On Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone, or YA Reboots

First up, this is the first post in a series on cartoons. I don’t want to get mired in a debate on definitions, so suffice it to say ‘cartoon’ means whatever I want it to mean at the time. Basically, it means ‘animation’, in that I’ll be discussing animated things here. Why not call this thread ‘On Animation’, you ask? Well, I just don’t like the sound of it.

So, on to Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone. As the title might suggest to some of you, Eva: 1.11 is a Japanese cartoon (or anime, for the uninitiated). In fact, it’s the first of four instalments in a theatrical reboot (more on this term below) of the acclaimed anime series, Neon Genesis Evangelion. To say NGE is a benchmark series in anime (both in Japan and internationally) would be like saying ice cream should mostly be served cold. A few odd fellows might prefer it wasn’t, but it is. Technically, NGE falls into the ‘Giant Robot’ classification of anime. For those unfamiliar with the series, the following paragraph is a non-spoiler synopsis. Fans feel free to skip to the following para.

Okay, so it’s 2015 and 15 years ago there was this thing called Second Impact, which destroyed half of the world’s population. Now humanity is at war with the Angels (of which there are only a few, but they’re strong enough to survive a direct hit from an N2 mine – which is basically like a million times stronger than an A-bomb). So, an agency called N.E.R.V. builds these giant humanoid robots (see? big robots) called Eva’s. The Eva’s can only be piloted by children conceived at the exact moment of Second Impact for reasons that only become clear towards the end of the series. Enter Shinji Ikari, the now fourteen-year-old son of the head of N.E.R.V., Gendo Ikari. To say that Shinji has father issues is an understatement (more on that below). To oversimplify, Shinji and a couple of other pilots have to kill all the Angels to protect humanity. Straightforward, right? Only that doesn’t even begin to do the story justice. See, behind N.E.R.V. is a secret organisation known as Seele, who are apparently following the dictates of the Dead Sea Scrolls and trying to bring about Human Instrumentality (trying to work out what that was took me ages, even after the show finished, and was part of the fun, so I won’t spoil that here). Also, the Eva’s are kind of alive. Only they aren’t. Or are they? And what does it mean to be alive, anyway? Does the soul exist, and if so, what is its purpose? Throw in a whole heap of teenage angst and religious (mostly Catholic) iconography, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a mind-bending, perception-altering anime.

I could go on here about the quality of the animation and voice acting, the plotting (very Japanese, in that it takes a lot of mental effort to follow and doesn’t always make sense), and the critical and popular acclaim with which the series was met, but that’s not what this post is about. Suffice it to say, if you’re an anime fan – watch this.

NGE was the first full ‘grown-up’ anime series I ever watched. I have fond memories of late night viewing sessions with my father, trying to work out between us exactly what the heck was going on while being awed by where the series went. Violence, blood, sex (none of which was ever used gratuitously), and the coming of age of Shinji amidst a global conflict involving giant semi-sentient robots and mysterious Angels, and it was a cartoon. My, how times had changed since my father and I enjoyed Looney Tunes before bedtime. Cartoons were growing up. I was growing up. I was thirteen when I first watched NGE, waiting with bated breathe for the end of the week and the next two instalments airing on late night SBS. The late time-slot I keep harping on about is relevant, as it’s always seemed odd to me that the first six DVDs in the series were released with a PG rating (the final two, plus extended editions, etc., were M15+). NGE always seemed so grown up to me. So adult. It was kind of forbidden (despite the fact I was watching it with my father). It was a glimpse into the grown up world, where the fate of one’s soul was even more important than the safety of your body, and where the future of everything rested on the shoulders of a manically depressed fourteen-year-old boy and his equally damaged friends. In hindsight, a perfect recipe for YA, right?

Only, I never thought of it as such. I still don’t, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was because the story always seemed to me to be more about the grown ups. So much happens, and so quickly, that you feel kind of dragged along behind, always trying to catch up with what’s happening on screen, much like Shinji, who alternates between trying desperately to be a part of things, to be present, and switching off and checking out. But as I type this, as I think about it and re-read it, I start to wonder. Perhaps I do consider it YA… but then I consider the reboot, and I wonder all over again.

