Asuka Changes Everything in Evangelion Eps. 8&9

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Asuka Langley Sohryu’s arrival in episode eight of Evangelion completely changes everything. All of a sudden, this slow-burning character drama full of psychologically broken kids trying to find the motivation to fight for the sake of survival blows open into this silly, action-packed, brightly-colored fun time, wherein a teenaged odd couple learns how to play DDR so they can drop a synchronized Inazuma Kick on a giant monster to the backdrop of classical music. It’s almost startling to watch unfold, and sounds like an insane writing decision on paper. Right when our main characters have found the resolve to act heroically and start kicking ass, they get thrust into this ridiculous middle school romantic comedy, and the already bizarre robot battles take a downright goofy turn. So why did GAINAX do this, and how did they manage such an incredible tone shift without completely throwing the audience for a loop? Well, a hell of a lot went into it–and looking at all of it stacked up together, their methods were nothing short of impressive.

For starters, before diving into episode eight, we have to look at what was done in the previous episode to set us up for it. Whereas the first six episodes focused primarily on Shinji and his struggle to find resolve, culminating with his turn to a more protective side in episode six, episode seven was the first borderline side-story in the series, and the first to focus more primarily on another character.

However, in the background of that episode, we got to see Shinji subtly beginning to change. We saw him expressing a much wider range of emotions, and doing so much more openly; taking a stand and making demands of the people around him and asserting himself. Shinji has started to stabilize and come out of his shell at this point, allowing him to more easily communicate with the people around him, and to feel more comfortable in his current home.

I mentioned back in episode two how Misato’s house was meant to be established as a sort of home base for the series, and how we were meant to move into it exactly as Shinji did. Likewise, episode seven is the point at which both Shinji and ourselves have become comfortable here. The episode starts off by focusing on Shinji and Misato’s everyday routine, and the story of the episode is a side-mission that has little connection to the main plot of fighting angels, giving the whole thing a sort of slice-of-life feel. Even when the action starts, we don’t get a single word of protest from Shinji about piloting the robot to help with the situation; by now he’s gotten used to his role as a pilot as a normal part of his life.

This is what brings us to episode eight, which immediately departs from the home base that we’ve become accustomed to. Misato tells Shinji in the helicopter that she thought he might get bored of seeing the same mountains every day–almost like she’s speaking straight to the audience that the point of this scenario is to change things up a bit–to take us out of the comfort zone which we’ve become accustomed to by the end of episode seven.

By this point, Shinji only resembles the quiet, paranoid and high-strung person that he was at the start. He goofs around with his friends on the helicopter, and stretches his arms out on the deck of the ship like he’s making himself at home–he’s totally gotten used to the way that his life is.

And then we meet Asuka–an explosion of color and personality packed into one tiny little girl. Just think about what we’ve seen and where we’ve been up until now: aside from Misato, this series has focused largely on dour characters inhabiting a post-apocalyptic city locked in the mountains; and now, we’ve got this red-haired firebrand in a yellow one-piece standing against a bright blue open sky in the middle of the ocean. This couldn’t be farther from what we’ve had so far.

Asuka is a foreign object in the Eva universe–literally, she’s a foreigner to Japan, and the series makes sure you know that by having her throw random English and German words into her speech and complain a lot about how strange Japanese culture is. She is the polar opposite of both Shinji and, especially, Rei, and brings everything to the show which had purposely been left out before she showed up.

Remember back when Shinji fell on Rei’s breast and she didn’t say anything, but then she slapped him because he badmouthed Gendo, and it was like this huge subversion of the middle school pervert trope? Well, the very first thing Asuka does is slap the hell out of all the guys when the wind blows her skirt up and they see her panties–which Touji childishly responds to by pulling out his dick. We’ve never really had this before.

