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Author Topic: Neon Genesis Evangelion – Episode 21  (Read 65 times)


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Neon Genesis Evangelion – Episode 21
« on: June 19, 2024, 03:25:53 PM »
Neon Genesis Evangelion – Episode 21

After twenty episodes of increasingly claustrophobic drama, with our perspective perpetually honing closer into the psychological disarray of Shinji and his companions, Evangelion’s twenty-first episode offers an unexpected broadening of the camera’s frame. No longer must we guess and wonder at the motivations inspiring Gendo, Fuyutsuki, or Ritsuko Akagi; episode twenty-one brings us right back to the beginning, charting a course from the Second Impact through the formation of NERV and the first Eva tests. At last, the grand mysteries of Evangelion will finally be revealed!

Of course, as my rapturous tone indicates, that’s not exactly how things play out. In truth, this episode’s reveals are less shocking than simply validating to any keen-eyed viewer; they offer confirmation of Ritsuko’s bitter asides, a more intimate articulation of Misato’s college years, and general context for the anger and fanaticism informing Gendo’s journey. That word “context” is the key – for as any skilled writer knows, narratives are a conversation between author and audience, not a magic trick designed only to dazzle and surprise.

When a story is carefully constructed and skillfully told, moments of “surprise” often tend to actually affirm the audience’s understanding of the whole, rather than complicate or confuse it. Admittedly, this demands a particular degree of productive conversation between author and audience preceding these reveals. If the audience hasn’t been primed to suspect the truth of a situation, the revelation of that truth will indeed come as a distancing shock, an indication that author and audience are not in sync. This means any given story will always have something resembling a “viable range” of potential audiences, the field within which new information comes neither as clumsily obvious on the near end nor utterly inexplicable at the far end. This is the “of course that’s what was really happening” range, the golden stretch where everything an author presents builds on your own hopes and fears for the narrative, where they are not simply speaking, they are carrying on a spirited conversation with your own understanding of the text.

This can admittedly be a tricky thing to achieve, particularly since one person’s “of course that’s what was coming, didn’t you catch the hints” can be another’s “well, that came completely out of nowhere.” All any author can really do is trust their audience to be paying attention, and not speak down to them unless they’re specifically courting a young and narratively unseasoned viewing block. And when well-seeded revelations meet an audience primed to contextualize them, magic truly happens – the magic of Kyubey gleefully revealing the nature of Madoka’s witches, the magic of Edward Norton thinking back on his lopsided friendship with Brad Pitt, or one of my own personal favorites, the magic of past trauma not just informing our understanding of our active characters, but of a show’s perspective on human nature more generally. Evangelion’s twenty-first episode offers a new perspective on our pilots’ overseers, but the ultimate takeaway is painfully familiar: the desperation for human connection, the difficulty of personal transformation, and the tragic inevitability of the young repeating the mistakes of the past.

We begin with a title card carrying us a brief yet consequential generation backwards, to the Antarctic research base in the year 2000. From the start, it is clear we are intruders in this space; our only vector of intrusion is a security camera’s heavily distorted feed, and conversations reach us piecemeal, scientists gossiping off-screen while oblivious to their silent observer. The tactile limitations of this analogue vector enhance both the mystery and the solidity of the scene; much is obscured, but it is obscured via the forgivable texture of tape’s natural decay. Through these aesthetic flourishes, Evangelion evokes a crucial sense of distance, maintaining the Antarctic catastrophe’s mystique as Eva’s perpetually revised creation myth. 

Familiar names and increasingly ominous titles point to a shared understanding beyond our own: “Dr. Katsuragi’s theory,” “Mr. Ikari’s team,” “the S2 theory.” Texture, yes, but also a quiet underlining of one of Evangelion’s core themes: the inherent variability of our experiences of the world, a truth that informs our profound difficulties truly understanding each other. We thought we knew these characters, but there is so much we do not know about anyone within our personal spheres, so much history that, deeply felt as it must be, is entirely invisible to us. Even if these flashbacks do not offer transformative revisions of our personal understanding, their context nonetheless illustrates how much humanity we cannot see simply by staring at another.

