This post is the second in a series of posts on Neon Genesis Evangelion and has spoilers for the first two episodes. Part 1 can be found here.
I didn’t have a particularly good 2000. There wasn’t anything wrong with it really; it was just a pretty mediocre year, all things considered. What these first two episodes of Evangelion have shown me is that as meh as my turn of the millennium was, it could have been infinitely worse. If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you read my introductory post earlier
in the week last week (I swear, I’ve been working on this for that long). If you read that introductory post, I’m going to assume that you’re wondering why I’m posting again so soon when I mentioned that I’m covering around 4-5 episodes per post. Here’s the thing: by the end of just two episodes, I realized that I had so much to talk about that it was going to be nigh impossible to hold all of that till I reached episode 4 or 5. Now, to be fair, part of the reason that I have so much to say is because these first two episodes are all about introductions and first impressions. Hopefully, the pace picks up from here, but seeing how rich this show looks to be, I make no promises. Finally, a note on comments and spoilers – until I’m done with the series, I’m probably not going to watch videos/read articles about the series because I don’t really want them affecting my perception of it too much. I’m fine watching non-spoiler videos but I realize that it’s a little onerous for me to expect spoiler warnings for a show that is 20 years old. Instead of expecting others to tag spoilers for me, I figured it would just be safer and simpler to abstain from all of it till I’m done with the series.
Episode 1: Angel Attack
When I first wrote this review (this is version 3, in case you’re wondering), I really struggled with the structure. On one hand, I wanted to talk about the various aspects of the series – the themes, the setting, the symbolism, the characters – but on the other hand, I didn’t think was any point in taking such a broad approach and tackling all those topics so early into the series. What I decided instead would be to run through the episodes themselves and highlight some of the more interesting scenes and my thoughts on them so far. I’ll bring up some thoughts that aren’t episode specific and then we can see how those thoughts evolve as the series proceeds. For example, in today’s post, I’m going to bring up the topic of isolation and loneliness as a theme in Evangelion and while I obviously won’t be bringing in examples from throughout the series, I’ll be building on the foundations I lay down today and seeing how that theme develops as the series progresses.
First Impressions: Throwback to 1995
The series opens with a gigantic bipedal creature attacking a city – or what’s left of it, anyway. The monster, known as an Angel, is wreaking slow havoc throughout the city (I suspect it’s Tokyo, but we aren’t told explicitly, unless I missed it) and nothing in the United Nations’ arsenal is able to even scratch it. This first scene does a great deal of legwork in establishing the setting, but it does it without a lot of explicit explanation. The opening shots show us the Angel swimming through the ruins of a city and defence forces assembling in the hopes of defeating it. Almost instinctively, given the post-apocalyptic vibe, the audience can infer that that it is the Angel that the army is assembling to defeat, that it is most likely responsible for the destruction it is wading through and that it is a serious threat. All of this seems obvious, I know, but consider the alternative, where we get a solid 10minutes of slow, excruciating exposition while watch nothing happening on screen. The introductory scene is a mixture of intriguing and familiar; it tells you just enough to leave you wanting more.
Since we’re on the topic of first impressions, I feel like I should also mention the visual aspect of it. Most of you will be aware that the last series I saw was Fate/Zero. I bring this up because in terms of art and animation, Evangelion and Fate/Zero are nothing alike. I won’t lie – I can’t say that I objectively like the art, but somehow, I do feel like it fits the show really well. For example, I’m not the biggest fan of the dull, muted colour scheme – I know, it was fairly typical of the technicolour animation of the time, but like I said, I can’t honestly say that I like it, aesthetically, all that much. Similarly, the animation makes the scenes feel much more stationary and still than in other series I’ve seen and gotten used to. Yet, those very same faded colours feel very consistent with the tone of hopelessness I’m picking up from this series and, looking at silver linings, the lack of general movement on the screen lets me digest the various shots without too much distraction. It’s clear that the characters are the focal point here and the animation isn’t meant to get in the way of that. I don’t know if I’ll ever come to love the visuals of this series, but hey, it’s early days yet.
