|Last updated 03 January 2009.|
After reading yet another Internet debate regarding the relative merits of the final two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion A.K.A. Shin Seiki Evangelion, I decided to rewatch the entire series in a handful of marathon sessions.
[SPOILER WARNING] for this entire page.
Before addressing the series' controversial ending (episodes 25 and 26), I'd like to note this rather curious phenomenon:
Former Rei Advocate Converts to Asukalism.
There are many social and cultural dichotomies that almost invariably require an individual to declare a formal allegiance. Coke versus Pepsi. Dogs versus cats. The Beatles versus Elvis. Among geeky anime fans, there's Rei versus Asuka.
One's loyalty in this regard is usually decided by these four major factors: (1) Rei is remarkably selfless. When the viewer first meets her, she is wounded and bandaged, yet willing to risk her life again to protect others. (2) However, she is also incredibly passive and extremely stoical. (3) Asuka, on the other hand, is brazenly self-confident and self-assured to the point of being extremely conceited and inconsiderate. (4) Asuka also turns out to have, err, severe emotional problems.
However, upon re-watching Evangelion, this time around I found myself more sympathetic to Asuka. It may be more accurate to suggest that I had actually just gotten desensitized to her abrasiveness. Nevertheless, I am now much more willing to excuse her tirades and single-minded obsessiveness than I was in the past. In fact, I actually like them and her fast decent into insanity—enough to switch camps. Go figure. (Note 1.)
But I digress.
The merits of Evangelion's final two episodes have been endlessly debated. I don't think there's really much new ground to break. Nevertheless, I am willing to throw my hat into the ring and articulate what I like about this "original ending."
Specifically addressing common allegations that the ending was not in keeping with established themes in the show (this would be the psychobabble-from-out-of-left-sfield argument), I strongly disagree. The signs were there all along. Eva had practially nothing but symbolism. There were certainly signs from the very beginning that this was going to more than the simple giant robot fare. Episodes 25 and 26 simply expose what the show was about all along. Part of Eva's appeal is that it suckers one in by not being blatant or obvious about its artistic and philosophical intentions. It works better by initally appearing to be just another show about giant robots. However, the signs that it is actually something more are, in fact, there all along.
For example, there's the peculiar glimpse of Rei in the city during the opening minutes of the first episode. And by showing Shinji's first fight only as a flashback, the show intimates that the giant robot battles are secondary to Shinji's obvious stuggles with his father and his own wussiness. The extensive internal, introspective monologues are also foreshadowed by Misato's aside in the first episode when she laments the recent damage to her car, dress, etc.—like the philosophical stuff that comes later, here everything is blacked out and the focus is solely on her as the viewer listens in on her thought process. Also, from the very beginning and consistently and reguarly throughout the entire show, Shinji's SDAT player only plays tracks 25 and 26. Additionally, I believe "A.T. Field" is also an actual psychology term.
Of course, I should probably qualify my earlier remarks by acknowledging that many people simply dislike the religious and philosophical underpinings regardless of whether they were properly set up or whether they belong in the story or not. This, of course, is a valid position since it is really a matter of opinion. However, whether someone likes the existential, metaphysical, etc., etc. stuff does not affect my thesis. My point is that these elements were there from the beginning and comprise the very heart of the show. To dislike the final two episodes simply for their content is to miss the point entirely—that is what the show was about all along. Eva is not about kids fighting monsters with giant robots; it is about the struggle within the self and one's identity. Of course, if someone doesn't like the two episodes for the manner in which they imparted their message, then that is a different matter altogether. I have no quarrel with someone who doesn't like them on an artistic level, and it is perfectly all right to simply not like Evangelion, period—but someone who doesn't think that mindfuck stuff belongs or who feels ripped off because the ending didn't spell everything out—[SPOILERS, I'm not kidding around.] like who the Angels were, where they came from, what happened to Asuka after she went mental? Who killed Kaji? Why was Toji chosen as the Fourth Children over Kensuke? Why did SEELE send the Angel Kaworu as the Fifth Children? Is Rei also an Angel? Are all the Reis Angels?—who thought the episodes failed to wrap things up—they miss the point entirely.