Voices clamber over each other, providing the same evocative set dressing as Evangelion’s persistent TVs and radios, before one voice rises in clarity and contempt. “Scientists put too much faith in their own ideas. They’re a self-righteous kind. They become fixated too easily. They’re incapable of accurately assessing reality. And they are the ones seeking to find the truth. It’s quite ironic. They are not so noble. Discovery is joy and understanding is dominance. All they seek is self-gratification.” With this condemnation of mankind’s selfish hubris, of its flattering conflation of personal desire and collective enlightenment, the die is cast. Driven to consciousness by mankind’s probing, the beast beneath Antarctica rises to the surface, a titan captured briefly before the feed is cut. A revelation in detail, but not in spirit: as we’d well suspected, all that is being visited upon humanity is a punishment of our own making.

The cyclical nature of our conflicts is emphasized again as we return to the present, greeted by a shot that calls back to Evangelion’s beginning: Kaji calling Misato’s residence and reaching only her answering machine, staring down at the same model of lime-green payphone that Shinji once employed. For Shinji, this call was a beginning, his use of the payphone reflecting his lack of any other method for reaching this stranger to him. For Kaji, it is an ending; he has received his final mission, a mission so dangerous that he can only afford to call from an anonymous number, and he is calling to say goodbye.

As NERV agents swiftly inform Misato, the jig is apparently up. Having extracted all the information they can via Kaji’s passive infiltration of NERV, his overseers have instructed him to blow his cover in dramatic fashion, by abducting Fuyutsuki for a direct interrogation. Seele addresses Gendo’s right-hand man with their usual air of self-importance, concealing their faces behind the obelisks that unify them, the dream of either collective identity or 2001: A Space Odyssey’s obelisk-driven scientific leaps. Like most acts of Seele, it is a hollow sort of showmanship: Fuyutsuki addresses Chairman Kiel by name, and Kiel declines even to distort his own voice.

Almost charmed by Seele addressing him as “Professor Fuyutsuki,” our prisoner reflects back on the time when such an address was actually appropriate, all the way back in 1999. The vagaries of memory are here conveyed via blocking: the faces of students inviting him out for a drink are obscured by signage, the experience more clear in recollection than the personal particulars. It is there he learns of a promising bioengineering student, a young woman known as Ikari, who is quite eager to meet him.

Fuyutsuki himself is apparently attached to the university’s “Metaphysical Biology” department, casually revealed through signage as we cut back to his office – essentially “the nature of being” as philosophy dragged down into the mundane world of bodies and organs. A perfect field for an examiner of creatures known as angels, and also a welcome tethering of Evangelion’s fantastical inventions to the nitty-gritty of graduate programs and university research. Even in the specific detailing of Fuyutsuki’s laboratory sign, how his taped-on name implies his temporary shelter within the department, speaks to the concerns of funding and tenure that occupy laboring intellectuals. Through all of this, Evangelion grounds its fantastical drama not in the weight of prophecy or destiny, but in the mundane careers from which its arbiters transitioned during NERV’s formation.

His own questionable credentials aside, Fuyutsuki finds himself impressed by Ikari’s paper. Our first pan revealing Yui Ikari is an immediate shock: Yui is the precise image of her son Shinji, and also a passable echo of Rei Ayanami. Little wonder Shinji has always gravitated towards Unit 00’s pilot; she echoes the person he has always longed for, the mother who is apparently so similar to her son. Visual similarity does not imply common consciousness, but it’s still a painful reveal; surely this woman, who is so like her son at least in this dimension, might be someone who could hope to understand him. Certainly, her own words seem to point to a common mentality: for though Fuyutsuki sees the future only in terms of academic research, Ikari dreams of love and family.

Her dreams do not have long to wait. Gendo Rokubungi is the next to join the stage, meeting Fuyutsuki under admittedly dubious circumstances: currently held by the police, he requests to be released into Professor Fuyutsuki’s care. A clear and immediate indication of Gendo’s unapologetic, forthright temperament, swiftly matched by a softer revelation: when you remove those distancing shades, you realize Gendo has Shinji’s kind eyes. “I’m not very used to being liked,” says the man who would go on to reject all of Shinji’s attempts at communication, “but I am used to being treated coldly.” Cycles within cycles, as mankind’s scientific hubris reverberates against the inner shell of our failures of personal connection.

