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Sunday January 31, 2010

Different but not better

NEON GENESIS EVANGELION:

The Shinji Ikari Raising Project Vol.1

Story and art: Osamu Takahashi

Publisher: Dark Horse Manga; 184 pages

(ISBN: 978-1595823212)

For ages 16+

THIS is yet another spin-off manga from the Neon Genesis Evangelion (NGE) anime series. Not only is it based on a game based on one particular episode of the anime, the game itself is a sequel to an earlier game. This story is about as unique as bottled water. In fact, the very premise of this manga (what if NGE took place in an alternate reality) has already been covered by NGE: Angelic Days, which features the NGE characters in a more conventional and comparatively irreverent situation.

So why should you read this?

The story begins with Shinji Ikari and Asuka Langley Soryuu as classmates who have a love-hate relationship, and their parents know each other from their work. On the other hand, Misato Katsuragi and Ritsuko Akagi, respectively now a school teacher and school nurse, still serve in roles that allow them to be faithful and true to their original personas (previously chief operations officer and head scientist).

However, this is pretty much where the similarities end. Shinji and Asuka are long-time childhood friends with their own backstory rather than recent acquaintances. Whereas Asuka is the same tsundere (fiery but at times loving) character she was before, Shinji is shown to be much more extroverted. He confidently banters with his school friends and isn’t a total doormat in the face of Asuka’s sharp tongue.

There is then Rei Ayanami, who is introduced as a “relative” of Shinji who has just transferred to his school. Not only does she now speak, she also smiles and goes on dates. In short, she is warm and friendly; she has a remarkably human personality which was hitherto unknown. While this is rather refreshing, it also feels slightly out of place when one is aware of her original introversion and the underlying reasons.

What is perhaps the most jarring change is the depiction of Shinji’s parents. Although they are still scientists, they work not for Nerv but Nerv’s predecessor, the Artificial Evolution Laboratory. Shinji’s mother, Yui, is still very much alive, while his father, Gendou, is a somewhat henpecked husband and lacking his original brusque and dour demeanour. Curiously, he retains his penchant for wearing sunglasses at all times which, together with his new personality, makes him out to be a rather odd character, neither outrightly comic nor serious and definitely not normal.

The manga has the innocent and casual feel of a school-based romantic comedy, as it largely focuses on the relationship between Shinji and Asuka – which develops into a love triangle with Rei – and their experiences at school. It is only towards the end of this volume after a revelation involving Rei that NGE fans will get a nostalgic glimpse of the plug suits, pools of “link connect liquid”, and what is perhaps a hint of darker things to come.

Personally, I felt that this reshuffling of the deck was rather lacking. The original series was notable for having had a deeply intriguing philosophy despite its somewhat confusing plot. Here, just as in Angelic Days, you merely have the same characters in a different setting and without the psychological titbits, albeit with better artwork and a more serious plot; both of which are more faithful to the original series.

Just as it was the presence of such intellectual and emotional depth that distinguished NGE from other generic mecha anime, this lack of depth means that Shinji Ikari Raising Project is thus far comparable to any generic “school manga”. In fact, this volume even includes the obligatory “beach and swimsuits” story arc so common to school manga.

I should note though, that this manga develops rather slowly plot-wise, and thus, who is to say that it won’t develop more fully or change its general direction for the better. The ending of this volume hints that future releases may reintroduce the angels and that the manga will become a darker mix of the mecha and school genres, but beyond that, I really can’t say.

The largest draw is, I think, the novelty of seeing a reinterpretation of the characters we know so well from NGE; something that would only appeal to those who are familiar with the original series.

Sadly, those who are new to the NGE series will not be similarly delighted and the manga will likely be a rather less involving read. Thankfully though, the manga works quite well on its own and doesn’t rely too heavily upon pre-knowledge of NGE.

At the very least, new readers should be able to appreciate this manga as its own story if not as a very special one.

(Rating: 2.5)

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