This essay first began life as an entry to the series, A Lesson in Disappointment, where I take a dive into an anime I had high hopes for, and explore just how it let me down. For Evangelion, that approach won’t do, because I did not feel an ounce of disappointment as I watched this dumpster fire burn. No, dear reader, I only felt anger, because this series wasted my time in one of the most elaborate and frustrating ways I have ever seen.
My expectations for Evangelion were reasonably high when I started watching. I had only heard positive things from people whose opinion on anime I respect, with the exception of the ending, but hey, I can enjoy a good ride and get off before the last stop in a ravine. I was told I could even watch the movies if the series’ end had left me craving more of a conclusive result.
As I watched, I was looking for what had made Eva so successful and iconic, this influential titan of anime whose influences could still be felt today. I came back with what I knew to be its objective reasons for its popularity, and the conviction that this was one of the worst shows I had ever watched. But to address the failings of Evangelion, it has to be looked at in different parts, because the series’ different acts vary pretty wildly in quality, and only once they’ve each been examined can I address the series as a whole. Most media can be broken down into that basic three act structure, and Evangelion follows that closely, so I’ll start with Act One.
[This is going to contain spoilers for the entirety of Evangelion, but it’s been 25 years, come on]
The first third of Evangelion is mediocre, and that’s really all there is to say about its overall quality. Evangelion is a satire of mecha anime, and it deconstructs a lot of the tropes of the genre, so first it begins by setting up a pretty standard story. Shinji Ikari, a fourteen year old, is drafted into piloting one of the giant robotic Evangelions to fight the invading monsters, the Angels, by his estranged father. The main cast is comprised of Shinji, his fellow pilots Rei and Asuka, as well as the adults around them supervising and supporting them.
The biggest flaw in the first act is one that hobbles the series overall; none of these characters are likable. Shinji is whiny and ineffective; his lack of agency is a contributor to the series’ themes of degrading mental health, but it makes for one of the dullest protagonists possible. He feels forced into piloting the Eva, his dad doesn’t like him, life sucks. He could be construed as being a nice kid, but that stems more from his being spineless than anything else. He really doesn’t have a character outside of his mental problems.
In the first act, Rei is moderately interesting. She has one of the strongest designs in the series, and her cold persona lends her a degree of mystique. However, the series’ writing fails to capitalize on the mystery that goes into her relationship with Shinji’s father, or her being a clone. All of the reveals late in the series kind of have no effect on the story and then it just ends, but I’ll go into more detail on that later. With the things we know about her at the end of the show, it retroactively makes her into an emotionless empty robot.
The adults in Eva are by far the worst part, as they feel either superfluous or like their problems are just taking up screentime from much more important things. Shinji’s father initially has the setup to be an interesting antagonist or antihero, but all of this setup just leads to nothing. He’s a buffoon who entrusts a wildly expensive machine to his unstable son, and makes no effort to make Shinji or any of the pilots more effective. You know, like you’d have to in order to warrant making your three ace pilots literal children.
For the time it was produced, Evangelion’s presentation is top notch. Obviously the opening, A Cruel Angel’s Thesis, is just as iconic as Eva itself, but the original soundtrack is often just as good. The fight choreography between the Evas and the Angels is well done and visceral. The character design is strong, especially the way that most of the Evas feel so human as to creep up to the uncanny valley. My main critique with the design is that pretty much every woman has the same body type and facial features, with only slight modifications made in coloring and to indicate age.
The story starts to pick up in the second act with the introduction of Asuka. She is a dreadfully simple take on the tsundere trope, right down to saying “pervert!” or “baka!” every other sentence. It’s a little overplayed, but considering the age of the series, it’s passable. Plus, Evangelion needs at least one character who isn’t quiet and depressed.
The fights with the Angels turn to more of a gauntlet format, as they blow through the vast majority of the monsters. This keeps the fighting quick and efficient, as they never have too much time to waste on any given Angel. The problem with the second act is that it wastes an insane amount of time on the adults in the cast, particularly their love lives. For a second I was wondering why no one mentioned that the main plot revolves around Katsuragi’s romantic ordeals.
