By Bob Clark
When Hideaki Anno began his Rebuild of Evangelion series, retelling the story of his infamously popular anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, it would’ve appeared at first to be nothing more than just another stab at “Special Edition” filmmaking, the kind of approach that George Lucas took when he revisited his original Star Wars trilogy back in 1997 with updated CGI special-effects and a few revisionist edits– irrelevant and harmless changes for most viewers, but anathema to anyone who guards the films themselves as closely as an Otaku’s collection of toys and souvenirs. Fans of Evangelion might’ve had reason to react just as jealously to the news of Anno’s decision to go back to the series that had won him droves of support and just as many droves of criticism as well, usually from the very same people– like Lucas before him, Anno tends to bring out the more bipolar tendencies in modern fandom. To a large extent, that passive-aggressive appreciation has been somewhat mutual on the director’s part, as evidenced by the End of Evangelion film, which saw fit to wrap the original program’s already confusing storyline with even more confusing hallucinatory and apocalyptic imagery, culminating in a series of disturbing sequences that seemed tailor designed to upset the massive fanbase built up over the years, symbolically and literally crucifying the characters they’d come to know and love and stranding them into their own private wastelands of existential and global collapse.
Therefore, when 2007’s Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone was released and mostly stuck close to the original series’ first six episodes in everything from the story to shot-for-shot recreations, albeit at a much grander scale for theatrical production, it seemed as though all we’d be getting from the Rebuild series in general would be a mere retread of all the old familiar places, with perhaps a somewhat more unified vision by pulling together all the disparate strands of the franchise’s animated incarnations, however welcome that might’ve been. If fans really do feel married to the franchises they follow, it looked like all they’d be getting would be something borrowed, instead of something new. Well, not quite, as it turns out. If 1.0 was a mere “Special Edition” of the first arc of the show, then Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance is closer in spirit to the wildly revisionist, yet authentic take of a franchise’s spirit of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, recasting all the same archetypes and mis-en-scene into a wonderfully bright and new visual and narrative palate, recycling just enough of what was in play from before in order to better confound, surprise and delight audiences who think they know what they’re in for.
Dedicated fans of Neon Genesis will recognize the key points of the architecture which forms 2.0‘s plot, from Asuka’s introduction battling a monstrous Angel at sea to the devastating assaults on NERV’s headquarters and hardware, which leaves all three of the young-teen pilots in critical and uncertain fates, and while plenty more dots between those are connected in familiar ways, the film in question here is far more diverse and unique in the way it reaches those places than the previous feature. In many ways, it’s not surprising– though it hewed a little snuggly to the television version, You Are (Not) Alone was by most accounts wise in adhering to the feature-friendly plot of the series’ first six episodes, focusing largely on the relationship between the perennially depressed and antisocial Shinji and Rei, allowing Operation Yashima to serve as an emotionally satisfying climax, with both the young pilots connecting with one another on the battlefield and privately, fighting with all of the electrical power of Japan coursing through their mecha-units. Even in the televised versions, there was a natural dramatic progression in those installments which provided an easily identifiable beginning, middle and open-ended conclusion, with the tragically withdrawn Rei finally mustering a smile for the first time. That’s not quite the case with the rest of the series, which grew more episodic and purposefully repetitive after the inclusion of the more outgoing, but no less troubled Asuka to the cast, and this difference in the quality of the source-material is likely the deciding factor in Anno’s creative course-correcting throughout You Can (Not) Advance, as major incidents from the series are either dramatically changed or abandoned altogether in order to better serve a feature-length theatrical adaptation.
Furthermore, many changes which at first glance may appear to be nothing but time-saving measures or outright fanservice (something Anno has been decidedly two-faced about whenever he indulges in it) can at great length turn out to help foster a deepening of characters, themes and plot than even the television series had at similar points. There is a new emphasis on the attempts by the three children to connect with one another and those around them that was absent in the original, a creative measure which provides an overall narrative arc for this installment of the Rebuild series that continues the examination of social behavior from Neon Genesis in a manner that is somewhat more accessible and emotional, but never outright sentimental. Sometimes, Anno builds from existing subplots from the series, like Shinji’s search for approval from his uncaring father. At others, he fashions new storylines, like the attempts by Rei and Asuka to form new bonds with their peers by learning how to cook. At the best of moments, however, Anno finds existing material and takes it into strikingly new and different directions, at times almost completely changing the way we look at a character, event or institution that we believed we previously had a firm grasp on, but instead of redefining them past the point of recognition, reworks them just far enough to inject a sense of vitality into the old while pushing it closer to its true nature, giving us just that much more insight and understanding into the mysteries at hand.
