Before I begin, I need to state that I am a dyed in the wool Kaji and Asuka fan. To see these two characters, I lined up in Shinjuku a day early to see “Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance” (Evangelion Shin Gekijoban: Ha), the newest theatrical version of the immortal television anime series released June 27. About 1,000 Eva addicts joined me in festival, and by morning the media had staged its own “Evangelion Festival.” But for me Kaji and Asuka were the reason to celebrate, and this necessarily colors my review. I was particularly concerned about the presence of a new character, Mari, who many worried would overlap with Asuka. Also, I have been told I talk too much, and that my review of “Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone” was sufficiently extensive enough to alienate readers. I will keep this review to 1,000 words, and cover only my initial perceptions of the film.
First, this is an absolute visual feast. Truly, Studio Khara and directors Tsurumaki Kazuya and Anno Hideaki have done an amazing job. Every individual frame is a work of art, a complete composition full of symbolism, and the dense frames work together to create breathtakingly fluid motion. The action is blistering, the carnage visceral and the scenes of destruction epic and terrifying. Some standout examples are the opening scene where Mari chases and battles an Angel at high speed inside the corridors of her base, the showdown between Unit 01 and 03 and the climatic confrontation with the fourteenth Angel, Zeruel. With these visuals, the music is a real let down. There is no new theme song (Utada Hikaru does an acoustic rendition of “Beautiful World”), and BGM is a mix of nostalgic sounds from the series and wonky stuff you would expect to find in a Japanese TV drama from the 1990s. This often doesn’t gel. Classic music is replaced by old-fashioned songs sung by kids. One such innocent song is used to great effect when juxtaposed with the newfound brutality of the tragic end of Unit 03. A similar song is used later, and it just seems cheap.
However, the world in which the horrible violence of Eva and Angel battles takes place is, on the whole, a lot more cheerful. (Perhaps the reason for some of that cheesy BGM.) Scenes of daily life, for example people commuting in the city or the protagonists in a regular school setting, are more common and warm. The inclusion of settings outside Japan, and simple scenes like Kaji farming, create a more balanced worldview. People are less twisted and disturbed; after promoting from Ayanami, Commander Ikari actually considers his son, Shinji’s well being and agrees to have dinner with him (it doesn’t happen, but it’s the thought that counts). The students all go to see an aquarium where sea creatures that were wild before Second Impact are kept. The story is, as with the first movie, streamlined and simplified. Ikari explains key plot points like the conflict of interest with SEELE, and what will happen with Unit 01 and Ayanami. There aren’t the superfluous Angel attacks, or painful human relationships, for that matter. For example, the center of the narrative is clearly Shinji and Ayanami, and the pattern of their attraction is simplified to classroom settings and making food for each other. Asuka and Kaji do not come to Japan together, and actually have little connection. Kaji and Misato’s attraction (and Misato and Shinji’s for that matter) is similarly downplayed to keep the focus on Shinji and Ayanami. (Kaji does sexually harass Shinji, though!) Toji, Keisuke and Hikari are minor presences.
Asuka does in her usual tsundere way express feelings for Shinji, for example feeling lonely and coming to sleep in his room (this is not sleep walking as in the TV series) and confronting Ayanami about her feelings for him (this is after she calls Ayanami a doll in the infamous elevator scene, and it is masterfully played here). She is a compelling character, maybe even more so than in the original series, and her drive to excel, lack of social skills and loneliness really shine through. Her “Anta baka?!” line sounds sadder, not like the bitchy kid from the series but rather like someone who can’t deal with people and so cuts them off. She also has some great fan service moments in shimapan and bursting naked from the shower. But instead of pursuing Shinji, she volunteers to test pilot Eva Unit 03 from the United States. Yes, Asuka, not Toji. After making an extremely moving cell phone call to Misato, and slipping into a sexy new version of plug suit, Asuka pilots it. The machine is infected by an Angel and goes rotten. Shinji refuses to fight it and the dummy plug system takes control of Eva Unit 01, which horribly destroys Unit 03 – and crushes the entry plug containing Asuka in its mouth. Absolutely chilling. Thankfully, the dummy plug system in this theatrical version does not make Shinji watch this. Not soon after this, Mari sneaks into NERV headquarters and takes Asuka’s Unit 02 to fight Zeruel. I am grateful that she is not a copy of Asuka, but a very Earthy, even bestial character unique in her own right (nice balance to all the ethereal characters). Apparently she was designed to be like a “Showa old man character,” someone who doesn’t think and likes to fight, and Tsurumaki says she is the only character not somehow coming from Anno’s psyche. She drives Unit 02 berserk and has a knock down brawl, but gets cruelly dismembered.
In that same Angel battle, Ayanami does her suicide attack with the N2 bomb. It fails, and the badass Zeruel bites her Eva in half and swallows it, including her. Shinji quit NERV after the death of Asuka, but snaps out of his funk after seeing the heroics of Mari and the death of Ayanami. He flips out, and goes berserk (very “Gurren Lagann” here). He gains so much power that Eva 01 becomes a god able to rip a hole in the Angel and extract Ayanami. Shinji insists on doing this, even though Ayanami tells him she “has spares,” because he says there is only one Ayanami. (Cue the romantic violins… This burns my ass, because face it, she is a clone, and Asuka was sure replaced fast enough…). The reborn Ayanami merges with Unit 01 and sets into motion Third Impact. Luckily Kaworu, who has been waiting shirtless on the face of the moon, descends and impales Unit 01, stopping the process. He says he will make “only Shinji find happiness.” Service, service, said Gainax to the fangirls.
All in all this movie is great stuff, a real crowd pleaser. There are a slew of changes, yes, but you hardly even notice them at this point. In the first movie, I literally took notes on ever single change that appeared, because it was just a reordering and retelling of the Ayanami warming up arc of the series. This Asuka arc offers a whole different way for the story to unfold; as a result it is more fun and rewarding to watch. It is moving, entertaining and shocking all at once, and a must for “Eva” fans of all stripes. The trailer for the next film, “Quickening,” offers many intriguing info bites, including the return of all the characters, including Asuka in an eye-patch, and the appearance of Unit 08 and its pilot (perhaps Toji? …).