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Review–Rebuild of Evangelion 01: You Are Not Alone (Or Are You, Mr. Anno?)

In which Michael fails to talk objectively and fairly about this refreshed version of the anime which started his fandom, and which gave him his first anime crush hero: Hideaki Anno, who is still the writer and director.

Update: Hinano has compiled a very useful visual guide to the graphical changes in this version compared to the TV show here. When seen side by side, the differences are astonishing.

Neon Genesis Evangelion, recently hailed by The Atlantic Monthly as “the most influential Japanese cultural product of the last decade” (comparable only to Star Wars here), is still the first word in what one might call “postmodern” anime. My eighteen-year-old self was bedazzled by its brutality, its psychological acuity, its raw depression, and–yes–its epic endings. It was an anime made to be picked apart, even when one discovers that there is not necessarily much to dig, especially regarding the religious symbolism. Nevertheless, some time ago on my personal blog, I attempted a massive statement and apologia for why Evangelion is still an excellent show, despite its well-known and fully acknowledged flaws. Its storytelling is slipshod. The characters become histrionic to operatic proportions at times. The muck often has the stench of self-indulgence, as personal therapy for Anno. And yet, what it gets right, it gets right so well, and is so bold in its vision, anime was still permanently altered in its wake. I remember fans debating fiercely about whether the endings in particular were worth anything, whether its deliberate obsfucation and fractured storytelling was deliberate or simply inept. Anno was just a second-rate writer, it was claimed.

It appears that Anno has taken some lessons about storytelling to heart these past 13 years, if this movie is any indication. Which may mean that the detractors had a point.

The movie has “second draft” qualities that are immediately apparent to anyone familiar with the show. Foreshadowing of later plot elements, such as SEELE, the Instrumentality Project, Lilith, and Kaoru now appear much earlier and much more clearly–clear to the point, in my opinion, of near-obviousness. The “made up as they went along” nature of the original is gone entirely. The directness extends to the emotional and psychological elements; Shinji’s famous train ride dialogues now appear in what are the equivalents of episodes 1-6 of the TV show, with very bald statements of his emotional problem: “I don’t get praised for piloting Eva. I hate it. Why do I have to do it?” If this movie has a serious flaw, it is that this is simply told, thrown at the viewer, as if it were not already clear from Shinji’s attitude and actions.

Mind you, this represents at most 10% of the dialogue in question. 90% of the dialogue is, in fact, word for word identical with the TV script of episodes 1-6, minus filler scenes. So is 90% of the footage, with the biggest differences shown in CGI backgrounds, incidental mechanical details and dialogue, and in the final battle with the Cube Angel (which now shape shifts in rather nifty ways). The first 20 minutes of the show is almost exactly the same as the original episode 1 to its very end.

What differences there are, however, are telling of Anno’s newer approach. Gone is, for instance, the use of flashback to tell the story of Shinji’s first battle. It is now told linearly. The beast-like nature of the Eva is much, much more obvious and brutal in that battle, as well. There is no more flashing text a la Godard, either. Shinji himself comes off as subtly different, too; he is still the same self-loathing, needy boy but receives a very different kind of encouragement which he takes to heart much earlier–“you are not alone,” which dovetails beautifully into the existing plotline of episodes 5-6 (the Rei story, which was the first glimmer I had that his show was something different). Is this what marriage has done to Hideaki Anno?

What hasn’t changed, of course, are the infamous “pillow shots” of power lines, train tracks, roads, and other urban scenery. Nearly all the original show’s iconic shots are preserved, and watching this movie really reminded me of just how many iconic shots there were–of how incredibly stark and compelling the original was visually. Anno is still one of a kind.

In terms of voice acting–these are the same seiyuu, all around. It’s notable that Kotono Mitsuishi, the voice of Misato, sounds distinctly older now in playing that role than she did in the original series and movies. Megumi Hayashibara, however, slips back into Rei very comfortable, as does Megumi Ogata as Shinji (though, again, with a somewhat deeper tone than before). What differences there are, however, are relatively subtle and minor; they are simply apparent to someone who has watched the original multiple times and has learned the timbre of the original’s voices.

I remember thinking as I watched this that this would make fine introduction to Eva for a newcomer who hasn’t been exposed to a franchise, a much better one than the TV show in a way. The graphics are significantly upgraded. The emotional core is fully intact, and the dark weirdness of the show clearer and evident from the start. Of course, it will take a while until the rewritten saga is completed and from the “next episode preview” we are treated to, it appears that some very significant changes are coming: Eva 05? Eva 04? New pilots? Well, at least it promises fan service, like it did in the old days, a promise they are likely to keep–there are nipples in this version, for one, not to mention much more copious amounts of blood.

Watching this movie is like watching an upgraded version of your memories. You know exactly what scenes and happenings are supposed to occur, and they appear all the more vividly and completely than you remember. The characters are substantially the same, and yet have somewhat different nuances, like you’re discovering new facets of people you knew before. The same emotional chords are plucked once more, like in the rescue of Rei by Shinji at the end, and yet, even though you know exactly how it was to play out, this version is varied enough to feel like it’s earning it again for the first time. What are you supposed to feel in situations like this? Shock? Laughter? Tears?

“Why don’t you try smiling?” he asks. And I did. Make me smile again, Mr. Anno.

Final grades and ratings to be assigned upon the conclusion of the Rebuild saga, when it will be clearer just how different and/or worthwhile it has been.

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