LATE TO THE PARTY: “NEON GENESIS EVANGELION”
REVISITING THE ORIGINAL, ITS REBIRTH AND REBOOT
Disclaimer: This is not only a review, but a retrospective. Also, SPOILERS!
It takes me a little longer to binge shows so while everybody has moved on from Neon Genesis Evangelion, I have just finished it. Actually, I just finished the Rebuild movie franchise of it. I finished the original show last week. On top of that, I had already watched the original series (through nefarious means) almost a decade ago; before the Rebuild franchise was even released. Now let’s get in the robot!
THE OG SERIES
It sounds cliche, but the original Neon Genesis Evangelion really is a masterpiece; not just in anime, but for any medium of art. It has the perfect balance of mecha action, character development (via trauma exploration, exposition or conversation topic) and pacing given it only consists of 26 episodes. Back during its release, 26 episodes was considered the standard, however, other classic anime actually consist of at least 50 episodes. Some anime are still able to fill that much time now, while the new standard is about 12-13 episodes per season. The pacing not only works for the plot, but for the journeys of its characters, and I mean all of its characters.
Once our introduction to Shinji (and some other characters) is over, we do get witness the change or full personalities of each character introduced. Let’s look at Shinji’s classmates for this.
We first see Toji as he assaults Shinji on Shinji’s first day. While this comes across as bullying, Toji himself apologizes and states that he has to attack Shinji to create a balance. What’s more is Kensuke sheds light to a motive as he explains that Toji’s assault was due to his sister being injured in Shinji’s first battle with Eva Unit 01. This immediate explanation drastically shifts our first impression of Toji from bully to either neutral or honorable. It also sets up Kensuke’s role as a mediator or comedic relief; granted further episodes fully flesh out that comedy role for him. Toji’s absences from school in later episodes are attributed to him visiting his sister, which further allow us to sympathize with him and allow us to view Hikari in a positive light when she reveals that she’s crushing on him. Through Shinji’s basic interactions we get to see the formation of three characters without flashbacks or dedicated episodes to them.
NERV’s characters are a little more complex, but their interactions with each other grant some insight into their development. Misato Ritsuko and Ryoji share a history which actually sets them up perfectly throughout the series. By having two of the three characters converse about the other, we avoid flashbacks and exposition dumps. In the case of Misato and Ryoji, we also get a glimpse of their past behavior and can compare those actions to what we see on the show. Their interactions with each other also get compared to their interactions with other characters, so their personalities become completely set in stone. For instance, Misato reveals to Ryoji that she uses men when she needs something and sex is a possible tool. So when she’s seen with Makoto later on in the series, we can assume that she may have started using him for her purposes.
The pilots themselves are sort of self-explanatory. They get significant screen time, flashback sequences and direct interaction with other main characters; however, their flashbacks explore their trauma…which leads to the next point.
The original series can initially be viewed as just a mecha anime, but if you watch episode one in full, you can see how much physical pain Shinji endures piloting EVA 01. Most mecha anime disregard the fatigue that comes from being a pilot. The physical pain of piloting leads to the emotional stress that physical pain causes, which leads to Shinji’s dilemma of continuing to pilot EVA 01. There are multiple episodes where the main plot point consists of Shinji deciding to pilot (or not) EVA 01. In the very first episode, Shinji is guilted into piloting and we find that he defines his sense of self on his ability to pilot; whether or not his father needs him to be a pilot. Through Asuka’s episodes, we see that her definition of self is also tied to the EVA, but through her internal need to pilot. Despite suffering similar trauma as Shinji, Asuka is the complete opposite of him in her journey. She’s arrogant, self-absorbed and feels like the cockpit is her only home whereas Shinji is timid, self-conscious and wants to leave the cockpit. Rei, strangely, acts as the mediator between the two, despite her lack of trauma actually serving as her trauma. While her journey is not explicitly explored, her eventual actions of forming bonds is what counters Asuka’s and Shinji’s traumas. Rei gets closer to Shinji (to the point of him awakening EVA 01) and her existence of a pilot serves as Asuka’s bane regardless of Asuka losing the ability to pilot.
Just in case you didn’t know, the mecha action takes place under the pretense of finding a way to cure trauma. Gendo Ikari’s goal is to enact Human Instrumentality to help cure trauma (although he doesn’t seem to have a plan as to how humans will reform from being converted to LCL), while Seele’s goal is for humanity to evolve (although they themselves have already evolved as they are part machine). Shinji decides to pilot EVA 01 to stop Seele’s version of Human Instrumentality despite the multiple episodes of him debating whether or not he should and Asuka enthusiastically pilots until she spirals into depression when she can’t pilot anymore. Rei pilots because she’s told to, until she forms her own sense of self as rejects Gendo’s plan. And why does Gendo want to cure trauma; because he can’t get over his wife’s death (Shinji’s mom). Side note, majority of action or mecha anime are about so much more.
The plot has more or less been spelled out already, but the entire frame of the series is placed within the confines of a larger lore and timeline. The characters of Nerv are fighting to stop a prophecy that Nerv is secretly trying to fulfill under orders of Seele. Although Gendo as the head of Nerv has his own agenda and has to play both sides while Misato learns the actual truth due to her ex- Ryoji; who is also somehow playing every side. Misato then learns of her good friend Ritsuko’s involvement with everything and shares as much as she can with Shinji (and to an extent Rei), while Rei is a dormant pawn (cycling back to her trauma of not being close to others) and Asuka is kept in the dark as an active pawn (serving her purpose as a pilot which fuels her coping of trauma).
