Neon Genesis Evangelion Anime Review
Shin Seiki Evangelion
New Century Evangelion
US Release By
Freudian Giant Robot Angsty-Action
26 25-minute episodes
1995-10-04 - 1996-03-27
It is 2015, and the world has rebuilt after a global disaster in 2001, but the time of reckoning has come--mysterious invaders known as angels are descending to Earth one by one to try and bring about the end of mankind. But mankind is not unprepared; a secretive project known as NERV, headed by Gendo Ikari, has developed EVAs, gigantic biological humanoid fighting machines, to stop them. But not just anyone can pilot these weapons of salvation.
Fourteen-year-old Shinji Ikari, estranged son of Gendo, is called to the project by his father. Together, Shinji, the egotistical German genius Asuka, and the mysterious, emotionless Rei are tasked with finding a way to control the EVAs to thwart the invasion. But what purpose do the angels really serve, what is the secret of the EVAs, and what is the true goal of Gendo and his shadowy organization?
Quick ReviewSwitch to Full Review
The vast majority of anime fans have already seen Evangelion, and those who haven't can look at it this way: If you're a serious anime fan, you should see it whether it sounds appealing or not, since it has become a sort of watermark of everything that has followed. At worst, you'll hate it but at least know what everyone is talking about, and be aware of the many later series that reference or steal from it. At best, you, like many, will adore it and revel in its depth.
If you're not a serious anime fan, the choice is simple: Does spending about 12 hours watching angst-ridden kids pilot giant, mysterious robots against the backdrop of political machinations, heavy Biblical imagery, and endless layers of psychological and metaphysical implications, wrapped up in a classy-looking mecha-action framework with an abstract, head-scratching climax sound like a worthwhile use of your time? If so, go get some.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
At this point, a review of Neon Genesis Evangelion is basically an academic exercise--the series has been talked to Death and back (pun intended) and it has reached the point where it's almost too important to the genre not to watch for the few who haven't seen it already. The main reason for writing a review of it is to help readers get a feel for your perspective on other anime. Either that, or it's an exercise in vanity that lets you frame your personal analysis (and it seems everyone has one) in a more authoritative way. I'll try to aim for the former.
If you're one of the few anime fans who hasn't already seen Evangelion, you can look at it this way: If you're a serious anime fan, you should see it whether it sounds appealing or not, since it has become a sort of watermark for everything that has followed. At worst, you'll hate it but at least know what everyone is talking about, and be aware of the many later series that reference or steal from it. At best, you, like many, will adore it and revel in its depth. If you're not a serious anime fan, the choice is simple: Does spending about 12 hours watching angst-ridden kids pilot giant, mysterious robots against the backdrop of political machinations, heavy Biblical imagery, and endless layers of psychological and metaphysical implications, wrapped up in a classy-looking mecha-action framework with an abstract, head-scratching climax sound like a worthwhile use of your time? If so, go get some.
On the off chance you haven't seen it or absorbed the main plot points through web surfing, be warned that there are going to be a few indirect spoilers in here--it's hard to talk about it in much detail without any.
First off: I didn't like Evangelion all that much. It certainly has its strengths, and I can see why it's popular, but it seems to lose focus instead of getting stronger toward the end, and I just didn't care much for where the whole thing goes. I also got the feeling that it wasn't so much deep as vague enough for the viewer to overanalyze and thus assume it was deep. That may have been the point, but that's not the sort of storytelling I enjoy.
What most caught my eye about Evangelion is its experimental nature. Although it's frequently called revolutionary or groundbreaking, I do think experimental is a more accurate term. Throughout the series, Gainax (writer/director Hideaki Anno, really) seems to be trying some concepts out, pushing the limits of others, and in general just doing unorthodox things. When it works, the series ends up with some very unusual and often powerful scenes, plenty of at least apparent depth, and some spectacular (or spectacularly disturbing) imagery. Elsewhere there are sections or entire episodes that just don't seem to fit, a few things that I found almost painfully weird or cheesy, and the story eventually seems to get lost in favor of being avant-garde. The near-universally-reviled final two episodes, to be sure, are pure artistic experiment, far more at home in an abstract animation festival than a coherent story about alien invasion. Of course, any time you push the envelope that far you're going to alienate some viewers while grabbing others, so each person's opinion about which parts succeed and which fail is going to differ.