Character design hasn’t really been something I’ve talked a whole lot about and in the past, largely because I felt like I wasn’t qualified to. I’ll give it a shot today, however, especially because I have a point to make. Shinji’s character design is pretty much as bland as it gets. He’s spectacularly ‘meh’ – he’s just a normal school kid, in uniform and with really no features to set him apart. He has no real features to set him apart – he’s not particularly tall, short, thin, fat, for example. He’s just your generic everyman. He doesn’t even have weirdly coloured hair to make him pop out – in fact, surrounded by blue haired and blonde women, he really fades into the background. It’s very appropriate however; the take-away from these first episodes has been that Shinji is just an ordinary kid who has been bullied into extraordinary circumstances and everything from his clothes to his appearance reflects that. He’s in well over his head and the character design really rams home the absurdity of it all – he’s a schoolboy piloting a giant organic robot trying to fight a monster that could destroy human civilization. Then we have the EVAs themselves – I’m not a huge fan of their colour schemes, but I love their designs otherwise. They are a great mix of intimidating and awe-inspiring. When Shinji’s unit arrives on the scene, it looks badass enough that you can believe right away that it can fuck shit up. At the same time, it has a look that is at once both bestial and somewhat human. I’ll circle back to the rest of the characters’ design if something strikes me, but first, I want to get a better feel for what their characters are really like.
Keep calm and get in the damn robot
As I moved from the introduction and into the meat of the first episode, one of the things I noticed was this feeling of emptiness and isolation in the show, especially in Shinji’s scenes. I wasn’t sure if it would be a one-time thing but then when I moved from the first episode to the second and got a better feel for the show’s tone and emotional atmosphere, I realized I was on to something. Of course, it could just be a two time thing but we’ll see. First, I’ll explain how two different aspects of the show created that atmosphere of loneliness and isolation.
Visuals: Compare the sequence of scenes of the UN trying and failing to destroy the Angel to any scene with Shinji in it (with a couple of notable exceptions, both of which I will get to in a moment). The UN scenes are relatively unremarkable – indeed, the UN there is depicted as stereotypically and almost comically inept. One thing that makes it unremarkable is the number of people involved; there is plenty of hustle and bustle, a lot of background noise and chatter. Now, in most of Shinji’s scenes, it’s just him and maybe one or two other people, tops. In the early part of the episode, this is justified with the warning sirens and all of that jazz but this trend continues throughout the rest of the episode (and the next, but I don’t want to head there just yet); even inside the base, we barely see any of the other personnel beyond the named characters. Now, I mentioned a couple of exceptions. One of them is from the next episode, so we’ll hold off on that for a second, but the other is at the tail end of this first episode. The only time we really realize that there are other, non-named characters involved in Shinji’s life is when the adults around him are turning the pressure on him up. They don’t say anything but he notices their looks of judgement and disappointment. It’s important to note that we see all this from his perspective; those unnamed characters might not actually be judging him at all, but he thinks they are and that perception makes an important reality because they are part of his decision to get into the robot.
Dialogue: Now, the dialogue is going to be a harder sell because it’s going to seem like I’m making a big deal out of nothing and reading way too much into way too little, but bear with me for a bit. When Shinji is rooted to the spot in terror of getting into the scary looking robot, we see that the way everyone speaks to him is designed to isolate and single him out. I’m paraphrasing of course, but the gist of what they say is stuff like “Only you can do it”, “You have to do it or we’ll all die”, “Look at this poor girl on life support. She’s willing to try even in her state but you won’t?! You suck”, “You’re useless, you’re a whiny little bitch”, “Why can’t you do anything right?” They don’t say all of this of course, at least not in so many words, but you can tell that it’s all that Shinji is hearing. It’s not hard to imagine that a teenage boy, hopelessly out of his league and already lacking confidence, would hear such sentiments in their harsh words. At no point does anyone offer any support or even an acknowledgement of what they are asking of him; naturally, the tone of the scene starts feeling like Shinji vs the rest. The scene does a great job of showing the pressure bearing down on Shinji and explaining, in great non-verbal fashion, just what convinced him to finally take action. I guess isolation isn’t the right word here. It’s more like Shinji is all alone and everyone is against him; my brain is more than a little fried and I’m blanking on the exact word for it. Suggestions welcome in the comments.