This all sounds like a political intrigue story, but keep in mind that this lore is emphasized by giant mecha battles. And these giant mecha battles either inflict or expose past traumas of the main characters; which in turn drive them to certain actions that will affect the course of the Human Instrumentality Project. It’s the perfect cycle of backstory that affects characters, characters developing to perform actions, actions that influence the outcome, and outcome affecting the characters in a similar manner to their backstories. It’s like trying to solve a puzzle and learning from your mistakes, except the puzzle gets progressively harder each time you fail. And from a directorial standpoint, the plot works perfectly as a fight against a prophecy, because it provides a consistent progression of time between episodes (unlike the Rebuild films). Most episodes occur either directly the next day from the previous one or within a short time-frame.
THE END OF EVANGELION
This is a standalone film that actually acts a supplement to episodes 25 and 26 of the main series. To reiterate the trauma part of the main series, the last two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion are actually Shinji’s internal debate over the Human Instrumentality Project. He has already started the project and the two episodes just serve as what’s going on in his head. Asuka undergoes a similar experience as well but these episodes are really the creator’s way of explaining his depression to the audience. The creator put a little of himself in every character, with Asuka serving as the facade he wants to portray (being strong and confident) with how he really feels (timid and reserved like Shinji).
That being said, do not watch this as a replacement to the original ending. End of Evangelion is the external view of Human Instrumentality along with what happens to Shinji and Asuka when their internal struggles resolve. It also induces its own trauma as Shinji realizes the irony in his purpose. He finally overcomes his indecision to pilot EVA 01 to stop Human Instrumentality just to become the key to starting the project. The irony just makes the series better. This film can be watched ahead of time if you need a push to get into the series or want to just see creepy and psychedelic imagery.
The Rebirth film is honestly a retelling of the main series. It’s nice to watch but it’s not worth skipping the main series. The Rebirth film still has great pacing, but does not offer as much insight into the characters’ backstories as the main series. So picture it as meeting a depressed shy boy or supremely arrogant girl without having any context as to why they are that way. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth. As I had not seen the original series in almost a decade, the problem with Rebirth is that it would not fully engross me into the world of Evangelion; to the point that I would need to watch the original series anyway. So Rebirth isn’t worth it.
This series will consist of four films when the last one is released next year. Granted the first three are more than enough to reflect on.
1.0 OR 1.11
The first film is a shorter version of the the first six or seven episodes of the original series so everything is fine with that. The only critique would be the English voice acting.
2.0 OR 2.22
This is where things start getting dicey, as the second film starts as a retelling of the middle of the original series, but then deviates to an original plot. The Shinji-Asuka harmonizing arc is scrapped and relegated to a minor piece of dialogue. Also, the Toji-EVA 03 arc was replaced with Asuka being EVA 03’s plot instead of Toji. A new character in Mari has been introduced into the series as well, which strengthens the impression of Nerv’s influence as Mari is transferred from a branch other than Germany or the U.S. Mari’s addition enhances the Nerv’s significance and the scale of what’s at stake.
Honestly, this film feels more like an alternate universe than a retelling of the original series. While using Asuka instead of Toji makes the EVA 03 arc stronger, this version of Asuka is written to be attached to Shinji from her introduction-in a tsundere type of way. Rei is also given more humanity as her bonding with Shinji comes easier than in the original series. Since Rei is essentially Yui (Shinji’s mother), this would make sense, but Rei is also able to get Gendo to open up (albeit a little). At this point, it looks as if this Rei is more aware of her origins than the Rei of the original series. Even Kaworu (who has a larger role in the films) is specifically aware of Shinji’s development and hints that he may have met Shinji before.
The second film is fun and the minor deviations are welcome to the property as a whole. It follows the first film at being solid.
3.0 OR 3.33
The full on original plot comes full force as this film time skips 14 years into the future. Essentially, the Third Impact has happened and Human Instrumentality has been achieved-somewhat. For some reason, the only humans left are those of the new Wille group (the surviving Nerv members who defected) and Gendo and Fuyutsuki who are still a part of Nerv. It is also implied that Seele is still alive, although they have most likely been dead for some time before the original series began.
Asuka and Mari have not aged due to the “Curse of the EVA’s”, which was never explained and for some reason Wille has added basically every other human left in the world to their crew. This is never explained, although one can guess that Seele’s agenda was revealed to the public; but that’s not something a viewer would want to guess. Also, Tohji’s younger sister becomes a prominent member of the crew for no reason as she and Tohji were not prominent figures in the first two films. Gendo and Fuyutsuki surviving and having some basic function of the Geo-Front is not explained either and there is now a new Rei who serves as the “Vessel of the Adams”. This third film mostly serves as an action piece and leaves more questions than answers, which probably won’t get answered in the fourth film.
A 14 year time jump is exciting, but the film does nothing to serve the lore or serve the characters who have evolved in front of us. The other questions are, why bother fighting when the Third Impact has already happened and why try to instigate Human Instrumentality when it failed during the Third Impact? This film needs an episodic series to flesh itself out but watch it for the fun action.
All of the films of the franchise really don’t invoke any emotion or demonstrate any artful practices. They are merely supplements to the series that started it all. Has Neon Genesis Evangelion held up? It sure has and it still surpasses most works of today. Neon Genesis Evangelion is a must watch and re-watch if you appreciate direction, cinematography and just a complete dive into how characters (and by extension people) work. The films are just fun.