Ritual ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Hideaki Anno Ranked (work-in-progress)

My favorite films, "ranked"

I write this in lockdown. It's been five weeks. We are only allowed to leave the house for essentials. Here's my schedule:

- Wake up, shit
- Sit at the kitchen table, make a coffee, check in on work stuff, watch silly videos
- Switch to couch, read for one hour, write for one hour
- Move to kitchen table, lesson prep for online lecture, make / eat lunch
- Move to bedroom, do calisthenic exercise, take a shower
- Nap
- Move to kitchen table, teach kids, make / eat dinner
- Switch to couch, watch movie, go to sleep

Every. Single. Day.

And in some ways, it helps. It numbs the brain, sticking to a schedule as strict as this. It helps time move faster, so that the lockdown feels shorter. And, perhaps most of all, it removes opportunity for anxiety to rear its ugly head.

I've been in lockdown for a total of nine and a half months over the past two years. Eight in the States, coming on six weeks here in Vietnam. And when I say ritual has been the magic pill that's made it livable, I don't exaggerate. Without it, the misery would inevitably start to kick in. Without the shield of routine, my thoughts will (and have in the past) overwhelm me.

I could be furthering my career!

I could be traveling!

I could leave Vietnam, ditch my fiancee, and return to the States!

Fuck, I miss my friends :(

I'm starting to go insane!

There's a reason Anno calls the film RITUAL. Because routine is a euphemism. It does not do these repeated, perpetual actions in our life justice. Routine becomes ritual the moment routine becomes routine. In every respect, ritual is holy. It offers us a reprieve from the doldrum, a expiation of our own guilt, and an escape from the grim reality. Whether you are sacrificing a pig to the rain goddess, or standing at the precipice on the roof of your apartment, ritual absolves and undercuts pain. In the former example, ritual undercuts an ignorant reality, one that does not understand how environmental misfortune has brought drought to your land. And in the latter, it undercuts the tragic lack of agency we have by giving us the illusion of choice: either end it today or decide to go on.

But, here is the crux. By indulging in ritual, we are therefore indulging in fiction. Yes, the results of our participation in said rituals may undercut the pain. But, this expiation is just a fantasy that makes reality easier to cope with. The truth of the matter is that in lockdown, I use ritual to ignore the fact that nine and a half months of my extremely finite life have been spent inside against my will. Necessarily, of course, but against my will nonetheless. Of course, I am grateful for the productivity I've managed during this time. But, there is a real pain I'm ignoring by not confronting the facts of my situation. How all this relates to the female protagonist of RITUAL, and to Anno's surrogate, the director, is actually fairly straightforward. Let's take a look at some quotes from the film:

"Reality, co-opted by fiction, loses its value."

"She longs to escape into fantasy, I long to escape from it."

"My behavior (how the director records everything) is an excuse for my inability to communicate except through images."

"(These rituals are) time killing entertainments of momentary respite for those who are afraid of pain."

As you can see, Anno has a complicated relationship with reality and fiction. He uses his career as an artist as an escape himself, but questions if this escape is healthy. This has been his career obsession, which manifested itself most prominently in NEON GENESIS EVANGELION. Due to their common themes, RITUAL seems to be in direct dialogue with this series, almost as if it is a companion piece or response. In any case, the metatextual elements of the film, and how the character of the director is a clear surrogate for Anno himself, makes RITUAL achingly personal, which is why I've chosen to dedicate so much of this review to sharing my own personal struggle in balancing reality and fiction.

With all that said, I'm not sure what to make of the finale. On one hand, it is a clear denouncement of fantasy. When She finally faces reality head-first, trepidation and all, is when our first and only emotional breakthrough seems to take place. She is not cured, of course. But, she is on the path towards recovery. Now she is able to come to terms with reality, make amends with her mother, and break free of the ritual that built a fortress around her. But, does that leave space for fantasy, one of the greatest sources of pleasure in my own life, in hers? I think we must look towards the very existence of the text for answers.

Here is Anno, painting these reclusive rituals and fantasies as detrimental towards one's emotional intelligence and overall health. If we look only at the content of the film, we can see a statement that rejects the trappings of fantasy and paints them as a sort of mindless self-indulgence. However, to look only at the content of the film is to ignore the fact that we are watching a film. I've only come to form these conclusions about the tenuous relationship of fantasy to reality by watching RITUAL. Therefore, in a sneaky way, Anno shows us just how valuable an indulgence into fantasy can be. Fiction can never replace reality in a healthy way, but it can certainly supplement it. Without the lessons I've drawn from the films of Akira Kurosawa, Francis Coppola, Zhang Yimou and the like, I'd no doubt be a lesser person. Therefore, only wholly indulging in these fantasies, making them inextricable with reality, is unhealthy. What Anno is preaching here is for a sense of mindfulness. Before, during, and after our rituals. Why, how, and under what circumstances are these fantastical structures influencing our reality? That is up for us to determine through a willful acceptance of this cranky duality. If ritual encroaches too far into the real, we may never be able to safely return. Even then, however, it would take a serious rejection of the real to cross the threshold into damnation. After all, She manages to come back from a series of delusions most of us will never go through. And in that way, RITUAL becomes a comfort.

I know this is not found explicitly in the film, but from what I can surmise from Anno's personal philosophy and my own interpretations of his texts as a whole, I see no other conclusion Anno comes to other than "you are never alone." We have the possibility to achieve great things, to break free of depression and succeed, despite the confines of our gloomy situations. Hell, I may have "wasted" a lot of time in lockdown, in the PEAK of my existence. Mid 20s, dashingly handsome, intrepid perhaps to a fault. ;) BUT, without this lockdown, I may never have been able to write something as thoughtful as this. I've begun mindfulness practices in earnest, and hope to continue them when this is all over. Most of all, I've joined a community so wonderful and illuminating that my overbearing, authoritarian, self-imposed ritual doesn't stand a chance.

RITUAL cuts deep. It broke my heart, made me afraid, and then stitched me back together again. It's as profound as his best work, and is an essential piece of his filmography. Thanks so much, Anno, for helping all of us out.

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