Fuyutsuki admits he disliked Gendo from the first, and recalls that “back then, seasons and autumn still existed in this country.” It’s a small flourish that nonetheless embodies Evangelion’s superior approach to what we might in genre fiction call “worldbuilding,” or otherwise refer to simply as texture. World-shaking catastrophes are difficult for us to conceive of in an emotional sense; we can be told that “humanity was nearly wiped out,” but such a concept is so far from our experience that it can only be appreciated in an intellectual sense, not as a lived reality. To truly enliven a fantastical world, you must hone in on the details that actually speak to the experience of living there – for example, to the odd discord of no longer experiencing seasons, after a lifetime of seeing them as facts of the universe. Evangelion soars as an imagined reality because its changes are incidental, assumed, and barely remarked upon; the more you treat your story’s inventions as new toys to be gleefully grappled with, the less those marvels feel like anything more than fabricated toys.

Indeed, Fuyutsuki himself spends no time lamenting the end of the seasons, seemingly more concerned with Ikari’s courtship of Rokubungi. Fuyutsuki admits he cannot like the man, a fair response to Gendo that furthermore underlines his never-admitted feelings towards Yui. His feelings on the aftermath of Second Impact are far clearer: he describes the ensuing year as “pure hell,” gesturing towards a point of presumed great narrative fertility while showing us no more than an ominous title card. Every invented world is richer for having regions in which its active narrative does not tread, points that allude towards a larger reality beyond our perspective, and Evangelion is greater for ensuring the lived experience of Second Impact remains something forever beyond our understanding.

Our vision of Second Impact remains tactile, distinct, realized only on the individual level. A caravan of tent-laden boats, the shanty towns that popped up in the wake of all coasts sinking underwater. The stink of sweat and oil, inescapable in a world where the temperatures have risen and machines have integrated into every passive grasp at survival. And the perpetual haze of an eternal summer, cicadas somehow still chirping in a world gone mad, where seasons have wilted away and whole ecosystems have crumbled. As before, it is not the scenes of celestial destruction that bring this world to life – it is moments like these, where the incidental concerns of living intersect with the consequences of those grand catastrophes.

Fuyutsuki had been plying his trade as an unlicensed doctor, disillusioned with the academic community that provoked this tragedy. Called to what was once Antarctica by Gendo, his first words of reunion are “I’m surprised you survived.” A cold joke returned with a colder one: Gendo’s marriage announcement, solidifying his bond with the woman Fuyutsuki loved. Never friends, but soon fellow accomplices: for though Fuyutsuki clearly has his suspicions regarding Gendo’s opportune escape prior to Second Impact, he is swift to acknowledge his own complicity in the coverup, as the organization responsible for breaking the world concludes their report on that very act, clearing themselves of any potential wrongdoing.

The Second Impact is still too large, too hideous and universally consequential for us to feel either sorrow at its scale or anger at its arbiters. Such an event is too massive for our eyes to comprehend; thus we define it through its second-order effects, through the shadow it casts and the victims it leaves behind. Through Misato’s fear of the dark, a lingering trauma, a remnant of the horror that struck her silent for two full years following the incident. It is Misato’s blank stare that weighs on us as the UN announces the results of their alleged findings: that it was not mankind’s meddling, but instead an unavoidable meteor which brought the world to its knees. For his own part, Fuyutsuki spends little time assigning blame for this outrage; he is again the model scientist, more interested in the secrets still veiled than the atrocities that precipitated them.

The next time Fuyutsuki meets Yui, they are no longer friends. Though Yui greets him kindly, he returns her words with a curt acknowledgement, walking past without even meeting her eyes. Yui has become an appendage of Gendo, and Gendo stands at the heart of this mystery, having both conjured and concealed the truth of the Second Impact. “I have no intention of letting the people who caused this get away with it!” he declares, proudly brandishing his damning private research. But Gendo offers him another route, one his “scientific self-gratification” cannot deny: join with him, build a new replica in the colossal Adam’s image, and shepherd humanity into a tantalizing new world.

It is thus that mankind’s last would-be protector is seduced by the tree of knowledge, favoring the allure of the unknown over the conventional whistle-blowing, likely assassination, and eventual cover up that would attend revealing Gendo’s secrets. So it goes.