You could have been forgiven for forgetting entirely that Shinji and Rei were middle schoolers in the first place, or that Eva is on some level a middle school anime–at least until Asuka shows up and starts arguing over test scores and reputation, and even somehow turns the class president into a recurring character. Whereas Rei and Shinji largely blend into the background at school, Asuka stands out and draws so much attention to herself that we realize just how many students actually attend this school.

Up until now, Shinji’s arguments were always one-sided and passive-aggressive. He did what adults told him to, wandered aimlessly, and didn’t know how to communicate with kids his own age. After Asuka shows up, he starts arguing all the time over basically nothing, and growing more opinionated and assertive with each new episode. It’s pretty funny too, to watch Asuka run up against the wall that is Rei, who can’t be convinced into argument with anyone. Their first interaction, when Asuka blocks the sunlight that Rei is reading by, so Rei moves over into the sun, aggravating Asuka, summarizes their entire relationship in these episodes perfectly.

Oh, and remember how Shinji only started piloting the Eva willingly after six episodes of convincing, and how Rei only pilots it out of a sense of obligation? Well, Asuka straight-up WANTS to pilot the Evangelion–and not for anyone’s sake but her own. She does it because she’s passionate about proving her worth, and she ties her self-worth entirely to her ability to pilot the Evangelion well–which is why she takes it as such an insult when it’s suggested that she might not be needed, or that Rei could do her job better than she can.

Asuka’s completely new approach to piloting the Evangelion brings a totally different tone to the robot battles. Whereas Shinji and Rei’s actions always felt like a painful struggle, Asuka’s fights are just plain old fun. She jumps around like a maniac, taking time to strike cool poses in her robot and to smile in the middle of battle. It’s no mistake that Unit 02 is introduced through one of the most memorably staged and exciting mecha battles in anime history–and one which bends the logic and believability of the story about as far as it can go. Thought redirecting all of Japan’s power into a rifle was crazy? How about a giant robot playing hopscotch on aircraft carriers right before shoving two battleships into a monster’s mouth and blowing it to pieces?

Speaking of that plan, which Misato had a hand in orchestrating, the writers of this show did something brilliant with how they got Asuka’s presence to dominate everything else for these two episodes–they introduced Kaji at the same time. Aside from slivers of information about his personality, history, and intentions, Kaji is primarily a mysterious presence in the series at this point–but none of that really matters right now, because the reason he’s here is so that he can take the focus away from Misato.

Until now, Misato has been the most consistent authoritarian presence in the series, operating both as Shinji’s caretaker and boss, and as the person who gets shit done when the chips are down in both episodes six and seven. However, the appearance of Kaji immediately brings out all of Misato’s weaknesses; and for these couple of episodes, especially episode nine, Misato is largely relegated to a position of losing control. She still gives instructions to Shinji and Asuka, but her overall presence is lessened over the course of these episodes, while Asuka seizes the reins on dominating the entire cast for screen presence. Misato and Kaji’s relationship will continue to be developed and made thematically relevant over the course of the series, but for now it’s hard not to imagine that Kaji’s presence is mostly a means of distracting what was formerly the strongest personality in the series, while another, equally powerful personality hogs the spotlight.

So, alright, we’ve got a sense now of exactly who this character is and what she did to change the nature of the series, as well as what GAINAX did to maximize the impact of her character’s arrival; but that still doesn’t answer the more important question of why the studio did this. Why get seven episodes deep into a series and then completely change its tone by introducing a character so fundamentally at-odds with everything established up until that episode? Well, simply put–because that’s the point.

Evangelion has been duly noted for incorporating a smorgasbord of social and psychological themes into its narrative–but if I could be so bold as to boil everything the series does down to one central idea, it would be the study of interaction. Eva sets out to explore both the ways that humans are shaped through their interactions with one-another, as well as the way that those interactions will ultimately shape the fate of humankind. In the process, it goes into detail about what it means to act as an individual, and how different individuals are interpreted by and communicate with one-another, as well as what it means for people to have their individually molded by others, or to lose that individuality altogether. All of this is spelled out at length in the last two episodes of the series; but long before that, it’s explored in the show’s very structure.

