Cyclical Narrative, Reboots, and Fear of the Unknown, or: Kaworu and Homura are Time Travelling BFFs

If you don’t like it, do it again. Rewrite it, reboot it, or remember a time when things were better than they truly were. The world’s in an uncertain state all over and the art of humanity is ever ready to reflect its maker’s mental state: in this case, a desire to start over in the face of our mistakes. And boy, have there been a lot of spins on the time travel formula as of late. It’s not as if there weren’t any before (Back to the Future and Star Trek’s seminal “City on the Edge of Forever” spring immediately to mind), but the tone has definitely changed. The message of the two stories above, for instance, is overwhelmingly a case of ‘don’t change the past, because even with good intentions you can’t possibly comprehend what you’re doing.’ There’re stories like Donnie Darko, which explore a theoretical happier occasion only for it to collapse as reality reasserts itself. And there are time loops like Groundhog Day or Wolf’s Rain, centering on a character or group’s growth pursuing a goal (and usually having a motivational shift of varying degrees due to said growth). It’s the last one I want to talk about, because I seem to keep tripping over it these days. There’s discussion of spoilers for Madoka and Evangelion below, so tread with care.

Again

Yeah, this again

The
title of this blog refers to one of my favorite oddities of fandom: a kind of pet theory that started with this art set and grew into a small flow of pictures and stories that, at their heart, seem to be a kind of attempt to give solace to two tragically miserable people. Because if you’re endlessly repeating a small snatch of time in the desperate hope of saving one person (and thus yourself), you should at least have someone to commiserate with.

But why commiserate? Isn’t the point of repeating that you’ll finally get it right, and shouldn’t that be enough? Well, kinda. These types of stories draw, at least in part, from concepts of eastern mysticism generally and Buddhism in particular. The idea (in grossly oversimplified terms) is that the pleasures of material life are inevitably fleeting, and thus serve only to burden the soul. By freeing oneself from the concerns of earthly life, true happiness (Nirvana) can be achieved. Reincarnation stories stem from this kind of belief, most often focusing on the last or ‘successful’ loop that frees the character of their burden.

hold me

Don’t mind me, that’s just the sound of heartbreak

As an example, let’s take a look at Puella Magi Madoka Magica (and let’s ignore Rebellion, because my heart can’t take that nonsense). Homura became a magical girl wishing to save Madoka, and vows to keep trying until she succeeds in doing so (hence giving her power over time). She repeats the same month dozens of times, failing to keep Madoka from making a contract while also unwittingly raising Madoka’s magical potential exponentially via the connected timelines. She is saved from despair only by increasingly narrowing her focus, until her life is a joyless and mechanized series of actions divorced from active emotion. She’s not so much living on hope as unable to stop what she’s begun lest the world come crashing down. It’s a wretched fate, and by the end of episode 12 Homura still hasn’t been freed from it –but there is hope that she might be.

The reason for that is Madoka, who does break the cycle even without memory of the previous timelines. Madoka spends 11 episodes in a state of paralyzed inaction, comforted by the things she knows but compelled to do something more. On some level, before the word ‘entropy’ is ever uttered, she understands there is something bigger than herself, and she seeks it with her limited mortal understanding. Her wish releases her from all of her emotional bonds, her physical body, and the known plane of existence – and in doing so she’s paradoxically given the joy of watching over and protecting all of them, a desire she shows shades of throughout the series (thus a greater happiness than simply ignoring the larger picture and living with her family might have been). Madoka is, in this way, pulled free of Homura’s wish as well. If Madoka is a God she has no need of protection (Homura’s earthly obsession). When Homura is able to let that go, living her life as a magical girl until her soul gem breaks, she will be able to be reunited with Madoka as she’d originally wanted (nirvana through detachment). The loops aren’t made to be pointless or inherently evil – they’re what give Madoka the power to break free and rewrite the world, after all. But they’re shown as something that can’t continue. They’re breaking Homura, and they’re bringing the world to the brink by degrees.

Kaworu’s case is similar in basic principle, if more of a widespread theory than established canon. Evangelion, you see, is a story that presents the existence of many parallel worlds. Each presents the same characters in different circumstances (which I’m sure is in no way a cynical attempt to make endless amounts of spin-off merchandise), and each is marked by Kaworu’s apparently unique awareness of other worlds (this also extends to his appearances in other franchises like Super Robot Wars, so there’s precedent). The recent Rebuild films are certainly linked to the original series in some way, given the red sea and streak of Rei-Lillith’s blood on the moon. Some choose to interpret this as an evolution of the world, wherein End of Evangelion’s Shinji and Asuka served as the Adam and Eve of the new world and over the generations a near identical world-ending scenario was formed.

