Today I’ve decided to go back in time and deliver something very near and dear to my heart; that rare work of animated fiction that deserves a spot on a list of favorite anything and only continues to get better with age. So journey with me back into the mid-90’s to a world where Japanese animation was just establishing its first vestiges of a foothold in American geek fandom a few years prior to blowing the doors off with three of the greatest works of science fiction of any medium. There, we will find one of my favorite shows of all time, animated or otherwise.
Even fans of the sci-fi genre who avoid anime altogether have likely heard of Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell, which were each landmarks of both style and substance. But arguably the greatest and certainly most thematically dense of the three 90’s sci-fi anime masterpieces is Neon Genesis Evangelion.
It’s been over a decade since I first saw Eva, and it has proven to be one of the few shows whose fans’ adoration only intensifies with time. That love has been rekindled once again in the past several years due to the theatrical remake films, but what inspired me to revisit it yet again is not the oft-delayed Rebuild of Evangelion series, but the American kaiju-versus-mecha film Pacific Rim.
How? Well, I spent a significant amount of the initial trailer believing I could possibly be looking at the long-rumored live action Evangelion film. Pacific Rim’s look and basic premise very much resemble and take inspiration from this most seminal of anime series and, in fact, all of the trailers have been redone by fans using footage from Eva. In honor of Del Toro’s sweet giant robot flick, I’m going to discuss a few of the finer points of what makes up one of the most enduring worldwide cult franchises and passionate fanbases in all of geekdom.
Well, for one thing there’s giant mecha. Everybody loves giant mecha.
Eva is the brainchild of Hideaki Anno and takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth where an organization called NERV resides in the city of Tokyo-3, which turns out to be humanity’s final line of defense against beings known as Angels, whose intent appears to be the true End of Days. The details are classified, but what is known is that the countries of the United Nations have pooled their resources to create the Evangelion units to battle the Angels, who typically take the form of bizarre giant monsters. Large-scale brutality ensues.
But that’s easy-mode storytelling. What separates the men from the boys in a series like this is the characters and the philosophical themes presented. Well, this is one series that delivers heavily on both counts with realistically nuanced and tragically damaged heroes and an incredible amount of theological and psychological symbolism throughout to go along with the numerous mysteries and conceptual science fiction technology of the setting. Behold the most celebrated cast in anime.
From top left to right: self-esteem vacuum, possible nympho, living marionette, hyper aggressive tsundere overachiever, mommy issues, megalomaniac/shit father, in love with her boss, recklessly cool.
If I had to pick a single most important theme of Neon Genesis Evangelion, I would have to go with individualism. The diverse personalities of the cast all come together to form a vision of a world (not unlike our own) where every single person sees things differently from every other person for different reasons, but at their core they are all experiencing the same essential conflicts within themselves. The way they see things in the present is influenced by things in their past –some good, but mostly bad- and it is these experiences that form each individual’s personality traits and differentiates them from others. But every one of them desires to be understood and accepted for who they are at the end of the day; even those who refuse to understand and accept others. I’ve never seen this concept illustrated better than it is in Eva.
The poster boy/protagonist, Shinji, is one of the most nuanced, popular, and relatable characters in anime history. Interestingly, he’s also a punchable, sniveling little whiner. But you know what? We’ve all been there. We don’t like Shinji because of what he represents in ourselves: that part of us that is prone to giving up and abandoning personal responsibilities because life is unfair and we think we should just be able to rely on other people to make everything better for us while ignoring the fact that those other people have their own problems. But at the same time as we dislike Shinji and what he reminds us of, we understand him entirely.
His journey of self-actualization actually goes from one extreme to the other as ends up being one of the last individuals surrounded by an ocean of symbolic conformity. He was looking for help from others when the power was in him all along. Unfortunately, reality (and Eva) tends to dictate that there is no such thing as a real happy ending.
If this isn’t the picture of mental stability, I don’t know what is.
While existential philosophizing may be the artistic end game, there is plenty more to chew on over the course of the anime. The underexplored aspects of the show include interesting conceptual science fiction ideas such a government run by a trio of AI supercomputers. The Magi, as they are called, were designed by their creator to represent three different aspects of herself and rule by majority decision.
The three human aspects are Scientist, Mother, and Woman. You read that right. The government of post-apocalyptic Japan perfected feminism. While I normally have misgivings about AI, the introduction of a human aspect to their programming allows the best of both worlds, essentially allowing a great leader to be immortal in a sense while removing human flaws from the equation altogether.
I can’t help but think if a scientist, a parent, and an individual jointly made the decisions for any country, it would be less prone to the kind of selfish and foolish actions modern governments are known for. It’s an extremely elegant design and the fact that it’s so under-discussed as an aspect of Eva’s brilliance speaks volumes about the strength of the rest of the series.
