[Warning: this review will contain vague, but consistent minor spoilers]
Around 2008 or 2009, I don’t remember exactly, in a decently warm Saturday, I went back home and decided to check out the site from where I got my anime. The news that day was that they were able to upload Neon Genesis Evangelion, a 1995 TV series that was apparently a very influential piece of the Mecha genre. Intrigued by the description I decided to check out the title, completely blind. That was my introduction to the inevitability of Evangelion, possibly the most divisive anime ever made.
By the score you probably guessed already my stance in regards to the series: I don’t like Evangelion, I didn’t like it when I first watched, knowing little to nothing about it, and I don’t like now that I have better critical mindset. However, I’m not beyond admitting when the series does something right. I write these self-indulgent pieces called Reviews when I think I have something at least mildly interesting to say about the work and I believe I can give my 2 cents to the discussion in the fairest manner I can pull off. A little warning, though: discussing the most contemptuous points about Neon Genesis Evangelion is difficult without spoiling anything, so I’ll try to comment about late events without giving the most spoilerific information away, all the while trying to make my points as clear as possible.
Story and Characters
Before anything else, there are two important external factors necessary to understand when analyzing Neon Genesis Evangelion, as they had massive influence during the production of the TV series (the movie is a beast for another time). The first is the role of director Anno Hideaki, the main creative force behind Evangelion, the second are the budget constraints that plagued the series and lead to some of the more controversial decisions that created the massive split in opinions the series is known for. Firstly, director Anno Hideaki is a person that has dealt with depression in many instances of his life and is, according to second-hand information and some interviews, someone with a very low opinion about himself. When the time slot for Evangelion was pitched to him, Anno and Gainax were in a period of failure in which the studio tried various projects that were never able to get off the ground. Rumors even tell that he was at a bar, drinking to escape his depressive state, when the idea was offered. The budget issues we’ll discuss along the review, so for now let’s understand how Anno’s emotional condition at the time affected the conception of Evangelion.
Initially, the series was conceptualized to be a deconstruction of the Mecha genre, bent on straying from the escapism centered narratives provided by the anime media. For those not in the know, a deconstruction is, in fiction, a work or character designed to break apart and analyze the tropes that make traditional examples of said genre or archetype. The common method of doing so is by inserting realistic outcomes the different elements of the genre would have if the setting followed the rules of the conventional world, a notable example being the graphic novel Watchmen. Works of this nature tend, but are not limited, to be very dark in tone. Having that in mind, makes sense that Evangelion would take to a very unusual level the depiction of unstable young teenagers having to pilot immensely powerful mechs to defend humanity from a mysterious threat, as well as exploring in depth the mental and emotional problems derived from that role. However, this very nature opens the work to some criticisms that works that follow the genre straight are not victim of, as the suspension of disbelief dispensed to a deconstruction is tighter. By watching Evangelion you can raise questions like:
- Why were NERV’s headquarters built under a populated city, putting in danger the lives of innocent people and exponentially raising collateral damage, especially when the Angels seem drawn to the Eva Units?
- Why aren’t the pilots offered psychological assistance, given the immense levels of pressure they suffer, as well as mental and emotional scars the fight against the Angels bring them?
- Why doesn’t NERV share at least some of its technology with the military, so that they can pose a threat to the Angels too?
- Why there are tits and a boner joke on my deconstruction?
By the way, I know "deconstruction" has become somewhat of a dirty word now, but fans and critics have been using it for a while and it fits, so I'm gonna use it too. Before I get ahead of myself though, let’s talk about the characters:
Ikari Shinji is the main protagonist of the series, the pilot of Eva Unit 01 and the one the internet is more used to bash for being a “pussy”. Introspective, socially awkward, extremely afraid of rejection, full of self-pity and having massive difficult to express himself, he makes clear that he only pilots the Eva because people tell him to, and in some instances seems to try forcing his acceptance onto others. Shinji is the center of the majority of discussions about Evangelion, either hailed by supporters of the series as a realistic representation of someone with depression and low self-esteem or bashed by its detractors as the rock that holds the anime from improving. Now, before you jump on me, let me tell you I actually believe Shinji is the least of the problems with the series. I’d even risk saying the he is in fact a very good character, but one that is handled particularly bad by his own series. All of his issues at the beginning of Evangelion are grounded, realistic and believable, and his development doesn’t take long to appear. The issue is how that development is handled during the anime’s second half, which we’ll discuss in due time.
