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.
And now for a breather. Sort of. After a six-episode storyline which thrust Shinji right into battle, began to establish his awkward social environment, and drew the bonds tighter between him and his fellow pilot, blue-haired Rei (even more of an outcast than he) we take a step back. This is an episode that is really, well, an episode: a standalone event which explores characters while giving them a one-off challenge mostly unconnected to the rest of the series - this time the enemy is no Angel, but a manmade robot monotonously stomping through a wasteland while its nuclear pacemaker ticks away. It's up to Shinji and Misato to stop it but even if the stakes seem slightly lower this time, we're nonetheless allowed exposition which will nudge us toward some ominous revelations.
To begin with, "A Human Work" seems charmingly (or excessively, depending upon your taste) cartoonish and comedic, with Misato in full-party girl mode and the animation zanier and more exaggerated than we've seen for a while. She chugs her beer and burps while Shinji and that bizarre pet penguin roll their eyes. Goofy sound effects fill the soundtrack, along with the lighter-than-air Eva-Odd Couple theme accompanying most scenes at Misato's dinner table. Later she shows up at Shinji's school in stylish dress for the parent-teacher conference, underlining her bizarre triple role as the boy's bratty big sister, irritating yet attractive roommate, and responsible mother figure (least emphasis of all on that last attribute).
After letting Misato take a backseat to Rei for a couple episode, Anno once again focuses on the first woman in Shinji's life, and even more than Shinji himself, Misato could be called the main character of this episode. She calls the shots throughout and, even more unusually, she takes the big risks too, donning an exposure suit and descending into the run-amok JetAlone robot whose remote controls aren't working, to shut it down manually. The JetAlone, with its humorously plodding gait, dumbly swinging arms, and Cheshire-Cat like "is there a there there?" grin, is an effective symbol of human technology gone astray, lacking the soul (in the form of suffering pilots, baring the burden for the rest of the human race) which has made the Evas so powerful, and so frightening.
It's up to NERV, personified by Misato's gritty determination and arrogant assumption of authority (here she makes up for the sense that, on the last episode, she was cockily calling the shots while others paid the price), to save the day. And yet, for the first time really, we get a very strong sense of NERV's ambiguous morality. At episode's end, Ritsuko meets alone with Gendo and together they affirm that everything went according to plan, except for Misato's impromptu rescue mission. The suggestion is chilling - clearly NERV somehow sabotaged the JetAlone to trigger its haywire disobedience of the human master, in order to discredit rivals to the Evangelion program. Furthermore, they allowed Misato to go ahead with her risky plan, obviously valuing her life very little, and they were prepared to see the JetAlone detonate at an unknown, and apparently unimportant, cost to human life. It's shocking enough to know that the organization Misato and Shinji work for is so callous, but also chilling to realize Ritsuko, the cool but presumably on-the-level official we've seen as Misato's straight-woman companion-in-arms may have ulterior motives.
As for Rei, meanwhile, it isn't even that she appears in only one scene of the episode - I'm pretty sure she's only in one shot. It's a rather startling comedown from the exposure she was given last time and it hints at what to come: the introduction, in the next episode, of another female character who will turn Shinji's social universe upside down, introducing an element of assertive, brash personality onto this show of withdrawn moody characters (so far Misato, a complicated mix of responsibility and childishness, wisdom and immaturity, is the only real extrovert we've met; while not without her own bipolar streak, Asuka one-ups Misato's brazenness with unapologetic adolescent chutzpah, at once infuriating and intoxicating). Consider this episode a palette cleanser before a major change of course...
me: Another interesting point: here we see Misato actually put her money where her mouth is. Last time, she gave orders with a kind of cocky bravado which was admirable in a way, but also drew our attention the fact that she wasn't actually the one acting them out. This time she is.
Bob: Yeah, the Shinji aspect is that he as to accept that he can't change other people, but accept them and change a bit himself. The other telling bit about Shinji in this episode is this. At the start of the episode, we see him really growing comfortable with his new life, both as at school with his friends, and as an Eva pilot. The fact that we see him perform this new deed of heroism, and one that's even unrelated to the Angels themselves, underlines this and shows him as somebody who's coming into his own. That all comes crashing down as soon as Asuka enters the picture, of course.
me: What do you make of them facing a human-created, (un)controlled monster this time?
Bob: I think here it's just the Evangelion team looking to come up with a threat for the episode that isn't an Angel, and to perhaps explain what the rest of the world is doing to combat the Angels. We get a good amount of slight world embellishment, hearing how the NERV project affects other countries, economically especially.
me: One thing though: who exactly is the JetAlone going to kill, if it detonates? It looks as if its tramping across an empty plain, for miles and miles.
Bob: And especially because the world it's painting beyond the borders of what we see onscreen is still one that, despite all the giant mech stuff, still corresponds pretty easily to the contemporary world of the 90's. There's the civilized world of Japan, America and Europe from what we hear, and then the rest of the world is being kept in poverty. Well, that sucker's nuclear, so even if it didn't kill anyone right away in the blast, it might very easily poison the land.
Bob: Yeah, for me the marathon run of watching either makes you see an episode like this as purely standalone and disposable, or it makes you try and look too hard for the overall story. Seeing it one at a time helps you see the good parts of both. It's a great individual unit, and actually it's cool to see Anno and his team playing so much without worrying a whole lot about the grand story.
me: So am I just reading into it ... or is Ritsuko pretty plainly spelled out as evil/sociopathic here? She's saying Misato's action was unexpected. And therefore that she stood by while her "friend" went forward with it, risking her life, knowing that there was perhaps some other way out (after all, who else changed the password but NERV?).
me: I was surprised when that part entered, along with some other NERV-expositional stuff. Because up to that point it had pretty much been a deep exhale/goofball exercise with Misato's partygirl persona, already sufficiently established, allowed to luxuriate in very, very cartoonish fashion.
Bob: Yeah. The heavy foreground plating of elements during the conference also does a good job of building the environment, giving Anno a nice skewed perspective as he always does, even when we're getting this exposition and partygirl prattle. And Misato comes into even more contrast with Ritsuko, of course, who's coming more into her own here. By the time of Lilliputian Hitcher, which is really her first starring role episode, we're really in deep to how compartmentalized she is.
me: Can you expand on this - "heavy foreground plating of elements during the conference" - what does that mean?
Bob: I just mean, the glasses and stuff that passes in front of Ritsuko as the camera moves say. The elements in the foreground plate in front of her cell plane in the animation.
me: Funny, I was thinking JetAlone was an American thing.