A long-winded and spoiler-filled review of Neon Genesis: Evangelion

By Luke Wilhelm ’20

Content Warning: This article features instances of Depression, Trauma, and Sexual Assault which may be unsuitable for readers. Please be advised.

There is no denying the cultural footprint and popularity of Neon Genesis: Evangelion. Often referred to as one of the greatest anime series of all time, Eva has left a large impact on the world and those who viewed it when it came out. It became immensely popular in Japan, to the point where there is an Evangelion licensed product for every household item, from toys to shaving cream. Imagine the hype around the Marvel movies, but condensed all into one season of television and one movie adaptation. With this, it’s no surprise that there was a huge amount of excitement for Eva to get a streaming release in the US, where buying a complete box set of DVDs will set you back a hefty amount. I was hesitant to give it a watch, unsure if I would enjoy it and pushed away by the controversy around the new translation. However, when a podcast run by media critics I listen to announced they would be doing discussions of sets of episodes from the whole series every week, I eventually caved in and decided to watch.

I mentioned one of my worries was that I wouldn’t enjoy Eva enough to make it worth watching. Well, after the dust has settled, I can say that I am satisfied with my time spent with Eva, but I’m not sure if I can wholeheartedly appreciate the show. I’m going to try and articulate my thoughts on it here.

Spoiler warning for a lot of NG:E

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Going into Neon Genesis: Evangelion, I only knew one thing: that it was not a straight-forward mecha anime. The non-spoiler discourse I had seen about Eva always had a sense of mystery to it, like I wasn’t really getting all the facts. People would speak in vague details and allude to big parts of the series without giving specific parts. In hindsight, I can see why such aspects would be hard to talk about even without avoiding spoilers, but this caginess only intrigued me going in, as Eva seems to start off as a normal, kids-in-giant-mecha-suits-fighting-big-aliens anime. (The big aliens in this case being weird, giant creatures known as angels.) It goes through some well-known anime tropes, especially the kind where the male lead is chastised but never fully reprimanded for leering at women. But even before the series began to get more eldritch, I could see the emergences of something different.

At the beginning of the third episode we see Shinji (the teen boy protagonist) running through a training course in his Evangelion (what the giant mechs are called) with his rifle, slowing becoming desensitized to the act of shooting as he lines up more targets. Later on, we see him getting some unwanted attention from classmates due to his status as a pilot, in the form of both curiosity and bullying. Shinji’s life as both a government operative and a normal teenager are both done well, but the interplay between them creates tension in Shinji’s life that allows the show to explore how the oppressive expectations placed on him affect him when he’s in and out of Evangelion Unit-01. It’s no accident that the big fight in this episode ends with Shinji’s classmates watching him as he has a breakdown while delivering the killing blow to an angel.

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What ended up being unexpected for me was that the show doesn’t move on from this moment, it actually takes the time to allow Shinji to reflect on his life and what he wants to do. I assumed from the massive amount of merchandising this show has that each episode would need to have a big fight in order to sell toys to kids., like Transformers. But no, this show is willing to set huge mech battles aside in order to focus on what its characters are dealing with, which is what initially pushed me to go through and continue watching.

It’s not just Shinji dealing with problems in this show, his colleagues at Nerv also have some issues of their own. Rei, another teen pilot in the Eva program who gets a strange introduction in the first episode, is revealed to have basically shut all other aspects of her life out to just focus on piloting the Evas. Her coping mechanism is first revealed in an interesting subversion of anime tropes when Shinji visits her apartment and accidentally falls on top of her while she’s naked. Shinji, after freezing in shock, looks away while struggling to apologize, but Rei just gets up and leaves. This moment is contrived and done at the expense of a young girl’s body, however, Rei’s simple brushing off of the incident displays her ability to separate herself from the people around her. In a regular slice-of-life anime, the male lead would have been slapped and/or chastised for being inappropriate, but to Rei, this was simply an accident that meant nothing. We see where her priorities lie later in the episode when Shinji talks about what a terrible person his dad has been to him. Upon hearing this, Rei turns around and slaps him. Instead of the rebuke coming after the encounter earlier, where it would have been a normal deployment of this trope, it comes when Shinji questions his dad, who we see Rei has a certain reverence for. This show does have weird, sexual moments, one more of which I will touch on later, but at least this instance is used for character development instead of comedy.

If Rei is the silent and deadly type, then Asuka is the loud but still deadly and also three times scarier type. Seriously, the amount of conviction and confidence she brings to the show offsets the introversive elements of Shinji and Rei while not shaking up the overall somber tone. She does push up against the characters in ways that make her seem bratty, but Eva continues to never make its characters seem one-note, as it soon becomes clear that she and Shinji have more in common than first meets the eye. I found myself relating to her experiences as a top-marks student struggling to keep up in a new, more competitive environment, as it spoke to my experience transitioning into high school.

