WARNING: HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD
In an essay by Evangelion creator Anno Hideaki found in Gundam: The Origin Volume 1 (Aizouban Edition) titled “Celebrating the Revival of Gundam as Tale,” Anno argues that anime narratives in recent years have moved away from being “Tales” like the original Gundam. “Audiences have come to need work only as an escape from reality, as a comfortable dream, judging everything on the criterion of moe, while creators’ intellectual paucity and the jumble of trivial touches have encouraged that structure.” Referring to current anime and manga as “stagnant,” Anno laments the loss of the Tale in anime and manga, hoping that it can make a return, and even blames himself for contributing to this current state of anime. Thus, when considering the new Evangelion movies as “rebuilds,” I began to suspect that the films might be an attempt to bring the “Tale” back into Evangelion after its influence had broken down the concept in the first place. Although I was not aware of this perspective of Anno’s when I saw the original two movies, after viewing Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo I find that the Rebuild of Evangelion films, while not attempting something so simple and shortsighted as turning back the hands of time in order prove the superiority of Tales, are still revisiting Evangelion in such as a way as to try and address the differences between older and newer anime narratives, create a Tale appropriate for contemporary culture, and respond to current criticisms of youth culture.
At the beginning Evangelion 3.33, we see protagonist Ikari Shinji waking up 14 years in the future, in a time when much has changed. Shortly after Shinji’s revival, a fight breaks out and it turns out Shinji is aboard a ship called the Wunder, an airship with a powerful laser cannon powered by Shinji’s iconic robot, the EVA-01. As the battle ensues, a combination of characters we’re familiar with and characters entirely new shout about the status of the enemy, which weapons to use, and what strategic options are available, all while Katsuragi Misato stands at the bridge as a stoic and hardboiled captain ready to give orders at just the right time. Although this somewhat resembles depictions from previous films and the television series with the organization NERV and Shinji’s father Gendou at the helm, what this resembles even more is the most classic Tale in all of anime, Space Battleship Yamato. Substitute the EVA-01-powered laser for the Wave Motion Cannon and Misato for Captain Okita, and you more or less have a fight that wouldn’t look out of place in Yamato. Shinji is thrust not just into the future, but into what appears to be a completely different anime story structure.
Rather than simply making it the Tale of Shinji experiencing the simpler world of a Yamato-esque goal and the pieces surrounding it, however—Yamato was about traveling to a distant planet to retrieve an item which would help remove the radiation that had turned the Earth into an inhospitable husk—Evangelion 3.33 complicates the issue. While both Yamato and Evangelion 3.33 take place on a devastated Earth, for the latter it turns out that Shinji’s actions in the previous movie, when he finally stood up for himself and gained the self-activation he never had before, were the very cause of the planet’s current dire situation, the Third Impact. Shikinami Asuka Langley, who was injured in the last film when Shinji had control of his own EVA forcibly taken away from him, is alive and piloting, but shows absolute disdain for Shinji. Even the one goal he had set out to accomplish, rescuing Ayanami Rei from being absorbed by the enemy Angel, turns out to be a failure, as Rei’s body was never found, most likely absorbed by EVA-01’s cockpit after the two had fully synchronized with the EVA. Instead, what Shinji gets is a clone of Rei devoid of memories, an almost-unthinking soldier who can only follow orders.
This clone Rei in the third film (although technically all of the Reis are clones) is a strikingly powerful presence, acting as a strong argument against the classic criticisms of Ayanami Rei and the characters she has inspired. Typically, Rei is seen as an almost doll-like fetish object, an attractive girl with pale features and no personality whom men can sexualize as the “perfect” passive woman entirely subject to their desires. Here, in Evangelion 3.33, we get the truly subservient version of Rei, a character who is so passive she cannot even read a book without being ordered to do so, and the disturbing nature of this iteration of the character actually highlights just how much characterization and personal will is present in the base character of Ayanami Rei. “You don’t know what’s missing until it’s gone,” as the cliché goes, and the fact that a truly doll-like Rei is so bizarre and alien underlines the fact that Rei is defined not by her loss of humanity but by her pursuit of it. Rei ends the film seeing a gigantic grotesque version of herself and asking, “Is that me?” The titanic Rei acts as an uncanny juxtaposition and jars Rei into becoming self-aware, becoming the potential seed through which she can gain independent thought and conscience. Rei, who is arguaby seen as the classic example of a character whose various visual and narrative components appeal to the “database” mindset which Azuma Hiroki argued back in 1999 was increasingly common in a postmodern Japanese society, re-gains the ability to become part of a Tale which isn’t, a cohesive work which is at the same time complex and contradictory.
