Neon Genesis Evangelion is without a doubt one of the greatest anime ever made. Or, at least, people rank it among the best. First released in 1995, the original Evangelion was what happened when a financially troubled studio (Studio Gainax) trusted an unstable genius (Hideaki Anno) to direct a 26-episode anime. The result is the most controversial anime ever.
In the years following The End of Evangelion (the movie finale of the series), tons of animation directors have cited Neon Genesis Evangelion as a core influence for them creatively. The influences can be seen on both sides of the shore -- Darling in the Franxx, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Even Steven Universe has paid tribute to the classic. The series is even in the process of being remade by Anno himself.
But does the series itself hold up? Beyond its role in pop culture, is Neon Genesis Evangelion worth rewatching once it hits Netflix?
Does the Plot Hold Up?
The plot for Evangelion, on paper, bares a striking resemblance to Pacific Rim. In the year 2000, a cataclysm called Second Impact killed half of the world's population. Second Impact is the result of an enigmatic creature known as an Angel waking up. Fifteen years later, the Angels return, but mankind is ready with giant, bio-organic mecha known as Evangelions.
Shinji Ikari, the protagonist of the series, is forced by his father, the head of a paramilitary organization known as NERV, to pilot Evangelion Unit-01. But Shinji is overwhelmed by anxiety, afraid of the father who abandoned him, of the responsibility placed upon him, of the trauma of confronting the Lovecraftian nightmare creatures around him.
But Evangelion isn't just Shinji's story. It's Misato Katsuragi's story -- the story of a woman who saw Second Impact up close, and, traumatized by the horrors that unfolded, is determined to defeat the Angels while sorting out her complicated emotions and protecting Shinji (and later Asuka).
Oh, and it's the story of Asuka, an elite pilot trained from childhood to use an Evangelion. Her entire sense of self-worth is determined by her ability to pilot, and when some nobody like Shinji comes around (who she might have confusing feelings for), it threatens her entire point in life.
But it's not her story, either. It's Gendo Ikari's story, the head of NERV and absent father to Shinji, who has an agenda all his own.
To say the story is multifaceted is an understatement.
What Evangelion does so well is pace and balance a ton of different stories, intersecting them as need be, to weave a very complicated story in a very concise package. The core cast of characters are incredibly complicated and fascinating. The end result is compelling and nuanced. It's never dull.
The Hedgehog's Dilemma
Many fans watching Evangelion for the first time notice how much time, however, is spent on the characters' pain rather than the giant robot fights. This is why some people prefer the remake series, Rebuild of Evangelion. The fights are flashier and cooler. Indeed, the original Evangelion lacked the budget to produce spectacular fight scenes, instead opting for brief, abrupt moments of compressed intensity.
But the show is less concerned with robot action and more about how canceling the apocalypse takes a toll on a person -- especially the human psyche. Every character in Evangelion, in some way, craves human attention. However, they either are hurt by their close contact with people or push people away to avoid pain.
Each character finds value in their fight against the Angels. However, when pushed, what defines their lives outside their fight? What do they enjoy doing? How do they value themselves outside of their function to society?
This is their mindset going into the series. The stress and revelations throughout push the characters to their limits, and none of it ever makes the characters happier.
Freud, Sartre and Deconstruction
At one point, fans called Evangelion a Judeo-Christian adaptation due to all the religious symbols throughout the series. It isn't. The staff just put crosses and Trees of Life everywhere because they thought it looked cool. That is not to say the series is superficial, though. The series does pose heavy, unsubtle existential and psychological questions, especially in the second half of the series.
These moments are abrupt and they can be almost distracting if you really want to get back to the action. However, this break from traditional storytelling is deliberate. Halfway through the series, the story starts to fall apart -- not just internally, but in real life, too. Gainax lost funding after people realized that this children's mecha series they funded featured Lovecraftian horror, vicious gore and introspective discussions about human psychology.
Honestly, the second half of the series does a lot to deconstruct what you'd expect from a series. Many anime from this era featured fan service -- lots of sexy shots of women to satisfy a male audience. Evangelion starts no different, by teasing fan service every episode. However, the shots of women become increasingly voyeuristic and uncomfortable. Asuka is introduced in a dress that is blown upward by the wind in a cute, silly scene. Fourteen episodes later, Asuka is naked in the shower, having a violent anxiety attack.
This culminates in the infamous coma scene from The End of Evangelion, which many anime fans regard to this day as one of the most unpleasant scenes in anime history.
In fact, the entire ending is a deconstruction. The last two episodes of the anime features mostly sketch work and still-frames, with little real new animation being produced. The End of Evangelion offers finality to the plot, but in a way that left many fans profoundly disturbed. Some love the ending. Others hate it. Regardless, the ending leaves such a strong impression that, years later, you can't watch it with indifference.
Every anime since Evangelion has tried to be Evangelion. The anime that try the hardest, like Darling in the Franxx, are often missing the key ingredient: sincerity.
Evangelion feels like Anno's private therapy sessions given form. It feels like Anno worked through his own depression through the narrative, and that sincerity shines through years later. It's telling that Rebuild of Evangelion, despite its budget and despite Anno returning, never really captures the sense of instability the original series achieved.
While the plot and ideas of Evangelion might be recycled by countless imitators, it possesses something that only true art has -- soul.