Friday, December 7, 2012

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 6 - "Rei II"


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.

The battle is won, but the drama is not yet over. The evil diamond from outer space, that latest Angel which arrived at the end of last episode, has been slaughtered and lies smoking amongst the wreckage of downtown Tokyo-3; no lights illuminate its lifeless shell, for all the electricity in Japan was diverted precisely to defeat it. Yet in order for Shinji's second power-blast to hit its target, Rei's Evangelion (placed on defense in its first active engagement with the enemy) was forced to fend off the Angel's own firepower with a shield that barely protects the Eva's vulnerable pilot. Her role completed, she now allows the weary mecha-warrior to collapse. Shinji races to its side, the gigantic robot he pilots providing physical power to match the skinny teenage boy's emotional intensity. Leaping from the cockpit to yank open the hatch, he sees that Rei is woozy but okay inside and tears fill his eyes.

This is the final resolution to "Rei II," more purely devoted to war strategy and military hardware than any episode we've seen so far - yet powered ultimately, like all the other Evangelion episodes, by the raw, human material of emotional anxiety and release. This conclusion also allows Shinji to come full-circle, from an isolated and weak little boy to someone capable of not only doing his duty, but rescuing another. It also, of course, echoes his father's actions which is why Rei smiles in the end: she's discovered someone else who cares about her, this time not a somewhat remote and imposing authority figure, a mysterious commander she must loyally obey, but a young boy her own age - a peer and companion-in-arms whose solidarity in suffering takes some edge off her own stoic loneliness.

If we see Shinji adapt more fully to his heroic and social role here, we also realize just how intensely professional, confident, and - perhaps - ruthless Misato is when it comes to her own authority. It is her idea to focus all the energy in Japan into a single ray blast directed at the nearly impenetrable Angel drilling its way down to central headquarters (the plan is called "Operation Yashima," a designation Japanese Evangelion fans applied to their government's similar plan to preserve energy during the 2011 tsunami disaster). What's more, as Misato proposes Operation Yashima, and smiles defiantly as she affirms that its chances of success are just below 9%, there is an almost blinding self-assurance to her presentation which both impresses and slightly disturbs us. While of course she will suffer if the plan does not succeed, its success relies ultimately on the two fragile pilots, Shinji and Rei, onto whom she confers this awesome responsibility without the slightest hesitation.

This episode completes Rei's character development which began in earnest last episode (hence the "Rei II" of the title). By its end, we feel we understand her much better; she has not lost her essentially enigmatic character and yet we gain a sense of her uncertainty, her confusion, which never interferes with her commitment to duty or sense of self-composure. And yet as she stares down at Gendo's glasses, connecting them now ambiguously to her commander's son as well, as she manages a real smile at episode's end, gazing into Shinji's tear-filled eyes, we realize she's human as well. Just because she doesn't let her essential bewilderment at the surrounding world affect her actions does not mean she isn't sad and lost inside. Of course there will ultimately be more to it than just that, but a sense of fragile soul will power us through the various hints and revelations to come, connecting us to her even as she remains - in some sense - an alien creature.

Meanwhile we see an extension of Shinji's earlier realization that protecting an individual focuses his attention and motivates him much more powerfully than entertaining abstract notions of saving the world. Just as he was battered by the Angel in Episode 3 before being forced to save his classmates (and thus finding the ability to disobey orders and attack the enemy head-on), here we begin the episode as he's caught off-guard and nearly destroyed by the lethal diamond. Only when Rei puts her own body on the line does Shinji find the willpower and determination to fight back effectively. As Evangelion never fails to remind us, the stakes may be global and apocalyptic, but it is the intimate connections which ultimately provide the greatest inspiration.

Read Bob Clark's epic essay on the first six episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, "Decisive Battles: Notes 'Operation Yashima'"


Conversation with Bob Clark


meTo begin with - stylistically - on this episode we seem to return to the more staccato, rapidly-intercut static image style. I've noticed that they tend to use this more on the battle-heavy episodes. Which this one certainly is - it's pretty much all battle, beginning to end, kind of like the first but without the need for exposition thrown in.
 Bob: Well, I think that's primarily to save on the budget. There's a few moments here where some of the characters really go off model, especially Misato, and you can tell they were saving and hurrying wherever they could. Not just to keep the bulk of animation for the battles, but also for some of the more intimate scenes. The stuff with Rei and Shinji are really sharply done here, and it stands in contrast with a lot of the rest of the episode.

 
me: What do you mean by "off-model"?
 Bob: I mean where a character is drawn somewhat differently than they usually look, particularly from key angles that you've seen them in before. You can see a slight difference between Misato in the first shots of the episode, which are actually from "Rei I", and then just a couple of seconds later, where we see original animation for this installment. Her facial features are a little off, a little rushed. Her eyes aren't as big or sharply drawn. The shadows on her face aren't quite as well defined.
 me: Interesting. Do you think there's a stylistic bent to it too? I've noticed the more low-key episodes actually have more fluid animation.
 Bob: I don't know, I think here it's simply that some scenes are a little rushed in the production, as far as illustration and animation goes, while others get a premium. Rei seems to have been given more attention than Misato here, which makes sense. We're really seeing her defined more in these episodes. [Meanwhile, i]t's interesting that in this pivotal battle, in the TV version, Gendo is strangely absent. Misato fills his role as commander, and Shinji fills his role as comforter to Rei.

 me: Yeah good point. And when she suggests a strategy he just kind of says, "Well sure, I guess I have nothing to offer here." I wonder why this is. Something to do with the Rei-Shinji connection being established? He has to stay in the wings for that to take effect?