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The development Asuka and the other characters get in the first half of the show is tremendously well-executed, in addition to the world-building of this alternate universe Earth in the far-off year of 2015. There are moments that are meant to be lore dumps, but they never feel forced because they’re always answering questions the viewer has developed about history. As I learned more and more about the world and the characters I was continually drawn into the story of Evangelion, but it’s about halfway through that I think the major cracks begin to appear.

I’m going to talk about the Christian allusions and literal symbolism, just so I can get them out of the way. They aren’t the best. It gives the dialogue a nice aesthetic and can set an alien tone as the characters talk about Bible stories as historical fact. It also intrigues the viewer and makes them go, “Wait, there’s actually three magi in this show?” But dig too deep into the question of “What does any of this stuff actually mean?”, and you’ll find yourself to be disappointed. The evangelic allusions themselves slowly bog down the show over time as well, to the point when one character makes reference to Pandora’s Box I had to stop and ask, “Is there an actual Pandora’s Box?” And since the references are simply surface-level, as critics and people who have worked on the show have said, I don’t think they really contribute to Eva as a whole, though I don’t mind their presence.

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A presence I did mind was the character of Kaji. Introduced to the show as one of the past lovers of Misato (Nerv’s military commander and Shinji’s caretaker) with a mysterious reason for coming to the Nerv HQ, I assumed he would play the role of a smooth-talking, suave dude who would later reveal a dark secret about this whole affair. That’s the characterization the show settles on, but before it decides what it wants Kaji to be his writing is inconsistent and messy. He enters the show as a womanizer, constantly hitting on his ex and other female employees at Nerv. At one point he even grabs and kisses Misato in an elevator, all visual indicators telling us she is not comfortable with this encounter to the point where it crosses the line between aggressive love and sexual assault. He later takes on a James Bond-esque persona, sleuthing around Nerv while keeping tabs on everyone. At other points he becomes a source of sage wisdom for characters, even delivering a particularly important and surreal monologue to Shinji at his garden in the Geo-Front. The show finally settles on him as a noble and tragic character before he is ultimately dispatched by an unknown assailant. I’m fine with this version of his character, but his dodgy writing (which at some points makes him out to be a legitimately creepy dude) hamper his inclusion in the show.

I’m also frustrated with Misato’s characterization, but for different reasons. In fact, she was my favorite character for most of the show! I was worried they would use the dynamic of an adult woman living with a teenage boy solely for laughs, but her relationship with Shinji blossoms into genuine care, which often causes friction with her job of sending him into battle. The tension between her career and her concern for Shinji becomes important to her characterization, and as the stakes become worse and worse, she is forced to confront her morals, relationships, and her role at Nerv.

However, the final episodes of the show depict her internal conflict not to be one of maternal concern, but one of sexual confusion. (Otherwise, I thought the final episodes were well done.) Much like Ritsuko, a scientist at Nerv, Misato is written as a skilled woman with an intense burden placed on her shoulders, only for her trauma to be reduced to daddy issues and bonking. Not that characters in media shouldn’t have complex relationships with sex; sex is emotional and it’s complex, even for adults. However, male characters on Eva don’t have issues related to sex, even if they’re constantly going after other women. (Looking at you, Kaji.) End of Eva only doubles down on this writing, making our, and Shinji’s, last moment with Misato one of an adult abruptly kissing a fourteen-year-old kid. Again, not against shows exploring sexual tensions or discovery, even with teenagers, but when it’s suddenly pushed to extremes at the expense of a great female character, it makes you wonder why it was even there to begin with.

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From what I can tell, there are two minds to this show. One is grounded in not necessarily realism, but it’s just grounded. Despite the otherworldly stuff happening on Earth, the world and the characters are concrete. The show slowly unfolds the events that lead to the current state of the world and its governments in a natural and interesting manner. The characters all have clear personalities and realistic hopes and worries about Nerv and the Evangelions. Some may have huge personal problems that the show wants to deal with, but those characters are still more than the sum of their parts. For example, Shinji is dealing with a heavy depression that probably isn’t made better by working for his estranged father, but he’s still more than that. He goes to school, he hangs out with friends, and is kind to others. All this stuff makes it more interesting when he’s forced to confront big questions, like why he wants to pilot the Evas.

The other mind of Eva is one of pure id, rooted in abstract and weird imagery to explore the complicated nature of the trauma dealt with by the characters. Angels may shoot lasers and destroy buildings, but they also force characters to confront the deepest and darkest corners of their mind, thoughts they have tried to ignore. The episodes “The sickness unto death, and then…” (or “Splitting of the Breast”) and “Staying Human” (or “Don’t Be.”, which, in my opinion, is a much better title) stand as great examples of the show doing this well while never contradicting the realism it worked for most of its time to establish. However, I think Eva’s magical tones eventually grind down the complicated but relatable parts of its characters to their base components, leaving behind the nuances that made them good in the first place.

