Welcome to the second article of Watson Watches (the Retro Edition). As a quick introduction to anyone who may be reading this series for the first time, this is the follow-up series to a bunch of interview-style articles published back in 2014. The idea was to introduce Watson – who knew very little about anime at the time and had seen only bits and pieces of a couple of shows in passing – to some specific titles and then ask him some hopefully interesting questions about them. This current series is the same kind of thing, only all the anime I’ll be getting Watson to watch have one thing in common; they were all released before 2000.
Just for fun, we’re also going in reverse chronological order. Previously we tackled the 1998 show Cowboy Bebop, and this week we’re going with the show that absolutely nobody (but nobody) saw coming: 1995’s Neon Genesis Evangelion. As per usual, Watson watched everything in his own time and did not look anything up online beforehand. The questions were given to him afterwards. (Note that they are based on the first six episodes only.)
As you know, this series was originally released in 1995. So same questions as with Bebop to start out – would you have guessed from the sound and visuals that this anime is now over two decades old, and do you think it’s aged gracefully in these respects?
The visuals do date it. In addition to the 4:3 aspect ratio, there’s something about the art that I associate with the early-to-mid 90s. The drawings are less complex generally, edges aren’t as sharp, and the colours seem somehow less defined. I have trouble saying exactly what it is, but it does look its age. This might be a product of the technology used to create it or that it was expected to be viewed on, where anything more exacting simply wouldn’t be visible to watchers.
The sound seems to have aged somewhat better. The opening song does sound rather 90s but that doesn’t bother me much, and the omnipresent cicadas in the outdoor scenes are a nice touch (just like Japan in summer!). Again though, I did notice a certain simplicity to the audio. There aren’t as many concurrent sounds as I expected, for one thing. And it doesn’t quite lack crispness, but it does verge on being mushy at times – again, this might be an artifact of the technology involved. Purely out of a perverse sense of curiosity I also listened to one episode in English. I don’t recommend it; 14-year-old boys shouldn’t have voices that deep. I feel that the Japanese voice actors matched the characters noticeably better.
All in all I feel that it has aged as well as it could reasonably be expected to. The visuals didn’t make my eyes bleed, the sound didn’t give my ears cancer-AIDS. But by the same token it has noticeably aged, and I wonder to what extent that affects the experience of people coming to it for the first time now.
How about with respect to the story and characters?
This is a far more difficult question, and one that ties directly into many of the remaining items that I’ve been asked to consider. I don’t think the story or characters are uniquely a product of their era. They could exist in recognizably similar forms elsewhere (or elsewhen). But the way in which they are presented, how they interact with themselves and the audience… that might be something which could only have existed for a few brief years in the 1990s.
Obviously I wasn’t watching anime then, and there’s a fair chance (depending on what Artemis has planned) that I won’t see anything else from that period. But I was watching movies and TV, playing computer games, listening to music, and so on. And I feel there just might have been some sort of change underway then. It was a time not quite one thing or the other, of rapidly-growing media complexity, after you could expect a show to be purely an entertainment experience but before self-awareness became smug, knowing, irony. Evangelion wears its heart on its sleeve, and isn’t ashamed to do so. That isn’t something you encounter very often.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying “I’m not sure”. The way in which the characters and story are presented does give it a 90s feel to me, despite there being nothing that obviously dates it in those aspects. But I’m not willing to say that those aspects of the show do not retain their essential relevance in spite of that. How we’re supposed to square that particular cognitive circle, I have no idea.
Evangelion has received a great deal of worldwide critical acclaim and attention. It also caused a lot of controversy upon its release. Why do you think this was?
I imagine that critics were impressed by the fact that the show deals with some very weighty themes. This is pure conjecture, but if that sort of willingness to engage with Serious Business hadn’t been evident before, Evangelion could have stood out in stark contrast. And it also doesn’t shy away from showing the effects of those themes on the characters, including – especially – the adolescents who are the protagonists. This is where I suspect the controversy would have erupted: a show aimed at a teenage audience showing characters similar to that audience undergoing a great deal of suffering that was altogether far too realistic (yes, it is realistic: Shinji’s struggles have nothing to do with the Angels, and everything to do with his relationship with an absent father). There are all sorts of arguments about what the best way to handle this is, so I’m not surprised that showing it on TV caused some heated debate.
Dissecting the themes in Evangelion can (and has) taken whole books to fill, with philosophy, religion, and psychology all playing strong roles. Do you think it’s a good thing that the show involves so much weighty content – and perhaps more to the point, do you think this content is genuinely deep and meaningful, or just intellectual drivel?
