Thursday, January 27, 2011

Rebuild of Evangelion: 2.0 - You Can Not Advance

Evangelion. Where do I begin when talking about you?

It's no exaggeration to say that Eva was the series that made me a true anime lover. It was the series that opened my eyes to just how incredible and challenging and difficult a medium it could be. I probably saw it a little too early in my development - at the time I'd seen only a few series and none more edgy than Rurouni Kenshin (which I love, by the way) - but instead of bewildering me and turning me off, I was forever hooked.

Of course I'm not alone in this. Few properties in anime history have been as influential. Eva has been relentlessly admired, reviled, copied, and adapted. Even in simply looking at the "official" adaptations the volume is staggering - beginning of course with Hideaki Anno's own movie versions of the final episodes, Death and Rebirth and End of Evangelion (more on those in a moment) and continuing through character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto's manga to "Shinji Ikari Raising Project", "Girlfriend of Steel", and on and on. Then there are the doujinshis, parodies, and millions of words of fanfiction. Evangelion isn't a series - it's a genre in and of itself.

A great divide exists in the fan community between those who prefer the original TV ending and the End of Evangelion version. I won't rehash the debate at length or go into the byzantine politics and drama that led to its creation - if that interests you there are hundreds of articles on those subjects. I'm a purist's purist when it comes to Eva, I guess, because I love the original ending. I love it in it's low-budget, indecipherable, awesomely difficult greatness - because it feels true to the series. The End of Eva movies felt like a Hollywood version, beautifully animated but emotionally false. Anno claims the meaning remains the same, but whether that's true or not I'm much happier watching the TV and finding my own truth in it than in watching the movies and being hit in the head with noise, gore and emotional static.

So given all that, I was quite conflicted when news of the "Rebuild" movies broke. Was this a property that needed to be updated? What would Anno do with the opportunity to re-shoot the story from the perspective of middle-aged cynicism instead of youthful anger? It was an enticing prospect, if also frightening. It can't be ignored that for many younger fans, this was going to be their first exposure to Eva and if the new movies didn't do it justice, it would do great damage to the reputation of the series. At the same time, how could I not be enthused at the prospect of finally seeing the property that made me a fan get new life - to see Eva with the full benefit of modern technology behind it?

The first of four planned "Rebuild" films - You Are Not Alone - was a pretty low-key effort. It re-told the events of the first several episodes with relatively few changes. It looked great - Sadamoto was back with character designs and the budget clearly dwarfed anything the series had at its disposal previously. But it was with this second film that Anno really began to assert his will on the project again. It's getting a small theatrical release in the US, and though I'd seen the film on DVD there was no way I way I could miss the opportunity to see an Eva film on the big screen for the first time.

After this second viewing, a couple of thoughts stand out for me. First, this is a very good film. It's entertaining, looks and sounds phenomenal, and for the most part feels like Eva. Second, that one of two things has happened in the decade since I first watched the series. Either I've changed and in doing so, this material feels different to me - or these movies are different from the series in such a fundamental way that the impact of the material is considerably altered. And to be honest, I can't say which. I do know this - there are many more moments in this movie that feel ponderous and preposterous to me than there were in the series. Hideki Anno certainly poured everything of himself into Evangelion. In the series it felt raw, agonizing - all of this brilliant but troubled man's angers and fears bared on screen for all to see. In the movies it sometimes feels self-important - again, whether that change comes from me or not I can't say. The background music is dramatic and ominous, perhaps too intrusive for it's own good. And, to get the bad out of the way, we need to talk about Mari.

Sometimes she's known as "Mari-Sue" to her detractors. She's a new character - and to an Eva fan, that's a big deal. With the fan community already split over which pilot they prefer (Japanese tend to prefer Rei - so do I - while Westerners tend to like Asuka) - the notion of a new girl is either orgiastic or sacrilegious. Not only is she new, but she's British too. I don't have an issue with her existence, but more with the fact that I don't see her usefulness. Mari feels tacked-on to me - change for change's sake, an excuse for another pair of boobs to bounce about on screen. To be fair, we've two films to go yet to it isn't realistic to fully judge her character just yet.

Mari isn't the only change. There are some adjustments to the timeline and the actual events, but of more interest to me are the changes in the characters. Shinji is at the center of Eva of course, and he may be the most hated character in anime history. As for me, I think Shinji-bashing totally misses the point of Eva. Of course Shinji is the receptacle for all the traits Anno loathes in himself - but if you can't feel empathy for this kid, you've a cold heart. Shinji has been dealt a pretty crappy hand. His Mom is dead, his father may be the vilest man in the universe (I loathe Gendo Ikari, which I think means he's a great villain) and he's been drafted to one of the worst jobs anyone could wish on their worst enemy, piloting an Eva. Interestingly, if we're to accept Shinji as Anno's avatar, I think we must conclude that his self-loathing has lessened over the years. Shinji is definitely less miserable in this new incarnation - less self-pitying, more decisive, even willing to stand up to his father and smile occasionally. He's still morose and self-pitying, but there's more balance now. Though I always liked Shinji I consider that a change for the better.

