By Bob Clark
In this past month, the Blu Ray of Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo saw its release in Japan, continuing the burgeoning Rebuild cycle of Hideaki Anno’s magnum opus in a manner that has already won droves of accolades and hypertensive horror, based on little more than happening to exist. That’s par for the course with all things Eva, naturally, but it’s something even more underlined for fans of the series who live outside of Japan, as there’s always something of a prolonged waiting period for any given release to reach our shores, in an official capacity or otherwise. It seemed to take forever for even the shoddiest of pirate camrip footage to leak its way out onto the net, and even longer for that material to be paired with semi-coherent subtitles forged by fans attempting to translate the poor audio found on the tapes smuggled in from moviegoers willing to risk the sanctity of their cell-phones for the cause of international fandom. I’ve never been a fan of pirating material myself, even though it’s become almost a necessary evil in the anime world, as most of the best modern releases barely see the light of day over here, and are now only beginning to be given even online streaming distributions worth a damn on sites like Crunchyroll.
Still, given the poor quality of the camrips I never really considered looking at them to begin with, but now with the advent of the movie’s Blu Ray release, the situation is a little more difficult. Not only does this HD release mean an exponentially higher quality of torrents will soon be flooding the web, if not already, but it means there’s now a completely legit official way to watch the film by purchasing the disc itself, given that Japan and the United States share a Blu Ray region. Granted, you’d probably want to wait until the inevitable release of a disc from Hong Kong, both for the fact that it would include English subtitles and be a great deal cheaper (I did the same thing myself when purchasing a copy of Miyazaki’s classic Castle in the Sky when I got too fed up with the poorly scripted “dubtitles” on the current Disney discs), but even without a translation it’s terribly tempting to be able to watch the movie at long last. After all, it’s not like comprehending the dialogue is necessary to enjoying the Eva experience, or even understanding the largescale plot convulsions or intimate character hysterics– all the emotions are right up there on the screen already, etched into the faces and myriad battles. I’m feeling that temptation, but trying to keep from giving in. Because no matter how convenient it would be to purchase and watch Eva 3.0 in the comfort of my own home, that’s not where it was meant to be seen, and no matter how long it takes, I’m determined to witness it for the first time on the big screen.
This may seem a little odd, considering both my devoted fandom for all things Eva, Anno and anime in general, and especially odd considering the fact that Evangelion is a franchise that began on television screens back in the 90’s, and perhaps oddest still that ever since End of Evangelion the series has had a continuous and prominent cinematic component. But it’s that very presence of both big and small screen work in both Anno’s career and the franchise in general that makes me hesitant to look at this newest film on the wrong platform– one of the best things that can be said about Eva is that it almost perfectly navigates past a myriad of different technical limitations common to television animation, including the very nature of the 1.33 television aspect ratio itself. Anno and his team do a magnificent job of using the small square frame just as well as they ration their art budget and frame-rate, conjuring up a set of designs and sequences that do as good a job of presenting epic, emotionally dynamic animation as anything done for the big screen, and at times even outpacing it. But the very work they did to maximize their creative output on the more limited medium of television is one of the reasons it’s frustrating to watch features that were made for the more expansive realm of cinema– like EoE and the Rebuild series– on a small screen, where all of the work that was put in to fully delivering on the new technical freedoms and capabilities are lost.
It’s something that to a certain extent you have to get used to as an anime fan in the United States– outside the rare retrospective screening for something generally mainstream like Miyazaki, you’re not going to get very many chances to experience classic anime on the big screen in the same way that older films are continually given repertoire life-cycles at art-houses. Even new releases are all but impossible to see on the big screen unless they’re showcased in a short-run film festival, or attached to a major big-name director or series, as in the case of Eva. As such, you learn to value the moments that you’re able to see feature anime on the big screen the way they were meant to be seen, and be somewhat diligent about finding new releases while they’re out– this past season has been better than average with From Up On Poppy Hill and Mamoru Hosada’s Wolf Children enjoying brisk theatrical runs in New York– but it’s still frustrating to look back on all kinds of modern classics like Akira, Patlabor or Paprika that I either wasn’t old enough to experience in a theater, or were given only such short lifespans on the big screen that I missed out even while trying my hardest (I don’t remember what else was showing at the New York Film Festival when Satoshi Kon’s last film played there to sold out crowds, but I’d have given up whatever ticket I did get for standing-room only at it). The small screen naturally diminishes anything that was meant for anything bigger than a piece of living-room furniture, and as with all classic cinema you find yourself wishing that the first moment you saw a classic was larger than life, projected tens of feet high on the silver screen.
At the same time, the reverse can be true for pieces of quality television that find themselves migrating to the big-screen for prestige runs at art-house theaters, usually whenever a big-name director from abroad steps down to do a long-form work for television. For the most part I haven’t really exposed myself to moments like these, because most of the small-screen/big-screen migration works are things that came about before I had a chance to be aware of them. I’d have been all too happy to see the serial screenings of Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom or Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz in movie theaters when they first reached US shores, just as I’m sure Das Boot must’ve been one hell of a fun movie to see in a theater, even in a cut form. But as it stands, those are works that I’ve only ever known from their home-video releases, and as such I’m watching them the way they were designed to be seen, anyway. Just as with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, I’m watching something in its native format, the only thing missing from the experience being a periodic interruption for commercial breaks. Now if any of these works had a truly cinematic component to their experiences, something that was meant to be seen in a theater, then I’d feel a little shortchanged– just as I feel a little apprehensive about going from Evangelion the TV series to EoE or Rebuild, I always chide myself a little while watching Twin Peaks and reaching Fire Walk With Me, especially after missing a few recent anniversary screenings (again, sold-out crowds).
