Ikari Shinji is a junior high student who has the unenviable task of having to save the world every once in a while. Called into the service of NERV by his estranged father, Shinji has to pilot a giant mecha known as “Evangelion” to combat the recurring onslaughts of mysterious beings known as “Angels.” As Shinji struggles to come to terms with his own role in society and with his father, the battle against the Angels becomes more and more costly. In such times of desperation, it seems that Shinji’s father Gendo and NERV have secrets that could affect the fate of all humans.
Evangelion may start out like any other mecha series, but its special attention to the psychology of its characters makes it unlike anything else out there. Evangelion can be best described as a construct of layers. As you move past one layer, you find something new to the story that deepens the meaning of the events preceding. Evangelion‘s story is complex, but this complexity isn’t intrusive to your enjoyment of the series. Director Anno Hideaki successfully tucks many of his ideas into the various layers of the series, so you pick them up in nuggets. It makes the show particularly rewatchable, and the experience feels fresh each time.
The overarching story is essentially about Shinji, both his struggle against the Angels and his internal struggle with his insecurities. As the series moves on, Anno shows us more about the people around Shinji, as well as the history of his fictional world. This is not done merely to lengthen the series. The plot is something that evolves as the episodes come and go. Each evolution of the story provides something new to think about, and frequently opens up more questions. It’s almost as if Anno were establishing a dialogue with his audience. This effect helps Evangelion become more than just anime; it’s a work of exploration and personal meaning. Everyone will probably take away something different from watching the series, and as Anno says himself, the show is really what you make of it.
Judeo-Christian imagery is prominently used throughout the series, using mythological undertones to give the plot a distinct character. Whereas the Bible is very much concerned with morality, Evangelion uses its allegories to delve into the human condition. The fight against the Angels parallels our individual struggles with the better and worse parts of our own nature. The story revolving around the Third Impact and the Human Instrumentality Project poses the question of where humanity should find its future. The answer is especially significant to Shinji, and by extension the audience, because it forces a reconciliation of the self with society. No matter how abstract the story elements get, the focus always shifts back to the human question. It’s an artistic decision that works thanks to Anno’s execution. By keeping the focus on the humanity of the characters, Evangelion feels like an honest piece of self expression.
Actually, the idea of “self” is what keeps the story moving along. Anno is deeply concerned with what makes up the self, and how “self” relates to the idea of “other.” Shinji begins with an ambiguous idea of “self” and a poor sense of “other.” As events unfold around him, Shinji’s world view is broken down and reconstructed. As this happens, the narrative structure of the plot becomes more and more chaotic, capturing the essence of Shinji’s mental turmoil. These central ideas are explored by the other characters as well, and also fit into their relationships with the Evangelions.
The result of all this is that Evangelion feels like it has purpose. We learn something with the defeat of each Angel, and the plot very rarely resorts to filler. The series is fairly docile until the thirteenth episode, after which Anno unleashes his narrative demons and the show is irrevocably changed. Before that point, Evangelion is an entertaining action anime with personality but also a vaguely generic quality to it. After that point, though, everything becomes darker, harsher, and irresistibly intriguing. This kind of shift happens again after the nineteenth episode, and serves to collapse the audience’s expectations. What’s more, it makes Evangelion more exciting to watch and generates some effective drama.
I can’t really cover everything about the series in one review. What I will say, though, is that this series is an example of the true artistry that can be found in the anime medium. Whatever its worldwide cultural impact, Neon Genesis Evangelion is something that will always bear significance on a personal level. It is a work that leaves deep impressions, and if we judge this to be Anno’s intention, then Evangelion is nothing short of a resounding success.
Unlike many other mecha anime, Eva is consistently focused on the humanity of its characters. None of the main cast fits your typical archetypes, as each character has tangible flaws. Anno’s characters are very well realized, and their dynamic growth makes them resonant and alive. The primary way in which Anno makes his thematic exploration is through character interaction and dialogue. They serve as a platform on which Anno can explore different philosophies.
Shinji, the emotional center of the show, goes against any traditional definition of hero or anti-hero. He is incapable of forming meaningful realtionships with others, and most of the series shows him trying to overcome this deficiency, only to be tested again and again. To Shinji, people are hurtful, untrustworthy, and dangerous. However, you can see that it’s really himself that he hates, as he’s hardly had any parental contact since he was young, and he perceives his most traumatic experience as a betrayal by his father. Whether or not this makes him sympathetic is up for debate, but the way he wrestles with the basic paradox of human existence is a huge part of what makes Evangelion work.
Like all people, Shinji wants to be loved, yet he is constantly denied this by both physical and psychological isolation. On a more abstract level, as Anno will show us in The End of Evangelion, all human beings are essentially alone because of the limitations of their physical bodies and minds. As Shinji learns and deals with these difficult lessons, so too does the viewer.
