This quiet, aloof, almost inhuman little blue-haired girl has hovered in the background, glimpsed alone in the corner of the classroom, concealed beneath layers of bandages as she shivers on a wheeled stretcher, flashing into view as an momentary vision before she's even been met in the flesh. In all these instances, we see her through Shinji's eyes and she provides an interesting contrast to Misato (as she eventually will, even more strongly, to the fiery third pilot, Asuka) - femininity as ethereal enigma vs. alluring energy. Shinji doesn't know who she is, so neither do we. That finally begins to change five episodes in.

"Rei I" begins weeks before the series premiere, in the first of what will prove to be many flashbacks - widening our view, giving us a bit of distance from Shinji's perspective, and yet corresponding to his gradually deepening comprehension of the strange world around him. Here we see the accident which sent Rei into the nearly immobile state we found her in - during a routine test in Eva 00, the giant robot goes "berserk" and starts bashing the wall and gripping its own helmeted head in a kind of feverish agony. As with the out-of-control Eva 01 in Shinji's first battle, we experience the mecha-psychotic episode externally; as the Eva roars and flails about, we never get a view in the cockpit, so we don't really know if Rei herself is psychologically experiencing this episode herself or if she's merely a helpless bystander, trapped inside a monster she can't control.

At any rate, her pod is ejected and bashed around the room. For the first time we see Cmmdr. Gendo Ikari, who doesn't flinch at sending his own son into battle, show concern for another human being - he races down to the battered pod, rips the red-hot hatch door open with his bare hands, and desperately calls to the woozy Rei within. Shinji will soon find out about this event himself, but by witnessing it firsthand we're allowed a degree of intensity that must reflect his own fascination with this unexpected, concerned side of his father. Noticing Gendo's burnt hands, Shinji asks Ritsuko what happened, and with this his earlier curiosity about his silent peer turns into outright fascination.

Is there lust involved? Love? A mixture of adolescent hormones and shy romanticism? The series certainly teases us with this possibility, as Misato (herself an object of ambiguous attraction) makes fun of the boy for blushing at Rei's mention, and especially as Shinji drops by Rei's lonely, messy room to deliver an ID card. There he finds the broken, half-melted glasses worn by his father when he rescued Rei; placing them over his own eyes, Shinji turns to see a naked Rei emerging from the shower, (barely) concealed by a small towel. Somehow he ends up lying on top of her naked on the floor in one of the most bizarre, perversely (pervertedly?) awkward meet-ups of all time.

And yet, something about their tension/connection transcends sexuality. Anno obviously has fun playing with Shinji's nearly hysterical discomfort with girls but he respects the boy's admission that it is Rei's loneliness more than her breasts which fascinates him. The episode ends with a cliffhanger, echoing the previous two-part storylines that unfolded during the first four episodes. Yet before Shinji is sent out into the Tokyo-3 streets to face the most abstractly un-anthropomorphic Angel (reflecting, in a way, the alien element Rei introduces to Shinji's daily life) he glimpses Rei watching him from the deck overlooking his launch pad. It's one of the first times I can recall her watching him and it offers an interesting reversal following their indifferent-to-hostile interaction over the episode (she's even slapped him for slurring his own father).

This moment also neatly reflects a scene in which Shinji rather jealously (of his father? of her?) observes an unheard conversation between Rei and Gendo, in which Rei displays an almost schoolgirlish vivacity in his presence. Meanwhile Gendo's engaged toothy grin offers an alternate view of the scowling patriarch, a side of his personality which the intimidated son has never witnessed except by proxy. Emotionally and physically locked out from their connection, Shinji represents a humanoid HAL, albeit one not blessed with lip-reading ability. And yet ultimately, as we approach Shinji's latest trial by fire, it is Rei watching him, and we have our first hint of a reciprocated symbiosis. To what extent is Shinji his father's son, at least in Rei's eyes? To what extent can her own age and exposure, so similar to Shinji's, bridge the gap between him and his father? We will find out soon...


Conversation with Bob Clark

 me: "Rei I" introduces a new dimension to the show - giving Shinji his first opportunity to find someone he can really relate to, although in this particular episode the encounters are still almost painfully alien and awkward.

 Bob: Yes. Though I'd hesitate to call it painful and alien, at least not really from trying to relate with her. I think, by the way, that this was the first episode I watched when it was on adult swim, and that scene in particular between Gendo and Rei really stood out to me. You assume that it's more about her, because she's one of the sexy-cute icons of the show, but after a while you come to understand that this is about the father, more than the girl. The show itself plays with this assumption with Toji and Kensuke's teasing Shinji about looking at Rei (great symbolic set-piece there, the boys down below staring up at the girls on the rooftop pool) and Misato doing the same. Especially for how easily Shinji manages to deflect the implications they toss at him-- he really isn't interested in Rei as a love object (at least not beyond the most superficial level). It's almost as though he senses unconsciously the bond between them, which is strengthened by the match-cut editing between them.
 me: It's also interesting how, just as we're not sure of Shinji's connection to Rei, we're not sure of his father's either. Especially with Rei's posture and expression as she talks to Gendo - it's the first time we see her act like a teenage girl instead of a miniature adult. And given how we're already inclined to view Gendo with some hostility, there's a sinister overtone to his easy way with Rei.
 Bob: What I also like here and in the next episode is that while we get a better definition of Rei's character, we really have her established as a dead-end for Shinji as far as a potential love-interest. The fact that she's right there from the first episode as part of the initial nuclear family unit of the established cast is pretty key in this, too-- because she's right there from the show's first moments, and watching Shinji no less (even as a phantom), there's already the subtext of a kind of incest from that interaction. Same as with Misato. They're part of the core cast from the start. And with a show that's as obsessed with Oedipal themes as this one, I think it's probably very conscious that you have that developed, and that Asuka is later established as such an outsider (she breaks the blood/cast taboo).

