To start, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking the Evangelion franchise has been anything less than a roaring beast of pandering fanservice of various natures since the show made it big in the 90s. Rei is arguably one of the progenitors of moe as a fetish, after all, and you could probably crush a prison population under the weight of all those cheesecake figurines (because when I came through the other side of EoE’s crushing malaise of loneliness and tentative hope for humanity, I know my first thought was, ‘sure I watched Asuka implicitly being cannibalized, but how can I more effectively stare at a miniaturized version of her ass?’). And let us not delve into that strip pachinko game.
The key separator, of course, is that all of that is spinoff material. Like the Star Wars Christmas Special or that time 4Kids made their own Yu-Gi-Oh movie, it’s an act of fringe cash grabbing that can be easily ignored in favor of the central media work that brought the fanbase together. But nothing is sacred and no work remains untouched, so we have remakes to contend with.
And lest this be construed as an exercise in handwringing and the transposing of moralities (though one can hardly say that Japan is more sexually liberated than the US so much as it’s differently neurotic), they’re within full rights to make sexy statues of 14 year old girls (it’s almost never Misato, the actually sexually confident adult, but that’s another rant) – though the common ‘age of consent is 13’ assumption is an oversimplified assumption (in truth it varies from region to region, making the national average effectively 18, BUT there are places where 13 is the age of consent BUT only regarding other 13 to 17 year olds BUT there’s no laws against non-physical ogling by older people hence the theoretically non-sexual student escorts BUT….you see my point). And let it never be said that I’m above prurient interest in two dimensional collections of lines (certainly I’ve voiced a fair appreciation for Akio Ohtori and Sayo Yamamoto’s Fujiko Mine in the process of writing about them).
But this isn’t directly about sex or sexualized merchandise or the particular hangups that lead to emphasizing the sexual appeal of girlish innocence over adults with full sexual agency. That is a master thesis, or a very hefty book, and I’m nowhere near versed enough to write it. Instead, we’re going to talk about the use of nudity in the original Evangelion versus Rebuild, and why the latter proves not only uncomfortable but nigh counter to the original work.
Just so we have an Exhibit A of “in Universe, Intentional Fanservice”
Historically speaking, the original Evangelion kicked down (with a vengeance) as many broadcasting standards as it could get its hands on (hence all the sponsors pulling out, yadda yadda crayon drawings). Its portrayal of sexuality, both adolescent and adult, was about as frank as it could get away with and then some. And while Misato was always promising more fanservice in the episode previews, any moments of potential eroticism tended to come from within the world. To clarify, the camera (the invisible eye through which we as viewers observe the universe of the story) is most commonly set in the third person – it shows us what is ‘truly’ going on, rather than an experience colored by one particular character’s state of mind (for excellent and varied examples of a skewed perspective/unreliable visual narrator, see Paranoia Agent). This is the most common way to approach visual perspective, though far from the only one.
Now, when it comes to fanservice in that 3rd person perspective, we get into something called the “gaze” (roughly 80% of the time, the male gaze). This is when the camera focuses on certain details because of the perceived interest of the audience rather than because that’s specifically what certain character(s) might be looking at (this is how you explain, say, panty shots when a girl is getting dressed alone in her room, or that really creepy corset scene in Black Butler). In many cases the gaze goes a step further, adding in soft lighting, shininess, or sexy music that isn’t ‘really’ there but emphasizes an erotic atmosphere for the viewer. In most cases this erotic context exists independently of the characters’ intent or the events of the scene.
Fact: these two minutes made me more uncomfortable than
12 episodes of School Days’ lovingly dewey ass shots
Rebuild is rife with these issues of eroticizing gaze, particularly in 2.22: crotch shots of Asuka while she’s having trouble sleeping, close ups of Mari’s jiggling boobs, and that ridiculous sheer plugsuit. Yes, the plugsuit counts too. While some might argue that it’s an “in-universe” example of sexualization, such an excuse is flimsier than Gendo’s moral code. Like a chainmail bikini, there is no reason that the suit should be designed to be completely sheer beyond audience titillation, a fact that the only line of dialogue referencing the new suit design basically admits. And boy, are these moments uncomfortable. Not simply because I am an adult watching a character who is still emotionally a child and barely physically adolescent put on display, or due to the fact that regardless of how one argues the varying age and gender grouping of the audience it remains that these moments were designed and executed exclusively by adults (and overwhelmingly older men), but because those moments frequently cheapen a device that made for the most powerful, haunting scenes in the original work. Were we truly to call Rebuild a case of “doing the original right,” I should hope “turn the complex character studies into easily digestible eye candy” would not be on the menu (it is worth noting that 3.0 pretty much cut the fanservice at the throat, a fact I find difficult to categorize as natural progression or deliberate commentary).
