A funny thing happened at the Japanese box office earlier this month. Amidst the debuts of big fat blockbusters with gaijin stars cast as emasculated superheroes, gay pirates, nerd wizards, and squirrelly museum security guards, a fantasy epic -- brewed right in Japan -- somehow managed to take the highest gross for a single weekend in September by commanding roughly $2.5 million on a paltry 84 screens, a figure which also happens to include the highest per-average screen total of any film released this year. This little film, the first of four to be theatrically released by the end of next year, happens to be the rehashed brain child of anime visionary Hideaki Anno. For the casual observer of Japanese pop culture, Neon Genesis Evangelion has been ubiquitous in every Japanese commercial product, from coffee cans and bags of potato chips, to mouse pads and figurines with soft boobs. It's also responsible for getting a generation of fans in the mid 90s, including myself, into the world of non-manga anime, so a bit of background here is necessary.
Neon Genesis Evangelion debuted in the fall of 1995 on Japanese network station TV Tokyo, with a broadcast run of 26 episodes, with one airing per week at midnight, under the production of anime studio Gainax, which at this point had only a string of modest critical successes to its credit. Arriving with little hype, the series' basic story was that of a group of Japanese junior high school students recruited to fight giant alien-like monsters by commanding their own giant robotic monsters called "Evangelions," or "EVA," for short.
Anime otaku debate the cinematic importance of the controversial series' artistic, narrative, and thematic meat, but the everyday cultural impact was immediate. Most popular anime in Japan is aired in early evening prime-time and is geared towards families. Millions across the country stayed up to watch the adult-minded Eva, and contributed to record ratings for the late night time slot. It found an even bigger audience on VHS, and at the time it wouldn't seem grandiose to suggest that Evangelion was keeping Laserdisc manufacturers alive with special edition releases. And right around the time Al Gore invented the Internet, forums and discussion boards popped up to discuss the final two whacked-out episodes, and entire websites were created to decipher the themes and symbolism apparent throughout.
Upon the airing of the final Eva episode, fans clamored for director Anno to create a more concrete end to the series, and thus two years later, an alternate conclusion was provided in the form of a feature film titled The End of Evangelion, which, with its equally convoluted ending open to interpretation -- and infamous masturbation scene -- managed to once again rouse discussion and split fans into camps of those who preferred the uplifting finale of the TV series or the opaque conclusion of the film.
Years passed but Eva remained: in the form of ever more product placement, video games spanning multiple generations of console systems, numerous re-releases and remasterings of the original series, a manga series by TV series character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, magazines dedicated to Eva news and merchandise, legions of dedicated cosplayers, and now, with an increasingly older, flabbier audience, pachinko parlor machines featuring Eva decals and streaming video -- and even magazines dedicated to the Eva pachinko machines!
It's hard to really pinpoint reasons behind the success, popularity, and heated discussions that Eva has inspired for over a decade (and lord knows you can go bananas trawling Internet forums with highly-opinionated theories and every armchair otaku's two cents). The series certainly was daring in its subversion of form: Evangelion took the mecha genre -- typically the sports-opera domain of gut checks, take-charge leadership, noble heroism, poetry in motion, love on the battlefield -- and installed as protagonist Shinji Ikari, a cowardly wimp who wouldn't be able to inspire you to leave your own room, let alone go fight for your country or mankind. The series' take on war and battle as psychologically debilitating rather than character building was gutsy in the sense that the creators needed to have faith that there would be an audience willing to watch six months of largely unlikable people traveling a downward trajectory.
