Anime Review: The End of Evangelion

As an alternate ending to Neon Genesis Evangelion, The End of Evangelion depicts the fate of NERV, the EVA pilots, and the rest of humanity after the fall of the 17th Angel. The movie is split into 2 episodes: “Air” and “My Purest Heart for You.”

Plot

I have had a long, long history with this movie. Viewing it for the first time was almost traumatic; you really have to prepare yourself psychologically before seeing it if you’re as impressionable as I was. Frankly, I was offended by The End of Evangelion back then. It is mired in despair, exceedingly hopeless, dark, violent, and unbelievably twisted. Only after subsequent viewings was I able to appreciate its value (and power) as a piece of expression.

The first segment, “Air,” is the more conventional of the two. My problem with “Air” has always been with its un-Evangelion-like quality. Whereas the series (in its earlier episodes) plays out like an old fashioned monster movie with mecha flair, “Air” is much more militaristic, and significantly less humane. The invasion of Central Dogma can be painful to watch; director Anno Hideaki sadistically decomposes the people and settings you had grown to love from the series.

It’s easy to spot Production I.G’s hand in the first act of the film. When Asuka and EVA-02 awaken, The End of Evangelion finally starts to feel more like Evangelion and less like a war movie. The scenes that follow EVA-02’s activation are brilliant, both eerily atmospheric and compelling in an almost biblical sense. In the meantime, we also get cuts of Shinji’s side plot interspersed, contrasting how utterly despondent he is compared to Asuka’s newly restored spirit.

The second half, “My Purest Heart for You,” is similar to the original ending of the series, though it is a fair bit less tolerant of Shinji’s shortcomings. Here is also where Evangelion‘s Judeo-Christian aesthetic intensifies, invoking the despair and absolute finality of the Third Impact (the end of the world). Why has NERV been working so hard to prevent the Third Impact? The movie shows exactly why.

The complex relationships from the series – between people and organizations – emerge on screen one last time before the proverbial shit hits the fan. I admit to still being confused by many aspects of the events that follow. The basic idea is that Gendo, using Rei as a vessel, sends Adam to combine with Lillith. This initiates the Third Impact, and everything that happens afterward is open to interpretation. Anno pieces together concepts from so many disparate fields: Freud, the Kabbalah, the Bible, postmodernism, and Nietzsche to name a few. No, it’s not the best way to tell a story. But what is the film saying about its characters and their circumstances? The difficulty of answering this question is what makes the whole exercise so rewarding; it comes from the satisfaction of understanding, the thrill of a revelation.

There are, no doubt, many answers to the above question. My first interpretation is that The End of Evangelion expands upon the concept of realities first introduced in the last episode of the series. As “My Purest Heart for You” becomes more and more abstract, we see a dissolution of Shinji’s reality; it is replaced by the fears and uncertainties manifested from his psyche. In a sense, that’s also what the Third Impact is – the dissolution of the world and its people. This parallel construction, unsurprisingly, is depicted as the two storylines intermingling; Shinji’s nightmarish fantasies materialize just as the apocalyptic events at Central Dogma come to a climax. In the bulk of the second half, we see the nature of Shinji’s reality is governed by perception. A child who has been hurt by people all his life may lash out, isolate himself, or seek maternal comfort. All of these possibilities arise at various points of the film, yet none of them are real solutions to Shinji’s problems.

For most people, The End of Evangelion is as good as their understanding of it. This is the challenge and the beauty of Anno’s work. Yet as difficult and inaccessible as it may be, it always invites the viewer to think about what it’s trying to say. As the conclusion to a much-loved TV series, the film does what it needs to do. But as a work in its own right, its merits go beyond spectacle and grandeur; the film is provocative, unsettling, and one of the most intense pieces of cinematic expression I’ve ever seen.

Characters

Getting started on a discussion of the movie’s characters is pretty hard, considering the amount of attention the story demands. One of the things you have to realize when watching is that despite all the time spent on ending the world, what you’re really seeing is Shinji’s struggle to accept and be accepted by others. All the apocalyptic imagery is incidental; this is Shinji’s movie.

With that knowledge in mind, we see that director Anno shows us more about Shinji than we ever wanted to know. The opening segment, featuring a comatose Asuka in a hospital bed, sets the mood for the rest of the film. Shinji’s feelings of hopelessness and dependence put him in turmoil, and when he acts on those feelings, he shows the audience how messed up and sexualized the movie is going to be. It would be brilliant if it weren’t so grotesque.

