Shinji Ikari is a fourteen-year-old with emotional problems that can mostly be blamed on his cold and long-absent father. One day out of the blue this very same father summons him to the city of Neo-Tokyo 3, gives him a giant robot and tells him to fight alien invaders. Mankind's future is in the hands of a fucked-up teenager... and that's only half the story. More importantly, the show also has themes of religion, deeply disturbed behaviour and religion. Did I mention the religion?
Neon Genesis Evangelion was the biggest anime of the 1990s, a blockbuster that resurrected both the giant robot genre and pretty much anime itself. Unfortunately I often don't get on well with popularly acclaimed anime. Cowboy Bebop and Martian Successor Nadesico struck me as shallow and vaguely dull, so I didn't have great expectations of this. I still don't see why it became a global phenomenon, but until we hit That Ending it's perfectly watchable. It's fun, it's funny, it has some good jokes and it pulls off the world's first exciting episode about computer hacking.
It's oddly retro. Underneath all the thematic weight, it's basically a bog-standard giant robot show with pretty girls. On that last point, it's odd to see the Next Episode previews promising ever more fanservice despite the show's relative tameness on that front. It's as if the producers were apprehensive about their more indigestible story elements and wanted to push the crowd-pleasing stuff. Was this show's popularity partly due to giant robot nostalgia in Japan's anime-watching public?
If it weren't for the characters and themes, this would be unremarkable. Neon Genesis Evangelion's cast is famously angst-ridden, to the point where their bizarre mental problems end up being more important than invading aliens. I actually had more sympathy for the children (even Shinji at his most self-pitying) than the adults, who didn't have the excuse of being fourteen. Commander Ikari and SEELE play power games, more concerned with the size of their metaphorical dicks than saving the planet. When Shinji gets his Eva taken away, it's not because anyone doubts his efficacy in combat... it's because he's no longer their little puppet, mindlessly obeying even grotesque and arbitrary orders.
It's surprisingly painless to watch. Some comedies are excruciating as you writhe in sympathetic pain for the characters, but this show's tragedies aren't caused by stupidity or sadistic writing. Once you've allowed for psychological peculiarities, everyone here is acting sensibly according to their worldview.
It's fun, but it has enough layers to let its audience dig for deeper meanings too. I enjoyed it... up to a point. Yup, it's time to discuss the ending, or perhaps "endings". There are multiple versions of the end of Evangelion. Some years after making the TV series, Anno Hideaki released expanded director's cuts of the last two episodes. Irritatingly Death and Rebirth has a huge recap of the TV series, then End of Evangelion has a huge recap of Death and Rebirth. Did I want to keep rewatching the same footage? I did not. Nevertheless...
The end of Neon Genesis Evangelion infamously degenerates into stream-of-consciousness gibberish. The director's cuts make huge changes, especially during Death and Rebirth (giving Asuka a much better story role), but eventually they too become weird and random. Admittedly it's new and improved gibberish, but it makes no more sense. As the dramatic climax of a 26-part plot, it's frustrating. However (deep breath) as a continuation of the show's themes, I found it interesting and appropriate.
The thing about Neon Genesis Evangelion is that it's playing with Christian imagery that's normally the province of onanists who milk it for cheap resonance and never actually take it anywhere. Not here. Mankind is literally fighting Angels... and it's not impossible that we're seeing divinity filtered through the atheistic viewpoint of our Earthbound heroes. We get stigmata, a big alien nailed to a cross and enough on similar lines to make this effectively a conflict between Heaven and Earth. To me the show's conclusion (all versions) seemed to be tackling the concept of heaven. If the show is effectively an animated Book of Revelation, then its final episode is asking specific questions about the Rapture and the afterlife.
It might be significant that being Japanese, this show is looking at Christianity from the outside. It's also obviously the work of a fucked-up creator! Director Anno Hideaki had suffered depression after finishing Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water and was allegedly close to suicide. Especially in the last episode, Shinji's struggle with his demons doesn't strike me as the kind of story that a well-balanced mind would dream up. I'm not saying that a healthy psyche couldn't create Neon Genesis Evangelion in all its demented glory, but it might not occur to such a person to do so.
There are little touches that I appreciated, e.g. the show never explicitly saying who Ayanami Rei came from. It's unambiguous if you're paying attention, but you're trusted to put together the clues. I liked that. Overall, this show is an odd blend of ultra-trad story elements being taken in a direction that's totally uncompromising, eventually savage and obviously deeply personal. This show has balls. I admire it, but I'm not sure whether or not I like it.