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Rebuild Revisited: “another version of the truth”

In the years I’ve spent writing about the anime medium, it has never been far away. The Neon Genesis Evangelion legacy is something akin to holy skrit in fan circles, as much as it is anathema to them. It’s the kind of show that can make or break you depending on the you that is watching it. And for my part, it has remained as one of the pinnacles of visual media for its boldness, means to thrill, and heartbreaking sincerity. So when I feel the need to further examine a more high-ticket, CG-drowned take on what was ostensibly one of my favorite shows of all time, you best believe that it is going to come with a little added baggage.

My love for the original television series knows few bounds. Far beyond the ruffage of endless message board debates, strange theories, and online fan one-upmanship, this was a story that despite all the problems plaguing it, connected with so many on a human level rarely witnessed in any kind of television series. It felt as if many of us had been shaken to the bones by it, and remained unsure as of what it was that stepped over our graves. And likely the older the anime fan you were, the heavier the whole thing felt. Evangelion was that perfect typhoon of concept & emotion, brought to a scathing boil by the tatters of feeling most human. And yet so many adhered to a need for mathematical cohesiveness where little of it was truly necessary. EVA was just that perfect melody at that perfect time when the notes seemed most desperate for change. A notion that possibly rings more loudly than ever, daring us to look deeper into infinity for inspiration.

It was a rally call to souls in need of affirmation, only to allow it to be recognized sans any real chance in taking the first steps. This is where Rebuild comes in.

ATTENTION: This Mostly Spoiler-Free Post Contains Some Delicate Speculation On Rebuild Of Evangelion, as well as on the original Neon Genesis Evangelion series and films. (You’ve Been Warned)

Upon the news of this week’s oncoming DVD/BR release of Evangelion 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance, a part of me felt a nagging need to revisit a film that I had already viewed, but felt that I had perhaps missed something. It’s hard to put a laser-precise beam on the reasons as to why, but when dealing with such a massively important franchise such as this, especially when dealing with the dreaded moniker, “redux”, it can be seen as easy for many of us to watch the new incarnation with highly attuned glasses, expecting nothing more than to be disappointed. Ever since the Star Wars prequels, it’s become a sadly integral part of the fan experience. The feeling of a jilted lover, unnecessary, but almost always expected. Sometimes to great results (The Dark Knight), and more often to toxic ones (Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull). And in those expectations comes a near-impossible means of any author to live up to the film residing in the minds of viewers. So in regards to sequels or remakes, disappointment is inevitable. And my previous review notwithstanding, there were a few things that perhaps even I selectively filtered out.

But first, let’s reiterate the things that still didn’t work this time.

a) The product placement is still off-putting. As much as it is considered a foregone necessity of big movies, it never blends into the background as much as it probably should. This could easily just be me though.

b) If this is what Kotono Mitsuishi promised us as “fan service”, then perhaps it would be best to dial it down, and give us a little more in the character department. We are given fan-aware moments, but never enough to actually inhabit their world as necessary for potential new fans. If the world of Evangelion has had such a reputation, perhaps it would have been good to let new viewers in on the secret to it’s success?

c) The implementation of Mari Makinami Illustrious still comes off as a bare cash-grab in the film. As much as there are also some very intriguing things about her in regards to putting an interesting spin on famous character arcs, there’s never enough time and verve given in order for us to better grapple with the whys of her presence. As cool as she is aesthetically, there is definitely something missing, especially in a film where so much happens so rapidly. Which leads me to….

d) The length, and pacing is still a jarring mix. Far too much seems to happen off the screen, which can be expected since we are talking about a feature film instead of a television series. And in this, the film’s most glaring weaknesses rear their commercial teeth most brightly by skipping much of what allows us to connect the dots. Especially considering the ticket prices in Japan, and the need to meet the demand of fans with a story such as this, it is still important to at least let off the gas for a few minutes to allow viewers a chance to drink in the world of the film. And in a manner that reminds this viewer of franchise filmmaking, which is where the filmmakers are at times caught up with flexing their budget muscles, but have little patience for things to unfold. Or perhaps I’m reading far too much into it. Either way, the clip is at times far too aggressive to make as deep an impact as it could have.