The next thing that seems worth mentioning is how Evangelion came to be. I generally don't like overanalyzing the mindset behind anime (in part because of the collaborative nature of the production process), preferring to look at each piece as a self-sufficient whole rather than an individual's creative expression or statement. But, it's been widely written that Evangelion is, when you strip away the trappings of Biblical references and battling robots, Hideaki Anno's psyche laid bare and put to acetate. Certainly in the abstract closing episodes, where we are thrust unprotected into Shinji's (and therefore Anno's) tortured Id (or, rather, Ego, which Shinji represents) with little explanation and no protection from the chaotic contents, it's hard to argue with that. This explains much of the raw emotional character of the series and its characters--both the adults and overburdened children. It also explains why as the series burrows deeper the large-scale story takes a back seat to the internal collapse of the individual characters. Therapy as very expensive, very popular art--novel idea, although debatable whether it's worth subjecting yourself to.
That brings me to my personal pet peeve with Evangelion: its pretense. The vast amounts of Biblical imagery are a good example; despite the constant talk of angels, apocalypse, prophecy, Dead Sea Scrolls, souls, the highs and lows of humanity, and any number of names taken directly from the Bible, the references are almost entirely superficial. The tendency to insert Biblical references into otherwise bland stories to add some pseudo-depth always annoys me, and Evangelion has more than enough plot on its own without the unnecessary tie-ins. There is no more glaring example than that in the original Japanese the "Angels" were for some reason called "shito," meaning "apostle," despite their names (and themes) being obvious angelic references.
Many people find the layers of visual and thematic symbolism appealing, but while a few bits struck me as nice, for the most part it seems to be trying exceedingly hard to look clever.
As for the series itself, it certainly expands the borders of the fighting robot genre into little-trod territory. The EVAs are immense, frightening, living things--they bond with their "pilots" in ill-understood ways, they bleed, and they occasionally go into horrifying berserker rages amplified by the tremendous sense of scale. An uncomfortable balance between a barely-functional prototype computer and an angry animal the size of a building, they are unnerving and intriguing in their own right. The action is similar; each successive Angel attack grows more abstract, and as the series pushes the boundaries of what constitutes "action" the battles go from robot-on-monster to somewhere between physics student thought experiment and metaphysical symbolism. The action is rarely the meat of it anyway; the focus is squarely on the emotional impact on the pilots and their various problems.
On that note, the cast of characters is established as a fairly stock set of anime personalities, put together with a notable twist. The three central youths--Shinji, Asuka, and Rei--are, in fact, archetypal in the broadest sense--they are apparently based on the Freudian Id, Ego, and Superego. They're moderately interesting if not "likable" in the traditional sense--Shinji is fragile and introspective, Asuka fiercely egotistical and annoying, and Rei unnervingly robotic. They also have a lot of room to develop, as well as loads of angst, which I personally thought leaned toward annoying, whether realistic or not. (On a side note, I find the constant sexualization of Asuka and particularly Rei in representation and merchandising unnerving, since they're only supposed to be about 14. They don't even look distinctive enough to deserve that level of attention.)
On the topic of ages, one thing I did appreciate is that most of the characters are adults--a rarity in this sort of series. The age discrepancy between the pilots and the rest of the cast is significant within the story; while the kids bear the burden of the execution, the plans are completely out of their hands--they are for the most part nothing more than pawns. Here, children fighting their parents' war isn't so much representative of youth fighting wars that the older generation sends them off to as a facet of the emotionally starved father-son dynamic. Shinji's desperate search for acceptance from his father or, in lieu of it, any sort of family to cling to is a central theme. In fact, combined with the loss of his mother, it is probably the central theme, albeit one presented indirectly.
