Take Care of Yourself - Part One
by Tim Henderson,
Certain older readers may remember back to early 1999: a time when VHS was still the common standard, Manga Video seemed like a powerhouse in a very exclusive market, and Neon Genesis Evangelion was screening on SBS. In fact they screened it twice, back-to-back, and it even pulled in ratings that were at times higher than South Park. Sure, those of us tuning in for a couple of episodes every week were well behind Japan, but we felt at the front and the show generated the same sort of obsessive attitudes that it had already triggered elsewhere in the world. It seemed completely different to anything many of us had seen before, and largely went on to achieve Akira-like status as the anime that pulled the initial attention of a whole generation of fans, spawning fansites of varied standards all over the web. Then the last two episodes aired, and in the one unison voice countless fans of diverse reactions all let out the same comment: Huh? The final two episodes of Evangelion would certainly be in the running for most hotly debated issue in the history of Western anime culture ever, with people taking both sides viciously, and the existence of End of Evangelion not really helping the matter. However - and we can't deny that this feature has a degree of agenda - it has to be noted that the final episodes, at least in hindsight, really shouldn't have been so unexpected. It should also be noted that expectation has played a key role in blinding some people from what has been an utterly profound experience for others simply because preconceptions have gotten in the way.
Looked at as a whole, the full series of Neon Genesis Evangelion can be divided roughly in half, and these two halves serve very different purposes and do very different things. It could be said that while the first half breeds obsession, the second half breathes atmosphere. This again breaks things down into two. I have to wonder at times if I would still be able to watch the earlier episodes of Evangelion if not for nostalgia as I've seen the series through more times than I would care to admit, but relief always comes along as the show progresses and, by the time the show is into its latter half, I find myself still genuinely excited by what's happening on screen. It's not that I'm still learning about new ways to look at deciphering the story and symbolism, as while that still happens at times the new discoveries grow ever smaller, but rather there's something in the fabric of how the episodes are put together that manages to express things beyond mere intellectual understanding and revelation. The first half (and perhaps a few episodes beyond) of Evangelion really couldn't be much easier to take in as a first time viewing experience. The plot moves briskly and balances comedy, action and drama with precise skill. There's a mastery of textbook screenplay writing and simple, effective and familiar direction at work here, and it also has a remarkably ‘anime’ feel to it; you know that you're watching a cartoon from Japan when viewing Evangelion, and yet, at the same time, it feels remarkably familiar and safe. It's exotic without being confronting, and it doesn't feel a need to try and remove itself from its surrounding medium in order to stand out. In all honesty, early on, Eva's actual approach to narrative would feel right at home in Hollywood, with Japanese quirks and frequent promises of fan-service laced around the edges. It's unconscious for most of us, but we are essentially trained to appreciate film (and by turn, certain aspects of television, which comfortably includes Eva) from a certain perspective. We live in and are influenced by a culture that puts all emphasis of high standing on story and plot: We demand explanations for things that happen, we want to be able to make sense of it, and we practically need convenient narrative closure. A striving to be recognized as high art saw anything else that could potentially be in the theoretical spotlight get swept under the carpet, where it will go unnoticed by anyone unwilling to look.
Anyone who has studied film at a higher education level will be familiar with the names David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, as well as what has become something of the quintessential textbook for the area of study: Film Art: An Introduction. Different areas in this book are stronger than others, and the sections dealing with narrative seem by far the most complete. The problem is that, while the theory they provide is concise, it is also limited. They are perhaps right, however, in making assumptions about the average spectator's assumptions:
“… we [spectators] have anticipations that are characteristic of narrative form itself. We assume that there will be characters and some action that will involve them with one another. We expect a series of incidents that will be connected in some way. We also probably expect that the problems or conflicts arising in the course of the action will achieve some final state – either they will be resolved or, at least, a new light will be cast on them. A spectator comes prepared to make sense of a narrative film.”
There may be an irony here that is full circle. This assumption is right because it makes immediate sense within the generally accepted dominant view, and for most of its overall duration, Eva plays into this nicely. It misleads one into consciously or subconsciously believing that such a theory could be perfectly applied to it: We are introduced to a scenario, a situation that needs to be resolved, and characters who take on narrative roles in how things will pan out. The viewer's sense of learning and mystery is teased with theories of what caused Second Impact getting thrown around, and the plot twists and turns with character motives underlying the more obvious surface. The Jet Alone episode is a fantastic piece of narrative work in the sense that it provides the first true hints that NERV has a massive agenda beyond merely defeating the Angels, and that the Eva's may be more than just tools for destroying them. Heck, even the opening animation shows that the narrative arc was already well planned out, with one image of a youthful Misato, Kaji & Ritsuko together flashing by at one point, and one of Kaworu at another. The core plot that holds the structure together – a rather generic ‘monster of the week’ type format – serves as an outline for the deeper ideas to grasp onto. Furthermore, it serves as a scaffold for actual expression.
[To be Continued...]