The Thin Veneer Known as "Evangelion"
"The only hope of humanity is the thread of Sadness" (Kaoru). No statement could be more befitting the anime TV show known as Shin Seiki Evangelion. Not only does sadness run throughout the plot line and characters, but director Hideaki Anno and Gainax have managed to make this statement transcend the animation medium as well, for that is exactly what Evangelion has left the viewer with: Sadness. Although the entire series up until now (#1-20) showed extreme promise, the final episodes (#21-26) manages to make one thing clear: This is a piece of animation that has failed horribly in the precepts of what 'Good Animation' should be. By 'Good Animation' I mean Anime-tion that presents some clear focus or goal with a favorable cast of characters, and a development of that goal by those characters in a cohesive, enjoyable, and stimulating manner; for if it is not cohesive, then what is the point of the animation, and what is the point of watching it? Episodes #21-26 are the anti-thesis of everything that Good Animation should be: From the narrative style, and music, to the character development and film direction, these six episodes have managed to destroy the beautiful, solid foundation work of a potentially great show, and what the viewer is left with is nothing but sadness and utter disappointment.
From the start of episode 21, "The Birth of NERV," the narrative style immediately jumps out at the viewer as 2nd-in-Command, Fuyutsuki is interrogated by the members of SEELE and proceeds with a flashback sequence in which is explained many of the most crucial and as-of-yet unanswered questions that director Anno had left in the dark until now. 'Facts' upon 'facts' are bombarded upon the viewer in rapid-fire fashion, as we find out about Fuyutsuki in his early days, and we see the first 'official' appearance of Ikari Shinji's mother, Yui, as well as Gendou, and the formation of Project E and ADAM; we see the introduction of Ritsuko's mother and we see the death of Yui and the eventual formation of NERV; we see betrayal by Ritsuko's mother, and the first appearance and immediate death of Rei as a child. Indeed, Anno and Gainax have managed to 'fulfill' all the hopes and wishes of every viewer and fan of Evangelion out there, all within the span of 19 minutes. Only upon closer (or rather, distanced) inspection does the truth become clear: This is a wonderful master facade of film direction by Anno, as he cleverly manages to sidestep every single one of the crucial plot elements and questions, and instead feeds the viewers an MTV-style, hip, post-modern bombardment of images and quick cut scenes that are about the important issues and questions, but never really answers them. How did Yui die? Who is Rei? Where did she come from? What's her purpose? How did Misato recover from her 2 years of mental incapacity? Why did Kaji die? These are just some of the real and valid questions that are never answered by Anno, Gainax, or Evangelion.
The fast, blinding narrative style doesn't stop here either, as throughout all four episodes, not only is the viewer trounced with the sheer amount of information being spouted, but in addition they are rewarded with even more confusion as the narrator of these events changes as well, nearly matching the rapidity of the facts being fed to us. From Fuyutsuki remembering his early days, to a seemingly impossible narration by Ritsuko's mother (after all, she died, and how would Fuyutsuki 'remember' anything from Ritsuko's mother's perspective?) about how she plotted Yui Ikari's death and the actual 'first-person' viewing of her murdering the baby Rei, to a present-day Misato listening to the last recording from Kaji, to Kaji's last words, Anno and Evangelion come shining through, as they have managed to blind, stun, and 'incapacitate' the viewer with this style.
The music deserves special mention, as it manages to highlight the fact that Anno, Gainax, and Evangelion have managed to fail in all aspects of Good Animation. The choice to use "Symphony No.9 in D-minor," the "Alleluia" song, is perhaps one of the worst choices of music ever. Not only is this sacrilegious, but even from an atheist's point-of-view, this would seem completely incongruous and out of place. This piece is an uplifting piece of Celebration music, but all the we see, feel, and hear is Asuka's pain and suffering. If it was meant to be from the Angel's point-of-view, then Anno has definitely failed, for we see nothing that would make us 'accept' this music and that perspective. Yet, ultimately, it could be Anno's master work facade again, as he manages to make this show even more confusing by adding in the most inappropriate, antagonistic piece of music (for a situation) to ever grace any piece of animation.