Rei is a motherly figure, an analogue for “the other” on both a personal and universal scale. “Mother” is the first person a child is aware of after birth, and Rei is the first person Shinji sees when he arrives in Tokyo-3. Rei is also a stand-in for the rest of humanity, the intangible “other” that humans spend the rest of their lives trying to integrate with. Not only is this significant to NERV’s ultimate agenda – the Human Instrumentality Project – it also helps to solidify the nature of Shinji’s fears.
He does not understand others, and he sees Rei as something very primal and necessary, but also as something very strange and unfathomable. Their interplay reflects the foreignness that he sees in her. Her distant nature is what gives the character allure, but that certain unreachable aura about her makes Shinji’s troubles all the more real.
Asuka is Shinji’s opposite in some respects. She is extroverted, assertive, and self-confident on the surface. However, she also suffers from many of the same problems as Shinji. They are both strongly defined by trauma during childhood, and they both have problems with mother figures (and by extension, Rei). Asuka can be seen as a tragic figure. We are introduced to her at the peak of her power as a brash, new Eva pilot who is undeniably skilled. As Shinji begins to surpass her, her deeply rooted emotional problems begin to surface – in fact, I could make the case that Asuka is the one that suffers most throughout the series.
These three, the Eva pilots, are astutely used to both drive the plot and embody its ideals. They are thoroughly constructed and meticulously developed, making them work all the better as the emotional core of the series. Aside from the three children, Evangelion features strong supporting characters, each with his or her own motivations. My favorite is Gendo, Shinji’s father, who always seems to be calm and in control. Yet his facade hides a certain vulnerability which becomes more and more clear throughout the run of the show. His presence lends gravitas to whichever scene he happens to be in, with a role that is logically integral to the story continuity.
Misato, Shinji’s de facto guardian, struggles with her identities as a woman and as Shinji’s surrogate mother. This theme, which Misato so perfectly exemplifies, is actually quite important in Evangelion, as many conflicts arise from some characters’ inability to reconcile their feminine sides with their maternal sides.
Evangelion features a very complete cast of characters, and gives them the attention and development they deserve. The series tries to distance itself from the standard protagonist/antagonist construction – there may be good guys and bad guys at first, but Anno pushes the message that no matter what decision someone makes, all people must share the consequences. Evangelion is undeniably about the people that inhabit its fictional world. Anno correctly lets his characters explore and personify his ideas in a naturalistic way, rather than forcing them into contrived roles solely for the plot.
Gainax productions can be many things, but they are almost never without style. Evangelion has a familiar, yet original aesthetic that makes it very idiosyncratic. Any anime fan can probably recognise the stark, bold text of its advertising, for example. Eva-01 herself has become somewhat of an icon in anime. Sadamoto Yoshiyuki’s character designs are full of subtle details that makes them benign to a degree, but also instantly memorable. Yamashita Ikuto and Anno’s mecha designs are very organic, with intricacies that carry over well on screen. I also liked the direction regarding the action scenes. The focus there was not on flash and eye candy, but instead the tactical nature of mecha combat. All the little visual cues – the battery timer, the alert boxes, the computer screens – help give the action scenes a more militaristic texture. Despite a good design direction, a few shortcomings in the animation department are worth mentioning.
Any Evangelion fan can recall the many drawn out still frames toward the end of the series. They really do take away from the momentum of the plot, and rarely add anything to the scene. The famous elevator scene with Rei and Asuka suffers from a lack of tension after the viewer (very consciously) realizes that he has been staring at, well, an elevator for almost three minutes. I realize that budget is not an immaterial thing, but it probably would have just been better to make the series a few episodes shorter. The animation can also get inconsistent at times, but that is nowhere near as irritating as the still frames.
The voice acting shows a wide range, but is mostly credible and nuanced. It’s notable that this is one of the few anime where the American voice acting has not bothered me at all. Some may take objection to Tiffany Grant’s notable portrayal of Asuka (she grew on me, though), but the rest of the voice cast gets it pretty much right.
Sound design overall is pretty good. Evangelion opens with the catchy pop tune of “Cruel Angel’s Thesis,” runs through its episodes with orchestrated pieces by Sagisu Shiro, and finishes with a cover of “Fly Me to the Moon” in an almost ritualistic manner. Especially jarring are the transitions from scenes of intense emotion or violence to the calm, sedated beat of the aforementioned Sinatra cover. The sound effects, too, have been strangely chosen. But odd as it may be, the audio production manages to cast an even more peculiar flavor on Evangelion.
As a final note, it is definitely worth checking out the new Platinum edition (based on the Renewal project in Japan). If you’re looking for the best possible quality, the Platinum version features remastered video and a good 5.1 surround mix of the audio. I don’t usually plug merchandise on this site, but a lot of the well-known problems with the original DVD transfer are ameliorated in the Platinum release.