I’ve already written way more than I originally planned to for this episode, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given how this has happened for literally every other episode review I’ve ever written but somehow I still never see it coming. Analysis is all well and good but I also need to get my own personal response to the events of the episode off my chest. You see, I found this episode pretty captivating despite a lot of it being set-up and world-building but I also have a couple of gripes with it that I need to voice.
Someone call child services
The biggest gripe is with how the episode kind of plays jump rope with its tone. For the first three quarters of the episode or so, the Angel attack is treated as no big deal. There is no wide scale panic, there is no real sense of urgency. Misato escorts Shinji around, calm as can be; even when they see the nuke go off in the distance, it’s treated as more of an inconvenience than as a legit moment of fear or anything like that. All of which is fine; Gurren Lagann didn’t take a single thing seriously and turned out just fine. However, once Shinji gets into Geo-Front (I believe the next episode establishes that it is New Tokyo 3?) things change quite soon after. Suddenly, things have gone from very much under control to an extreme code red. It gave me a little whiplash, really. It’s honestly pretty disorienting for the audience to suddenly be told that things are going very poorly and that Shinji is the only one who can save the day; I can only imagine what would be going through the character’s mind, in-story. To be fair, stories can certainly have different mood and tones at different points and you can even argue that Misato probably thought that everything was under control until she got to the base, but the way the episode tells it just felt jarring to me
What the fuck is wrong with everyone?
This isn’t a gripe so much as an emotional response to the episode but, seriously, what the fuck is wrong with half the characters? Let’s recap mankind’s full set of line of defences against an Angel attack (as shown in this episode anyway):
- Tanks, bombs, explosives, bullets
- Evangelion robot
- Mankind = saved
I’m not even kidding. The fact that Gendo, who took a spectacularly short amount of time to establish himself as a piece of shit, is willing to dump an untrained teenager into a robot that’s about to fight for mankind’s survival is either a sign of desperation or gross, staggering incompetence. The episode’s tone (see above) does not treat give the impression that things are that desperate (most people hard seem bothered at all) and Gendo doesn’t seem like the kind of character who we are supposed to think of as incompetent (though he very well could be).
It feels like I’m missing something because everyone in that room looked to Shinji like it’s perfectly naturally to expect him to just obediently jump into a terrifying, possibly sentient robot, get drowned in robo-juice and go fight a monster that just shrugged off a nuke. Unless this isn’t Shinji’s first time at the rodeo, this whole incident seems more like an indictment of the way NERV is running itself than anything to do with Shinji himself. The one thing I haven’t touched on just yet is the characters, but we’ll get to that too.
Episode 2: The Beast/Unfamiliar Ceiling
Episode 2 actually has an interesting story structure – we pick up right where we left off in the previous episode, but Shinji blacks out soon after his fight with the Angel begins. It is only at the episode’s end that we realize just what transpired after Shinji fainted. There is a fair bit of misdirection too – we see a shot of Shinji’s robot’s damaged head and that gets us thinking that Shinji lost and he was robot was thrashed while he himself survived. There isn’t as much to discuss in this episode, so we’ll take it scene by scene.
Shinji gets into the robot, tries his luck to fight a monster with literally no training. If there were any other show, they would suddenly realize that Shinji is some kind of piloting genius who can move his robot instinctively. To be fully honest, I thought that the reason for the whole mind-meld mechanism was to explain away how he could use the robot without any guidance, but I guess that’s not it. Instead of giving Shinji a pass on the basics, the scene makes a point of how desperate his situation is but what annoys me is how the folks back in the control room had absolutely no back-up plan and how their advice was basically the equivalent of “Do something!”
So Shinji wakes up in an unfamiliar place and sees Rei being carted around, still grievously injured. I think it’s time we had a chat about Rei, actually. This is the third time we’re seeing Rei – in the first episode, she appeared in this mini-vision that Shinji had while waiting for Misato, before he even met her later in the same episode. The mysterious, shady council behind NERV tells us that the Angels are back after fifteen years, but in that case, just how did Rei get herself so badly injured? It was mentioned that Shinji’s unit was under repair as well, which leads me to think that Rei was piloting it (actually, that might have been explicitly stated) but what was she piloting it against? Regardless, the presence of the mind-machine linkage between the pilots and the robots got me thinking that there is a lot of potential for some mind/emotion sharing shenanigans. Shinji saw Rei unharmed in his little daydream and we saw that Shinji and Rei’s robot have some sort of connection (based on how it shielded him instinctively). I don’t quite have enough to form a fully-fledged theory here, but it’s got my gears turning. I’ll be paying attention to Rei in the future.