The eyecatch leading us away from Fuyutsuki’s disgrace offers a cryptic title: “He was aware he was still a child.” For any other episode, it would be obvious to align this phrase with Shinji, who is clearly overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility being heaped atop his young shoulders. But here in this hall of memories, its significance balloons outward, casting a shadow on all of NERV’s overseers, these allegedly mature figures still haunted by childhood hopes and fears. What does adulthood even mean if it simply implies repeating our parents’ failures, taking their guesses as wisdom and reenacting the same mistakes? Shinji, at least, is fully cognizant of still being driven by a child’s need for love and understanding. What excuse might the rest of them offer?

That could well be what Ritsuko Akagi is thinking, as we catch her in a moment of reflection. Staring up at Unit 01, her expression is unguarded yet unclear: a hint of a rueful smile, lowered lids conveying nostalgia or regret. “How did we come to this point?” she seems to be asking Shinji’s machine – or if she no longer sees it as an ally, perhaps “how can I hope to be forgiven?” Maya interrupts her with a fresh report. There is work to be done.

As Fuyutsuki led us through the precedents to NERV’s formation, it is our younger observer Ritsuko who catalogs its second stage of recruitment. We return to 2005, where a now-chipper Misato is introducing herself to Ritsuko at Tokyo University. The two are first aligned through their similar denial of the weight of legacy: Misato carrying on gaily in spite of her trauma as a sole survivor, Ritsuko going through the motions of scholarship in spite of her extracurricular NERV work and famous mother. Each is trying to define themselves in opposition to the parents looming over them, but each is soon to discover that defining yourself in opposition only makes you the disavowed figure’s perfect shadow.

Ritsuko’s observations are framed as letters to her mother, a tether connecting her back to childhood. One might think this would separate Ritsuko from Shinji and Misato’s lonely pathologies, their desperation for a retreating back that leads them to recreate their missing parents in either their own paths or their chosen lovers. Unfortunately, it is not to be so; Ritsuko’s own mother admits that her work has kept her from being a true parent, saying “it’s awful of me to act like a mother only when it’s convenient.” For each of them, their parents remain distant to the point of infallibility, obscured as humans but beloved as ideals. Perhaps that is why they can never grow beyond them.

Back in 2003, we greet a newly chastened Fuyutsuki, now dedicated to Seele’s ideals even as he gripes that his loyalty is to Yui specifically. We see the precise nature of that “loyalty” in the shot framing; while the two idly discuss the potential consequences of a Third Impact, Fuyutsuki’s turn to Yui is accompanied by a shot of her thighs and loose-hanging shirt. His desire is still apparent, but there is a wall now: when Shinji’s hands reach out towards her breasts, he turns away, reminded of his ultimate failure. Fuyutsuki might not be chasing a lost parent, but he has nonetheless bound himself to the highest of callings for the lowest of needs, taking the role of arbiter of a new era all because Yui might stand beside him.

Yui’s own perspective is less clear. First, there is her connection to Seele, an apparent personal legacy that is never clarified further. Then of course, her attraction to Gendo, apparently based on a “kindness” which he never shows to others. She claims she will “go with the flow,” but also idly admits such pointed thoughts as “it is a simple thing to destroy someone.” And when asked why she is willing to be an experimental subject herself, she claims it is “for Shinji’s sake,” gesturing not towards her own role as his mother, but to the greater necessity of NERV’s success for humanity’s survival. If Rei seems unknowable, it is clear that is not all her own influence; she was born from an unknowable template, an object of desire who sees herself as the steward of mankind’s destiny.

So certain of her destiny is Yui that she actually brings Shinji to NERV headquarters, on the day assigned as her Eva activation test. Her duty as a parent and as the shepherd of mankind have become one: proud of her greatest accomplishment, she wishes to “show my child the bright future.” Neither Fuyutsuki nor Dr. Akagi shares her enthusiasm; the one only desirous of Yui personally, the other hoping the experiment might fail, that she can truly claim Gendo for herself. But in the end, none are satisfied: the experiment’s failure steals Yui entirely, and Gendo is broken by the experience, his guiding light now hanging somewhere far ahead, perhaps only within the grasp of his science’s reach.

