Stillness and style in Neon Genesis Evangelion

William D. Routt

Animation and motivation

This paper is about the way in which stillness is used in the unusual and popular animated television series, Neon Genesis Evangelion (Shin seiki evangelion; Hideaki Anno, 1995-96). It also refers to an earlier and quite different animated series, Record of Lodoss War (Lodoss do senki; various, 1989-91) to suggest how stillness has been deployed in more conventional Japanese animated narratives. The paper concentrates on Aimages of stillness@ in these series. By Aimages of stillness@ I mean those images without figure movement, not images referring to photographs or paintings. In thinking about the deployment of stillness in these series I have been aided by David Bordwell=s work on film narration and Tsvetan Todorov=s work on reading and genre in literature . The paper is underpinned with certain ideas about animation, motivation, the cinema, and stillness which should be made explicit at the outset.

"Animation" comes to us via the Latin anima, which the Oxford English Dictionary glosses as "air, breath, life, soul, mind". But that is not all--for anima is symbiotically related to a gendered partner, animus (a relation metaphorically exploited in Jungian psychology). The feminine form, anima, moves from air to mind as the OED indicates; while the masculine, animus, traces a line from soul to mind to reason to feeling to willing. These various senses of anima and animus all have to do with motivation in one sense or another. The most fundamental test of life (a notoriously inaccurate one) is whether things seem to move of themselves or not. This is motivation in its crudest form. It is also life represented, life observed - animation in the sense of movie cartoons. In the cinema, motion occurs because of the inadequacy of human perception. It is an Aobserver dependent@ phenomenon: it does not occur when film images are projected on a screen, but only when such images are observed by human beings during their projection. Thus we can say that in the cinema, animation is a necessary product of film viewing. The viewers are Athe animators@ of Aanimated films@.

A more common understanding of motivation is a psychological one: living things are motivated by thoughts, feelings, desires. In the cinema, where images or figures or fictional entities are in question rather than living things, this kind of motivation is also supplied by viewers, inferred or Adeduced@ from information supplied by the film. We believe that characters act in the way that they do because we think we know what is going on Ainside their heads@. Attributing psychological motivation is, as I have described it, very like the simpler kind of animation involved in perceiving movement on a film screen. Both are actions of imparting life, ways of making nonliving things live. In this case, however, the activity of animating something psychologically is not specific to film viewing. It occurs in seeing, in hearing, and especially in reading. David Bordwell says that psychological motivation is Athe armature of the classical story@ in the cinema. By this he means that when we see figures doing things in films, we assume that the reasons for those actions come from Ainside@ the characters. Neon Genesis Evangelion is about a group of fourteen-year-old children who are uniquely able to control the giant robots (AEVAs@) which have been created to resist a series of devastating attacks launched at earth by beings with mysterious powers, called AAngels@. On a very simple level then, the actions of the EVAs, are explicitly motivated by the children seated inside them. But, in their turn, each of the children is given a personal history and a set of desires and insecurities to explain why he or she would particularly want to be an EVA pilot. In this way, their actions throughout Neon Genesis Evangelion are assumed to be motivated psychologically.

In assigning such significance to psychological motivation, Bordwell explicitly aligns himself with such narratologists as Tsvetan Todorov, who also describes a subspecies of Aclassical@ narrative in which causality is primarily psychological. Todorov also argues that causal chains can be as much, or more, strategies of reading as they are of writing. As in the case of the cinema, certain signs have been put together in such a way that they invite or demand interpretation in a certain way. That is, the child pilots of the EVAs do not have real thoughts or feelings, but we attribute thoughts and feelings to their actions: words, expressions, gestures, intonation and the like.

