So, Neon Genesis Evangelion hit Netflix recently, which prompted a re-watch on my part, which means I have an Opinion on it.
When you have a piece of pop art which holds a certain degree of formative influence over you, your relationship with it often takes the form of a critical cycle which it seems that NGE has completed: when I first watched it at roughly the same age as its teenage protagonist, Shinji Ikari, I thought it was the greatest TV show I had ever laid eyes upon; as I grew into adulthood I came to think of it as overrated and pretentious; watching it now, at roughly the same age as Shinji’s drunken legal guardian, Misato Katsuragi, I’ve come around to appreciating it again in a new, more critically nuanced light.
And, I mean, I really can’t escape the whole “formative influence” thing: it’s almost embarrassing how many of my aesthetic influences can be traced back to this show’s effect upon me. Indeed, its entire existence as something with pretenses to being both pulpy, commercial trash and avant-garde, high art more or less laid the foundation for the sort of hack artist I aspire to be. But anyway, you can draw a direct line between NGE and my interests in surrealism, expressionism, weird sci-fi, experimental cinema and the like. It helped mentally prepare me to be someone with a pretentious taste in movies, you could say.
Except, you know, giant robots. Despite being a giant robot show, NGE never fostered more than a passing interest in the subgenre. But then, the Evas are not quite giant robots and I’ve never found anything which has hit my lizard brain quite like their monstrous designs. They are monsters, and I think an important point for me is how the “cool tech” aspect of the show never completely overshadows how haunting they are.
I suppose I should right around now provide a brief precis as to what NGE is ostensibly about, so: in the year 2000, an extraterrestrial entity known as an angel brought about an apocalyptic event known as the Second Impact. Fifteen years later, another angel shows up wreaking havok in Japan. This time, humanity is prepared, having constructed giant cyborgs called Evangelions, the only weapons capable of defeating an angel. Our hero, Shinji, is tapped by his asshole estranged father (Gendo, the commander of Nerv, which is the paramilitary organization in charge of the Evas) to be the pilot of Eva Unit 01, much to his horror.
This gives us a monster-of-the-week setup in which Shinji (and eventually two other pilots, Rei and Asuka), gets to deck it out with an angel. Which isn’t a terribly original format to follow, aside from an emphasis on how giant robot combat would actually be kinda terrifying, especially for a fourteen year old. And how the Evas themselves add an element of body horror: giant robots typically provide the spectacle of two humanoids beating the crap out of each other in a manner abstracted from the fragility of the body; making them comprised mostly out of flesh and blood adds a queasy, subversive quality that the show increasingly exploits, and which again leans on my earlier statement about the Evas not being allowed to become completely normalized and “cool” (and that’s without considering the whole “you feel the pain your Eva feels” side of it).
Anyway the first half of the show follows this format and does it exceedingly well, understanding how to make the action both work and inform character. I think the low budget worked to the staff’s advantage here: there are only a couple minutes or so to spend on a fight scene per episode, so a lot of work is put into making those minutes count. The Evas are powerful, but also ungainly and with serious limitations; each angel has a unique physiology (and a lot of those angel designs manage to stress the alien quality in ways that few extraterrestrial monster designs do) that poses different strategic problems. So there’s a lot invested in buildup and suspense, where the characters have to put together a plan where every action matters, and then we get to see how that plan plays out in the heat of the moment. It’s far more interesting than just watching endless combat scenes that over-rely on big explosions and the like.
(And it wasn’t until this particular rewatch that I realized just how amazing and, well, cinematic NGE’s approach to composition and editing is. Everything about it is both just so painterly and propulsive and able to suck you right in to the thing).
If NGE stuck to that approach, it’d likely be fondly remembered and would likely still be an insanely profitable merchandise cow, but it wouldn’t be groundbreaking. The second half sees director/creator Hideaki Anno and the crew increasingly interested in the metaphorical aspects of the show and increasingly less interested in conventional narrative. The show’s giant robot drama increasingly becomes psychodrama about dealing with life’s hardships, and battling mental illness in particular.
This happens even as the story expands, kudzu-like, into this conspiratorial mystery plot involving shadowy organizations, corruption, ancient prophecies and the like, all converging around a sinister thing called the “Human Instrumentality Project”.
Mash these two elements together alongside increasingly dire budgetary and time constraints, and you have a show which is going to fail to sensibly tie its plot up. Anno grasped this, and, in a bold move, embraced it: the final two episodes jettison the story and the entire surface layer of the narrative, breaking the fourth wall in order to become an avant-garde character study. It’s in no way superficially satisfying as a conclusion to the story, leaving nearly all the show’s plot threads and foreshadowing just dangling. But as a climax to both the show’s thematic concerns and interest in formal experimentation, I find it very apt.
And it also shows an understanding that a mystery’s solution is often far less mindblowing than what we might imagine it to be. If you take the time to pay attention to the supplementary materials and really piece together the lore of NGE, what you find is some pretty boilerplate sci-fi stuff that isn’t nearly as evocative as the show’s imagery and vague references are (and that the show’s madlibs approach to religious symbolism…really is just a madlibs approach to religious symbolism).
NGE’s weird, Frankenstein monster shape are both what make it disappointing and powerful as a narrative. A more carefully constructed anime like Revolutionary Girl Utena may make some feints towards being a conventional shoujo show, but you understand early on that you’re in deconstructionist territory. With NGE you have the uncanny sensation of a “normal” show mutating into something inexplicable before imploding upon itself.
(You also have, on the more meta level, the weirdness of a show so aggressively confrontational and personal achieving Star Wars levels of crass merchandise. I knew this well went deep, but I didn’t know until quite recently that you could even get officially licensed NGE wedding rings for when you want to pop the question to that special someone)
As a teenager I couldn’t much relate to a lot of the show’s angst. Despite turning out so weird, I grew up in a normal, boring middle class family and such. It wasn’t until I came close to adulthood that I had my first taste of real capital D Drama in the form of said family ripping itself apart, and, of course my ensuing adulthood has brought its fair share of baggage.
And, truth be told, I have been rather depressed lately for reasons which I may or may not unpack here later. So it was unexpectedly poignant to rewatch a show that says “yeah, life can throw a lot of crap at you, and you will suffer a lot, internally and externally, but it’s possible to rise above that.” I can understand how a lot of people have found its characters to be just miserable (and they are a tad too Freud textbook-y in their personalities at times), but sometimes you need sad art to empathize with.
So NGE, it turns out, is still one of my favourite shows.
Anyway, the show became insanely popular, and the ending pissed off its fandom even more than The Last Jedi did (we have to remember that the internet was much less of a Thing in the mid 90s than it is now). So it was inevitable that there would be a Movie, and that it would perhaps be a “True” ending of some kind.
But, hoo boy, The End of Evangelion is going to require its own separate post to unpack.