The barrage of chaos continues, as Evangelion manages to perplex the viewer even more in the area of character development. This may be the greatest achievement by Anno and Evangelion as we are seemingly presented with the backgrounds and histories of nearly every single major character in Evangelion, all within a span of 4 episodes. What Anno manages to accomplish is the thin veneer of superficiality known as 'partial memories' that manages to satiate and further blind most viewers of the show. One example is episode 24, right before they are about to Synchro-test the Fifth Children, Kaworu, Misato states: "I have no plans to cheat this time" (my emphasis). Then, they cut away to another scene. Just with this single statement, that occurs within a span of a few seconds, they have left the viewer wondering a myriad of unanswered questions: So, has Misato, Ritsuko, and/or NERV, been Cheating the test results before? If so, Why? Another example would be about Ritsuko's mother: We find out that she's a murderer, betrayer, adulteress, and somewhat psychologically imbalanced (as she commits suicide), and then we also find out the disturbing fact that NERV's 3 MAGI computers are based on her?! What does that say? Yet before the viewer has a chance to catch his breath and maybe even ponder these things, yet another monumental failure in character development occurs: Rei dies. One of the most central and mysterious characters in the series has died and what happens? Not only is this one of the most poor pieces of film direction to be shown, but more importantly, we discover that she was 'only' a shell: The 2nd Rei that existed from the plethora of 'Rei dummies' that existed in the underground Central Dogma vault. The Rei that appears later is the 3rd Rei and it is a replacement and the show continues on. Again, within a span of a few minutes we discover the shocking truth that 'Rei' is merely a shell, or dummy plug used to operate Eva. Yet, upon further thought we realize that the Rei that existed from episode 1 did 'grow' and whether it was the long exposure to Shinji (and the yearning of Yui's influence within Rei), or some other factor, Rei seemed to have begun to develop a 'soul.' This is an interesting parallel to Key the Metal Idol or even Pinocchio, where the mannequin/puppet tries to become 'human.' Here too, Rei begins to learn about gratitude (when she Thanks Shinji, for cleaning up her room), she learns to smile (when Shinji saves her from the Entry Plug), and Touji helps her realize that she does have a purpose, when he confronts her on the rooftop, and asks her, about her always looking for Shinji, and how she cares and protects him. And finally, right she before she dies (and self-destructed with Unit 00), she shows the most amount of humanity that anyone in the show has ever shown: She's willing to die to protect Shinji from the 16th Angel (and give him a chance to kill it). Realistically, just this premise alone (Rei II, a 'dummy shell,' gaining a soul) could had an entire series devoted to it, let alone a few episodes, but it is all washed away in the flood of episodes 21-24. Finally, the treatment of Touji, Kensuke, and Hikari exemplifies the worst aspects of poor storytelling and character development. In a matter of 2 seconds, a mere sentence from Shinji's narration, the fate of Touji and Kensuke (and presumably Hikari) is revealed: "The city was destroyed, so they had to move away." These major secondary characters didn't even get a cameo appearance farewell. What's even more unsatisfying is the fate of Touji - in the previous few episodes, Touji is brought into the limelight: Chosen as the Fourth Children to pilot Unit 04, we see him develop a relationship with Hikari, then we see his painful, shocking crippling by an uncontrollable Unit 01. And then we see nothing. What was originally a stunning coup by director Anno in creating a 'heroic tragedy' of sorts for a secondary character that the audience can sympathize with, turns out to be merely a cheap 'disposable' element used to further the plot. Touji, Kensuke and Hikari are bastardized by Anno, being turned from likable supporting characters into nothing in a matter of a few seconds.
This further accentuates the crowning achievement in Anno and Evangelion's Crown of 'Greatness': Kaworu Nagisa, Fifth Children and 17th Angel. Not only is Kaworu an enigmatic figure that further adds fuel to the fire of confusion, but he just manages to raise even more questions that remain unanswered: Is he sent by SEELE? What's his purpose? Is it to eliminate Gendou and NERV? And what is SEELE? First off, the element of homosexuality is perhaps the most disturbing, gratuitous, and unnecessary aspect that presents itself in episode 24. From the previous twenty-plus episodes, Shinji is presented as a very reserved person. His introspection is rivaled only by Rei. He has spent his entire 'life' in the Evangelion series with Rei, Asuka, Misato, Touji, Kensuke, etc. The fact that within a span of 14 minutes we are expected to believe that Shinji and Kaworu have transcended all boundaries and inhibitions to achieve an unearthly 'Love' and openness for each other is completely ludicrous and pathetically humorous. Ironically, we see a striking parallel that further emphasizes the irrationality of Kaworu and Shinji's relationship: Earlier, after Rei dies, Misato approaches Shinji and tries to comfort him. As she reaches for his hand, he recoils in disgust or is uncomfortable. Yet, along comes Kaworu, who he's known for about 10 minutes and is a boy, no less, and Shinji seems completely accepting of Kaworu's open touches and fondles. Ultimately, the homosexuality issue seems nothing more than cheap shock value tactics to stun generation X.
