Saving What Counts: Reflections on the End of Eva
by Matthew Weise, November 16, 1999
There is a presupposition that I find amusing, and that is that imperfection makes a piece of work less interesting. To my mind, imperfection, when it is overcome, can add a richness to a piece of work because then you get two stories: the story of the work itself, and the story of the storyteller exploring their resources and mastering their craft. For example, to me Rumiko Takahashi's Maison Ikkoku manga series would have had half the appeal if it had begun as good as it ended. It is exhilarating in many ways to see her go from lame sex farce, to engaging romantic comedy, to straight-out sitcom, to confidently constructed (melo)drama. Hideaki Anno's Neon Genesis Evangelion, I believe, is a similar situation. It isn't exactly the same (Anno was already a competent storyteller when he began Eva), but I never the less see the same element of trial and error experimentation in his work, which, to my mind, is the real appeal behind Eva. We get to see Anno screw up and keep coming back for more. His tenacity alone is worth the price of admission.
God knows there has been endless discourse surrounding Anno's narrative and stylistic choices in this ending, and I would not be the first to point out that it is a severe departure from the series. However, unlike many, I don't mind. My experience with Evangelion is somewhat unique, I imagine. I knew nothing of it until I saw it from beginning in a very short amount of time and then saw the movie, End of Evangelion, immediately afterwards. What I was left with was an extremely acute vision of the series, shoved in my face all at once, and taking a long time to digest. Seen all at once I felt that La Raison d'etre / Do You Love Me? and The Beast That Shouted "I" at the Heart of the World / Take Care of Yourself were the focal point for the entire series, the once piece that gave it the perspective it badly needed. In the end, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a horribly flawed but honest and imaginative series... and this is the episode that proves it.
To be perfectly honest, I didn't like Eva's series finale the first time I saw it. I was all geared up for the end of the world, and what I got was the disappearance of the narrative and in its place what seemed like an over extended group therapy session. Needless to say I was fairly put off. However, seeing the movie, End of Evangelion, and the rest of the series over again I found the final episodes to be probably the best finale the series could hope for.
The supposed "real" ending of Eva, the movie, is what it took to make me realize exactly what it was that the show did right. The movie gives you the labyrinthine plot that Evangelion was building up to and ironically proves that, ultimately, the plot of Evangelion wasn't very interesting. The pop-theology and religious name-dropping that the series liked to indulge so much in are brought to the foreground resulting in total chaos, with the ideology of the series being splintered into a thousand pieces as characters are bent and twisted to conform to the plot which ends on a note of glaring philosophical pretense. In retrospect, the series finale of Eva seems wise to simply forego its narrative and opt for the exact material that the movies failed to address: the individual anxieties of the human beings involved in a familiar, real world context.
How one takes the series finale of Evangelion depends heavily on how he or she takes what has come before and after. I cannot speak for others but I myself felt that the primary appeal of Eva up until that point was the lives and anxieties of the characters involved, how they existed within the mecha genre structure in a way that betrayed stereotypes and showed actual human beings lurking underneath, caught within a plot that was spiraling through melodrama to the point where it would inevitably swallow them whole. In the movie, it does swallow them whole, while in the series finale they valiantly fight for themselves to voice their own fears about their ultimate fates. It's a narrative mutiny, and I'm glad that the side I was rooting for wins out.
Put very simply, La Raison d'etre / Do You Love Me? and The Beast That Shouted "I" at the Heart of the World / Take Care of Yourself show me exactly what I wanted to know about the characters of the series. It takes each of them on their own terms and lets them try to make sense of their lives. The stage may be a cliché in some ways, but it is hardly ineffective. What impresses me so much about it isn't that it is a stage, but that on a broader level it is defining the private world of these characters in terms of the familiar, a physical space that is ordinary and devoid of any of the sci-fi queues of the show. It sees them clearly as people apart from the comic book world they inhabit, and the distinctions allows for a distilled exploration of their personalities.