This is the narrative space in which Evangelion 3.33 takes place, and the result is that even though this film may appear to be another case of how nothing Shinji does ever goes right, it is not the same sort of internal trauma and pessimism which classically characterizes Evangelion. The depression Shinji suffers and shows in this film does get the closest to the type of introspection that Evangelion is famous for, but given not only the context of the previous films which feature a cast of characters more willing and able to communicate their pain to each other but also the difference in setting the 14-year shift provides in this film even those signature abstract angst moments take on a different set of meanings. Most notably, Shinji’s psychological paralysis is not the result of some indescribable fear or internal agony, but because of his own guilt. This can be seen in the bonding scenes with Nagisa Kaworu, the tragic character whose role in all previous versions of Evangelion has been to connect with Shinji on a level no other character had previously been able to before dying at Shinji’s own hands. Kaworu and Shinji’s relationship takes on a somewhat different dynamic, as Kaworu helps to bring Shinji to a place of conviction already familiar to him from the previous film.
Instead, a different tragedy occurs, as Kaworu’s plan—to co-pilot the new EVA-13 with Shinji in order to fix the world ravaged by the Third Impact—is undermined by the fact that NERV and Gendou have replaced one of the key items capable of restoring the world, instead leading it to a further apocalypse. Kaworu realizes the difference and tries to stop Shinji, but Shinji is so intent on correcting everything that he fails to register Kaworu’s hesitation and he ends up falling for Gendou’s plot. The scene again looks to be another case of Shinji failing, but given everything else shown up to this point, I find that it draws attention not so much to Shinji’s individual suffering, but to the world around Shinji. Whether Shinji follows his own will or whether he listens to others, he still creates disaster, but this Shinji is, again, a more active Shinji whose problem is not that he’s “unwilling” to help, but that his surrounding environment has forced him into unwinnable situations. Appropriately, this time around Kaworu dies, but not directly because of Shinji.
Shinji’s plight in Evangelion 3.33 mirrors the recent criticisms used against youth culture by media appealing to older generations. Whether inside or outside of Japan, the current generation is seen as a group of selfish good-for-nothings who want and expect everything handed to them, instead of knowing the value of sacrifice and hard work. Whether they’re referred to as “NEETs” or “Generation Me,” Shinji and Evangelion 3.33 bring to attention the idea that, while we can place blame on them, the previous generations are not absolved of blame; the world the children inherit is the world given to them.
Ultimately, I find that the Rebuild of Evangelion films are trying to create a Tale similar to Yamato and Gundam, but in a way which is consciously trying to take into account the era in which we live. At the end of Evangelion 3.33, Shinji is once again emotionally distraught and paralyzed over the horrible consequences of his actions, when Asuka literally drags him out of his cockpit and tells him that he can’t simply sit still. Rei joins them. The previous two films had already established that the characters were able to bridge the emotional gaps they were unable to overcome in the original television series, and though the space of 14 years after the Third Impact had bred in Asuka a deep resentment and anger towards Shinji, that one scene shows how the connection is still there. My prediction for the “Tale of Evangelion” as expressed by the four films is thus: A 14-year-old boy estranged from his father and suffering deep personal agony is thrust into a situation far greater than him, and though he is told to sacrifice himself for the greater cause, through the connections he makes with his peers he finds that he would lose too much in the process, including his own identity. This prioritization of the self and what he finds valuable in life does not come without its own consequences, but it becomes the potential ground for him, and those like him, to find their own solutions to the problems of the world. Of course, the fourth film has yet to debut, so we’ll see if I’m right.