Where the first film in this reboot (of sorts) series slavishly recreated the first six episodes of the NEON GENESIS EVANGELION series it’s based on, this second film is a lot more original, incorporating some scenes and elements from that series, but amidst reimagined plotlines and characterisations, with a considerable amount of new material.
I assumed the opening scene of the film was following the main character of the series that didn’t appear in the first film, headstrong ‘tsundere’ archetype Asuka, but instead it turned out to be an entirely new character, “Mari”, one of the clearest bits of new material in the REBUILD series. This is a much easier watch than the first film, as while there are scenes that are outright recreations of the television show’s episodes, most of the story has been shuffled about, reorganised, altered so as to economically tell it in a somewhat new and novel way. There are cutesy references, like Asuka being surprised by Pen-Pen in the bathroom, but for the most of the runtime it’s a fairly capable standalone retelling of the series, but far less of a direct retread than the first film. Much more palatable, much more enjoyable. Much as some scenes are an absolute joy (the extended visit to a sort of aquarium in the first of the film is one of the most joyous, comfortable sequences in the whole franchise), it all still feels overwhelmingly redundant, when the original series already exists.
[spoilers for the film, the television show, and THE END OF EVANGELION below]
Or is it? Much of the film plays out as a slight variation on the story of the series, with Shinji’s father and his long-suffering partner in crime Fuyutsuki nakedly manipulating the emotions of Shinji and Rei so as to engineer the ending of the film, which riffs off the television series but ultimately goes its own way, with Shinji succeeding in saving the second Rei (forestalling the need for a third), and activating his Evangelion to a degree that sets off the Third Impact – until it’s possibly aborted by Karowu (who delights in teasing that the REBUILD series is actually a sequel to THE END OF EVANGELION whenever he shows up – to take this at face value, or be suspicious of it as a trick? Who knows!) piercing the Evangelion with a lance, presumably trapping Shinji and Rei inside. Clearly, the third film is set up to be markedly different from the series indeed.
Are the seas red because of the Second Impact, as characters say, or because that’s what happened at the end of, well, THE END OF EVANGELION? The shortened, economical introduction of Asuka in the film visually references the airborne acrobatics she undertook in her Evangelion in that film. The theming is strikingly different, as the film undertakes in fanservice and genial character growth at complete odds with the audience-hostility of THE END OF EVANGELION, but the references continue to mount.
The characters here feel muted in contrast to their forms in the series. Everyone is dialled down. Shinji is less angsty (his skill in cooking is focused upon much more, and seems to give him purpose and an outlet to provide for others), Asuka is less abrasive (in fact she outright has a warm conversation with Misato and happily examines her own personal flaws!), Kaji is far less lecherous (he keeps his distance from Misato and doesn’t force anything on her at all), Ikari is less cold (he agrees to have dinner with his son after remembering Yui telling him to take care of Shinji), and Rei is far less socially stunted. She says “Being with Ikari makes me feel warm and content. I want Ikari to feel warm and content too. I want him to get along with Commander Ikari and feel warm and content, I think”, to Asuka’s annoyance, as the two girls basically fight over him through attempting to cook for him. It feels so much like the fantasies in anime that the original finales in both TV and film were critiquing. This is disquieting. What is it all building to? Surely it can’t just be quick gratification, fanservice, light and immaterial entertainment, given the depth of the themes in previous works in the franchise?
Well, creator Hideaki Anno said in the year of the film’s release that “In the original Eva, there were many people who took something that I created as a source of amusement beyond those limits and made it into an object of dependence. I wanted to take responsibility for the fact that such people had been so “inflated.” I wanted to bring the work back within the boundaries of entertainment. However, I have now withdrawn from dealing with it [or: from treating it thematically?]. Such people will not change no matter what I say. I now well understand that there is nothing I can do”. Does this indicate he just completely gave up on the sort of people the original series and THE END OF EVANGELION were commenting on and trying to wake up, trying to inspire? A depressing reading, that sets out a stark and disturbing contrast with the lightness and breezy entertainment of the film in a similar way to the two montages in it that contrast jaunty pop music with violent conflict.
Evangelions that evolve like Digimon into new and improved forms, extended action sequences that go on and on…it’s all very well produced and animated, but the degree to which these REBUILD films are action-packed does rankle. So much of the depth, joy, meaning of the original series was in the “moments in-between”, in the quieter moments of characterisation, the more contemplative and stylised sequences. And, no, the litany of kaleidoscopic cross iconography or frenetic colour-and-pattern-varying focused montages during action scenes is nothing like the abstractions that plumed the depths of character’s minds in the original series.
This film sets up what seems to be a legitimately new direction for the REBUILD series to take, and the thought of it being somewhat untethered to the original series is exciting (although I dearly hope that new direction isn’t just further down the fanservice aisle that sees girls fight over Shinji and everyone happily develop with nary a great character flaw to encompass them). On its own terms…well, it’s certainly a vastly more enjoyable and fascinating experience than the first film, but still doesn’t overcome that inescapable feeling of redundancy. Is there any creative merit to this reboot series existing? Perhaps the next film will answer that question. This one didn’t – though it did come closer. Three and a half aquariums, and some artificial meat.