 me: Definitely adds to the whole ambiguity of the jealousy angle. If the Rei-Gendo connection is father-daughter then it's his own lack of a relationship with his father that is highlighted. If it's more a lover angle to it, then it's kind of emasculating in a way, as if his father is even impeding on his son's love life - highlighting the aspect toward which their discomfort with one another is not only a matter of familial disappointment, but masculine rivalry. After all, it's Shinji who's out there actually fighting the Angels and there's almost a degree of spite in the way in which his father pulls the strings, as if - not being able to do battle himself he's going to at least relish his control of the situation. The notion that he may be romancing his son's crush adds another degree of aggressive assertion to his personality, as if he's not just an absent father but a domineering, arrogant older brother.
 Bob: Well remember, this episode also goes to a good length to show that Shinji's not really crushing on Rei that much, because he reacts to the apartment scene with a lot of discomfort. It's kind of a mirror of the scene where he's exposed in front of Misato, the embarassment.
 me: Notably, the two previous episodes started to branch out and establish Shinji in a more external, social context. Now I feel we're moving inward again - to the secret world of NERV and what makes Shinji different rather than what connects him to others.
 Bob: Yeah. That gets established super-quick, too, and in the midst of Shinji awkwardly asking about his father's scars, which humanizes both of them.

 me: The ambiguous sexuality of Rei's encounters with Shinji (and Gendo) is kind of tied into the fact that the Shinji-naked Rei scene is not just a plot/character development but an instance of (perhaps ironic) fanservice. Care to talk about the concept of "fanservice" a bit? It's an aspect of anime I'm not quite sure I understand yet. As far as I get it, it has to do with creators acquiescing to fans' desire to see female characters in sexually provocative situations? Do I have that right, or is that more to it?
  
 Bob: It's something that's tied pretty closely to Eva being a Gainax project, and something they do a lot. Yeah, it's basically a kind of self-conscious acquiescing to fan desires that's often more on the prurient side. What's interesting is how Anno and his team plays with it so much, and uses it to express stuff that's fairly subversive and contrary to what a lot of fans would really want to see. It's backhanded fanservice, often.
 meMoving to the Angel - it's interesting to me that the Angel is so abstract and alien on this episode. What do you make of that?
 Bob: I wrote a lot about this in my Operation Yashima piece. I see it as a progressive devolution (or evolution) from physical forms (the humanish first angel, the insectlike second) into the realm of the abstract, of ideas, making it something of an ideological battle. The idea of scale mirrors is something I'm interested in especially with the diamond-shaped angel we have here. Just like the previous angels were kind of scale mirrors for humans or insects, this one is a conscious scale mirror of stuff we've seen in other anime-- it evokes the "blue water" crystal from Anno's show Nadia (that also precurses a lot of Evangelion stuff towards the end), which itself is an echo of the diamond-crystal from Miyazaki's "Castle in the Sky".
me: Do you see any correspondence with what happens in the non-battle sequences of the show? Because to me it's interesting that the introduction of the most alien, unfamiliar, unapproachable Angel happens on the episode where we really get to know Rei, who introduces an unbalancing element of the strange and irreconcilable into Shinji's social universe, where as of yet the theme has been lonely Shinji incorporated into the world of other, presumably normal, people - learning to cope with the hedgehog's dilemma. This episode suggests it's not quite so simple, that it's not merely a matter of his inability to adapt socially. There's more in play, represented by Rei's strangeness, which he connects to.
 Bob: Yeah. It's made clear that if he has issues, she has a whole subscription.
 
me: Not only that, but that that's kind of irreconcilable with the "Shinji must make his home in the world of human interaction" theme. There's a kind of tension between this impatience with immature, adolescent Shinji, wanting him to grow up and become a social person, and a tacit recognition or suspicion that in fact he has it right, and it's the other people, with their continuance of a "normal" life who are ultimately delusional. Because ultimately what is the message of the show? It certainly isn't "Calm down, everything's gonna be ok." Maybe in the original series finale, but definitely not in the film End of Evangelion.
 Bob: Well, it's definitely not entirely apocalyptic. It says that you're not alone, but that any human interaction is harder work than we take for granted.
 
me: Yeah, but what I'm getting at...I'm not even sure it's just saying it's harder work. I think it's kind of saying it's futile. Because Shinji with Rei is less about humans connecting with one another, than connecting with themselves.

Bob: But the general apathy she seems to show for him is something that we already see in contrast with Misato's affectionate teasing of Shinji, and soon to come with Asuka's obssessive tsundere attention. Early on, we see Anno setting up the whole idea of intimacy of any kind, and especially emotional, as something that comes with a lot of conflict and turmoil. Only the lack of connection is peaceful.
 me: Well what I'm saying is I DON'T think it's futile between Shinji and Rei, but precisely because, on some level, they are the same person, or she is an aspect of him (it's probably less accurate to say he's an aspect of her, the most generous we can get is to say they are aspects of each other). So in highlighting his attraction towards her as opposed to his schoolmates or Misato, it's essentially highlighting a more essentially internal than external route. But again, ahead of myself. In a way this is all prologue for what comes if I remember correctly.

Next week: "Rei II" • Previous week: "Hedgehog's Dilemma"

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