Evangelion has long since hit that elusive popularity sweet spot between worldwide cult recognition and why-is-there-so-much-of-this-where-do-I-even-begin-what-the-fuck fuckery. In 2015, you’re either into Evangelion, out of Evangelion, or likely too daunted by its sprawling canonical debates and revisions to even consider giving it a shot. If that last one is you, I’m gonna try and make this simple for you, something Hideaki Anno clearly never bothered to do.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is a 26 episode anime which aired in Japan between October 1995 and March 1996 and pretty much nothing was ever the same again afterwards. Literally twenty years later critics and fans alike frequently refer to shows as pre-evangelion or post-evangelion and we’re currently three films deep into a four film complete bottom up rebuild; literally called Rebuild of Evangelion.
Leaving aside the countless fan theories about whether or not these new films are to be considered a remake of the show or a sequel to the show, they are very much a different beast to the original 26 episode story and today, I’m gonna try my hardest to focus on what makes Neon Gensis Evangelion, all 26 episodes, worth revisiting twenty years later.
Firstly, NGE does not do, at any point, what you expect it to do. Every facet of it is designed to set up and subvert your expectations, to undermine your understanding of its world just when you think you’re figuring it out. The layers upon which each episode, each character arc, each individual shot is built pile up and up until you cant see over them anymore; all you can do is take Anno’s story at face value and figure out what it’s saying to you as you go along.
Ostensibly, NGE is what you’d refer to as a mecha anime. Or it would be if you were a moron, because although that’s certainly the mould in which NGE is presented, this is absolutely a story about people, a deeply introspective, bewildering and brutal stare-down into the dark abyss of nihilism and mental illness. Not only that, but Anno basically tells his audience this in his first two episodes. Episode one spends its entire runtime building up to a giant-robot-alien showdown that we don’t get to see, and episode two spends twenty minutes showing us its aftermath, the effect it had on the people both directly and indirectly involved, before even hinting that we might actually find out first hand what went down. From the word go, NGE is telling you straight up; this is not about the robots.
That said, NGE does spend a lot of time dwelling on genre tropes, and if you’re not interested in how Rei, the perpetual ice-queen, Asuka, the fiery tsundere and Shinji, the audience surrogate, reflect the id-ego-superego personality theory, or how their external conflicts eventually mirror their internal conflicts over the course of a 26 episode arc that completely – no you know what, you should be interested in that. NGE doesn’t rely on genre tropes, it betrays you with them. Fan service (softcore nudity), character archetypes, shot duration, environment design, background art, everything you think you understand is pulled at the seams and used as a weapon to bludgeon you with later. NGE fully expects that you will underestimate it and spends its first 13 episodes preparing to punish you.
And that’s what it does. The final 10 episodes of NGE are merciless. The whole tone of the show spins on a dime and instead of dealing with the monster of the week, everyone starts dealing with their own self-loathing and the sins of their past, which is, as it turns out, much more horrifying. The narrative unravels in a way that’s almost literally impossible to keep track of, as the focus shifts from the three main children Rei, Asuka and Shinji, to their elders and superiors. NGE spends eight episodes deconstructing the personality of everyone you’ve come to care about and exposes their darkest fears and most selfish desires for you to come to terms with or not. These people, including whichever one you’ve self-inserted into, are not okay. They’re not even nearly okay. And maybe, just maybe, you’re not either.
The last two episodes are an essay unto themselves. The result of wild ambition meeting empty wallets, they look and feel like nothing else you’re likely to have ever seen. They’re divisive, so much so that Anno himself revised the ending years later with a feature film named End of Evangelion, although his true intentions for that, and whether or not it supersedes NGE’s canon, are, and probably will forever be, the subject of much fan debate.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is worth watching. It’s worth watching and re-watching and re-watching again. Maybe the first time you didn’t notice how Anno uses physical distance between characters to tell stories. Maybe the second time you didn’t notice the frantic flash-frame montage during one of it’s most disturbing scenes answers all of your questions about one of its most troubling mysteries. Maybe you’ll never notice that different locations and characters are followed around by the same colour saturation, or that shots foreshadow other shots, or that it’s actually a story about identity. And parenthood. And childhood.
Maybe it will speak to you. Maybe it will make you angry. Maybe it will save your life. Neon Genesis Evangelion can, and will, do all of these things.
If you’ll only let it.