|Instead, what? Someone got in a scrap, someone else got run over. Big deal… No matter how 'minor' the tragedies that befell Isami, Ai and Miho, the most important fact was that they never became adults equal to the wonderful, vibrant children we knew them as.|
I didn't think they were minor tragedies, perhaps because I regularly deal with the aftermath of car crashes and knife fights. I appreciate you're exaggerating for effect based on your reassessment of your initial reaction, but I actually found it rather refreshing that some of the horror that was experienced was just plain… mundane. Also remember that this was Noein's past, it wasn't the knight's past and it wasn't the kid's future. I think it was fitting that his anguish was so everyday. What happened in the knight's world seemed to share similarities, but Haruka didn't die in flames in the wrecked car. She died much later, a self sacrifice on the altar of averting Noein's vision of a multiverse compressed into his inhumanly paradisiacal Shangri-La.
The pain of the knight's past is wholly unspecified and all the stronger for it. I think it's actually rather wonderfully left to the imagination rather than detailed in hindsight as though it were the secret history of NERV. Firstly it's dealt with symbolically in the wrecked Hakodate that is the paradise of many of their youths. It's dealt with in the about face that virtually all of them make concerning their original mission, as one by one they all fall in love with that idyllic place and give their lives to protect it, regardless of whether it's their past or the past of someone who may be a lot like them but is not them. We know that their Haruka gave up her life to try and prevent the coming disaster. We know nothing more about Karasu's pain than that. It's all implied in the decisions they make, all in characterisation than displayed in narrative.
Primarily I think their past isn't important. They have infinite possible pasts, and to leave it unobserved by the viewer rather leaves the superposition intact for us to imagine the horrors they must have endured as the world they loved was destroyed, as well as the alluded to unimaginable pain of the reconstruction of their bodies. I don't think that's fanwanking things to fit, I think that reading of it is one hundred percent in the text. And I'm also wholly of the belief that this is the children's show, and it's their story in the present that's important. They have infinite possible futures and have been shown barely a couple of them.
I also disagree that any of the knights themselves were wasted, because I don't think that where they ended up in the finale is important in judging their heroism. It's crucial to remember that each and every one of them doomed themselves as soon as they severed their link with La'cryma. For each of them that was their defining moment of heroism, and everything they do with their time after that is them knowing that they're living on borrowed time and knowing that they will soon deteriorate in a world that they know they love but in which they also know they can't ever truly belong. Tobi wasn't wasted because of everything he chose to do knowing that he was facing the end, and he worked tirelessly to bring about the stability of the Hakodate present. Kosagi did it for the love/hate of Karasu, and ended up choosing love, sacrificing herself to destroy La'cryma's central computer. Even Atori thought he was doing the right thing initially, although he was horribly twisted in the way he went about doing it. I think it was these motives that made his reversion to innocence after his battle trauma exlplicable: he was never really a bad guy. But I think it's crucial to an understanding of these characters that they were destined to fade away, and they knew that and had decided on that. They don't need a grand finale, simply ceasing to be was what we always knew was going to happen.
My explanation for Atori's unbelievable power surge in the finale: he was the only one smart enough to realise that the uncertainty of the Shangri-La realm offered him limitless power to reimagine himself in any form he desired by altering his quantum state at will. Or perhaps he was the only one with an ego shattered enough by what he'd been through to push himself out to those extremes, his id unfettered by the lack of physical constraint in that world. Perhaps both. Karasu didn't seem to get it, he still fought and acted like Karasu. And I loved that even Noein's paradise rebelled against him, in that the hive-like End of Evangelion style mush of undifferentiated people chose to be individuated in order to defy his will and guide Yuu to Shangi-La's centre.
Ultimately the text is in agreement with Anno's take on Instrumentality as he expressed it though Shinji's rejection of the perfect world. It's an unreal fantasy realm, the sphere of many world religions' hope for paradise in which sickness, pain, suffering and death no longer exist. And as a result I feel churlish in expressing dissatisfaction with the ending, because it's saying something so wonderfully and powerfully right about humanity that I agree with in every fibre of my being. Possibly my favourite trite slogan, one that expresses much of my personal philosophy on life, is that you have to live in the world that's here. Don't hope for a better world in which all problems are solved by magic and fantasy and wishful thinking, some bland paradise in which all the pain goes away. Don't waste your life wishing, throw yourself into life and get hurt. That's the world that's here now, and we're designed to heal if we let ourselves. Risk things, make mistakes. You'll suffer but you also get the chance to be happy, if you work at it. These are the messages of Evangelion and Noein.
But ultimately someone somewhere has to make the choice to finally step out of the shadow of Evangelion. We don't need the apocalypse, the overdriven themes writ large, the universe-scale mayhem. There are different storytelling conventions you can use to end a slice of beautifully written, touching, intelligent science fiction. And possibly, maybe, the person who will lead anime sci-fi from out of that shadow is Hideaki Anno himself when he remakes his own masterpiece.
There are basically two different shows in there, and they fought, and one of them lost.
That, my friend, is bang on the money and where Noein makes its only really big mistake as far as I'm concerned. The entire direction of the text was on the children and the future that they would decide to make for themselves. The final victory should have been theirs in a simple refusal to become the people they had encountered in Noein and the knights, the Hakodate of the present succeeding where all other possible timelines had failed. But the narrative choices, the way that victory is displayed to us places it in the technobabble realms of La'cryma and Shangi-La. Yes, Haruka, Yuu, Ai, Isami and Miho all make that decision, but ultimately it became lost in the mix rather than the defining moment it should have been.
It would have been much better to have had that final victory stated in a simple "No" spoken by five twelve year olds, all wise beyond their years.