Two reasons to rerun this article this year– both the second anniversary of the devastating crises in Japan that began March 11, 2011, and a rare American television broadcast of Hideaki Anno’s magnum opus in the form of Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone. The film will be showing on Cartoon Network this Sunday at 1am during its Toonami block. Anyone in the States with basic cable, there’s no excuse to miss it. Not even Church in the morning.
By Bob Clark
After the recent devastations of earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear meltdown struck Japan, there were many comparisons made to the nation’s many imagined instances of various science-fiction disasters, from Godzilla rampaging through the streets of Tokyo to the apocalyptic wasteland of Neo-Tokyo from Katsuhuiro Otomo’s Akira. These, and so many other one-note similes, were rather tasteless ones, to my mind. They ignored not only the root-inspiration for all those horrifying kaiju and anime calamities in the usage of American atomic weapons on the civilian towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and furthermore ignored the untold losses of life and livelihood presented by the new disasters, ones which continue to threaten the safety and security of an entire nation that already knows all too well the cost of nuclear fall-out, with the largest and potentially most deadly radiation event since the days of Chernobyl. However, in the midst of all these pop-cultural associations, there has been one that rings true, when an energy-conservation effort to help the besieged TEPCO power plant was unofficially dubbed “Operation Yashima”, quickly spreading as an internet-meme and gaining popular support throughout Japan as a rallying-cause to help solve the nationwide crisis through personal sacrifice for the good of everyone.
But what is “Operation Yashima”, and what does it have to do with cinema or science-fiction? In short, it represents the climax of the first six-episode arc of Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, one of the modern classics of contemporary Japanese animation, in which the entire electrical supply of Japan is used to destroy a monstrous alien invader bent on destroying mankind. Channeled into a high-powered positron cannon built by the Strategic Self-Defense Force, used as an immense sniper-rifle by the clandestine United Nations organization NERV, the requisitioned power is the only hope of beating the bizarre attacker, known as an “Angel”, but requires a nationwide outage for the duration of the assault. As the operation begins, the lights go out throughout the entire country, putting everyone in the same position, huddling together and waiting in the dark for news of victory or defeat. By the end of the battle there will be immense destruction, both in the wakes of the surreal attack and NERV’s epically desperate attempts to fend it off, but our attention as viewers will not be to the catastrophic fields of destruction or the untold millions of lives hanging in the balance throughout Japan, much less billions throughout a world that is already suffering from a near-apocalyptic contact with the Angels fifteen years ago.
Instead, our focus will remain locked on two of the children born in the immediate aftermath of that first global disaster, “The Second Impact”, and whose destiny it is to bear the responsibility for this ruined world on their shoulders, and those of the giant cyborg-mech units they pilot which give the series its name—the synthetic humanoid Evangelion. Inside the Evas, grotesque fusions of state-of-the-art robotic science and the as of yet unlocked mysteries of the Angels’ DNA, the teenage saviors Shinji Ikari and Rei Ayanami carry enough psychological scars to make the wounds they earn on the battlefield seem like minor bruises, and nothing more. But as each new fight escalates, pushing them further away from the world with increasing amounts of physical pain and emotional trauma, the question of whether the young pilots will reach their limit and break away from reality altogether becomes a matter of time—like all abused children, it’s not a question of if they will run away from the world, but rather if they will ever be able to find their way back. Operation Yashima is not the end of their struggles, but it does mark the first moment that the two of them share their burden together, and helps color everything that comes after, and came before. Like all the battles against the Angels, everything leads up to moments that in turn make everything that follows possible, saving the world just so you can get an opportunity to save it again.
There’s a sad, stirring comfort to see people in Japan rallying behind the efforts to conserve energy through rolling blackouts by encouraging them to think of it like something from a beloved anime. But it also reveals something we may take for granted in the whole sorry mess of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis— a crucial piece of nationalistic optimism. How else could you face the notion of power outages and a looming meltdown by thinking of it as a great big giant-robot adventure if you weren’t willing to look for the silver lining in even a mushroom cloud? It’s the same kind of determined, stubbornly can-do spirit that people always celebrate when looking at the British during WWII— “Keep Calm, and Carry On”. The Operation Yashima movement is a modern equivalent of that, and moreover helps reflect how so many of the same sentiments were in that portion of the anime, as well. The citizens of Tokyo-3 bravely faced disaster by rallying together and making the necessary sacrifices for the greater good, under the banner of the Eva units—why shouldn’t the people of real-life Tokyo, as well? Usually, we only ever see the worst parts of art coming to life— countless terrorist attacks in action movies becoming so many 9/11’s, 7/7’s or Oklahoma City Bombings; the nightmares of Kafka made bureaucratic flesh and blood in the horrors of the Holocaust or the Soviet prison-state; Orwell’s Big Brother ever watching from so many CCTV cameras in buildings, cities and whole countries around the world. If you know the story, either through the original broadcast series or the Rebuild theatrical release of Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone, it’s worth revisiting this chapter if for no other reason than to recognize the kind of blooming optimism it has in the aftermath of an all-too real disaster. And if you don’t already know it—consider this your forewarned spoiler-alert.
When we first meet Shinji Ikari, he’s just a snapshot on a bureaucratic file, a lost boy either orphaned or abandoned by everyone in his life. Even his own father, leader of the clandestine NERV outpost in Japan, assigns the task of escorting him to safety on the day of an Angel’s attack to one of his lieutenants, as though it were an errand staffed out to an intern. Cut off from all lines of communication, young Shinji helplessly watches as the monstrous Angel first appears and decimates an entire squadron of UN attack tanks and aircraft. A massive and ominous figure with an inky-black body and bone-white face, it resembles a leotard-wearing performer from Mummenschanz wandering onto the set of a Godzilla-style kaiju movie—an abstract mime become king of the monsters. It’s a contrasting combination of style and substance that speaks volumes on Anno’s mis-en-scene in the series’ opening moments—though there’s plenty sound and fury right from the start, the first episode offers little action besides the military’s opening volleys against the Angel, mostly illustrating just how invincible the monster is. Nothing can kill it—not entire armies, aerial bombs, or even a massive detonation of “N2 mines”, in a display of Hiroshima-inspired fireworks familiar to anime and Japanese sci-fi in general. We get plenty of the typical military men huffing-and-puffing over the misspent rockets and mortars being wasted on the beast, and often enough they’re positioned with their faces just out of frame—like plenty other characters in this episode (Shinji, Gendo, the Angel itself), they hide their identities behind whatever distancing device they can. It’s a kind of minimalist direction that fits with the monster itself, a clash between the modern and the post-modern in the war-torn ruins of a post-apocalyptic city striving as hard as it can to avoid the end-of-the-world for a second time.