Speaking of Neon Genesis Evangelion, it made use of nudity and sexuality (together and apart) as very prominent and deliberate motifs – with different but connected applications in the first and second halves. Early episodes are scattered with nudity jokes (Asuka’s entrance and Shinji meeting Pen-Pen being the two big ones) and quite a bit of flirtation on Misato’s part – and both are quite separate from the human body as an object. Instead, they were scenes about what is hidden and what is expected: we giggle because we know that in the world it is an embarrassing situation, that there are social taboos going on, and because it plays on that we needn’t see the ‘taboo’ aspect at all. We are, on some level, laughing at the taboo’s existence. As for Misato, flirtation exists as a coded form of hiding. She’s intimating something enticing that you can’t see (this is as true of her internal turmoil related to sex as it is her body). Any focus on her presentation exists within the universe, and how she has chosen to portray herself to others.
But they sure look marketable, don’t they?
Nudity is primarily a mark not of intimacy but of vulnerability, and the naked body is indeed actively disassociated from sex more often than not – Misato and Kaji’s post (loving, consensual) sex conversation takes care to obscure their bodies despite having previously shown far more skin on screen, while Kaworu and Shinji’s very intimate bath conversation focuses on shoulder-up shots and the meeting of their hands (the only part of them that would have been unclothed anyway). Rei is the first character we see naked, and her complete lack of reaction on colliding naked with Shinji more or less sets the tone for the subject. Rei is naked when she is an object, nothing more than a tool equipped with the ability to carry out basic actions. Her moments of growth and emotion as Rei II are all made clothed, and the show really hammers it home with the vacant, smiling Rei clones that have neither will nor thought. When she loses herself, she reverts to a new version of what is essentially a slowly rotting corpse (which, just in case you didn’t get it, End is really happy to point out).
Asuka has it even worse. The director’s cut specifically calls attention (during the “look at me”) scene with Kaji, that her body isn’t developed or adult in the way she wishes it was. Her attempts at performing sexuality are treated neutrally by the camera (the single ‘sexy POV’ shot, when Shinji and Asuka share a bed, is specifically observed through Shinji’s teenage hormones), and it reads less as fanservice and more as frustration with a body that hasn’t developed in time with one’s internal hormones (yet another way in which she and Shinji are alike). She isn’t fully nude until her sense of self worth has begun to crumble, coding her nudity as vulnerable/frail rather than erotic (it’s a damn rarity to see an anime bring up menstruation, particularly so casually, further weaving in the pragmatic elements of adolescent development over any sense of sexiness). She is physically naked after she has been made mentally violated, disconnecting from the convention of clothing as she disassociates from herself, until we at last see her as an emaciated, fully nude shell with nothing of the character herself (Asuka’s role in End of Evangelion is a whole separate kettle of fish, and a topic for another day).
Did you still want that alone time, audience?
And as for Shinji, nudity to him means utter terror: the potential of being wounded, killed, lost to himself. It is at once the turning point of his greatest comfort and anguish – and the fact that it’s used as a device nearly as often as his female co-leads is notable in itself. After all, those moments are entirely erased from Rebuild (he remains clothed when rescuing Rei at the end of 2.22, is traded out for Asuka in the Pen-Pen scene, and so on).
What this all comes down to is purpose. All my grumblings aside, I’m not against fanservice as an absolute. If a character consciously uses their looks or sex appeal as a way of interacting with others, there’s no reason the audience shouldn’t get to enjoy it too. And actually, I’m quite enjoying Yuri Kuma Arashi as a thematic exploration (…I hope) of sexual identity/sexual awakening vs. societal and genre conventions in the yuri genre. Sex given agency, sexuality explored with thematic thoughtfulness, those can bring forth amazing works and conversations. The original Evangelion had shades of both. Rebuild…would really like to get some more heterosexual males into the theater, and more semi-erotic figurines on the market. And when that outside market becomes so overpowering as to overwrite a work’s inherent rejection of that fetishization? It’s time to sit down and take a good long look in the mirror.