For a show about angst-ridden, volatile teenagers piloting enormous cyborgs through a series of cataclysmic battles, Neon Genesis Evangelion is remarkably calm. Sure, the series occasionally erupts into a massive, city-leveling fight. And sure, one of the characters (probably Asuka) might yell at someone, exploding in a fit of pique. But these outbursts are few and far between compared to moments of silence, contemplation, and simple day-to-day interaction between the characters.
Evangelion’s sense of quiet unrest threatening to consume an otherwise lively setting is thematically resonant: The robot fighting is, in many ways, a Trojan Horse, allowing Studio Gainax and series creator Hideaki Anno to explore the way his broken characters think about their lives, their choices, and their relationships with others. It’s also a stylistic decision made of necessity, because there just wasn’t enough money or time to show everything else.
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I knew a few things about Evangelion when the series began streaming on Netflix earlier this summer: I knew the broad outlines of the show’s plot, I knew a few of the themes that seemed to resonate with its fans, I knew that the ending was, to put it lightly, controversial. But over the course of the month or so I spent watching the series, one thing I had not known struck me repeatedly: Evangelion is full of long, static shots that are functionally single cels of animation.
Consider a few examples: One episode opens with a shot of Misato, rendered as a silhouette illuminated by spotlights, being interrogated by the faceless council of SEELE. It lasts for 70 seconds. Another episode spends several minutes holding on Rei and Asuka awkwardly ignoring each other in an elevator. And in perhaps the most infamous case, one of the last episodes features a shot of Shinji holding Kaworu in the enormous hand of EVA-01, working through his new friend’s request — to be killed.
Notably, all three of these shots come from the last third of the series (episodes 17, 22, and 24 respectively). That makes sense — the production of Evangelion was notoriously fraught, with the studio running low on money to pay animators and time to finish the episodes on schedule, a crunch that only got worse toward the end. Beyond the ever-present pressure to meet deadlines in animation, there were Anno’s own neuroses, as well as the 1995 gas attack on the Tokyo subway, which forced Gainax to scrap some planned material.
Lost In The Sauce (LCL)
Any cultural production has to work around some degree of limitation. This isn’t a bad thing — in fact it’s often, if not always, what defines great works of art. Consider the necessity of frequent close-ups in live action TV, which are often required because they’re easier to shoot on a faster timetable. This isn’t a full explanation for why so much television thrives on sustained character study (i.e., stories that often happen on the level of the face), but it is certainly a big part of the story, and part of what enables creators to understand what works and doesn’t work within their chosen medium.
In anime, production issues often necessitate reusing animation, whether that’s in the form of extended powerup sequences on Dragon Ball Z or full-blown recap episodes, which reuse material to catch the viewer up on stuff they’ve already watched. This can, of course, be boring. But when dealt with effectively, these limitations say something about what the medium does at its best.
Many of the long, static shots in Evangelion — essentially, single drawings with voiceover — are, accordingly, used not just to fill airtime, but to say something about what’s happening on the show. In the shot of Misato being interrogated by SEELE, she’s held captive by both her superiors and the camera, trapped motionless under the spotlight until the scene cuts away. When Rei and Asuka are in the elevator, they, too, are trapped, forced to share space until it becomes unbearable.
Many of these shots capture moments of descent — Rei and Asuka in the elevator, Misato and Ritsuko taking the escalator down to NERV headquarters, Shinji and Kaworu falling toward Central Dogma. That sense of isolation, and the claustrophobia and paralysis it induces, are central to the emotional states of Evangelion’s characters.
Misato, Rei, and Asuka aren’t the only ones being held captive by these shots — they also hold the viewer hostage in a way, forcing a single image in front of us until we either get the point, or don’t.
Consider the image of Shinji holding Kaworu. It might seem like nothing is happening in this shot, but, of course, it grows denser and more meaningful the longer it goes on. On one hand, Shinji is deliberating about whether, and how, to kill Kaworu. Or, rather, he’s coming to terms with the fact that he has to kill Kaworu, and puts it off until the last possible moment. (As is the case with much of Evangelion, there are myriad ways of reading Shinji’s internal conflict.)
But the other thing happening in the shot isn’t on-screen: It’s the reaction you are having to this information, to the realization that Shinji is going to have to kill this boy who has loved him, who has been kind to him. Evangelion does not allow you to simply move through these moments, one after the other, trusting you to process later over a nice steak dinner. Instead, the viewer has to sit with the decisions the characters make. The important thing is how you feel.
The scene holds for over a minute, without even using any dialogue to suggest the passage of time. We’re experiencing the moment, in part, in the highly subjective way Shinji is — it could be a minute, it could be an hour. Eventually, the scene cuts to black. We don’t see Shinji’s face, but it doesn’t matter — we’ve spent sufficient time with him to easily imagine what he’s feeling, and project accordingly. Emotionally, that’s even worse.
Do You Want To Become One (Image) With Me? It’s Something That Feels Really Good
Evangelion’s use of long, static shots culminates in the final two episodes, an ending that leans heavily into the series’ production constraints. Here, Anno and the rest of the Gainax team capture the simultaneous abstract terror of the characters and the decomposition of ego fueled by Instrumentality, presented in the form what is functionally a simultaneously brilliant and profoundly stupid click-through slideshow. These long shots serve to communicate what’s happening in the characters’ heads outside of time while the world collapses around them.
Eventually, Evangelion’s journey into Shinji’s head devolves into pencil and marker drawings, single frames that call even more attention to the way they are, in fact, lines on a page that merely symbolize movement. At one point during these sequences, Shinji thinks about the “boundaries that represent [him] to others.” He’s talking about his personality and the way he interacts with his friends, but he’s also referencing his character design, the way he looks to us.
Animation as a medium is dependent on creating the illusion of movement. The characters are, of course, images, representations of people being displayed in a rapid enough succession that they appear to be moving. Evangelion manages to lean into this central fact by showing what happens when that illusion is exposed for what it is, and turned back on the viewer — something akin to what is happening in our own heads as we attempt to make sense of the world.
For much of these final episodes, characters repeatedly ask each other why they pilot the EVAs, why they’ve made the choices they’ve made. Even if the characters don’t have firm answers for themselves, we know enough from looking at them to have at least some idea. Do we know why we’re watching?