Of all the classic elements to undergo this kind of change, perhaps the boldest and most satisfying is the transformation of the red-haired and fiery tempered Asuka into something more than just another anime pin-up girl with a bad attitude, as she had a tendency to be portrayed throughout the original series. Though she eventually grew more complex as the show progressed, there was always something about her aggressively egotistical personality that felt a little one-note (though one could say that about the other characters, as well). For the first half of her appearances, she seemed less a complete character of her own, and more of a foil for Shinji and Rei, seemingly confident and capable in every way that their more introverted souls were not. By the end, of course, it could be argued that she was the most genuinely psychologically damaged of the three children, with emotional scars far deeper and more down-to-earth than either young Ikari’s rote conflict with his father or Ayanami’s typical sci-fi existential crisis. 2.0 wisely fastforwards through a good deal of Asuka’s character arc, and even excises large chunks of stuff that defined at least her confident and capable facade from the series– no longer is she the super-popular gadfly of the group, but instead just as anti-social as the other Eva pilots in her own Queen Bee way, and no longer does she swoon over Misato’s longterm love/hate object Kaji, exchanging that for an implicit crush on Shinji. The biggest change may come in how her introduction effectively alters her entire character arc. In Neon Genesis, Asuka often boasted about her skills as behind the controls of her fire-engine red Eva unit, but seldom actually demonstrated herself as a solo-pilot. Either with somebody else shoehorned into her cockpit or forced to work as part of a team, her successes are always shared with others, as opposed to Shinji’s frequent one-on-one fights against the Angels– it wasn’t really until End of Evangelion that she finally got to show what she was made of.
Now, however, she bursts onto the scene slaying one of those abstract-looking monstrosities of Biblical naming all by herself, in mid-air, and in record time. For the first time, Asuka is set up as truly deserving the hyperbolic praise she assigns herself, and becomes less a stuck-up drama queen and more an overachieving diva. She’s less cheerleader, this time, and more Reese Witherspoon’s character from Election, only here she’s obsessing over becoming the best and most independent Eva pilot, instead of becoming school president. It helps make her more abrasive characteristics easier to relate with, and even turns her into a sympathetic figure much quicker than in the narrative arc of the series– right from the start we see her isolating herself from her peers, sulking off into a corner to talk to herself with her puppet-doll from childhood or zone out playing video-games on her Game Boy (a little like Shinji listening to his Walkman over and over again). It helps make her increasing realization of how much she depends on the other pilots more touching, and even allows her to reach out for some kind of human company before she’s called out for a pivotal mission– everyone, in fact, makes greater efforts to connect with one another this time around, enjoying sweet little moments of social happiness before things come crashing down against them all over again. Like the series, 2.0 is a poignant portrait of the trails and tribulations of growing and maturing in a desperate and hostile world, but for all the hardships there are a few more quiet periods of comfort and contact that help serve as bittersweet contrast to the tragic failures and make them feel all the more painful. This is still a picture of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma, only this time there’s just enough skin-to-skin contact before the needles sink in to make that bloodletting even more awful to behold.
Of course, there’s a whole host of prerequisite stuff throughout that I haven’t even gotten to yet, the big flashy moments you expect from Anno and Evangelion– the awesome, epic-scale battles between Eva-units and Angels, leaving so many trails of city-wide destruction in their wake; the long, drawn out periods of brooding where the agents of NERV investigate and collaborate with what might turn out to be an apocalyptic conspiracy, traveling from what’s left of the polar ice-caps to the moon itself to unravel the mystery; and of course, mind-bendingly surreal moments of body-horror transformation played out at a tremendously ambitious scale, like the end of Akira played over and over again until it becomes an avant-garde performance piece of animation, with Shinji, Rei and Asuka diving into the uncharted waters of their subconsciousness to face fears and monsters far bigger than any mere end-of-the-world scenario. With those liquid-filled cockpits, there’s an element of the same kind of sensory-deprivation tanks and hallucinatory imagery in Ken Russel’s Altered States, the stuff that was so instrumental in influencing the theories of Walter Bishop on Fringe, and it helps turn so much of the Evangeliion experience into something far richer than mere rock’em-sock’em mecha duels. Locked inside those artificial womb-chambers and driven to ever more desperate circumstances by the doctors and researchers above them, the kids are shown to be nothing less than lab-rats in some globally scaled experiment aimed at transforming humanity into something utterly perverse and unrecognizable, something that not only invites instant sympathy but also helps contextualize all the madness on display. If Shinji and the others are poor kids plucked up by mad scientists and experimented upon in the throes of puberty, then the world being transformed into an extinction-level planet of red-seas, bizarre creatures and dwindling populations is one in the midst of its own growing pains.
