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Author Topic: Neon Genesis Evangelion – Episode 20  (Read 78 times)

Alderis

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Neon Genesis Evangelion – Episode 20
« on: June 14, 2024, 01:50:13 AM »
Neon Genesis Evangelion – Episode 20

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Dull green eyes possessing a keen yet feral intelligence. Gleaming teeth that rip and tear with abandon, uncomfortably human in shape. Bulging muscles that test and snap their bindings, revealing the grotesque organism beneath the metal shell. Too human and also not enough – uncanny in its scale and alarming in its movement, like some great and bloody wolf that has risen on its hindquarters, nose drifting in search of threat or quarry. In order to fight angels, mankind has conscripted devils. Unit 01 is free.



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Evangelion’s twentieth episode begins with the creature Shinji was allegedly “piloting” tearing at its defeated foe, roaring a challenge as the remnants of NERV marvel in horror. There’s really no other way to react to Unit 01’s unleashed appearance; even through the softening vector of animation, the animalistic body language of Unit 01 matched to its roughly human appearance conjures something fundamental and repellant, an unsettling caricature of humanity summoned from the depths of Mitsuo Iso’s nightmares. In a show that persistently challenges its heroes to seek and solidify their identities, Unit 01 offers a sobering counterpoint. Can we only survive via the intervention of such terrors? Are we any better than monsters ourselves?


“Seele won’t stay quiet about this,” says Kaji, and he is correct. We flash first to their logo, an upside-down triangle marked with seven eyes, gesturing towards the biblical face of god. Seated within their neon cathedral, they gripe that the Eva units are supposed to be incapable of acquiring S2 engines, and that this new incident falls well outside their projected script. Were they wrong to entrust this task to Gendo Ikari? Their plans will come to nothing, but their presence remains a welcome counterpoint to Gendo; an implication of the whole world’s culpability, of the madness power precipitates that need not a Gendo-like seed to invite total destruction.


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In the meantime, there is much to be rebuilt. A grim title card informs us this is “The First Day,” offering an implication of consequence currently unmoored from any immediate threat. We are then told that the damage to the Eva units has passed the “Hayflick Limit,” the number that defines how many times a human cell population may divide before division ultimately stops. What is the point in hiding the truth any more? The Evas are humans, or something human-derivative, or perhaps a creature born of a common ancestor. As always, Evangelion’s mysteries are parlor tricks that are understood to be such: entrancing in their initial presentation, yet swept aside as common knowledge the moment they are understood. In this way Evangelion harnesses the allure of hidden information without limiting its conclusion to a series of cheap reveals; satisfying dramatic mysteries resolve the only way they could, too late for their substance to change the fate of their seekers.


As Ritsuko and Maya discuss the extent of the damage, a montage of violence dissembles whatever sense of security or continuity we might still possess. It’s a familiar Evangelion trick, but still an effective one: delight in the rush of action during an actual attack, then review the physical consequences in retrospect, emphasizing the scale of these fights through the sprawling support apparatus required to recover from them. But at this point, there is no revert to neutral awaiting us; the great, implacable pyramid of the geofront has been crushed, the NERV bridge has been shattered and abandoned. The geographic symbols of constancy and normalcy that we unwittingly took for granted have now been destroyed; NERV has been scarred in a way we can viscerally feel, in this corruption of the alleged symbol of mankind’s perseverance.


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Our reliable bridge companions feel the strain as well, Maya complaining that the secondary control center “just doesn’t feel right, you know?” Under her arm, she carries a pink pillow marked with her name, a tiny gesture towards NERV’s current day-and-night work schedule. Sometimes the humanity of characters need not be expressed through grand gestures of psychological interrogation. Evangelion is equally comfortable illustrating our human foibles through the little things, the splashes of personality and nods towards personal circumstances that so consistently furnish its unswept corners.


Over at the launch bays, Misato addresses the bandaged Unit 01 with a distrustful stare, considering its growing rap sheet of disobedience and independent movement. She is joined by Makoto Hyuga, her occasional partner in crime in unveiling NERV’s secrets, who is clearly infatuated with her. More threads that will never be resolved; he floats a joke about her temperamental nature, and receives only stone silence in response. A flourish that adds little beyond the crucial implication that these are human beings with complex webs of feelings, values, and relations; Misato is not above exploiting Hyuga’s infatuation, and Hyuga is happy enough to be of use.