Motivation in a broader sense plays a crucial role in narration as Bordwell describes it. Building on the work of Boris Thomashevsky in literature, he describes compositional, realistic, intertextual, and artistic motivation in the cinema. Viewers understand a number of reasons for this or that narrative element=s presence in a film. Many episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion begin with characters getting up and having breakfast: the same music, the same actions and even a continuing character (a pet penguin) cue a formal or compositional reading for the motivation of these sequences. The actions and feelings of the child pilots of the EVAs in many ways resemble the actions of real fourteen-year-old children: they are realistically motivated in that way. Child pilots of giant robots are an expected part of a certain genre of Japanese anime: the children of Neon Genesis Evangelion are thus intertextually motivated. Many shots in the series are strikingly composed and colored, drawing attention to their specifically artistic motivation. As Bordwell discusses the various ways in which an element of film narration can be motivated, it is made clear that he too is referring as much, or more, to Areading@, to viewing activity triggered by narrational Acues@ - albeit a viewing activity of which most viewers are hardly aware. So, if one kind of animating viewing imparts motion to what is seen on the screen and another kind of animating viewing imparts psychology to screen images, then a third kind of animating viewing imparts life to the viewed object as a whole by motivating each element of it artistically, compositionally, intertextually, realistically. This tends to motivate what we see as a message, an enunciation, an artwork: the visible effect of an unseen cause. In this case, viewers often attribute the ultimate motivation for each element to an individual or institutional author: they make the films themselves Aalive@, Aliving productions@ of some consciousness.


At first glance, it might seem that still images would be the antithesis of animation in film: death to the cinema=s life. Yet the ideas I have just outlined suggest that there is, on the contrary, a definite Aliving@ place for still images, for stillness in general, within the idea of cinema as animation.

Historically, of course, this has been so. Without really thinking much I can recall at least two Aart cinema@ films based on still imagery: La Planète Sauvage and La Jetée. In these cases, the films were intended to be animated by motivations which the viewer attributed to a succession of still images. Moreover, there is a tradition of recognising and writing about still imagery in art cinema, especially in the films of Yasujiro Ozu. Here too, the stillness of the images is motivated, and even animated with a kind of life, by those who observe them and then write about the reasons (authorial, stylistic, cultural) for what they have observed. Commonly accepted accounts of Aart cinema narration@, like those of Steve Neale and Bordwell, stress that art cinema differs from AHollywood cinema@ precisely in the way in which the former downplays action in favour of other kinds of image motivation (psychological, artistic). These ideas imply that art cinema emphasizes inference over direct perception and cultural knowledge over common sense.

At the same time, there is another, less ethereal, motivation for still images within an animated film, and that is stinginess. Frame-for-frame, stillness costs less than motion. ALimited animation@, which in this paper is called Anear-still imagery@, is one of the distinctive elements of the cheap made-for-television cartoons of the fifties and sixties, a period when it seemed as though the commonest animated image was one in which only a mouth moved (sometimes, as in the series Space Angel, a photographed human mouth). Neon Genesis Evangelion and Record of Lodoss War were also made-for-television and were also subject to financial constraints, which is one reason that they make extensive use of still images. Much of the cheap television animation of speech had the indirect and probably unintended effect of making the spoken word more of a significant source of the animation of the image than it had been in the kind of cartoons viewers had been used to seeing in movie theaters. The only animated part of the face, the mouth, was motivated by the words the character spoke. Everything around the mouth was still. In such shots it was as though the voice animated the entire character through its effect on the motions of the mouth. As we shall see, this effect has been extended and amplified in the series under consideration here.

Rick Thompson has pointed out to me that one of the principal intertextual motivator of much of the imagery in Japanese anime has been printed manga. The strong relation between these media is one of the ways in which Japanese animation has been until recently quite different from its American counterpart. Manga cartoon styles are imitated and adopted in virtually all anime, not just the ones based on previously published Japanese comic books. Anime also regularly engender manga. Manga, which almost always feature extreme and exaggerated emotions, may also be a principle source of the intensity of character=s feelings in anime--that is, of anime=s parallel emphasis on psychological motivation. In a certain sense, manga images also motivate the stillness of still images in anime. Still anime images act as cues for viewers to recognize a manga heritage in what they are watching.

Still imagery in Aclassical@ Japanese animation

When I first saw Japanese television animation, some years ago, I was impressed by the way in which overtly still imagery had been incorporated into an action-oriented narrative style that now in most ways seems to conform to David Bordwell=s well-known account of Aclassical narration@. The narratives of these programs are organized according to what Todorov calls the Amythological@ principal in which Athe reader=s interest is ... driven by the question What happens next?@. Actions, shots, characters seem designed exclusively to propel the narrative forward to the resolution of some dilemma proposed at the outset. This also seems to be the case with their use of still and near-still imagery. One example of this kind of series is Record of Lodoss War, which follows a group of adventurers in a fantasy world as they battle to save their land from the forces of chaos.

