Anime of the Past: Neon Genesis Evangelion

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

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Neon Genesis Evangelion | Official Logo

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?

Neon Genesis Evangelion | EVA Units

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.)

Neon Genesis Evangelion | Cast of Characters

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.

Neon Genesis Evangelion | Congratulations Neon Genesis Evangelion | The End of Evangelion

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.

Neon Genesis Evangelion | The Will to Live

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.

  • Spookyryu

    best anime ever

    • Michael Pianta

      Agreed. I watched it while it was originally being released in America on VHS tapes (remember those!), and it completely blew my mind. One thing this review glosses over a bit was how completely revolutionary this show was. It has been emulated now many times, and unfortunately I don’t think anyone coming to the show for the first time will be able to quite have the experience that we had watching it as it was first released. The mech designs alone… there had never been anything remotely like them. It was just a really amazing show.

    • EQeE

      Cowboy Bebop is better than this emo angst-fest .

    • Vallen


    • Spookyryu

      I really like Cowboy but I’m afraid its not that deep as evangelion, is so well written, characters so complex pushed in an apocaliptic scenario, I only compare this anime with full metal alchemist

    • The Don

      You can’t compare the two, they are entirely different, for one. Two, only autists describe anything as “Emo”.

      Fuck off back to highschool.

  • Coarse

    Did not care for EVA at all. The characters and their stories were uninteresting to me, and I found the mecha and monster designs to be ugly as sin.
    Gunbuster and Gunbuster 2 are the superior Gainax works, IMO.

  • Vallen

    My most favorite anime of all time! Also, for those who think its a shows about mechs are wrong….its more about the psychological aspects of the characters

  • Stealth

    Evangelion is more than anime. iTS A WAY OF LIFE

  • RagunaXL

    wow, a lot of strong opinions below. I love Akira, Cowboy Bebop, Gurren Lagann, even Patlabor. My buddies always raved about Eva in college and I never gave it a shot. but after reading this article it sounds like it’s right up my alley. I should give it a shot! Thanks!

  • I watched it years ago when I was younger, and frankly I can’t remember hardly anything about it. Perhaps I’ve become introspective, jaded and cynical enough to give it another go now 😛

  • John Ellis

    I knew the comment section would be like this. ranging from people who think Evangelion is gods gift to humankind, to those who think it’s a pretentious piece of shit.

  • John Ellis

    In regard to the final episodes, well a lot of the whole series, but the last 2 in particular. You need to bear in mind the budget problems the show had. they more than likely had a big battle planned but with no money they had to use recycled footage and basic drawings.

    • Brendon Hull

      They actually planned for four more episodes, those episodes being what we see in The End of Evangelion.

  • ScienceNonfiction

    I watched Evangelion for the first time a couple years ago, and honestly I didn’t really like it. Well, that’s not entirely true. I actually thought most of the series was pretty interesting. It was the ending that completely ruined it for me. I pretty much hated how, instead of a proper ending to the series, they gave us the whole “inside Shinji’s mind” approach (or however you wanna interpret it). And yeah, I know they were on a tight budget, and yeah, I know the series is meant to be more about human psychology and emotions than it is about “robots vs. aliens!”. But the fact of the matter is they did set up the whole plot about NERV and Seele and the Human Instrumentality Project, which actually seemed like it would contain a lot of cool secrets and plot twists, and then went on to pretty much discard it and never explain anything.

    I didn’t like the ending presented in The End of Evangelion either. The way I saw it, they just undid all the character development in the entire series, followed it up with a confusing jumble of incomprehensible nonsense, and topped it all off with an abrupt and completely unsatisfactory ending. And they still didn’t explain anything.

    I’m glad the author of this article mentioned the lack of explanation as one of the weak points of the series. Pretty much everywhere else I go everyone’s all like “Evangelion is so deep and awesome!”, and I’m all “But they didn’t even explain anything…”. Ah well, who knows? Maybe I’m just not smart enough to understand Evangelion.

    Also, I recently finished watching Eureka Seven, and I felt that, while the plot was way different than Evangelion, a lot of the themes presented were similar. Both series deal with themes like “relationships with dad”, “who you think you ought to be vs. who everyone else thinks you ought to be”, and “finding your place in the world”, but Eureka Seven handled them all much better. I guess that, in the end, Eureka Seven did turn out to be the “young boy pilots a mech and saves the world!” type of show that Evangelion was trying to be the antithesis to, but… I don’t know, I just felt the character development was handled much better and the characters felt more “real”.

    • The Don

      I don’t understand the need for every little thing to be explained fully, or in such a way that it requires little to no effort to understand. It’s not really that hard, five minutes on the internet is all it takes.

      Eva is not deep, retards think it is deep, it is well written, but a lot of the symbolism was put in because “It looks cool” as Anno said. Though once again I don’t understand why endings need to be explained explicitly for something to be good, as if convolution even in the slightest, or something that requires effort or thought or even the tiniest bit of work for the person watching or reading to understand, is bad.

      Instant gratification isn’t good. Quit having that mindset and maybe you’ll learn to enjoy things that don’t pop out instantly, because trust me, EVA isn’t that hard to understand. It is convoluted and weird, but not tough at all.