Rei, Asuka, and Misato's sequences in episode 25 are all scenes filled with detailed focus and genuine curiosity for who these people really are. Misato's sequence I found especially moving. When she imagines Shinji watching her engage in sex and then everyone she knows ridiculing her for it, it is a extraordinarily powerful moment that clearly defines her anxieties about how she sought affection in her life (as well as an excellent use of off-screen space in the use of the bed-side fan, I might add. This sequence was used again in the movie except with actually showing the love-making, and to far less effect.)
Shinji, naturally, is given the most screen time in the form of the final episode, episode 26, and I must say that Anno does not waste a second of it. In Shinji he takes the opportunity to make a truly thoughtful conclusion to his thesis of human weakness that has pervaded the series, and he does so with deft creativity. After seeing what Anno did with a bigger budget in the movie, I personally find nothing more refreshing than to see his creative resources sharpened to a fine, laser-point by having to deal with a limited budget, and Eva's finale is a perfect example of a substantial work made from scraps. Shinji's descent through increasingly less-defined images of himself and those around until he arrives in a world of semi-animated sketches in an endless white space shows impressive economy in its use of the animation medium itself as an expression of Shinji's anxieties. The return to nothingness for the animated character we know as Shinji is, appropriately, a return to the blank page, at which point he must rebuild his world from scratch after it has been, literally, erased. This sequence, in which space, personal perception, and freedom are defined within terms of an artist's drawing is brilliantly effective in its simplicity and achieves a clarity I feel is remarkable. I don't think I've seen more concise take on human anxieties about control than when Anno draws a pencil line across a blank page.
Ultimately, what I find rewarding and substantial in the final episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion is that, for me, they represent a very thoughtful and consciences confrontation with death... or at least the possibility of death. It does not shy away from the (possible) end of all things as a series of moments to be kept at arm's length through emotional manipulation dictated by a grand narrative design. It's instead stares these moments right in the face with unflinching concentration. Like Grave of the Fireflies* it does not cheat or manipulate. It simply shows, which is what the series always did behind the guise of its endless plot construction. Here, with the yoke of the plot more or less cast off, the observation is finally allowed to flower.
Do I think this is the "perfect" ending to Evangelion? Admittedly, no. Personally, I would have like to have seen these brilliant character sequences incorporated into a story that could have tied off the plot without circumventing the humanity of the characters in the process. Alas, this is not so. What we are left with is a choice between character without plot (the series finale) or plot without character (the movie), and the question to which is the true ending of the series a fairly personal one. What does Evangelion mean to you? What did you get out of it? As for myself, I got a fairly entertaining mecha series, with a goofy but interesting plot, and some of the most sympathetic and multi-dimensional characters I could have expected from this--or any--genre. So, in the end, when I consider why I was interested in the series and what I got out of it, I found La Raison d'etre / Do You Love Me? and The Beast That Shouted "I" at the Heart of the World / Take Care of Yourself to be the most touching and thoughtful conclusion this group of individuals could have hoped for, and, in the end, my only complaint is that not everyone could have been focused on equally.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is certainly not a perfect, or even close to perfect, series. In it we see Hideaki Anno go from a relatively slow beginning to trying to weave an epic plot about the end of the world that revolves around a tightly knit group of people who's personal demons play a major role in the fate of mankind. In the end, it flies wildly out of control in terms of narrative build-up and coherence, but through it all we still have Anno scampering like a madman to hold all the pieces of his sinking project together until he finally decided jump ship and save the one thing that was really important to him.
Fortunately, it was the most important thing to me too.
- Matthew Weise, November 16, 1999.
* Just so nobody out there gets too shocked, no, I am not implying that Neon Genesis Evangelion is of a comparible level of quality to Grave of the Fireflies. I'm just making a point about the honesty with which the each approach their characters, which is an aspect I found similar in the final episodes of Eva.
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