Arguably, the most interesting use of still imagery in Record of Lodoss War and other Aclassically narrated@ series occurs in action sequencesDwhere one might least expect it, and where its use most clearly distinguishes animated action from the Alive action@ of other films. The stillness in these action images depends first of all upon the stillness of the figure or figures in the image: combatants frozen in mid act. In one variation, the film frame (Athe camera@) is moved over or around the still figure(s). A still figure may appear to move diagonally simply through the motion of the film frame over the figure, for example. In another variant, an abstracted background appears to move while the figures remain still. Figures charge and jump in this way, with the background Ablurred@ in their implied movement. Another kind of still figure in action is animated by Alighting effects@ (strobing and flashing, for example) and other processes which affect the whole image (a moving abstract design layered over a still image, for example). The result, of course, is a moving image in all cases, not a still one. Yet at the same time, it is clear to any viewer that a different kind or level of animation is being applied to these images from the standard animation of moving figures, and that a key element of this level of animation is to be found precisely in the stillness of the figures upon and around which these animating techniques can be observed.

In many cases, it seems to me, the near still images used in action sequences are intended to evoke @another dimension@, a space time distinct from that of the mundane diegetic world. Thus in fantasy settings they are often associated with magic; but in other settings still action imagery seems to suggest the experience of power beyond normal understanding. Perhaps this is the reason that these images are so often sensationalized with overlain effects in the way I have described. The combination of overlaid sensation with underlying stillness, neither corresponding to the filmos construction of Aeveryday reality@, gives rise to a feeling of disturbance, a sense of being in the presence of a state that defies familiar explanations. Although this kind of ostentatious animation of stillness is applied in action sequences in a Aclassically narrated@ series like Record of Lodoss War, stillness is also noticeably used in that series, and others, for transitions and to underline significant moments within the narrative action, very much in the way that near still imagery is used in the films of Ozu and other postwar art cinema directors. Although other usages of still imagery occur with great frequency in Aclassically narrated@ Japanese anime, these types of still image stand out because they are noticeably still. Their stillness is foregrounded in the narration.

The story of Record of Lodoss War is a Tolkien like quest in which an alliance of disparate races (humans, elves, dwarves) and occupation groups (fighters, clerics, magic users, thieves) must overcome numerous perils and setbacks in order to defeat many powerful and cunning enemies before the entire land is overrun with corruption. Behind the spread of chaos are forces our heroes can only dimly comprehend, including the beautiful and manipulative Grey Witch, whose poisonous counsel has seemingly influenced all sides in the struggle. The very frequent still images of transition in Record of Lodoss War correspond neatly to what Todorov calls Aiterative discourse@, those written passages that are used to express continuity, the ways things have been and will be. Still images of landscape or cityscape over which the film frame moves often begin and/or end a sequence or an episode. Transitional imagery of this sort reinstates narrative; that is, it figures a location as a state which is to be (or has been) transformed by action. Although I am describing what happens like a cognitive reading, affect suffuses these images. Their static stillness is felt rather than interpreted. The still images associated with significant moments of the story suggest something portentous happening or about to happen; a still or near still image may be displayed just before a character utters a particularly important speech, for example. Such images also suspend the action, stretching out the passage of time; and, like the other images of stillness discussed in this section, they are often marked by the absence of dialogue on the soundtrack. These images are sometimes revelatory - as is true of the other still images I have described - their stillness apparently intended to incise the moment of revelation. In a still or near still image, we may be made aware that a hidden character is watching a scene, for example. Tension and emphasis is produced by this kind of stillness. The categories of action, transition and narrative significance by no means exhaust the usage of still imagery in Aclassical@ Japanese anime. Indeed, all of the categories I am about to describe as occurring in Neon Genesis Evangelion also occur in Record of Lodoss War and, presumably, in other Aclassical@ anime. However, in Record of Lodoss War and in other Aclassically narrated@ series that I am aware of, like Bubblegum Crisis (Baburugamu kuraishisu; Katsuhito Akiyama, Hiroaki Goda, 1985) and Mobile Suit Gundam (Kido senshi Gandamu; Ryoji Fujiwara, Yoshiyuki Tomino, 1979), these other still images seem somewhat glossed over, camouflaged by the logic of succession and the forward impetus of the story. Neon Genesis foregrounds its still imagery and by so doing makes such images a much more telling aspect of its narrational style.