Shinji Ikari doesn’t have much of a personality at the start of Evangelion. He is an island–an individual largely devoid of interaction, and therefore only slightly molded by the people around him. From the beginning, we see how his father’s attitude has brought him to his current position; but since his father has walled himself off from Shinji, we can’t expect his influence to be felt directly for a while.

Instead, Shinji is shaped by Misato to become someone who decides that he mustn’t run away. Then, he’s shaped by Rei to become someone protective, with a sense of responsibility. And now, he is being shaped by Asuka into someone who can be outspoken and assertive. Every person that enters Shinji’s life changes his attitude in subtle ways, which in turn alters the nature of his actions as well as the nature of how those actions are presented.

Episode three’s angel battle is horrifying and sad, because Shinji is terrified and no one knows how to deal with him. Episode six’s angel battle is epic and triumphant because the teamwork of Shinji, Rei, and Misato overcomes impossible odds while bringing a new, more protective side of Shinji to light. Episode nine’s angel battle is goofy, insane, and hilarious because the chemistry between Asuka, who pilots the Eva for fun, and Shinji, who has to adapt to dealing with her wild attitude, creates a personality that can’t be tamed by the self-doubt and fear which would be crushing Shinji on his own.

Asuka changes everything because Asuka is different from everyone, and therefore changes the way that those people interact. When Shinji sees this beautiful girl his age in all her unguarded sexuality, it kickstarts his libido, and now we’ve got him revealing his more perverted and lustful side. When Shinji has someone accosting him for no reason, who is not only his own age, but not in any kind of position of authority over him, he has a chance to get angry and assertive. When Shinji is paired up with someone who can actually be as emotionally fragile as himself from time to time, he even finds himself in a position where he’s supposed to be the strong one giving advice, even if he ends up being less effective than Asuka’s own motivation. The arrival of Asuka means that Shinji and everyone else now has to deal with Asuka; and in doing so, the nature of their actions make an enormous shift. (In Misato’s case, the same thing happens more in response to the appearance of Kaji.)

Holding off on Asuka for seven whole episode was a pretty ballsy move on the part of the show’s creators. Taking the show’s most energetic, attractive, imminently relatable and likable character and completely holding off on introducing her throughout seven episodes of fairly glum and sober character establishment probably wouldn’t have sounded like a very good business decision; and the prospect of scaring off the audience who’d grown accustomed to the style of Evangelion up until this point only to wind up with such a massive tone shift must have been terrifying. But all of it had to be done, because the most important aspect of Asuka’s arrival is that it changes everything. If she’d been around from the beginning, then her influence over the tone and the character interactions would have been enormous right from the start, which wouldn’t allow us to see how the other characters would’ve been changed by her arrival. The way that Asuka changes everything is massively important to the themes which lie at the heart of the series–and it’s for that reason, I think, that this incredibly bold decision managed to pay off in such a big way.

It helps, of course, that the writers also signposted their intentions so well throughout these two episodes. Aside from Misato’s comment about leaving the mountains, episode eight gives us a ship captain, designed after the same trope as the captains from Macross and Nadia, complaining about having to babysit a bunch of kids. Episode nine has Fuyutsuki growing embarrassed and impatient with the children, which Kaji lampoons beautifully with his remark that adults don’t like to be embarrassed. It almost reads like a fuck you to any critics of how ridiculous this episode gets, delivered by the most cool and collected adult in the series. Even the show’s ending theme changes for these episodes into a far more upbeat and fun rendition of the previous song.

Eva wanted you to know that it was doing this on purpose and that it had a plan–and it never forgot to work in those subtle moments of depth and discomfort which kept reminding the viewer that they were indeed still watching Neon Genesis Evangelion. It dances its way through what could have been a series-destroying shift in tone with unparalleled grace in a manner that few other shows could ever achieve–and all of it adds to just how memorable and massive of a presence Asuka manages to establish for herself in the span of just a couple of episodes.

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