Rebooting, as far as I can determine, is a process of taking an existing narrative, perhaps one that’s a bit old or is at least getting on a bit, and remaking it. Crucial elements are kept. Crucial elements are altered. Marvel, and to a lesser extent DC, do this all the time. I’ve already ranted about my desire for clear central narratives in some comic book franchises, so I won’t do so again. For an example closer to home than Japan, though, you need look no further than the upcoming Spiderman film franchise reboot, and Toby McGuire’s Spiderman wasn’t all that long ago, was it? Nolan’s Batman series is also a reboot, as is the new Superman movie. In Hollywood, studios use reboots as a way of updating classics, but they’re also a ‘safer’ film to produce. People are more likely, the reasoning goes, to fork out their hard earned cash to see something they know they’ll like (like a new Batman) than on something they’ve never heard of (like, oh, I don’t know, Petroleumman). I’m sure that may be the case, but it seems a bit cynical to me.

At any rate, anime series are often ‘rebooted’ as theatrical releases, just as manga series are often rebooted as anime (and vice-versa). There has certainly been a high level of demand for a NGE cinema release. You only have to look at the internet rumour mill, which has been churning out promises of a live action film version of the series since before the actual anime finished airing, to see that demand. So a reboot of NGE was always on the cards. The Evangelion films are finally meeting that demand. There will apparently be four films in the reboot, with 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance being released on international DVD / BluRay later this year, and the third, 3.33, and fourth, ???, apparently coming out as a joint-release sometime in the future. Don’t expect to see an Aussie cinema screening, but if you do here of one in the Adelaide area, please let me know!

[Note on 1.11 / 2.22 / 3.33: the final digits are the DVD / BluRay release designators. The first film version was Evangelion: 1.0 on its cinema release and gained .01 for DVD, indicating additional content, and the BluRay got the full 1.11 for additional content, new scenes and some animation correction for High Def.]

Okay, so, thoughts on Eva: 1.11. Well, I enjoyed it. It’s essentially a re-telling of the first six episodes of the series (the short for 2.22 indicates the promised massive deviation from the original series), with brand new, rather than merely updated, animation (apparently another indication this is a reboot and not just an adaptation). The Angels have all been re-designed and the voice acting has also been mostly recast for the English version (I’ve yet to watch it in the subtitled Japanese), which actually worked quite well. Spike Spencer reprises his Shinji and brings back his trademark whine (unfortunately), and Alison Keith is back reprising her Misato Katsuragi (Shinji’s mentor / mother figure and the operations coordinator at N.E.R.V.), with fantastic results. She was great in the original and better here.

My biggest, and only, gripe with the reboot is that it has oversimplified so much. Characters now take time to explain what an AT Field is, and how an Eva is able to penetrate one. Gendo’s motivations for neglecting / using his son are fairly clear. He often has conversations (absent in the original) with his second in command about how everything is going according to his plans for Shinji. The fact that he even has plans for Shinji is a revelation. In the original it always seemed as though Shinji was one of Gendo’s tools, like all the other pilots. Gendo was always distant, his motivations unknown and alien. Here he’s almost relatable. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in the later films. The bad jokes about Misato having an inappropriate relationship with Shinji (she invites him to live with her when she discovers he will be living alone) are nullified, removing the tension surrounding their room-mate / parental dynamics. Her concern for Shinji’s emotional state now dominates, whereas Misato was in many was self-centred in the original.

In fact, the scenes where we get real depth and emotional conflict in Eva: 1.11 – Shinji seeing his father for the first time since his mother’s death only to be told to get in the Eva and fight to the death or go away and stop wasting his father’s time, and Shinji literally stumbling upon a naked Rei, another fourteen-year-old pilot – seem awkwardly out of place. The former has been updated to suit the reboot’s more simplified narration, badly, whereas the latter has been lifted shot for shot from the original, also with poor results.

All this goes to the crux of the problem – Evangelion 1.11 is in many was a dumbed-down version of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Sure, when I was watching the original I longed for such a simple statement of the facts, but in hindsight it was the complexity that really engaged me with the narrative. Much of that complexity is missing from the film, and the rebooted film series may just become another giant robot epic (not, mind you, that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that). The most troubling part of it is that the director and creator of Evangelion in all its myriad forms, Hideaki Anno, claims that the reboot is his way of trying to stimulate the interest of teens and tweens (his perceived target audience) in animation. Any writer / creator of YA content will tell you that dumbing down your material for a YA audience is doesn’t engage an audience. Bring on complexity. Bring on conflict. Bring on mystery and suspense. And bring on Evangelion 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance. Hopefully the next instalment will recapture some of the mind-being, perception-altering spectacle of the original series.

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