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.
In honor of the one year anniversary, this month’ll be blocked out for a conversation on Awesome Stuff. This time around, I’ve divided out my top 20 favorite anime. By its nature the list is always in flux, particularly those at the high end of the countdown (I haven’t managed yet to touch Spice & Wolf or Mawaru Penguindrum, for example). But! Whether or not they move off of the formal list in the future, these are all series that captured my imagination, that showed me something new, creative, or different in idea or execution, and that I fully stand behind recommending.
Let us continue!
It is not an infrequent barb thrown by Evangelion’s detractors that the show is needlessly bleak, or pointlessly cruel. And when I hear that I laugh and laugh, not because it’s untrue (though I’d argue it is) but because those people have clearly never sat through a Lars Von Trier movie. Those lucky bastards.
Actual photo of my expression post-Von Trier
At any rate, let’s draw a distinction between a story that explores bleak themes and a story whose philosophy itself is bleak. The former might put its characters through hell, and it might not even have an ending that we’d necessarily call happy (at least in any conventional sense). But it’s structured in such a way that the audience is meant to learn something positive from it. A bleak philosophy, by contrast, exists merely to point a camera at violent, dark, or distressing subjects for their own sake. The difference between handing someone in a shovel to clean up dog poop and tripping them so that they fall in it, you might say.
Every fandom that’s managed to lure a sizable base has a shipping war or two under its belt. It’d be laughable to call Evangelion an exception, though it does offer the distinction of having enough spin-offs that the major relationships have all gotten their day in the limelight. And while you can find a following for just about every combination of characters, the heat is really on when it comes to Shinji. Those fights get ugly, and fast. And Eva being what it is, interpretation enters into things more often than not. It could be said that there’s three distinct levels to every conversation: what the relationship in question is, what it could potentially be, and how it’s represented by fan expectations. It’s the last one that I wanted to take a quick look at, using the two ‘endgame’ options Kaworu and Asuka (with no offense meant to Rei fans), because it reveals some pretty interesting things about audience expectations. And besides, what better way to start the year before the alleged Third Impact?
Every last work ever written is derivative of something, and the 2013 Hero anime Samurai Flamenco is no exception. The problems start when that fact of fiction-writing is flung around as an insult. The flavor of debate this particular week is of the east-versus-west variety, not unlike when The Hunger Games was accused of being a Battle Royale rip-off for sharing superficial elements (and if that argument isn’t yet dead it should be, thanks to this articulately written article). That vicious battle of nerd subcultures has been seeing resurgence as of late, but in reverse. Many are the pointed fingers accusing Samurai Flamenco of being little more than Kick Ass The Anime. And on the surface, the reason for the comparison is obvious: both start with protagonists in realistic worlds who want to be like the heroes of their childhood fiction, become Totally Not YouTube sensations, meet female heroes with a more pragmatic and violent approaches to fighting crime, and eventually wind up over their heads when a threat much deadlier than petty thugs surfaces. The case isn’t looking good, is it?
But here’s the thing. Approach is everything. Kick Ass is a unique idea that is throbbingly pleased with its own cleverness, something that shows through every frame of its execution. The film (the comic being a rather more unpleasant Take That Fanboys creation) exists as a sort of hyper-real fantasy, one that pays its dues to the violence and nastiness of actual crime but just as often revels in them as a sort of spectacular, Sin City-esque carnival of gore (microwave guy, looking at you). At its heart, the movie is a fantasy dressed up in the clothes of real life, however many people they light on fire. And, pointed terminology aside, that’s fine. It makes it a unique fusion of escapist approach in an apparently naturalistic setting. Samurai Flamenco, from the position of the nearly-halfway point, seems to be taking a more meta approach of applying the trappings of fantasy to a realistic universe. It spends one quarter of its run developing realistic rules, reactions, and considerations for its world and characters, always prioritizing slice of life conversation and character development over Masayoshi’s heroic antics. It clearly wants the mundane to be at the forefront of the viewer’s mind, and it cements it there to blow it apart. When Nic Cage shows up in a fenced Batman costume it’s what we were all waiting for. When a guillotine gorilla shows up at a drug bust, the internet has to stop its head from spinning all the way around. And I think they did it on purpose.
I debated whether I should write this essay before the show was over, since criticism in media res more often than not turns out to be partly or wholly defunct rather quickly. But with the darker turn Flamenco has taken as of late and the uncertain grumbling among viewers, I felt a dire need to step in as its defense. This all makes total sense to me, because at the end of the day Samurai Flamenco isn’t Kick Ass. It has more in common with Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
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.
Yeah, this again
It would seem that the Rebuild of Evangelion is determined to be a mirror reflection of its parent series. Now, I know what you’re saying. ‘An action packed, visually impressive series that builds up traditional expectations only to blindside the audience three quarters of the way through with depression and subversions? I’m not even sure whether you’re describing Evangelion or Rebuild!’ And after a fashion, you’d be right. Like the Mirror verse Spock, it can be pretty hard to differentiate until you hit upon the obvious beard of thematic difference (and isn’t that a muddled simile). As the lead in might suggest, be aware of spoilers for 3.0 and beyond.
Well, this will be interesting