ReWATCH of Evangelion:02

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.)

10 thoughts on “ReWATCH of Evangelion:02

  1. I’ve done a lot of navel-gazing on the subject that anime played in my tastes and the (first(get it))) impact it had on me growing up, so I find these articles especially interesting. Quite the long throw from third this one was from, say, Ninja Scroll or the like I was used to at that point. I didn’t quite know what to make of the long shots with monologuing and most especially the pacing, but something grabbed me, certainly. Of note is the idea that that third angel went suicide bomber because it was being mamed so, I’d never even considered that before, but on reflection it’s very likely true.

  2. When I think of Anno’s directing style in Evangelion, the word that comes to mind is “frustration.” When it works, like in this episode, it’s some of the most distinctive and impressive storytelling in all of anime. And then in other episodes you get to stare at a still image for a minute straight.

  3. @ Sanagi: Oh god, tell me about it. The flip-flopping this show does between “brilliant” and “mind-numbing” is much more painful now than it was when I last watched the show back in ’06 or so. I could spend at least a whole article of my own on unnecessary and rushed contrivances like, say, Touji’s sudden involvement late in the series attempting to tug heartstrings but otherwise being completely out-of-place and not having any bearing on the story except to get Shinji more upset for what happens later. I could also bring up how the series spends forever psychoanalyzing and background-scouring Asuka and Rei only to cast them aside as handy plot devices in the movie, who suddenly don’t remember all that stuff they were ruminating on uselessly for episodes and episodes. (Most of Asuka’s role in both finales is Shinji’s imaginary version of her. She was interesting, Anno! Why do this?) Rei having a large fandom, in particular, astounds me – she has the personality of a two-by-four, making her just another clean-slated mouthpiece Anno can and does use to preach at us without working it into the plot anywhere. (Many of Rei’s scenes basically boil down to pointless blah-blah-blah-ing.)

    And worst of all, there’s episode 24, which rushes Kaworu’s character and forced relationship with Shinji to an unbelievable degree, only to slow down for, yes, more camp philosophizing and some pretentious budget-cut cinematography – as you already seemed to be hinting at, the episode stays locked on a single frame of animation for over a full minute, and if anyone here thinks we’re exaggerating, they are blissfully mistaken. (Come on, Anno, even Shinji crying in the background would have helped. Anything.) There is more eloquent slashfiction out there than the amateurish mess that is episode 24. Forget how brilliant other parts of the series were – if it looks like bad writing later on, then just CALL IT “bad writing” and not “avant-garde.”

    While I do think every anime fan should see Evangelion at some point (just make sure you’re not depressed when you do; it’s become quite infamous for making depression worse), because the history of its creation and the impact it had on the medium is really what’s fascinating. That’s more interesting to me than the work itself, which is deeply flawed on too many basic levels. It has such potential for perfection, but seems to be hell-bent on slitting its wrists for the sake of bitter pretentiousness instead. Let’s just admit that Eva is a must-see, but not a must-love.

    The Rebuilds, however, have been fantastic, so far fixing basically every problem I had with the original series. If someone new really wants to take a look at the franchise and see what the appeal is, I would honestly point them to the remakes first.

  4. Great write up. You make note of how desolate and empty the world of Evangelion appears to be. I always thought that was a strength of the show – it keeps the narrative focus on just the main characters involved (because beyond all the spiritual mumbo-jumbo, this show is really – at its heart – a story about human characters being isolated and broken) and highlights less how empty the world is and more how empty the lives of the characters are.

    But I have to assume that this was kind of a happy coincidence, and that the world is empty because of the show’s budget. Eva was notorious for being over budget and (at the time) animating a bunch of people in the crowd all the time would just be an additional expense. I think this because if you look at the Rebuild films, they almost go out of their way to show a world that’s now inhabited with lots and lots of people. From the thousands of people working in unison on Operation Yashima, to the countless people huddled in bunkers that they’re now showing us, to lines of people at the amusement parks/convenience markets/city streets. Tokyo 3 is teeming with people – we just never see it in the original show.

  5. @all — Yeah, the show starts strong, but I definitely have encountered some really annoying bits already. “Uneven” seems to describe even the best anime, probably due to the rigorous demands of producing 9 hours of animation with multiple production teams; even the brilliant Cowboy Bebop has that stupid Pink Floyd clown episode. I’ll be pointing out Eva’s screw-ups, too, don’t you worry.

  6. @Jeremy: By “clown episode,” I hope you are not talking about “Pierrot Le Fou,” which I actually felt was one of Bebop’s strongest episodes – tonally, it really managed to stand out, and almost felt like an independent short film. Really, the only episode of Bebop I thought was genuinely bad/annoying was “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui.” It was awful and nothing about it worked at all.

  7. I’m surprised you didn’t comment more on the context of the violence here. Arguably, half the point of giant robot shows is that it’s easy to have big epic battles with human-shaped participants, without having to worry about things getting gory. Then all of the sudden here comes Eva to shock you by throwing in all this crazy visceral savagery and drippy red stuff when you think you’re just watching a robot fight a space monster.

