Neon Genesis Evangelion – Rightfully Overrated

The 1995-1996 anime Neon Genesis Evangelion has established itself as not just a fixture of Japanese culture, but of animation as a whole. The revolutionary anime series which was directed by visionary animator and director Hideaki Anno, known for his work on the animes Gunbuster and Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water and the recently released Shin Godzilla movie. Evangelion has received a serious amount of positive reception, as well as criticism for what has been considered a vague ending and a serious change in themes and plot motivations in the second half of the series, but the 26-episode series is still considered one of the most seminal in modern history. Not only is it recognized as one of the most important animes in the medium’s history, but one of the best. What is Evangelion about, and does it live up to the hype?

Before going any further, it should be noted that the 26-episode anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion is accompanied by two movies: Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death and Rebirth (D&R) and End Of Evangelion. While D&R serves as a great retelling of the first 24 episodes of the anime and an introduction into the End Of Evangelion, End Of Evangelion is largely seen as required viewing by fans of the series, as it serves as an alternative ending to the original, somewhat lackluster ending. End Of Evangelion is a piece of art in itself and would not be deserving of a review within a review – therefore it will receive its own review at a later point. This review contains serious spoilers – skip to the bold sentence at the bottom to see my final thoughts on the series. With that out of the way, let’s continue.

Eva focuses on the life of Shinji Ikari, a 14-year-old boy living in a world almost completely destroyed after an event known as the Second Impact, a world-shaking disaster occuring in the year 2000 in Antarctica. In this world, massive lifeforms known as Angels attack Earth periodically, first immediately during the Second Impact only to be followed by a lull. After fifteen years of peace and rebuilding, the Earth is taken aback when an Angel attacks Japan and is completely impervious to the attacks of the military and their efforts to stop it. Shinji, in the midsts of an Angel attack, is picked up and rescued by a young Special Forces Captain, Misato Katsuragi. Misato Katsuragi delivers Shinji to the headquarters of the secretive organization NERV, led by Shinji’s dad, Gendo.

At NERV, Shinji meets an ensemble of characters besides his estranged father and Misato including the extremely silent, unassuming Rei (one of the few characters to have developed a serious relation with Gendo), tech commander Ritsuko Akagi, schoolmates Toji Suzuhara and Kensuke Aida and, later on, firebrand Asuka Langley Soryu and her handler Ryoji Kaji. Rei and Shinji, and later on Asuka form an elite corps of 14 year olds who pilot massive weapons of war known as Evangelion units. The Evangelion units are a series of three titanic mechs. In his first few hours at NERV, Shinji reluctantly battles the attacking Angel, only to black out after a serious battle to wake up in a hospital bed.

 

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Most of the main characters of Eva are 14-year-olds thrust into the middle of a mysterious conflict far beyond their ability to comprehend. They are all plagued by serious psychological issues and conflicts.

 

After a ride of a first episode, the viewer is thrown for an emotional and psychological rollercoaster lasting twenty six episodes. The first 16 episodes follow in the style of a traditional shounen mecha anime, with the fourteen year old protagonists of Shinji, Asuka, and Rei piloting their Eva Units to battle successive waves of Angels in all different shapes, sizes and forms with increasingly devastating effect to both the characters and society at large. An overarching theme throughout these episodes underneath all the entertainment is the psychology of the characters and the effect that they have on each other, and the situation has on all of them. Shinji, obviously somewhat of a loner, is described as suffering from something known as the “Hedgehog’s Dilemma,” a situation where someone is prevented from being intimate with anyone else due to needing to avoid hurting others and themselves with their “spines.”

As the series progresses, the show redirects its focus from the mech fights themselves to instead focus on the mental challenges that all of the characters, not just the Eva pilots, face in their day-to-day life. None of the characters are perfect, but you find yourself unable to hate any of them for their flaws as their flaws are not their own fault and are so debilitating to all of them – Gendo is a detached father solely focused on his work because he simply finds interest in nothing else; Misato finds pleasure in sleeping with men who remind her of her late father, whom she hated, and drinks her way through every day; Ritsuko is completely subservient to Gendo, finding herself dependent to him. These characters and their struggles are so interesting because they hit so close to home, and are not superficial problems existing in a vacuum of a sci-fi post-apocalyptic anime: the problems the characters of Evangelion face are real and rooted deep in their own minds, in some place we can all relate to.

