Today I'm going to take on one of the most polarizing shows of the 1990's: Neon Genesis Evangelion. NGE is credited with reinventing the anime scene in Japan and making waves even in North America. It is also equally known for completely and utterly polarizing the fan base on everything. Surprise!
Neon Genesis Evangelion premiered in Japan in 1995 during a time when anime was in dire straits. The medium was stagnant and dying a slow death in Japan's economic crisis without much hope. In the midst of this, Hideaki Anno was suffering from setback after setback in the world he wanted to be a part of: animation.
Anno's latest series was Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water and he worked an exorbitant number of hours to finish it, despite the executives giving him almost no creative control. In addition to this, Gainax was forced to end production on another of Anno's projects shortly thereafter due to financial shortfalls. This seemingly led Hideaki Anno into a cycle of depression.
It was during this time that Gainax and Anno were commissioned to produce a new series. Anno pivoted the series around the theme of "not running away", which is likely due to how Anno himself felt when writing the show.
This series eventually evolved into Neon Genesis Evangelion: a giant-mecha series set in a post-apocalyptic Earth following the story of Shinji Ikari. Evangelion is heavily influenced by Anno's depression at the time, which had morphed what was originally intended for younger audiences into a late teen-to-adult animation series. The series is violent, dark, mentally unstable, and incredibly mature, unlike many anime until even this point in this history.
Contributing to the series' mental instability was Gainax's frantic pace to finish the series. The company ran dangerously close to deadlines even on the first few episodes. This was only exacerbated by the tendency to rapidly alter or even completely toss scripts out as time went on, replacing them on-the-fly. The series' ending allegedly changed on something of a regular basis as the series developed.
Evangelion aired in October of 1995 on TV Tokyo, arguably setting off a chain of events that fundamentally altered the animation scene in Japan forever. Evangelion was a surprise hit in Japan, breaking through a previously dead anime scene with viewership numbers that rocketed skyward. The incredibly serialized Neon Genesis Evangelion set a precedent within Japan with its focus on adult elements, deep thematic analysis, and unforgiving violence. Simply put, it changed the game forever.
The characters of Neon Genesis Evangelion are an absolute mess. No, not like that, these characters are complete psychological wrecks in every sense of the word. This is a post-apocalyptic Earth, humanity is fighting a bunch of supernatural creatures, and a bunch of 14-year-old kids are doing all the fighting... if anyone weren't a wreck, then we'd need to talk.
Sure, they look normal on the surface, but in reality they're just covering up their deeply flawed mental states with a guise of contentedness. Characters like Shinji are tormented by complex emotional conflicts like the need to be... well wanted in Shinji's case. I don't think there is an adequate way to describe Shinji's mental state in just a paragraph besides saying that he's an absolute broken mess. He is deeply insulated from the world around him and he wants to be left alone, yet if he does nothing everyone is going to die. He has no friends when the series begins and... well, you'll see what happens with that. He's insanely conflicted over the most basic of decisions and he just can't catch a break.
The other cast members don't fare much better. Rei is a socially inept person that doesn't speak, but has some real baggage that you'll get to see later in the series. Asuka is a fiery redhead child prodigy that has some real attachment and mommy issues going on deep down.
Hell, even Misato isn't safe from this slippery slope of character craziness.
Going along with this, Evangelion's plot is fascinating at its best, and absolutely nuts at its worst. It hits everywhere on the spectrum. Overall though, it is a tremendously serialized show about 14-year-olds piloting giant mecha and having terrible things happen to them and it works. It's a damn good plot that manages to exploit its characters, themes, and setting in such a way that will be psychologically damaging to audiences for decades to come. It is shamelessly brutal, painful to watch, and a cruel deconstruction of the mecha genre that we all thought we loved.
Considering the circumstances I described, it is amazing that the show is as well animated as it is. The EVA fights are pretty well done for their time and the characters are rather unique for the time (although I feel that the character animation slips more than it should).
Yeah, I don't need to explain this:
If there is one way to describe what Evangelion is telling us, it's that life sucks. The show is completely brutal and unforgiving, not even hesitating for a second to completely rip every hope you had for a happy show into tiny pieces. Even the brightest spots in the show are, at best, grim. The plot, the characters, the themes... everything is presented in a brutal and grim light. It systematically destroys every mecha trope in existence and it doesn't care if you are losing your mind watching it.