Once that fact has been established, the action ceases for the most part, and the war-movie tone turns into a hesitant ceasefire, the eye of the storm passing as Shinji is rescued by Misato Katsuragi and taken to NERV headquarters. Anno keeps the pace brisk and lively by cross-cutting between different strands of thinly explained events—Shinji and Misato arrive at the Geo-Front, the JSSDF cedes command of the operation to Gendo and his team, and Dr. Ritsuko Akagi thaws out the immense Evangelion unit, in preparation to mount a counter-offense against the Angel. The editing, color and composition of every image helps keep the momentum moving even when the action has slowed to the long crawl of a build-up—as much as anything, the series’ special qualities lie in the way it delays climax, the elaborate pageantry that leads up to the typical high-concept moments in any given anime. Anno displays a great economy of visual storytelling as well, using as many moments onscreen as possible to communicate vital narrative information without having to condescend to outright exposition—the toppled skyscrapers half-submerged in blood-red waters alone are enough to tell you that something terrible has happened in the past without any time being wasted narrating it just yet. Every corner of the subterranean NERV base is as visually arresting as the surreal battle taking place above-ground, and keeps our interest engaged even as we’re seeing little more than mere rising action and various character introductions.
It is soon made clear that Shinji has been called to the base by his distant father, whom he has not seen in three full years, to pilot the massive mecha-unit in a desperate do-or-die fight against the Angel, despite having absolutely no knowledge or training in it whatsoever. Gendo insists that he’ll be given instruction, and Dr. Akagi further states that they don’t expect him to do anything other than sit in the pilot-seat and hopefully synchronize with the machine—at this point, the boy is just a place-holder, nothing more. Anno draws out this sequence for all the high melodrama it’s worth, playing it out before a chorus-gallery of various crew members helping to prepare the Eva, and placing the main actors at extremes—Shinji at center stage in front of the mecha’s menacing face, his father standing high above him in a control-room, surrounded by display screens that turn his son into an icon of Andy Warhol pop-art. As the young boy buckles under the pressure to perform for Gendo, the weight of the whole world thrust upon his shoulders, the sequence is punctuated by Misato’s words of encouragement, “You mustn’t run away—not from your father, and especially not from yourself”. They more or less proclaim the series’ primary focus as boldly as the epigraph of Metropolis does in Thea von Harbou’s stilted prose—“The mediator between head and hand must be the heart!”. Indeed, as Shinji refuses to pilot the Eva, the moment is so full of itself in brilliant display that we might as well be in a silent-movie –we see a father’s disappointment as seen in the first clear sight of his eyes or the reflection of a “Sound Only” screen as he coaxes the back-up pilot to in the stead of his son’s cowardice.
Image and music become linked in near perfect montage as we are introduced the mysterious Rei Ayanami. Like so many classic characters in movies and television, her presence is felt before she makes her entrance onscreen—the others speak of how long it took her to learn how to pilot an Eva, and then hear her weakened voice before she’s literally wheeled out onto the stage, bandaged and bloody in a hospital bed, with alien blue-hair and albino-pale skin, her entrance announced by soft notes limping across piano keys. Perhaps we recognize that striking eye from before, when Shinji briefly glimpsed the girl from afar right before the Angel first struck, a disappearing-act cameo as conspicuously inconspicuous as the subliminal cameos Brad Pitt makes in Fight Club before Tylder Durden officially makes his entrance. At any rate, the eye is as red as the blood that stains the boy’s hand after he rushes to her side after an explosion from above rocks her off her gantry, alerting all to the fact that the monster is closing in on their location. It’s as naked an attempt to tug at the heartstrings as the sight of Brigitte Helm surrounded by all those bare-footed orphans in the opulent surroundings of Lang’s futuristic garden-paradise, but it works just as well. It’s certainly enough to guilt Shinji into climbing into the cockpit, and spare the fragile little matchstick girl from having to risk her life in the battle above, and enough for us to buy the moment even as it strains outright sentimentality.
From this point on it’s all denouement disguised as rising action, as the boy’s entry into the Eva is heralded by a parade of congratulatory imagery and triumphant music cues. Mostly it’s technical razzle-dazzle and showmanship drawing out the peak moment of the story, with the NERV crew and scientists staring amazed at one computer-screen after another illustrating the boy’s near-miraculous synchronization with the machine—like Star Wars and Akira, the reliance of so many video-game like heads-up displays helps signal a subtle hint of proudly ignored danger. Shinji panics as he’s submerged in LCL, an oxygenated liquid conductor for the Eva that floods the cockpit and turns it into a womb—as much as anything, Anno’s work on Evangelion becomes a deconstruction of the giant-robot genre, exposing it as an exploration of the Oedipal connection between man and machine, and as fine a contribution of Cronenbergian body-horror as we’ve seen in anime. But for now it’s all sparkles and rainbows as all the gadgets and gizmos come to life around him, with triumphant music both soothing us into comfort and projecting an air of adventurism into what is rapidly becoming an alarmingly dangerous situation. One of the generally unspoken givens in giant-robot anime is that the pilots tend to be teenagers—only occasionally, in more serious-minded works like Oshii’s Patlabor or Kanaka & Katayama’s The Big O, are adults given the life-threatening task of fighting from the cockpits of immense battling machines. It’s natural to put a kid in the pilot’s seat, given that this is a series aimed at least primarily towards younger viewers, but given the striking realism on display, there’s a nagging discomfort at the sight of young Shinji being sent to battle the Angel, still wearing his school uniform instead of a more sci-fi plug suit, even. As with the other peak moments of the series when the NERV base falls under attack, the fact that he is wearing plain, ordinary clothes instead of the kind of outfit we expect in an anime underlines the fact that he’s an ordinary kid, above all else.
But that’s precisely the point, especially as the Eva is hurdled up through the tunnels of NERV’s defense system and brought up to the city street, right in front of the monster. It isn’t fair, or even humane to send a fourteen year old kid to go risk his life in a giant robot he’s never even seen before against an enemy he has no chance of winning against. It makes all the celebratory fanfare that closes the first episode so ironic, a sentiment cemented in full as the second episode opens to Shinji’s first moments piloting the Eva, which can only charitably be described as “awkward”. At first the crew in HQ tells him to concentrate on moving forward, instead of fighting. Indeed, as he does so, the response from Dr. Akagi is akin to a doting mother videotaping her child’s first steps—“He’s walking!”. Anno even focuses on a bus-stop shattered by the impact of the mecha’s footstep as if to encourage us to amaze at it ourselves before pulling the rug from under our feet, or rather Shinji’s, as the boy trips on the umbilical electric cord that powers the unit and finds himself at the mercy of the monstrous Angel. Now it’s nothing but pain and panic as the beast lifts up the Eva and begins to attack it with a disturbingly direct physicality—instead of the huge volleys of explosions and laser blasts from before, all we see is an immense monster twisting the arm of the boy’s mecha until it breaks, and pounding the front of its head until its armor is cracked open and an eye is put out. Misato and the others below anxiously insist that it isn’t Shinji’s bones that are being fractured, or his skull that’s been burst open by the Angel’s devastating attack, but the mind-body connection he shares with the machine, the very synchronization they were so desperate to achieve, is too great for him to ignore.
