Japanese Narrative in Neon Genesis Evangelion

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Jo-Ha-Kyu and Kishotenketsu

This is based on a forum post by UrsusArctos from 2020 examining the role of Japanese narrative in Eva. There are elements in the Evangelion that are uniquely, distinctly Japanese in origin. One of those is the narrative structure, which is based off pre-existing narratives in the Japanese theatrical tradition. There are two broad categories - Jo-Ha-Kyu, or the three-part narrative structure, and Kishotenketsu, or the four (actually five) part narrative structure.

Jo-Ha-Kyu roughly translates into “beginning, break, rapid”, with a slow-paced and gentle introduction, the introduction of conflict and an increased tempo in the ‘break’ section, and increased pathos with a dramatic twist in the third section, leading to a rapid conclusion at the end of the three sections.

Kishotenketsu is a four-part variation of Jo-Ha-Kyu. The opening act or “Ki” in a kabuki play is meant to be pleasant and draw the viewers in, depicting an ‘auspicious’ state of the world. The “Sho” or second part features an increased tempo, often characterized as “warriors and battles” even if it doesn’t feature actual warfare. The third part or “Ten” introduces the “turn” or dramatic twist in the tale, and is loaded with pathos and suffering. The fourth part is a “michiyuki” or journey, featuring mostly song and dance and helping cut down on the pathos of the previous section. The fifth part is a rapid conclusion that “returns the world to an auspicious state”.

Sorting the episodes differently

Both NGE and NTE use the Japanese Jo-Ha-Kyu and Kishotenketsu narratives, but very differently. NTE apparently was meant to be a Jo-Ha-Kyu plus conclusion narrative structure, but with the reworking of Evangelion 3.0 and the removal of a number of plot points, it turned more into a Kishotenketsu structure. NGE actually uses both, but in a less apparent way.

I begin with the original, Neon Genesis Evangelion. NGE apparently uses the Jo-Ha-Kyu plus conclusion structure over the length of the production in three eight-episode arcs, but it also roughly follows Kishotenketsu in 4-episode “blocks”. Broken down in this manner, Episodes 1 to 8 are the opening, or “Jo” section of NGE, Episodes 9 to 16 are the “Ha” or “break” section, and Episodes 17-24 are the “Kyu” or “rapid” section, leaving 25 and 26 to a rapid and bitter conclusion (all the more so with Episodes 25' and 26' in End of Evangelion). They’re all evenly spaced out in terms of episodes, which is why the beginning takes a while to get going, but the action picks up significantly afterwards, and the descent follows and stays crushingly on course for a while after that. Episodes 8, 16 and 24 are the key transition episodes where one arc turns into another.

Previous groupings of NGE episodes put them into the “introduction arc”, “action arc”, “descent arc” and “bitter end”. However, I think the 8-episode grouping, like notes in an octave or elements in a periodic table, makes better narrative sense with Japanese narrative, and helps explain certain elements of NGE's pacing.

However, Anno and company appear to have played with the standard narrative in a very significant way. The opening of a Japanese play, no matter which of the two conventions you follow, is meant to have gentle themes, and an “auspicious” state of the world. From the very first episode of NGE, it’s obvious that things are not auspicious at all, with the conflict between Shinji and Gendo and the appearance of a bandaged, bloodied Rei. Even when something isn’t obviously rotten in Tokyo-3 it doesn’t take much to see that there’s more going on than meets the eye, particularly in Episode 07. Actions have consequences, often unpleasant ones, and each Angel battle is fraught with danger and brings about some kind of a change in Shinji.

From a narrative standpoint, all the Angels in the "Jo" part serve to connect Shinji to different people and bring him into the world. Sachiel's arrival connects Shinji to Tokyo-3 and everyone at Nerv, the Shamshel battle connects Shinji to Toji and Kensuke, and Ramiel's attempt at turning him into a boiled lobster connects him to Rei. Gaghiel follows the pattern by connecting Shinji to Asuka and Misato to Kaji. Making Episode 08 a part of the introduction explains both the relatively late introduction of Asuka and Kaji, nearly a third of the way into the series' run, and it also explains the transition in tone in Episode 08 to the next set of eight episodes that follows - their introduction marks the end of the "Jo" section and the transition to the "Ha" section. This is a pattern that repeats for Episodes 08, 16, and 24. Each one features an Angel battle. While the battle itself has the thematic result appropriate for the section (as I explain below), the tone of the episode and its consequences telegraph the part that follows - in this case, the Gaghiel battle is accompanied by a fair amount of Asuka-Shinji slapstick instead of being traumatic like the previous three Angel battles.

Throttling back on the consequences

Shinji suffers significant trauma during the Sachiel, Shamshel and Ramiel battles, and the atmosphere presented in the early episodes can be fairly grim. To continue to depict realistic or traumatic consequences for Angel battles during a section that traditionally is more action-intense would simply shove the characters straight downhill, and likely alienate the viewers with continued grimness. The narrative decision taken by NGE's production staff is as simple as it is superb - to temporarily cut back on the trauma and play events more like a classic super robot show, while increasing character development.

So, rather than continuing with each Angel battle bringing its own negative consequences and traumas, the Angel battles from Episodes 09 to 16 bring on a lot more action while cutting the consequences. The Angel battles here help the characters develop further in their relationship with each other. As a result, the Angels fought in this section, even the powerful Sahaquiel and sneaky Ireul, land up being monsters of the week and the pilots fight them with relatively little in the way of traumatic consequences or changes – even Gendo dodges retribution from Seele about Ireul’s intrusion and hacking of the Magi in Episode 13.

