In the first of my series of articles about how GAINAX approach the traditional cliches and tropes of super-robot and space opera animé, I talked about Gunbuster‘s use of heroic sacrifices – and quite specific evocations of Space Battleship Yamato – to juxtapose a personal story and a traditional genre one. As Gunbuster progresses it takes the genre archetypes larger in scale with each battle; first Noriko’s desperate first fight in which Smith dies, then her first launch in the Gunbuster itself, culminating in a final battle where the super-prototype and the unified fleet come together to fight a last stand defending a yet greater superweapon. The escalation of the odds each time reflects Noriko’s development and her personal journey to excel.
The early episodes of the 1995 series Neon Genesis Evangelion take arguably a similar focus on personal development, albeit with a different framing device and narrative interest. Whereas Gunbuster was about Noriko coming to terms with grief and the loss of her father, Evangelion begins with its protagonist offered a chance – albeit a strange one – to reconcile with his father after a period of estrangement. Yet this comes at a price; Shinji Ikari must, by order of his distant parent, step into the role of saviour of the world. The relationship between Shinji and his father Gendo is, if it is to be compared to an analogue in Gunbuster, most like that of Noriko and Coach Ohta; Gendo representing the inscrutable, apparently cruel authority figure who pressures the protagonist into accepting their destiny and fighting to save the world. Indeed, as the series progresses, any kind of familial reunion seems increasingly unlikely as Gendo retreats further into his own plans and unsettlingly intimate relationship with Shinji’s comrade Rei. By the time episode 5, Rei I, is reached, the nature of the relationship that will ultimately drive the plot forward is well-defined; Shinji is beyond a reluctant hero and actively rejects his role because he sees himself both as a failure but also as being used by others. The optimism and belief that hard work and determination is all that someone needs to succeed that came with Noriko’s ever-better contextualised world-view in the opening arc of Gunbuster is replaced with a more bleak idea that an amateur can never improve.
It is notable that the very early battles in Evangelion have Shinji doing very little yet winning decisively. He is needed to make the machine he controls work, yet cannot control it and relies on its supernatural autonomy – and it is made very clear that despite how official and scientific the secret organisation NERV is, it has no idea what it is doing. Episode 5 begins with a prototype war machine going wildly out of control during a standard test as if to reinforce this; what is well-established by this point is that neither pilot nor machine can be controlled, or fit the usual genre tropes that they might be expected to. This makes the battle which stretches between the two episodes – which plays out entirely predictably as a stock super-robot fight – stand out even more as a turning-point in the story. It is the first time, coming as it does after an episode where Shinji runs away from home to take stock of his thoughts, that there is an actual fight between the Eva units and the enemies, the Angels, where human planning and ingenuity works. Similarly it is the first fight where the two pilots – Shinji and Rei – work together to win. As a result, it is the first fight where the visual trappings of the genre that are deployed almost to excess previously have any meaning; each fight in Evangelion begins with gratituous and ludicrous amounts of military materiel being destroyed in seconds as the humans (safe within their bunkers) stare on incredulous. The opening shots of the first episode, where dozens of tanks and planes fight to no effect, where nuclear weapons are deployed in turn – are an iconic part of Evangelion yet are a meaningless deployment of the trope they embody.
It is a grotesque escalation of tradition; where classic super robot series might have had the enemies destroy a few vehicles, or menace some civilians, to show their power, the first Angel which appears in Evangelion walks through an entire army. No characterisation is given to the soldiers dying, it has no emotional power existing as it does without context even of who the enemy are or who is fighting them, and the only focus is on the commanders who are at no risk whatsoever. All it does is show in almost calculable, dispassionate, terms how strong the Angel is. The opening battle of Gunbuster, or its root in Yamato, is powerful not just because it shows an inscrutable force annihilating a fine fleet; it is powerful because Okita taunts the Gamilans, defiant even in the face of inevitable defeat, or Noriko’s father gives his life to save his crew. The Angel Sachiel taking a nuclear bomb to the face unscathed has none of that impact. Thus, when the battle against the Fourth Angel begins not with the usual carnage but with Shinji’s fighting machine taking a direct hit from a laser beam, there is that sense of threat and pathos. The battle seems over before it has begun and now there is someone sympathetic at risk – the unwilling soldier Shinji who has simply done his job for the first time since re-finding his confidence. This initial debacle is then followed by another kind of deployment of the sacrificial-unit cliché; a series of different weapons are tested against the enemy to learn its capabilities.