And then he wakes up in a hospital bed, much the same as the one where we first saw Rei, except there isn’t a scratch on him. The light drowns out everything, an amnesiac brightness that sets the tone for Shinji’s barren memory of the fight—even the ceiling is unfamiliar to him. In the broadcast episode, we don’t finally see the battle itself until the end, when the memories come flashing back in a flood of pain and fear, after we witness NERV’s efforts to clean-up after the mess is done and blanket a false story on the news. It’s an expert illustration of dissociation, cutting away from the trauma of the boy’s first fight in an Eva to its aftermath, and the efforts to cover it up. Meanwhile Gendo holds a meeting with the mysterious committee of SEELE, an organization supervising NERV’s efforts against the Angels and guiding them towards a secret UN plan, mysteriously labeled the “Human Instrumentality Project”. While in the broadcast version the members appear as candy-colored holograms with faces as exaggerated as political caricatures, the Rebuild of Evangelion film version presents them as a series of Kubrickian monoliths that mask their identities, something they did not begin until the utterly alien intentions of Instrumentality began to manifest towards the series’ end, as they sought to guide mankind towards the dawn of an evolution into something even more perversely apocalyptic than anything the Angels had to offer. Mired in reconstruction and conspiracy, Tokyo-3 becomes a city living through the same kind of post-traumatic stress as Shinji, constantly torn apart and rebuilding itself in the face of apocalyptic attacks. With the imagery of construction cranes and larger-than-life weaponry being carted away, Anno turns the metropolis into the same kind of distressingly futurist urban landscape as in Godard’s 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her, or the trance-like visions of cities under martial law from Oshii’s Patlabor 2 and Ghost in the Shell.
The city becomes like something from a dream, especially when Misato tries to cheer Shinji up by driving him to a high vantage point where he can watch the skyscrapers of the Geo-Front raised back into position above ground, the buildings growing tall in the sky of a setting sun like a forest of fairy-tale beanstalks grown from magic seeds. “You see that?” she says. “That’s the city you protected.” That image of growing skyscrapers is repeated throughout the series in direct and subtle variations, such as when we watch from Shinji’s point-of-view as his Eva climbs above the street-level to face another Angel, or when he sits in the cockpit of a training simulator, surrounded by the video-game polygons of a virtual-reality city. Following Dr. Akagi’s commands to “put the target in sight and pull the trigger”, over and over again, he has a bored, sleepy look on his face, like an insomniac robot. Seen from outside, the simulation-unit resembles a giant cyborg’s head, complete with exposed brain matter, its eye-sockets darting back and forth in all directions like a chameleon caught in a REM sleep-cycle. It’s a grotesque, and apt image that sums up so much of the implicit dream-imagery that floats about in the series—Shinji and his fellow Eva pilots spend so much time in and out of the hospital, waking up after recovering from one horrific experience after another, it isn’t going too far to wonder sometimes whether or not they might just be dreaming all these terrible adventures. Submerged in LCL, the cockpit becomes not just a technological womb, but a sensory deprivation tank, like the one that William Hurt drives himself to flesh-transforming hallucinations in Altered States. Even the names of the organizations they work for, NERV and the UN, have a direct association to the inner workings of the subconscious mind. The I.D. on their cards—does it stand for “identity”, or Freud’s Id? Are the Eva-units expressions of sci-fi anime, or massive totems of a maternal, Jungian anima?
As Evangelion progressed and became more psychologically pronounced, it became more and more possible to read the repeated cycle of the young pilots confronting the Angels as stunted, wounded youths endlessly reliving the same painful series of events. Anno’s series provides one of the best narrative expressions of insanity, as filtered through episodic storytelling—repeating the same action and expecting different results. It’s only after Shinji has begrudgingly made himself home at Misato’s apartment (her extroverted personality clashing immediately with his shyness) that he at long last begins to remember his fight with the Angel, as he listens to his Walkman in bed. The imagery of the flashback becomes more and more subjective, with blood spraying from the Eva’s head rendered in bright silhouette, like something from a post-modern bunraku puppet performance. All of Shinji’s vital signs go silent, and suddenly the Eva springs to life, as if possessed, and begins to savagely fight back against the Angel. Gendo and his crew exclaim in relief, “We’ve done it,” even as Misato and Dr. Akagi look on in horror as they witness the mecha go utterly berserk. This is what the NERV leaders had in mind when they forced Shinji into the pilot seat, hoping he would act as a mere circuit to help trigger the Eva’s automatic attack-mode, risking his life without even the agency to have any control over the fight’s outcome himself.
In the assault that follows, we learn the basic rules of Eva-combat from the same helpless spectator-position that Shinji is in, while the mecha decimates its opponent on autopilot, targeting the Angel’s bright-red core to keep it from reaching NERV’s underground headquarters at all costs, and keeping its umbilical extension-cord plugged in to keep from running out of power (like all toys, the Eva does not come with batteries included). Of primary importance are the AT Fields generated by both fighters, shields of energy generated by the presence of a soul that can be used both for defense and attack. Manifesting both as floating halos and glowing octagons that surround their party, they carry the same implicit, universal iconographic language of the stop-sign, becoming symbolic of the barriers people put up between one another even as it’s torn apart by the rampaging Eva. Like many sci-fi and anime directors, Anno has an imaginative and economic hand at conceiving and executing epic action sequences, but where his talent really lies is in using them not only to wow the audience, but to express the primary themes of his work in an active, visual language. Here, he takes a common sci-fi trope of protective shields, common in works like Star Trek and Star Wars, and uses it both as plot-device to hinge his set-pieces and to express his overall theme of the ways in which human beings protect themselves from emotional pain by distancing themselves from one another. He repeats this theme visually throughout the series in dramatic moments as well, often framing characters standing on the thresholds of doorways, unable or unwilling to cross the divide and join a close acquaintance. As the Eva breaks through the AT Field and attacks, the Angel surrounds itself around the mecha as a perfect sphere to self-destruct, leaving nothing behind but its disintegrated pools of blood, which resemble the red seas and the LCL that pilots are submerged in.
Perhaps one of the more unusual elements of the series, it detonates in a cross-shaped explosion, something which defies the laws of physics but becomes a striking visual repetition throughout—after the Old Testament mythologizing of Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, Anno was said to have settled on Christian Gnosticism for Evangelion mostly because it would seem mysterious to Japanese audiences, but whether he was conscious of it or not, it turns out to be a savvy narrative device. With each new fight against the Angels, Shinji is sent out by his father to be subjected to more and more painful experiences, his body and soul put through torture that would make a crucifixion seem merciful by comparison. Like Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, Anno spends much of the time of his series dedicated to presenting the Eva pilots’ time in their cockpits as a determined choice—Shinji may be put through absolute agony every time he faces the Angels, but in the end it’s always of his own free will that he gets back in the seat and fights the good fight again, risking life, limb and sanity to save a world full of people who only just barely seem to acknowledge the pains he suffers on their behalf. With the exception of Misato, none of the NERV crew offer any thanks or support for his efforts—his father, especially, can barely even be bothered to notice that he even exists enough to be a nuisance. At school, his classmates’ reactions to him run from one extreme to the other. Either they are jubilantly, but impersonally excited to have an Eva pilot in their midst—nagging him with questions but never making an effort to know him as a friend—or they treat him with abject hostility, beating him up in the courtyard for the collateral damage caused in his citywide fight. Even his own musical theme treats him coldly, a slow bit of smooth jazz piano lazily wandering from key to key, doing its best to keep its distance, the kind of stuff you expect to hear in a sad cafe where everybody wants to be left alone and nurse their private fortunes of hurt.