So why do people like the movie End of Evangelion better? Is it because it's bloodier? They wanted to see Asuka tear shit up? Glad to see proof Shinji (1) isn't really impotent and (2) still likes girls? They wanted to see Misato tear shit up? That song with the depressing lyrics but upbeat major key? I don't feel End of Eva is all that successful as a movie or as an ending to the series. To me it simply plays as a string of individual scenes written to please the fans cobbled together with pretty imagery intended to lamely acknowledge the philosophical underpinnings of the series while explaining the Human Instrumentality Project. Personally, I prefer the rapid fire assault of text and imagery to extended sequences of Eva 01 flying in Christ-like poses and such.
Besides, Episode 26 had the perfect WHAT THE FUCK Love Eva sequence that was just enough to make you think, "Wait, what if this is the 'reality' and everything else was just Shinji's fantasy?" But not so much that it distracted from the show at hand.
De Facto Neon Genesis Evangelion Month concludes with a comparison of the anime with the manga. [Only minor spoilers today.]
Are manga generally better than their corresponding anime? Whether it be Akira, Nausicaa, Love Hina, Evangelion, Hellsing, Ranma ½, whatever . . . I always hear people say that the manga is better than the anime, but never the other way around.
I haven't read much manga, but in my limited personal experience this does seem to be true. As much as I enjoyed the Nausicaa and Love Hina anime, their manga counterparts are even better.
I've only read parts of the Evangelion manga, and I guess it is too soon to pass judgment on it anyway since it is unfinished (i.e., it hasn't reached the controversial parts yet), but it does seem pretty good so far. I don't know about better, but Ikari Shinji hasn't annoyed me even once so far. That has got to count for something.
After mulling it over a bit, I can think of a number of advantages the Evangelion anime has over the manga.
First, there is the use of color. I never really appreciated the way Evangelion uses color to establish character, mood, and themes in the anime until I missed them in the manga. Even simple elements like the colors of the Evangelions themselves, such as Unit 02's warm reds and Unit 00's cooler blues (and formerly warm oranges from when it went aggro) complement their respective pilots' personalities well.
It wasn't until I read the manga that I noticed Ayanami Rei's blue hair does a great deal in establishing her cool, muted, stoical personality with her red eyes hinting at perhaps something dangerous or not quite fully tamed underneath. (E.g., see Ikari Gendo's mistaken presumptions in End of Evangelion.)
Likewise, Soryu Asuka Langley's red hair and plugsuit help establish her character as being "fiery" and hot-blooded. Asuka dominates Shinji's submissively level pastels and whites. In the manga's simple black and white territory, Asuka comes across as just being kinda bitchy.
See also Toji's dark jumpsuit corresponding with his troubled character. (For my money, Toji is at least as angsty as Shinji, in a more "rage against the machine" sort of way.)
Second, the characters themselves are different.
It is unnerving that Rei is downright chatty in the manga, at least compared to the anime. Her additional dialogue (and actual willingness to speak first without being spoken to!) seems to make her character a bit less mysterious but also a lot more spooky and weird.
Shinji is a lot less annoying in the manga so far, but that has mostly been a good thing. He does a lot less whining and his animosity towards his father is explored in greater detail.
Asuka, however, loses a lot of her vulnerability in the manga. One, she takes on her first Angel in the manga without Shinji or Misato's help. Two, her introduction in which she breaks out the mad kung fu just seems out of place. It is like Buffy the Vampire Slayer coming out of left field. Three, the manga also plays up her affections for Kaji more blatantly as a stupid, schoolgirl crush than in the anime (e.g., by having Asuka act all sweet and innocent around Misato and Kaji but bossy, contemptuous, and spiteful around Shinji, Rei, Toji, and Kensuke)—there is a greater sense in the anime that Asuka is lonely—that there is some genuine romantic sorrow overshadowed by the stupid, schoolgirl crush elements.
In all fairness, it is really too early to return a verdict on this point since the manga is not finished yet, but I think ultimately it is a mistake to lose the subtext of Asuka's vulnerability. This vulnerability itself also was not something I had really noticed in the anime until contrasted with its absence in the manga, but I'm now fairly convinced this underlying vulnerability is the catalyst for generating much of any sympathy or empathy the viewer might hold for Asuka.