These are the big things, the stuff we come to expect from an anime-provocateur like Anno. But what’s really surprising this time around are all the little moments that get peppered amidst the larger picture, the smaller and more intimate details that you usually only see in the more family-friendly efforts of Studio Ghibli or the fetishistically obsessive imaginings of Madhouse, home to Mamoru Hosada and the late Satoshi Kon. They’re often fleeting moments, stuff you may not even notice at first glance if at all, yet they wind up injecting not only a welcome dose of random human elements into the mix, but even some kind of thready heartbeat, as well. It’s the bandaged cuts on Rei’s and Asuka’s fingers from their cute attempts to learn how to cook for Shinji; it’s the way that Asuka’s handheld gaming system uses the outdated tech of cartridges, and loads them sideways instead of from the top or bottom; it’s the way that even incidental background characters are drawn and animated in crowd scenes during montages in city life, giving them such detail and personality that you might be forgiven for mistaking them for important new characters being introduced. Finally, it’s the way that Anno finds ways to recycle or rechannel so many of the most familiar and iconic elements of the Neon Genesis series into this new incarnation of Evangelion, from the big stuff (the fate of the pilot in Eva-unit 3, or the monstrous transformation that occurs when Shinji awakens the sleeping beast inside Eva-unit 1 to save his friends and protect the Geo-Front) to the little things (Kaji’s garden, Shinji’s Walkman, even fanservice nudity). Even Pen-Pen gets a terrifically cute little moment to shine early on in the film, reminding you not only of the ways in which Anno finds the time to mix the larger concerns of his apocalyptic sci-fi with smaller bits of humor, but also of the whole idiosyncratic vision of the enterprise itself. In many ways, Anno’s work is about what it means to grow up in a hostile world and the survival instinct of friendship– I may not have had to deal with the end of the world looming over my head when I was that age, but it sure as hell felt like it, especially when I didn’t have a clique to hang on to.
In the end, what’s most beautiful about the Evangelion experience is how it creates a community for all the outcast anime freaks, a place they can call home in unfriendly waters. That spirit of togetherness is what you tend to look for in sci-fi and fantasy fanbases, but over the years there’s been so much divisiveness and hostility pervading through so many of my favorite franchises that I’ve only seldom been able to really experience it. Sooner or later, it seems that every following turns against what it professes to love– so-called Star Wars fans bemoaning Lucas for the Special-Editions and the Prequels; fair-weather Lost-aholics whining about wheelspinning midseason lulls or the series’ less-than-stellar finale; even die-hard Metal Gear Solid addicts rolling their eyes in Hideo Kojima’s direction whenever he indulges in an hour-long cutscene or pretentiously crafted breaking-the-fourth-wall boss battle– and for the most part Evangelion is no exception. From its earliest days, you could sense Anno’s frustration at seeing his personal expression of psycho-social hardships being watched by so many viewers purely for the cool robot battles and sex-appeal (with all the unlicensed hentai manga that’s been made over the years, one’s first exposure to the series might very well be of the pornographic kind, something that Anno exorcised in a disturbing moment of End of Evangelion where Shinji visits a comatose Asuka in the hospital), leading him to push his audience’s buttons over and over again by putting beloved characters through wringers even the NERV scientists wouldn’t have the balls to contemplate, and offering only the most painfully ambiguous endings imaginable, like Patrick McGoohan’s famously impenetrable conclusion to The Prisoner. Just as Lucas’ blend of mythic space-opera and cinematic pastiche was lost in the translation on the way to becoming a piece of essential Americana, Anno’s Evangelion has more or less become one of the largest, most beloved and omnipresent icons of modern anime, but only at the expense of drowning itself out with ubiquity. The sooner something becomes a classic, the easier it is to take it for granted.
And yet, in some kind of cinematic masochism, so many of us eat it up, and eagerly await the next mindfuck as if it were the next thing to come spiraling out of the minds of David Lynch, Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noe combined. He may be largely unknown outside of anime circles, and he may still yet go unrecognized by cinephiles who are long overdue to know about guys like Miyazaki, Otomo or Kon, but a work by Hideaki Anno is something of an event film for anime fans, and especially if it’s connected to the storied franchise of Evangelion. I may have waited on line for midnight screenings of stuff like The Dark Knight or paid $600 for a week-early charity screening of Revenge of the Sith, but making the trek to see You Can (Not) Advance might just’ve been the most outlandish thing I’ve ever had to do to see a movie in league with my geek affiliations– scouring the Internet long hours just to find a theater within travel distance and a decent time, and arriving by car, train and subway to a small mid-town arthouse that usually only screens Bollywood and live-transmissions of opera from Lincoln Center. But while I was there, sitting before the screen and waiting for the movie to start, I was surrounded by too many Eva-fans to count, some of them playing tracks of music from the original show on their MP3 devices or talking about how much they hoped “Fly Me to the Moon” would be featured in the film, some of them talking at great length about their personal theories about whether or not Rebuild was a remake of Neon Genesis or an even more mind-bending sequel to it. There were no complaints, no whining or bitching, no cries of anguish against the things that Anno was changing or throwing away altogether. It was a moment where you could really feel the true nature of a fanbase’s community spirit– a family away from the awful hostilities of the big-bad real world. Running away from reality, as Shinji often does, may not be entirely healthy, but even if you do, having some company helps. More than any other sci-fi work out there, Evangelion in any form expresses a perfectly toned message for troubled youths everywhere, assuring them that no matter how dark, desperate or depressing their lives may seem at any given time, there is something that binds them together, both on and off the screen—you are not alone.