This post is the fifth in a series of posts on Neon Genesis Evangelion and has spoilers for episodes 1-20.
This post covers Neon Genesis Evangelion episodes 14-20.
Hello and welcome back! Since the last time I posted anything here, I’ve been to the furthest, most desolate corners of the world and back (aka London). I’ve seen some things that have made me question the way I’ve lived my life so far (cheap beer and amazing whiskey, or was it the other way around?). I’ve also been through some stuff that still keeps me up at night (jet lag, I literally just got home). Sorry for the long semi-explained absence, but the good news is that I’m back and not going anywhere for a while. Speaking of jet lag though – I don’t know how many of you have binge watched Neon Genesis Evangelion while severely jet lagged but there really is no better way to watch it. As the insanity increases, your temporally challenged brain just sort of accepts that everything is fucked and no one is going to get out of this mess happy and psychologically healthy. Of course, the odds of them ending the series with a clean bill of mental health were never all that great given that almost none of them began the series all that mentally sound in the first place. The trajectory of the first half of the series left the story enough room for the possibility of a positive outcome for most of the characters but the group of episodes we’re covering today (episodes 14 through 20) all but ensure that we’re en route to a bad ending.
Without watching the entire series, it’s hard to tell whether Neon Genesis Evangelion follows the traditional Three Act Structure, but assuming it does, the episodes we’re discussing today pretty much cover the second act. The first thirteen episodes of the series, which I collectively consider to be its ‘first act’, contain plenty of exposition and create a sense of normalcy around the severely abnormal. It takes something as irregular as an Angel attack (which is irregular even within the Evangelion context) and turns it into the norm – there is an Angel to deal with in almost every episode yet we don’t get the sense that the stakes from these encounters are exceptionally high. Yet, during this time period, there is a lot going on in the background – we are introduced to SEELE, hear suspicious mentions of a ‘Human Instrumentality Project’ and are made aware of a bigger picture, though we are kept from seeing it in its entirety. In episodes 14 through 20, however, those background events become prominent elements of the plot in their own right and the source of the tension begins to the change. In the first act, there were essentially two sources of tension – Shinji’s internal fight with his own psyche and his external fight with the Angels. However, in the second act, while Shinji’s psychological battles rightly remain an important focus of the narrative, they begin to share the limelight with the clandestine operations of SEELE, NERV and the puppet master pulling the strings of both groups – Ikari Gendo. This second act also comes with a dramatic increase in intensity. Gone are the (relatively) idyllic days where Shinji and Asuka dance together to defeat an Angel; now, each battle leaves the combatants with lasting physical and mental scars. The reason I’m going into this long introduction is because today’s post is going to be focused on story-telling in Neon Genesis Evangelion. I’m going to be taking a look at how Evangelion uses different types of story-telling modes to move the plot forward. I have long suspected that Evangelion is a series in which the characters’ psychological state cannot be isolated from the events of the story and nothing I’ve seen in 20 episodes has convinced me that I’m wrong and in fact, I’ve seen plenty of supporting evidence, especially in the last handful of episodes. Essentially, what this means is that the Evangelion story is told in two ways: the psychological evolution of Shinji and his friends; and through the events surrounding the aftermath of the Second Impact and mankind’s attempts to prevent the Third Impact, whatever that really is.
Psych 102: One step forward, ten steps back
Character development is easy in theory but can be incredibly difficult to do well. Luckily for me, I’m not here to write Shinji’s story – I’m only here to take it apart and see how it works. This section is basically going to be a run through of the various characters and how they have evolved over the course of the last six or so episodes. Of course, almost every character has changed in some way or another but what’s particularly noteworthy to me is that while you would normally expect each character to have taken various forward steps along each of their own paths, it’s not that simple in Evangelion. Instead of sorting out their issues and coming out on the other side a little closer to their resolutions, some characters are worse off now than they were previously and in some cases, whatever progress they made was almost entirely wiped out. I’ll go into specifics very soon but for now, let me just say that I have mixed feelings about this. On the positive side, I welcome an approach to character development that isn’t a straight line forward. People don’t just change for the better all the time and it’s especially nice to see mental and self-worth issues treated with some nuance; your confidence issues don’t suddenly disappear forever just because you learn how to pilot a robot. On the other hand, this is a work of fiction and there’s no satisfaction in seeing a character spend a series going nowhere and it’s especially frustrating to see whatever progress a character did make being wiped out. I’ll get into the details in a minute but I’m not going to be covering every single character since that would just take ages.