The final part of the battle – the ultimate showdown which defines the episode in a traditional climax – feels almost like it comes from a different series entirely when compared to the previous fights. Using a prototype cannon, Shinji attacks the Angel from long range with Rei defending him (providing the real human factor here; although she is mysterious even after an episode introducing her, she has been presented as not only a sympathetic character but a model, dutiful soldier) and destroys it. Here is the co-operation that defines super-robot fights set out in the most literal terms – the cannon is powered by the combined energy of Japan’s national grid and the film adaptation of the fight in the Rebuild series sets this out as clearly as possible as operator Misato exhorts Shinji to fight with “all of Japan behind him.” Rather than an actual physical fight, with back-and-forth and fight choreography, the “fight” sequence is a long procession of fetishised industry and science – Misato and her scientist comrade Ritsuko talk at length about how advanced and untested the weaponry is, there are long panning shots of vast fields of equipment needed to operate the weapon serving as buildup to a single decisive blow.
In many ways this is a similarly grotesque and de trop extrapolation of a super robot cliché as Sachiel’s rampage in the first episode – rather than focusing on the sacrifice and last stand, it is extending out the final attack. The “killing blow” of a super robot is its defining feature, the weapon from its arsenal which is a guaranteed end to a fight and which every action sequence will ultimately build towards the deployment of. Such attacks are generally shown in full, with a ritual of preparation that the pilot goes through every time – with the enemy often rendered helpless as part of it to further ensure that the attack can go off in the “correct” way. Examples of the most ritualistic include Daitarn 3‘s “Sun Attack” with its wind-up speech and dramatic pose, Dangaioh’s “Psychic Slash” which restrains the enemy before cutting them apart and the almost parodic “Final God Mars” from Godmars – remembered mostly because it simply combines firing the machine’s other weapons into a ritual-like progression from weakest to strongest. Each of those last perhaps a minute or so; Evangelion spins this out into a fifteen-minute half-episode setup for a “fight” which lasts seconds, against an ultimately helpless enemy. Again, the film adaptation extends this visual reference further with, after the initial shot misses, a desperate race against time for the engineers to recalibrate the weapon before Rei’s shield (the only thing keeping Shinji alive) is compromised. The panning shots of the preparatory equipment – restaged as a monolithic pyramid – are now set in sepia tones and engulfed in flame, with the choral music swelling as the workers fixing the gun move in exaggerated, propaganda-film like ways.
Yet even though this is Shinji’s first victory as opposed to the Eva’s autonomous ones, it is still not his fight; if the long scenes of the positron cannon being set up are part of the final attack footage, the real heroes are the engineers making the gun work, and Rei protecting Shinji who simply has to press a button at the right time. This is made clearer by how the film version focuses on the engineers and support crew; the TV series adaptation places the focus more on Shinji and Rei’s struggle.
Traditionally the long-set-up final attack is based on the pilot’s own central role in it; when the Eva finally gets one, it relies on an entire country’s co-operation. Thus while the two-part episode Rei I and Rei II should be Shinji’s chance to shine, and on the surface is (as it is the first fight won without the Eva acting out-of-control), it instead emphasises how he is still powerless and reliant on others to win. Nevertheless the sense of progression that each escalating fight (even though here the escalation is in terms of Shinji’s self-confidence and autonomy) continues with the closing shot of the episode having Shinji mimic his father’s actions to break into Rei’s cockpit as her machine lies damaged. Yet this is ultimately showing how Evangelion is using its genre; Gunbuster had its pilot’s journey be one of finding their own strength and moving on by learning how to fight. Evangelion begins with its pilot needing an initial step not only to find himself but also learn how to even engage with others.