Soon after being attacked by a jock whose sister was injured in the first battle, another Angel is spotted approaching the city, sending everything into alert and lockdown once more. While the previous monster’s appearance was largely humanoid, this time the attacker arrives with an insect-like morphology, resembling something descended from Mothra or another such Isihiro Honda-helmed kaiju beast. With tentacles increasing the range of its attack, Shinji is forced to engage it with arms—first a rifle, and then a progressive-knife. Again, the way that Anno structures and stages the action sequences helps to express the themes of social isolation that run throughout the dramatic content of the series, literalizing the metaphors that characters use when commenting on the sad state of the lonely conditions experienced by the children thrust into the cockpits of the Evas. In this case, the battle arrives soon after Misato and Ritsuko discuss Shinji’s difficulty in connecting with his peers, comparing his social disconnect with Schopenhauer’s allegory of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma—“Well, he’s just going to have to learn someday that part of growing up means finding a way to interact with others, while distancing pain.“ The point is made crystal clear on screen when Shinji is forced to juggle from the distance-assault of a rifle volley to the close-quarter combat with his knife in order to protect the classmates who had bullied him before. Staying far away from pain is safer, but in order to do his job as an Eva pilot, he has to get up close and personal, instead of running away.
The problem, however, is that he makes his close-quarter attack after he’s already been ordered to retreat, his power supply running out after his umbilical cord was severed by the monster. It’s only by the skin of his teeth that Shinji’s headstrong attack manages to defeat the Angel in time. The first time he pilots an Eva successfully on his own, he’s promptly chewed out by the usually friendly Misato for behaving irresponsibly, denied the congratulatory approval that usually greets the victor after this kind of high-stakes anime battle. It’s hardly surprising that after this rejection, Shinji packs a bag and wanders aimlessly through Tokyo-3 by himself, running away from an emotional pain more devastating than the physical trial he fought so hard to overcome. In the series, Anno spends almost an entire episode on Shinji’s sojourn through the city, displaying a patient, haunting atmosphere that would be unimaginable for most programs of its type. Even in an abbreviated form, the isolation he imposes on himself is direct, pointed stuff—sitting alone on a public-transportation train as it circles through the city, seemingly for an entire day; spying on lovers making out in the audience of a movie about the end of the world; sleeping on a couch next to vending machines in some unnamed lobby, or in an alleyway’s cardboard box, surrounded by neon brightness even in the puddles by the gutter; finally, making his way by foot beyond the city-limits to a fog-drenched hillside to sit by the edge of a cliff, where he appears about one wrong word from taking the plunge. In battle, there may be such a thing as a safe distance, but with people, there’s such a thing as an unsafe one, too.
For a program that builds itself on giant-robot fights, Anno tests the patience of his audience by sustaining this sequence for so long, allowing his protagonist to sulk and nurse his wounds by himself, without even much cross-cutting to inject some variety into the proceedings. It’s a largely static episode, depicting the stationary pain of depression in the life of a young boy, the kind of stuck, alienated feeling that all adolescents go through at some point, and only outgrow if they’re lucky enough to find a social climate warm enough to blossom in. In its broadcast, the series suffered a good deal of budgetary problems that resulted in a sometimes frugal use of animation, so it’s possible that this entire episode was first developed as a means of making the most out of as few art resources as possible, but even in the theatrical Rebuild of Evangelion edition, Anno still gives it enough room to act as a long stretch, the quiet between so many storms. Eventually he is found—either when he camps out with a classmate who plays soldier by himself out in the countryside (pointedly, he fantasizes not about some big military, but at playing out the role of a tragic martyr on the battlefield), or when he simply runs out of road to run away on, encountering a demolished bridge that hasn’t yet been rebuilt. The latter, from the theatrical version, is perhaps the more striking scene, as Shinji simply calls out to the men-in-black he knows are following him to take him back to NERV—it shows the paranoid futility of this kind of depression, the way it simply devours valuable time and mental effort in a stubborn persistence to remain trapped in the same vicious cycles. In the televised version, Shinji enjoys a slight victory when he makes the hard-won decision to remain an Eva pilot after being given the chance to leave Tokyo-3, but in the feature there is no such temporary closure. To resolve conflict of wills set into motion here, it will take a decisive battle.
The story of Operation Yashima is also the story of Rei Ayanami, the “First Child” selected as a pilot for the Evas, and one of the greatest enigmas the series has to offer. In the first several episodes, she barely speaks more than a handful of words, and really only features into the plot just enough to motivate Shinji to pilot the mecha himself, in order to spare her from injuring herself any further. In the fifth episode, we go back a month in time to see just how she injured herself in the first place, performing the activation tests for the Eva prototype, Unit Zero. Though at first the experiment appears to go smoothly, things soon go absolutely haywire as Rei begins to lose her connection with the Eva, and it begins to act completely on its own—the same effect that Shinji first had in Unit One, going into “berserker mode” in his first battle against the Angels. As Unit Zero rips free of its restrains and begins to attack the scientists as they watch helplessly, trying to put a stop to its burgeoning rampage, we begin to understand the trepidation everyone felt when they were first attempting to coax young Ikari into the cockpit, and the excitement they felt upon seeing that he was able to bend the massive instrument to his will, if only for a brief period of time. It allows us to see a different side of the NERV crew, scrambling against all odds to save the life of the young pilot instead of coldly sending one out to face a seemingly insurmountable threat with little, if anything, in the way of sympathy.
Most of all, we see a completely different side of Gendo Ikari, who throws himself into the efforts to save Rei from the malfunction of her Eva most of all, even rushing to her cockpit-plug after it’s forcibly ejected from the rampaging mecha, and burning his own hands to open its hatch and pull her to safety himself. As he smiles on the severely wounded, but conscious girl in her capsule, Anno focuses on the Commander’s glasses, fallen to the floor. As bakelite freezes the Eva in position and pools on the ground with runoff LCL, Ikari’s glasses begin to melt and break. It’s the first time we see him so emotionally involved with anyone, or anything, and to a large extent we never see it duplicated in the entire series. We certainly never see him make such an outward display of concern, or even mild interest, in his own son. Soon after hearing the story of his father’s valiant efforts to save Rei during her first test, Shinji spies upon the two of them from the cockpit of his Eva while she makes preparations for her second attempt, his screens zooming in on the two of them as they speak but unable to pick up the words they’re saying. If the members of SEELE are rendered as utterly alien black monoliths, then the younger Ikari here becomes a living, breathing HAL, full of omniscient paranoia but without the power to lip-read. What exactly are they chatting about, so chummily? Is he jealous of his father for the pretty moe girl’s attention, or jealous of her for being doted on by his own flesh and blood? The saddest likelihood is that he’s jealous of both of them, at once, for the bond they’re able to share with one another.
