Episodes: 1-26 (complete)
Genre: Sci-Fi, Giant Robots
(Note: this review was written more than 10 years ago)
Neon Genesis Evangelion is many different things to many different people. Some people see the series as a revolutionary step in the direction of breaking the mecha anime genre out of its hackneyed roots. Others see it as a lasting tribute to director Hideaki Anno’s youthful anguish and depression. Some people see it as pleasantly shocking treatise on what it means to suffer from the Human Condition. Others see it as a bitter, emotional dredge masked beneath multiple layers of transparent religious imagery. Some call classic, some call foul, but to Evangelion’s everlasting credit everyone ends up calling just the same. For Evangelion is not worth watching because it is one of these things, it is worth watching because it is all of these things.
Evangelion is an old anime, almost eight years old in fact, but it nevertheless continues to not just sell, but sell well: Gainax has made millions of dollars from this anime alone, which only ran for a single season at that. With the ambitious Renewal of Evangelion on the horizon with a price-tag of over 41,790 yen (about $350), it is obvious that Gainax perceives some kind of potential market for what is essentially a re-released version of an anime that, arguably, has already saturated the market enough. But as Gainax is already well-aware, Renewal of Evangelion is going to end up producing huge profits just as it has in the past and it will continue to do so in the future. Why is this? Why does an anime which is despised just as equally – or perhaps more so – than it is adored still in the limelight?
The simple answer is power. Evangelion has power. Power not in the sense of commercial success but in the sense of emotional success. All debate there is concerning the quality of Evangelion is hinged not on whether the anime was capable of garnering deep emotional involvement with the viewer, but rather hinged on whether or not the viewer enjoyed the more or less unrelenting and merciless experience. And be certain that the Evangelion experience is indeed merciless.
The majority of what constitutes a viewer’s emotional investment in an anime are the characters that inhabit them: their personalities, their goals, their dynamic nature. In this sense, Evangelion succeed brilliantly by introducing characters that not only behaved like real people, but also were not afraid to act like real people when pushed into extreme situations. Ikari Shinji is a 14 year-old boy who was recently called to Tokyo-3 by his estranged father, Gendo. It is made abundantly clear in the very first episode – conveyed by behavior rather than simply plot – that Shinji does not like his father, and really does not know why he answered the call. The viewer does not know anything about Shinji at this point, but they already know why Shinji answered the call: the same reason any living person answers a call by their parents. It is because of the subtle, deeply human scenarios such as the one which begins Evangelion which forges the emotional bond between viewer and character. It does not take long before one finds Shinji’s embarrassing moments are one’s own, just as one shares in Shinji’s pains, his confusions, his triumphs. Similar, if not equally as strong bonds are made between the rest of the cast in quick succession, although not as quick as with Shinji. Why is this? While Anno may have been simply casting himself in the lead role of his anime, Shinji nevertheless remains a character that just about everyone can identify with; at some point during our lives, we were Shinji – the situation and circumstances might be different but that does not change the reality of the situation.
Throughout the story Shinji grows in a way that is tangible, a way in which is not only believable but also “correct.” Thrust into the role of savior, Shinji falters during his first Angel battle and is only saved by virtue of the EVA machine which pilots him as much as he pilots it. Crushed and demoralized by both his failure and his father’s reaction to the failure, Shinji decides to leave. But Shinji doesn’t leave. Demonstrating the same courage that was exhibited by him answering his father’s call in the first episode, Shinji also shows that he is capable of changing in a very real way. The Shinji who decided to stay and pilot EVA-01 despite how much he despised the machine is not the same one who rode in on the train in the first episode; they have the same courageous spirit, but they are not the same.
Tangible changes occur in practically the entire cast of Evangelion, from the extroverted Misato to the introverted Rei, from the motherly Ritsuko to the obstinate Asuka. The dynamics of the cast thus create an atmosphere of emotional involvement which usually takes other anime half a season to instill, but Evangelion does so in mere episodes. The result of this involvement fosters a comradery between oneself and the people who staff the NERV organization, and so any attack on any of its members is an attack on ourselves. Their difficulties become our difficulties, their betrayals become our betrayals, their losses become our losses; just as their excitement become our excitement, their relief become our relief, their happiness becomes our happiness. Despite remaining fairly serious in tone and emotion, Anno also took special care in showing how the members of the NERV team live their normal lives by going to school, hanging out with friends, and generally acting like human beings when forced to cope with the sort of stress they are presented with. Moments of comic relief sometimes seem few and far between – especially in the series’s later episodes – but each becomes a welcome respite for not just the characters but ourselves as well.
