Sunday, October 11, 2015

Review: NEON GENESIS EVANGELION: THE SHINJI IKARI RAISING PROJECT

So do you remember that bit in the final episode of Evangelion where the show briefly turns into your standard ordinary high school anime show?  Well, that bit seems to have resonated with a LOT of Evangelion fans because it's one of the most popular premises for Evangelion spinoff materials, including manga.  Today's review is not the first, but it's easily the best known of all the Evangelion spinoff manga.

NEON GENESIS EVANGELION: THE SHINJI IKARI RAISING PROJECT (Shin Seiki Evangelion: Ikari Shinji Ikusei Keikaku), by Osamu Takahashi.  First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2009.

 
PLOT:

Inside an ordinary apartment inside an ordinary complex you will find Shinji Ikari living with his ordinary two-parent household.  Every day he walks to his ordinary school with his moody childhood friend Asuka Langley Soryu.  This particular day would be just another ordinary school day if not for the fact that a mysterious new girl named Rei Ayanami is joining their class.  Shinji is awed by Rei's looks and cheerful personality, but Asuka is frustrated that she now has competition for Shinji's attention.  Now it seems like everyone around Shinji is trying to push him towards a relationship with one of the girls: his friends, his homeroom teacher Misato, Ritsuko the school nurse, even Shinji's mother Yui.  Of course, they may have alterior motives, as all three kids seem to be connected to Yui's mysterious project over at NERV.

STORY:

I swear, for the life of me I will never understand the urge that drives people to make series like this.  Oh, I get it as a reference to the episode mentioned above, but who honestly sits down and thinks "You know what would make Evangelion even better?  Let's turn into a generic harem anime!"

SIRP has something of an odd history.  While it's technically inspired by Episode 26, it's also technically a video game adaptation.  More specifically, it's an adaptation of one of the many licensed dating sim-style games that sprung up in the late 90s and early 2000s where the measure of success was not determined by fighting Angels but instead by your character stats and what girl (or boy - Kaworu is an option) you ended up with.  This particular game was popular enough to transform into a manga, which is how we ended up with this series.

The usual cast of characters are here, albeit in more mundane roles.  While NERV still exists and SEELE is a rumor, just about every cast member who isn't a teenager has been turned into school staff members.  Personality-wise, most the cast remains the same, but our leading trio has undergone a bit of transformation.  All of the tragic and psychotic edges of their personalities have been sanded off, and in Rei's case she's had a complete personality transplant.  That's why this version of Shinji is happier and more stable, why Rei is friendly and warm, and why Asuka is a more typical tsundere instead of her usual Super Queen Kamehameha Bee-yotch self.  Since this story is set at a school, we get to see a lot more of the other teen cast members.  Unfortunately that means the reader gets to spend more time with the girl-crazy duo of Kensuke and Toji, as well as the broad Noo Yawk accent that the translators gave to Toji.

The biggest problem is that until the main trio end up in their plug suits at NERV, the story is simply DROWNING in clichés.  Oh look, a new girl in class!  Oh look, it's festival time!  Now we're going to the beach!  Every story beat here is as old as time and adding the cast of Evangelion doesn't make them feel any fresher.  If anything, it makes the Evangelion angle all the more pointless.  After all,  what makes Evangelion unique amongst mecha shows is its own particular take on sci-fi and mecha tropes as well as the numerous tragedies and psychoses that define its cast and the plot at large (as well as the secondary narrative that grew out of GAINAX's and Anno's own troubles during the production).  To me, these are the qualities that make Evangelion unique, the qualities that keep people talking about it twenty years later.  That's why I'm utterly baffled by SIRP's take on the Evangelion universe.  You can just write it all off as just a gentle brand of fanservice, but to me taking all of those qualities, throwing them out the window for a generic anime set-up, and making the biggest conflict "who should Shinji bone?" is to me missing the point of Evangelion on an epic scale.

ART:

SIRP's story might bug me a lot, but as far Evangelion manga spinoffs go it has some of the best artwork you'll find.  The character designs are all fairly close to Sadamoto's originals, although they are all a bit more rounded and the faces are a bit more plain.  If anything, though, Takahashi seems a bit too focused on some particular parts of those rounded forms, as he finds many excuses to have Rei and Asuka show off their undergarments or their swimwear and the panels seem to magically expand once those bits start to show up.  Everything else seems rather mundane artistically.  Even NERV comes off as rather plain when it should be anything but that.  It's all perfectly solid on a technical level, but in the larger scale of things it's not all that special or remarkable.

PRESENTATION:

In addition to the story, there's also a gag manga where EVA-01 and Zeruel the Angel complain about the fact that they're not in the story.  They even go so far as to take up a bit of cosplay to boost their appeal, and this omake is by far the funniest thing in the whole volume.  There's also a bit of bonus artwork, including an image of Gendo that riffs on the famous Obama campaign poster.  There's also "Misato's Fan Service Corner," a regular feature for the Dark Horse Evangelion manga that allows chief editor and avowed GAINAX fan Carl Gustav Horn to talk about the franchise in general.  In this particular edition, he talks about some bizarre merchandise, some of his own thoughts on the franchise, and some of the interesting twists and references from the show that made their way into the story.  It's not enough to save this manga for me, but I cannot fault the man for his enthusiasm.

RATING:

Shinji Ikari Raising Project is just OK.  The story is dull but inoffensive and the artwork is perfectly competent.  It's just far too enslaved to anime schoolroom clichés to be an object of interest to anyone other than the Evangelion faithful, and even that might be rather conditional.

This series is published by Dark Horse.  This series is ongoing in Japan with 17 volumes available.  15 volumes have been published and all are currently in print. 

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