 Bob: It's hard to say. He does seem strangely unconcerned with the battle, and a lot of the initial angels. Perhaps he just knows that the powers that be are biding their time for the grand finale. Maybe he trusts his crew and lets them handle the dirty work while he focuses on his personal plans. One thing we do see clearer in this episode is that the Angels are much more concerned with NERV headquarters specifically. They don't just want to blow it up, like in the first episode. They want to invade, to tunnel in. That tunneling, btw, with the layers of defense, is something you can see being lifted in the Matrix sequels, the machines drilling to get into Zion.

 me: Well I'm thinking less about character motivation than narrative function. Given the episodes' prerogatives, to put Rei into battle for the first time, to cement the bond between her and Shinji, to display Misato's assertive, commanding side, displaying Gendo too prominently would be a distraction. Now what do you make of the fact that the Angel fires first this time?

 Bob: Well, that's something I mentioned a while back in our talks. It's learned behavior, I think. The angels are getting smarter as a collective, thinking as a group. And yet they still think in patterns you can easily get past. Or somewhat easily. I love the whole trial and error experimentation to figure out the proper distance for where the angel will and won't attack. This is a heavily subtitled episode in terms of informing us of the locations, something Anno's done since Gunbuster, upping the military scale and scope.

 me: So do you maintain that, in the big picture, they're responding to human aggression - that this is not a confirmation of their "true nature" at all?
 Bob: Not really. They've just learned from past encounters. After all, you can't really say that this angel has a "True Nature" because especially in this low-scaled episode (compared to the feature) the angel is so mechanical. It's responding less on a matter of instinct as it is programming.

 me: Right but in other words we can't say, "Aha! They attacked first! They really are aggressors." but rather "They just know the humans are about to attack. They're still acting defensively - this is pre-emption."
 Bob: Yeah, essentially. It's a matter less of who attacked first this time, than who attacked first overall.

 me: Eventually we'll get to the question of what the Angels' purpose is. But right now we're still expanding that narrow little circle that began with Shinji alone. At episode's end his initial journey is definitely complete - from being a total loner, to becoming incorporated into a social circle, he's finally established an intimate bond with another human being.
 Bob: Yeah, he's cracked a facade that only his father has managed so far.
 me: Which has interesting implications in and of itself. Anything more you want to say before we close out?

 Bob: Right. And again, it strengthens the bond that we have later when Asuka, the outsider, comes in. She's not a hand-me-down like the other characters. One thing to bring up is the cold lighting we see in the hospital room that Shinji wakes up in. We'll see that again and again in the next wake-up scenes. We see it a little more here, with the way it changes the color of Rei's hair. There's a progression there, too. He wakes up alone. Then he wakes up with Rei walking his food in, after she's been watching him at a distance. Then he wakes up with her at his bedside, and Asuka in the hall after the Sea of Durac. It's a nice way that we see the attention to detail in the episode, even when they're being thrifty. The way they're trying to evoke "natural lighting" even in animation. We also get a classic anime motif of colliding laser blasts between Shinji and the Angel. It's practically a Dragon Ball Z thing here.

 me: Well, as we get to the next episode it will be new territory for you, right?
 Bob: Insofar as I haven't written it up, yeah
 me: Exactly.
 Bob: Oh, have we talked about the music yet, here? Especially the Bond stuff? It's just something to mention again here. The battle music is almost note for note mirroring music in From Russia With Love, and I'm wondering if that's a specific call and response.
 
me: For what purpose do you think?

Bob: I'm fond of all the music through Evangelion (I love the music that plays as the lights go out all over Japan) but here it seems such a specific thing. You don't just copy even the most obscure Bond themes without it meaning something. Well, FRWL was the movie that introduced Blofeld to the movie universe, there as the unseen/off camera cat stroking mastermind of SPECTRE. He's clearly in the same line of mysterious shadowy villains that Gendo and SEELE is a part of (even the name of the group is very Bond like). There's plenty of Bond influence in the title sequence (FRWL is where we first got the naked-bond-girl credits), and in previous episodes (Ritsuko out of the water in bathing suit). One thing is that the presence of Bond, particularly at a time when that franchise was rediscovering itself (GoldenEye was around the same time, trying to update itself from the end of the USSR), really reasserts some of the subtext of conservative militarist politics in the show.
me: Yeah, funny how cocky Misato is in ordering everyone from other organizations around. A theme that's to be replayed (we see it on the first episode too) until it's eventually sort of subverted, we she begins to doubt who's pulling the strings and for what purpose.
 
Bob: Right. That's something you don't see in Bond usually. That lack of moral certainty. It wouldn't really come in until the new ones, and the new shadowy organization that's bent on corrupting agents. That puts NGE at a cultural crossroads of where we look for evil in our entertainment, along with the Matrix, the Prequels, LOST. We no longer have it in strict binary terms anymore. It's returning to the days of Dr. Mabuse and hidden conspiracies.

me: Another thing to note before we wrap up: it's nice how Rei and Shinji get that quiet moment together overlooking the city before the battle begins.  I like that moment because it kind of combines the two themes, the two kids overlooking their moonrise kingdom and the mythic battle of the gods which is about to take place.
 
Bob:  Yeah, they get a breather. One subtle bit there is that there's that slight push-in on Shinji at the end, one of the few bits of motion they spared for this little intimate moment.

Next week: "A Human Work" • Previous week: "Rei I"

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