In another departure from the superficial marketing of the average giant robot series, as representations of Anno's unstable psyche, these characters aren't treated as fan-favorite heroes. Shinji is given a surrogate family to give the impression that he might develop some emotional normalcy, and the other two pilots along with him, but that glimmer of hope is only temporary. As the series reaches its climax, Anno takes each of the young protagonists and methodically destroys them--not physically, but tearing them apart mentally, reducing them, quite literally, to catatonic shells.
This merciless destruction is a bitter pill to swallow after spending two full seasons with characters that are substantive enough to become somewhat attached to. After two-thirds of a series that is, for the most part, "standard" anime with some weird sidelights, it also seems like a bit of a cheap shot even if it fits perfectly with the picture of total mental breakdown the series symbolically spirals toward.
In the final episodes, where we wander around in Shinji's desperate, confused mind, the breakdown of reality is complete. If you read into all the layers of the story, that collapse apparently extends outside of Shinji's mind into some sort of existential merger of souls, but it's not important; the point of it is, once Shinji implodes, nothing else matters--the world without has no meaning to someone who has snapped and turned completely inward.
There, again, is the core of Evangelion--mental breakdown portrayed through moderately likable anime characters and giant robots. Personally, that sort of thing (particularly the unending angst) just doesn't do it for me. While the introversion of the story makes sense in context, I didn't care for it--I would have rather seen a more satisfying conclusion along a more traditional dramatic narrative path. (Of course, so does almost everyone, which is why that's what the movies and remakes attempt to do--I'm not going there apart from noting that it's a pretty extreme admission of failure when you make multiple movies and then a complete reboot in an attempt to fix the end of your masterwork.)
Visually, the series varies from unremarkable to spectacular. The sense of scale of the EVAs and the angels is impressive, and the attention to detail commendable. Of particular note is when the EVAs do something unexpected and viscerally horrifying--bleeding, roaring, going into gory berserker rages--the massive physical scale takes an already unnerving image and makes it, at least to me, truly disturbing. Elsewhere, the series is far more "out there"--a couple of long scenes, for example, are almost or entirely without motion. In one case, the action takes place off camera, so we only hear what's going on, and another plays out the entirety of the sort of awkward silence that exists in real life but is rarely put to film.
These experiments are sometimes successful, other times not. Some of the worst bits range from a little silly to so outright goofy they seem to have no place in the series. On the more successful end, late in the series there are a number of images from deep within the bowels of NERV and the creation process of the EVAs that are impressively disturbing. I can complain that the images exist as much for their own sake as due to any internal logic in the story, but the nightmarish creativity is memorable.
The music is similarly experimental. There's the eminently singable opening theme, contrasted with several variations on Fly Me To The Moon--some pretty, some sung in a rather awkward accent--for the end theme. Within the episodes proper, Shiro Sagisu's background score is generally orchestral, and some chunks of classical music are used directly, in particular one "ballet with mecha" battle sequence toward the end. This use of classical music reminded me of the final battle in Gunbuster, an underappreciated series which in many ways served as the prototype for Evangelion.
The Japanese acting is uniformly good, though I don't have much to say beyond that. I can't speak for the English dub other than to say that it at least appeared solid.
In all, Neon Genesis Evangelion itself is something of a parallel with the NERV of its own story--an experiment on a grand scale, full of mystery and disturbing, dark corners, and staffed by people with serious mental issues. I can't say that Evangelion doesn't succeed at what it set out to do, and the first roughly two thirds are a creative tweak on mecha action and teen angst, but watching a director's apparent mental breakdown and attempt at therapy played out in proxy over 26 episodes isn't exactly my idea of a good time. It's an intellectually interesting experiment, and plenty of people love it, but it takes itself too seriously for my taste and tackles issues that I think could be animated in more meaningful and less pretentious ways.
Have something to say about this anime? Join our newly-resurrected forums and speak your mind.
