Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of those animes that got famous by becoming infamous. The show features tons of graphic violence, disturbing imagery, cryptic religious symbolism, and a not one, but two endings that make absolutely no sense. And yet the show is still one of the most popular animes of the modern era - with numerous fans claiming that the show was far ahead of its time in terms of its plot, characters, and the themes that Evangelion explores.
Evangelion's a fascinating series that you might have to watch multiple times over to appreciate. We've done that, and we've picked out five aspects of the show that were genuinely ahead of the curve, and five that set the show back.
10 BEHIND: Lacking Subtly In Any Way, Shape, Or Form
For the most part, the majority of anime and manga franchises out there tend to wear their morals and themes on their shoulder's; the main moral takeaway from almost every Shonen Battle Anime in existence tends to be "work hard and be loyal, and you'll always win in the end." However, there are also plenty of anime franchises that present their big ideas in much subtler ways than their contemporaries.
Evangelion isn't one of those shows; the series bashes you over the head with its themes of technophobia and isolationism so often, you'll sprout a Looney Tunes-esque knot on your head - likely in the shape of a giant Rei clone. There are plenty of anime fans who won't mind how explicit the show is with its themes and plenty who won't be able to watch it because of how heavy-handed it can be.
9 AHEAD: Fleshing Out Female Characters...
Animes sometimes get flak for their female characters; be it the lack of prominent female heroes (or villains) in Dragon Ball Z or the depiction of women in Harem Animes, certain viewers have trouble getting into anime because of the trends and tropes associated with female anime characters.
However, we'd argue that Evangelion broke the mold in that regard; the series features tons of female characters who are just as active, flawed, and complex as the male characters, if not more so. Considering that Evangelion came out during a time where you'd be lucky to even see a female stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the main heroes, we'd say the series blazed the trail with characters like Asuka and the Rei clones.
8 BEHIND: Certain Aspects Of Female Depiction
On that same note, we also wish that the series didn't constantly place Asuka and Rei in suggestive positions. Not only are the frequent barrages of explicit (but ultimately meaningless) scenes annoying, but they're also incredibly dubious when you remember that Asuka's a teenager and the Rei clones are ostensibly two years old!
Moreover, Evangelion didn't try to depict female sexuality in an empowering or particularly thought-provoking way. For a show that dug into a slew of mature themes like depression and mental health, its depiction of some of its female characters felt childish at best.
7 AHEAD: Main Characters With Mental Health Issues
Even though some of Eva's depictions of its female characters haven't aged well over the years, we have to give it credit for discussing mental health head-on. Around the time that Evangelion came out, topics like depression, anxiety, and mental trauma were taboo in most forms of media outside of literature.
Movies, shows, games, and animes that did feature characters with mental illnesses often portrayed those figures in a poor light. Evangelion deserves credit for prominently featuring characters that battle with mental ailments - and for not implying that these characters were weaker or lesser than anyone else because of that. The characters themselves may have felt that way, but the show never treated them like oddities or window dressings.
6 BEHIND: Who May Drive You Insane
Despite featuring a slew of troubled, complex characters, Evangelion never did much to make you root for them in the long run. Characters were often briefly introduced, then killed off or handicapped shortly thereafter. Other characters simply became less sympathetic as the series went on - largely due to the show's overall bleak tone.
You have to find a happy medium when you're depicting characters as troubled individuals - stray too far on the wrong side of the spectrum, and audience members may reach a point where they no longer care what happens in the story. It's also probably not a good idea to repeatedly show depressed characters failing and being miserable all the time, as it sends out the wrong signals.
5 AHEAD: LGBTQ Representation
Kaworu Nagisa is perhaps the sanest character in all of Evangelion. He's also heavily implied to be in love with Shinji midway through the series - feelings that Shinji's also heavily implied to reciprocate. Asuka and Rei were also implied to be attracted to one another, as well as potentially having romantic feelings for each other.
One of the biggest controversies regarding Netflix's rerelease of Evangelion stems from a change to the script; during a scene where Kaworu and Shinji are talking, the Netflix adaptation removed all romantic subtext from one of its translations. A pity, considering that Evangelion again blazed the trail with that scene between Shinji and Kaworu.
4 BEHIND: Its Plot Is A Vestigial Structure
What makes Netflix's changes to Evangelion's script even more tragic is the fact that said scene is one of the few that genuinely matter in the entire series. Evangelion's plot is very confusing, which admittedly adds to the fun of watching it. However, the end result is a show that makes you feel lost even if you follow every episode.
It also doesn't help that Evangelion seemingly abandons its plot by the second-to-last episode of the original series! It also doesn't help that the film End of Evangelion goes way off the rails!
3 AHEAD: Deconstructing Mech Anime Tropes
Most mech animes feature hot-blooded, young male protagonists who become ace pilots, save the day, and get the girl. And, hey, we're not complaining - we'll binge the living Hell out of Gundam and Gurren Lagann any day of the week!
However, we do find the ways that Evangelion deconstructed the mech genre to be utterly fascinating; Shinji's the polar opposite of a traditional mech anime protagonist - largely because he's not even piloting a genuine mechanized robot in the first place! Shinji also isn't very courageous, competent, or heroic overall, and you'll either hate him or love him for that in the end.
2 BEHIND: Largely Meaningless Symbolism
Earlier, we mentioned that Evangelion was filled to the brim with musings about the woes of the human condition and technology. However, many of you probably noticed that we didn't mention anything about religion, in spite of all the religious symbolism in the show.
Well, that's because most, if not all, of Evangelion's religious references and imagery, mean nothing! Okay, the monsters that Shinji and company fight are called Angels - borrowing names various members of the Heavenly Host. However, there's nothing about the behavior or design of the Angels to justify their names.
1 AHEAD: Pioneering The "Gainax Ending"
The title Neon Genesis Evangelion might sound absolute gibberish on the surface, but that phrase does have a genuine meaning one translated from Latin to English; Neon means "new," genesis means "beginning," and Evangelion comes from the word evangelize, or "spread the goods news." Once mashed together, Neon Genesis Evangelion translates to "spread the good news about the new beginning."
But as fans of the series know, there's hardly anyone to spread that news to by the end. Evangelion concludes on an abstract note that's so open to interpretation that even the most outlandish theories can't be ruled out. Evangelion's ending will boggle the mind of even the most astute anime fans, leaving everyone scratching their heads in utter dismay and confusion. That, dear readers, is Evangelion's greatest contribution to the anime industry - proving that a show can feature a Gainax ending and still go on to become incredibly popular!