Episode 02: The Beast
Already at the beginning of episode two, we see Evangelion subverting robot anime conventions. Normally the fresh new hero is given a fighting chance and wins by the skin of his teeth through sheer determination. It’s a tough fight, but justice and hard work win the day!
Not so here. Shinji manages to take a single step in Unit-01 before falling on his face and getting utterly brutalized by the enemy. The creature breaks Unit-01’s arm before stabbing straight through its skull with some sort of energy lance. Shinji, whose nervous system appears to be linked to the machine around him, passes out from the pain and wakes up an indeterminate amount of time later in a hospital bed. It’s pretty much the shortest first battle ever, and despite the conventions of the genre it’s clear Shinji has no business in the cockpit of this machine.
This whole sequence seems like a pretty clear Macross reference, and I can’t imagine that’s a coincidence: Among Macross‘ animators was a young man by the name of Hideaki Anno, who would go on to direct, yes, Evangelion. So then. Look back to the early moments of Macross/Robotech, in which Hikaru/Rick first encounters a Valkyrie/Veritech. He does pretty much the same thing there that Shinji does here: Takes a halting step, stumbles, and falls. The difference is that Hikaru manages to work things out and get into the fight; here, there’s no convenient narrative paralysis on the alien monster. It doesn’t just stand there while he bumbles around. Shinji falls and Sachiel immediately leaps at him and moves in for the kill. I have to believe the entire scene is meant to serve as a direct callback to Macross, and the difference in how it unfolds speaks to the creators’ intent. It works pretty effectively.
I like the small details throughout this episode. The NERV techs wear hazmat suits as they clean up the wreckage of the battle in the flash-forward near future, and Misato spends the entire time fanning herself in the miserable Japanese summer heat. Later, we get a glimpse of her personal life and discover she’s basically a bachelor slob who keeps only beer in her fridge and lives on convenience store food. (This, I’ve since discovered, is slightly more viable a lifestyle in Japan thanks to the way convenience stores over there stock something resembling actual meals instead of just eternally rolling hot dogs and terrifying fried burritos.) Different episodes of Evangelion clearly come from different animation teams, and this episode is definitely the A-team — as it should be, given the importance of the setting it aims to establish. The first episode was about mystery and build-up, whereas the second serves as a glimpse of Evangelion‘s world in the denouement of the blink-and-it’s-over first battle.
The “set” design here also says interesting things about the series’ world. Even outside of the crisis evacuation time in which we saw Tokyo-3 in episode one, it’s a fairly desolate place. NERV headquarters in particular consists of massive structures and facilities and few people, an impressive organization run by a skeleton crew. The city streets are largely barren, and the framing of the characters in many of the shots highlights the stark emptiness of the world they inhabit. The script will begin to drop hints about the nature of the world and the disaster that led it to this point in due time, but already it’s giving hints through visual design and silence.
And then we get to one of Evangelion‘s wacky!! sequences in which Misato welcomes Shinji into her home by embarrassing him almost hard enough to finish off the murder job the Angel didn’t complete on its own. Oh, Misato, you so crazy, etc. etc. But it’s really just a palate-cleanser to the finale, in which we learn the answer to the question that’s been hovering in the background for the entire episode: How did Shinji win the battle if he was flailing helplessly, having the crap pounded out of him to the point of blacking out? The answer, it turns out, is, he didn’t. Rather, the victor in the battle with the first (actually Third) Angel was Unit-01, which basically came to life, went violently insane, and beat the Angel with such ferocity that it killed itself in desperation.
And, at the end, the most important revelation of all: The Eva unit isn’t a robot at all, despite appearances. Its face armor falls off from the stress of battle. Reflected in the glass surface of a nearby skyscraper, Shinji sees the true face of Unit-01 through as its almost human eye grotesquely bubbles open and seems to stare piercingly at him through the sense of they share through their mental link. It’s a memorable image and raises many questions, some of which are eventually answered! (And many of which aren’t. Apparently they ran out of money.)