To others, self included, Kaworu is the key. Over the various adaptations his character has been the least consistently written, swaying drunkenly from blunt alien creature to declaratively affectionate suitor. Some would say this was a lack of consensus among writers, but Eva fans are nothing if not determined to construct meaning. Thus, the time loop theory was born, evidencing the three main Kaworus as one character’s consistent arc: blunt, kitten killing, 9 day old manga Kaworu is the first incarnation, overly demonstrative (compensating?) anime Kaworu is the second, and rigorously planning Rebuild Kaworu is the third. Some elaborate further to include Angelic Days Kaworu, who visited Gendo while attempting to rewrite history; or Campus Apocalypse Kaworu, who canonically links himself to the world tree that connects universes.

meet again

Died for our sins, answered none of our questions

Versions of this theory predates Madoka (released in 2011 vs. 2.0’s 2009 release), but I’ve no doubt that one has come to inform the other. The track I mentioned above, for example, bears a striking resemblance to Homura’s arc. The first time is largely observant or hands off, the second rushes to directly inform the object of rescue, and the following times proceed onward to preparing elaborate ‘next time’ scenarios. And both are, by their intrinsic nature, doomed to fail. Homura can’t save Madoka because she despairs and thus becomes a witch, or Madoka saves her. Kaworu can’t bring Shinji happiness because any joy he kindles is then undone by his status as harbinger of the apocalypse. Homura has a way out, at least in the television finale, but what about Kaworu? Both characters face a conflict of role obligation versus personal desire, and enter their loops out of a desire to have the former (while being thwarted by the latter). Homura’s lesson, from a societal rather than religious standpoint, can be that personal reward is gained from attending to societal/role obligation.

For Kaworu, it isn’t that simple. Many a story has been written where he ignores his duty as the final angel (with varying degrees of mildly plausible logic), but the films themselves haven’t offered a way in which his fate might be avoided and the cycle broken. I mentioned above that most stories begin with the final loop, so it’s difficult to analyze without knowing how/if 4.0 will incorporate Kaworu. The approach will determine what can be taken from his story: the tragic, starcrossed lover at the mercy of a cruel universe? Determined triumph of humanity over apparent reality (including his angelic nature)? Release from apparent desire to gain deeper happiness? If the line “we’ll meet again,” refers to this timeline rather than a future one the last is certainly possible, but there’s no way to know yet. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a few chips invested in a character I like finally getting a break, but any of the above possibilities could provide a satisfying conclusion under the right circumstances. Conclude is the operative word, so let’s talk about what I’m increasingly sure Rebuild isn’t – a reboot.

Reboots like JJ Abrams’ Star Trek play upon familiar nostalgia grafted upon modern conventions, not truly satisfying the needs of either but providing a kind of stasis for the viewing public. They’re comforting. They’re known. They’re reliving the timeline under the guise of ‘doing it better’ because the thought of having to put forth an unknown variable is a terrifying one. It could fail financially, critically, or do adequately without taking hold on the public consciousness. There’s a lack of faith to the whole process, a kind of artistic loop that grows more fractured and narrow sighted as surely as Homura did. I don’t think that’s what Rebuild is, not since 3.0 came out. In another post I talked about Shinji’s death as a satisfying potential conclusion for the films. I argued that it would fit the themes of consequence as well as creating a narrative path opposite to the original series (thus justifying Rebuild as a unique creative endeavor rather than a retread). But it can work powerfully on a meta level too.

Franchises these days are terrified of anything that might tie up too many loose ends, might stop them from trying just once more to ‘get it right’ – to save them from having to face the world as it is and imagine what might be anew. 4.0 could close those doors for the greater good. If Kaworu is stuck in a loop of his own creation, they’ve set the stage for his return to herald an end to things. As surely as he guided Shinji out of Instrumentality he can bring an end to the endless cries of ‘redo’ (and look at that, we can have another narrative parallel to End), and break his own cycle of suffering as well. If this new wave of time loop stories have an admirable undercurrent of refusing to accept destiny and fighting until one’s last breath, there’s a twin subtext of fear that’s reflecting the stagnation of creative endeavor. It’s not always bad. Every story has been done before, and some themes ring true from generation to generation. One of the greatest anime made draws from a centuries old French novel, infusing it with new artistic meaning. But I’m beginning to think we’ve lost sight of those possibilities in the name of staying in the warm, comfortable Tang of mediocrity. We need to step back and let things be as they are before we talk about resurrecting them. Let them have context and exist in our memories, so that we can create new things the next generation can think on nostalgically. If we can’t figure this out, the time loop waiting room needs room for one more.

not alone

A moment to remember the ending we’d like back

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