And yet, upon cracking open the new disc and watching the film again, it felt only fair to point out some of the high points that maybe I didn’t cover quite so well last time.

a) The action is above and beyond among some of the most eye-popping in recent memory. Taking a major leap from the promise of 1.0, Gainax/Khara do a phenomenal job in delivering some of the most wildly imagined pieces of kinetic animation achieved in a post Gurren Lagaan world with some of the same logic-defying, devil-may-care attitude that has become another claim to fame for a studio long known for many firsts. And in the best anime studio fashion, we are finally host to battle choreography & execution that matches (and even possibly surpasses) the original proposal art done back when they were pitching the series to the networks.

b) The subtle references to Anno’s childhood are expanded upon beautifully in this film. From a more expanded vision of Tokyo-3 as a surrogate for his home in Yamaguchi, to the appropriate use of popular music acts of the 1960s such as The Peanuts (aka The Mothra Twins) & Yoko Kon & The Pinky Killers. Even the use of Yamashita from the 70s movie favorite The Man Who Stole The Sun is a glaring reminder that Evangelion in anime form has always partially functioned as a quasi analog for the famed director’s personal world. Toward which the action scenes again compliment his very love for UltraMan & other tokutatsu classics. Much like his understudy Kazuya Tsurumaki’s FLCL, Rebuild double duties as a treasure trove of sorts, embracing ideas & longings old and new.

c) Quite simply, I’ll restate what I’ve been attempting to get across to many via the inevitable talks with fans & friends, Rebuild Of Evangelion is a sequel dressed up as a redux, and as such has some very interesting new wrinkles added to the already exhausting Evangelion mythos. This,or at the very least, lives up to information that was given to us within both the tv and film endings. Whether it was the phantom voice of Asuka inferring that this ending was merely one of many possibilities, or when upon Shinji’s rejection of Instrumentality, he is told by his mother Yui, that everyone would have a choice to come back should they have the wish to. The red sea is another large clue, pointing to this with a large set of flashing christmas lights atop the Empire State stating that what were are witnessing is another important hurdle for young Ikari to climb. And if this comes off as merely a crass excuse to print money by offering a half-hearted optimistic ending, I’d simply have to disagree.

Granted, any new Evangelion film would be huge in times like these, but for them to simply shoot for a certain, recalibrated ending may be a little presumptuous at this point. (We’re only halfway through, and much has happened). With the chessboard-blasting coda we’ve just witnessed, it seems more to me that Anno/Tsurumaki & crew have a lot more on their thematic plates than this. If anything successful came from the film, what we seem to be being exposed to is a spiritual evolution that required 15 years, and possibly even marriage to emerge. Call this what you will, but for my money this is something that has always been the most powerful element of the Evangelion legacy, a means to invest from the scorch-level of the soul where new pattern variations may emerge at different burn points. Successes and failures since, Gainax has always been a studio with as much invention as it has had a knack for the instant sell. And the play off that seems to be happening at this point seems in keeping with the original series’ tradition of self-reflection, as well as all the expected mega-yen bang.

And what this longtime admirer of the Annoverse take on the franchise sees is a noisy tug of war between a maturing storyteller & an industry desperate for a quick fix of familiarity. For every new grain of story that is twisted in this new reality, we are also milked for our love of the show with an almost bitter impatience. And with a lot of the personnel changes made at the studio over the last ten years, it’s easy to see why Khara was created. And as such, art & life are once again blurred. Just as SEELE’s moves toward the machinations of NERV, the bottom line is certainly at odds with folks just looking at how much has changed, longing for when the canvas was broad and unexpected. – Which segueways perfectly within the film’s final minutes. Shinji’s new decisions here are that of setting the past ablaze, and seeing possibility through the ashes like some kind of twisted tea fortune. If the new films are in fact the product of multiple loops, with latent memories slowly beginning to surface, then the latter films are bound to be interesting explorations in probability. Much like Haruhi Suzumiya’s Endless Eight, the audience has been given a slight peek into the process of Instrumentality, to what’ll hopefully expose Gainax’s current state of spirit. If the original series was the terrible teens, Rebuild may be an elder & potentially wiser state of being.

Whether that happens to be the case, we shall see soon enough.

And to those still feeling the near-numbing sting of betrayal left behind by Jorge, it’s important to consider an important difference. Rebuild, at least thus far has been a product done with respect to the original series’ continuity. Much like JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, it has been constructed in a manner that allows the original series to thrive untouched. So it isn’t as if anything has been significantly altered by the inclusion of these films. In fact, it offers some new dimensions to consider within the realm of these characters, thereby complimenting some of the more compelling fan works in recent memory. (Re-Take, anyone?) So it seems that the tale has been going in this direction for quite some time. And whether some are more open to the possibilities than others, the Rebuild project can continue to provoke & inspire the Evangelion films in the minds of many.

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