I’ll start with Rei mostly because yet again, I have the least to say about her. The simple fact is that while I don’t dislike her character, I simply also don’t really have an opinion on her one way or another. I like the amusing dynamic she shares with Asuka but beyond that, as a character in her own right, I find Rei to simply be a blank slate. Compared to the rest of the characters we will be talking about in this list, she is by far the one with the least growth and development. That is not to say that there no growth or development – as is the case with several other characters, she too seems have lost whatever little progress she made since the beginning of the series. When we were first introduced to her, she was the consummate professional soldier; aloof but polite, unwavering in her discipline yet unfailingly competent. We got glimpses of a more human side of her as she opened up to Shinji and we got glimpses of a puzzlingly warm relationship with Gendo – yet, I don’t we’ve ever really seen anything beyond that since then. In fact, in recent episodes, she’s given off much more of a fatalistic vibe, remarking that she can be replaced if she were to die. Whether this is a remark brought on by knowledge that several other potential Eva pilots are around as a backup or an acknowledgement of the inhumane way that NERV uses its pilots, is unclear but it is also the first sign of dissatisfaction with NERV and, coming from such a stoic character, is quite telling.
Kaji is a little bit of strange entry here because he seems like a fully developed character. While the rest of the cast have a number of issues that they need to work through, it seems to me that Kaji is one of the few who seems to have figured his life out and made peace with it. In an earlier post, I mentioned that I don’t really expect much from Kaji since his job seems simply be to push certain parts of the NERV/SEELE plot forward but I take it back. Kaji is a little like a chemical catalyst; he interacts with other characters and helps them develop but he himself is unchanged by the process. Primarily, he helps unsettle Misato and help her reach a better understanding of not just herself but also her role in the events that will soon unfold. Their relationship is messy, vitriolic yet genuine in some ways. We’ll talk about Kaji’s role in providing an avenue for plot-related exposition to the audience a little later, but for now, I get the feeling based on his interactions with Misato and Shinji, that he is meant to be a mirror that others can use to understand themselves better.
Ah, now we start getting to the dramatic heavyweights. In a series filled with the quiet personalities with deep, underlying psychological issues, Misato is breath of fresh air. She’s no Asuka – which means we don’t really see her screaming and shouting all over the place – but she is no less emotionally expressive, even if that expression doesn’t always take the healthiest of forms. The events of the past few episodes have placed an incredible amount of stress on her both personally and professionally. This is especially problematic to a character like her because, as we noted previously, she was always a wreck in her personal life but immaculate as a professional. As she gets closer to Shinji and truly begins to see him as the surrogate son that she’s long claimed him as, that division between her personal and professional life is getting ever thinner. Throw Kaji into the mix, and that division pretty much crumbles. The net result is fascinating to me – the chaos of her personal life begins to seep into her professional life, resulting in her frequently snapping when the situations get too intense and failing to maintain the appropriate professional boundaries when either of her wards (but especially Shinji, because which parent doesn’t have a favourite) are in danger. For example, Misato, a few episodes ago, had no compunctions about sending Asuka off into a volcano even past the recommended safety limits. However, her concern for Shinji’s mental well-being keeps her from telling him upfront who the new Eva pilot will be and she also displays a great deal of grief over his ‘death’ in Episode 16 (‘Splitting of the Breast’). The trouble is that her personal life remains a mess and in fact just keeps getting more and more complicated. Her tumultuous affair with Kaji hasn’t gone unnoticed by those closest to her and to anyone’s eyes, it just looks like her personal life, barely held together when there were no Angels to deal with, is now just plain disintegrating.
