Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most popular anime shows of all time, I think. It only ran 26 episodes (and even some of its fans sort of wish it had only run 24, but I'll get to that later), but it had a huge impact, and a legion of fans who are still around today. Which is understandable, to an extent, because technically, the show is gorgeous, and the storytelling style is compelling.

But on another level, it's weird, because it plays out almost as a very bitter joke on its audience.

Evangelion starts out with all the standard trappings of a typical genre giant-robot show. Monstrous alien beasts threatening the future Earth. The only defense against them: giant robots piloted by teenagers. Our hero, the teenage son of the head researcher and inventor of the robots, has a special connection with one of the robots, so that only he can pilot it. Problem is, he's young and inexperienced, in over his head. Working with him are two other pilots, with their own unique robots, and a crack support team of technicians, scientists and soldiers.

The robot and monster designs are awesome, the animation and character design are first-class. The show lurches from awesome action to clumsy comedy, with characters that seem to be strict genre stereotypes: the restrained commander, the loudmouthed rival. But even at the beginning, something feels creepy and out of place. The robots look sort of mechanical, sort of alive. There is all this religious imagery and symbolism, and a sense of foreboding about the whole enterprise. Even the music is odd, with a frightening martial symphonic score instead of the usual rock/pop you'd expect in a show of this type.

And as the show progresses, it begins to twist and corrupt every expectation. The hero is a whiny brat who only pilots the Eva in a vain attempt to gain his father's love. The other members of the secret task force all turn out to have dark secrets in their pasts. The secret project itself turns out to have a dark past and a perhaps sinister purpose.

In the beginning, we expect to see this odd assortment of characters pull together to combat a terrible menace, with the hero maturing and developing his inner strength as the show progresses, with good finally triumphing over evil. Instead, over the course of 24 episodes, we see the characters slowly unravel, retreating from each other and succumbing to depression as their struggle begins to seem more and more futile (and we learn that perhaps we've been rooting for the bad guys all along).

It's depressing, yet you can't stop watching . It's compelling, hypnotic, because you can't believe they're doing this, making these characters that seemed so cool in the beginning turn out so miserable and ugly and bitter. You keep watching because maybe the filmmakers are just following the rules a bit too well, turning the screws on the characters a bit too tightly before letting them redeem themselves in the end. And yet, you can sense, well before the 24th episode, that perhaps there will be no redemption for these characters. They are doomed. But you keep watching because you just can't believe they'll let things go that far.

Then come the final two episodes, in which the plot basically stops, and we spend an hour listening to various characters psychobabble about philosophy. Imagine if they cut out all the cool stuff from the Matrix trilogy, and only left in the philosophical speeches about perception and reality and such. That's the final episode of Evangelion in a nutshell.

There was such a negative outcry from the show's fans at the ending that the producers did a truly unprecedented thing: they produced a feature film, The End of Evangelion, that basically starts at the end of episode 24 and retells the ending in a more conventional manner. But if you think that means that there is any hope of redemption, or a happy ending, you would be mistaken. When I got to the end of the movie, I felt soiled, literally used and dirty inside.

Yet I watched the movie at least three more times over that weekend, and watched one sequence in the middle maybe twenty times. It's so well-made, beautifully animated and edited, yet to such depressing purpose. Whenever I think about Evangelion now, I think the emotions I feel must bear a small resemblance to how abused kids feel about their parents: so much love and hatred inextricably linked together (not surprisingly, neglectful and abusive parents play a huge role in Evangelion).

It's strange how one show can be so mindlessly fun, so thought-provoking, so exciting and yet so viscerally unpleasant. It was far from a perfect show, and yet, it's absolutely unforgettable.


Naamah Darling said...

Those first ten or twelve or fourteen episodes were spectacular, some of my favorite episodic work I've ever seen. Yet I felt the same way you did when I finished: dirty. Angry. Frightened. Sick.

I don't demand happy endings, but I do demand that there be something about the resolution of a story -- even just one thing -- that stays with me as positive. NGE didn't have that. It was just . . . disturbing, on every level.

Very well done, and utterly horrifying.

Still remember all the words to the theme song, though.

Bob said...

Read the the discussions referred to here. If nothing else they'll show you that the show/movies make a lot more sense than you think. You just have to know how to put the pieces together. Somehow that help put my mind at ease.

Brendan said...

Neon Genesis Evangelion is insane, i had mixed feelings about the ending however, it did leave me throwing up in my mouth a bit, but it was so incredible, and the more i thought about it, the more i thought that it was actually the ending i wanted. I thought it was great that the main character decided to live his life out as a separate being, instead of giving in to the Instrumentality, and becoming one with everyone else as they became reduced to pools of LCL. The series was awesome and I loved it this post caught my interest so i thought i would comment.