  8. Googleshng – SOMEONE never read a Go Nagai manga!

    About Eva, the hero not being able to control his robot goes all the way back to Manzinger Z, where Kouji destroyed a good chunk of town just by not knowing what the hell he was doing and Sayaka was sent out to stop him. He was a bit less destructive in the anime, though. Since, you know…Go Nagai manga. Can’t really adapt those to primetime TV straight. (see: Devilman)

  9. @Andrew Mayes
    Nothing is wrong with looking at an image for a full-minute. I’m trying to not be rude, but your frustration is frustrating. I’ll just say, I dig that atmosphere and tone that that kind of aesthetic brings. The slower the better. I just feel like you’re not giving it a proper chance. It’s not for everyone, certainly, but there are reasons that these things are done and it’d be good to try and figure out *why* a director is doing something as opposed to throwing your hands up and screaming.

  10. @Chris: Don’t get me wrong, Anno is an excellent cinematographer – if such a term can even be applied to animation, but I just mean he knows how to put power in a single image through sharp editing and lighting, and budget problems being what they were on this show, that certainly came in handy a lot.

    Thing is, no matter which way I look at that shot of Eva-01 holding Kaworu, I’m pretty sure Anno didn’t do it for any real reason other than that they were running out of money. I always thought, instead of using that 1min14secs on that frame of animation, why not use it to better develop the relationship between Kaworu and Shinji? Their relationship was too rushed to fit into one episode as it was — but that one minute could have been so helpful if it had been used to get me to actually CARE about the character. I understand that Shinji was very hesitant about killing Kaworu, hence the extremely long pause is supposed to help us feel Shinji’s pain in making the decision.

    I’m not so much bugged by the fact that it stays locked on that one frame of animation that long, but rather the fact that the episode was just poorly-written in the first place. It expects us to spend that full-minute caring about a character who got no more than 11 minutes worth of screentime in the entire series and whose entire relationship with Shinji was shoved into one episode. Even the extended “Director’s Cut” version of the episode didn’t help it at all. As I said earlier, it felt rushed and contrived, and THAT’S what annoyed me. I’m perfectly okay with remaining on a still image if I feel it benefits the mood — the “elevator ride” with Asuka and Rei a few episodes prior worked a lot better for me, because I knew those two characters much better than I knew Kaworu, and I could understand the tension that may have been between them.

    Anno’s so darn good with character and spectacle that he abuses them and ignores his gaping weaknesses in theme and plot. For example, putting Shinji back on the subway train that he used to run away from his problems as part of a new, twisted mind trip is really neat… the first time. But by the third, fourth, and yes, there’s even a fifth time (in the movie), it’s not fun anymore. Yes, we KNOW Shinji just can’t learn to respect himself or get over his fear of rejection. We KNOW he’s self-destructive and has no idea what he really wants. We KNOW he’s a pretty horny little bugger, too. So shut up and do something! The viewers don’t care if Shinji can TELL himself that he’s happy, because it’s clearly just as false and self-deceptive as him TELLING himself that he’s worthless. Shinji is pathetic, and needs to find something outside of “how he feels” to believe in and follow to attain true happiness and self-worth. He needs to confront his father, he needs to confront Rei, he needs to forget his own problems and address the apocalypse that, by the way, he becomes the Sephirothic gateway god of in the movie. Then we would care, and then we would actually believe him when he says, “My life is worth living here.”

    I find it amazing that viewers will forgive things from Eva that nobody would tolerate in a lesser series, and I do mean “things” in plural that happen over and over and over. For instance, a large part of Anno’s universe necessary to make his philosophy believable is the “characters monologuing in a void” idea (because, let’s face it, it’d be silly-sounding in any other context). Yeah, the last two episodes can be blamed on the budget of pocket lint, but what about the many episodes before them with similar “psychiatrist’s couch” scenes? What about the movie? Why do so many people call this “impressive storytelling”? It is, in fact, the laziest thing in the world to talk about a worldview, textbook-style, for forty minutes or more. It’s cheap, manipulative, preachy, and if religion or Disney-fied friendship speeches were the subject instead of a more obscure doctrine, viewers would fling poo at the screen in outrage. Show, don’t tell! It’s basic stuff. Write believable, real-world scenes where these topics come up in the audience’s minds, but don’t force them down our throats with no reason to believe there’s any truth to them in the story itself. Trust me, it can be done, even with complicated ideas.

    …Wow, that got off-track. Sorry.

    Anyway, don’t get me wrong, I still love Evangelion; it was one of the first anime I watched when I was starting to seriously get into the medium. Really, many aspects of Evangelion merit nothing less than a perfect score, which means it would have to have some pretty major problems for any honest critic to blow past all the hype and rip that perfect score away. Unfortunately, Evangelion has some pretty major problems.

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