Animators have confessed to me their love for the series consistently presented itself freshly in a visual manner nearly every week, from the memorable soulless office interiors that seemed to marry both Welles and Le Corbusier, to the imaginative staging of battles, which resembled more WWF than WWII. Screenwriters marvel and have tried to model the dramatic dialogue and monologues, simultaneous Altman-esque intellectual and emotional exercises, in anime scenes that are justly famous and, along with perhaps Mobile Suit Gundam and Dragonball, among the most endlessly parodied in Japan's pop culture. And the core group, teens and early twenty-somethings, were seduced by the entire ethos of the show's various isms -- from cynicism to nihilism to Freudianism -- softened by Anno's autobiographical experiences which seemed to speak to a new form of modern alienation: that of the repressed Japanese teenager, the new breed of underground man, or hikikomori, in all its messy, troubled anxiety. It might be grandiose to suggest that Eva was an inverse Bildungsroman that was also the genesis of a new modern adolescence. But sometimes the grandiose is true. To many, this wasn't just anime, it was the Japanese equivalent of the stuff of James Dean and Holden Caulfield. "They get it!" many cried. "This is us!"
Or that's how one theory goes. Fast forward a decade, and those same giddy pre-pubescent depressives are now, if they survived Japanese boot camp/high school, suit-and-tie members of the morning commute comprising trains stuffed like sardine tins. Meanwhile, Eva has been chugging along, well over but not in the nostalgic minds of its still-maturing audience, and constantly renewing itself in the form of obscenely expensive DVD boxset re-releases for new generations.
The definitive ending, again
Until last year, that is, when Anno announced that he and a group of handpicked animators and editors (and marketers) began a project titled "Rebuild of Evangelion," a remaking of the entire series as a new movie tetralogy, strictly because, in Anno's words, "nothing fresher in anime has come out in the last dozen years since Evangelion first appeared. Not only will the new movies be a tribute to the long-time fans, but it will introduce the story to a new generation of fans." So that $400, 20th anniversary, special collector's edition, remastered DVD collection with 5.1 surround sound and Rei Ayanami key chain released earlier this year that was supposed to be the "definitive edition"? Gristle for the mill, bitch.
So here comes the new Eva, better than the old Eva in its production values (no running out of money after going over-budget, here) and cursory running time (roughly 2 ½ hours of material compressed into 90 minutes) buffeted by a theme song by pop star Hikaru Utada. Anno and team have promised that the first three movies will be a fairly faithful retelling of the entire series, with the fourth film producing yet another completely new ending. Another marketing blitz has ensued, with some of the highlights from the new campaign being Eva mini-figurines, more coffee cans, hopped-up new pachinko machines, a hobby shop's two-meter tall robot, and, my favorite, Eva Doritos.
The new film comes with a fancier title, replacing the Japanese "o" with a "wo," and tacking on a subtitle. Evangeliwon 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone 1.0, tackles the first six episodes of the TV anime series, but with completely new animation, sound, voice acting, and a condensed plot. For those thinking a four-part movie adaptation creatively excessive, well, it is, but such remakes are not uncommon in the anime pantheon. To take one famous mecha anime example, the granddaddy of them all, Mobile Suit Gundam -- a series Eva pays homage to in everything from its dialogue to its musical score -- remade its 43 half-hour episodes into three 2 ½ hour movies, with a fourth film providing a cinematic conclusion. Gainax itself actually retold the entire Eva series in haphazard form 10 years ago in Death: Rebirth, but that film was more like a crash course in Eva that mostly recycled scenes from the TV series and was designed for those interested in checking out the feature film without having to pledge the Shoah-like hours to watch 26 damn episodes.
The series begins in a rebuilding, post-apocalypse Tokyo-3, a military-based version of the neon city that is populated with survivors of the Second Impact, a mysterious cataclysm in the South Pole which ravaged the globe and wiped out half of the earth's population with ensuing tsunamis, climate change, and wars 15 years prior. Hence, the Japan we are presented with as a product of that devastation is, ironically, one with a perpetual idyllic summer and the sunny skies of an Ozu flick.
Entering this futuristic (even for Tokyo) Tokyo is Shinji Ikari, a 14-year-old junior-high school student. Shinji has been summoned by his father, the head of UN Special Agency NERV, for reasons that he can't quite fathom, but after a giant creature that looks like a space hunchback wearing a pigeon mask nearly steps on him, he's picked up by his soon-to-be guardian, Misato, in a beat up coupe, and the two make their way towards the underground headquarters of NERV.