Soon afterwards, Misato and Ritsuko attempt to foster a bond between Shinji and Rei by asking the boy to drop off her new ID card at her home, a derelict apartment where she lives alone on the industrial edge of town. When he arrives, he finds there’s no answer at the bell, the door is unlocked and the mail-slot is overstuffed with unopened deliveries—there’s a kind of discretion on Anno’s part, parceling out psychologically revealing information like this through natural scenes based on silent action, rather than having his characters merely talk about the girl behind her back. One can’t quite call what happens next so “discrete”, however, as Shinji enters her home, finding nothing but used bandages, beakers full of water and piles of old books on scant furniture. Upon closer inspection, however, he finds a pair of broken glasses—his father’s—which he curiously tries on just as Rei enters the room behind him, wearing nothing but a pair of slippers and a towel after exiting the shower. All in all, it’s a rather egregious moment of fanservice on Anno’s behalf, stripping his female character naked in front of his stuttering protagonist, and the director milks the scene for all the awkwardness it’s worth, having them stumble over each other as Rei attempts to pull the glasses off of his face, causing Shinji to accidentally dislodge a dresser-drawer full of underwear and push her onto her back as he falls, landing crouched directly on top of her, his hand unknowingly on her naked breast. Each and every every minute link in the chain of events is given the focus of a close-up, as though it were a piece of a Rube Goldberg illustration, it unfolds with the feverish detail and patent absurdity of a childish excuse coming to life. We can believe in it as seriously as if watching a flashback to a Labrador burying its face in a child’s bookbag as a student tells his teacher that his dog really did eat his homework.
It would be an utterly embarrassing moment on the part of the viewer if it weren’t lit, framed and paced out so beautifully—we even see a small rainbow appear over them as light from the window shines in the darkened room and through the prism of the beaker (in the Rebuild version, a rainbow appears after each battle against an Angel, hearkening back to God’s promise of peace after the flood of the Old Testament). As it stands, it’s still embarrassing, but eloquently so, as if Anno had distilled a whole adolescence’s worth of sexual frustration and humiliation into a single moment. Rei stands up and dresses, seemingly unfazed, almost completely oblivious that someone else was even in the same room, much less accidentally groping her. Shinji follows her into the street to NERV headquarters soon after, where she attempts and fails to gain entry, swiping her outdated security card over and over again until he finally gives her the new one—it’s hard not to be mildly charmed, if a little disturbed, by the innocent way that all the conventions of modern social niceties and protocol escape her notice and understanding. At the same time, she isn’t without emotional responses entirely, as shown when the two children share an absurdly long escalator down to the headquarters-floor (framed in much the same way as an escalator Shinji takes each day on his way to school, a subtle intrusion of the ordinary urban landscape into the dream-world of the Geo-Front). When asked if she isn’t afraid to get inside an Eva again, after nearly dying the first time she tested for it, Rei answers with her own question—“Don’t you have faith in your father’s work?” The fact that she has to ask this to the boy who Commander Ikari effectively abandoned speaks volumes on its own of both her blind faith in the only human contact she has, and the utter disconnection she shares with the rest of the world. It almost seems beside the point that Shinji reacts so negatively, or that she would scornfully slap him in the face for it, as though she were a strict mother with a misbehaving child.
Previously, we had seen Shinji ultimately make peace with his bullies from school when one of them offered to let young Ikari punch him in the face, in return for beating him up—in the Rebuild version, Anno excises nearly all the interaction between the characters to those two moments, and even cuts away from the actual moments of impact, showing us nothing but bruised faces and closed fists to imply that a punch has taken place. When he focuses on Shinji’s clenched hand opening after delivering a blow onto his penitent classmate, it seems a fine, minimalist expression of what friendship means according to the director’s terms of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma—getting hit in the face, and being allowed to hit them back. Rei’s open-palm slap across Shinji’s cheek can be seen, then, as an invitation to the same kind of burgeoning connection, with an implicit undercurrent of threat between the two characters—since she has just hurt him, somehow or other he’s going to be put in a situation where he’ll be the one causing her pain, instead. We may even expect that something will go wrong during her activation test back in Unit Zero, but to everyone’s relief it all goes off without a hitch. Such relief shouldn’t be felt by anyone counting themselves among the series’ viewers, even if it’s only their first time—by now, we’ve had enough time to learn the patterns of Anno’s delicate rhythms when it comes to how he paces his action sequences. One shoe dropped at the beginning of this episode, and the only question now isn’t when the next one will follow, but who it might land on when it falls.
As if on cue, an Angel arrives on the perimeter of the city, and it’s the most bizarre one that NERV has yet encountered. Though certainly unusual, the first two monsters Shinji faced could be placed in a somewhat earthbound context—a bipedal humanoid and a massive tentacled insect. This new one, however, arrives as an immense floating diamond, a geometric shape devoid of any kind of anthropomorphic attributes like the Death Star or Borg Cube from Star Trek: The Next Generation. It signals that we are entering the realm of ideas, and beyond the pall of mere physical threats. The danger posed by the Angels is now implicitly an existential one, and something that will come to dominate the explicitly expressed themes of the series—it isn’t enough to fight for the survival of the human race, but to also prove that it deserves to be saved from extinction in the first place. In both of the previous battles, it was NERV and the UN forces that made the first attacks—is it possible that the Angels are here to test mankind, and only return with hostility after the first blow has been made against them? What happens next is a deviation from the pattern, as crewmembers down in headquarters nervously report that an energy reading is building up inside the Angel just as Shinji’s Eva is hurried to the surface. Misato quickly gives orders to abort the mission, but it’s too late—as soon as Unit One is above ground, it is targeted by an incredibly devastating beam of laser light which completely destroys several skyscrapers in its path. Though the Eva is strong enough to withstand the beam with its own AT Field up and running, the heat is intense enough set the cockpit’s LCL to boiling temperature. Inside, we watch as Shinji screams helplessly, an unborn child cooked alive in his womb.
NERV pulls Unit One back down into the Geo-Front to begin immediate repair work and rescue the pilot, if he’s still alive. Dr. Akagi orders Shinji be defibrillated from the inside of his cockpit—as we watch his body twitch and throb back to life, we can see blood pour from his nose, floating in the LCL, a powerful example of the frail physicality on display throughout the series, reminding us as always that our heroes are children inhumanely thrust into life-or-death circumstances. As the boy is locked inside an emergency medical capsule that looks like a futuristic coffin (it might as well be one, for the horrors he’s been inflicted with), Misato and her team waste as little time as possible on sympathy for the juvenile pilot, and instead concentrate on the Angel. In the broadcast version, we watch as several tests are performed in turn to see how their enemy will respond, engaging it from various distances and discovering a range within which it will fire upon anything automatically, beyond which it will only respond if attacked first—close-quarter combat, the only proven successful strategies against the Angels in the past, is now out of the picture. At the same time, however, bombardments by UN forces prove unable to make a dent on the creature as well, protected by an astonishingly powerful AT Field, which in the Rebuild version is powerful enough that the Angel’s body changes as well, morphing from a simple diamond to a series of rapidly moving geometric shapes and patterns that resemble what Buckminster Fuller might’ve seen in his worst nightmares—therefore long-range assaults are also out of the question. The only attacks they’ve tried before which might have the potential are a massive detonation of N2 mines which would destroy Tokyo-3 in the process. That might seem a self-defeating strategy, but time is already running out on the base—as they speak, the Angel has begun drilling through the city’s defense layers directly above NERV HQ itself, and in about 12 hours it will penetrate the Geo-Front.
