Neon Genesis Evangelion and its follow-up, The End of Evangelion, are considered by legions of fans to be the pinnacle of the artform known as anime. It’s something that escaped my consciousness till fairly recently when I noticed it was a favourite of a close friend. But it’s simply not the pinnacle of the artform—that would clearly be something from Studio Ghibli or Satoshi Kon. However, the hype for what is a 20-plus-year-old show and film it is so prevalent that I wanted to see it for myself.
The initial plot is a fairly simple science fiction story set in a post-apocalyptic world where teenagers pilot giant robots known as “Evangelion” into battle with “Angels,” who are some kind of extra-terrestrial beings hellbent on destroying humanity. The protagonist, Shinji, is recruited into a shady organisation known as Nerv by his father, Gendo. It then follows a fairly routine monster-of-the-week plot until about 15 episodes in, where it becomes increasingly surreal and the inner psychology of Shinji and his fellow pilots Rei and Asuka take over the story, culminating in the phantasmagorical final episodes, and especially the film The End of Evangelion.
The show and the film are considered a complex and layered look at depression and existential dread. It touches on all of this, but in such a high-school fashion that at the end of the day it’s so obvious. I’d rather read some 150-page Albert Camus book than watch a goofy, melodramatic mecha anime show that lasts 26 episodes plus with a feature film. The final two episodes were so controversial, and left so many people bewildered and disappointed, that they decided to make a feature-length reimagining of those episodes. The film gave some answers, but also poured more fuel on the fire of confusion.
The mythology around the creator, Hideaki Anno, who clearly had some kind of mental breakdown during the production, is used to shore up the alleged depth of the work. It’s clearly a autuerist, work but you can also tell he is making it up as he goes along. The story gets completely lost in his self-explanatory symbolism, drawing from Christianity, Kabbalah and Shinto alongside other religious beliefs. I totally understand why it would utterly blow the minds of the kids who saw it on the initial run—it was aired in Japan as children’s TV… it’s anything but. Still, as a 31-year-old who has seen a ton of surrealist cinema, read existentialist literature, and gotten to know my world mythologies/religion, it all feels kind of counterfeit.
I do respect the show, especially the later episodes, and The End of Evangelion, but it gets bogged down in some melodrama claptrap and I personally couldn’t connect to how much of a whiny soiboy Shinji is. That’s exactly how the character is written, and in the context of the story that is told, it works. But I just never got emotionally involved with his plight, and that’s the same for any of the characters. I’m happy that I went on the journey, and it’s a wild ride—that’s for sure—but the acclaim for something with such inept storytelling is baffling to me. The main criticism levelled against is actually about the sexualisation of the 14-year-old pilots, but that stems from Westerners simply not understanding Japanese culture. I didn’t find Neon Genesis Evangelion particularly over-sexualised, and it’s only “sexy” if you get off to hentai, which I don’t.
The standard Blu-Ray release from All The Anime (this is one I watched) is spread over fuve discs and also includes Evangelion: Death(true)² which is a kind of gap-filler between the show and The End of Evangelion. It consists of a recap of the show with footage from the feature film, so it’s not necessary if you watched the show. The extras include trailers, TV ads, music videos, animatics, image galleries, a deleted live-action scene from The End of Evangelion, and a making-of about the live action scenes in the film. This release includes the newer dubbed and subtitled version, not the classic versions, which some fans would obviously prefer. Also, like the Netflix version, it doesn’t include the cover of “Fly Me to the Moon” over the end credits, which is incredibly controversial for many fans. The more expensive collector’s edition is an 11-disc package that includes the classic versions, but still without “Fly Me to the Moon.”