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“All this because we didn’t put a bell around Ikari’s neck,” the old men of Seele lament, then clarify that “we had a bell, it just didn’t ring.” “We’ll have the bell take action next time,” they decide, a prophecy given direction by our immediate cut to the bell in question: Kaji Ryoji, then meeting with Gendo and Fuyutsuki. They elect to explain this unfortunate situation as an accident beyond their control, and keep Unit 01 on ice in the meantime. Kaji praises their wisdom, but is the only one to raise the crucial unasked question: what has become of Shinji Ikari?


Unit 01 refuses all requests to eject the entry plug. Shifting to the internal monitors, the bridge immediately sees why: Shinji has disappeared entirely, his forlorn plug suit now drifting aimlessly in a sea of LCL. A shift that wordlessly affirms all we’ve been suspecting; having consumed both the angel’s heart and Shinji’s shell, the Eva unit has proven itself a cousin of both, a link across consciousness. Ritsuko tries to offer context: the Eva a copy from the south pole, but imbued with a human will. However, her interest is entirely academic, and Misato cannot forgive that; standing as Shinji’s final earnest protector, she slaps Ritsuko and demands answers. Ritsuko has none to give.


It is thus, shrouded in fear and resentment, that the second day begins.


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Our opening shot is of Rei Ayanami, waking in the cool blue light of her hospital room. A brief scene that offers multiple takeaways. First, there is the immediate, dramatic reminder of the last fight’s consequences; even as the work crews of NERV set about repairing their ruined city, the pilots that fought for it lay comatose, beaten to the brink by their latest adversary. At the same time, the staging of the profile shot, cut to ceiling, and then wide shot of the room calls another scene to mind: Shinji’s first waking after his initial Eva battle. Through this mirroring of cinematography, the burgeoning link between Shinji and Rei is further emphasized; a fitting method of aligning the two characters who so rarely reach out, so infrequently speak for themselves.


Rei’s recovery is instantly contrasted against Asuka’s rage; even if he died in the process, she cannot stand that Shinji beat her once again. Her happy cohabitation with her fellow pilots was always predicated on the maintaining of her ego, something that has been stripped away piece by piece, carried off by Kaji’s indifference and Shinji’s consistent martial superiority. None of Shinji’s recent victories are really of his own making, and in fact each has carried a heavy personal toll, but none of that matters to Asuka. She was once the brilliant pilot of Unit 02, a candidate unparalleled, a genius destined for stardom. Now, she is just a scared little girl, of no use to any one, swiftly reawakening to her overwhelming fear of abandonment.


And so the third day begins.


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It takes Ritsuko just one day to come up with a plan for Shinji’s recovery. His alleged guardians converse under the harsh gaze of Unit 01, its unblinking green eye staring down on their silhouettes, as if judging them for their failure to protect him. If the Eva unit has a will of its own, then what might it be thinking at this moment? Would it praise Misato for bitterly decrying Ritsuko’s inhumanity? Would it judge Ritsuko for admitting their plan is entirely pragmatic, rather than based in any genuine concern for Shinji’s life? Regardless, as Ritsuko and Maya elaborate on their plan, it becomes clear this evocative shot is its own justification: with Gainax increasingly incapable of managing their own show’s timely production, shots extend to greater and greater lengths, the desperation to fill twenty minutes offering a unique sense of meta-urgency to our heroes’ struggles.


That shot is all we receive until the fourth day.


Psychological inquiry and ingenuity of animation production align as we at last hear Shinji’s perspective, as he marvels at his insubstantiality and flashes through a bewildering montage of all the people he has come to know. “This is supposed to be my world, but I don’t really understand,” he admits, struggling to assign stable identities to not just himself, but the people and creatures that surround him. Who are these other figures to him? Who are his enemies, the angels – as the best his mind can conjure is “the object of revenge for Miss Misato’s father!” Is that really why he fights, to make Misato happy for her absent father’s sake? That can’t be true… so then, “why do I fight despite all I’ve been put through?”


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The frustrating contours and limitations of individual perspective are highlighted as he hears Asuka’s voice, offering that familiar “are you stupid,” challenging him to understand that enemies are attacking, and thus we have to defend ourselves. Of course, Asuka herself finds little solace in the noble necessity of their task, only her own excellence in completing it – something which can now bring her no joy at all. But to Shinji, her idle, unconsidered words reverberate like a tolling bell, an accusation that prompts him to think “maybe I’m not supposed to think about it.” Though Asuka, Gendo, and even Misato have accused Shinji of running from what is painful, it is his inability to “run away” in a mental sense that has caused him so much pain. Asuka, Misato, and Gendo all find some fragment of satisfaction in denying the truth of the angels while pursuing their own ends. It is Shinji, who cannot ignore the question the angels pose, that must suffer for his refusal to run away.