In other words, the difficulties and stakes have never been higher, nor the chances of success so slim. Yet somehow, Misato seems resiliently optimistic. Though we’ve seen her sensitive and official sides plenty before, for the most part we’ve come to know her as a rather crude and lascivious party-animal, the type of sexually assertive, thoroughly westernized woman you usually have in anime as a counterpart to the more demure and reserved moe girls like Rei. Her house is a complete mess, she eats nothing but snack-food, instant ramen and beer, and she’ll think nothing of making semi-drunken passes at the underage boy whose guardianship she’s accepted. She even lives with a goddamn penguin, for god’s sake, so at this point it’s been something of a challenge to take her even halfway seriously. Yes, at NERV she’s all business, and between battles she can even display a tender, maternal side to Shinji, making her the only real parent figure he’s ever known that well, but for the most part Misato is an utterly air-headed bimbo, seemingly present more as begrudging fanservice and to make young Ikari as uncomfortable as possible. But her relentlessly upbeat attitude serves well, here, as she quickly whips up a Hail Mary of a battle plan that seems so hastily patched together, it might fall apart if you inspected it too closely. While the UN forces mount a diversionary attack to expose the Angel’s weak spot, Unit One will operate a positron canon requisitioned from the JSSDF as a sniper and blast through the AT Field and hit the core in a single shot, while Unit Zero acts as protection against any incoming counterassault with a heat-shield from the space shuttle (actually, it is the space-shuttle, itself).. It’s a mad plan, but Misato’s dogged confidence sells it—as with the Dam Busters assault on the Death Star or Chief Brody’s last-ditch firing to blow up the shark from Jaws, sometimes the crazier an idea is, the more it inspires you to see it through. As Ritsuko says—“Send a fox to catch a fox.”
The only question that remains is where the necessary power is going to come from to provide ammunition for the cannon, and Misato’s answer is as sharp as Occam’s Razor—“From all over Japan!” All across the country emergency broadcasts inform the citizens that a nationwide blackout will take place at midnight, and that everyone should proceed to their designated shelters as soon as possible. Trucks drive through the more remote countryside to boom the message from loudspeakers like a drive-by Depression era campaign platform, a familiar Japanese response to emergencies, ensuring that even those who are living apart from the urban sectors are forewarned in the face of new danger. The news interrupts daily habits, to be sure, but nobody fights it—video-games and phone-calls may be interrupted, but soon enough everyone in Tokyo-3 makes way to a safe location or else camps out from a vantage point to watch as the Evas are deployed to their mountainside base, cheering them on and capturing everything on video-tape, anxious to get home-movie souvenirs even if it does turn out to be the end of the world. Citizenry and NERV alike begin making preparations for the all-out assault, with government workers laying massive electric cables across the highways and countryside to channel the nation’s power to a mountain perch from which the attack will be launched. Now, all the rigorous emergency prep that Tokyo-3 was built for, the stuff we had watched at a slower pace as the city’s buildings rose from the Geo-Front and during the Godardian post-battle clean up efforts, is pushed into a fever-pitch of preparatory momentum. Even the music takes on a staccato, upbeat tempo as it drives us forward on the march to battle—listen closely, and you can even hear a not-so-subtle resemblance to the secondary James Bond themes that John Barry introduced in From Russia With Love. Anno is embracing the big-screen adventure of it all, the sheer fun of following heroes fighting against all odds to save the world. It invites us to share in the thrill of their rapidly assembling plan with vicarious enjoyment—our lives may not be at stake, but we’re invested in what happens all the same.
All that remains as an X factor are the pilots. Rei can be counted on to climb into the cockpit, of course, but Ritsuko has expressed doubts about the girl’s psychological stability. Shinji, by this point, is more or less a walking time bomb of emotional vulnerability, just one bad hand away from folding like a house of cards. Waking up in the hospital after recovering from the Angel’s attack has a sad sort of deja-vu for him—that ceiling above him isn’t so unfamiliar anymore, but that doesn’t mean it’s a welcome sight. More of a surprise, however, is the image of Rei sitting by his bed, having waited for him to awaken so she can deliver her message, detailing their responsibilities for the upcoming battle. She recites it dispassionately from memory, not even bothering to refer to herself in the first-person, and offers Shinji his meal before getting ready to leave. He isn’t hungry, though—not for hospital food, and especially not for the idea of getting into an Eva again. For the first time he sounds genuinely immature about his fear, even if it is well-grounded. Has he forgotten about how badly injured she was in the Unit Zero test, when he complains that she can’t understand what he’s going through? After all, it was the sight of a bloody and bandaged Rei herself that motivated him to pilot Unit One for the first time. Now, it seems to be the reverse, as she flatly offers to pilot the Eva herself, and leave Shinji to stay in bed. In the broadcast version, it’s all that’s needed to put him back into perspective and join the operation once again, but in Rebuild, he remains unmoved. After missing his rendezvous, Misato finds the boy sulking by himself on a bridge-walkway between two wings of the hospital, insisting that nobody at NERV can understand what it’s like for him to risk his life and suffer unimaginable pain in the Eva, while they all remain safe below ground in the security of headquarters.
So she takes him to headquarters, and beyond it, to Terminal Dogma. She takes him down the most secure elevator to Level-EEE, where the most closely guarded of all NERV’s secrets rests, so closely guarded that in the broadcast version it wouldn’t be until many episodes later that she herself discovered the truth, only revealing it to Shinji at the very end—the second Angel, codenamed Lilith, the source of all life on Earth. In both the series and theatrical film, it has a huge, puffy white body whose legs are missing, its arms nailed to a giant blood-red cross, a bit like a crucifixion of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. In the series, it wears a purple mask with markings of the moon and a set of eyes that resemble the symbol adorning all the SEELE monoliths, but in Rebuild it’s too early yet to make that kind of connection. Instead, it now wears a white mask that somewhat resembles the Mummenschanz appearance of the first Angel that Shinji fought. Bone-white against milk-white, it’s an astonishingly horrid sight against the contrasting red, and though it’s clean of any gore we can’t help but feel we’re staring upon something perversely gruesome. Misato explains that fifteen years ago, mankind’s contact with the first Angel, codenamed Adam, resulted in the Second Impact, which wiped out fully half of the world’s population, decimated the global environment and rendered life virtually impossible on the planet. It’s thanks only to the efforts of NERV that the crisis was brought under control, that the world was made at least somewhat habitable and life could continue in a state of constant, but comfortable emergency. But now, as the Angels have reappeared, it’s up to NERV to make sure that none of them ever make contact with Lilith, or else it will ignite a Third Impact and destroy humanity once and for all. In case any of the creatures ever makes it down this far, she says, the entire Geo-Front is rigged to self-destruct, taking out everyone in headquarters along with it. Shinji is begrudgingly encouraged enough to bravely get into the Eva one more time, knowing now that the fate of the entire world rests on his shoulders, but that at least it’s a burden he can share.
The moments before the operation commences are quiet, understated and among the most poetic stuff ever animated. Engulfed in Spierlbergian light from the supertransformers and their massive surplus of electricity powering the makeshift base, Ritsuko outlines the plan for Shinji and Rei, informing them of the perilous difficulty upon which their jobs rest. It’s up to the boy to make sure he follows the protocol exactly to his instructions and slay the Angel in a single shot, and if he misses, he’ll be unable to move from the rifle’s central location in order to avoid an incoming blast—for the first time, he literally cannot run away, even if he wants to. As before, he’s being treated as nothing but a circuit, a cog in a machine, a test-subject for instrumentality whose individual effort and will are not worth as much as his abilities to follow orders without question. For Rei, the job is simpler, enough so for her to understand its full extent with a single question—“I’m just to protect Unit One, then?”—and it’s hardly necessary for an answer to tell us the plain truth that she is expendable. So is Shinji, all things considered. Like so many young people from a whole generation’s worth of Japanese science-fiction and horror, these are children sent into almost certain death by the adult world of authority figures they serve. We’ve seen kids like them before—in Battle Royale, they’re teenagers stranded on a desert island and told to fight to the death until only one is left standing. In the manga Deadman Wonderland, they’re kids given literal death sentences to be carried out at random in a privately owned prison camp that’s run as an amusement park. It’s an air of fatalistic longing as old as longstanding fascinations with kamikaze pilots & suicidal samurai, and as recent as the queer grip on the public imagination held by the tragic real-life story of “Nevada-tan”.
