August 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
Part of the strangeness of Evangelion proceeds from the basic thought experiment of its opening episodes: what would it actually be like for the teens who habitually, in mecha anime, are the pilots of deadly giant robots? Thus, by a contrivance that mimics those of the middle-school genre itself, in which rich kids get transferred to ordinary schools (or vice versa) & protagonists just happen to end up working with their love interests, we find a drama of petty conflicts, arbitrary rules & hopeless otaku inserted into another of secret organisations, glistening technology & howls of pain & frustration. With Asuka’s arrival in episode 8, a whole further host of middle-school tropes come in her wake: popularity contests, camera-happy perverts, the lingering threat of confessions. Shinji’s almost parodic incarnation of the hapless dork who, if he had the willpower, would be reduced to peeking up skirts or ‘accidentally’ falling on young women, offers plenty of additional room to manoeuvre his character slightly out of the cul de sac of catatonic depression he occupies for the first few episodes: if he can be yelled at or forced to argue or made to sweat over the stirrings of his barely-there libido then he can at least be made to interact with other characters. The increasing slice-of-life character of many scenes adds pacing & texture to what, in the first episode, threatens to be a merely stylish & overegged scifi: half the human race has been wiped out, but the mundanities, the “everyday life”, that middle-school shows pin their hopes on still persist, breathe, exude their aura of pleasant impermanence. But the slow falling-away of these structures in the later episodes, as characters are forced to move away, killed, estranged or hospitalised, preparing for dissolution into the apparently abstract psychodrama of the final diptych doesn’t move the series away from the genre’s preoccupations. Rather than an ‘experimental’ work or a deconstruction of mecha shows – whose arrays of monolithic ego-armour & phallic pulse-rifles are easy enough to have woke laughs about – Evangelion is perhaps rather a middle-school show that takes its material as utterly seriously as it deserves, & doesn’t smooth over the traumatic contradictions the genre confronts. It isn’t merely the obvious drama of isolated & emotionally abused children ‘finding themselves’, moving into new & different lifeworlds – a plot movement exemplified in Shinji’s oblique but undoubted obsession with sex or Rei’s belated rediscovery of the emotion cut from her by experimentation, crystallised finally in the ‘choice’ with which Kaworu presents Shinji. It is rather that these choices, or the dramas of pain, self-disgust, regret & inconsolable longing within which they present themselves, articulate the deepest & most intractable problems of embodied life: those of individuation itself, of primal separation, of entry into the Symbolic, language, finitude, the knowledge of death. The strange glimpses in episode 21 of Shinji’s childhood clarify the paradox: that his young adulthood didn’t need to be like this, but that nonetheless its causes began long before the immediate problems that present themselves (his dweebish impotence, daddy issues, rending stress, anomie & displacement), that contingency & necessity are intertwined & indistinguishable. The middle-school shoujo unearths the first & ongoing dilemmas of adulthood – the fear of failure, loneliness, etc – & finds in them mere trials, preludes, to ‘real life’, to settlement & permanence, the skip-forward to a lifetime of coupledom & ‘responsible’ dealing with such dilemmas. They perform at once the beginnings of adulthood – impermanence, difficulty – & a second childhood, in which memories can somehow be preserved against the depredations of time – drawing a straight line from first tenderness to the platitude that ends the manga of Kare Kano. By contrast, Evangelion refuses in its discovery of the problems of adulthood – the problems, in fact, of Dasein – to have discovered their solutions – or, indeed, that there are any solutions, beyond the ‘final’ one of Instrumentality. (The fact that the tone of many of the most beautiful – usually ‘superfluous’ – shots in Evangelion reappears in the Anno-directed episodes of Kare Kano confirms the link: sharp foreground objects against saturated, static, variegated colours, like the unanswering blue skies of ukiyo-e, an absolute minimum of movement, wind intentlessly stirring the leaves.) There is no simple binary in Evangelion between struggle & its associated formations – the attempt to reach others, to “become what you are”, to summon the motivation to destroy enemies – and retreat, isolation, capitulation, a bliss indistinguishable from extinction: every move against the Angels, forced out of Shinji, is also a move towards Instrumentality. There is never a moment, a development, which finally banishes the need to hit the reset button on humankind. None of us are at school anymore, but no-one can go home.