In this capacity, Shinji speaks to a frustration that extends far beyond Eva units and angel attacks. Many, perhaps even most of us, manage our path through life by honing our perspective, by focusing on what is necessary and actionable and thereby locating ourselves in a world we can change and understand. We either accept the necessity of ignorance to larger concerns and fellow minds, or we simply duck comfortably under such questions, seeing the tasks and attitudes arrayed just before us as all that exists. We do not agonize over every idle statement, we do not condemn ourselves for every road untaken. We act, and let the road ahead resolve itself in the wake of our actions.


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It is in this way we learn to get along; or don’t, and find ourselves like Shinji, trapped within a world that seems so coherent to others, yet so unfathomably complicated and lonely to ourselves. It is a sickness of desperation for understanding that inspires the greatest of artists; it is the lived experience of that loneliness that keeps them awake at night, wondering what brush stroke or flourish of prose might bridge the gap. In these moments of carefully articulated confusion and desperation for collective understanding, Hideaki Anno presents the reality of depression and excruciating self-consciousness with clarity and sympathy. Though Shinji may be trapped, Anno’s understanding of his entrapment ensures those of us suffering alongside him do not suffer alone.


Shinji’s reflections on this alleged “enemy” resolve in the only way they can: the looming figure of Gendo, the alleged cause of all of Shinji’s suffering. And once again, it is Rei that challenges him on this formation, this time appearing just ahead of him on NERV’s interminable escalators. Another scene called from memory; the pain of Rei’s slap still sharp in the mind, still informing his perspective on this girl who has changed so much in the time since. Like with Asuka’s earlier rebuke, Shinji can only construct what he knows of the people around him – and to the unfortunate Shinji, most of what he remembers are the times he was condemned, not the moments he made a positive difference. As such, both his Rei and his Asuka are harsher than their own truths would tell.


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Their conversation illustrates this fundamental divide, how the distance between ignorance and understanding can also be the difference between love and hate. “I’ve hardly ever seen him,” Shinji reflects, to which Rei responds “is that why you hate him?” “Yes, my father doesn’t need me! My father deserted me!” Like Asuka, desperate to be needed. Like Misato, desperate to be understood. Perhaps even like the angels, so distant as to only achieve understanding through mutual destruction. “He abandoned me because he had you,” Shinji baselessly yet entirely accurately accuses, his mental disarray echoed by the episode’s own imagery shifting from painted cells to first uncolored key animation, then simply sketches of eventual intent. And we return to the stage of their first fated meeting, of the time Shinji was determined to tell his father of his hatred, but was stopped short by that brief, agonizing phrase: “I need you.”


The title cards offer us a cruel revelation: it is now the thirtieth day.


Ritsuko has now developed a Salvage Plan Outline, which she informs us is actually based on data recorded during the Eva program’s initial development ten years ago. It’s a preposterously offhand reveal of such a crucial detail, but again in keeping with Evangelion’s general avoidance of relying too much on novelty and surprise. Novelty and surprise can be useful tools for shocking your audience and demanding their attention, but a story constructed largely of shocking reveals is ultimately a hollow one, as it generally means little of what we learned before those reveals is of meaningful substance. 


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Evangelion avoids that problem gracefully, by ensuring the substance of the drama that we know of is genuinely meaningful, and using its reveals to instead contextualize our understanding of what we previously knew. Great twists don’t come entirely out of the blue – they serve to validate our existing suspicions, offering an illuminating capstone that explains the doubts we’ve already been harboring. They hit us much like this reveal must hit Misato, who has already come to suspect she knows far less about NERV’s true goals than she’d like, and to distrust her alleged friend and confidant Ritsuko. Whatever bond they might share, it is clear Ritsuko is not truly on Misato’s side, and more loyal to the Eva project than to its tortured teenage victims.