Yet, despite it looking like she’s falling apart to anyone who’s watching, I think there is a case to be made that Misato is actually in the process of pulling herself together. Her reactions make a lot more sense when we consider that she is only now beginning to question all of the lies that NERV has told her. As a result, all of a sudden, she finds herself unable to fully trust Ritsuko, who was once probably her closest friend. Self-doubt has begun to creep in as she begins to consider her own true motives for fighting this fight – if it’s all for her personal grief then is it worth putting her children through all this? I think the fact that she has begun the process of re-evaluating herself will stand her good stead by the end of the series and I hope that that means that she can help those around her, because the next to entries on this list could really use it.
And then there’s Asuka. In a lot of ways, I think that Asuka might just be one of the most complex characters in the series, simply because unlike the next closest candidate (Shinji), she actually displays a full range of emotions. Asuka is unique among the three pilots because she is the only one who consistently shows both strength and weakness. Shinji, no offense to him, is pretty much as timid as they get (yes, I’m sure there are good reasons for it, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is timid) while Rei shows no emotional vulnerability at all. In Asuka, we get a good mix of both – she shows us a fierce competitive side of herself that hates losing but also shows us how much it stings when she does lose. She lacks the emotional maturity to properly express her feelings but that in itself is rather endearing; a display of attempted strength aimed at masking her weakness. This run of episodes has not been kind to her and while her own actions have at times been petty and disruptive, it’s hard to not feel sorry for her:
- When Misato begins her affair with Kaji, Asuka is the first to pick up on it. It’s not all that surprising, given her age, that she reacts poorly to ‘losing’ to Misato. To her and her insecurities, Kaji’s relationship with Misato is an explicit rejection of Asuka and it sends her the message that she’s not pretty enough, not mature enough, or just plain not good enough for him. You might be thinking, ‘Well, yeah, he’s a grown man and she’s a little girl’ but if you’ve ever had a crush on a teacher or an elder adult, you’d probably find her reaction a little familiar (even if you don’t want to admit it in the comments section). It’s especially bad because there have been a number of occasions on which Asuka has literally thrown herself at Kaji, only to be swatted away like an annoying child (which, to be fair to Kaji, she was being). In addition to that, she’s seen Misato do nothing but insult Kaji and call him names – yet, Misato is the one who ‘wins’? In her mind that means, either Kaji has horrible taste in women, or she must have lost her groove.
- Asuka then tries to repair her damaged ego by turning on her charms for Shinji. I mean, it’s Shinji: if anyone is going to appreciate her feminine charms, it’s got to be that virgin loser who’s always just one popped balloon away from hyperventilating, right? Well, as things turn out, Shinji’s response to her oh so romantic proposition is mostly relief when the kiss ends (mostly so he can breathe again). Asuka’s reaction when she sees Shinji’s utter lack of arousal is played off for laughs but it isn’t the first time he hasn’t responded to her flirtations and coming right after the Kaji thing, it’s a second damning rejection.
- Even outside the romantic arena, Asuka can’t catch a break. Shinji’s recent run of successes earns him the praise of his commanders, who are mostly relieved he isn’t pissing himself in the cockpit. Asuka sees her position as the de facto ‘best pilot’ threatened and this results in her compromising the mission (admittedly, Shinji blundered into that one all by himself, but still).
- It’s all downhill from there. In the confrontation with Toji’s rampaging Unit 04, Asuka is nothing more than a bystander and barely offering it any resistance. Her low sync numbers reflect her falling confidence and by the disastrous events of episode 19 (‘A Man’s Battle’), Asuka has been rendered utterly impotent.
We haven’t seen much of her since then but what remains of her confidence is surely in shreds – just as she was starting make friends and find people who care about her.
Last, but certainly not least, we have Shinji himself. Shinji’s probably had it the roughest of any of the characters simply because of how the events have jerked his psyche around. Throughout the first act, we see Shinji begin to overcome his fears and self-doubts enough to comfortably pilot Unit 01 and regularly put himself in harm’s way. We’ve seen him building healthy relationships with those around him and even confront his fear of his father. It’s those highs that make the subsequent lows feel so cruel. At first, I thought his imprisonment inside the Angel’s body would have done some damage but it seems like he emerged from that debacle with his confidence relatively intact. At that point, I wondered if he had really left his issues behind once and for all – but no, the next few episodes not only tried to force him to kill another person, but then took away his ability to stop the killing the from happening. The final blow of finding out that the person who was almost killed was his friend must have been brutal.
