Neon Genesis Evangelion (sometimes referred to as simply Evangelion or EVA) first aired way back in 1995. It was created by Gainax, and it was both written and directed by Hideaki Anno. This series is globally recognized; it’s received wide-spread critical acclaim, and the franchise created in its wake has made over two billions dollars. So, odds are good that even if you haven’t sat down to watch the 26 episode main series or its various theatrical releases…you’ve at least heard of it.
Evangelion is what happens when you mix the mecha genre in with a dark-spun apocalypse story. It focuses on Shinji Ikari, a young boy recruited to an organization called NERV to pilot a giant robot (EVA) in order to fight gigantic, wildly destructive creatures known as Angels. The show mostly takes place in a futuristic Tokyo that’s undergone a global disaster (The Second Impact); it centers around NERV and a handful of other Evangelion pilots as they try to prevent a Third Impact from occurring. Nobody wants wide-spread destruction, right?
The world will tell you Evangelion is filled with richness and depth. What starts off as a relatively easy to understand story that analyzes the various genres it identifies with (particularly the “mecha” or sci-fi genres) becomes something completely different—a personal journey centered around deep-cutting internal conflicts that becomes so unbelievably psychoanalytical that many, many people were sending death threats to Anno over the final two episodes.
…More on that momentarily.
The first episode spends adequate time introducing viewers to Shinji, as well as Misato Katsuragi, one of NERV’s chief officers. Viewers are given a brief look into the tension between Shinji and his father Gendo. They’re also introduced to Ritsuko (a lady-scientist most often tasked with maintaining MAGI, a supercomputer that acts as the chief force of governing for this futuristic Tokyo) and Rei (an extremely enigmatic, antisocial girl around Shinji’s age). The first few episodes set up this sort of bizarre fight or flight scenario where Shinji struggles with whether or not he should pilot the Evangelion, and why exactly he does so. Anno does a good job of flaunting the fact that his main protagonist is exceptionally flaky and ultimately flawed. But Shinji’s not the only one. Mistato, Rei, Gendo, and all of their comrades/subordinates are far from perfect. The first seven episodes introduce you to the cast of the show—by Episode 8 you’re introduced to a few more main characters, Asuka Langley Soryu and Ryoji Kaji—and the next handful of episodes up ‘til about Episode 15 construct an absolutely wild tapestry of tension, selfishness, pride and corruption. (And before I forget—the only character absent of corruption/suffering is actually Pen-Pen, a penguin filled with more personality than some of the lame scientists of NERV.)
Effectively, you’re looking at a series that focuses on character development and psychoanalysis more than its actual plot. Sure, the action scenes are plentiful (and in most cases masterfully constructed—each mission is executed brilliantly, and it’s an absolute blast to take in). By the time I was finished, I was less concerned with what happened and more deeply impacted by why it was all happening. The first fifteen episodes have plenty of signposting to keep viewers engaged (mostly in the form of tension, awkwardness and romance). Episodes 16-19 offer the peak of all these tensions, and perhaps even work towards solving the many mysteries of the series. But by ‘Weaving a Story 2: oral stage’ (Episode 20) things take a turn for the insane.
Picture a diving board, if you would. Most of the series demonstrates a cast prepared to take a dive—and everything from Episode 19 or so ‘til the very end is indicative of a group of people who took a drop, a group spiraling completely out of control, beyond help, in a descent into madness. If you’re looking for an anime that offers its cast a change of redemption, I advise you to look elsewhere—because the conflict of Shinji versus Gendo, or…more accurately, Shinji versus himself (or Misato versus Misato, or Asuka versus Asuka, or [main character] versus [other main character] as a result of what is ultimately self-loathing…never lets go until the very end.
But…what is the very end, exactly? I mentioned above that the final two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion were particularly divisive. To call them “experimental” is perhaps a bit generous, but… they’re certainly way different from the episodes preceding them, and most definitely alienated fans, leaving many feeling betrayed. I have a…beyond adequate background in philosophy and philosophical texts, but even I was thrown completely for a loop by these final two episodes, chiefly concerned with Human Instrumentality.
What makes Shinji…Shinji? Do we become the “self” we know and love based on how other people perceive our “self”? If these two questions leave you feeling a little lost or confused, odds are remarkable that the final two episodes of Evangelion will evoke similar feelings.
Anno’s answer to fans’ outcry was The End of Evangelion, a film that offered a more literal take on the series’ ending versus the metaphysical one in television canon. But, beyond all the dips into philosophy that this retrospective has taken, allow me this when summing up Evangelion and its weaknesses:
Understanding Anno’s lore takes (in my opinion) a textbook understanding of his influences (and answers to certain questions regarding what happens are most certainly not found in the main 26 episodes; look elsewhere in games or manga from the Evangelion franchise), and while understanding his characters is simple enough—understanding how they meet their end requires a textbook understanding of philosophy. Without End of Evangelion, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that you will be lost, or at the very least feel lost.
But, truth be told, I prefer a thinking man’s anime. Evangelion is a series that will force you to question your own world as you come to terms with how Anno (or Shinji, to be more appropriate) is constructing his. Everything is constructed beautifully (from artwork, to the soundtrack, to the overall ambiance of the series) in order to create a somewhat functional world that gets ripped from the seams—with Shinji and the show’s entire cast serving as the trigger. If you haven’t yet experienced Evangelion, it’s a series I would recommend to anime veterans and newcomers alike (in order to experience how philosophical the medium can truly become). And if you have: Congratulations!
Neon Genesis Evangelion was released on DVD in North America by ADV Films. The most recent compilation of the series is a “Platinum Complete Edition” that features the entire series in Japanese (with English subtitles) and English. It also contains Direct’s Cuts of Episodes 21-24. It is not rated.
If you want more Neon Genesis Evangelion talk, you should listen to Episode 31 of The Downpour Podcast! We talk at length about my first impressions of Evangelion, and things this editorial couldn’t cover.