Director: Hideaki Anno
Writer: Hideaki Anno
Aired: October 4, 1995-March 27, 1996
I’ve had Neon Genesis Evangelion on my watch list for a long time, and it’s about damn time that I decided to check it off my list. It’s one of the most debated anime of all time, some calling it a masterpiece, others calling it overrated, pretentious tripe. My opinion? It’s a classic that deserves just about all the praise it gets.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is the confusing, surreal mecha deconstruction anime from the mind of Hideaki Anno and the talent at Studio Gainax. Set in Tokyo years after an apocalyptic event known as Second Impact changed the face of world, three young teenagers named Shinji Ikari, Asuka Langley Soryu, and Rei Ayanami are chosen to pilot giant synthetic mechs known as Evangelions to fight giant monsters known as Angels to prevent Third Impact, an even greater apocalyptic event that would result in the complete extinction of all of humanity. As the series goes on, the inner motives and psychological torments of the pilots get taken under the microscope and Evangelion goes from merely an anime about robots fighting giant monsters to a dark, psychological character study about the inner boundaries between people and the collective human desire for acceptance.
The aspect of Evangelion most worthy of praise then and now is the characters and their development. It might seem unremarkable now but at the time, a cast with such deep, crippling flaws like these hadn’t been seen before in anime. Shinji Ikari is no badass, escapist protagonist. He’s whiny, self-critical to a fault, and arguably a coward at times. He’s a character whose very human flaws make him sympathetic, but not necessarily likable. Asuka Soryu is an examination of the tsundere character archetype, and what kind of trauma a person would have had to suffer to turn out like that, and what effect it would have on them and the people they care for deep down, but have trouble showing. Rei Ayanami is…well that would be going into spoiler territory that I don’t want to go into, but Rei’s character is mysterious, struggles with her identity, mortality, emotions, and feelings regarding the two most important people in her life, and her past is tied intricately to the overarching plot of the series. Those are just the three main characters. The side characters are just as well developed and psychologically complex. Shinji’s commanding officer and guardian, Misato Katsuragi, is on the surface a confident woman with issues keeping a tidy house, but is just as damaged on the inside as Shinji is. No character is overlooked, and the show takes the time to show you what they’re like on and off the job, and the events that made them the people you see in the anime.
Complementing Evangelion’s great characters is an extremely well written and intriguing plot. The first half of the series is an entertaining and well directed but overall played straight mecha anime, but the second half is where things really get interesting. The series takes a much darker shift in tone, and the focus shifts from giant robots fighting monsters to examining the psychology and motivations of the characters, and dealing with themes examining depression, suicide, identity, love. At the same time we slowly learn the truth about the Evas, NERV, Second Impact, and the goals of the secretive organization SEELE. All of these elements make for what is quite frankly one of the most memorable stories in anime.
I had heard that Evangelion had problems with its animation budget and that Gainax had to cut corners and get creative to compensate for this. After having watched the series, I think there is at least some truth to this, but it’s been exaggerated. The mecha battles in Evangelion look awesome the majority of the time, and still hold up today. The non battle scenes with the characters just talking and doing their daily activities have some clunky animation once or twice, but nothing seriously detrimental. Even in the scenes featuring limited animation, the stellar direction by Anno keeps them engaging visually.
The battle scenes in Evangelion are never repetitive. There is always a unique solution that the pilots have to figure out in order to win, and even when they do, victory will sometimes come at a great sacrifice and leave them scarred mentally and physically. The second half of the series increases the tension and stakes of them with the Angels invading the pilots’ minds and forcing them to confront their deepest insecurities. They never feel stale and are always coming up with new ideas to remain exciting.
Watching the series in English was an interesting experience. While the first couple of episodes can be grating, to the point I was considering switching to the Japanese audio, but by the time Asuka shows up in episode 7, they begin to grow on you. I can’t imagine anyone other than Spike Spencer being the voice of Shinji Ikari, or Tiffany Grant and Amanda Win-Lee as Asuka and Rei respectively. The standout performance of the cast, in my opinion, would have to go to Tristan MacAvery as Gendo Ikari, perfectly capturing the character’s cunning and mysterious nature and his cold, yet still human personality.
Other worthy editions of note are the unique visual designs of the Evas and Angels, and the opening and ending themes being extremely memorable and catchy. Unfortunately, I can’t really recall the rest of the soundtrack being particularly memorable except for some great usage of Hallelujah in episode 22.
The final two episodes
I won’t go into spoilers here but I am going to devote a whole section of this review try to justify the most divisive aspect of Evangelion: the last two episodes of the original series. Episodes 25 and 26 are what can be considered a rough draft of The End of Evangelion movie, which I view to be the definitive finale of the series. They both deal with the same events, serve to wrap up the plot, and spend a large deal of time psychoanalyzing Shinji, but the final two episodes do so with leftover animation, still frames, and monologues from the characters.
The result wasn’t perfect but they still managed to give the episodes a surreal atmosphere and finish Shinji’s character arc. The episodes also still take time to fully psychoanalyze the other characters, and 26 features a charming sequence of what their lives might have been like if they did not have to pilot the Evas. Not great, but not terrible either and you’ll remain transfixed by what you are watching. I recommend you watch these episodes, then move on to The End of Evangelion movie so you can have a better appreciation for them.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is flawed but still a masterpiece. Whatever flaws it has can’t take away from all that it does so well and even after all these years, it still holds up. Any fan of anime, or just a fan of well written and compelling fiction should watch this series.