There is also a nontraditional horror aspect to Evangelion on top of all the rest. More than a few shocking scenes are included in the narrative and they range from the violently gory to the psychologically disturbing and emotionally devastating, with everything in between being represented as well. These characters are put through absolute hell in ways I can’t even describe in the space allotted. But one example would be the trauma of being trapped in a gigantic out of control killing machine while experiencing its rampage in the first person. You don’t see that every day.
Creepiest. Mecha. Ever.
Seminal anime: check. Giant robots fighting monsters: check. Post-apocalyptic: check. God-tier cast: check. Deep philosophical concepts: check. Brilliant science fiction: check. Creative horror fix: check. Yup, definitely the perfect show. But what about the fan community?
Eva sports one of the most dedicated and passionate fanbases on the planet. It’s almost scary. Almost twenty years after the original television series aired, chances are a furious debate is happening somewhere right this second about some aspect of the story left ambiguous or unanswered.
Somebody once explained to me that the fans’ love for Evangelion is so strong it borders on hatred. There is actually much evidence to back this up. The original television finale eschewed the traditional showdowns and instead took place entirely inside of Shinji’s mind as he struggled to come to terms with his existence as an individual. Meanwhile, the fate of the world was decided by some text at the end. It was audaciously brilliant in its way and certainly unexpected, but it also resulted in death threats and vandalism of the studio’s offices by people who were less than thrilled at the lack of a traditional climax and resolution.
The result of the fan rage was the immensely epic and emotionally draining End of Evangelion film which was frankly more amazing than anything has ever had a right to be and is almost certainly the best thing to ever get done due to nerd temper tantrums. The death threats and vandalism actually ended up being featured in the movie as one of several live-action metafictional aspects, which also included the director filming the audience prior to the film’s premiere and then inserting the footage into the finished film before the screening. So the first audience to ever see End of Evangelion got the unique experience of seeing themselves up on the screen watching themselves watch themselves watching the movie. Did I mention Anno is sort of a high concept kind of guy?
This would make a great rock album cover. They should have started a band instead of piloting mechs.
So where to begin if you’re not yet a fan? The temptation would be to watch the Rebuild of Evangelion since it’s the new, CG enhanced, streamlined version, but given the character development and exposition lost by shortening the narrative, I’d say leave that for last. The original 26 episode Neon Genesis Evangelion television series is the only place to start watching. Anything else may be a hard pill to swallow since the rest of the series operates assuming you’ve already seen the original show.
There is a DVD release known as Death and Rebirth that is almost entirely redundant as the first half is a slightly enhanced overview of the events of the television series (essentially, a clip show) and the second half is the first half of the cinematic finale. So after the TV show, you can skip right to End of Evangelion without really missing anything.
Here, have a fan trailer. You’ve earned it
Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone and Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance have both been released in America and make up the first half of the Rebuild films, with the third, Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo, having only seen Japanese release at this time. The films started out almost as a scene-for-scene remake with nearly identical character designs, music, dialogue, voice acting, and even action scenes. But after the initial underwhelming sameness, the narrative takes different turns in the second film, new characters are introduced, and it seems that Rebuild could turn out to be something amazing after all.
Funny thing: I actually wasn’t that impressed with Neon Genesis Evangelion during the first viewing. So much of it flew over my head that it wasn’t until I was thinking about the series as a whole after finishing End of Evangelion that I began to piece together how sophisticated the narrative, themes, and metaphors were. And over ten years and several viewings and reviews later, I’m still finding more to appreciate. NERV’s ironic slogan “God’s in his Heaven. All’s right with the world” by itself could warrant hours of contemplation about its possible interpretations.
There is a very short list of animated shows that stand the test of time without the aid of nostalgia. I think it’s safe to say that Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of those shows. Considering a series that still seems like it could have been made yesterday retro or old-school seems crazy, but seeing that I was in high school when it first aired and Ace of Base, Guns n Roses, and Michael Jackson were all on the charts at the time, maybe it’s time to acknowledge that some time has passed.
Even though the remake is unnecessary, the fact is people really want more of this series, even if it means retreading a lot of the same ground, so the fandom marches on. There is even a spin-off alternate reality manga named Angelic Days that expands on a fantasy sequence from the show where the cast is shown in a typical romantic comedy anime (All aboard for Shinji’s “bologney pony” rides) with nary a threat to the world or mecha in sight. That is to say, people want more of Eva’s characters so much that they don’t even care if the stories are fluffy, cute high school comedy fare entirely without the darkness that the show is known for. They just want more. I can hardly disagree.
And back from 90’s nostalgia, here we are on the other side of an America blockbuster from routine home-run hitting director Guillermo del Toro that appears to have taken inspiration from the anime under discussion. Pacific Rim, you bravely put yourself into a hell of a hotseat by choosing Eva as an influence. That is a lot to live up to, but you definitely got my attention, and I commend you for it.
Fight! Fight! Fight!