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The Economy of Visual Language: Neon Genesis Evangelion

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The Economy of Visual Language: <em>Neon Genesis Evangelion</em>

I was fortunate enough, recently, to view Rebuild of Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone, the first in a series of four films by director Hideaki Anno and GAINAX Company, Ltd. that remake the acclaimed anime program Neon Genesis Evangelion. The new film is a fascinating entity, and I’m not yet sure that I have the critical faculties necessary to fully articulate my impressions: this new Evangelion varies between being a shot-by-shot remake in the Gus Van Sant Psycho vein (adjusted to widescreen), a Star Wars-like Special Edition with updated effects, and a full-on rework of the original series’s plot fundamentals that, with each additional entry, promises to differ more and more from the original source.

What I do feel immediately confident saying is that the film is a visual masterpiece. Every shot in Rebuild of Evangelion is striking, both in the brutally violent action setpieces and in the emotionally agonizing periods in-between battles. Impressively, the film’s strength comes not from what’s been changed, but in what’s been kept—every shot that worked in the original source remains as-is, and every shot that did not work is improved. Little improvement was required, really, as one of the unsung strengths of the original Neon Genesis Evangelion is its masterful sense of visual composition. While it was not until the End of Evangelion film that Anno’s visual strengths as a director really stood out, one of the series’s greatest successes is in finding great beauty (often in horror) with very limited resources

In brief, then, and without spoiling the plot, as it’s hardly necessary here: Neon Genesis Evangelion is about a young man named Shinji Ikari, called to the fortress city of New Tokyo-3 by his estranged father Gendo. The city—the world, really—is under siege by monstrous creatures called “Angels,” or “Messengers,” that attack one after another, though they only ever strike at New Tokyo-3 (for reasons the show gets into later on). The only thing that can hold off the Angels, who are protected by an “AT Field,” is a group called NERV and their Eva series—massive robots piloted by teenagers. Shinji has been selected to pilot the fearsome-looking Eva Unit-01 and is essentially press-ganged into working for NERV against his (decidedly weak) will.

What should be a mild genre piece in the vein of Gundam or Macross becomes something decidedly more mature as the story goes forward and we see the darkness underlying these genre conventions—a rather relentless psychodrama that builds until the series finale (and/or accompanying film) in which Shinji is asked to make a choice that will govern the world’s fate. It is the unflinching look at the desperation and despair buried within all of the series’s major characters that makes Shinji’s ultimate choice so powerful.

Hideaki Anno is a remarkable animation director with a keen visual eye. Before Evangelion, he worked on a series called Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (alternatively Nadia and the Mysterious Seas), which was based on a story outline by internationally-known anime wunderkind Hayao Miyazaki. It’s easy to see why Miyazaki trusted Anno, as Miyazaki is deservedly praised for his absolutely lush visuals. In Anno, he saw a kindred spirit, a man who took the visual possibilities of anime seriously in a way that most do not (Otomo’s work, for instance, has a kinetic energy, but his design work, while iconic, does not have a capacity for subtlety; and Satoshi Kon’s work, while incredibly strong in the writing department, is only recently maturing to the level of these other directors—though he certainly has the potential to surpass them in time).

While Miyazaki’s dense visuals pulse with life and vitality, and are always strikingly original, Anno surpasses him in at least one respect: Anno, like David Lynch, possesses a skill at framing his shots, and using the attendant color, to create visual compositions that stand out not only as beautiful in the story’s context, but also as individual images, a painterly quality that he then applies back to the work. When Anno frames an image, the power of that specific image becomes a tool that he can later refer back to for an instantaneous emotional and intellectual response.

It is incredibly difficult to create a solid visual that then serves as a metaphor within the work itself, as the visual has to be potent in its initial incarnation without disrupting the flow of the story, and then must recur in a natural way. The latter criteria is easy in a work like Evangelion, which features numerous sequences that exist solely as representations of the internal struggle within a major character—psychic battling, dissolution of ego, nightmares, and the Human Instrumentality Project that closes the series all serve Anno’s attempts to travel within by using the visuals acquired without. It’s notable, however, that many of the series’s aforementioned internal struggles are in fact a practical choice as well as an artistic one—the series’s visual language was often prompted by budgetary concerns.

As Wikipedia reports, GAINAX was, at the time, not a wealthy production studio. Evangelion was begun after a film project was dropped due to lack of money and the studio was dropping various parts of their business to stay afloat. The complicated mech designs of the Eva series were originally deemed to be too complicated for merchandising, the accompanying manga was initially viewed poorly, and funding sources pulled out one after another while the series aired. As the show became too expensive to animate from episode to episode, more and more earlier footage was re-used. This should have been a disastrous choice, but the way the re-used footage was incorporated into the internal struggle episodes is a large part of what has made Evangelion so memorable.