Katsuragi Misato is the commanding officer in charge of orienting the pilots during the battles against the Angels, as well as the main caretaker for Shinji and Asuka. Having contrasting personalities when at work and at home, being professional and quick on thought in the former, but carefree and irresponsible in the latter, she plays major role at Shinji’s development, being the first one to try to form a connection with the boy and give him better motivations to fight, besides simply obeying orders. She is also the character with the most fully realized character-arc during Evangelion’s first run and the only figure the anime doesn’t shit on by the end. Early on, it’s introduced the idea of the Hedgehog Dilemma, in which the closer people with deep-rooted emotional issues try to get, the more they risk hurting each other. This dilemma is the main topic for Misato’s relationship with Shinji during the first four episodes.
The next pilot is Ayanami Rei, the first children chosen to pilot the Evas, and responsible for Unit 00. Rei is the least problematic of the pilots, both in the context of the story and among the debates sprung from the anime. Considered the prototype for all kuuderes, Rei is quiet, reserved, keeps herself distant from most social interaction, seeming to only open up to Shinji’s father, and generally holds her own life in very low regard. These traits are originated from one particular information about her origins that I cannot spoil, but one can always question the level of realism of her depiction. According to Anno, her purpose in the story was to show the audience how unsettling it is to face an emotionless being, basically a character that could personify the Uncanny Valley.
Asuka is the second children and the pilot of Eva Unit 02. She is brash, outspoken, eager for attention and to show herself, and packs a massive superiority complex, underneath of which lies her deep-rooted need for praise, in order to keep her self-esteem up. Asuka’s introduction in episode 08 marks a shift in mood to the series, as from the point she appears, NGE develops a campy mood, closer to traditional Monster of the Week shows. It’s actually a very natural root to take. At this point, while old personal struggles are still present in the cast and some of them are yet to be introduced, Shinji is a lot more comfortable with his new living situation and his role as a pilot, so, while the serious stakes remain, the series is considerably lighter at this point than in the “hedgehog dilemma” days. This is also the segment of the anime that features the most frequent use of sexual fanservice, or cheesecake if you prefer, which by itself is not a problem (I’m not that much of a hypocrite), but will bring up an issue, in comparison to other aspect I’ll comment later at this review.
Ikari Gendo is Shinji’s father and the main reason for the boy’s issues. Having abandoned the son right after the death of his wife, Gendo displays little to no interest for him, is completely driven by his objectives as the head NERV, acts arrogant and doesn’t take much time on making decisions that might often put in danger the lives or mental stability of the pilots, quite often in ways that can only be described as plot-driven stupidity. The only person Gendo seems to be relatively worried about is Rei, as indicated in the event when he rushed to take her out of the Eva Plug, burning his hands in the process, and by the more tender expression he exhibits when talking to her.
Kaworu is the final pilot introduced in the series, but his appearance comes very late, making in depth descriptions difficult without spoilers. He’s strongly drawn to Shinji, seeming to have deep understanding of his emotional state. Not knowing the secret of his character, though, that fact gives their interaction strong homosexual undertones. Well, if you can call that “undertone”, anyway.
Other characters that play important roles would be Ritsuko, head-scientist responsible to keep the Eva Units working and later the anime’s punching bag, Kaji, a man that shares a romantic past with Misato and plays a dubious role dealing with important information for NERV, and Fuyutsuki, second in command in NERV and main advisor for Gendo.
The first half of Evangelion is the part I consider worthy of genuine praise. Sure, it soon assumes campier tone than it had at the beginning, but the psychological themes are far less blatant and still stealthily addressed, as they should be. This is also the point where character development is implemented in its most effective and subtle form. For once, it doesn’t take much for Shinji to stop imposing his acceptance to others and under the influence of Misato’s early support he soon starts attempting genuine interaction with the people around him. While piloting Unit 01, he also becomes much more focused, internally compelled to improve at the job and quicker to take action. He’s, off course, still socially awkward, a trait that becomes noticeable when confronted by Asuka’s upfront demeanor. Asuka also plays the role of a conflicting force to Shinji stern from the fact that he’s still a teenage boy and those hormones gotta go somewhere. While the boy is drawn to her appearance, he is also turn away by her personality and his own lack of social skills. This subject, however, unfortunately ends up being forgotten as the series progresses.