Everything needs to lighten up to continue narrative development without consequences- so that when those consequences come, in the form of Leliel swallowing Eva-01 into its “shadow” and speaking to Shinji directly, the third or “Kyu” portion of NGE kicks off right when the “Jo” portion left off. The Leliel battle in Episode 16 does not have the same destructive effect as the battles that follow it, but as a transition episode it telegraphs the darkness of the following "Kyu" section with its subdued tone, the reveal of Yui within the Eva, Asuka's growing resentment of Shinji, and the Misato-Ritsuko and Asuka-Rei conflicts.

Effectively, both “Jo” and “Ha” meet together to form “Kyu”, rather like one train track branching off from the other before looping back to meet it and resume its previous course, or like Episodes 25 and 26 being concurrent with End of Evangelion for Shinji’s mental state, if you will. The battles with Bardiel, Zeruel, Arael and Armisael come with horrific consequences for the pilots and from the narrative perspective serve to demolish character psyches and shred relationships, breaking the connections formed and developed earlier.

Our old buddy Kaworu Nagisa really kicks things off into the conclusion with Episode 24 being the transition to the bitter end, with Shinji at his lowest and yet more mayhem to come. Episodes 25 and 26, then, are the conclusion to the Jo-Ha-Kyu narrative structure, bringing things to a swift return to…umm…well, whether you call it “auspicious” is debatable depending on whether you’re watching the end of Episode 26 or 26’, but poor Shinji seems to have gotten some good out of all that madness, even if it left him on a beach with Asuka and a disintegrating GNR...erm…whatever. For what it's worth, the reveal that mankind is effectively the final, eighteenth Angel, the one that is the most capable of creating and demolishing connections at will, fits very well indeed.

Kishotenketsu - putting the episodes in sets of four

More subtle are the 4-episode kishotenketsu arcs, which I hadn’t realized existed until I tried applying the kishotenketsu pattern to individual episodes. Every four episodes of NGE form a “block” of sorts that sticks to that particular narrative pattern, if loosely so, with an introduction, development, change and conclusion. The first four episodes – Block 1, if you will – introduce us to the world Shinji is. Episode 01 is the introduction, with the actual Angel battle in Episode 02 with the subsequent increase in tension across the episode. Episode 03 shows the ugly consequences of the battle and the less-than-sunny aspects of Shinji’s pilot status (Toji’s angry because of his sister being hurt, Shinji goes nuts fighting Shamshel) and Episode 04 shows Shinji running away, going on a journey of his own and finally, at the conclusion, establishing himself in Tokyo-3 for good.

When cast in this light, the four-episode block pattern continues throughout NGE. Episode 05 is the first proper introduction to Rei's bleak existence and Episode 06 covers both Rei and the energetic buildup to Operation Yashima against Ramiel. It also introduces a caring side to Shinji. Episode 07 introduces a twist in showing more of the world outside and demonstrating Nerv’s shadiness while hinting at Eva-02’s arrival in the next episode, while Episode 08 pays that off spectacularly with the naval battle against Gaghiel, Asuka’s arrival, Gendo's behind-the-scenes scheming, and the kickoff to the next big arc.

Episodes 09, 10, 11 and 12 are the ones that feature the most “monster-of-the-week” fighting, but the real tension in these episodes deals with “why fight the Angels and why pilot the Evas”, and it’s no coincidence that this question is put forward in Episode 11 and answered by Misato in 12 – in addition to the rather suspicious twist in events in 11 (sabotaging Nerv’s power) – the key question gets answered for Shinji at the conclusion of Episode 12. He wants to pilot the Eva and fight the Angels so his father can praise him, and Misato is fighting the Angels as revenge for her father’s death. I’ll note off the bat that this arc is weak because the thematic change in Episode 11 isn’t nearly as pronounced as it could be. Additionally, Episode 10, widely regarded (for good reasons) as the weakest episode in the series, is lacking in the sort of overly increased tempo that’d transition into a turn into Episode 11.

The 4-episode block pattern also explains why Episodes 13 and 14 are placed where they are, they’re really meant as the dramatic setup for the revelations/development of Episodes 15 and 16 right afterwards. Episode 13 is a buried reference to the origins of the Angels and indirectly introduces us to Ritsuko's dead mother - it's worth a full post of its own - and Episode 14 satisfies the "battle" requirement by showing a clip show of the previous Angel battles. Episode 15 turns things around by revealing little aspects of life and interpersonal relationships in Tokyo-3 that turn out to be VERY important later.

The reveal of Yui within the Eva in 16 and the horrible gore of Leliel’s demise mark the end of both the block and the arc, and set up the “bloodbath block” that features the most gore and brutality. The quiet tension of Episode 17 sets up the horrific Bardiel battle of Episode 18, the shocking change in Eva-01 as it eats Zeruel in Episode 19, and having those consequences - interpersonal and otherwise - play out in Episode 20 round out all four elements. Episode 21, taking up after Shinji’s rebirth in Episode 20 with the birth theme in its very title (“The birth of Nerv”) shows us past characters like Yui Ikari and Naoko Akagi, gives us backstory for all the adult characters, and becomes the quiet setup episode of the four-episode “despair block” that it belongs to. Kaworu’s death in Episode 24 ends the block pattern and ushers in the apocalyptic end.

Overall, NGE breaks into 6+1 "blocks" : Intro block – Expansion block – Action block – Development block - Bloodbath block - Despair block - Apocalypse, each block except the very end being in a Kishotenketsu 4-episode structure.