Still imagery in Neon Genesis Evangelion

Still images are used in action sequences, in transitions and to underline significant narrative moments in Neon Genesis Evangelion, just as they are in Aclassical@ Japanese animation. However, In Neon Genesis, these usages are overshadowed by other ways that stillness is deployed in the series. The narrational style of Neon Genesis Evangelion seems to be founded in stillness; and stillness is not unconnected to the underlying thematics of the series, as we shall see.

It is quite difficult to retell the story of any television series lasting for 13 hours, but Neon Genesis Evangelion poses particular problems in this regard. On one level, for most of its length the same narrative pattern is repeated: an Angel attacks and the child-piloted EVAs defeat it. At the same time, we are also following a more or less traditional story about children growing up and learning about responsibility, centred on the figures of Shinji Ikari, who becomes an EVA pilot in the first episode, Misato Katsuragi a young military officer who takes on the role of a Abig sister@ to Shinji, and Commander Ikari, Shinji=s father, who heads the operation to save the world from the destructive Angel attacks. However, as the destruction wrought by the Angels increases, complicated secret agendas involving the alien technology used in the EVAs and the special abilities of their pilots are gradually revealed. Just as we are on the verge of fully understanding how and to what ends Commander Ikari and members of his scientific team have been clandestinely using and abusing this technology and their own children, the focus abruptly switches to an examination of the motives of Shinji and, to a lesser extent, another of the child pilots, Auska. In the last episodes, the reality of much of what we have seen earlier is put into question and the emphasis of the narrative shifts to haranguing Shinji and Auska into finding ways to overcome their personal problems and relate fully to the world around them.

The images of stillness that produce the strongest impression in the series are almost always accompanied by voice-over dialogue. Thus these more sophisticated images are directly related to the economically-motivated animated mouths of earlier television series. Yet in Neon Genesis Evangelion there appear to be a great many more images of stillness in which there are no moving mouths than is the case in more classically narrated series. In such images nothing moves at all. At the same time, in a kind of extension of the way in which voices take on added importance when only mouth are moving, the words heard over the stilled images in Neon Genesis Evangelion are usually loaded with significance and affect. On another level, perhaps these Neon Genesis Evangelion images can be understood as variants of the (often silent) images of stillness intended to underline or draw attention to significant moments in the narrative, described in the previous section. Certainly, as we shall see, the Neon Genesis Evangelion images are like those others in that they seem intended to carry a lot of narrative weight.

One type of these voice-over still images actually shows the characters who are speaking the lines we hear. Perhaps the most noticeable subgroup of such images shows CUs of Commander Ikari, Shinji=s father, speaking with his hands folded in front of his mouth so that nothing around his face moves at all. Ikari is represented as an Acold@ person. He never gives any of his plans away and keeps his emotions Ainside@. Shinji is constantly asking him for affection which he never displays. The still image, then, bears a metaphoric relation to the character=s fictional being which is first of all Afelt@ rather than cognitively perceived. It also places a remarkable image of stillness at the apex of the series= diegetic power hierarchy, for Ikari always seems to know more and to command more power even than those who are supposed to be his masters.

