Neon Genesis Evangelion Retrospective
The story goes something like this; director Hideaki Anno was out drinking with a representative from King Records, when he was offered a collaboration between King Records and Gainax Studios; with Anno being guaranteed a time slot for “Something, anything”. Anno, who had been struggling with depression following the failure of several previous projects, decided to create a show around the concept of not running away. What he and his team ended up creating became a phenomenon.
Image courtesy of TV Tokyo
Originally released in 1995, Neon Genesis Evangelion might be considered one of the most influential anime series of all time. Fifteen years after an apocalyptic event called “Second Impact”, a young boy named Shinji is recruited by the government agency NERV to pilot the giant machine called an Evangelion, or EVA, in the fight against monstrous beings known as “Angels”. Aiding Shinji in this fight is his legal guardian Misato, a hard drinking party girl who struggles with the responsibilities of command; Rei Ayanami, the withdrawn and mysterious pilot of EVA Unit 0; Asuka Langley Soryu, a loud, prideful girl who pilots Unit 2; and the scientist Ritsuko, daughter of one of the founding members of NERV. There are, however, plenty of obstacles standing in their way; the strained relationship between Shinji and his father Gendo, who happens to be the director of NERV; the unpredictable nature of the Angels; and the various unaddressed mental and emotional issues of the pilots.
While I had heard of Evangelion before this, mainly through mentions of it on social media, I had never actually watched the series. With the announcement that Netflix acquired the worldwide streaming rights in 2018, with a 2019 release date, I decided to dive into the show headfirst. I wanted to see if a show that was known for being both beloved and controversial in equal measure still held up, if it had a message or a lesson that I could take away from my time with it. Most importantly, though, was I wanted to see if it is still relevant almost twenty-five years after its original release.
Watching Evangelion I was quickly struck by just how fascinating it is as a deconstruction of anime tropes, especially mecha anime. For example, take Shinji. While in most anime the protagonist is popular, beloved by their peers, Shinji is seen by most of his classmates as a curiosity when they first meet him. The response he gets when he reveals that he is a pilot is a punch to the face by the school’s bully, as his younger sister had been injured in Shinji’s debut. His love interests, Rei and Asuka, regard him with disinterest and scorn respectively. In one of the first episodes of the series, Ritsuko mentions that he blindly does what he is told without complaint, that it is a survival mechanism that Shinji has developed to make his life easier. It’s this lack of agency that sets the character apart, his disassociation from almost everything around him. While anime is no stranger to protagonists who have personal problems that stop them from connecting with others, Shinji’s case feels unique, the logical conclusion to the awkward teenager who has no idea how to connect with the world around him. Near the end of the show, he reveals that he pilots EVA unit 1 because it means that he can get praise from his emotionally distant father, something that will definitely resonate with some viewers. Shinji, unlike some anime protagonists, doesn’t need to become an amazing hero, or to defeat a great villain. What he instead needs is validation.
But what about the giant robots? There’s an unspoken rule in mecha anime; the robots need to look cool, functional, but also friendly. This was a problem with the original Mobile Suit Gundam, the original mecha show showing the horrors of giant robots. When designing the titular Gundam, the designers struggled to make the war-machine look right; it needed to look dangerous and threatening, but it also needed to be attractive as a toy for children, as well as needing a fight scene every episode to promote these toys. Evangelion doesn’t concern itself with selling the EVAs as toys, instead selling the concept of these colossal war machines as horrifying engines of destruction. They are tall, disproportioned, hunched things; Unit 1 is painted in this sickening purple and green colour scheme, and, for some reason, has a mouth. There is something more to these machines, and the eventual reveal that they are predominantly organic beings feels earned and like a natural discovery. Yeah, of course those things are giant monsters; have you seen them? This lack of having to comply with the wishes of toy companies also means that the fight scenes are few, and often far between, with the series instead able to focus on the psychological fallout from these encounters.
But if Evangelion is good at exploring how the EVAs are terrifying beings, or the psychological effects of regularly fighting giant monsters, it is less successful when it comes to sexual politics, especially when we consider how the show frames young women. Like many anime series, Evangelion has more than a little bit of fanservice, usually in the form of close up shots of characters chests, legs and butts. The show also likes to comment on this fanservice as well, attempting to deconstruct this aspect of anime as well. However, the show tends to fumble with this. It is well and good saying that leering at these, often underage, characters is a bad thing, but the show indulges in the leering itself. The camera will sit in a character’s lap or zoom in on their butt and then declare that it is the audience’s fault that the studio went in this direction. It makes the criticism feel disingenuous, and the show downright creepy at times, especially when Kaji shows up.