When he comes back after a week’s absence, Gendo is no longer the man he was. The composition reveals the path he has chosen: hunched over his desk, the bars of NERV’s operations align over his shadow, forming the cross he now bears. If Yui cannot lead humanity into the future, Gendo will strive to accomplish it for her, or at the very least arrive at a place where he might see her once again. Thus commences the Human Instrumentality Project, born not in our collective hopes for greater mutual understanding, but in one man’s desperate need to see his lover again. Motivated by similarly selfish aims, who are Fuyutsuki or Akagi to complain?

Yui’s specter casts a pall over Ritsuko’s continuing letters, emphasizing the distance between Ritsuko’s bright-eyed observations and the sordid organization she is approaching. That distance is then closed in grotesque fashion: rather than wait for her mother’s carefully phrased response, Ritsuko seeks her out, hoping to celebrate both her admission into the proto-NERV Gehirn and her mother’s completion of the MAGI prototype. Their reunion reveals precisely what Ritsuko has been chasing, as she happens upon Akagi crouched over Gendo, happy enough to possess him physically even if his heart is elsewhere. Was it then that Ritsuko realized she was still a child?

Perhaps Akagi hoped that with time, Gendo might forget his guiding star, and find happiness among the sordid and the mortal. But Akagi does not know Gendo any better than we do, and when he shows up chaperoning the alleged “child of a friend” Rei Ayanami, it is clear he will never change. Mother and daughter share their last conversation upon MAGI’s completion; Ritsuko reflects on Misato breaking up with Kaji by saying “you can never tell with a man and woman, because it’s not logical,” to which her mother replies “that cool attitude of yours hasn’t changed. You’re going to let your own happiness slip away.” Her words are simultaneously fond and regretful – she loves the child that is her daughter still, and knows her own advice on romance would be of little use to her. They part fondly, each carrying a burden they could never share with the other.

Left alone on the bridge of her masterpiece, the culmination of her professional ambitions and enduring statement of identity, Akagi is visited by the young Rei. Akagi offers to lead her out of the facility, to which Rei responds “that’s none of your business, you old hag.” The word she actually uses is “baa-san,” which could as easily translate to “grandmother” – however, “old hag” certainly best represents the manner in which Akagi takes it. Particularly when Rei clarifies that this is the term Gendo uses for addressing her, his cold summation of this desperate yet temporarily essential woman. Both of them tools, neither truly offering what Gendo desires, the selfish fantasy that propels mankind’s alleged savior. Rei is dead before Akagi even realizes what her hands are doing. Horrified by her own actions, the doctor immediately follows.

Such is the story of the birth of NERV.

Akagi’s bloodstain, a smear on her masterpiece speaking to her inability to escape her basic human desires, leads us back to the present. As Kaji said at the start, the red of his NERV badge is the red of blood – and the culmination of a life dedicated to these distortions of humanity, these lofty substitutes for a life of earnest love and companionship, is that bleating answering machine, a call that will never be answered. Fuyutsuki is rescued by Kaji, who it turns out didn’t abduct him after all: in the end, his desire to uncover NERV’s secrets outweighed the self-preservation instinct that might have allowed a future with Misato. Misato herself is freed from suspicion, and released without incident. And Kaji is shot dead for reaching beyond his grasp, the time for conscripting would-be enemies like Fuyutsuki apparently now passed.

Like Fuyutsuki’s reflections or Ritsuko’s letters, Kaji’s last words reach us secondhand, captured and reframed via Misato’s answering machine. He apologizes for the trouble he’s caused, and asks her to take care of his garden – the little patch of happiness he’d found, now shared with both Shinji and his would-be love. He tells her the truth is within her, and to charge forward without hesitation. “If I ever see you again, I’ll say the words I wasn’t able to say eight years ago,” he promises, echoing the hopeless pledges of Fuyutsuki, Akagi, and perhaps even Gendo himself. We are profoundly talented at intellectualizing or transposing our desire, and yet when just a touch of honesty would suffice, we so often fail to grasp it. Shinji hears her sobbing from the next room, but can only cover his ears in response. After all, he is still only a child.

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Source: Neon Genesis Evangelion – Episode 21


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