And it’s a fairly universal one, as well—from Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, there’s plenty of domestic depictions of young lives snuffed out by the cruelty of an adult world, even before you take into account the entirety of the slasher, and other permutations of horror subgenres. The children of Evangelion are a part of this long line of suffering, but what sets them apart from all the horrific and disturbingly sexualized portrayals that surround it is the way in which Anno expresses their utterly mortal dilemmas with a relative air of nuance and subtlety. Even at its most violent moments, the series and its films never quite resort to the same level of blood or gore that its various cultural cousins indulge in (at least not until the positively apocalyptic End of Evangelion). Partly it’s thanks to how the threat of bodily harm is effectively projected onto the Evas, and how their mental synchronizing with those enormous bio-mechanical creations effectively allows those threats to transcend the mere destruction of the flesh, and become a kind of existential torture-porn. For the pilots of the Evangelions, the worst-case scenario is not necessarily that they might die in their LCL filled cockpits, but that they might instead be driven to such extremes of mental and psychological anguish that they might be at risk for taking their own lives. Like the sorry children of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, turned into prematurely elderly, monstrous and apocalyptic abominations by scientists who used them as guinea-pigs, young Ikari and Ayanami are victims of a state which subjects them to cruel tests that even the researchers themselves have little understanding of. At an age that’s all about experimenting in order to find yourself, they are instead experimented upon.
And yet, there is still a sliver of optimism, and from the people you’d expect to be the last ones even capable of hope. As they change into their plug-suits, Shinji asks Rei if she’s afraid, knowing that they could die out there. There’s a thin wall of plastic standing between them, affording them a modest measure of privacy, but Anno pushes us past it, to linger on Ayanami’s naked body as she bends over to secure her skin-tight suit. Somehow, it’s less offensive than the crude, awkward moment in her apartment, a natural acknowledgement of the simple beauty of this strange girl and a subtle nod to the frailty of her physical form, just when it’s about to come under the most strenuously hostile threat imaginable. It’s the same kind of odd, virgin grace possessed by all those tasteful paintings and limbless statues of nude nymphs and goddesses from western mythology, the kinds which have been around long enough to outlast the half-life of mere erotic fascination and become something close to platonic ideals in the collective imagination. Fastening her suit, she tells him not to worry, and that he’s not going to die—“I’ll be protecting you”. Then she disappears from behind the changing screen, her shadow giving way to empty light, displaying a kind of calm and confidence that Shinji himself can neither possess nor understand. After all, they bear opposite kinds of psychological pain—his a selfish, or perhaps better termed self-oriented, fear of rejection learned at an early age from his father, and hers a literally selfless condition of absolute detachment, having starved herself away from seemingly any kind of social appetite whatsoever, like a fairy-tale princess given up on the hope of ever being rescued. They have both withdrawn entirely from the world, and now they are asked to risk their lives to save it.
Outside, the lights begin to go out. Houses dim across the countryside. Streetlamps fade from road to road. News-tickers on the sides of buildings announcing the blackout flicker out as the rest of the city shuts off behind. The music slows to a soft tickle of piano keys and strings that whisper like a chorus of trains in the distance of an urban no man’s land, their whistles turned to far-away hums on a lonely harmonica. From Shinji’s new home, Misato’s pet penguin watches as all of Tokyo-3 goes dark, and down in the shelters of the Geo-Front the lights turn to a haunting emergency red, the huddling masses of civilians looking like refugees in their own country. In recent years and moths we’ve time and again seen natural and manmade disasters bring unfathomable tolls of death and destruction to cities around the world, and the sight of survivors banding together around pools of dim light in hastily prepared encampments, like families of cave-dwellers weathering the nighttime storms of prehistoric nightmares, has become an all too common sight on nightly and twenty-four hour news broadcasts. We can look into the painted faces here and recognize the look of ordinary men, women and children who cling to the desperate hope of escaping the inevitable for another night, jealously guarding a few more moments of lives shared with loved ones like scraps of stolen bread fought for in a poverty-stricken street. They are the few who survived the Second Impact and have lived for fifteen years to raise families against all odds, who choose to raise children in a world that may not survive long enough for them to bear offspring of their own. These parents have let their sons and daughters begin lives they will almost certainly not be able to finish by natural causes, spoiling them with the merest years as though they were the first bites of candy to a newborn sweet-tooth. In their faces, and in the light of a nation dimming to an ancient dusk, is the world that our heroes have been dedicated to saving.
As the entire island chain of Japan blinks out into the global landscape of the evening, the only light that remains are the stars in the sky, the Milky Way in full bloom over a country that fasts itself from light pollution for one fervent prayer of a night. Shinji and Rei sit by their Evas overlooking the site of the upcoming battle, the anxious seconds ticking away, and for a short, sweet moment, they might as well be the only human beings left on the Earth. He asks her why she pilots Unit Zero, and she tells him it’s a bond. Not just to his father, who treats her with the jealous attention of parental infidelity, but to all mankind. Inside the Eva, she can fight for everybody, all the people she doesn’t know, and believes she cannot connect with in any other way. “It’s all I have,” says Rei, before standing up to get ready, and with the silhouetting moon looming huge over her shoulder adds “Good-bye”. It’s a sad little scene, especially for the way in which she herself will be cut off from all the people she’s fighting to save, standing guard while Shinji is literally plugged in to the strength and power of an entire country full of hopeful innocents. As midnight dawns on Operation Yashima, he’s the one who is given the bond that she has spoken of, the connecting drive of so many hopes and dreams dependent upon the pull of the trigger from his sniper’s perch. As he compares himself to saintly, selfless Rei, an unpleasant tremor of doubt begins to creep into him, and he is overwhelmed by the thought of an entire mission, an entire country, an entire world and its fate put into his responsibility. Anno puts us close into his face, in the cockpit, and pulls away slowly as Shinji begins pulling away from reality, draining away the details until all that’s left is a scantly animated sketch of the boy alone in a paper-blank void, an outright expressionist touch familiar to those who remember the experiments he played with avant-garde animation styles in Gunbuster, Nadia and the utterly abstract finales to his original telling of Evangelion. Right at the moment when he’s needed most, he’s losing the battle for his own confidence.