Perhaps the most important and inconclusive area regarding the various characters that Anno manages to just throw out and leave unfinished is the potential realization of the Biblical verse from the book of Exodus, about "the sins of the [parents] will be punished onto their [children] to the 3rd and 4th generation." This verse from the Ten Commandments is also similar to another verse about 'the sins of the father will be repeated by his sons.' An extrapolation of these verses also incorporates the eventual similar 'fate' and punishment of parents and children. With this in mind, the seeming parallels are shocking: (1) Ritsuko's mother committed adultery with Gendou and with their dark relationship, she helped him in his underhanded studies and experiments. Ritsuko was apparently raped or also had some intimate relations with Gendou, willing to follow him until her doom, and willing to keep everything secret until the end. (2) Misato's father pursued the mystery of the Angels and events leading up to the 2nd Impact and died in his pursuit of those truths. Misato seems to be following in that haphazard way: Ritsuko (in the cell) tells Misato that the room is bugged. Misato replies, "I don't care." Seeing how the Intelligence division is (and Kaji's death as well), Misato is effectively marked for expulsion or death. (3) Asuka's mother, after direct (1st level) contact with an Angel, goes 'insane' and eventually kills herself. Asuka, after direct contact with the 16th Angel, as well as an extremely wounded hubris (excessive Pride), has a complete mental breakdown and attempts to commit suicide, but fails; she is effectively 'dead.' (4) Shinji's father, Gendou, is so set in his beliefs (pride and stubbornness), that he's willing to die for them (disregarding everything else). Shinji, is also so set in his beliefs that he's willing to die for them (Unit 04, Touji, almost killed him). While the above may not be completely conclusive, it is rather frightening and interesting to see so many possible parallels between the characters. Yet in the end, these potential parallels will remain inconclusive due to the shortcomings of the series as a whole and direction that it was taken in. All that we are left with are merely a group of suppositions that will never be answered.
Finally, it is director Hideaki Anno's personal film direction that fails the series the most. As aforementioned, the tempo and style of these last episodes are blindingly, mind-numbingly fast and disorienting. It is when Anno attempts to actually present the viewer with good film direction that he manages to only highlight his futility and deficiency: In a scene at NERV, we see Asuka and Rei in the elevator. And all we hear is the silent drone of the elevator. That scene is very uncomfortable. The audience can almost sense the huge tension between Asuka and Rei. And yet, besides the huge failure of what happened when the silence was broken (Asuka displaying a completely misanthropic attitude towards everyone), Anno goes straight back to his fast-paced MTV cut scenes again. The end result is horrible. This only highlights the utter incongruity and incohesiveness of the film direction. Perhaps the best example of the utter disappointment is when Anno tried to use the 'dramatic pause' again (for the 2nd time in these last episodes) in the final scene between Shinji/Unit 01 and Kaworu. This was the most feeble attempt to date by Anno to try and instill a sense of some great, emotional, traumatic, monumental, heart-rending moment. What the audience gets is nothing but a wanna-be, last ditch effort to shock and stun and fool the audience into believing it all. Perhaps the greatest irony is that those two 'dramatic pauses' (which served absolutely no purpose and was useless) lasted as long as it took for us to 'find out' about the entire birth of NERV, the meeting and death of Yui, and the betrayal of Ritsuko's mother.
Finally, in the last two episodes (#25, 26), Anno's film direction reaches critical mass, as Evangelion changes from a stark tale about mechs, humans versus Angels, and the child pilots that must deal with this, to a psychological introspection laced with various popular philosophical statements, all represented by a cacophony of recycled, jumbled images and long still-frame cut scenes. And all of this culminates into Shinji finally 'waking up' and realizing that he can 'reach out and touch someone' as he finally overcomes all of his fears after this two episode-long deliberation. What makes this so disjointed is that everything that was built up throughout the entire show (all 24 episodes) are brushed aside, as this turns into a dysfunctional, psychological drama. The most humorous aspect of this series is the rationalization by many fans who accept Anno's direction and just accept "Evangelion" as one giant dream(!) that Shinji has and that when he finally wakes up, everything is OK. In addition, many hail these last episodes as a 'masterpiece' of 'Art-house' film direction. Nothing could be further from the truth - it's not 'Art-house,' it's 'out-house.' Like watching an NBA basketball game for 3 quarters, only to have it suddenly change into a Golf game for the last 2 minutes, so Hideaki Anno and "Evangelion" have failed horribly in the aspects of Good Animation, as these last two episodes take a complete detour and turn the series into something totally off-course. The bottom line is that these final two episodes are totally inappropriate in relation to the rest of the entire series.
In conclusion, through the narrative style, to character development, to film direction, Shin Seiki Evangelion and Hideaki Anno have achieved what few shows could ever hope of achieving: They have managed to dupe the vast majority of viewers into believing in their awesome Parthenon known as Evangelion, yet in the end, it is nothing more than a House of Cards that has fallen and crumbled. Just as Icarus had achieved the freedom of Flight and dared to reach too high to the Sun, only to have his wings melt and fall to his death, so does Evangelion come so close to greatness only to fall apart in the end. Perhaps the greatest deception of all was the subterfuge that Gainax, Anno, and Evangelion used known as "Christianity." That thin veil of the 'mysterious' ancient Christian religion setting, served nothing more than to add a 'mystique' and 'edge' to the biggest, over-hyped series of the century. Perhaps the most insulting, and sadly humorous, quote that sums up the series best: "Death is the only True Freedom." This last piece of Existential philosophy spouted by Kaworu (who was the 17th Angel and hence, from 'god'), not only is so blasphemous (from an 'Angel's point-of-view') and out of character for the whole show, but is one wish that many of us disenchanted viewers wish would happen to the show.
- Kenneth Lee, October 30, 1998.
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Page last modified 1998.11.19