Mod Edit: This review may contain spoilers.
People have been fighting over the merits of Neon Genesis Evangelion since its conception, engaging in an endless bloody war to decide whether or not the series is a masterpiece or overly-pretentious filth. Writing a review for Evangelion is pretty much just adding fuel to the fire, giving one side or another some extra ammo with which to demolish the opinions of the opposition. For that reason, I've decided to do something different with my Evangelion review. I'm actually going to write two reviews, one heralding Evangelion as a masterpiece and the other condemning it as mediocre bilge. I've put my full effort into both of them, trying to make each compelling. I believe that both reviews get down to the essence of why people either love or hate the show, and the goal is to let anyone pondering whether they should pick up this giant of the medium to really understand what they're getting into and whether or not it sounds appealing to them.
Without further ado, I present Neon Genesis Evangelion: Critic & Fanboy.
**The following review will explain why Neon Genesis Evangelion is overrated garbage.**
Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most popular anime of all time. It's shaped the entire medium for decades, inspiring countless other shows through its characters, story, and ideas. Many people have called it the "greatest anime ever made" and a "triumph". Its protagonist, Shiji Ikari, has been on the top of many character lists, and its ending is infamous. Most times when someone starts criticizing Evangelion they are promptly told that they just "don't understand what it's trying to achieve". Well, let me begin by saying this: I understand exactly what Evangelion was trying to achieve, I just think that it executes this attempt very poorly. Evangelion is a mecha show, yes, but it's really about the internal struggles of the characters: most noticeably depression, fear of rejection, and sense of self. It's attempting to criticize the anime crowd by telling them that they're filling their lives with hollow escapism as a substitute for meaningful human interaction, but it's also just trying to tell people in general that they have value as an individual and whatnot. But before we get into how it fails in this regard, let's talk about the more superficial stuff. Let's talk about the plot.
See, Evangelion seems to have the idea that if it's "meaningful" enough it doesn't matter if it doesn't have a well put-together story. If it discusses important ideas, its story can be a mess. Well, half of this is true: the story IS a mess. The premise assumes that only 14-year-old children can pilot giant robots. Why? Never touched on. Okay, so any 14-year-old in the world will do, right? Nope, it has to be the guy who's spearheading the whole project's son, who is also conveniently unwilling to do it. Why not find someone more willing and trained? Well, because his synchronization rates are off the charts, of course. Sounds like an awful lot of insanely contrived nonsense to me. To top it off, Shinji's dad hates him to make sure he has issues with opening up, although this is never explained either. It seems like if the fate of the world was going to be entrusted to my son, I would want to, you know, make sure he was emotionally stable even if I didn't like him. After setting off this ridiculous premise the show devolves into bland monster-of-the-week with minimal development for about half of its run, throws in some totally meaningless religious symbolism, bends the world around Shinji's problems more than SAO bends around Kirito, and then proceeds to turn all of its characters into tools for its single-minded purpose before ending with a slideshow of photographs of lamps and concept art with dialogue over top.
See, here's the thing. If I wanted someone to explain to me the philosophy behind the hedgehog's dilemma or to tell me that I needed to open up to other human beings, I could just consult wikepedia or go see a therapist. The reason I'm watching a TV show instead is because by using a story with elements that get me invested and characters that I can relate to it allows me to understand what I could have learned at face-value anywhere. I learn because I care. Evangelion, however, forgets this. It seems to think that if it just spews enough philosophy at the viewer that that will do the trick. Why should I care what the show is telling me? Because here's the thing: the ending isn't gibberish. It does mean something, it means something very specific. But it still fails completely because it fails to convey that in a way that engages the audience or demonstrates it through the use of a story. It abandons the story and gets all up in your face instead, and this ruins the impact and renders everything its saying unimportant.
Well then, what does the show accomplish? Sure, it has some nice action sequences, but these come at the expense of a lack of budget later in the show. The soundtrack is pretty standard, with some of the pieces even being pretty blatant ripoffs from other places (one person once showed me how one of the battle themes is nigh identical to a 007 song), and all we're really left with to convey what the show is trying to convey is the characters.