Gainax's earlier Gunbuster served in many ways as the prototype of Evangelion, in particular some of the difficult philosophical questions it asks and the experimental nature of some parts. It is, however, far less abstract on the whole, and has a drastically more satisfying ending. Escaflowne--in many ways "the fantasy Evangelion"--is another series that puts an unusual twist on the old giant robot theme. It has a number of similarities, most notably the creepy organic mecha and their unhealthy connection to those who pilot them, and it's further interesting since both series were in production simultaneously--perhaps it was an idea whose time had come. More recently, series like RahXephon go in the same direction. For similarly introspective series without the giant robots, Serial Experiments Lain and perhaps Boogiepop Phantom may be of interest, as well as the (of course very different) Gainax schoolyard romance His and Her Circumstances.
Notes and Trivia
Evangelion an original concept by Hideaki Anno. The TV series was followed by the Death and Rebirth movie, which is in effect an abbreviated recap of the same story, and End of Evangelion, which attempts to retell the end in a more satisfying, traditional manner.
There are two manga adaptations. The first, which began in 1995 and spans 9 books, is by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and tells an alternate version of the same story; it is available in English from VIZ.
The second, "Girlfriend of Steel 2," is a 2003 series by Fumino Hayashi, and features a drastically different retelling of the story, with the same characters cast in a somewhat more standard schoolyard romance; it is available in English from AD Vision under the title "Angelic Days."
Finally, if you need any more evidence of how this series was a good idea gone terribly wrong, a series of four films created as a total rebuild of the Evangelion story from the ground up are underway. The first two have been completed as of this writing, with two more to follow. If that's not an outright admission of narrative failure, I don't know what is.
US DVD Review
There are a confusing array of DVD versions available. First there were 8 individual discs, later sold together as a box set. These discs are solid, but don't include a whole lot in the special features department. The video is also not particularly bright or sharp-looking, there's a lot of ghosting if you freeze frame it, and the subtitles on the opening and end themes are hard-coded (the end credits also only have a single version of Fly Me To The Moon). In terms of the actual episodes, this version is the same as the Japanese TV broadcast.
That was followed by the "Platinum Edition," a 7-disc release with remastered video and 5.1 audio in both languages, as well as far more extras. The episodes are also the "Director's Cut" version that was released on laserdisc in Japan (most of the changes are late in the series).
Appropriately rated 15-up by ADV for implied mature themes, graphic violence, and some disturbing imagery.
Violence: 3 - Most of the fighting involves big robots and abstract angels, but it can get exceedingly gory.
Nudity: 2 - Bits scattered about.
Sex/Mature Themes: 2 - Significant mature themes, and one scene with implied offscreen sex.
Language: 1 - Not noteworthy.
Available in North America from Section 23, formerly ADV. Currently available on a 7-disc remastered Platinum Complete Edition bilingual DVD set, which includes "Director's Cut" additions. There are three versions, all of which have the same discs in different packaging: The original thinpak set, the Platinum Perfect Edition, which adds a metal tin to hold the set, and the most recent, a Holiday Edition with a different box targeting Christmas gift givers (somewhat ironic, considering the content). The Platinum Edition DVDs were originally sold as individual volumes.
The series was previously available on 8 hybrid DVDs, which were first sold individually and then as a non-thinpak box set. Prior to that, it was available on 13 subtitled or dubbed VHS volumes. The first two volumes (four episodes each) were also briefly available on LaserDisc, although ADV never finished the LD release.
At last check RightStuf had all three Platinum versions in stock; in particular, the Holiday Edition is on a very large, limited-time sale--at $35, it's not much more than the former list price of an individual volume: Holiday Edition, Thinpak Edition, Tin Edition. Amazon only had the Holiday Edition in stock at last check, and it cost twice was RightStuf was asking (in fact, even used the other versions are still more expensive than RighStuf's sale): Neon Genesis Evangelion: Complete Platinum Collection (Limited Edition Holiday Special), Neon Genesis Evangelion: Platinum Collection, Neon Genesis Evangelion Platinum: Perfect Collection (Tin), Neon Genesis Evangelion - Perfect Collection (Original, non-remastered).