It's here we find that Shinji has been summoned to pilot a series of armored humanoids called Evangelions -- EVAs for short -- to fight against these giant creatures, referred to cryptically and with heavy-handed irony as Angels. It's revealed that Shinji's childhood didn't go swimmingly, and he's a little miffed that dad has called on him after all these years of silence to take out the old family car for some chores. He doesn't want to pilot this thing, and he has to WILL himself to it after feeling pity for the supine, bloody co-pilot, Rei Ayanami, who will be asked to pilot the EVA in his place.
Much of the film and series is dedicated to not just the war, but the stuff in-between. Misato takes pity on Shinji and decides to take him in; other characters are introduced, albeit in much smaller roles than in the TV series; a mysterious plan called the Human Instrumentality Project is revealed to be humming in the story's background; more angels alight and must be dealt with. All the while, the psychological effects of putting such responsibility in the hands of kids is examined by entering the mind and consciousness of Shinji, the hero with barely a friend, and even less confidence. What he does possess, however, is endless self-reflexivity and introspection, which is featured even more prominently in the film than in the TV series at this stage of the story.
If this all sounds like a lot for an hour-and-a-half, well, it is. In fact, it was a hell of a lot for a 26-episode TV run; that's why there are webpages and glossaries dedicated to fleshing out and clarifying this stuff, but it hurts the film, and the potential to reel in a new audience, with the inevitable scrunching of the more desultory periods of the story. Whole chunks of plot have been greatly condensed, chief among them a lengthy but beautiful segment from the series where Shinji runs away from home to combat inner demons and angst. The scene meanders, but not only is it a strong weapon of character development, it also opens our eyes to the sad and depressing contemporary Japan, Anno's world of empty movie theatres, neon-lit back alleys, and slowly emptying commuter trains existentially set against the misty backdrop of a fading countryside. The battles are not only rendered in very expensive-looking CG -- they seem to faithfully not be missing a single frame -- but the balance of the series between war and a messy peace seems to have been sacrificed for showy stage effects. That was one of the charms of Eva for me: it had an ethereal quality to it that wasn't obsessed with being practical. It's not lean, but neither is L'Avventura. Sometimes, great art needs to take its time.
Even with the loss of much footage, what was gained isn't really apparent. The ending and final battle in the film is much more dramatic, but considering that this is merely the third angel of many to come, the effect is hammy and indulgent. Films, unlike individual TV episodes, need some kind of conclusion, but that's tough to create when these guys stick so slavishly to the original shooting script and major plot particulars. Anno's team missed a real chance to update their vision. In one sense, just what the point is of making a higher quality reenactment for anything other than the money to come rolling in from promotional tie-ins, future DVD releases, and new toys and video games becomes very much less clear. In another, aesthetic vein, the first new film of the Eva tetralogy resembles less those earlier Eva movies, and more Kon Ichikawa's 2007 remake of his classic 1976 murder mystery, Inugamike no Ichizoku. All the principles are there, and the story is faithful, but the whole thing lacks vitality and reeks faintly of musty cheese.
Which isn't to say that its core audience of fans won't be impressed with the updated, smooth animation, the re-imagining of the still inventive action, the nostalgia induced from the reunion of its hall-of-fame voice cast including the likes of Megumi Hayashibara, Kotono Mitsuishi, Megumi Ogata, and Koichi Yamadera. There was another reason Anno said his Gainax team assembled to make these films, and it was for the fans who, judging by those at the Ikebukuro theatre where I attended the screening, were happy enough simply to watch the anime on the big screen. The crowd of mostly youngish salarymen and office ladies was audible with whispers to each other upon witnessing Shinji's famous self-motivating chant that wills him to board the EVA for the first time: "I can't run away. I can't run away. I can't run away." And before the lights went up and the audience darted towards the exits, entering the onrush of sleazy promoters while fighting their way towards the last trains, fans were left tantalized by the 15-second promotional trailer for the upcoming second film of the series, featuring what seem to be a new character alongside the introduction of Asuka Soryu Langley, the confident, brash, and increasingly demented antagonist to Shinji's pussy protagonist. It looks like they'll be coming back for more, and on that score, Anno and company can consider their hit revival a nice success.