“Is this the warmth of a human? I never knew it.” We return to Shinji still in the midst of his psychological unspooling, still conversing with an “other” he has defined as Rei, perhaps still believing he has only been within this reality for minutes or hours. When asked about either happiness or sadness, his answer is the same: “I didn’t understand it before, but I think I do now.” It is little wonder he sees Rei as his soul’s mirror; like her, he was set in emotional stasis before arriving at Tokyo-03, having little to guide him beyond his resentment of his absent father. It was through Misato, through his school experiences, through his fellow pilots that he learned the ache of loneliness in their absence, the tremor of joy at being praised. It was through engaging with the world, as painful as it was, that he learned to become human.


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Of course, Shinji was never given the chance to learn such lessons without the threat of rejection, in the warmth of a mother’s embrace. Everything he has earned and come to value has come at a price: to pilot the Eva unit, and ensure he is therefore useful to the people around him. Given all his attempts at mutual understanding have been filtered through the context of needing to impress others with his capacity for violence, how is it any surprise that he has come to distrust human connection? What have our imperfect, conditional methods of sharing our personal truths ever done for him? Little wonder he seeks either the void of isolation or the impersonality of collective consciousness; the barriers our egos construct around us have only ever been a source of pain to Shinji. He has never known the joy of reaching out tentatively, and feeling his hand caught in the warm grip of another.


His hand clenches alone, in the plug suit, the LCL haze of the eternal train. A symbol of conscious will, of commitment, and therefore of identity – to clench his hand is to harden his resolve, is to feel the strength of his fist, the bite of his nails tasting his skin. A harsh contrast from the open hand he seeks, but what other example could Shinji follow? Gendo told him to be a man or be useless. Asuka told him, “you’re a man, aren’t you?” Misato told him that men protect those around them. Is that what it is to be a man – to be strong and independent, changing the world through your inalterable force of will? That doesn’t sound like what Kaji said, but even what Kaji says doesn’t sound like what Kaji does, how he effortlessly makes Misato and Asuka dance to his tune. Is Shinji’s only choice to be a man, and is a man’s only choice to inflict his violent will on the world around him?


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As a youth, I never had what one might consider a productive relationship with traditional masculinity. Actually, let’s not sugarcoat it – as a man in his mid-thirties, I remain skeptical that traditional masculinity has anything positive to offer the world. As such, while Shinji’s abject loneliness and desperation for understanding powerfully resonated with me, I was all the more validated by his inherent rejection of the models of masculinity surrounding him – the distant Gendo, seductive Kaji, or stoic Toji. None of these personas felt right to either me or Shinji, none resembling an authentic interpretation of our desire to engage with the world. To the profoundly self-conscious, culture is often one of our only guidelines, our only method of ensuring we are communicating in a common language. But when culture demands a performance of gender that seems almost antithetical to our personal identity, it becomes less of a guideline than a curse, an assurance we will never truly fit in.


The consolation this mirror offers Shinji is tainted, a perversion of his desperation for connection, a conflation of his desire for understanding and his adolescent sexual longing. One after another, Misato, Asuka, and Rei all offer to join with him, to “become one in body and soul.” Is that what sex is? Is that what mutual understanding is? All they can offer is that it is a “very, very comforting feeling” – but there is no love in this offer, no individuality in its delivery, and thus no understanding waiting beyond its gates. The three images fuse, their overlay creating a mirage of a fourth: Rei’s short hair turned brown, a woman from distant memory, a vision of the lost Yui Ikari. Does Shinji want a lover, a mother, or simply to be understood? On the bridge of adolescence without a past or future to guide him, the distinction between these desires is agonizingly unclear.


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Shinji’s thoughts grow more frantic as NERV commence their operation, a pandemonium of voices calling as the bridge crew reel off psychology-grounded scifi ephemera. “Subject cathexis is normal,” referring to Freud’s conception of how a consciousness assigns specific degrees of focus and energy to variable desires. Then, “Destrudo cannot be confirmed,” an allusion to the death drive that urges us towards self-destruction. A sudden complication prompts Ritsuko to declare “the signals are being trapped in Klein space,” a tip of the hat to Melanie Klein’s expansion of Freud’s thoughts, as previously explored during Shinji’s submersion within a prior angel’s shadow. Charged and evocative, but impossible to strictly define – their language echoes the visual vocabulary of the bridge and the course of Shinji’s self-actualization in tandem, offering a mechanical blueprint of reemergence into a conscious self.