But there are also quite a number of images of stillness associated with the character of Shinji himself, who is the narrative focus of the series. Two remarkable instances of still and near-still imagery with voice-over dialogue occur during and after a celebratory party in the episode called AThe Value of a Miracle is ...@. During the party at several points we are shown CUs of Shinji=s still face and, once, a CU of the back of his seated body. These images focus attention on the dialogue spoken at the party, and they are intuitively understood as cues to think or feel Shinji=s reactions to what is being said (Anot exactly the party type ... really cool-looking guy who never shaves ... what a real man is like ... I=m just not used to being around so many people. Why do they have to be so noisy? ... You don=t look very happy at all ... I=m happy, but that=s not the reason I do what I do@). Shinji=s invisible reactions, in turn, are partly related to his/our memories of previous incidents in the series (his not being Aa man@; his discomfort in groups; his inability to find a personal motive for being an EVA pilot). The party has been held to celebrate Misato=s promotion to major, an event Shinji had not noticed although he lives in the same apartment. Somewhat later in the same episode, as he is being loaded into his EVA to go out and destroy another attacking Angel, Shinji recalls a follow-up conversation with Misato. In a sequence composed mainly of still and Alimited animation@ images, he remembers Misato=s telling him about her motivation for joining the fight against the Angels and her relationship with her father. During this remembered sequence another sub-sequence of strikingly composed and colored still images represents Shinji=s other, less coherent but much more emotionally significant, memories of his own relationship with his father, Commander Ikari. Shinji=s memory of the conversation in which the memory of his memories is embedded begins with a CU of his near-still face inside the living symbiotic machinery of the EVA. In this case too, stillness cues viewers to feel what is Ainside@ Shinji, that is, what is (at least initially) neither seen nor heard. Moreover, Shinji=s continual association with stillness reiterates the relation of the animation of his figure with a set of invisible relations that the narrative is ultimately directed towards making visible in the final episodes.

All of these still images surrounding Shinji seem on one level to be primarily tied to that character=s psychological motivation. Narratively, the final (deepest) layer is also an explicit visual reference back to earlier episodes (it contains images that occur in the first episode and several later ones) and a forerunner of the series= notorious psycho-therapeutic ending, in which many, many still and near-still images are deployed. Thus viewers are enabled to motivate, or animate, this particular subsequence psychologically, compositionally, and even artistically through the ways in which the images call attention to themselves as images. A contrasting category of still imagery in Neon Genesis Evangelion shows groups of speaking characters rather than single individuals. These are usually XLSs or otherwise so angled that no mouth motion would be perceptible, were there mouths to move. Such images most often occur in Alive action@ films as establishing shots, although high-angled dialogue XL panels are not uncommon in printed comics and manga. They are extremely common in all anime and are by no means unique to Neon Genesis Evangelion. But, as I will suggest, they are especially conspicuous in this series.

In Neon Genesis these kinds of still images are sometimes used classically to establish a scene or a setting; but they may also recur during a sequence as one of a number of shot-choices varied, at least partly, for rhythmic or decorative reasons (that is, Aartistically motivated@). Overall, their stillness contributes to the sense of the isolation of the special military and scientific team involved in combatting the Angels (since most of the speaking groups consist of members of that team: officers, scientists, technicians and child pilots) and, perhaps more importantly, to the sense of the portent of what they are doing. But perhaps the strongest effect of these more distanced images of stillness is derived from their ostentation. These still images draw the viewer=s attention. They separate themselves from the flow of moving images around them. On one level then, they are very clear markers of stylization: they point to what Bordwell would call a Aparametric@ dimension of this anime=s narration. And they do so partly because of their stillness and partly because that quality is repeated over many different groups. The effect is AHere is another still image of a group, and another, and another@. Ultimately, I think they may suggest the static and repeated nature of the narrative=s activity, its futility, its sense of getting nowhere (an idea to which I will return in a bit).

A subspecies of the still and near-still images involving groups often are deployed in sequences illustrating the team=s discovery of an Angel attack and the preparations for combatting the menace. These stills, inserted in sequences dominated by urgent group dialogue, often do not show moving characters at all. Indeed, quite a number are diagrammatic: simulating computer maps and other grids (and not unconnected with the flat modernist look of the later Angels). This usage is at least partly connected with the creation and maintenance of suspense. In such sequences viewers become conscious of the passing of time almost to the degree that movement is suspended. A certain kind of highly-charged Alife@ is imparted to the image in exchange for the motion missing from it. In all of these images of stillness, melodramatic speech provides a key layer of animation. It is not too much to say that our perception of the voice-over dialogue Aanimates@ these images, taking over the function of the perception of motion in traditional figure animation. But in many instances in Neon Genesis Evangelion, the perceived relation of dialogue to images is somewhat indirect (we see Shinji listening but the words are not directly about him; we see a diagrammatic image but the words may not seem to refer to anything directly in that image). The lack of an immediate, direct relation contributes to the Adifficulty@ of the series= narration.