This sort of day to day existence comes through very well in not only Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s character designs and settings, but in the general feel of the animation itself. Shinji does not look like someone who would be capable of piloting EVA-01 simply because he really is not – Shinji is just a 14 year-old boy often-times forced into situations that are beyond his control. Shinji looks normal because he really is normal, and this is such a subtle touch that nevertheless adds quite a bit merit to his character. Rei, the soft-spoken and introverted First Child, similarly looks the part: her short blue hair, her pale white skin, and simply the way she holds herself testifies to the viewer that, yes, Rei is correct as a person. Asuka is another character which matches their persona so well one would be hard pressed to guess which was designed first, the character or the character design.
What also fits the characters and the animation itself perfectly is the music, composed by Shiro Sagisu. He would later write the music for Anno’s other works such as Nadia and His and Her Circumstances, and it can be inferred that Anno requested his continued help due to the quality of Evangelion’s composition. The music itself is not necessarily brilliant in the same way Yoko Kanno’s work is brilliant, but it does fit the series, and most of the characters, extremely well. Songs such as Rei I, Hedgehog’s Dilemma, and Asuka Strikes! might run the gamut of seriousness but they really fit the characters they were penned for like a glove. Sagisu is also very capable of songs which add tension and suspense, such as EVA-00 and the absolutely nerve-wracking Marking Time, Waiting for Death which enjoys quite a bit of play through the series. Feelings of unease become palpable in BORDERLINE CASE and Do You Love Me?, just as excitement does in NORMAL BLOOD and A Step Forward Into Terror. Finally, there are some songs which are just beautiful, such as the instrumental remix of Cruel Angel Thesis called Good, or Don’t Be, which immediately becomes a source of nostalgia to all whom have watched the series for any length of time.
Sagisu should also be commended on his expert use of various real-world classical music pieces during the show, as while one is at first surprised at their employment (especially Handel’s Messiah, among others) it becomes abundantly clear how much they simply fit. Music is so very important in creating mood and the aural setting of an anime, so the fact that Sagisu designed a soundtrack which becomes something immediately felt yet not intrusive is something worth commending. A final thing worth commending when it comes to the music of Evangelion is the intelligent use of its absence. There are many, many scenes in the anime which are accompanied by nothing other than the songs of insects and birds. Quite simply, I have not viewed another anime in which these was put to better use, in creating not only atmosphere but also context. Tokyo-3 is made real by these songs of nature – of these everyday symphonies we take for granted – and it is their relatively frequent employment which compel us to care for the characters and the world they inhabit.
As was stated above, those persons who dislike Evangelion do not dislike it because of the lack of attachment to the characters, but rather dislike of the situation Anno imposes upon them. The plot of Evangelion seems relatively straightforward at first, but as the series continues it becomes very clear that the true nature of NERV, the EVA mecha, and the organization which created them are hardly innocent or free of the sins of human nature. The Angels become less and less the token hostile alien force and more intriguing anomalies which we want to understand why is attacking NERV exclusively. What is so special about NERV? Where did the EVA and Angels come from? What is in Terminal Dogma? What is Gendo’s real motivation? Why are we forcing children to save the world? Such questions drive the series forward, but they also represent an increasing apprehension. We are at once aware that something is amiss – something both equally significant and dangerous – and that these characters we have been invested in since the first episode are at risk. This anxiety, this tension, this angst, transforms the final episodes into more than a climax of the plot itself, but a climax of our own emotions. Its conclusion does not move you, it bludgeons you with the same amount of force which you have been channeling – intentionally or not – into the series since its beginning.
There are a large number of viewers whom seen this bludgeoning as an attack, a sucker punch. They blame Anno for not being a competent writer or director, blame him for using religious imagery to only further trick them into believing he had something important to convey. The way in which Anno constructs the ending, viewers are free to make such harsh judgments about it. However, as many other people have come to understand, if one is mad at the outcome of the anime one has already missed the point. You remain affected, you emotions drained, the mind taxed, your body tired. The point is that you not only were affected, but that you remain affected. There is not a person who watches Evangelion that does not carry the experience with them, whether they hated it or not. They remain forever marked by Anno’s masterpiece – and it is because of such a marking that it truly is a masterpiece.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: the anime which captures you, enraptures you, confuses you, excites you, frightens you, intrigues you, and most importantly, moves you. It is loved, it is hated, but it has been felt nonetheless by millions of people for eight years now and promises to be felt by millions more for years to come. It deserves no less.