Rei, in the other hand, doesn’t display any interest in strengthening the relationship with other characters, but becomes slightly more receptive to interactions others initiate with her, as shown by Shinji being visibly confortable in conversations with the girl. She’s still very inexpressive, though. Being someone with little personal motivational to pilot the Eva, she becomes an object of contempt to Asuka, who pilots in order to gather external approval from others. Asuka becomes increasingly spiteful of Rei, as she can’t accept that someone like her gets recognition and attention from her superiors without attempting so. Even Shinji’s confortable expression while talking to Rei is a point of contempt for her. As you can see, Asuka’s character arc is a downward spiral, the “conclusion” of which will see at the second half. The last bits of this segment of the story are the ones most focused on driving home the motivations of the pilots, while giving hints of deeper issues.
Before moving on, it’s important that I address the religious symbolism present in Evangelion. This is a target of criticism for many, as they believe it makes the show pretentious, since the symbolism doesn’t play a role in the story itself. You can extract from the series a commentary about how humanity uses science to challenge the Higher Power, be it God, fate or simply the inevitability of death. The symbolism, however, plays no role in that commentary and is used only for aesthetic purposes. This might surprise you, but I don’t consider this an issue. Japan’s culture is barely influenced by Judeo-Christian principles, being instead influenced by Shintoism and Buddhism. Biblical references for Japanese authors are not too different from what Greek or Nord mythology is for the West.
Ok, Evangelion fanbase, you had your 6 episodes of fun with Asuka, but now it’s time to talk about the real meat of the issues with the series, its second half. The problem with addressing the issues at this part of the series is that they are not standalone problems, they merge until they create one single monstrous beast with several heads. In fairness, it doesn’t start all that menacing: episode 14 is part recap, but soon it goes back to the regular format. What this episode does is to signalize a mood-shift and foreshadow heavier emphasis on Seele, the organization that oversees NERV, and the Human Instrumentality Project. From this point on, Evangelion would feature significantly different mood, structure (again!) and severe problems with character consistency. It’s also here that Kaji becomes a prominent character in the story, although it calls attention to the question of what exactly is his role on the plot. All of that in mind, let’s start with the simpler issue, the Mind Trips.
For mind trips, I refer to the segments where characters would go to hallucinations where the majority of the issues they faced up to that point are regurgitated at them. These segments also feature some exposition about backstory, which leads me to ask: couldn’t this be exposed in more graceful manners? The first one, at episode 14, is fairly harmless, featuring Rei inside the Eva Plug, making vague definitions about random objects and some of the characters. It’s possibly a hint to the real nature of her character, but this possibility is unclear. The issue starts when we move to the other pilots, most notably Shinji. Now, up to this point, Shinji’s character development was pretty much set, what the series needed to do was to continue expanding on it and address the issues the boy had not faced yet and he would have a complete and rounded arc, going from a simple and depressed kid caught up in events much bigger than himself to a competent Unlikely Hero. The mind trips, however, work in contradiction with this development. In them, Shinji is displayed as he was in his Hedgehog Dillema days, in complete opposition to his behavior and natural demeanor outside of these sequences. In some points they try to actively disregard that development. Do you want an example? In episode sixteen, during his first mind trip, Shinji utters the following line:
“I already had my happy moments and just tried to hold on to them. Is there something wrong with that?”
That is a very good question, is there something wrong with that? By holding to those happy moments is how he was able to improve and become truly effective as a pilot and meaningful as a character. What is even more obnoxious is that these segments have no effect on his depiction in the real world, only serving to stagnate his development up until the end of the series. Meanwhile, Asuka continues her downward character arc. Her progress is, interestingly enough, inversely proportional to how Shinji develops alongside with her: as the boy becomes increasingly prominent as a pilot, she becomes more frustrated by the growing competition and the likelihood of facing opposition in her fight for attention and praise. Her mind trips come in to expose her past, where we can see the reasons for her low self-esteem and obsessive need for validation, essentially stuff that could be featured in a flashback, as well as allow for narrative padding. Just for clarification, I’m not implying that pessimistic character development is a bad thing. Part of the fun in Black Lagoon is witnessing Rock’s gradual loss of his good-will while traveling to the darkness of Roanapur and, if you want an example outside of anime, Will Munny, from The Unforgiven, is a man trying his best to be a decent person, but still has to cope with the fact he’s someone with a scary and violent nature. The issue here is that those were complete character arcs, while for Asuka’s case, just like other points I talked about, we’ll have to discuss while tackling the final episodes.