It’s quite impressive in its own way, the Gainax team’s ability to convey an expression of overwhelming smoke with no tangible fire. The flashing lights, the readouts and responses, the utter seriousness with which the bridge crew announces each inexplicable turn in the procedure. Misato asks at once point “what does that mean,” and Ritsuko replies “it means we failed” – a line given significance only through our hard-earned trust in this crew’s professionalism, and the aesthetic ingenuity and tonal stoicism that brings the bridge in crisis mode to life. Somehow, these flashing readouts and scrawling numbers add up to a coherent whole, informing Ritsuko’s genuine human plea of “why, Shinji? Don’t you want to come back?”


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Trapped in the entry plug, Shinji has at least come to take something resembling his original form, now huddled within the pilot seat. “I don’t understand,” he cries to this wave of unfiltered consciousness, to which it replies “what do you want?” And again, the forms of femininity he has come to know are transposed across each other, resolving into his fundamental lack: the cradling mother, loving him regardless of who he chooses to be. Shinji can only see calls to action as a command verging on an accusation, another affirmation of his timidity, his unsuitability, his cowardice. But what if such a question were meant kindly? What if it were truly within his hands, what he chose to desire or become? What if he could seek a happier self without fear of judgment for his desires?


And what if Unit 01 were not a curse, not a destiny, but simply one aspect of his complicated journey? “Shinji, you are here now because you piloted the Eva. You are the person you are now because you piloted the Eva. You cannot deny it, that you in fact piloted the Eva, nor can you deny the self you have been so far, which is your past. But as for what you will do from now on, you must decide for yourself.” So if he is not to be defined purely as the Eva’s pilot, if he is determined to seek happiness outside of the praise that piloting the Eva brings him, how will he choose to define himself from here, and what happiness will he choose to pursue?


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The answer is unclear, but one truth, one guideline holds firm. Just as it is Shinji’s image of Misato who relays these mental directives to Shinji, so it is Misato herself who collapses beside Unit 01, helplessly cradling his empty plug suit. True mutual understanding might be impossible, but mutual concern is another thing entirely, a threshold that our lonely pilot and his regretful caretaker have surely surpassed. Time and again, it was Misato who encouraged Shinji, Misato who abided by his wish to separate, and Misato who ultimately welcomed him home. Though Shinji’s impressions of his fellow humans might be warped and exaggerated, the trust he placed in Misato is echoed by the shame she feels at failing him. They may not understand each other, but they are family all the same.


Hearing Misato’s call from beyond, Shinji notices another smell, one distant yet familiar: the smell of his mother, so long lost to him. Gendo, of course, has nothing but doubts about raising a child in this hell of mankind’s making, the aftermath of the Second Impact. But Yui feels differently, saying “if you have the will to live, anywhere can be heaven. Because he is alive. He’ll have many chances at happiness.” It’s a rendition of a line that appears across many of my most treasured stories; an acknowledgment that the world and our perception of it can be harsh, but that life is fluid, as transient as the ocean tides. If you have the will to continue, you will always have a chance to alter your circumstances, and perhaps find a happier reality. Why do we live? Well, because something good might happen.


Called by that distant voice, Shinji breaches the surface. Cold and isolated once more by his fragile ego, Shinji returns.


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We do not get to see Shinji’s tearful reunion with his surrogate mother. We instead catch up a full day later, with Misato and Ritsuko reflecting on the vast unknowns of the Eva project while the radio announcer cheekily reflects on Freud’s oral stage. The radio’s dry, cynical analysis of the desire for a mother-lover contrasts against the ease of Misato and Ritsuko’s conversation, friends again at last, Ritsuko willingly conceding it was Misato who brought Shinji back. Ritsuko suggests getting a drink like old times, but Misato demures; both of them instead rush to satisfy their own needs, seeking understanding in the embrace Shinji still can’t understand.


But what can we do? As Kaji self-servingly reflects, “indulging our carnal desires is more realistic as humans.” In the oddly sexualized-yet-sexless world of anime, Misato and Kaji actually making love is indeed more realistic, more true to our human frailty, and to the uncertain promise of union or maturity that sex itself represents. Their bond forms a contrast with Shinji’s internal thoughts of “becoming one” – Misato and Kaji are aligned in their naked forms, but not necessarily connected in the way Shinji was offered. “You don’t have any interest in others, but you want their attention anyway,” Misato teases. “You really are just like my father.”


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Economy becomes aesthetic restraint as the scene continues, lingering shots retaining modesty and conveying languorous rest as the two discuss NERV’s intentions. “All I care about right now is for you to understand what I want,” Misato chides, before turning her attention t


 

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