“Being Economical” has, of course, two meanings. One is to save money, and one is to be spare and eliminate waste. Evangelion, by necessity, subscribes to both meanings, but it’s the latter one that is most interesting to consider. Anno’s compositions are very often “economical” to a fault, to the extent that they recall an Ernie Bushmiller comic strip. The bare minimum of information is conveyed, as in two separate instances where Eva Unit-01 holds a human figure in its hand with virtually no background, framed from just above the waist and within the opposite shoulder, leaving the figure in its grasp just off-center and dwarfed. Or as when the character of Asuka is viewed low and from behind as her Eva Unit-02 lowers in front of her (in our background) with a strip of caution tape in the foreground—this image benefits from the subsequent cut, which melds, in a small puddle, the blood-red of both Asuka’s uniform and her Eva with Shinji’s blue-clad leg.

Yet Anno is not averse to using detail when the moment requires it. Aside from the detail poured into scenes of shocking violence, which the series is more known for, Anno will frequently capture perfectly realistic images of Tokyo life—an early image of a payphone, first seen in the pilot episode, lends verisimilitude to a city that often had to be sparsely depicted due to budget. The payphone is used twice in the first half of the series as a means to illustrate Shinji’s disconnect from his father, and so that image later appears in his internal struggle sequences with the attendant emotional attachment—the phone becomes a failed means of communication with the outside world, with all of the characters voicing their hatred of Shinji as he imagines them.

Another example that stands out comes from the End of Evangelion film. In a pivotal scene in the final travel inwards, Shinji appears as a child on a playground of his imagining, with two young girls in attendance. As the layers of Shinji’s mind peel back, more and more “backstage” imagery appears, and the scene is lit by two theatrical spotlights in place of the sun. The hills in the background and the square of the playground sandbox provide deliberately sexual imagery—young Shinji is either within the womb or trapped in a vagina, depending on your point of view—and as Shinji builds a “sand castle” with the girls, a swing moves back and forth like a pendulum, indicating the passage of time.

The girls leave him, as all women appear to leave Shinji, and he stands over his creation—a pyramid that represents the headquarters of NERV, which brings complicated feelings of both home and a prison, and serves as a phallic image that stands in counterpoint to the vaginal imagery. But Shinji can’t bear the pain of it, and the young boy crushes the “castle” with his foot. As he destroys it, the swing slows to a stop, signaling death. But then Shinji begins building the pyramid all over again. The image is perfectly framed, and uses only the bare minimum of visual detail—except in the faces of the girls, who are revealed to be grotesque parodies of the show’s primary female characters. The swing, in the hazy light, is barely more than a shadow—and in a live action sequence further on, a real life swing is captured in similar framing, evoking the same concepts (it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between the actual and the animated).

This penchant for implicative visual language is also used to convey information that clears up central mysteries to the series. In the climax of End of Evangelion, one character performs a shocking act against another, and there has been some audience speculation, based on the abstract and internal nature of said finale, whether the incident actually occurs in the “real world” of the narrative. However, in one of the last television episodes, a series of brief, near still images of a disrupted kitchen (in particular, a lingering shot of an over-turned coffee pot lying partially out of frame) imply heavily that the incident truly happens, and thus makes it all the more devastating. In the final moments of the film, the incident is all but reenacted, and while the setting has changed, the animation returns to a similar series of still images (detailing the state of the world) to recall that moment. Although now, they’re the most beautiful and evocative images of the entire series: a streak of blood across the moon, a cross nailed to a scrap of wood, dead creatures impaled and splayed in crucifixion poses, and something horrible and beautiful looking out from the water at figures on a nearby beach.

One of the primary concerns in any visual composition is the treatment of space. Many of the quieter scenes of Evangelion gain their power through such spatial relations. In an early episode, when Shinji is riding alone on a train, the grouping of other passengers is carefully arranged so as not to overburden or overcomplicate the image, all the while conveying Shinji’s feelings of isolation in a crowd. A man next to him, who falls asleep while the rest of the train slowly empties, angles in further and further until he’s completely crowded out Shinji’s already-limited personal space. Then he as well vanishes, leaving the boy alone—in fact as well as feeling.

Other examples: Ritsuko, deep within the bowels of the MAGI computer system that (very literally) represents her mother is a small fleck of white in a dark and barely defined space, with only a series of scrawled papers pointing towards her like an arrow. And when Asuka and Rei share an elevator in an interminably long silent take (another daring move for a television anime, provoked at least in part by budgetary concerns), their body posture is succeeded only by their position in the shot, with Rei in the far foreground looking forward as Asuka, posed defensively, stands in the background to one side, at a distance, and looking away. This elevator scene is later used briefly, with its original meaning intact, to jab at Asuka during a psychic battle.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out one last aspect: other themes of the series are also delivered in this fashion, in particular the various religious aspects of the overlying plot. The Kabbalah’s Tree of Life is consistently evoked, and at times the positioning of characters in relation to that symbol adds an additional layer to the scene. In Gendo Ikari’s office, the image of the Tree of Life is painted or carved into his ceiling, and his position at the desk is in relation to the Godhead symbol on the tree. Similarly, in End of Evangelion, Shinji is seen at the position of the “Tiphereth” sphere—the sphere which corresponds to Christ on the cross, and thus also where the holy meets the profane—at the moment of his “sacrifice.” This is as good a summation of Anno’s visual style as you’re likely to find.

Michael Peterson is the publisher of the blog & portfolio site Patchwork Earth.