I have made my dislike of Neon Genesis Evangelion abundantly clear. Across two essays and a flurry of Tweets, I have stood firm that the anime which is widely regarded as an anime, the pinnacle of mecha, or even anime in general, is terrible. There are many reasons for that, but I have to get to our actual topic today, so I’ll simply brush across them.
NGE suffers from sloppy pacing, inconsistent characterization, and an inability to explain itself. The explanation usually given for this, along with its incomprehensible final episodes, is that the series was always intended to be a therapeutic outlet.
Series creator Hideaki Anno channeled his own struggles and experiences with depression and the expectations placed on him into the construction of Eva’s world. It’s why Eva feels so raw and emotional, but it also comes across as a rambling, stream-of-consciousness type of storytelling.
With approximately 17 hours of Evangelion behind me, I have much more context for how Anno’s battle with mental illness have informed the strides he has made as an artist. The original Evangelion and every subsequent attempt to rectify the series’ ending feels like a creator’s exploration of his experiences and struggling to accept both the world and the people in it.
I’ve already written at length about that process’ flaws and strengths, so I would prefer to explore how Anno perfected that process in Rebuild of Evangelion, the tetralogy of films approaching NGE from the ground up, and why I no longer have any reservations in calling Evangelion a classic.
I am going to spoil Evangelion in its entirety, because I kind of have to talk about everything in order for it to make sense. I mean, I’m talking about Evangelion, so there’s no guarantee it will make sense even then, but you might walk away with a vague idea of what I said and that it was profound. Like I said, this process isn’t perfect.
Evangelion 1.0 recreates the first act of the anime with relative fidelity. It rearranges some scenes, contextualizes character moments and plot beats, all to the benefit of the story. 2.0 on the other hand, drifts a little further away from the original story, offering much more new content that theoretically could have happened in the TV show, and new characters like Mari. Once it gets out far enough, it shatters the timeline with a Third Impact that takes place much earlier than any previous story.
Shinji Ikari is still a boy forced to pilot a large robot called an Evangelion by his estranged father Gendo, and to confront his strange and confusing feelings for his other pilots, Rei and Asuka. They’re joined by Mari and Kaworu, and Kaworu actually gets significant screen time for once! Well, at least if you count the third movie as significant screen time.
We follow Shinji experience trauma and hardship as he is made to fight the Angels, a primordial relative of humans that were supplanted as the dominant species on Earth. We also learn of Gendo’s enigmatic plan to remove all barriers between humanity and join every soul into a collective being, all so he can reunite with his wife, Yui. He plans on doing this with a couple of cool spears, biblical references, and a lot of technobabble.
Are you confused? Don’t worry, that’s half of the experience. I just accept it and move on at this point.
To elaborate on my previous point, NGE is a meandering mess. Anno really took everything in his head and threw it out on screen, and that’s not a good thing. The result is abstract and psychedelic, but it lacks any substance. It’s just pseudo-philosophical nonsense if there’s no structure to the characters’ thoughts or problems.
Rebuild, by comparison, is a coherent and planned-out bunch of pseudo-philosophical nonsense. The same core of exploring depression, trauma, and sexuality, but contextualized and broken down into meaningful steps in a journey. NGE teaches Shinji that while the world is painful, individuality is a source of joy and wonder because of it, not in spite of that fact.
The original remake of Evangelion, The End of Evangelion, goes a little further than that. Life isn’t just painful, it’s filled with people who will go out of their way to make it worse. They go out of their way to display many of the hate letters, death threats, and vandalism that “fans” of the series sent to Anno and Gainax after the original ending. Shinji still chooses individuality, but nearly strangling Asuka to death on a beach where no one else chose the old world is hardly a happy ending.
Rebuild, though, allows Shinji to learn the lessons that were poorly communicated in episode 25 and 26, while being able to reach out and impart them to Gendo. It’s an unrepentantly happy ending, not because that’s how a story has to end, but because there’s nothing stopping you from claiming that happy ending. All the pain and trauma the world has to offer can be processed if you’re willing to work and keep in mind that every sin can be atoned for.
NGE Rei Ayanami is a crucial part of the first act and quickly gets sidelined for her role as a clone of Shinji’s mom, and the host of humanity’s progenitor Lilith. Rebuild takes advantage of Rei’s clone nature, allowing her to learn humanity from the ground up twice. Her time spent in the refugee village allows her to take Shinji out of the darkest place he’s ever been, after being forced to witness Kaworu’s death in 3.0
Asuka probably gets the worst hand of the Eva pilots in Rebuild, because a large part of the second and third acts in NGE peel back at her complex relationships with Shinji, Kaji, and her parents. The shorter runtime of the movies means that a lot of that has to get pushed aside; she and Kaji barely interact here. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, her arc is still wonderfully written in spite of it, but it’s a noticeable step down. Rebuild spends a lot of time fleshing the pilots out, so it’s a shame that one of them got downgrade.
I think I made my point that the series is confusing. I resented it for a long time because of that; I felt like it wasted my time. I cannot tell you how grateful I am that Anno overhauled the entire thing; there is a legitimately beautiful story here, buried under heaps of blemishes. I appreciate putting this story in a form where those bright spots can be more easily recognized.
Evangelion’s episodes 25 and 26 do everything in their power to deny the audience closure. There is no world at the end where it all makes sense, none of what you saw mattered, congratulations. It’s almost insulting.
The End of Evangelion gives a more meaningful conclusion to the series, but it’s hardly satisfying. Shinji runs around, gets his friends killed, commits a sex crime, and rejects humanity’s instrumentality, all so the world can return to normal, albeit as a blighted hellscape. I guess that’s better than 40 minutes of Philosophy 101 empty calories, but not by much.
3.0+1.0 takes the time in the middle of its climax to sit down and address the plight of every Evangelion pilot, plus Gendo. It tactfully analyzes their mindsets, their motivations, and delivers resolution for each of them. In this coming of age story, Shinji finally grows up. That’s what was missing from every ending of Evangelion, the part where Shinji learns and matures and helps his friends. Not by getting in the Eva when they tell him to, but by being the person they need to stand there and offer his hand.
My only complaint is that Mari and Shinji are not given enough time to establish the two as friends prior to the closing scene where they’re shown to be romantically involved. Considering the first three movies are 90 minutes each, maybe they should have spoken more than a few times before the fourth movie, already desperate for more time at 150 minutes.
That being said, it is a minor complaint amidst a sea of things that these movies finally did right for Evangelion.
It’s kind of hard to end this essay because it’s hard to end Evangelion, or they wouldn’t have had to try so many times. That’s a joke, but for a series I wasn’t invested in before these movies, I’m oddly emotional about it coming to a close. It really speaks to the power of these movies, and how Anno’s story became even more powerful when concentrated into a cohesive narrative.
While Neon Genesis Evangelion feels like Anno pouring his heart out, Rebuild comes as the maturity to take your problems and work through them. The difference is day and night, or rather, talking about your problems on a blog for strangers to read on the internet, or actually going to see a therapist. Watch out for the Rebuild of the Otaku Exhibition in 20 years.
As much as I hate NGE, I feel that I am immeasurably indebted to it. With all its shortcomings, I cannot understate the intense emotion of seeing a creator and a story fighting to break free from their own limitations and finally succeed in doing so. As a writer, as a person who has at one point considered themselves the lowest of the low, I am in awe of the Rebuild of Evangelion.
With that in mind, Hideaki Anno, congratulations.