Saturday, August 15, 2009

Evangelion: The Revolutionary TV Series Gets an Overhaul that Is (Not) Revolutionary

Before I review the new film, Mr. Hollis-Lima has prepared a short introduction to the TV series that spawned it:

Maybe you have heard of Eva, maybe you have not. One thing is for sure: You should see it. This low budget Japanese animated television series from the mid nineties may just be one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th Century.

I first heard of Neon Genesis Evangelion in middle school. A friend of mine excitedly narrated the particularly gory parts of the show to me over successive morning bus rides. Being the strangely responsible child that I was, I knew I should not dare to watch something that was so clearly intended for an older age bracket. What I did not know was that the show would still baffle and shock me when I first saw it years later, even continuing to have such an effect as I entered my adult life. Late in high school, I began purchasing the first expensive discs of the series without ever having seen an episode. After watching those first few episodes, I was lamenting the money I had so hastily spent. The show seemed dated, clichéd and strange – hardly the masterpiece I had expected. I pushed forward, however, determined to give the show a fair shot. Soon, the characters began to grow on me. Asuka was amusingly boisterous, but was becoming painfully tragic. Shinji was infuriatingly timid, but it somehow made him decidedly human. Gendo was cruel and cold, but I still died to know what drove him. By the time I first watched "The End of Evangelion," the series' theatrical conclusion, I knew that the show was anything but dated or clichéd.

Today, I have seen the entire series countless times. Writing about the show, however, has only become more difficult. Eva has an absolutely staggering amount of depth, going far beyond character development. Complex themes involving international politics, scientific ethics, social behavior, psychological theory and religious allusions are bursting from every frame of the series. I can think of few other works that even aspire to analyze humankind in all of its facets, much less any that have succeeded the way Eva did.

There is a reason that Eva does not have the respect it deserves – many, in fact. It begins as seemingly little more than a derivative action anime, enough to turn off anime fans and haters alike. Even film buffs, in their endless search for such esoteric gems, often quickly tire of the show's initial idiosyncrasies. Be assured that, by the time the show nears its conclusion, however, most viewers are left wondering how they ever failed to see the show's brilliance. I have no idea how this new film series is bound to measure up to the original 26 episodes and their film conclusion. Given how excessively merchandized the show is in Japan, it may very well fail to capture the brilliance of its originator. Mr. Keeley, however, addresses such questions in his review.

The new films aside, I beg anyone who puts even the slightest stock in my opinions to find a way to watch the original series and film in their entirety.

Now, my review of Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone:

Most animes don't hold up terribly well fourteen years after their debut. Neon Genesis Evangelion, for all the show's budget issues, still manages to look pretty damn good in 2009. Though new generations of anime fans can watch the show with pleasure and without cringing, Evangelion did make a lot of money, so the fine people at Studio Gainax decided to redo the show as four feature films. Everything has been reanimated, scenes have been cut, shortened, lengthened, and inserted, and plot changes have been made. The first film, Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone doesn't change the plot too much, nor does it revolutionize our understanding of Evangelion, but it looks so damn pretty that I can forgive it quite a few faults.

The greatest of Evangelion 1.0's faults is its pacing: The movie covers the first six episodes of the television series and the protagonists' fights with the first three "Angels" who attack Earth for reasons unknown. As the film is only ninety-seven minutes and the individual episodes came to about three hours total, quite a lot of exposition and worldbuilding had to be cut. I wouldn't want to watch this movie without some prior familiarity with Evangelion. As I've watched the series, I can both appreciate the changes to the plot and fill in some of the details of the plot that go unexplained. The Second Impact, the catastrophe that sets the stage for the story, gets about two lines of dialogue. I suppose some of You Are (Not) Alone's issues stem from its nature as an adaptation: having seventeen Angels made sense in the TV show, as each one could get its own episode or two. The first of these new films has too many Angels dancing on its ninety-seven-minute pinhead, and the film suffers from it. As much as I enjoy gigantic fights, I also enjoy character development; I hope the future films in the Rebuild are a trifle more concise with their Angelic foes. There is online speculation that later Angels will be changed to better fit their new theatrical format. I hope this is the case.

While the film's pacing has issues, I was impressed with some of the foreshadowing Gainax incorporated into the film; important characters and concepts that are introduced too late in the series show up in You Are (Not) Alone. Indeed, the film ends with the introduction of a character who, in the television, does not appear until the twenty-fourth episode. The battles with the Angels are quite brutal, especially when the wounded or dying foes gush "blood" over the battlefield. The show has moments as visceral, but not until near the end of its run. While some hypothetical fan might call the increased violence unnecessary, I think it helps add aesthetic dramatic unity to a story that has often seemed disjointed.

Though Evangelion 1.0 is a comparatively short film, it does a good job introducing us to the franchise's characters; in addition to giant robot combat, there are moments of humor and character development. Fans of Evangelion's humor will be glad to learn that Pen-Pen appears in the film, as does the "toothpick scene." I think the biggest complaint many viewers will have about Evangelion 1.0 has to do with its main character, Shinji Ikari, who can be extremely irritating. Shinji is supposed to be grating - he's a self-loathing, sometimes cowardly teenager with father issues - and audiences who want a more "can do" hero will be frustrated. I wouldn't significantly alter Shinji's character or his role in the script, but I can understand why some would.

The beginning of Eva 1.0 is almost identical to the opening of the TV show's first episode, but once we see the inside of NERV (Eva loves its acronyms) headquarters, we see where the new movie's budget went. The environments in You Are (Not) Alone are gorgeous; Tokyo 3 and the GeoFront both look far larger and more intimidating than they did back in 1995. The new backgrounds are far more convincing and detailed than their originals, and CGI use is never overwhelming. Though the animators have access to new tools, they still like doing many effects the old-fashioned way.

The "Angels" of Neon Genesis Evangelion were always surreal and memorable, but they were never quite so impressive in the TV show as they are in the new movie. The animators have mixed CGI and traditional animation for the Earth's enemies, and it works quite well. Though all three Angels that appear in the movie are well-done, the Sixth Angel (the third Shinji fights) steals the show. It initially appears as a giant diamond-like mirror that reflects the sky and the ground, but it can rearrange itself into a variety of geometric shapes. The Sixth Angel attacks with gigantic energy blasts; its tremendous attacks give the film's final battle an apocalyptic feel lacking in the corresponding episode of the TV show. I may think the Angels have too much screen time in this installment, but at least they are wonderful eye candy. The Evangelions have also been changed a little for the new movie series, though the two Evangelions that appear do closely resemble their television counterparts. Throughout the course of the movie, we get several hints about the Evas' true nature; the filmmakers don't play their cards close to their chests. In You Are (Not) Alone, however, the focus is more on the protagonists and on the surreal Angels than it is on the Evangelions that our "heroes" pilot.

I would have liked to have seen Evangelion 1.0 subtitled, but the dub is fairly good. While some characters, like Rei and Ritsuko, have new voice actors, the really talkative characters like Misato and Shinji have the same voices they did in the TV show's US dub. I was grateful, as the familiar voices made it that much easier to get back into the Evangelion story. The new voice actors are fine, and many of them sound very much like their predecessors. There's not too much "new dub dissonance."

Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone is an enjoyable film, but it's only the first of four movies. It does an extremely good job setting up the characters and conflicts, but it's not always as exciting as one might wish. I expect that Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance will be better, as the second film introduces several characters vital to Evangelion, most importantly the lively and arrogant German-Japanese Eva pilot Asuka. See Eva 1.0 if you can find a theater showing it, but remember it's only the first part of the story.

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