In the party sequence referred to earlier, we have to interpret the effects of the dialogue on Shinji on the basis of what we have inferred about him--not a tough job for most people who watch films and television programs. But then, a bit later, we have to recognize that the still images of Shinji and Misato in conversation denote a short-term memory connected to the previous directly-imaged exchange. And another level of understanding is necessary to recognize that the montaged and recycled still imagery within the later conversation not only provides clues for retroactively understanding Shinji=s reaction to what Misato said at the party, but also functions as an unvoiced basis for perceiving that his relations with his father resemble what she is telling him about her relations with her father. In the case of the still images used as the team prepares for an attack, although there surely is a tendency to treat the diagrammatic visuals as functionally meaningless wall-paper and to devote full attention to the narrative and affective functions of the dialogue, the abstract stillness of the imagery points to places that are not quite human. They suggest machined and mathematical realms that seem to belie whatever the characters want and do. In the series, the team=s own AMAGI@ computers and the EVA robots slowly seem to gain conscious control of their own actions and to manipulate the humans around them. Thus, in the terms that the series ultimately poses, such images may depict the fateful circuitry of the psyche that stands between the children=s desires and their fulfilment. If you will, the suspense in the diagrammatic images is metaphysical and psychological as well as the product of narrative action.

In Todorov=s terms, one principle of the narrative of Neon Genesis is, like that of many anime narratives, Agnoseological@: like a classical detective story, it is one of those Anarratives in which the event itself is less important than our perception of it, and degree of knowledge we have of it@. The series continually uses stills of Shinji and his surroundings to direct attention to his state of mind and to his memories, constantly reminding viewers that what is going on inside his head warrants our attention--and in this way predicting its own psychological denouement. However, the climax of the series also suggests something more than this. By suppressing the Angel attacks almost entirely, the final episodes strongly imply that those attacks may have existed only as manifestations of what was going on inside Shinji (or the world soul). The visible Amythological@ story, then, may appear in the end to be nothing more than the effects of those stalled invisible and interior relations the series has mapped as stillness. This would mean that another principle governs this narrative--an ideological principle in Todorov=s terms. What happens is the result of the application of Aan abstract rule, an idea ... One no longer moves from a negative to a positive version, or from ignorance to knowledge. Instead, actions are linked through the intermediary of an abstract formula@. In this reading, the actions of Neon Genesis are animated by inaction (for a rule is not an action), its frenetic and repeated movement is motivated by--and expresses--an underlying stasis in much the same way that entropy is manifested in chaotic motion.

Thus, the stillness of these images leads viewers in two related directions. They are cues for Aa psychologized reading@, for understanding and animating virtually everything that one sees as expressions of a character=s psyche. In this way, they can be understood within what Bordwell calls Athe norms@ of Aart cinema@. And at the same time, they signal the overt presence of style: they repeatedly and obviously call attention to the considerable artifice of the series= narration. That is, they can be read within Aparametric norms@. (For example, the still of Shinji=s back during the conversation at the party, mentioned above, is echoed at the end of that episode in an image of the backs of Shinji, Misato and the other EVA pilots while they eat noodles and chat after having defeated the thirteenth wave of Angels). Both of these readings complicate and conflict with any simple Aclassical@ or Amythological@ understanding of the series and both of these readings animate their images primarily through affect and sensation at the expense of cognition and our knowledge of the ordinary conventions of storytelling.

In the end, however, what distinguishes Neon Genesis from other contemporary anime series such as the extraordinary Revolutionary Girl Utena (Shojo kakumei Utena; Kunihiko Ikuhara, 1997) is not its use of Aart cinema@ and Aparametric@ narration, but the weight such styles are given through the series= extensive and ostentatious deployment of still imagery. Other popular and apparently conventional series may be narrated in equally complex and Aunclassical@ ways, but do not call attention to the means of their narration in such a heavy-handed way. Neon Genesis seems anxious to make sure that viewers recognize that it is an example of what the cultural theorist, Simon During, has called Aheavy culture@, and one of the principal means it uses to effect that recognition is the still image.

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