Neon Genesis Evangelion. Just the mention of the series is sure to prompt a massive debate between anime fans. The only anime series to garner more critical attention and scholarly analysis is the universally loved Cowboy Bebop, and Neon Genesis Evangelion is equally likely to prompt fans to call it the greatest anime of all time as it for it to cause its detractors to name it an over-rated, pretentious, and muddled mess. I’ve only watched about half of the series in the past so I don’t have a stake in this debate though my initial impression of the show was that it was one of the most starkly psychological and character-driven anime series that I had ever watched. Studio Gainax is responsible for two of the anime series I’ve reviewed so far, FLCL and Gurren Lagann. Those series are marked as the happier and angst free alternatives to the depression and alienation driven stories of Neon Genesis Evangelion (which was made at the height of creator Hideaki Anno’s own personal battle with depression). While the dark and dismal tone that propels much of the action of NGE is potentially not for everyone, for people that are searching for an intelligent and well-written alternative to your average shonen fighting program, NGE should be right up your alley as it manages to deconstruct every aspect of the mecha subgenre of anime (at least until it became the trope codifier of mecha shows) and crafts a remarkable cast of characters that feel more alive and memorable than nearly every other anime out there.
The basic premise of Neon Genesis Evangelion is a near future Earth where a cataclysmic event known as the “Second Impact” (which hasn’t really been explained yet) wiped out a large amount of the Earth’s population and caused drastic climate change and upheaval. Earth has slowly started to recover, and in the city of New Tokyo-3, the U.N. funded agency known as NERV has been tasked with protecting what remains of humanity from a mysterious alien force that has been attacking over the years. Known as Angels, these eldritch abominations can’t be stopped by conventional weapons and only the top secret robots known as Evangelion (or EVAs for short) can defeat them. 14 year old Shinji Ikari is called to Tokyo-3 by his father, the head of the Evangelion project (and a man Shinji hasn’t spoken to in years), to pilot one of the EVA units and fight off the alien forces invading Earth. Shinji isn’t a trained soldier. On the contrary, he’s just a kid (and an emotionally scarred one at that). When tasked with the defense of humanity, Shinji breaks down and refuses his call to arms. Only when he realizes that the alternative is another 14 year old, a girl so physically broken that she can no longer walk, does Shinji step into the EVA unit. Once again, not trained in how to fight, Shinji freezes in battle and is demolished by the first Angel he encounters. After his mind completely snaps under the stress of battle, the EVA seemingly acts on its own and saves Shinji’s life (and that of everyone in Tokyo-3) by defeating the Angel.
Serving alongside Shinji in NERV (besides his estranged father) are Captain Misato Katsuragi, Doctor Ritsuko Akagi, and Rei Ayanami. Misato is Shinji’s direct superior in the EVA program and the only one who understands just how deeply broken this child is. Though Misato intentionally puts forth a ditzy and laid back demeanor, she’s a serious alcoholic and is as prone to troubled inner monologues and angst as Shinji. Recognizing the kindred spirit (in terms of pain) she has in Shinji, they quickly become room mates so that Shinji won’t have to live on his own in this town (because his father wants nothing to do with him besides using him for work). Ritsuko is one of the head scientists of NERV. She’s been given the least character development so far. As of yet, she seems to only be a cynical and cold woman. Rei is the only other EVA pilot besides Shinji. If Shinji is a scarred and emotionally fractured child, Rei is a vase that’s been thrown against the wall and completely shattered. Outside of her work as an EVA pilot, she speaks to absolutely no one at the school that she and Shinji attends and appears capable of displaying absolutely no emotion except when it comes to Shinji’s father. While Shinji’s dad cares absolutely nothing about his son, he has been willing to risk injury to protect Rei, and the only time that Rei has shown any emotion the entire series is when Shinji insulted his father and Rei proceeded to slap Shinji.
The show is absolutely rife with religious and psychological symbolism to the point that if you freeze frame any of the more important moments of an episode, you’re liable to notice at least one bit of Freudian sexual symbology or Christian iconography. In the opening credits alone, you see the Kabbalah symbol of Sephiroth (which to be fair was also heavily used in Full Metal Alchemist) and whenever the first Angel is finally defeated, you see a giant cross (on several different occasions). Shinji is accosted by the severed head of his EVA unit early on (these machines take a serious beating) and if I wasn’t supposed to see vaginal symbolism when its eye first opened, then I might need to see a shrink about reading too deeply into scenes. Sexuality is in fact one of the larger themes of the series (though it hasn’t gotten quite as apparent at this point), and the painful awkwardness of Shinji going through his own sexual awakening cna be very difficult to watch. However, the most prominent themes of these opening episodes are alienation and the psychological costs of being a child soldier. There’s an entire episode which centers around Shinji totally running away from his own responsibilities and riding around trains and buses and the countryside in total and debilitating despair. By the time Shinji fights his second Angel, he’s basically a shell of a child who does everything asked of him without question (0r any emotion) and goes absolutely bat-shit crazy on an Angel when his fight or flight instincts finally kick in. Many anime have used the “determination” aspect as a way to show a sudden increase in skill or fighting ability. NGE completely deconstructs this plot device by showing just how damaged someone becomes when they are constantly pushed to these types of breaking points.
As much as I love the show’s story to this point (it’s one of the most mature anime of all time [and by mature I mean intelligent and thoughtful]), it’s animation could have used some work. This series is notorious for the fact that by the end of the show’s run, it had completely ran out of money, and the last several episodes featured many recycled shots and long still images rather than actual animation. While the series original episodes don’t have this problem quite as obviously and the major action sequences look totally awesome (it’s great that hte show can combine psychological drama and giant robots fighting), a healthy portion of any given episode is you looking at the exact same image for around half a minute while you hear copious amounts of exposition or character development. While some of these long stills look great from an artistic perspective, it sorts of draws attention to the fact that I’m watching a cartoon rather than immersing myself in the show’s world. NGE‘s plot is better than Full Metal Alchemist ever could be (and that’s my second favorite anime that I’m dissing) but at least FMA‘s art (in Brotherhood) always had my jaw on the floor about how beautiful the show looked. The character models in NGE look good from a conventional classic anime point of view, but there’s still nothing remarkable about this show’s art like there was with later Gainax programs like FLCL or Gurren Lagann.
If you’re an anime fan and you haven’t already watched Neon Genesis Evangelion, you need to go ahead and make it a priority. This is a great and challenging program (so far). Most of the controversy surrounding the fan (and what causes the divisions between its haters and its fans) doesn’t arise til closer to the series end, and I’m nowhere near there yet. As it is, Neon Genesis Evangelion remains one of the anime series (alongside Cowboy Bebop) that doesn’t make me feel guilty about still being a bit of an otaku even though I’m 22 years old (and just two months shy of being 23. shiver…). It’s smart and entertaining. You really can’t ask for more. And ever since Gurren Lagann, well-written programs about robots fighting other giant robots/creatures/aliens feeds directly on a strange pleasure principle. The only reason why you may not appreciate this show is if you haven’t seen any of the mecha shows that came before it. This series completely eviscerates so many of the genre conventions of those programs but unwittingly became the standard bearer for all future giant mecha shows. So, if you’ve only seen the robot programs that came after, you may not realize just how influential this program really was. Regardless though, this show deserves the attention of all anime fans who still haven’t somehow discovered this seinen classic.
Final Score: A-