We’ll double back to the shady council meeting in a bit because since we’re on the topic of characters, there are three more characters that need to be discussed. First up: Ikari Gendo. So this guy is clearly an asshole: he pretty much disowned his son and seems to be showing absolutely no regrets about it. The thing is, that as emotionally abusive and distant as he is, it also seems that he’s not really all that savvy. If he was, he would have realized right away in the previous episode that the best way to get Shinji into the robot wasn’t by bullying him and beating his already low self-confidence into a pulp but rather by just applying to Shinji’s abandonment issues and need for affection by just throwing him some support. It probably didn’t even need to be genuine – as the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. I’m not sure what it says about the character that he couldn’t even fake affection to get what he wants. I feel like that’s the bare minimum you need to be able to fake if you want to me to take you seriously as a manipulative bastard. Gendo’s appearance in this episode also makes it clear that not only does he absolutely not care what Shinji thinks of him, he is also apparently trying his best to get Shinji to despise him. If that’s the case, then it seems he’s well on his way.
Shinji himself isn’t particularly big on sticking up for himself and as a character, I kind of feel that he’s walking on a knife’s edge at the moment. Sure, I (and I’ll assume, the rest of the audience) has a lot of sympathy for him at the moment, but there’s only so long that he can just accumulate sympathy before we expect him to fight back and do something badness. Now, to be fair, there is no indication that that’s not going to happen but my point is that even with his sad backstory and his numerous self-confidence issues and his stressful environment, there is only so long that he’s going to get a pass before the audience just turns it around on him and blames him for his own situation. It’s not fair and in real life, that would kind of be a dick move to make though it wouldn’t be totally unreasonable there either. We should probably take a closer look at his issues, though, just to be fair to his character. He grew up pretty much an orphan from the looks of it – he doesn’t mention his mum, so I’ll assume she’s dead or not in the picture – and I don’t see Gendo being much of a doting dad. Shinji’s personality seems like the kind that would be a good target for bullies so between all of that, I’m not surprised that he is the way he is. Like I said, I have a lot of sympathy for him – for now.
Next, we have Shinji’s new mother figure, Misato. I’ll be honest, Misato seems like the kind of character that is supposed to be likeable but then turned out to be really fucking annoying. In my case, I think she left a really poor first impression – from her immaturity as an adult to her berating Shinji to fight the Angel even though he was clearly too scared to move, I just really didn’t like her. Most of her appearance in this episode didn’t do much to help that impression – from the borderline alcoholism to her presumption that she is even capable of caring for Shinji. I’ll be fair; I do think it was nice of her to take him in, especially since he has no one to go to for support but I don’t actually think that she is in a position herself to give him the kind of help he needs. She seems to have issues of her own – no one should be drinking that much shitty beer – and it seems like her immaturity is a cover for something deeper. Is she worried that if she’s not seen as fun and happy-go-lucky, no one will talk to her? There’s also this weirdly sexual vibe between her and Shinji, which is kind of uncomfortable since it’s coming from her (she has to be at least twice his age) and not from the hormonal teen. It’s sort of played for laughs, which is fine, but I’m not sure how seriously I’m supposed to be taking this. It’s probably not healthy for the kid with parental issues to have a new parental figure that has iffy sexual tension with him. Just saying. Then again, maybe I should wait and see how this goes because I can’t say that having someone lively and energetic like her would be bad for Shinji – plus, she does seem to be trying her best to get him to come out of his shell and you could tell that having a real home and an adult who actually gave a damn about him was important to him. I guess what I’m trying to decide on (and this is probably also going to decide where I come down on whether I like Misato or not) is whether this situation is two damaged (though Misato isn’t really damaged so much as she is just immature) people helping each other out or two drowning people trying and failing to save each other.
