Neon Genesis Evangelion. One of the greatest anime of all time. The work that made Anno Hideaki famous. The work that put Gainax on the map. The work that changed anime forever.
It holds a special place in my heart. Not because of those things, or because it is very good – or rather, not only because of those things. Evangelion holds a special place in my heart because it is effectively what made me an anime fan. It wasn’t the first anime I watched – that distinction would go to Astro Boy or Voltron or something else like that that I watched as a small child. Neither was it the first anime I watched knowing it was anime; that would probably be Battle Angel Alita or something else that screened on SBS during my teenage years.
No, it was the first anime that I really obsessed over. In my then 18 years of life, I’d never seen any work of fiction that explored the sorts of things it did or make me wonder what it all really meant as much as it did. I craved information about it (and what it all meant), so I took to the Internet in search of that. The Internet was very different then from what it is now; home broadband was a rarity, the best most had was a 56kbit/s dialup modem. (And I had a crummy 33.6k one…) Blogs, Wikis, social networking, none of these things existed yet. Everything was personal web sites, and I browsed as many of those as I could find that had anything to say about Evangelion. Most of the time, the people who had something to say about Evangelion had something to say about various other anime as well, and a lot of the time I found myself saying “hey this show sounds pretty interesting too,” and I’d go out and find them and watch them. And it kind of snowballed from there. But enough about my history; the long and short of it is that it had an immense impact on the course of my life.
A word of warning; I give away some really major plot points here, but by now the spoiler statute of limitations has to be up on this one. If you somehow haven’t seen the series but still want to be surprised, you have been warned.
It’s a big robot show that sits somewhere between Real Robot and Super Robot genre-wise, and deconstructs it all in a very major way. Our hero, such as he is, is Ikari Shinji, a 14-year-old boy who’s called in to Tokyo-3 by his father to pilot the eponymous big robot, Evangelion, and save the world. He takes the responsibility about as well as you’d expect the average teenager with emotional problems to – very badly. He’s constantly having to tell himself not to run away (and does run away from it all twice), really doesn’t get along with his father, has a lot of trouble making friends, the list goes on.
And the rest of the cast are all at least as screwed up as he is. I could go into details, but it’d take too long, and I’d still really just scratch the surface. Really. But some really serious effort went into each of them and their issues. Creator/director Anno Hideaki had suffered from depression, and it really shows, particularly in Shinji. I’ve mentioned before the importance I place on characters, and this show has truly fascinating characters.
Broadly speaking, the show can be broken up into three parts. The first few episodes are setup; we’re introduced to Shinji, the other pilot Rei, the situation (beings called Angels attack, the organisation called Nerv fights back using the Evangelions), and see some hints that there are other things going on in the background. Then about the time the third pilot, Asuka, makes her appearance, the show settles into a kind of status quo; the fights for the fate of the world happen, we get some deeper insights into the major characters and their motivations (and issues), further hints at things happening in the shadows. All seems to be going fine.
And then it all goes to hell in a major way. There are betrayals, major characters going off the deep end, lives being destroyed, shocking truths coming to light, and through all of this they all still have to deal with the ever-increasing threat posed by the Angels. By the end, Nerv has defeated all 17 of the Angels and saved the world, but at great cost. Tokyo-3 is basically destroyed, just leaving Nerv headquarters which was buried deep underground. Shinji is emotionally broken, his friends having left and having had to personally kill the only person he could open up to when things were at their previous worst. Asuka is catatonic following a series of crushing defeats. Rei (or rather a clone of her, the previous two incarnations having died horribly) is no better off than Shinji, for various reasons.
Now as an aside here, many people complain about Shinji as a protagonist, and how much of a wimp he is. It only really becomes apparent once during the TV series, but the truth is that when really motivated, he is capable of some amazing badassery. At one point, the strongest Angel yet seen attacks, easily defeating Asuka who had a fair arsenal at her disposal, and Rei who attacked with a bomb as destructive as a nuke, and makes its way through Nerv headquarters to its objective. Shinji (just coming back from his second running away from it all) shows up in his Evangelion, puts the Angel on the defensive without any weapons, takes the fight back outside with one arm blown off, and is in the process of ripping its face off when the battery runs out. So he lets depression get the better of him for most of the rest of the series; he’s only human. What humans are capable of and what they do is infinitely more complex than either being a hero or a wimp.
Something else worth noting is that the show is infamous for some of its cost-cutting techniques in the animation. It is true that they did write a couple of new chapters in the book of tricks in that regard, but they do at least manage to make it work for them in terms of dramatic tension. But the upside to this is that they took what they saved there and put it into better animating the stuff that was important to actually animate, and the artwork on it all is very good.
Anyway. As at episode 24 of the TV series, things are in the aforementioned sorry state. From here, there’s two different endings. The first is the TV series ending, episodes 25 and 26. They’re an almost completely incoherent mess of dialogue, images, half-finished ideas and crude animation, with a vaguely uplifting but confusing end.
The other is the movie ending, End of Evangelion. You know how things were bad at the end of episode 24? Well, they get much worse. Nerv gets attacked again, this time by other humans. The whole thing is pretty complicated, but the short of it is that there’s two different plots to merge all of humanity together into a single being; one being that of Shinji’s father, Gendo, and the other being that of Keel Lorenz, the head of the shadowy group ultimately behind Nerv. Gendo’s got some of the key pieces needed to make it happen, so Keel sends in the army.
Nerv fights back, but is badly outclassed by the army until Asuka comes out of her coma and starts trashing military hardware (and personnel) using her Evangelion, and things start looking up. That is, until Keel’s set of mass-produced Evangelions running on autopilot show up. Asuka puts up a downright heroic fight against them, managing to take them all down before her battery runs out… but they get back up again and tear her to shreds. The aftermath of this is the first thing Shinji sees when he arrives on the scene. Ultimately, humanity is all merged together, but things kind of fall apart and at the end there’s just Shinji and Asuka left, with the corpse of a giant Rei that was the single being humanity merged into.
So why am I so fond of a show that’s so depressing? Well, part of it is that I can relate (a bit too well) to that aspect of the characters, notably Shinji. Part of it is that it does a lot of really imaginative stuff that I’d never seen the likes of before, and haven’t quite seen the likes of since. Then there’s how it’s very well done, even if some aspects of the ending (particularly the TV ending) are what you might charitably call unsatisfying. But really, every once in a while you come across a piece of fiction that its creator really poured their heart and soul into. It might have its flaws, but it really draws you in. It might have any number of fantastic or unrealistic elements, but how it plays out feels natural. Neon Genesis Evangelion is one such work.
And then there’s the Rebuild movies, which re-tell the whole thing from scratch. I’ll be doing another post focusing on that at some point later.