If you have a friend into anime, or have ever Googled a list of ‘best anime of all time’, you’ll have at least heard of Neon Genesis Evangelion. It’s often considered to be one of the seminal works of action-drama animation that helped to define what anime could be, and has been cited as one of the series that help revive the flagging Japanese anime industry.
It’s really weird though. Like, really weird.
The concept is fairly simple… until you add the esoteric concepts that underpin the plot (we’ll dig into those later). Essentially, an apocalyptic event in the year 2000 nearly destroyed humanity. The series picks up fifteen years later and focuses mainly around the city of Tokyo-3. For initially unexplained reasons giant kaiju (big monsters) in bizarre forms occasionally attack the city. A government-backed organisation known as ‘Nerv’ created giant robots known as Evas to defend the city (and by extension all humanity).
It’s possible to consider Evangelion as much a visual art project as a storytelling medium. It’s enduring visuals have been seen worldwide and, since its release in 1995, shaped the look and feel of so many things that it’s impossible to list them all here. It’s very likely that even if you’ve never seen Evangelion you’ll find the look and feel familiar.
The protagonist Shinji Ikari is a teenage boy, son of the project director, near-orphan due to his father’s obsession with the Eva project, and extremely reluctant Eva pilot. Shinji Ikari is young, in a way rarely explored in anime. He’s shown as deeply insecure, reclusive, naive, insensitive, confused, even cowardly; a mix that exemplifies many teens in real life, and the antithesis of the classic hero archetype. He initially agrees to pilot an Eva simply because he sees it as a way to gain some time with his father, and he doesn’t really consider much beyond that. Each Eva unit is partially biological and needs a vaguely-defined connection with a pilot in order to fully function; Gendo Ikari (Shinji’s father) is utterly convinced that his son is the right pilot for Eva–01, despite the boy’s reluctance and all-round apparent unsuitability for the role.
Even if Evangelion just ran with this initial concept it’s likely it would have been an influential piece of media. Most giant mech pilots shown in fiction are skilled, happy, and usually honoured to pilot such important war machines. The very fact that Shinji clearly (and vocally) hates every single moment of his time as Eva–01’s pilot is significant in carving out a new path for the genre.
As the series progresses Shinji is exposed to immense pressures and horrific acts of violence as he battles incomprehensible foes. We witness him developing deep-rooted psychological trauma and post-traumatic disorders, conditions that (due to the evolving plot) have to be pushed aside in order to carrot-and-stick him back into the pilot seat time after time.
Director Hideaki Anno has described how struggles with his own depression and mental health influenced the series. In 1995 he wrote:
“I tried to include everything of myself in Neon Genesis Evangelion — myself, a broken man who could do nothing for four years. A man who ran away for four years, one who was simply not dead. Then one thought. ‘You can’t run away,’ came to me, and I restarted this production. It is a production where my only thought was to burn my feelings into film.”
Our angels are different
Layering over the core concept of Shinji’s battle against his inner demons, the kaiju that form the ostensible antagonists are consistently referred to as ‘angels’. The viewer is left to do a lot of the heavy lifting in order to actually make sense of what’s going on, and Evangelion benefits from re-watching and doing some homework. In short, for reasons, extra-dimensional entities known as ‘angels’ seem particularly intent on attacking Tokyo-3 (although they do occasionally strike other locations). These entities take on many different forms; from abstract, stylised floating eyes, gigantic diamonds, bands of complex lights, and pattern-shifting orbs, all the way to more familiar giant humanoid monsters. The only thing that can stand against these other-worldy beings are the Evas and their AT-fields (telepathic force-fields).
These angels seem bizarre and abstract, certainly to westerners who have grown accustomed to the idea of ‘angels’ being pretty folks in robes sporting fluffy white wings. Interestingly the depiction of Evangelion’s angels stems directly from the Old Testament; angels described there take on bizarre forms of spinning fiery wheels and giant floating eyes, as well as humans, near-humans, and even mish-mash animal hybrids.