The characters from Evangelion get a lot of praise. Many consider them to be the greatest cast of all time. Shinji Ikari, wonder boy, has been tugged around as the epitome of male protagonists, and others like Asuka and Rei laid down the foundations for their archetypes. Let's talk about all three, one at a time.
Rei - Rei is a failed experiment. She was originally created by Anno (the director) as a way to demonstrate to the Otaku fanbase that their best girls and waifus were actually just emotionless unresponsive dolls that would never provide them with anything real. The sentiment is one thing, but the fact of the matter is it doesn't matter what Anno wanted to convey, what matters is the result of what he created. Rei actually became the very thing she was created to destroy, and was one of the most popular waifus ever made. She reinforced the idea she was meant to take down. Rei is an absolute disaster.
Asuka - Asuka is very nearly the origin of the tsundere. The trope may have existed before her, but she defined it and made it popular. The problem is, Asuka really isn't that well-written. It doesn't matter what ideas she was used to expressed, the fact of the matter is that the consistency of her character is weak and by the end she, along with many other characters, has been converted into a tool to be used by Anno to make his points. She ceases to feel like a person of her own, and exists only to reinforce the ideas conveyed by Shinji.
Shinji - The man himself, attacking Shinji's character is considered pretty taboo. However, in truth, Shinji is simply pretty mediocre. His character exists to repeat the same few ideas over and over ad naseum, and he receives very little characterization outside of this. By the end of the show almost everything we know about Shinji can be boiled down to "he's afraid of rejection", "he has daddy issues" and "he struggles with self-value and sense of self". While this is great and all, there's more to people than just their deep-seated issues and Shinji fails to display that.
So with all this in mind, what on earth sets Evangelion apart? What has kept the fanbase so alive and vocal for these twenty years while nearly everything else made around the same time has fallen into obscurity? I believe the answer is pretty simple: intensity. The ideas in Evangelion aren't unique. They're in plenty of other anime, portrayed in more well-developed and creative ways, but Evangelion drowns all of those out by being really goddamn loud about what it's saying. Its characters are screaming, crazed people. Its production is a wildly fluctuating mess. Its emotional intensity is unmatched, and it uses this to grab peoples attention and cause them to feel as if it is "raw" or "real" when really it's just very noisy. Neon Genesis Evangelion may be one of a kind, but that doesn't mean that it's some sort of incomprehensible masterpiece. It just means that its a broken, twisted thing that takes some pretty straightforward ideas and yells them until people pay attention, rarely managing to convey them in any powerful way. It's preachy, poorly-constructed, and will hopefully gradually fade into obscurity so that people stop having to feel as though they're obliged to watch it only to be told that they don't "get" it.
**And on the flip side, the following will explain why Neon Genesis Evangelion is an inspirational masterpiece, worthy of standing the test of time.**
Neon Genesis Evangelion: the words that can spark conflict amongst anime fans almost instantaneously, like pouring water on sodium. Many people believe that this medium giant is overrated, outdated, or simply not a very good show. Some people even deeply loathe it, frustrated with its convoluted presentation and rabid fanbase. Personally, however, the show is one of my favorites. I believe it continues to be relevant for a reason. I believe that Neon Genesis Evangelion has achieved what no show before or after it has managed, and perhaps what no visual medium has ever accomplished.
Neon Genesis Evangelion manages to truly capture the feelings of doubt, isolation, existential dread, and desire for human connection that come with being alive. It manages to express them in a way that is powerful enough to replicate the monumental weight that these matters place on us, and it manages to provide a simply, bittersweet yet beautiful answer to them.
The first thing you should know about Evangelion is that at face-value it isn't perfect. It has pacing issues, budget issues, and cracks in its plot that plague it all throughout its run. It seems to change moods quickly in its first half, and it doesn't always seem to care about all of the threads of its creation. However, I firmly believe that a polished version of the show would not be as effective. It's because it's so messy that it manages to draw you in. That messiness is relatable. The world is a confusing, difficult place, and so is Evangelion. Likewise, as it progresses into its second half and the internal struggles of its beautifully-crafted characters begin to swell up inside them and consume them, the show shifts its focus to accommodate this because that's what it feels like to the characters. The internal battles they are fighting are all-consuming things, far more important than what is happening at NERV headquarters, and the show demonstrates this by allowing the inner workings of their minds to consume the show itself and show you first-hand how much this matters to them.