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The show’s last episode is one that I have a lot of appreciation for. It feels like an honest attempt at self-reflection by Shinji while dealing with the nature of identity and one’s perception of reality, without seeming like it’s just listing off someone’s personal worldview. It ends on a surprising note of positivity, with Shinji overcoming his personal demons and making a vow to be better, a moment I have had many, many times when facing my own problems. I don’t believe this is meant to be an all-encompassing victory for Shinji, rather the beginning of a road to a better place, one that will no doubt have more low points along the way. In theory, the finale movie, End of Evangelion, could expand on this theme or others, offering either a coda to the series or giving another idea to consider.

Instead, the movie pivots to a completely different perspective entirely, not only vastly changing the tone of the show, but also changing Evangelion’s final message. It has some great moments, such as the raid on Nerv HQ, Asuka kicking the ass of all those bird-Evas, and the final shot that ends Evangelion will be one I remember for a while. But the film also makes a change that I think is not only detrimental to the character of Shinji Ikari, but to the series as a whole. It leans all the way into its Id mind, offsetting the balance it had established early on.

Throughout Eva, there were moments of levity that buoyed up from its bouts with depression and trauma, and these moments were what motivated Shinji to continue to pilot his Eva, to continue to live life. The final episode ends on one of these moments, if only temporarily. End of Evangelion, however, disregards all of that, not in a way that’s subversive, but in a “screw-you” kind of way. People have said that the movie was a response to fans dissatisfied with the show’s ending, with the total flip in tone meant to be even more upsetting.

I don’t think that’s the case. There were storyboards of End of Evangelion that were in development before the release of the final episodes, and also scenes only from the movie’s timeline that is shown in the show’s finale as well. (Maybe those were added later, but they still demonstrate a level of intent.) The movie could be interpreted as an alternate ending, a different perspective happening simultaneously with the show’s finale, or just a continuation of the show’s themes. However, this means that the movie’s overall tone of nihilism and helplessness were purposeful strokes, not responses.

Shinji’s depiction in the film is not a kid dealing with mental health, it’s a useless child who only burdens everyone else with his depression. That may sound like a mean-spirited reading, but that is literally a summation of the movie’s depiction of Shinji. He constantly languishes in sadness, begs others for help, beats himself up with verbal abuse, and, in a couple of surreal scenes, brutally acts out against his friends. It jumps to the extreme end of Shinji’s problems in a sudden and violent manner, without offering valid justification in its text or subtext about why this is. The character we see on screen is no longer Shinji Ikari, a young boy dealing with his familial trauma, confused sexuality, and mental health issues that we have grown to know. He is reduced to a literal embodiment of the most nihilistic view of depression possible. Perhaps this is purposeful to show the dark road mental disorders like depression can lead people down, but that threat is present throughout Shinji’s journey in the show. The only change in this ending is removal for any hope for recovery.

The final line uttered by Asuka pretty much sums up my thoughts here. In her reaction to Shinji’s outburst caused by his descent into darkness, she utters one, solemn word. Disgusting. It’s not just the word itself, but its context in the show that is important here. Her comment serves to remark upon Shinji’s state, justifying the show’s depiction of the questionable things he’s done throughout the movie, including masturbating in a hospital room over Asuka’s exposed breasts. It’s totally okay that they sexualized a 14-year-old girl’s body because the main character has some moral ambiguity! Not only is the line’s purpose have a shaky premise, the way it came about as a recorded piece of audio is also telling. The show’s creator, Hideaki Anno, was continually unsatisfied with the final line, even when the voice actresses physically recreated the scene of Asuka being choked on the floor. Finally, he asked Asuka’s voice actress, Miyamura Yuuko, what she would say if a stranger stared at her while she was sleeping. She responded with the line heard in the movie now. “I thought as much,” Anno replied, “I thought as much.”

Woof.

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I know I haven’t exactly painted Eva in the best light in the past few paragraphs, but one last, positive thing I want to mention about Eva is its animation. The show is supremely well-animated, blending together a mix of serene landscapes and living spaces with science fiction and fantastical monstrosities that manage to seem unreal without taking you out of the experience. There some moments that will absolutely floor you with how visually stunning they are, but it’s not all jaw-dropping animation. Sometimes you find yourself staring at foggy marshes, devoid of any action, as Shinji contemplates his place in the world. These tranquil environments are contrasted with the claustrophobic, industrial setting of Nerv HQ and Tokyo-3, where he often faces the most strife. Coupled with great direction, the animation portrays the epic battles of Eva alongside the struggles found in the everyday lives of its characters. (Also the music in this series kicks serious ass.)

I’m honestly not sure how to sum up my time with Neon Genesis: Evangelion. I found it to be a show that gets so much right yet so much wrong, with its strengths and weaknesses never canceling each other out, just existing simultaneously. It’s a show I can’t recommend enough, yet hesitate to recommend. It has messages about growing up, depression, and impossible expectations placed on a younger generation that have aged perfectly, yet weird sexual elements and Freudian psychoanalysis that certainly hasn’t. A part of me wants to dismiss Eva, but I know that I was involved in its world and invested in its characters, even if some of it disappoints. Perhaps that’s the best was to describe this entire show: one worth watching, one worth learning about the characters and the world around them, but ultimately not one worth enjoying.