ReWATCH of Evangelion:01

After coming back from Japan in the wake of this year’s Tokyo Game Show, I had an unexpected compulsion: To go back and re-watch Neon Genesis Evangelion. I’m gonna put this one on the shoulders of my friend Kyle, who dragged me to the Evangelion store in Harajuku/Omotesando and proceded to geek out for half an hour, reminding me that once upon a time I was pretty hooked on Eva, too. With the third Rebuild movie coming out in Japan this fall (and presumably following a year later in the U.S.), there seems to be this sort of heightened Eva awareness among certain circles of my peer group. And I am not made of stone, sir.

But when I stopped to think about it, I realized the last time I actually watched through Eva was a good decade ago — maybe even longer. 2000? 1999? In any case, it’s been ages. I enjoyed the show as it was being localized into English (including a bit of affectionate ribbing), and I have found the Rebuilds to be far more enjoyable than I ever expected. So I decided that maybe it is high time for me to go back and watch the original TV series again with the benefit of age and hindsight. I’m older and a lot more media-literate than I was in the ’90s, and even more to the point, I’ve actually spent quite a bit of time in Japan now and have a better sense of the culture and settings in which the series was steeped (and to which it was in many ways a reactionary work). So, please join me as I revisit Evangelion with a fresh perspective. Or maybe you’ll just get really annoyed and stop reading the site altogether. Either way, let’s do this… together.

Episode 01: Angel Attack

I confess that I did not pay as much attention to the fine details of Evangelion‘s opening moments as perhaps I should have my first time around. I kind of tuned out everything prior to the introduction of the main cast, because I’d seen giant robot shows before and didn’t think much of this series’ establishing shots. In hindsight, though, the opening minutes of Evangelion are dense with information.

Some shots are deliberately mysterious, like the shadowy form lurking in the water; that sort of enigmatic teaser is more or less standard anime fare, and that’s likely what I was reacting to. But the setting contains much of interest. The water appears to have flooded a major city — Tokyo, of course, since that’s the only major Japanese city anime bothers with — and its buildings lie in ruins. Entire high-rise neighborhoods sit abandoned, flooded with hundreds of feet of water. And yet, the remaining portions of the city retain some form of infrastructure: Crisis alert systems, trains, working highways, telephones, a military. Whatever devastated Tokyo didn’t wipe the city off the map, but at the same time there hasn’t been a proper clean-up and restoration despite it having been, as Fuyutsuki says, 15 years. This is interesting, and well-considered.

The conflict here is standard big robot anime fare, of course. The standard military goes up against some sort of towering, otherworldly terror and fails to make a dent. The use of a tactical nuke is a nice touch, since nukes are standard sci-fi shorthand for “the most powerful weapon currently known to science.” By bringing in the big gun right away, Eva clears the way for its super-tech to take a role going forward.

And while all of this is highly plot-relevant, it’s also cannily written as background detail for the protagonist’s arrival on the scene. Shinji Ikari answers his father’s summon to Tokyo-3 at the worst possible time, barely escaping helicopter crashes and the detonation of an N2 mine (somehow) with the help of his father’s subordinate, Misato Katsuragi. Shinji and Misato escape the battlefield and descend to the headquarters of an international organization where it turns out his father is the dude who’s been sneering at the military and shuffling secret pawns about the chessboard with barely restrained glee. And hey, by the way, Shinji, you’re here to pilot the giant robot that can stop the nuke-proof marauder upstairs. Climb in and save the world.

Standard fare for robot anime, again. I momentarily thought about trying to watch Eva with a totally fresh mindset, emulating someone who had never seen this sort of anime before, but that would be missing the point. While episode 1 of Evangelion neatly plays by the rules of classics like Gundam and Macross, it only does so as part of a long-term gambit to ruthlessly deconstruct the genre. If the show seems to be laying down its blocks in neat little ordained stacks now, that’s only so that when it begins violently knocking them over the results will be all the more shocking. And so we end with a pure robot anime moment: Shinji in the towering machine he can’t possibly hope to control (but of course totally will) on one side, the implacable alien being on the other.

Of course, along the way, Eva manages to set up a few hooks and mysteries to pay off later. The exact nature of the Evangelion units is first hinted at here when Unit-01 actively saves Shinji from being pulped by falling debris despite not yet having been activated. There’s the whole thing with Rei appearing mysteriously despite being comatose at the time (which I’m pretty sure is never properly explained). And, of course, the real mystery: What’s the deal with Gendo?

Shinji’s father is, to put a fine point on it, kind of a dick. Frankly, he’s basically Steve Jobs with a neckbeard. This serves as a marked contrast to Shinji himself, who is the very definition of “milquetoast.” Meanwhile, Misato is immediately established as a hyperactive mix of scatterbrained superficiality — fussing about her clothes and getting lost in her own headquarters — and razor-edge efficiency — as demonstrated by the suddenly cold and impatient demeanor she adopts once the operation begins in earnest.

None of the series’ other cast is given enough development to offer a clear picture of their personalities in this first episode. However, I’m pretty sure that Rei’s cameo here represents the birth of moé. Wounded, bandaged, bleeding, and barely able to utter more than a word at a time, Rei is pretty much the prototypical “helpless girl you must protect as a big brother figure” (even though it turns out her relationship to Shinji is much weirder than siblings). Her agonizing pain galvanizes Shinji to go ahead and become a pilot, despite his fear and resentment at being nothing more than a tool in his father’s eyes. Yeah… that’s pretty much the quintessence of moé.

I won’t hold that against the show, though. Given producer Hideaki Anno’s well-publicized contempt for otaku, I have trouble imagining he would intentionally give rise to one of the most revolting (and creatively suffocating) branches of otaku culture imaginable.