Moving on. Remember when I mentioned that Gendo seems to suffer from plot-driven stupidity at key events? That is not exclusive to him, as in several instances multiple characters will hold the idiot ball for the sake of progressing the narrative. This is a a common situation for when a writer wants to include an specific plot point in the story but has no proper set up to do so, resorting to make the characters act stupid so that such set up can be achieved. Let’s discuss some of those instances. For starters, there’s the ever-lingering question of why there aren’t psychologists available to help the pilots. These are clearly people under severe mental and physical stress and since one suffered from depression from the beginning, one is almost completely detached from human interaction and the last one is in a downward spiral of self-hatred and need for approval, all factors that heavily influence their performance at the job, the dire need for mental assistance for those kids becomes increasingly more apparent. Some might say I shouldn’t think too much about it, but remember: this is a deconstruction, it’s supposed to be grounded in a realistic setting, just including out-of-this-world elements.
Now going to a case-by-case take, one of the main arcs of the second half involves the fourth children selected to pilot the Evas, responsible for Unit 03. The problems arrive when Unit 03 goes rogue due to being infected by an Angel (these things seem to gain abilities based on what is convenient for the episode) and the pilots are sent to take care of it. When the responsibility comes to Shinji to fight Unit 03, he freezes because there’s a person inside the Eva and he fears harming them. At no point comes to his mind to just immobilize Unit 03, neither any of his superiors gives him that idea. This leads Gendo to order the activation of the Dummy Plug, a project he knows still has problems to be fixed and whose efficiency is uncertain. In the following sequence Unit 01, under the control of the Dummy Plug, proceeds to brutalize Unit 03, far beyond the point it was necessary, without Gendo ever ordering it to cease the attack. This whole sequence is designed for shock factor, to lead the audience to feel repulse by what’s happening on screen, ignoring the lack of logic. It culminates when Unit 01 rips off and destroys the plug. Apparently Gendo decided they didn’t need that pilot anymore, either that or he’s an outstanding idiot.
See? It took me 6 pages of text to finally have a problem with Shinji.
Besides shock factor, another purpose for this event is to lead Shinji to rebel against Gendo, reviving the tension between them. It’s hard to reprove the boy for the attitude, though, since most of what happened was due to Gendo’s incompetence at commanding. When he comes back, he’s displaying even better resolve to fight them before the incident, and coupled with how little of that is mentioned in the rest of the series, the whole Unit 03 arc becomes effectively pointless. After Shinji’s return, we’re lead to the events of episode 20, which also has minimal relevance to the progression of the story, since soon after that comes a flashback detailing Fuyutsuki’s past in relation with Gendo and the Second Impact. Hell, not even Shinij seems bothered by the absurd experiences he just went through.
Actually relevant stuff starts happening right after, as Asuka’s descent is leading her to get progressively worse synchronization rates with Unit 02. Since nobody does absolutely nothing to solve that, while still placing her in scenarios where maximum efficiency was needed, she ends up in a situation where her life, or at least her mental stability, is in serious danger. None of the people at NERV comes with the idea of ejecting Unit 02’s plug, a method they’ve resorted several times up to this point, in order to save her. Why? I mean, besides artificially raising the tension without it being earned. Later, they continue to send her to combat, resulting in a situation where her synchronization is so low she can’t even move the Eva anymore.