But now the NERV team readies the power, and everything goes into a full forward momentum. Throughout the series, Anno pursues his action sequences largely by portraying the vital movements while having his scientists and crewmembers hurriedly shouting orders, reporting data and watching as computer-graphics on screen relay important information, using the various secondary characters and direct visual displays as a chorus keeping a present-tense narration of the events unfolding, keeping the audience up to date and on target while events rush wildly ahead. Beyond his set-pieces, he uses much the same tactic in his dramatic sequences as well, cross-cutting from sympathetic figures like Misato and Ritsuko as they candidly discuss the problems facing Shinji and Rei to the young pilots themselves, narrating the events of their sad lives as though they were elements in an equation that needs to be solved, with occasional snapshots of peripheral details to fill in the gaps between what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing in the same way that the computer HUD does throughout the battles. Now, the two kinds of scenes have blended in this final moment, where the success of Shinji’s performance as an Eva pilot rests squarely on his emotional well-being, and all the accompanying narration does double duty—as the series progresses, Anno will push this technique into further extremes, until we’re left with almost nothing but the most abstract and obscure of surreal moments accompanied by voice-overs that would seem remote and detached from everything were it not for the way that he’s prepared us for that kind of parallel cinema in moments like these. Shinji readies himself, and with all of Japan’s power-grid humming and bristling behind him, he does what he’s been told to do in the VR simulator—“Put the target in your sights, and pull the trigger.”
And the shot goes out, penetrates, and appears to do rather savage damage to the beast, blanketing the countryside surrounding it with its blood. But it turns out that the core has only been scratched, and after charging itself up again, it lets loose a beam of light that levels an entire mountainside, and reduces the NERV provisional base into a smoking, hellish landscape. As soon as everyone recovers, and realizes they’ll only have enough time and power to make one more shot, Shinji is heard crying in utter pain, curled up in the cockpit of his Eva. In the broadcast version of this battle, the reason that his first shot misses its target is straightforward, and plain to see, as the Angel fires a volley of its own which distorts the positron beam, the two lasers effectively dueling for supremacy like so many energy-blasts from Dragon Ball Z. In the Rebuild edition, however, Shinji isn’t let off the hook so easily—instead of his blast being pushed out of the way by the enemy’s counterattack, the boy simply misses, his heart and soul too distracted by the conflict of his social worth as the savior of mankind, too caught up in his own little world to be of much use saving this one. Or is that really the case? Throughout the series, Shinji has been consistently treated as little more than a spare part that makes operating the Eva possible—in the first fight, all he does is sit in the cockpit and “get it to move”; in the second fight he’s chastised for going off-script and disobeying his training and orders, even when it results in defeating the Angel; now, he’s been told to simply follow his instructions to the letter and “let the machines do the rest”.
A steadily repeated theme in these early episodes is that you have to make choices for yourself, something the children often seem too traumatized by life to do on their own—both Rei and Shinji respond to almost every question with a soulless “Yes”, she because she hasn’t been exposed to people enough to know what else to do, and he because he’s been hurt too many times to take a chance and try anything else. Often enough Anno treats this theme with ample amounts of both humor and sensitivity throughout the series, but now he’s expressing it concretely as the lynchpin for his climactic action set-piece. As Gendo orders that his son be removed from the roster of Eva pilots as “completely useless”, Misato pleads for the boy to be given a another chance—he may be broken down into tears, but he’s still pushing Unit One back up, fighting back the pain and humiliation of defeat to crawl back into his sniper’s position and lift up the positron canon. Begrudgingly, Gendo accepts, and Shinji is given the go-ahead to fire a second-round, but this time, the canon’s targeting control has been damaged and he’ll have to aim his shot manually, instead of relying upon technological support. Like Luke Skywalker switching off his computer as he barrels down the Death Star’s trench, he’s taking an active role in his heroism instead of being reduced to just another piece of circuitry in the machine. From his point-of-view we can still see the targeting program at work, but now it mimics hand-held footage, and the broken cross-hairs are taking time to line-up—in this sci-fi metaphor, it takes both willpower and manpower to earn free will. As Shinji prepares to shoot, the stakes are increasingly upped—the drill finally penetrates the Geo-Front and sends skyscrapers crashing to the subterranean ground, and the Angel begins to charge itself again for another attack, one that’s sure to destroy Unit One and dash everyone’s hope in one swift stroke.
As the blast rings out, however, it’s Rei who stands in the way with her shield and blocks it, risking her life so that Shinji can fire his round and put an end to the Angel—taking a bullet for all mankind. As he pulls the trigger and fires through the enemy’s AT Field, she is acting as a shield for him, and all of NERV. In a story that has been so concerned with the boundaries people set up between one another to keep from being hurt, we now see the most emotionally frail member of the cast being protected by the only one who has even less psychological balance than he—Shinji is all too sensitive to hurt and betrayal, whereas Rei is utterly desensitized to it all. It makes a cruel kind of sense that she would stand in the way of this volley, and disregard the pain and danger posed to herself, because she can take it. But in the action-vocabulary of Evangelion, the shields we put up between one another—the AT Field, the “safe distance” between hostile peers—are manifestations of the divine, a biological expression of the soul’s connection to all living things. Like Lucas’ mythos of the Force, it can be used for offensive and defensive measures equally, but is best magnified and concentrated by acts of selfless devotion from one person in danger to another. So when Shinji finally fires the canon, it’s no longer about the impersonal effort to save a world full of strangers, but simply to stop the Angel from torturing Rei—we see the positron beam not just as it cuts through the monster’s AT Field and exploding body, but also as it disperses its beam and ends its assault on Unit Zero. The red core melts and its menacing drill inflates with fleshy abandon before finally exploding in a rain of crimson blood upon the NERV headquarter’s underground pyramid. Finally, as the creature dies, it bursts into a huge starburst of sharpened points, like a porcupine blowing itself up to frighten away a predator. The cruel Angel’s thesis is now one and the same with ours—it knows the meaning of the Hedgehog Dilemma.
But does any of that matter? Not as long as Rei’s still in danger, it doesn’t. After shouldering the blow of the Angel’s blast, Unit Zero lies crippled in the ruined, smoking countryside, like a fallen Jedi on the banks of a Stygian river of lava about to burn for his sins, or a broken-down hobbit literally on the slopes of doom, his spirit too broken down to revel in the hardest won of victories. Shinji tears out her entry-plug with the progressive-knife of his Eva, burns his hands prying opening its frying-hot hatch and pushing inside the same way his father did during the girl’s disastrous first activation test. It takes a moment or so before Rei finally comes to, and when she finally does, it’s such a relief to the boy that he’s somehow even to crack a weak, but honest kind of joke with a knowing sarcasm—“You have nothing? Really? You were just gonna leave me on that? And that whole dramatic ‘good-bye’ thing?” He breaks down to cry, but it’s out of happiness this time, tears he can bravely stand through. Rei can’t tell the difference, and acts confused and concerned. It’s clear she has a sympathy for him, a social appetite buried somewhere deep inside her starved psyche, but the human instincts that ought to pilot her through the world have died out long ago, and she apologizes for not knowing what to do. “You could start by smiling,” says Shinji, and at great length, watching the tired grin on his face and maybe even remembering the way that Gendo did the same, she does. Though and more Angels await their awakening on a strangely blood-stained moon, where a SEELE monolith brings a naked red-eyed boy out of his hibernating-coffin to look forward to their future plans, it hardly seems to matter that the world is only temporarily safe. Facing monsters is one thing, not running away from a painful life of rejection and heartache another, but if you can summon up the courage to fight back your fears and make a sad girl smile, then perhaps the world is worth saving, after all.