Judge Bryan Byun often suffers a Second Impact, usually after a heavy lunch.
In the War Between Heaven and Earth…Salvation is Machine.
There may be no single work of art that is as profoundly at war with itself, from within and without, as the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime franchise. Creator Hideaki Anno has tinkered with and agonized over his magnum opus for nearly two decades now, refining, rethinking, and reimagining his apocalyptic, quasi-religious tale of towering monsters, giant mecha, and the angst-ridden teens who drive them.
It's difficult to avoid drawing parallels between the chaotic history and unending process of revision Evangelion has undergone, and the story itself, a bewildering hash of themes and imagery from Christianity, Jewish Kabbalah, and Buddhism stirred into an End Times narrative involving government conspiracies, threats from outer space ("Angels"), and Japanese cultural and historical tropes. As if the plot weren't confounding enough, the young protagonists, led by self-loathing, insecure Shinji Ikari, are caught in their own tortuous struggles, with themselves, their parents (living and dead), and with the dysfunctional family unit they've been thrust into.
In other words, Transformers this ain't.
The original anime series of Neon Genesis Evangelion is a fascinating work, in part because of its evolution, as it progressed from what appeared to be a straightforward Giant Robot adventure, to something far stranger and decidedly more adult. The story is that Anno suffered a period of acute depression during the production of the series, leading Evangelion into increasingly murky, psychologically twisted territory. By the end of the series, Anno had abandoned conventional narrative entirely, moving the story wholly into the minds of its characters, and concluding on a maddeningly surreal, ambiguous note. Watching it is like seeing a visual representation of a nervous breakdown—a powerful experience, but far from satisfying as a conventional narrative.
Since then, Anno has gone back and retold parts of the story, clarifying in some areas, obscuring in others. In 2002, Anno returned to Evangelion yet again, this time starting from scratch with a sweeping reboot/rethink of the series, Rebuild of Evangelion. The series, projected to comprise four feature films, retells the Evangelion story, not merely with brand new animation (Anno is working with a much higher budget this time, affording him the opportunity to fully realize his vision), but with a cohesive direction. If the previous versions showed Anno feeling his way through his story, the Rebuild represents that story fully realized and matured.
Evangelion 2.22: You Can (Not) Advance (the "2.22" indicates that this is a revised edition, with enhanced and extra footage, from the original "2.0" theatrical release—Anno truly can't stop tinkering) is the second installment of Rebuild of Evangelion. 2.22 continues the story of Shinji, the reluctant pilot of an Evangelion (Eva), the biomechanical mecha that synchronizes with their pilots, and his fellow pilots Rei Ayanami, an enigmatic young girl whose mystery Shinji attempts to unravel, and Asuka Langley Shikinami (changed from Soryu in the original series), a haughty, fiery girl who intimidates—and attracts—poor Shinji.
While the first Rebuild installment, You Are (Not) Alone, tended to more or less follow the footsteps of the original series, You Can (Not) Advance veers off its earlier course almost immediately, with the introduction of a completely new character, the brash Evangelion pilot Mari Illustrious Makinami. Mari's entry into the story signals that we had better let go of our memories of the original series—Anno truly is telling this story as if for the first time, and there's no telling where it'll go from here.
Given the deviations from the original—critical plot elements are condensed, moved around, or omitted (for now), and relationships between characters are subtly altered—I'm not sure if it's longtime Evangelion fans or total newcomers who'll be more baffled by what they're seeing. Anno may have refined his story, but that doesn't mean it's been dumbed down for easier consumption; if you find yourself mystified by some detail, like the oceans being red, don't worry, there'll be an explanation…eventually. And introducing some of the weirder story elements right up front instead of toward the climax of the story is probably a good idea, clueing us in to the craziness to come, but it doesn't mitigate the fog of confusion a new viewer may become lost in at this point in the story. This is not casual entertainment; it demands total and constant attention.
Those familiar with the Evangelion story may be surprised by some of the changes. For instance, Shinji's father, Gendo, a nearly impenetrable monolith of a character in the original, is more recognizably human here, even making an effort (half-hearted and of questionable sincerity though it may be) to reconnect with his estranged son. Rei, too, has been (slightly) humanized in this version; she's still something of a spaced-out zombie here, but she shows noticeable affection for Shinji, and even throws a dinner party for her fellow Eva pilots.
As for the new character, Mari, her role in the series has yet to fully develop, but she's an enjoyable character who appears to embody much of the roaring aggressiveness that's missing from the more subdued Asuka 2.0. It's too early to tell whether or not Mari will be a major player in the unfolding story, but her addition shakes things up in an intriguing way.
The primary weakness of this new iteration of Evangelion is that compressing the 26 original episodes and two earlier movies into four feature films results, unavoidably, in what feels like a rushed pace. Much of the subtlety of the developing relationships between the characters is lost, and we don't have the luxury of time to acquaint ourselves with them and fully inhabit their lives. The more action-oriented story elements, though, are much improved; the TV series suffered from a monster-of-the-week quality, as the Evas went up after one Angel after another until the battle scenes began to blur together. In this new, tighter version, the Angel battles are fewer but far more memorable, and their threat to the good guys is much more direct and immediate.
Funimation's DVD release of Evangelion 2.22 looks and sounds terrific; visually, the Rebuild is a huge improvement over previous incarnations, with stronger colors, dynamic action, and a higher level of detail in the artwork. Tokyo-3 feels like a real, living, breathing city here rather than just a backdrop for the battle scenes. Audio, presented in a full, vigorous Surround EX track (Japanese and English dubs), is a real delight, with pleasingly rumbly bass and an active, immersive sound field.
Special features on this two-disc set include an audio commentary with the English-language voice actors, a set of alternate and deleted scenes, the usual trailers, and an interesting "Rebuild of Evangelion 2.02" feature that shows the progress of selected scenes from the films from line art to modeling, coloring, animation, and the final product. There's also a booklet that, in true Evangelion fashion, provides a somewhat bizarrely-written overview of the series that probably obfuscates more than it explains.
Rebuild of Evangelion is a reboot that I never expected or even really knew I wanted, but now that it's here, I welcome it. Evangelion is a series that never quite worked out the way it should have, and as a narrative it's something of a mess—a mesmerizing, confounding, brilliant mess, but a mess nonetheless. As a fan of the original, I have to admit that it's exciting to see Anno return to his greatest triumph, tanned, rested and ready to give the story the proper telling it deserves.
Evangelion 2.22 is (not) guilty.
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