Evangelion could have been a lot more compelling if it had gone to the trouble of developing Shinji’s problems. If they had dialed in on Shinji’s dynamic with Rei and Asuka, they could have built a much more interesting character drama. Instead they waste like two or three episodes on Katsuragi going to her friend’s wedding and lamenting that she’s wasted her twenties. As it stands, the writing fails to make it clear that piloting the Evas is taking a toll on the kids. Shinji’s Evangelion is seized and forced to attempt to murder his friend Suzuhara, and he breaks down and quits the program. This is given next to no time to sit while the adults’ not interesting problems are given more of the spotlight.
The second act is where they could have taken advantage of the setting and made the story something great. It’s just that the creative team couldn’t agree on what the story should have been focused on, so outside of some really cool fights, the best part of this show is just vapid. And I haven’t even gotten to the worst part, act three.
The third act of Eva is where the show completely disregarded any narrative cohesion, themes it had been developing, or character building. The answers to pretty much every question they had posed thus far is either ridiculous, unsatisfying, or needlessly convoluted. It was only by reading the wiki that I found out what Adam really was, where the Angels came from, and so many more things that I shouldn’t need to research. They had 26 episodes to explain the lore, and they wasted most of it on the Shinji’s chaperone’s midlife crisis.
And the last three episodes are just downright bizarre. Kaworu is introduced in Episode 24 as the last Angel who has infiltrated the ranks of the Evangelion pilots, but they don’t do anything with him. It’s pretty heavily hinted that he is a romantic interest for Shinji, but that feels out of nowhere. Kaworu appears, flirts with Shinji, betrays them, and then allows Shinji to kill him all in the span of a 25 minute episode. He could have been a really interesting antagonist or love interest if the series had put literally any time at all into him.
It also presents some pretty confusing questions on where they intended the show to go from the beginning. Over the course of the series, Shinji forms a strong emotional bond with Rei, has a lot of tension with Asuka, and then at the eleventh hour, they push him towards Kaworu. It’s also pretty strange because they never mention Shinji being bisexual until that point, but it’s even more strange because Kaworu would have been a far superior romantic prospect for Shinji. His entire inclusion in the story reeks of poor planning and missed opportunity.
And Episodes 25 and 26 need to be addressed together, because they form near 50 minute long lecture/rant on nihilism and Freudian psychology. Nearly every main character has their own dedicated section where they are taunted by and scream at their own psychological trauma, and how their parents and/or upbringing left them broken. It’s nonsense that would cause any philosophy 101 student to flunk.
The last two episodes are basically this raw cry for help, being voiced through each member of the cast, but they’re not a coherent whole. We’ve heard and experienced how these people’s parents have put them through hell, and how they still haven’t fully coped with that, but it just feels pretentious. There’s no point to it all, when you string this all together out of context it makes no sense. They basically leave the story threads dangling and break away from the plot at what would reasonably be the climax for this, so it must have been important.
This rant is as silly as it is self-serious, the height of pretension. It abandons every theme and character that it had worked on developing to break the fourth wall and soapbox preach to the audience that the real monsters all along were depression and crappy parenting. The fact that they turned this pretty mediocre story and decided it was better to go with nothing is was makes me so irrationally angry about Evangelion. The ending means nothing, the hours you’ve spent and emotions you’ve invested mean nothing. It just wanted to waste your time.
In essence, Neon Genesis Evangelion wasted my time. If you have not seen it already, do not let it waste yours. I am not of the opinion that being a classic makes something mandatory viewing; To Kill a Mockinbird is boring, Crime and Punishment is in itself a crime and punishment, and Evangelion is terrible. It is actually kind of amazing how Evangelion got to be this famous.
All of the mecha anime that it deconstructed and satirized are more worth your time than Eva. I’d say that Darling in the Franxx is more worth your time, and ended better, because it never pretended to have its own ideas. If you need to watch a mecha classic, you could easily have a much better time watching Code Geass or Gurren Lagann, but Evangelion’s only goal is to disappoint you. It leads the viewer on a 26 episode long journey only to tell you at the very end that none of it mattered and you are an idiot for thinking that there might have been.