“They sparkled like topaz, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel … Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around. — Ezekiel 1:15
This isn’t the only Biblical reference, by a long way. Evangelion is deeply entrenched with reinterpretations of Abrahamic religious mythology. There are references to the Dead Sea Scrolls, though in Evangelion lore they appear to have been prophecies of some kind that guide certain shadowy individuals throughout the series, and ultimately form one half of the motive force behind events. We’re also introduced to Adam, ‘the first human’ (although in a rather interesting form) and to Lilith. In Jewish mythology Lilith was Adam’s wife, and in Evangelion she was something to do with the origins of humanity. When an angel dies (or uses weapons, sometimes) a huge crucifix-shaped cross of light erupts from the impact point; one of the series’ most iconic and enduring images. We’re also introduced to the ‘Spear/Lance of Longinus’, which in Christian mythology is the spear of the Roman that supposedly stabbed Jesus on the cross, and in some circles is considered a holy artefact. The core of Nerv HQ is called ‘The Central Dogma’, and Nerv is partially governed by a trinary of AI systems referred to as ‘The Magi’.
As the series progresses the density of the plot begins to weigh heavily. On the surface it’s a disturbing, dystopian battle against near-undefeatable enemies, both internal and external. Underneath that, though, there’s a complex web of conspiracy theories, reimagined ancient mythology, harrowing depictions of very real mental health issues, and deep questions about the nature of humanity and free will. By the final two episodes the plot is, frankly, a confused mess, and the final episodes are the nail in the coffin for any sort of coherent wrap to the series.
However, that’s not at all the end of Neon Genesis Evangelion. There’s an official alternative ending to the series, plus a re-cut version of the whole thing that further alters the storyline. There’s also what’s known as the ‘rebuild series’ (more on this shortly). In addition to all the extra and reimagined material there are a few old video games that are considered canon, numerous spin-off manga, and canon of other media that also add context to parts of the story.
Initially, both the overall narrative and Shinji as a character are fairly straightforward, verging on light-hearted, with some kooky elements. We’re introduced to Misato Katsuragi right at the start who takes on the role of big-sister/mentor/caretaker to young Shinji when he joins Nerv. She insists he lives with her, which gives us plenty of amusing home scenes and an inexplicable introduction to her pet/housemate ‘Pen-Pen’, who appears to be a sentient penguin… for no apparent reason. Interspersed with this domestic odd-couple strangeness are hints of a darker motivation: “Making sure he’s operational is part of your job”, Katsuragi’s friend and Nerv chief scientist Ritsuko Akagi tells her. It’s clear later that Katsuragi, though outwardly quite carefree around Shinji, is pivotal to running the entire Nerv command centre and the Eva project, and her motivation stems from what amounts to ‘getting the job done’.
As the episodes progress the plot becomes increasingly dark and disjointed, as Shinji’s mental state unravels and the angel attacks intensify. There’s a balancing act going on — both for the show and for its characters — to keep Shinji and the other Eva pilots (all of whom are young teenagers) on-mission against a backdrop of hormonal teen drama. It’s questionable whether the show succeeds; in the later re-imagined versions much of this material is either cut or adjusted in favour of adding more detail to the conspiracy theory/existential drama aspects of the plot.
Get in the robot!
Eva–00 is piloted by the mysterious Rei Ayanami. Her story is intertwined quietly with both Shinji and his father’s own personal tragedies. Rei herself is extremely odd, almost reclusive, and appears thoroughly disassociated with reality. She’s something of a mystery, and even when her true nature is revealed it’s still unclear exactly what’s going on (until the later reimagined versions, which flesh out her story considerably more).