Another change which many fans aren't crazy about is the hugely (so far) diminished role for Asuka. One of the prototypical and oft-copied tsunderes, she was always a huge favorite of the Western fan base. She's far less prominent in the first two films - not a huge problem for me as she was my least favorite major character in the series, but nevertheless a controversial change. Kaworu is almost absent here, but promises to be an even bigger player in the last two movies than he was in the series, if the advertising is to be believed. Most of the other characters are more or less recognizable as themselves here, with very little change - Misato, Ritsuko, Kaji, Pen-Pen... Rei may be a touch more emotional here - well, there's no "may" about it, she is - but I always felt those emotions under the surface for her. They're just more overt in this incarnation. There's less focus on Gendo and especially Fuyutsuki here, and less on Shinji's school chums Toji and Kensuke. There's less slice-of-life generally here, though it isn't totally absent - and I think is a shame. I think there's a reason so much of the spin-off material has focused on this aspect of the show - it was enormously appealing and over the course of a 26-episode series, absolutely essential to cut through the heavy and incredibly dark tone of the series. Maybe it's less vital in 4 two-hour films, but I wish there were more scenes in Misato's apartment and at the school.

There's still some humor, though it feels more forced and less organic. Anno isn't afraid to mock himself a little and pay homage to classic moments of the series - my favorite in "Advance" being the twist of having Asuka be the one Pen-Pen surprises in the shower, with the requisite change from toothpicks to beer cans. Cans, indeed!

So what's the verdict? As I said, it's very good, this second film - though in no way do I think these movies should ever serve as a replacement for the series. If you want to watch "Evangelion" watch the TV version. These movies can act as a kind of "director's cut", and I do think it's interesting to see what the years have done to change Anno's perspective as a writer and vision as a director. We still have two films to come of course - the two that will tackle the darkest and most difficult portion of the source material - and it's no exaggeration to say that how Anno chooses to do that will ultimately determine the worth of these films. Anno could (and I think most likely will) materially change the ending again and, if he does, that's a reset button of galactic proportions. That could be a disaster or a revelation or anything in between and I'm extremely (perhaps morbidly) curious to see what he decides to do.

In the meantime, perhaps I'll sit down and watch the TV again, just to see what the impact (pun intended) is after all this time. By all means, if you haven't watched the TV series please do so - whether you watch "Rebuild" or not. You may love it or hate it, but I don't think anyone who truly considers themselves an anime fan can have that gap in their experience. For me, Neon Genesis Evangelion is the one truly indispensable series in modern anime.

2 comments:

  1. I actually have a friend who shares your views on the TV series vs. End of Evangelion. He disliked Rebuild – not surprising, since he’s experienced depression before and I think a lot of what he liked about the original was its portrayal of it.

    It’s not just Shinji who is more functional this time around. I’m a bit surprised you didn’t comment on Rei – Anno intended her to be creepy in the original (which didn’t really work). In Rebuild, she’s far more outgoing and communicative, and – dare I say it – more “moe”.

    We often hear about Anno being disgruntled with otaku culture and its isolationism when he made the original, and how the series reflects that. Some interviews I’ve read suggest he’s made peace with that over the years, and I think the portrayal of Rei and Shinji in Rebuild reflects that.

    So what does this mean for the upcoming films – which, as you say, will determine the real worth of the remake? Well, for one, I think the trend of characters being less dysfunctional and depressed is going to continue. That, to me, pretty much precludes them doing anything too close to the original ending, just in case the changes in 2.0 didn’t signal that things were going to be different strongly enough. I cannot see how he could reiterate the original message without the new more positive characterization. I’m looking forward to the final two movies in part because I’m really interested in figuring out what Anno’s message is this time.

    Also, did you catch Kawaru’s line about “This time, I’ll definitely make you happy”? Synaesthetic pitched an interesting interpretation of that line: Rebuild is somehow a sequel to the original, and Kawaru’s is in on what has happened previously.

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  2. Well to be fair, I did say this about Rei: "Rei may be a touch more emotional here - well, there's no "may" about it, she is - but I always felt those emotions under the surface for her. They're just more overt in this incarnation." As you say, no matter what Anno intended Rei never seemed creepy to me - I always liked her and felt for her. So for me, the change in her character was superficial than anything.

    I did catch Kawaru's lines, yes. I suspect he'll be even more integral to the finale this time. Rarely has a series been so personal a representation of it's creator than this one - I think it's only natural than an Eva created by Anno today would be substantively differently from one created when he was an angry young man - and that's what's fascinating about seeing this rebuild...

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