Before moving on to the final stretch, where I’ll talk about the series final episodes, I’d like to address the shift in mood taken by the anime on its second half. I mentioned before about how the fanservice present in the first half was not an issue at the time, but this is the point where it becomes an issue. The mood in the series becomes progressively darker and some particular scenes, specially one from episode 23 (you know which one), have potentially disturbing content, and compared to the fanservice and campy atmosphere from the first half it gives the anime an very uneven tone. The bleakness of tone stretches all around, reaching even secondary characters. Remember when I commented the character of Ritsuko becomes the punching bag of the series? Up to this point, she was a character with importance to the plot and noticeable characterization, but essentially a secondary figure, with no relevance to any of the themes and only needed to keep the plot going, and she was good that way. In the final episodes, though, she basically retreads the exact same path of misery faced by her mother, detailed in episode 21, only to be moved away from the plot for the remaining episodes and become irrelevant. Unlike works like Trigun, where the tone shift works to test the protagonist’s morals and allow him to come off as a fully rounded figure, or even Shingeki no Kyojin, where the brutal outcomes serve to emphasize the resolve the humans have to achieve their goal, this is not misery for the sake of advancing a character arc or improving the plot, it’s just characters being miserable for no purpose, and in the words of GoatJesus, if it doesn’t play a purpose, why have it at all?
With Asuka falling to her deepest depressive state and the introduction of Kaworu, the series has its climax at episode 24. The two remaining episodes are the biggest source of diversion when discussing Evangelion. For once, they are giant mind trips. It’s supposed to take place after Gendo has initiated the Human Instrumentality Project and merged all of humanity under one collective conscience. How the project was initiated or what were the pieces for triggering it is left unexplained, the episodes simply start in the mind trip and no proper context is given until the information that Human Instrumentality began comes up. It’s clear that it was at this point during production that the budget expenses reached their limit and Gainax was forced to compromise, bringing this as the result. For the remaining 40 minutes of the series, it’s just a dream sequence where the emotional issues of the characters are retreaded and blatantly spelled out without ceremony or the least shred of subtlety. Asuka appears in her pre-decay persona to spout why she’s so eager for attention, Shinji reminisces his issues with rejection and even Misato, who had a complete character arc at this point, reinforces her Elektra Complex when she was supposed to have come to terms with it already. At this point something finally came to my mind: Anno was able to create the basic state of his characters and the problems they would face very well, but he was not able to make them properly deal with such problems. That is why there's such a disconnect between Shinji's portrayal in the real world and in the mind trips, the characters in Evangelion are not able to fully develop their issues towards a solution, only being capable of flat out explaining them, without sublety. After many divagations, with characters bringing up philosophical concepts to replace more pertinent psychological matters, the series comes to an end with Shinji’s epiphany, in which he concludes:
“But maybe I can learn to love myself. Maybe my life has a greater value. Yes, I’m no one besides myself. I am me, I want to be myself. I want to continue existing in this world. I’m worthy of living here!”
And THAT is the problem with the ending of Neon Genessis Evangelion: it’s not the resolution of the numerous character arcs and plot points raised, but the acceptance of stagnation, the simple possibility of a conclusive development without truly having one. At this point, I have to ask: Why is this acceptable? Why is uncertainty preferable over closure? Let’s take a look at some questions that were left unresolved:
- What really are the Angels?
- Who was Kaji really working for and what were his objectives?
- What was Seele’s objective with the Human Instrumentality Project?
- If Both Seele and Gendo want the Human Instrumentality Project, why there’s so much animosity between them?
- What is the origin of the Dead Sea Manuscripts, or even their nature itself?
- What was the fate of Asuka and Ritsuko?
- How did Seele “find” Kaworu?
And before you tell me that the series is not about these mysteries, but about the issues characters face, let me stop you, because Evangelion built a sizeable chunk of its appeal on these questions. For the last 11 episodes, give or take depending on your perspective, the audience has watched ever-increasing pain plaguing the main cast, but unlike something like Berserk, for example, where the horror of what is happening to the characters is compensated by the full realization of multiple character arcs, as well as the conclusion to an event that has been foreshadowed through the entire series, here the audience is rewarded with vagueness and uncertainty.
Well, here is the boring part of the review.
