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.
Edit: NEXT TIME: MORE FAN SERVICE