It didn’t end there though. In a moment of rare confrontational anger, Shinji is able to force the issue and get his father to talk to him, instead of going through someone else. Unfortunately, Shinji’s rage is rendered impotent and I think that, more than anything else, basically reminds Shinji that even in the Eva, he is helpless and unwanted. The rest of the cast is not in a position to give him the mental support his needs and soon after, when Unit 01 goes berserk and animalistic after its fight with the Angel, Shinji has a front row seat to the savage bloodbath that follows. The most frustrating thing about the whole thing was that he was so very close to being a normal, well-functioning kid again but there’s likely no chance that he will ever be able to recover from this.
Story-Telling Through Nods and Glances
Let’s take a step back again. What was the point of bringing the characters through all of that, if only to undo it? I’m making the assumption that this was the plan all along but even if it was the result of a last minute change in the direction the writers wanted to take the series, it doesn’t change what aspects of the story work and what aspects don’t. To cut a long story short, my theory here is that this group of episodes was meant to put the characters through the grinder; it was meant to push them to their limits and see what parts of their personality begin to break down. There was no shortage of cracks in them at the beginning of the series and while some of the pre-existing damage seemed to have been repaired during the story, it was only papering them over; when sufficient pressure was applied, those cracks became fractures and from the looks of things, the series isn’t going to let up until the characters actually break.
We’ve talked a good deal about the importance of the character’s personal development to the story being told – but there is a second part of the story. Shinji’s journey would be interesting in itself but is made much richer by the high stakes riding on his mental health. This broader context – i.e. the Evas, Angels and the Human Instrumentality Project – are elements that need to be carefully managed because if too much is revealed too fast, you end up making these elements redundant but at the same time if they aren’t explored sufficiently, then they also end up feeling pointless to the ‘real’ story of the characters. There will need to be a point in the story – soon, given the number of episodes left – where the story of the characters and the events in the setting will need to be firmly and permanently knit together. So far, we’ve seen the first stitches being made. For example, we know that Shinji has a personal connection to the Human Instrumentality Project and Unit 01. We also know that Misato has a connection to these events via her father. In this parallel story-telling method, it’s all too easy for the audience to pick one story – either Shinji’s personal journey or the bigger humans vs Angels story – and deemphasize the other. The best way to keep the audience interested in both simultaneously is the make sure that the tension in either does not let up. We’ve talked about how that was done on the character but it’s equally important to look at how it’s done on a plot narrative level.
The answer isn’t a tricky one. Good writers need to be able to keep an eye on what the audience needs to know at a given point in time and, in my personal opinion, they need to be as parsimonious with that information as possible. That’s why you don’t see many stories where they info-dump the whole backstory in the first five minutes. Evangelion sort of dances around this line – at first, it was fine because the assumption was that we would find everything out by the mid-point of the series or towards the middle of the second half. Having just crossed that point however, I don’t really feel like I have a lot more answers than I did ten episodes ago. Sure, I have more information but that information isn’t helping me make the connections I need to in order to make sense of the two stories. It doesn’t help that the backstory is rich and complex yet rarely, if ever, openly discussed. We know that there was a Second Impact at the turn of the millennium, for example, but we know nothing of the First Impact. We know as little as ever about the nature of the Evangelion Units or the Angels and until episode 14, I had no idea that the Angel even had vaguely biblical names. It’s good to keep the audience wondering but if you end the series without showing your hand, you’re not going to win many fans. Given Evangelion’s huge following, I have to assume that there is a big expository episode coming up that will help me make sense of it all
Bracing for the inevitable
What do we, as an audience, do when we know a bad end is on the way? It’s like watching a train crash – you know it’s going to be a bloody mess but it’s also beautiful in its carnage and you can’t take your eyes off it. Nothing to do but watch, I guess! See you all next week!