It’s a small, small world filled with only named characters
We will get to the shady council, but not before a short detour. Previously, when talking about isolation and loneliness in this series, I mentioned that there was a scene in this episode that I wanted to talk about. Notice that throughout this episode, in every scene with Shinji, we hardly ever see any ‘extras’. It’s always named characters, or characters with previous speaking roles. It’s all a part of what I was getting at earlier. There is a scene where Shinji walking into a supermarket and overhears a couple of people talking about the battle earlier. This is different from the previous exception I mentioned above because there is no malice in what they are saying – their words are not meant for him, but I can’t help but think that even small instances like those serve to set him apart from the rest of the characters. Shinji doesn’t have the option of moving away – that’s an option that most of the other characters do have, I’d think – nor does he get the blissful ignorance of not knowing what is going on. Instead, he has to be right in the thick of things, actually fighting the monsters that have everyone else freaked out. It’s weird; when I type this all out, I feel like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but otherwise, I think it’s a solid point. I’ll leave it to you lot to decide.
Ok, so coming back to the shady council – actually, you know what? Till they give us a name, I’m hereby christening them the Shady Council. Anyway, the Shady Council scene offered tantalizingly little in terms of real information but at the same time, a great deal by way of insinuation. What we essentially learned was that the EVAs are not seen as the real plan to save the world/humanity – instead, that’s this Instrumentality project. This explains why Gendo wasn’t particularly concerned one way or another if Shinji fought the Angel and why he was willing toss his other asset (Rei) away by sending her out even when she was injured; it’s all just a side-project to him compared to Instrumentality. It’ll be interesting to see just what this project is all about. I also noticed that a Shady Council member asked how much of their money Gendo and his family intend to waste – not just his son. Again, might be reading too much into it, but given that there is a question mark hanging over Shinji’s mother and her fate, this will be something to keep an eye on. Lastly, speaking of Rei again, we were told that Shinji was the third Chosen Child, so we’re still missing one.
It’s all a matter of tone
Not to bring this up again, but this episode has a really good example of the range of tones that this show seems to have. There are times, like the end of this episode, where the show offers a fairly sombre treatment of anxiety and PTSD, but then the show also has a penguin that showers on a regular basis. I don’t really have an issue with this when it comes down to it, but it’s going to take some getting used to. The issue I’m having is that the character’s actions and the show’s treatment of those actions are giving me mixed signals. On one hand, Shinji’s stay in Misato’s place is shown to be awkward for him (not least because Misato is actually a pig in human skin) but also emotionally important to him in what it represents. Yet, that aspect of it is sort of underplayed when the penguin appears – it basically tells me that it’s all light-hearted and not really important. I think I’m going to need a few more episodes to really understand the show’s personality.
Speaking of sombre treatment of anxiety and fear, we come to the end of the second episode as Shinji recalls the terrifying events of his fight with the Angel. The one thing I’m really liking about this show is that it doesn’t sugar-coat the violence – when Shinji’s robot goes on auto-pilot (for the lack of a better term) and fucks the Angel’s shit up, it’s not really seen as cool so much as it is just brutal. What we see isn’t one combatant gracefully defeating another through superior technique – this is far more animalistic, like the bear in The Revenant ripping through Leonardo DiCaprio. Shinji doesn’t walk away from his experience full of confidence and swagger – he walks away more troubled than he was going in. It’s not even surprised really – he could feel the Angel hurt the robot and really, the stress of a situation like that alone would be enough to do a number on someone’s psyche. Shinji’s got a lot of fights ahead of him and he needs to harden himself if he’s going to have any shot of not crumbling like an apple based dessert.
With that you have finally reached the end of this ridiculously long piece. You can probably see why I decided to stop with just two episodes (and why it took more than a week to write it). Having said that, I do think that the pace will pick up since a lot of this post was me talking about first impressions and what not. As always, feedback is appreciated as is your support on Facebook. I’ll probably drop a submission to /r/anime later this week but if anyone knows a better sub for it, the karma is yours to claim. Lastly, here’s my weekly beg appeal to your sense of charity: if you feel the work I do is worth even a dollar, I’d be happy to have it. If nothing else, it’d help with the cost of keeping this site up – I dream of the day where I can get myself a nice wordpress theme and maybe even a better banner picture (preferably one that I didn’t make myself in MS paint). If you decide to part with that dollar, you can get it to me through Patreon (let me know if you have alternative billing needs, I’m sure we can work something out). Till next time!