It’s important to note that although Evangelion‘s aesthetic draws heavily upon the Abrahamic religions (and is particularly Kabbalistic), it is not an Abrahamic work. Anno uses such imagery to convey an occult mysticism – to show the complexity and ancientness of his fictional world. Yet Evangelion‘s ideas, in spite of all the Angels and crosses, all conspicuously lack the concept of a traditional God. The End of Evangelion makes this much more evident, as the fate of humanity rests with Shinji. Though endowed with a messianic role, Shinji is far from being Christ-like. He is vulnerable, slightly deranged, and completely terrified of his world. Knowing this, we can begin to understand the weight of the burden he carries, and that’s why his plot is so potent as an exploration of his character.

The other major player is Asuka, who has limited screen time, but is absolutely essential to the development of Shinji. In many ways, after her revival, she is the opposite of Shinji. She understands the nature of the Evangelions, but is not repulsed by it. For Asuka, the crisis around her enables her to act, whereas with Shinji, it paralyzes him. Given the ending to “Air,” could it be that Anno believes that those who act, act in futility? It’s possible, but I doubt even Anno would be that pessimistic.

Through Asuka, we see the futility of inaction, and it is ultimately her that Shinji seeks out to resolve his problems. She’s the one who lets him realize the value of others – as twisted as the path to that discovery is. This is the resolution of the hedgehog’s dilemma from the beginning of the series, concluding a development arc in the most grandiose of ways. It is also the second major purpose of the film itself (the other being to show the subjectivity of reality, as previously mentioned).

The other characters get much smaller roles. I could probably write several volumes on them, but it’s easier to say that they generally serve to move the plot along. What else can we do but to feel sorry for them? The nameless NERV staff has it the worst. They suffer through all the events of the series, only to be unceremoniously executed by faceless JSDF goons? It’s too cruel, I tell you. Ritsuko, Gendo, and the operators have a few moments, but only Misato does anything of import for Shinji. Rei, too, is pushed to the sidelines. I’d say the relationship between Asuka and Shinji is more important at this point, so it’s not critical to give Rei much screen time.

The End of Evangelion brings Shinji’s character arc to completion, and I’d say that is its biggest accomplishment. But many people have a love/hate relationship with the film, and I’m willing to bet most of that is because of the way in which its characters are treated. It’s not my favorite part of the film either, for the record. Given all the borderline sadistic acts throughout, how can anyone find solace or a reward in the conclusion? To say the ending is optimistic is laughable. Yet this does not indicate a serious weakness of the film; I tend to look at it as a different sort of cinematic experience.

Technical

The part most people will remember is EVA-02’s battle with the mass production EVAs. That is the scene that turned me into a full-fledged Asuka fan, and is definitely one of the most inspired moments of the franchise. Everything is done right, from the creepy sound effects of the white EVAs to the background music and the furious violence. Before this is a rather lengthy siege of Central Dogma, which reeks of Production I.G’s typical style (although with a little more substance than what that studio usually puts out).

From the outset, you know this film is not just an extension of the TV series. The palette is more muted, the animation is much better, and the character designs have been slightly retouched. The overall effect is a more militaristic movie, although the second half explodes with a more postmodern aesthetic. I did enjoy both styles of animation, but in terms of sheer excitement, nothing will beat the conclusion to “Air.”

Sound is also handled well, particularly in scenes involving Shinji’s introversion. The live action segment is also an excellent fusion of the right music with the right picture – definitely one of my favorite moments while watching anime. Overall, the sound design is reminiscent of the last episodes of the series, and is definitely not like the cheezy, bubbly tone of the beginning.

The Japanese voice acting is of its usual quality; Ogata Megumi (Shinji) and Miyamura Yuko (Asuka) deliver performances worthy of their extended roles. I had major problems with the English dub, though. Jason Lee overacts too much for Aoba, and Keith Burgess never sat right with me as Hyuga. Spike Spencer is a mixed bag as usual, but he’s certainly not bad (plus, I’m not sure anyone else could pull off Shinji in English). Oh, and the JSDF soldiers sound way too cheerful, especially considering that they had been ordered to execute innocent women and children.