A review requested by Bryce Wilson, with thanks for his multiple contributions to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

I groused that Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone writes too damn many IOUs to work as its own thing. And wouldn't you know, the second part actually pays off some of those IOUS!

We have another title situation, though this time the English situation is more straightforward. There was a 2009 theatrical cut, Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance, running 108 minutes; the only home media releases in any country are of the 112-minute version titled Evangelion 2.22. The original Japanese name for the film, meanwhile, is New Evangelion Movie: Break, and I am told that the Japanese subtitles for the three movies are an overt reference to the structure of a Noh play. I am in no way qualified to talk about such things. But I do know that the word "break" can mean "to split away", and that's exactly what You Can (Not) Advance does: while it starts off copying the original series with only some differences in flavor, by the time it ends, it's telling a completely different story using the same characters and themes.

So that being the case, let's not dwell on it. The second film, like the first, is mostly designed to tell a self-contained story, though while You Are (Not) Alone describes a pretty clear individual arc around Shinji's emotional growth, You Can (Not) Advance borrows most of its emotional resonance from the viewer's awareness of the first movie. Such is the luxury of sequels, of course, but I find it leaves You Can (Not) Advance a bit less satisfying in its own right, since Shinji's development this time around lacks such an elegant shape. The first act, if you will, is assumed, rather than depicted. This is perhaps the reason that the second movie ends up more invested in narrative progression than character development, relative to the first movie and certainly relative to the show, which had the benefit of growing over a period of hours what here needs to be covered in an hour.

What this costs You Can (Not) Advance in psychological subtlety, it earns partially back in intensity. The major new character in this film, German-Japanese Eva pilot Shikinami Asuka Langley (Miyamura Yuko), is a barreling force of antagonistic id, self-centered and arrogant and eager to lash out at the other teens for the unforgivable sin of being imperfect in her presence. She's written as a collection of bold strokes, a blast of energy where Shinji is compressed and Rei completely unknowable, and having her in the mix balances out the film's emotional energy well. Instead of the one-man study of the first movie, we have now a triangulation of three different ways of deal with self-doubt and the fear of loneliness, and the result is more complex and rewarding than You Are (Not) Alone.

That's the idea, anyway. In practice, You Can (Not) Advance is moving so quickly that something has to give, and for the most part, it's the depth of characters' relationships. It's clear that the essentialist feelings Asuka is blasting out constantly are there to distract everybody from what's going on in her head, and we're meant to be sophisticated enough to read her layers even when she's not showing them all at once. The thing is, You Can (Not) Advance is so full of incidents and developments that just about everybody is presented in more or less equally essentialist terms. It's a character sketch, not a character study, and in that respect at least, I absolutely break from the consensus opinion that the sequel is a definite all-around improvement on the first film.

Generally speaking, though, the consensus is spot on. The "break" of the Japanese title can be read as more than just a break from the plot of the original series; in a similar fashion, the movie breaks from focusing on individuals as singular personalities to focusing on individuals as elements in a more cosmic framework. Particularly in the second half, You Can (Not) Advance is more or less gunning to be an opera of sorts, using grandiose sequences and an impressively wide range of musical expressions to express a story on Big Themes expressed with Big Style.

At the most superficial level, this means more and bigger robot fights, and if there's one clear-cut reason to prefer the second film to the first, it's because the action is so vastly more impressive this time around. The ambitious scale of all the fights, both in their choreography and in the fearless way they mix traditional and computer-generated animation, puts even the most dazzling spectacle of the first movie to shame, and this one jumps to another level entirely during its protracted climax, a multi-stage battle involving a mixture of locations, characters, and depictions of fighting technique, veering from pure popcorn movie vivacity to abstract behavior mired in the twists of the series' elliptical mythology and expressed in art that seems to detach themselves from the movie to work as solitary images, like a comic book made entire of splash pages. It's gorgeous even when it's thoroughly baffling, which is more often than not; the other thing that happens besides bigger fights is more esoteric storytelling - if you noted that I haven't done much in the way of plot recapping for this second film, it's because the plot defies synopsis. It goes basically like, "Asuka comes in to upset the delicate emotional detente between the established main characters and strike up antagonistic sexual chemistry with Shinji, after which a long sequence makes deliberately no sense except that it's something to do with deliberately triggering the end of humanity, possibly to save humanity", with most of its conflict and stakes happening in a philosophical plane that's not always easy to parse, particularly since the film kicks so much of it down the line. I'll confess that this isn't not my favorite part of Evangelion, not in the TV series and not in these movies. The film does its best to make the character development and the grand-scale storytelling depend on each other, but it's a little too easy for the focus to drift.

You Can (Not) Advance leaves a lot of raggedness in its pursuit of bigger stakes presented with a grander sense of mystery; there's an entire character, Makinami Mari Illustrious (Sakamoto Maaya), whose presence suggests that she's being put into place for later purposes rather than because the plot actually needs her; she feels throughout rather like she exists outside the narrative commenting on it. And like You Are (Not) Alone, this film doesn't bother resolving itself, and compounds it by ending on a particular note of apocalyptic grandeur that is then directly contradicted by a scene that appears after the end credits. And this strikes me as sloppy storytelling more interested in the broad strokes than the fine details, anyway.

And yet, You Can (Not) Advance did the one thing I absolutely needed it to: it drew from the character development of the first movie and sent the story and characters in new directions that feel entirely organic from what went before, giving Shinji in particular a more daunting set of internal and external obstacles to overcome in the process of proving to himself that he has value, is loved, and is capable of loving. Perched on the vantage point of 2009, it's not too hard to be optimistic that the next film could redeem this one as thoroughly as this redeemed the first, even though the story has expanded so much with so little clarity, that there's quite a lot more to redeem this time.

Reviews in this series
Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone (Anno et al, 2007)
Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance (Anno et al, 2009)
Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo (Anno et al, 2012)