Friday, September 18, 2009

Big-Screen Anime: Evangelion 1.0

If Arthur Schopenhauer and Joseph Campbell had collaborated on the Transformers, it might have resembled Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion anime. Despite attracting a cult-like following, the series evidently became notorious for its philosophical flights of fancy and an abundance of unresolved loose ends. However, a projected trilogy of anime feature films promises to tighten up the story and answer persistent questions, beginning with Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

As the Evangelion reboot opens, mankind is in a precarious position. Having barely survived a deliberately mysterious event called the “Second Impact,” the Earth is now plagued by rampaging “angels,” robotic extraterrestrial beings impervious to almost all earthly weaponry. Of course, the citizens of Tokyo-3 never seem to ask why (perhaps having been desensitized by decades of Godzilla attacks).

The only means of combating angels are the Evangelions, enormous armored cyborg-like fighting crafts that can only be piloted by pre-teens, for reasons we should just accept. While there is a long tradition in science fiction of placing the fate of humanity in the hands of children, Shinji is a particularly problematic protagonist. Unlike Ender Wiggins, his low sense of self worth and acute father issues threaten to undermine the entire Evangelion (Eva) program, which happens to be managed by Dear Old Dad.

It might sound oddly inappropriate to refer to these agents of cosmic destruction as “angels,” but Anno is just getting started. There is some extremely unsubtle Christ imagery in the film, with a clear promise of more to come in future installments. Parents should also note there is some brief partial anime nudity (the technical term for this is “fan service”).

Unlike The Transformers movies, Evangelion has a plot. Still, it is at its best when depicting big hulking robot fight scenes. Graphically, it is several cuts above workaday anime, delivering some impressive visuals, like the huge retractable fortified city of Tokyo-3. Indeed, the animation is often quite detailed, though it never departs from the stylistic traditions of the genre.

Evangelion is briskly paced, grudgingly doling out exposition on the fly. The action scenes are well constructed and its apocalyptic vision of the future is pretty compelling. Aside from Shinji’s neurosis, which gets old quickly, Evangelion is an entertaining, somewhat idiosyncratic anime film (though probably not the best introduction for genre neophytes). It opens today at the Village East.