Eva–02’s pilot Asuka Langley is clearly envisioned as a foil for Shinji in every way. Where he’s apathetic and insecure, she’s extremely proud to be an Eva pilot and utterly confident in her own abilities. Asuka is, unfortunately, also the primary ‘sexy teenage girl character’ that apparently must exist in Shōnen anime (anime aimed primarily at young boys; although arguably Evangelion strays into Seinen territory, aimed at young men, due to it’s darker and more thought-provoking plots). Sadly this isn’t limited to only Asuka, although she’s the worst served by this over-sexualisation; all the primary female characters have been exploited in marketing, on the box art, and promotional images. On top of that, the alternate ending to the original series doubles down on the teen-sexualisation to the point where even die-hard fans agree that it can be too much.
Despite all this, Asuka has an arguably more interesting character arc than Shinji in most ways. While he doesn’t show much development (except increasing depression), Asuka suffers huge setbacks that shake her confidence in herself and her abilities. This shock-adjustment sets up some core moments for her character to take centre stage in several episodes. Towards the end of the series she’s functionally washed out of the Eva project, and there are some beautiful, disturbing and poignant scenes dealing with her mental state as she struggles with past and present traumas. Eva–03’s pilot is revealed later in the series, and seems inserted purely to drive Shinji over the edge into a complete mental breakdown during one of the more harrowing scenes of an — increasingly disturbing — anime.
As we near the end of the series we come to what probably makes Neon Genesis Evangelion one of the most discussed and enduring anime ever made, and possibly why it’s so influential even now, over twenty years since its creation: the ending.
The end of Evangelion
Kaworu Nagisa enters the series in Episode 24 of the original 26, humming Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, one of the tracks on Shinji’s sadness-crutch personal stereo. He’s introduced as the ‘Fifth Children’ (the fifth selected pilot of an Eva) as a replacement for the near-catatonically depressed Asuka. He’s utterly confident, poised, and pivotally asks Shinji to call him ‘Kaworu’ immediately. In Japanese culture calling someone by their first name is significant, and reserved for close relationships only. Being invited to use someone’s first name, in anime, often telegraphs a blossoming close relationship. The fact that Kaworu invites this intimate familiarity with Shinji within literally a few seconds of them meeting is deeply significant — though sadly something that’s easily overlooked by casual western viewers for obvious reasons! Kaworu also seems to know all about Shinji, the Eva project, and bonds with Eva–02 with unprecedented speed.
All this happens within just a few minutes of Episode 24. He meets Rei at Nerv HQ and, in his carefree, smiling way, casually drops this bombshell around seven minutes in:
“So you must be the First Children, right? Rei Ayanami. You’re built the same as I am, we’re very similar. It seems we’ve both come to assume the body-type of the Lillen who live here on this planet.”
Dum-dum-duuuuuuum! Whaaaaat? We then get a few fast cuts indicating the Gendo (Shinji’s father and overseer of the Eva project) seems to know who or what Kaworu is. We also see other members of Nerv, concerned with the mysterious and timely appearance of this apparently perfect boy, investigating his origins.
By eight minutes into the episode Kaworu is chatting with Shinji again. He says pretty much exactly what Shinji needs, and wants, to hear. This core scene heavily contributes to the LGBTQ+ elements in Evangelion, further developed through the numerous reimaginings. This is significant because of the positioning of this anime in the pantheon of influential media, and it’s doubly significant for being a depiction of love, admiration and emotional intimacy in mid 90s Japanese Shōnen/Seinen media between two young men. It’s an immensely complex scene in a complex episode that’s laced with so much subtext that it’s still being discussed to this day. If either Kaworu or Shinji were replaced with a female character, then the scene would almost certainly be read as sexually charged, and wouldn’t have garnered even nearly as much examination.
Kaworu and Shinji’s relationship has been examined at length by critics and, while it’s clear that it’s important both within the context of the show and the wider context of attraction as portrayed within Shōnen/Seinen anime, it’s not without issues. Many have suggested that some of the American language dubbed versions have struggled with the exact translations of certain words, muddying the carefully-chosen intentions behind the original Japanese dialogue. It’s difficult to come to any specific conclusions, even after years of debate, though the fact that the later versions (also made by Hideaki Anno) significantly expand upon Kaworu and Shinji’s relationship indicate that the original intention was probably always for these characters to be attracted to each other.
