The Evangelion Pilots, Represented in Combat

I’ve been revisiting Neon Genesis Evangelion lately and have come to appreciate it in ways that I hadn’t before. While I always found the show to be especially good at showing the deep-seated fears and emotions within the characters to the point that they feel almost tangible, I’ve begun to take note of how well the characters’ words and actions exemplify their personalities.

One example that stands out in my mind comes from Episode 19, the famous episode where EVA-01 goes berserk and eats the enemy angel, Zeruel. When Zeruel descends upon Tokyo-3, it is first met by a barrage of artillery fire from Asuka and her EVA-02, just weapon after weapon after weapon, with Asuka getting progressively angrier until she is defeated. Rei then appears, her EVA-00 missing an arm, and charges at Zeruel with a powerful bomb with the plans to detonate it at point blank range. Later, right before Zeruel can attack the staff of NERV, Shinji bursts through and engages in melee combat, then loses power, then goes berserk. What I’ve come to realize is that the way each character fights in that scene represents them incredibly well, acting as more than just a visual spectacle.

Asuka is always looking to prove her self-worth, particularly as a pilot and as compensation for her traumatic childhood, and her desperation mounts increasingly as more and more weapons are deployed by the EVA-02. This loud, brash display of firepower is Asuka.

From the way everyone else reacts to seeing Rei carry the N² Mine, it is clear that no one knew of this beforehand, which means that the idea is entirely her own. Rei, who constantly questions whether or not she is human at all, has very little regard for her own life.

Shinji fights with a form of desperation different from Asuka’s, and as one of his core traits is a vague sense of self-identity, Shinji’s close combat perhaps shows his desire to gain an identity through the piloting of EVA-01. This also differs from Asuka because Shinji is not looking to prove himself, but rather to find himself. It might also be possible to say that the berserk scene itself shows Shinji’s tendency to be pulled along, though I’m not sure about that one.

I think the best indicator for how much this particular moment in Evangelion represents the inner feelings of its characters comes from a comparison to the redone scene in the second Rebuild of Evangelion movie. In it, Mari replaces Asuka in EVA-02 for the film’s iteration, and the fight begins in a similar fashion, with EVA-02 surrounded by firearms which Mari initially uses one after the other. However, the scene itself feels remarkably different. Mari uses each weapon more slowly and deliberately, never really reaching the intensity that Asuka did in the TV series, and after only a few decides to run in up close with a melee weapon. The method Asuka used is something only Asuka can do; it would not reflect Mari’s character.

As for Rei and Shinji, their changes highlight more of a subtle shift in character, a fundamental part of the new films. Rei, just like the original, attempts to defeat Zeruel by detonating a bomb at point-blank, but in this version Rei takes the time to push Mari and the EVA-02 out of the blast radius while thanking her, showing that her actions do not simply stem from doubting her own humanity but from also affirming the humanity of others. Shinji’s fight is initially similar, but as I once mentioned in my review of the film, Shinji never loses control, the “berserk” EVA-01’s actions conscious and deliberate on the part of Shinji. While he still seeks his own identity, he is able to set that aside to save Rei, establishing a stronger identity in the process.

I’d like to actually end by talking about Mari once more, because as I was making this comparison I realized the role she plays relative to the others in terms of their relationship to the Evangelions. Asuka pursues self-worth, Shinji self-identity, and Rei a connection to humanity, but Mari seeks pleasure in the act itself. She revels in being an EVA pilot in and of itself, with no seeming underlying motivation except perhaps some strange desire to experience life to its fullest. Her “bestial” fighting style, even before she activates the actual “THE BEAST” mode, is indicative of this. That Evangelion is able to cut to the core of its characters in even its action scenes makes it truly impressive.

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Believe in the Evangelion 2.22: You Can (Not) Advance that Believes in You

I watched Evangelion 2.22: You Can (Not) Advance over the weekend and I have a whole smattering of thoughts to put down on the subject. It’ll be part-review, part-editorial, and it will contain a ton of spoilers, so watch out.

Evangelion 2.22: You Can (Not) Advance is the second of four movies whose purpose is to retell the story of Studio Gainax’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, one of the most influential works ever in anime history. Fueled by hindsight and merchandise profits, Rebuild brings it all back while taking into account changes that have occurred in the world and in anime since the original series ended back in the 90s.

The basic premise of Evangelion is that a cataclysm in the early 21st century has left most of the world unpopulated. Ikari Shinji, a quiet, passive teenager, is tasked  with defeating otherworldly monsters known as “Angels” through the use of unusually organic-looking robots called “Evangelions.” However, his nature and personality make him perhaps the least qualified person in the world to be engaging in battle, let alone defending the Earth. He is supported by the organization NERV, which houses the Evangelions as well as his fellow pilots, the mysterious, stoic Ayanami Rei and the aggressive and competitive Sohryu Asuka Langley.