The entire show manages this, actually. It takes such simple internal yet universal conundrums and inflates the scale of them, making them feel larger than life in the forms of giant, gruesome robots and bizarre alien beings. The plot becomes insane and messy, with schemes and scale intensifying constantly to keep up with the messiness of the character's minds. Evangelion takes these all-important ideas and it shows that, using its rather cliched premise to demonstrate that it understands just how huge these issues feel to people. It does this in a way that nothing else does, drilling down to the cores of its characters and its audience and digging up the things that seep poison into their hearts. Evangelion lays people bare, it strips them down, it shows them that it understands them and then it tells them what they can do.
By people, of course, I mean both the audience and the characters, but since I can't give you an analysis of the audience allow me to take a moment to talk about the characters. There are three central characters that make up the cast, playing off each other perfectly: Rei Ayanami, Asuka Langely, and Shinji Ikari. Each of them serves a distinct purpose in the narrative and I want to take some time to talk about each of them.
Rei - Rei is the doll character, a stoic figure lacking emotions that has been repeated over and over again since her conception in all manner of shows. In Evangelion, however, she serves a very specific purpose. Rei demonstrates to Shinji what he is. Because she's a doll, she responds in whatever way she is treated, and showing her kindness will elicit kindness in return. Essentially, she is a mold-able personality, a person that will be whatever you want them to be for you. Through Shinji's interactions with her she demonstrates both that the concept of such a being (oftentimes taking the form of a significant other from a TV show in our world) is disgusting, and that Shinji will not be able to find the sense of acceptance and connection that he desires from her. She's not accepting Shinji because of who he is, she's accepting him because she'll accept anyone.
Asuka - Asuka is practically the origin of the modern tsundere archetype, with the unfortunately truth being that it's an archetype that was mastered at its conception and has not been challenged since. Asuka provides two very important facets to the series: firstly, she's a character to foil Shinji and reject him. She's a very distinct personality of her own, and her coldness towards Shinji stems from who he is. Shinji is forced to confront the harsh reality that if he opens up to her she will likely hurt him, and has to decide whether that is worth it regardless. On the other hand, Asuka is an amazing character in her own right. She struggles with many of the central themes of the series herself, loathing herself for not being good enough and trying to discover who she is when the aspects that she decided defined her come crumbling down.
Shinji - I've already mentioned him a hundred times in this review, but here he is: Shinji Ikari, the naked heart of the human race. Shinji pretty much is Evangelion, and most if not all of the show's messages are conveyed through him. Over the course of the show he becomes more and more withdrawn into his own mind, struggling to come out of his closely-guarded heart and actually express himself to the world. He wants to be wanted for who he is, not because he's useful, or because he's any person. He wants to be cared for because he's himself, because he's an individual, because of what makes him him. It's something that every human on this planet desires, and no one demonstrates it better than Shinji Ikari.
As the show culminates into a surreal journey into the minds of the characters, some people complain about the convoluted nature of the execution or that the ending of the show is only pretending to be meaningful. I assure you this is not the case. It may be jarring, yes, but if you pay attention you'll find that you're observing the most important decision in the world being made. All of the literal world falls away, because in comparison to what is going on inside the minds of our protagonists such a world is unimportant. That is the world through which one can express one's self, but Evangelion is more concerned with what is one's self. Evangelion is concerned with what makes you you and me me, and why the two of us talking and conveying our thoughts and becoming closer is the most important thing in the world, not in spite of the fact that we can never truly know each other but because of it. It's an infinitely important idea, and Neon Genesis Evangelion takes it on like no other.
If you haven't seen this masterpiece yet, I can only urge you to watch it. After all, you are a person, and Evangelion is about people. It knows them. It understands them on a level that nothing else does. It draws you in with its gritty, alluring story full of mysteries and its utterly unique mecha designs, it captivates you with its constantly creative enemies and lucrative fighting techniques, and then it shows you what it means to be human. It's one of a kind, and I can't encourage you enough to give it a try.