Ok, everyone knows by now of the effects the budget limitations had on Evangelion’s presentation, but before we get into that, let’s talk a little about what are really strong moments for the visuals display in the series. For once, cinematography is excellent. Multiple scenes feature various meaningful details, giving away subtle information that could not be included in the dialogue, and when there’s little time for details, and framing is effectively used to convey the emotions of the scene. There was a clear understanding among Gainax that animation is also a tool for storytelling and not just a fun way of putting images on a screen. A sequence like Shinji entering Misato’s apartment for the first time could be just a bland moment unimportant for the story, but is used to emphasize the importance of the decision the two are about to make and, in the same vein, lighting also plays a big role in moments of dialogue, helping establish the mood for the scene. Colorization is usually realistically applied, not counting the traditional oddly-colored hair-styles, with mostly pale colors applied throughout the enviroment, but good care is put into making what is important pop in the screen, from relevant characters to information about the action and, obviously, the action itself.
Aside from the traditional methods used by studios to cut corners in animation, the symptoms of the decreasing budget appear distinctively in two areas, one being the long stretches of static imagery, where time was really moving and, no, your computer did not freeze while you were watching it (for real, I once thought that was the case). Oddly enough, there are people who argue that those moments of absolutely nothing happening are what add to the artistic intent of the story. To them I say “stop inserting meaning where there isn’t any”, there is nothing there that really needed a minute and a half to achieve what could be done in ten seconds. The other practice that made the money issue noticeable was the reuse of footage and in no place is that more apparent than in, again, the mind trip sequences. During such sequences the amount of reused frames was too much to count and details on screen were kept to a minimum. Unsurprisingly, those were also the instances where the cinematography also took a nose-dive in quality.
Now to the sound: I watched the series subbed, because off course, that how I do it. The performances in Japanese are nothing to complain about. Shinji’s voice work is nowhere near as annoying as his western counterpart, playing a much more subdued tone when away from the intense sequences, Asuka is, in the other hand, just the right degree of annoying she should be, but smoothly transitioning to lower tones when the character reaches her lower points, and Rei is… well, Rei. Fun fact: the voice actress for Rei was Hayashibara Megumi, the same one who played Faye Valentine in Cowboy Bebop. The opening is the iconic Zankoku na Tenshi no Teeze, or Thesis of a Cruel Angel, an extremely catchy song, but I’d also advise you to look for the lyrics, which is very compelling and fitting for Shinji’s character. The ending is a rendition of Fly me to the Moon, which is not really my kind of music, but if it’s yours, good enough.
As harsh as I might have sounded in this review, I want to make it clear that I didn’t do this to diminish and lash out against fans of the series or to provide ego-boosting to detractors, I’m not ThatAnimeSnob. I wrote it with the purpose of showing my perspective, the perspective of someone who went into the series open minded and willing to take the most out of it, but came out disheartened by clumsy writing wasting away solid potential. I bet 19-year-old me really wanted to like Neon Genesis Evangelion. Besides what my favorites list might indicate, I’m all for appreciating what is old and influent in a media and that was one of my biggest drives while going into the series for the first time.
Unfortunately, by the end of it I could just repeat to myself: If only! If only the tone was kept consistent throughout the whole series; if only the unnecessary plot points were discarded in favor of tightening the script; if only the mysteries had been fully explored; if only the character dilemmas had been properly addressed and character arcs were completed; if only money was used to animate actually relevant plot-threads, giving the series the proper resolution it needed. Ironically, many of these problems are what makes Evangelion, to this day, such a divisive series and highly talked about subject, spawning countless interpretations and counterpoints. Perhaps if the series didn’t have all of the problems I discussed about and was a self-contained, complete story, it wouldn’t be nowhere near as influent and heated topic. Yes, its flaws are what make it memorable.
Evangelion is inevitable by this point. It’s considered obligatory watch for any anime fan and the result is almost always a passionate inclination to either love it or hate it. Believe it or not, I used to dislike the series even more than I do now. There was a time where I couldn’t comprehend what people saw in the anime and my reaction to anyone who placed it among their favorites was “Really?” Nowadays I’ve grown to better understand their reasoning, even though I still stand by everything I said here. I even got to be far more forgiving to Shinji than most detractors of the series are. If you like Evangelion, if it’s your favorite anime and something you wholeheartedly cherish, here is what I have to say: it’s OK, that won’t lead me to have anything against you, I might even like you, but, by the end of the day, my opinion is still the one I trust in the first place.
Oh, one last thing: stop calling Asuka a Tsundere, she has no dere-side and only going halfway isn’t enough to fit the archetype!