Introduced as Asuka’s guardian, Kaji is a spy, a member of NERV, a keen gardener and an ex-lover of Misato. He’s also a sex pest. Whenever he is in a scene with female characters, they actively move away from him. He makes lewd comments, puts multiple women in inappropriate positions, and in his introduction talks at length about the sexual nature of his relationship with Misato. None of this is endearing, and it is incredibly creepy and awkward. I have nothing against characters who are flirty, but Kaji isn’t just flirty; he’s aggressive. The fact that Asuka, who is fourteen, has a crush on him adds a whole new layer of disturbing to this character, and while he never takes advantage of her, that doesn’t do much to change my initial thoughts on him. However, as the show goes on, his characterisation changes. He starts to be portrayed as being far more introspective and thoughtful than when he was introduced. He gives Shinji advice. He enters into a consensual relationship with Misato. But I personally think that this turnaround, which happens far too suddenly to be called character development, doesn’t redeem him. He never faces any consequences for his actions. The fact that the show makes Kaji so important to the emotional arc of so many characters (Misato, Shinji, Asuka), and this sudden change in characterisation, makes me feel like the character was mishandled. Maybe it was poor writing; maybe the team just didn’t know what to do with the character when he was first created. But, in a show that already has lots of issues with how it frames certain characters, Kaji is definitely a mark against the show.
Another bad mark against the show, or the Netflix translation at least, is the removal of a significant queer relationship between Shinji and another character. Since this happens late into the show’s run I won’t say much to avoid spoilers, but I do think it is worth mentioning. What is interesting about this removal though, is that it isn’t effective; since the show’s animation hasn’t changed, all this does is change what was actual text into subtext. The relationship is still queer. I’ve seen many different reasonings for the change in this translation; some people blame it on the studio wanting a more literal translation, others say that the lead translator has some dodgy personal politics (personally, I think both parties can be blamed for this particular mess).
But despite these downsides, there was something about Evangelion that stuck with me; the act of staying hopeful in the face of near certain extinction. While I’m sure Anno had no intention of this occurring, I could not help but, in my own mind, compare the existential threat of the Angels to the existential threat of the climate crisis and collapse that the world is currently going through. The Angels are portrayed as unstoppable, menacing things; in the first episode an Angel destroys everything in its path without getting injured, only being stopped by Shinji and Unit 1 in the next episode. There is nothing that the government or army can do, and they end up just watching it as it slowly advances towards its target. This feels so similar to the current climate collapse, with governments around the world being either unable, or unwilling, to put in place the necessary measures to reduce emissions, or to put sanctions on big oil corporations. And it was almost impossible to not draw a comparison between the teenage pilots and the group of young people (Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Villaseñor, Carl Smith e.t.c.) leading climate protests around the world, and who recently engaged with legal action against five countries that are not on track to meet the emissions reduction targets laid out in the Paris Agreement. Both the pilots and the children have been thrust into fights they do not want, and, with the implication that NERV had a hand with Second Impact, it can be argued that they are attempting to fix the mistakes caused by previous generations.
Something which helps this comparison is that, in Evangelion, the world has gone through climate collapse. Caused by the Second Impact, the world’s climate has dramatically changed. Antarctica has been completely destroyed, melted beyond recognition, causing devastating flooding world-wide, and several small countries have been wiped off the map. In episode 8, titled “Asuka arrives in Japan” in the Netflix dub, the audience is shown several brief shots of what lies below the ocean. Miles upon miles of apartment complexes and skyscrapers are seen, resting on the new seabed. The scene is chilling, doubly so when you realise that no character directly mentions the sight. For them, it is the new normal, and has been for the past fifteen years. Other consequences are shown throughout the shows run, most notably the fact that Tokyo-3, the fictional city where the show is set, is mentioned to be trapped in an eternal summer. But none of these references really have the impact as those brief glimpses of the flooded cities.
So, in conclusion, does Neon Genesis Evangelion hold up nearly twenty-five years later? Personally, I think so. I have a few more issues with it, mostly regarding how the ending doesn’t really pay-off some of the more important plot points that were set up in prior episodes, but I feel like I can ignore that. Ultimately, the final episodes of Evangelion are a microcosm of the rest of the show; it’s confusing and weird, but ultimately hopeful. It emphasises the connections we make with people, and how we need those connections to be happy. While I could talk about the film follow up to Evangelion; End of Evangelion, I feel like it’s unnecessary. While the film does address some of my criticisms about the ending not paying off everything that was set up, I actually prefer the ending that the show had. It was more hopeful, and I think that is something that I like. If I’m being honest, I think the hopeful ending was something I needed.
Writing reviews, especially retrospectives of programs from years ago, is a strange process. Reviewers can only really write about their experience with a product, there is no way to write a review in a way that is completely subjective; either you like something, or you don’t. There were several things that I didn’t like about Evangelion, but I ultimately enjoyed my time with the series. But that might be due to the rather unique way I consumed the programme. I watched this programme whilst listening to the Waypoint Radio podcast, which was doing a miniseries on Evangelion at the time. There was something exciting about watching a small group of episodes, and then sitting down to see what other people; some of whom had no prior experience with the series, others who were as new as I was, talk about the show and the things that they had noticed. It opened me up to a reading of the show that was completely different to the one that I would have had if I had just watched it without any outside influence. This process, of watching the show and then listening to the podcast, continued for almost two months, and impacted the way that I viewed the show. But it is the experience that I had, and that is all that I, as a reviewer, can write about.
I enjoyed Neon Genesis Evangelion. That’s all there is to say.