Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Battling Giants, Grafted Limbs, Rice Fields, and Lots More Fan Service, Too

So it was finally released, two days ago here in Japan, Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time, and I saw it yesterday afternoon. And it was great. The last of the "Rebuild" movies, essentially an alternate timeline to the original '90s television series and movies, they don't measure up to them in terms of story but they do offer some interesting tangents and expansions on ideas in the original series. Sometimes these movies, particularly the previous two, are a bit incoherent, getting lost in shock editing and bizarre--and invariably fascinating--style. The new movie is guilty of that in a few places but mostly it does a better job of settling down and telling a clear story with characters who develop an emotional hold on the viewer. There are some ideas I would like to have seen fleshed out a bit more, particularly the character of Mari (in more ways than one), but this time writer/director Hideaki Anno and his co-directors made the wise decision to focus on Shinji, Gendo, and some of the quieter places in this post-apocalyptic world covered in blood.

The first ten minutes of the film were screened back in 2019 and many people saw the sequence of Mari (Maaya Sakamoto) battling angel/mecha hybrids over a peculiarly red Paris. We soon find out that the world has become divided between areas covered with this blood-like substance by Gendo's faction and small spots of natural, old fashioned Earth. After the action prologue, the film is essentially divided into three acts--a quiet series of days Shinji (Megumi Ogata), Asuka (Yuko Miyamura), and Rei (Megumi Hayashibara) spend in rural Japan; scenes showing the ongoing war between the faction led by Misato (Kotono Mitsuishi) against NERV, led by Gendo (Fumihiko Tachiki); and an extended, final confrontation between Shinji and Gendo.

The first act is sweet and lovely and almost feels like a Ghibli film. As established in a previous Rebuild movie, the Evangelion pilots don't age so that while Shinji, Asuka, Rei, and Mari are still fourteen, their classmates have grown up and started families. Shinji, Rei, and Asuka find themselves in the households of now thirty somethings Toji (Tomokazu Seki) and Kensuke (Tetsuya Iwanaga). The class representative, Hikari (Junko Iwao), who always had the crush on Toji, ended up marrying him and we see her with their newborn baby. Rei, in this case, is a recent clone and is amusingly introduced to things like cats and babies for the first time. We also see her--still in her skin tight black plug suit--engaging in farm labour like planting rice in lovingly, painstakingly painted and animated scenes. The point seems to be to give us, along with the newborn eyes of Rei, a fresh perspective on an old, traditional way of living in contrast to the grotesque, Frankenstein's monster world Gendo seeks to create. At the same time, Rei herself, as a creation of Gendo's, in her innocent discovery of the old world, is a bit like Frankenstein's monster marvelling over flowers and rivers.

Toji is also involved in making something he calls "kredit"; refrigerator sized machines that they send out to the blood covered areas to slowly reclaim them. I wondered if this was a comment from Anno about how national economies typically buy a false sense of old normalcy on credit.

Meanwhile, Asuka spends most of her time sullenly playing video games wearing only panties and an unzipped hoodie. She takes breaks to chew out Shinji, who's quiet and miserable, as usual, but now he's traumatised by the recent death of Kaworu (Akira Ishida) who, despite being heavily featured in promotional material (and gaining in popularity), only appears in a couple dream sequences in 3.0+1.0.

The idea about the characters aging at different rates is reminiscent of Anno's Gunbuster/Top wo Nerae and much of the second act feels like Top wo Nerae 2, likely because both were directed by Kazuya Tsurumaki.

I loved all the fan service shots of Mari and Asuka--I really started to gain an appreciation for Mari, who herself seems to be a proponent of fan service. I love how Anno and his team persist in their unabashed exploitation of sexualised imagery--it's a balm after to-day's American media that makes you feel like a rapist if you want to see a Marvel heroine with cleavage. It's also part of the ultimate point of Mari's character in the story, it turns out--she's very different from the other pilots because she doesn't have any apparent neuroses and is quite comfortable in her skin. This would make her less interesting as a central character but as a supporting character she helps make a point for Anno at the end of the film.

There are a couple things about the conclusion, particularly relating to which characters end up with each other, I can see being controversial. I found a couple of them disappointing and puzzling myself, even as I understood a few likely reasons for them. But the main course is the third act in which a lot of the issues between Gendo and Shinji are addressed and pretty nicely, I thought.

If any character is short changed, I'd say it's Misato but I would have liked a bit more focus on Asuka, too. Though Asuka has a pretty amazing action sequence in the second act. The hand drawn animation in this film is phenomenal--which makes the frequent use of cgi all the more disappointing. But there are plenty of sequences, like Asuka's big action sequence, that are predominantly hand drawn. Just as great is the sound design, which is as fascinating and effective in its use of howls, cracks, and electricity as Top wo Nerae 2.

Watching this movie felt like a rare privilege. This kind of filmmaking, which almost feels like Bergman at times, with introspective dialogue and dreamlike juxtapositions of shots, isn't the kind of thing you often saw in a mainstream film even before our pre-Covid current era, exclusively catering to blockbusters. And, of course, it was lovely getting in touch with these old friends, characters I've known since the '90s.

Supposedly this is the last Evangelion in film or TV. But there was a movie called End of Evangelion that wasn't the end so . . . Never say never.

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