Netflix has been steadily building itself up as a go-to platform for anime fans, scooping up the rights to fan favorites like Cowboy Bebop and Death Note, and the exclusive rights to future classics like Masaaki Yuasa's Devilman Crybaby. However, the streaming service's most impressive get so far is the cult series Neon Genesis Evangelion, whose global license has been elusive since ADV Films ceased operations nearly a decade ago. During that time, non-Japanese speaking fans could only get hold of subtitled and dubbed copies through pirate sites and old home video releases.
The Evangelion television series is just 26 episodes, which probably comes as a surprise for those familiar only with the franchise's reputation. It's loosely a story about teenage pilots who use giant mechs to defend Earth from frequent "Angel" attacks in the then-future of 2015. Really, it has very little do with the mecha genre that it deconstructs, and everything to do with Freudianism, religious symbolism and mental health. Tales of its fraught production under writer/director Hideako Anno lend the series an unmistakably autobiographical quality, only adding to its mythic status over time.
Anno famously ran out time, money and emotional stability toward the end of production, resulting in a frenetic, unfinished finale that left viewers unsatisfied. Not that it hampered Evangelion's commercial success, mind you; it's a billion-dollar franchise. Anno has attempted to rectify that controversy ever since. But, two spinoff films from the show and an ambitious series of "Rebuild" movies -- plus an accompanying manga -- leave us with multiple versions of the same story. (And Game of Thrones fans thought they had it rough.)
Should you believe the hype about Evangelion? Yes. But, is all Evangelion content worth consuming? Not necessarily. To make your life substantially easier than Shinji Ikari's, we've compiled a suggested viewing/reading order, as well as differentiated which entries are "essential," "optional" or "recommended."
ESSENTIAL: NEON GENESIS EVANGELION, THE SERIES (1995-1996)
It might not be the most satisfying version, but the original anime series is the best place to start to get the full head-screwy Evangelion experience. It's as much a rite of passage for every budding Evangelion fan as it is for Shinji to 'just get in the fucking robot."
OPTIONAL: DEATH & REBIRTH (1997)
This anime film is the first of two released quickly after the series. It and its direct sequel were created by Anno to appease fan demand for a better conclusion to the story. Death & Rebirth is effectively a feature-length recap of the show with extra, unaired footage, stopping just short of the end.
ESSENTIAL: END OF EVANGELION (1997)
Released in theaters a few months after Death & Rebirth, End of Evangelion gives the anime series the grander send-off it deserved. Whether this ending is the definitive one is something Evangelion devotees will debate forever. Aside from that, End of Evangelion has made frequent appearances on "Best Of" animated movie lists since its release. It's essential viewing for any fan of the artform, and not only Evangelion-ophiles. (It's also a great lesson in what not to do at a hospital bedside.)
OPTIONAL: REBUILD OF EVANGELION (2007-20)
Since 2007, Anno has been busy revamping Evangelion once again for the big screen. The cryptically titled series so far comprises 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance and 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo, with the fourth and final installment, 3.0+1.0, set for release in 2020. While the first three haven't deviated too significantly from the original series, the fourth has promised another completely different ending. Completionists will no doubt want to tick these films off the list, but, aside from their breathtaking animation -- particularly the opening action sequence in 3.0 -- the "Rebuild" doesn't improve enough on the story to be essential viewing.
RECOMMENDED: NEON GENESIS EVANGELION, THE MANGA (1994-2014)
Created concurrently to Anno's anime series, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto's Evangelion manga is arguably the most cohesive version of the story currently available. It's well-written, stunningly drawn and, wow! Actually makes sense! If you wanted, you could read the manga before viewing any Evangelion animated content, or read it as a follow-up to figure out what the hell you just watched. Viz Media's 3-in-1 volumes come with an even higher recommendation for die-hard fans, as they contain fascinating essays offering extra insight into themes and characters, and Sadamoto's gorgeous, full-color illustrations in between chapters.