Shinji is the primary focus of a show in which all of the characters struggle to understand themselves and one another; instead of serving as the only case study, he serves as a vessel for our exploration into the show’s psychology.

 

Episode after episode- especially after Episode 16- the characters break more and more, with the struggles they face becoming ever harder to deal with. All the while, in the background it becomes clear that the war between humanity and the Angels is more than meets the eye, and that something serious is occuring underneath what the Pilots are aware of. The ultimate reveal comes in the last seven episodes, when it is revealed that Evangelion Units aren’t entirely mechanical, but instead are pieces of the First and Second Angels, Adam and Lilith, and are brothers to all the other Angels. Not only this, but it is revealed that the souls of all of the pilot’s deceased mothers are inside the Evangelion Units, explaining why the Eva units need specific pilots to achieve functionality and stable synchronization rates throughout the show. The only exception is Rei – a clone made using Yui’s DNA and Lilith’s soul.

NERV is revealed to have a parent organization, SEELE, which is aiming to essentially recreate a grander version of the Second Impact which will end the world and unify all souls as one in an event known as Human Instrumentality. Gendo, too, is working to achieve Instrumentality, but for the purpose of reuniting with his wife Yui. The appearance of the last Angel, Tabris, comes as a shock to everyone as he is revealed to be NERV’s newest pilot, a “boy” named Kaworu. Kaworu, having become Shinji’s only real friend, nearly starts Third Impact but is killed by Shinji. Before dying, Kaworu reveals that humans are the real last Angel, the sons of Lilith known as the Lilin and brothers to the angels. This segues into the last two episodes.

The last two episodes, the cause of such controversy, essentially serve as a therapy session for Shinji, Asuka, and Rei. Mentally broken beyond the point of repair, in these last two episodes the characters are shown vaguely progressing through what is assumed to be Human Instrumentality, analyzing themselves and their own existence in the world. These episodes are incredibly abstract and do little to focus on anything besides being a way for Anno to express his own views on individuality, sexuality, life, and death. Over the course of two episodes, Shinji accepts that it is better to live in the real world and experience real pain than to live in a fantasy world where he does not exist and experience fake pleasure. Upon accepting this realization, he is greeted by characters both alive and deceased in a very famous last scene, wherein he is congratulated and given a round of applause.

The last scene of Eva is incredibly vague, well-known, and controversial.

From start to finish, Evangelion is a beautiful and complicated mess of religious symbolism, psychology, philosophy, sexuality, and just simple entertainment. As any anime, the series does have its goofy moments and (unfortunately) fan service, however these do not take away from the serious scenes or any of the messages of the show, and in most cases add to the charm and appeal of the show. The story writing and characters are so complex that even a summary as long as the one above can hardly do justice to the show, its characters, and the messages it puts out. In only 26 episodes, Evangelion manages to accomplish what many purpose-written dramas fail to do. Even though Episodes 25 and 26 do not entirely live up to expectations, the rest of the show and especially episodes 16 through 24 maintain a healthy balance of the action and character dramas featured in the first sixteen episodes while also delivering as a look into the extreme psychology of the characters and the world they live in. The pain, triumphs, doubts, and realizations the characters experience are all pains, triumphs, doubts, and realizations we can not only relate to but feel ourselves, due to masterful writing and animation on the part of Anno and the studio at Gainax.

Evangelion, without even factoring what I believe to be a masterpiece unto itself in End of Evangelion, is a complete masterpiece in both entertainment and in study of the human condition and experience. Beyond the entertainment provided by less serious moments and the beautiful animation, the show leaves an impression in the mind of its audience which has stuck with me since I first watched the show months ago. Not only are you left trying to find out more about the characters and the other lore within the show’s universe, but it makes you think about yourself in a different light as well, as the questions it brings up regarding to existentialism are universal and not solely confined to the characters in the show. On an abstract rating scale, I give Evangelion a 10/10 with an absolute recommendation to anyone willing to suffer through some less meaningful moments to appreciate a genuinely beautiful piece of art.