Regardless of their relationship, it’s clear that Kaworu significantly affects Shinji’s life in the short time they spend together. Episode 24 covers a vast amount of ground, certainly too much for only twenty minutes, and contributes to the confusing, scattered, somewhat unsatisfying conclusion to the series.
But that’s not at all the end. There are two further episodes: 25 and 26 see the start of the ill-defined ‘Human Instrumentality Project’ and are, arguably, a densely-packed, incomprehensible mess of pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Despite this, these episodes are artistically fascinating, and they are definitely not without heaps of character-driven dialogue (that’s actually all they are) — but it’s a difficult and extremely controversial end to the series. In 1997 Anno revisited these last two episodes and created a ‘parallel conclusion’ to the series, titled The End of Evangelion. This alternative ending is certainly more understandable and satisfactory, in that it continues the narrative developed during the first 24 episodes, but it’s also not without controversy over several key scenes.
Evangelion 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 and beyond
The saga continues! In 2007 Anno returned as writer and general manager of a retelling of the entire Neon Genesis Evangelion story. This starts with Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, and continues with Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance in 2009, Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo in 2012 and the forthcoming Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time.
The ‘Rebuild’ series, as it’s commonly known, is unsurprisingly controversial amongst fans. 1.0 and 2.0 essentially take the same characters, plots and style from the original series and literally re-tell a similar version of the story. For many people this version is an improvement, as it’s less disjointed and does a better job of explaining what’s happening. 3.0 continues the story after the cataclysmic events that ended each previous series. This is an all-new plot that picks up fourteen years after the end of 2.0, and shows the results of Shinji’s final decisions — though we need to wait for 3.0+1.0 to see how it all pans out!
The biggest change is the introduction of a new regular member of the Eva pilot lineup and the use of modern animation techniques blended with the traditional style of the original. For casual or first-time viewers, there’s a good argument to be made that this should be the first version they see, simply because it’s easier to digest and follows more of a cohesive narrative structure than the original version.
“But the original series is the actual start of the story!” So many anime fans have likely just cried out in horror. And that’s true. The rebuild series isn’t a retcon; it’s not necessarily the result of Anno having second thoughts, nor are any of the prior re-cuts of the original series. At the end of each series (or each cut) Shinji essentially causes, or is part of, ‘The Third Impact’, which gives him the choice of how reality progresses from that point forward. At some points he actually sees and lives through alternative realities, some of which don’t have Evas and angels in them at all. There’s even a popular spin-off where the main cast are at school together and facing more normal dramas. Therefore each re-cut and the rebuild series aren’t so much reboots and retcons as literal restarts and explorations of alternative, parallel, worlds and timelines caused by Shinji. The major difference is that at the end of 2.0 Shinji makes a different choice, and in 3.0 we essentially get to see ‘the world after’.
But is it any good?
It’s difficult to recommend Evangelion, but equally it’s difficult not to. In many ways it’s actually a pretty bad piece of storytelling, certainly the original series at least. Yet it’s so immensely influential and so beautifully artistic that it feels fundamentally wrong to say it’s not ‘worth’ seeing.
Possibly the best way of going into Evangelion for the first time is to go in with no expectations and simply accept it for all that it is and isn’t. Maybe that was part of Hideaki Anno’s original intention; it’s messy and imperfect like much of life, like people; and, much like most ‘real’ stories, it doesn’t wrap up neatly. To many who struggle with their mental health, Evangelion rings true. Its art captures the insubstantial and gives it a shape and form that we can turn around and examine from different angles. Maybe that alone makes Evangelion valuable.
Neon Genesis Evangelion occupies an important place in anime and sci-fi as a whole. It’s the origin point for so much that came later, and without it our world would be a different place.