As a general rule I’m in favour of entertainment that engages with these themes. However, there does come a point where introspection becomes interminable navel-gazing and grappling with issues becomes pretentious wankery. Having only seen six episodes of Evangelion, I’m honestly not sure which side of the line it’s on. On the one hand it is fairly unremittingly bleak with very little in the way of relief. On the other it is still fairly early in the series – I’m not even sure we have a full cast of main characters yet – and there is still lots of time for a somewhat different tone to emerge. And on the gripping hand, Evangelion seems like a show that needs lots of time. Not just in terms of number of episodes to explore themes in, but also for the audience to lie awake at 4am mulling it all over. The most effective discussions of these themes function like delayed-action bombs; it isn’t until well after you’ve been exposed to them that you start to grasp their relevance. If Evangelion is doing a good job in exploring them – and it might well be – then it would be very unfair to complain that it is taking its sweet time.
But subtle and nuanced opinions are not what drives the comments section, so let’s get to the point: from the limited amount I’ve seen, I think Evangelion is going too far. And I think it is failing in both ways, too. Once again, the best examinations of serious themes that I have encountered have all incorporated a leavening of lighter material. I’m not saying that Evangelion needs a beach episode, but occasionally having something that isn’t about various psychological trauma would make it all more palatable. And after six episodes of this, I think we are well past the point of diminishing returns. It feels like Evangelion is in danger of spiraling down into an obsessive focus on Every. Little. Thing., becoming a laborious and poorly-organised tirade and losing sight of what it is actually trying to be (assuming it even knows).
Despite all this, however, I do genuinely think there is merit in what it is trying to do. I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and hope that it will find its feet as the show progresses.
Is there any one specific theme that stood out to you, and why?
In a development that I’m sure will amaze everyone who’s seen it, I’m going to pick “psychology” as one of the major themes of the show. Specifically depression and how we struggle to find meaning and value in both ourselves and others under those circumstances. As for why it stood out, I’ve mentioned in previous articles how important characters and characterization are to me. Engaging with the characters is a first step to engaging with everything else for me, and their psychological issues practically define them in this case. Other themes, like religion, are less closely associated with the characters so they don’t stand out as strongly.
As you may have noticed, Evangelion isn’t exactly a lighthearted show. Many attribute this to director Anno Hideaki’s history of clinical depression, which is well-known as being the main source behind many of the characters and much of the subject matter. How much you think Anno’s personal emotional struggles influenced this work?
A lot. There are only a couple of characters I’ve seen who aren’t obviously suffering similar struggles in one way or another, and I would not be in the least surprised to learn that everyone in the show has something like that. More to the point, perhaps, what we see of how the characters experience these struggles is clearly modeled on a real-life experience of such matters.
Do you have a favourite and least favourite character?
Pen-Pen is pretty cool. I have a weakness for penguins at the best of times, and he seems pretty relaxed about most things (although precisely why a penguin should have claws on the end of its wings is a mystery, and one that disturbs me). I also like the blonde doctor character, who appears to have her head more or less screwed on right.
Out of the main characters however, Misato Katsuragi is my favourite. She’s probably the most human and relatable of them so far. Obviously she is trying to deal with some deep-seated issues and equally obviously it isn’t going all that well. But it also isn’t disabling her, and she manages her professional duties with a good deal of ability and dedication. She even seems to be taking on a sort of motherly role towards Shinji. If she drinks too much at home and likes to add curry to her ramen… well, there are far worse things she could be doing (also, cheese curry ramen is actually pretty good!).
Least favourite character… that’s somewhat harder, because there’s a lot of competition for that role. Most of the characters aren’t very sympathetic. But I’m going to pick Gendo as my least favourite character, because he is a gigantic dick to someone he needs badly; the pilot of Unit 01. This alone makes him look like a questionable choice as head of NERV, but the fact that said pilot is his son takes it to a whole new level of dickishness. He is basically a giant male reproductive organ to everyone, and although I’m sure that he has a tortured backstory that will be revealed as the show progresses, that’s hardly unique in Evangelion. It certainly isn’t enough to make me want to find out more about him.
You watched the first six episodes of this. Do you think you’ll be going back for more at some point?
Probably not, but I’m still on the fence about it to an extent. Evangelion, despite its flaws, does have a satisfying weight to it. The episodes have a certain solidity to them that can only come from engaging with actual serious issues, and it feels like it ought to be possible to really get one’s teeth into the show as a result. If I had any confidence that it was all going to come to a correspondingly hefty conclusion I would roll up my sleeves and buckle down to it.
However, as I said earlier, I’m not particularly enamored of the way Evangelion is presenting its idiosyncratic menu. It layers on so much that it gets rather indigestible, and I can only take so much of it before I find myself yearning for something lighter and more refreshing. Twenty-six episodes might be too much for me.
So I have my doubts about whether I’ll be able to get through the complete series. I will give it a bit longer, and if it somehow manages to settle on an approach that works for me I would like to see how it all plays out. But if it doesn’t, I will have to say goodbye to Tokyo-3.
Question of the post: Do you have any other questions for Watson, or just comments in general? As always, anything aimed specifically at Watson will be replied to by the man himself.