However, the larger question is whether or not these small-screen works really belong on the big-screen in the first place, no matter how great their quality might be in one format. As much as I’ve enjoyed the Rebuild of Evangelion series, I’ll admit that its weakest moments have tended to be where Anno and his crew have simply taken images ans sequences from the original television series and repeated them, visually verbatim, only with a higher frame-rate and production value to benefit from. When Anno reframes and reanimates even familiar sequences, they can be given a new life that justifies the renewal of the franchise for feature presentation (the way that he visualizes the shapeshifting Angel that spurs Operation Yashima is a great illustration of taking new advantage of cinematic animation, instead of merely resting on assets from the past like much of the rest of 1.0 does). But when we’re merely seeing digital Xeroxes of old drawings and sequences with only slight attempts to recontextualize the artwork into a 1.77 aspect ratio, the big-screen experience feels not only redundant but somewhat hamstrung. Thankfully that’s something you don’t get too often in the constantly changing Rebuild experience, but it’s something that occurs non-stop whenever you witness a work for television repurposed on the big-screen.
Case in point– some years ago, before it was given a lavish release by the Criterion Collection for home viewing, I attended a marathon screening of Fassbinder’s sci-fi cult sensation World on a Wire at the Museum of Modern Art. I’d have only been too happy to accept the convenience of watching it on a television broadcast, or on DVD, or even on faded VHS copies if the opportunity had presented itself, but as with many niche import works the cinema was the only choice that seemed to be in view. And though the experience of seeing Fassbinder’s revolutionary feat of world-within-a-world virtual dreamscapes was enjoyable, there were innumerable slight, though undeniable frustrations that piled up all through the evening, the kind of tiny irritants that can distract you from the overall work given enough time and inertia. For the most part I could admire the clean, retro-futuristic period detailing throughout the movie, filling the frame with circa-70’s office and domestic decor with brightness and crisp display, yet with a realism that kept it from feeling entirely synthetic even when the narrative called for it, as though Godard had shot Alphaville in color.
But there was just enough grain intermingling with that abundance of detail that made the full frames feel cluttered, at times even confusing. Looking at the same work and moments on a television screen, and what was before confusing feels much more clear and easy to follow, as the eye has a much smaller field of visual territory to scan. Watching something intended for television in a theatrical venue can have a somewhat overwhelming effect, akin to seeing an ordinary film screened in an IMAX theater instead of one shot for those proportions. Given that Fassbinder was shooting in 16-milimeter film it’s something of a given that you’ll have a slight blow-up effect from screening it at a size and scale intended for 35mm, and if Fassbinder had been shooting for the theatrical screen that wouldn’t be a real problem at all. But because World on a Wire and Fassbinder’s television work is shot around the technical and creative limitations of the small screen and a domestic setting, they don’t really lend themselves to a huge theatrical exhibition quite as well as one might expect, or at least not without significant reservations. It isn’t merely a question of aspect-ratio either– even today, with high-resolution video making 1.77 the default format for television and still popular with cinemas, the effect of taking a film or miniseries created for the small screen and putting it on something larger means a rather drastic change in the way those images effect the viewer.
Further confusion is bound to erupt when considering films and filmmakers who seem only too comfortable with their work being shown in either venue, without any real awareness of difference– Steven Soderbergh spent years trying to get his Liberace film Behind the Candelabra done as a theatrical release, but doesn’t seem to look at its final form as an HBO movie any differently than any of the number of movies he’s made in the past ten years or so that spent time in theaters and pay-per-view at the same time. In the long term, this kind of creative interchangability between film and television may be a boon for visual quality on the small screen, and indeed we’ve already seen many great works created for television for over this decade past that at least equal their big-screen competition– Game of Thrones and the modern Doctor Who have easily outpaced almost anything else in the fantasy or sci-fi rackets since at least 1999. But just as there’s a more cinematic look in television today, we’re seeing more and more of a television-look to modern domestic cinema, with less attention paid to visual ambition and a distressing amount of false documentary verite-isms standing in the way of actual realism– the action-movie taking its cue from war-journalism and America’s Funniest Home Videos.
Between this and the increasingly serial nature of the new run of corporate-approved feature franchises currently about to glut the multiplexes for the summer (don’t forget to sit through the Iron Man 3 credits and get your motivation for why you should give a damn about the next Thor or whatever), it seems as though the worst fears that studios had at the dawn of television are beginning to come true. But the only real way for the medium to fight back against that comparatively duller counterpart is for filmmakers to show real ambition when it comes to the motion-pictures they put up on the screen, and for audiences to remain true to seeing that ambition in the venue that best fits the spirit in which it was made. As such, I may have all manner of complaints when I do come to see Evangelion 3.0, but from the look of the few scant screenshots I’ve allowed myself to glimpse for anything longer than a flap of a hummingbird’s wings, there’ll at least be plenty to admire in seeing how Anno takes advantage of the big-screen, and that’s an experience that I wouldn’t want to miss out on, no matter how easy it may be to watch it on Blu Ray. Just don’t bring it up to me when the Hong Kong version comes out.