In addition, there is so much symbolism going on this series it is difficult to even start pointing things out. Obviously there's plenty of visual symbolism tying themes of Christianity and spirituality into the series, but it goes far deeper than that. There's a whole mess of subtext and symbolism in the series about mothers, the stages of life, and mental states that Sigmund Freud would be ecstatic.
This labyrinthine mix of themes and symbols would require hours upon hours of work to even start uncovering everything. It is difficult to tell how much of it was actually intended and how much was by accident.
The psychological insanity is present at every level of the show. It is a bit much to handle since nothing can possibly be this screwed up in any reality, at least I'd like to hope. In that way, I just could never connect with Evangelion at a storytelling level. It was fascinating to watch, but I could never see the plot happening in any way, so it was unrelatable to me.
The characters are a definite mixed bag for this reason. They are all so psychologically damaged that they are fascinating to examine in-depth, but I could never really connect with them. They weren't relatable to me. Sometimes you'll love them, other times you'll want to beat them up for their abrupt stupidity, and other times you'll just get up and get a sandwich for an hour because that is the only way to deal with this show.
The ending of the anime series has famously been polarizing among the fandom and I've always been firmly in the "last two episodes were just nutter" camp. Not because I couldn't understand them, but because the plot is absolutely nuts. This was proven when I saw End of Evangelion and I officially said "Nope nope nope". This ending was mind screwing and insane.
Sometimes it feels like the plot just exists to screw with our emotions. It certainly can feel like there is no rhyme or reason beyond just screwing with the audience over and over again. Maybe the whole series was just a gigantic Take That! to the Otaku community and we've all just read way to far into this.
Do not show this series to children, they will be psychologically damaged. I first watched this when I was 14 and it was nearly too much for my sad mind to take.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is definitely, without a doubt, at least in the top three most polarizing anime in history. The deep thematic plot and the rich characters will invite pages and pages of analysis and exploration. Some people will be able to relate to these characters more than others. Some will be like me and find them to be fascinating to watch, but impossible to relate to most of them on any level. This is but one example of the polarizing nature of the series.
The ambiguous nature of the series will invite speculation and analysis by the audience too; the symbols, plot, and characters are never explicitly explained in any way. This has certainly allowed Evangelion to have a legacy that rivals many giant franchises. Fans and normal watchers alike will discuss the nuances of every element in Evangelion and constantly debate the series internally.
It is pretty insane in terms of plot, but the series succeeds amazingly well as a character study and a reflection of the harsh realities of things like depression. The plot isn't bad, but I can't quite get over just how out-there the whole thing feels, even now. I instead prefer to reflect on how Neon Genesis explored its characters and how the themes were all woven together.
This is, of course, best for someone that wants to see the usual giant mecha show completely deconstructed and systematically destroyed. You'll get a show that is incredibly dark and violent in Neon Genesis, but also thematically deep and extremely symbolic. The ambiguity in the series will make you question everything and form your own theory on the show's elements and how they interrelate that probably will be unique to you.
Love it or hate it, Evangelion is a deep serialized drama that invites speculation by the audience at every turn. Its influence on anime since it premiered has been ubiquitous. I think that Neon Genesis Evangelion is the one series in existence that I recommend everyone watch for this simple fact. Everyone needs to form their own opinion about the series, no one can tell you how good Neon Genesis was.
This is definitely one of those anime that is not safe for children. They will be psychologically damaged if they watch it.
As usual, I claim no ownership of the images herein.
Well everyone, that's it. When this article is posted, Anime Marathon 2013 is officially ended. This is the last review. This will be followed up by a short December awards article in the same style as the October and November ones. Shortly thereafter there will be a 2013 awards article.
This is part of my Anime Review Marathon that I began in October 2013 to record my thoughts as I watch a variety of anime on my ever growing backlog. These reviews won't come out on a consistent basis, they'll come out when I feel I have seen enough of a series to pass a judgement on it, although I will usually finish the whole series before the review.
You can see all my articles on Dex's Corner.