Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rebuilding Evangelion

Evangelion 1.11 - You Are (Not) Alone
Evangelion 2.22 - You Can (Not) Advance

Angel attack
I try my darndest to avoid fanboyism. It leads to an abandonment of logic and an obsession with something that's ultimately futile. It also tends to clog up the Internet with idiots. However, I admit this: I'm an Evangelion fanboy. I just absolutely adore the franchise. I can see the flaws - how Shinji is a moany little so-and-so, how it's overly sexualised, how the ending of the series makes very little sense (although I would strongly argue they sorted out that issue with End of Evangelion). I still love it though. I could barely contain my excitement when I got to go to Evangelion World in Japan's Fuji-Q Highland and pose for pictures with a GIANT FUCKING UNIT-01 HEAD! Made my frickin' year. In short: My name is Stephen, and I'm and Evangelion fanboy.

I was also a bit late to the party, only sitting down and watching the entirety of Neon Genesis in late 2009/early 2010. So I didn't have long to wait before getting to see the beginnings of long-awaited Rebuild of Evangelion - a four feature film 'reimagining' of the admittedly flawed series. I got to see both early last year at a local anime weekend, including a very early look at 2.0. They - well, the second one, definitely - lived up to my wildest expectations. A year later, You Can (Not) Advance has finally been released on Blu-Ray, and for me was an exciting opportunity to sit down and re-evaluate the two movies. Coming on the eve of the release of the return of a far inferior franchise concerning giant robots, it couldn't have been more welcome.

(Note: 1.11 and 2.22 are the numbers used to differentiate the home releases of the films from the theatrical cuts 1.0 and 2.0. The difference? The home releases add a few extra scenes to the initial theatrical cut)

A quick introduction to Evangelion for those of you who may not have experienced it in any form yet. It takes place in Japan about two decades after an incident known as the Second Impact, an event that wiped out half of humanity. In Tokyo III - the fortified city that acts as the main setting for the story - a teenager called Shinji Ikari is called into an organisation called NERV by his cold, mostly absent father Gendo. He has been chosen to pilot a giant semi-robotic, semi-genetically modified Evangelion unit. He, along with other pilots as the series progresses, are tasked with preventing invading creatures known only as Angels from penetrating NERV headquarters and kick starting an apocalyptic Third Impact by melding with the secrets hidden deep underneath Tokyo III. There's also lots of stuff about teenage awkwardness, religion and hot spring penguins.

Evangelion 1.11 is a hard one to come to a definitive final conclusion on. Don't get me wrong - three viewings in and I still think it's great. But there is most certainly something... well, if not disappointing, anti-climactic about it. It barely deviates from series - what we get is a high-def and rather condensed version of three early story arcs from Neon Genesis. It definitely tightens up the pacing while retaining the core themes and ideals - Shinji's social insecurities and daddy issues, Rei's mysteriousness, hedgehog dilemmas, the shadowy motives of NERV, the even more shadowy motives of SEELE, and overall a compelling bleak vision of the world two decades after a catastrophic event known as the Second Impact. It does speed up parts of the story too - Kaworu, for example, appears, meaning his significant role later on won't feel as sudden, and there's even an early mention of the Human Instrumentality Project. Overall, though, it's the same story, but prettier and shorter.

And there's nothing inherently wrong with that, given that there's nothing inherently wrong with the first six episodes of Neon Genesis. It looks absolutely stunning, no doubt about that. The action scenes are delivered with aplomb, some of the finest battle sequences ever illustrated. The Angel designs are excellent. The characters are all as iconic as ever. Yet there are times when lengthy sequences play out almost verbatim - like the fifth Angel arc that culminates in an epic snipe-off - that it becomes hard to tell what exactly the point is. It's a welcome introduction for newbies, and a pleasant graphical update for the fans, but were Hideki Anno and co. missing out on an opportunity to do something brand new with Evangelion after all these years? Given the general finality of the series and its subsequent feature film(s), a reboot seemed the only solution, but did it have to be this loyal?

It's a question answered with a bang by the follow up. From the opening sequence it quickly establishes itself as a pretty darn radical departure from the original TV series. We open with an exciting action sequence, in which a mysterious EVA pilot tackles an Angel in a non-Japanese setting (complete with broken Engrish! Don't be concerned when the first words you hear are in English rather than Japanese. If it continues make sure to change your audio and subtitle settings in the haste though!). The pilot is Mari Makinami Illustrious, or Token New Merchandise character. Despite having two major and rather excellent action sequences to herself, she's a fairly redundant addition narratively - we can only hope she has some use in 3.0 and beyond. She's certainly the worst thing about 2.22, and she's not even that bad, just sort of pointless, and absent for the majority of the next hour.

The rest of the film is glorious. Again, the basic plot is roughly similar to Neon Genesis. Asuka arrives and is instantly rather moody, Rei begins to open up and Shinji begins to discover that he is (not) alone. However, only the outline is similar to the original story, and there are radical alterations to events from the off. Asuka, for example, takes Toji's place in a pivotal sequence, while the final act hastily speeds up events from the final episodes of the series, leaving the audience excitingly wondering what crazy avenues they're going to go down with subsequent sequels. A post-credit appearance from an important character shows that they're not quite ready to present the audience with a full on Third Impact, but they've already started presenting sequences on the grand scale of the apocalyptic post-series End of Evangelion.

I'm getting ahead of myself. On a purely visceral level, You Can (Not) Advance is a joy. The Angel designs are more imaginative then they've ever been, and the animation is rarely less than stunning. Musically, it's also a (deeply unusual, it should be said) triumph. Indeed, the childlike, innocent music that plays over two of the more intense scenes make them all the more haunting - one is undeniably amongst the most shocking & violent sequences ever drawn, while the mind-melting conclusion is a thing of great beauty. Alongside the traditional series music cues and the inevitable Beautiful World remix over the credits (basically the Rebuild's Fly Me to the Moon) it sounds like nothing else, and consistently looks the part.

Misato makes angry face
Evangelion has always been an odd 'beast' - moments of quiet character development, wacky humour (Pen-Pen!) and over-sexualised fan service alongside surreal religious & mythical imagery, complex thematic concerns and of course an often head scratching central plot that takes in everything from the Dead Sea Scrolls to human evolution. It's what gives it such a unique identity, and why it is beloved by its fans. The Rebuild so far has proven more than capable of capturing the careful balance that has defined this franchise thus far, while bringing along some impressive tricks of its own given that budget is no longer such a fatal concern. As 2.22 enters its remarkable final moments - easily one of cinema's finest cliffhangers - it's hard not to be be wowed by the achievement. Because for all its faults - and let's be honest, the characters don't need to be in states of undress quite as frequently as they are here, although there are a few moments of blatant fan servicing that will elicit serious chuckling - there is nothing like Evangelion. It's a meandering, complex, intelligent mess of a story, but one that rarely misses a chance to either amuse, entertain, shock or straight up amaze.

As Michael Bay once more struggles to create anything remotely compelling out of robots beating the shit out of each other, Evangelion proves that in the hands of talented artists robots kicking ass need not be lowest common denominator stuff. There are minor similarities between the two franchises - hyper sexualisation and a penchant for wackiness, most notably - but only one provides payoffs alongside the flaws. As a fan I was always going to inject these Evangelion films directly into my veins, but thus far the Rebuild looks like it will match up to even the most rabid of fan expectations. As the credits rolled towards their Neon Genesis-esque "Next time on Evangelion...", I was once again damn proud to be an Evangelion fanboy.

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