The idea seems fairly simple, but Evangelion would eventually become a whirling dervish of emotional trauma and introspection that sucks you into the characters’ thoughts and fears, and that characteristic of the series is by far its main strength, and according to some, also its main weakness.

Shinji especially is a pile of neuroses and doubts, which can make him an aggravating main character but also establishes him as quite a bit of an “anti-protagonist.” In watching the first Rebuild of Evangelion movie I found myself unable to engage Shinji, as they tried to build him up to have just an ounce more confidence and determination, but failed to spend enough time on his inner thoughts. His change of heart at the end of the movie comes so suddenly that it rings false to some extent as a result. Luckily, You Can (Not) Advance solves this problem with grace and artistry, which is to say, I liked this second movie. Now on to why.

While the movie opens with a fight between brand new character Makinami Mari Illustrious and an equally brand new Angel, I feel like the movie truly “begins” with the scene immediately after. Here, Shinji and his father Gendou, who is also the head of NERV, are at the grave of Shinji’s mother. Prior to the first movie, father and son had not seen each other in years, and so their relationship is justifiably awkward. Walls have been erected towards each other. However, here at the grave of Ikari Yui, both show that the walls are not absolute, that they are willing to express their feelings towards each other, if only briefly.

While Evangelion has always been about humans relating to one another, this idea of taking just that one tiny step towards trying to connect with others is what really sets apart the Rebuild of Evangelion from the original TV series. The characters aren’t significantly different from who they were in previous incarnations, but by attempting to reach out to others they encourage others to do the same as well, which keeps everyone from retreating into the comforting shell of personal insecurity. Ayanami Rei is seemingly without personality in the first film, and could have very well remained that way, but Shinji is able to reach out to her. In turn, in this film when Asuka (now sporting the surname “Shikinami”) confronts Rei and accuses her of being a “doll,” Rei is able to reply that she is not, but more importantly tries to help Asuka, who she sees as being much more human than herself and thus able to foster relationships outside of their “work.”

I really became aware of this element when Rei invites Shinji and Gendou to dinner to try and have them grow closer (or perhaps less distant). Amidst all of the talk of Angels and Human Instrumentality, I began to care a little more about this dinner, as I felt it skirted closer to the heart of the movie than anything else. The film follows a minor variation of the motto for success from another Gainax work, Gurren-Lagann, “Believe in me who believes in you.” Everyone is portrayed as a thinking and feeling being, even the Angels, who are not one-trick ponies but instead contain backup plans which are augmented by contingencies, hinting at the idea that they have brains underneath those monstrous facades.

The dinner ends up being canceled, as a disaster leads to Asuka and her new experimental Evangelion being possessed by an Angel. Shinji is sent out to fight the compromised EVA, but cannot act out of fear of hurting Asuka. Despite Shinji’s protests however, Gendou is able to override his controls, causing Shinji’s unit to go on auto-pilot and crush the Angel, with Asuka still inside. Shinji is justifiably upset at the whole ordeal, but what he curses most is that he ended up doing nothing. When Shinji is faced with a similar situation again, this time with Rei being the one at risk, Shinji is determined to not repeat the same mistake. Even if something terrible happens as a result, it’s better than having stayed on the sidelines.

The final scene of the movie mirrors one of the most famous scenes in Evangelion, that of Shinji falling unconscious and the EVA rampaging out of control, ultimately leading to it consuming the Angel in an orgy of violence and “evolving.” In this instance however, Shinji does not fall by the wayside and instead is fully in control. His desire to do something and make a difference where he once could not causes the EVA to transcend into a god-like state, visually captured by the movement and posture of the EVA. Neither hunched like normal, nor craven like when berserk, this divine manifestation stands with shoulders apart and head raised, as if to say that it has transcended into another level of existence. Its movements are steady and deliberate, with a clearly conscious mind behind them. In the end, Shinji is able to succeed because he has grown as a person with the help of those around them, who were themselves made better by knowing Shinji.

Whether or not I like this more than the original TV series is still up in the air, but seeing as there is so much to this film, so much to discuss and address, I am quite surprised that so much of the discussion going on about You Can (Not) Advance tends to be rather lacking. Instead of exploring the characters in-depth or talking about themes and story, the conversation revolves around talking about whether or not Asuka is tsundere, the levels of fanservice in the film, and how much merchandise the whole thing generates, as if to say that the movies do not contain any merit beyond being cash grabs. Why is that? I understand that Evangelion, being the classic it is, has been discussed to high heaven by anime fans the world over, but I don’t think any of us are too cool for school that we cannot bring about that fervor again.

Actually, a better way to put it would be to say that people seemingly do not allow the discussion to move beyond the idea that Rebuild of Evangelion is tapping into that pool of devoted fans. It is doing that of course, but no one ever said that they cannot still put heart and effort into the whole project.

So let’s talk!

(And if you’ve talked already, kudos to you.)