Third, the fight scenes are different. I think most people would agree that anime has the capacity to be a superior medium for depicting action than manga due to the former's ability to depict motion. However, the fight scenes in the Evangelion manga seem more athletic and gymnastic, with more martial arts moves and flips and kicks than the anime. Ironically, I rather preferred the simpler, brawling mecha combat styles of the anime—the anime is more primal, more brutal, more animalistic, and less "pretty."
Overall, I am inclined to agree that manga is generally superior to anime (just as books are usually better than movies), but the merits of the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime are remarkable enough to best comparisons with its yet unfinished manga.
Made a Winamp skin featuring Asuka and Eva Unit 02 from Neon Genesis Evangelion.
I didn't notice at first that the Gainax splash page above featured the infamous train of despair.
The craven depths of fandom. I bought this folding chair from a secondhand store because it is similar to the Chair of Despair from episodes 25 and 26 of Neon Genesis Evangelion. I regret nothing.
End Note 1
I am not endeavoring to conclusively determine why one may like Rei or Asuka in the first place. I am merely trying to (1) acknowledge the elements that may cause one to like these characters, (2) elucidate my reasoning as to why one tends to prefer one to the other, and (3) hypothesize why my loyalties switched.
Addressing together the reasons why I feel these bifurcated loyalties exist at all, first, I do not think I shall receive any argument if I opine that both Ayanami Rei, the First Children, and Soryu Asuka Langley, the Second Children, are portrayed in Evangelion in a heavily sexualized manner. Second, both characters are clearly designed to invoke deeply sympathetic responses in the viewer. For example, when Rei is first introduced, she is shown injured, bandaged, and in a great deal of pain. Nevertheless, she is willing to go into battle whereas Shinji clearly is not. Horrified that Rei will probably face certain death as a result of his reticence, Shinji finally acquiesces and agrees to pilot Eva 01. In Asuka's case, the viewer eventually discovers that she is an incredibly troubled youth with severe emotional problems. (Digressing a bit again, I suspect this effect is less jarring if one views the episodes on a slower pace such as one per week instead of all at once through marathon sessions.) Furthermore, in many ways Asuka lacks even the little support Shinji has; although no attention is explicitly given to this facet, Asuka has no friends (End Note r1) and even Misato does not give her the parental attention she reserves for Shinji. Additionally, Asuka is the only character who obviously suffers from unrequited (romantic) love (yes, even including Akagi Ritsuko, and Hyuga Makoto). Hence, if the series manages to successfully extract an initial empathic response from the viewer, this empathy is further stimulated by an age-old theme based on the conflicting desire to possess and the desire to protect.
Although both Rei and Asuka are alike in that they exploit this emotional dichotomy, in most other ways they are opposites. For example, whereas Rei is passive and stoical, Asuka is assertive and fiery; Rei is matronly and Asuka is filial. Thus, the inital empathic response that causes a viewer to like one may very well preclude liking the other. This is not to say that it is impossible to like both, of course, only that the reasons a viewer may like one character may very well be antithetical to the very reasons for liking the other.
In my case, I suppose I was initially a Rei advocate simply because I was impressed by her selflessness. Rei was the polar opposite of the hypothetical "spoiled brat." However, her submissiveness tends to be tiresome over time. Asuka, however, initially creates a very abrasive impression. She is crass and conceited and brutally self-absorbed. Nevertheless, I believe I have "switched camps" following this latest viewing simply because I now (for whatever reason) have a bit more patience towards Asuka. If I am, indeed, now more willing to forgive her undesirable qualities, I suppose this also makes me more susceptible to the enhanced empathic response created by the "age-old conflict."
End Note r1
Asuka and Hikari get along. Hikari likes Asuka and respects and admires her as an Eva pilot. They would probably like to be friends, but ultimately they're left with Asuka still wanting someone who can reach her and Hikari simply not being able to relate. I'm referring here to Asuka and Hikari's final scene together: At Asuka's most unguarded moment of the series, Hikari is only able to offer a few platitutes; she is unable to get past Asuka's A.T. Field. Contrast this scene with the similar setting shared by Shinji and Kaworu in Episode 24. There, Shinji and Kaworu are able to quickly achieve a level of kinship that surpasses Asuka and Hikari's (ultimately) lonely banter.
I recognize that Rei also does not have any friends, but the effect here is different because (1) Rei doesn't seem to want any, and (2) she is favored by Ikari Gendo.