‘The End of Evangelion’ and Stan Brakhage

The film The End of Evangelion doesn’t open with the normal logo of production house Studio Gainax. Their typically unremarkable, austere card is replaced by the studio’s name briefly appearing in a lower corner of the screen, scratchy and erratically vibrating. Most people won’t think anything of this change (especially not considering the film that follows it) but it immediately put me in mind of a filmmaker whose influence is felt throughout the rest of the runtime. Studio Gainax and directors Hideaki Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki make conscious reference to an icon of American experimental film. I’d like to break down how The End of Evangelion pays homage to the work of Stan Brakhage.

Brakhage’s artistic output (somewhere in the realm of hundreds of films created over the course of a half-century) covered a wide variety of formal and aesthetic ideas. Many of his best-known works share little obvious common ground beyond an impulse towards what, were the term not in use for a completely different purpose, I would call a direct cinema. Brakhage used the film strip not as a mere tool, but as a canvas unto itself. One of his most recognizable films, Mothlight, was famously created without using a camera. He collected elements of nature like moth wings and blades of grass, stuck them to a strip of film, and ran it through a projector. The celluloid became itself a physical element of the film’s creation and presentation, rather than merely a conduit for the images it conveyed. Brakhage was fascinated by the way film itself could be manipulated to create visual art. He stuck objects to it, he painted on it, and perhaps most famously, he scratched it.

Most of Brakhage’s films begin or end with the familiar signature “By Brakhage,” but in his mid-late period the title tends to appear scrawled by hand directly onto the film strip. The text is always wildly shaky, a product of the technique’s imprecision, and a fitting companion to Brakhage’s typical quick cutting and zippy movement. It’s this signature that The End of Evangelion calls back to with its production company logo. It’s a tribute to a man who was a clear forerunner not just for this film, but for experimental animation at large.

The film itself uses Brakhage’s scratching technique at key moments, to accentuate the characters’ emotional turmoil and suggest a frenetic, suffering mind. Brakhage was never quite so literal in connecting the tone conveyed by his aesthetic to the conveyance of any narrative feeling. That’s the nature of making a narrative film like The End of Evangelion, though.

I don’t know if Brakhage ever called himself an animator, or if he would have considered his film strip experiments animation. The case can be made, though, that he fits neatly into that category. His painted works in particular are the most obvious candidates, and all his non-camera films may technically qualify. Surely if stop-motion animation exists, the manipulation of real-life elements to create the illusion of motivated physical action, then Mothlight or its companion The Garden of Earthly Delights can be called a kind of animation. Was Brakhage a pioneer in a medium he never considered himself a part of? If you ask Hideaki Anno, I’m sure he’d say yes.

The End of Evangelion was produced using largely traditional animation techniques, a far cry from the level of experimentation on which Brakhage operated. Still, one can see more than a shadow of his work throughout the film. The use of quick cuts in the film’s scenes of heightened drama and action, while nothing new for fight-oriented mecha anime, in this context recall Brakhage’s editing style. Brakhage made frequent use of in-camera editing — that is to say, a lack of post-production editing, wherein shots are laid in sequence exactly as they were shot.

While this is absolutely not how The End of Evangelion was produced, its editing still recalls the rapid cuts of, for example, Brakhage’s Dog Star Man. It’s to the same effect, as well. Brakhage cut so quickly to blend his images together, an aggressive counterpoint to classic Soviet montage. His films are a miasma of light and color without many distinct “shots” in the way we typically think of them. Everything in a Brakhage film is meant to be part of one whole. The End of Evangelion similarly concocts a coherent “whole” image out of relative incoherence.

The other way it achieves this is through another familiar Brakhage technique: superimposition. It’s used in a majority of his films to some degree; one might call it his signature move. It’s all over Dog Star Man and most of what are considered his major works, like The Wonder Ring and Window Water Baby Moving. Brakhage used it to a similar purpose as his editing, that being the melding of discrete images to create something new. Superimposition allowed this more directly. Images could be combined through transparency to communicate something that they could not on their own, or even in edited sequence. Brakhage often used superimposition to suggest the resurgence of memory, which is exactly how The End of Evangelion uses it towards the end of the film. An extended montage of clips from episodes of the television show as well as other evocative imagery are laid on top of each other and rapidly cycled through, creating a visual experience akin wherein no one component is visible or even comprehensible. They all contribute to the whole. As far as the film’s narrative goes, what is Instrumentality if not the superimposition of billions of souls, all seen through one another as a single being of warm orange goo?

The End of Evangelion actually goes further than Brakhage and extends this technique to audio. Almost all of Brakhage’s work was silent, so concerned was he with the visual element that he rarely gave a moment’s thought to the audible. The End of Evangelion uses his visual principles in audio, overlaying multiple tracks of dialogue and sound effects so that they comprise a barely distinguishable whole, that whole being protagonist Shinji’s tattered mind. The voices of various characters swirl through his subconscious, mocking him and pleading with him and rejecting him and hating him. It’s at once a thousand thoughts and a single thought, as the images are numerous and singular, as the people of Evangelion’s Earth are individuals and one being.

Even The End of Evangelion’s brief break towards live-action makes one think of Brakhage’s The Wold-Shadow, a three-minute short wherein a still shot of a forest gives way to abstract paintings which recall the treeline imagery, as well as the found footage elements of Murder Psalm. It’s Brakhage in reverse, the “real” and “unreal” colliding. These live-action shots otherwise feel very Brakhage in their intimate sweep, their gentle movement, their vague sense of unease. The small montage of crayon drawings is also reminiscent of Brakhage’s scratching as well as his paint work. Brakhage is all over this film. You may as well call him co-director for the influence he exerts over it. In paying homage to Stan Brakhage, Evangelion shows its skill at iterating on the past rather than reinventing. Brakhage would have been proud, and I can’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have been a little jealous too.