18 thoughts on “ReWATCH of Evangelion:01

  1. Confession: I’ve yet to watch Evangelion. Doesn’t help that it’s not on Netflix Instant yet…

  2. Jeremy, how could you end this blog entry without a promise to give us more fanservice in the next entry!

  3. I watched Evangelion based on people saying how weird it was, and they were right, it was weird. But after watching it I felt that there was actual depth to what the creators were trying say with the anime, depth which I missed completely when I watched it. So I look forward to reading these, maybe you will have better luck understanding what they were trying to say, and why they had to make it so insanely convoluted.

  4. Evangelion is a peculiar mixture of stuff that ages extremely well and stuff that ages extremely poorly. It did to giant robot anime what Watchmen did to superhero comics, but far from being a shining example of a medium’s maturity, it seems forever determined to make itself a guilty pleasure for its fans.

  5. Oh God, Jeremy, I love you so much right now. Please do more of these, I would love to read them. I’ll even invite friends to give the site more traffic!

  6. I still cannot believe how popular the Evangelion franchise is, 17 years after it came out. If it didn’t have Rei and Asuka for fans to leer at and buy merchandise of, would it still be so beloved?

    I wonder if Madoka Magica will have the same levels of staying power.

  7. @Sanagi: I think that’s only true of the ancillary material rather than the work itself. A better analogy for Eva’s legacy is what Watchmen might have been like if DC had merchandised the comic immediately instead of waiting 20 years for the crappy movie to come out. The Rebuild films push it by introducing Mari, aka, “Hey fanboys, boy more merchandise, OK?” — but even then they haven’t quite crossed that line.

    @R.R. Bigman: Eva remains beloved for the same reasons as FFVII, but the difference is that Eva’s source material is much stronger than FFVII’s.

  8. Watched Cowboy Bebop this summer for the first time, and planned to watch this next.

    Might be a good time to get started, so that I can read your thoughts along the way.

  9. I actually just rewatched Eva a few months ago, likewise for the first time in about a decade. I grew to really loathe the show over the last decade – both for its obtuse nature and the unsightly fandom that surrounds it. But lo and behold, I really enjoyed it! While a lot of the dense terminology is there for no point other than to obfuscate the plot, I found a lot of the other bits far more compelling with the perspective of a proper adult. And while a lot of the “fan service” bits still remain creepy, they’re generally self-aware moments and serve a purpose to say something important about these characters rather than only having pornographic value like most boob-jiggling does in modern anime.

    I also think it’s funny Jeremy, that you mention Macross as an example of genre-defining tropes when Macross was a massive deconstruction of robot anime of the time. A good example of rule-breaking: when Hikaru climbs into a mech for “the first time,” it isn’t actually his first time (he’s a civilian stunt pilot), and he doesn’t miraculously control his robot through fate or skill – he promptly crashes it and is trapped/marooned for days as a severe consequence.

  10. ken- I find most people that don’t actually watch giant robots tend to overhype Eva and ignore other examples of genre-busting. It helps that America didn’t really get much in the way of robots in the heyday of the 70s and 80s, and you have to be a fan of the genre to go back and watch those series now, even if a good chunk of the classics are being or have been subbed in the recent years. You can’t blame Americans for thinking Macross is a typical robot show when it’s one of the two classic series they’ve seen.

  11. @ken Marsdragon’s condescension aside, keep in mind Macross was nearly 15 years old at the time of Eva’s debut. Whatever it began as, it had become the establishment against which others reacted… just like Eva sits is the same position today. Gundam was a deconstruction of anime tropes in its time, too, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t become the baseline. It’s almost as though the medium is constantly in flux rather than a rigid standard established in the ’60s!? Whoa.

  12. So, if one _were_ going to get into a giant robot anime series, which would you recommend first? I must confess that I’ve seen very, very little.

  13. @Jeremy: Yep, I’m not unaware of the reasons why cliches are born. Which is why I thought it was funny that something which was only a deconstruction is now a cliche in and of itself. But I still thought it was worth pointing out (if only for extremely pedantic reasons) that Macross doesn’t quite conform to the specific tropes you were describing.

    I’m sure you’ve heard of it, but if you haven’t already you should give another Gainax robot show a try: Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Not unlike the fandom surrounding Eva – most people tend to like this show for very base reasons that almost entirely miss the point (zomg explosions badass!). But the show is actually a very thoughtful *reconstruction* of Giant Fighting Robot shows – each story arc representing different periods in the history of the genre that deal with a lot of the same issues/various deconstructions, and then loops back around to the original premise and holds that up. It’s just as self-aware and thoughtful as Eva but also manages to be a lot less depressing in the process with symbolism that’s a lot less obtuse for no reason.

  14. “…get really annoyed and stop reading the site altogether”?

    Ha ha. No.

    The Evangelion Thumbnail Theatre was what originally pulled me into the site in the first place. I like this new analysis quite well so far, and I’m really looking forward to reading more. I think I might have to re-watch Eva again now too.

  15. Aw man, this couldn’t come at a better time for me. I just started watching it for the first time. I’m fairly unfamiliar with the genre so it all feels relatively fresh to me. Look forward to reading your opinions and sharing my own once I’ve seen more.

  16. For those Eva fans who have not watched Rebuild yet… watch Rebuild.

    Hell, if you’re skeptical skip 1 and go straight to 2.

    Just do it.

  17. Looking forward to this, Parish! I had a similar feeling when I saw the Rebuild movies – they actually, shockingly reminded me of what I loved about the series in the first place, and made me want to watch them again. I will someday…

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