Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion Turns 20

Even after two decades, the classic mecha anime series still casts a long shadow over the anime medium.
Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion is arguably one of the most influential anime titles in history, and this weekend marked two decades since the series’ original Japanese airing. In the ensuing years, the series has received a lot of hate and criticism for its downbeat and misanthropic tone, its cast of unlikable characters, and its violent deconstruction of anime tropes.

There’s some validity to the criticisms — it gets pretty messed up there towards the end — and yet as a blogger named “Nivenus” discusses in great detail, Neon Genesis Evangelion is not a title one can easily dismiss.

Today, Evangelion is a major franchise, incorporating films, comics, video games, and more. But it all started with one TV show, Neon Genesis Evangelion, created by Hideaki Anno for Gainax. Even from the start, NGE was somewhat exceptional. In the early-to-mid 1990s when it was produced, most of the major animated shows on air (both in Japan and America) were heavily merchandise-driven and sponsored either by toy or video game companies. Nearly all were owned by a major studio like Toei or Toho. Conceived of by a single individual and owned by a small creator-run studio, Neon Genesis Evangelion was highly unusual and something of a defiance of the status quo.

The story of Neon Genesis Evangelion is, on first glance, nothing remarkable for Japanese animation. A group of teenagers are recruited by a unified global government to pilot giant robots (mecha) in a battle for the survival of humanity. In the process they have to face not only their deadly adversaries but also learn how to work together as a team, overcoming their many differences and personal issues. Gundam, Macross, and Hideaki Anno’s own Gunbuster had all covered similar territory before. But where NGE would go with its premise was far stranger, blending the well-tread concept of adolescent soldiers with theological imagery, Freudian and Lacanian analysis, and abstract writing that soon set the show apart from its contemporaries.

The show quickly caught the fascination of viewers. While Neon Genesis Evangelion started initially with strong but not exceptional ratings, it soon expanded into a massive pop cultural phenomenon as more and more people tuned into find out what all the fuss was about, eventually reaching 25 – 30% of the targeted demographic. The final two episodes, noted for their abstract nature and for seemingly leaving several plot threads hanging, prompted a highly polarized reaction. The follow-up movie The End of Evangelion, released a year later, divided audiences even further. As a consequence, despite Evangelion’s immense popularity and influence, the franchise remains one of the most controversial works to ever air on broadcast television.

Nivenus does an excellent job of dissecting and series’ various strands, including its religious allusions and incorporation of various psychological ideas “such as the Oedipus and Elektra complexes, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, or Lacan’s dichotomy of the constructed and ideal selves.” After sharing how their own struggle with depression caused them to see the show in a new light, Nivenus considers some of the show’s own psychological backdrop.

It’s hardly secret knowledge that Hideaki Anno was suffering from depression when he first created Neon Genesis Evangelion. The extent of his depression, however, was far graver than is generally recognized. When Anno began work on the project that would become NGE, he had already been suffering from severe depression for at least four years. In a statement released with the first volume of Evangelion’s manga (comic) adaptation Anno described himself as “a broken man… who ran away for four years, one who was simply not dead.” And while the production of NGE had originally been intended to break him out of a rut, the stress only compounded the severity of his condition. By the time of the show’s completion Anno was, by his own later admission, borderline suicidal.

No one’s ever said precisely what drove Anno over the edge publicly, but it’s widely agreed it had much to do with the production of his previous work, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. Originally conceived by Anno’s mentor Hayao Miyazaki in the mid-1980s Nadia was eventually handed off to Anno after Gainax made a bid for the project. Far gentler and family-friendly than Evangelion, the comparative sweetness of Nadia obscured a troubled production that saw animation work outsourced and Anno frequently butting heads with NHK, the series’ broadcaster, over the show’s content and creative direction. Coupled with rumors of trouble in Anno’s personal life at the time, the experience proved too much for him, driving him into the deep depression that would haunt him for most of the 1990s.

The roots of Anno’s emotional troubles may go deeper, however. Long regarded by those close to him as a lonely and eccentric oddball, Anno was socially withdrawn as a child, preferring to spend his time watching and recreating scenes from his favorite anime and tokusatsu to interacting with others, a choice he’d later say he regretted. In 1983, due in large part to his social isolation and inactivity at school, he dropped out of university and lived homeless for a time before he was discovered by Miyazaki and employed as an animator for Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The experience proved vital to his career and soon afterward he and a few friends gathered to form Gainax, their own animation studio. It was during this time that Anno directed Gunbuster alongside working on other projects such as Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise and Grave of the Fireflies. For a time, he seemed happy. But then came Nadia and he withdrew entirely from his work and social life, before reemerging to work on Evangelion.

All in all, it’s an excellent and thought-provoking bit of anime analysis, and highly recommended if you’re an anime fan — even if you’re not an Evangelion fan.

I’ve written a fair amount concerning Neon Genesis Evangelion over the years, and though it’s been awhile since I’ve watched anything Evangelion-related — I’m still counting the days until Funimation finally releases Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo here in the States — I can’t deny that most anime I watch, and certainly any mecha-oriented anime, exists within that show’s shadow. As I wrote in my review of The End of Evangelion, “It is a trainwreck in every possible definition of the word. It is also brilliant, moving, captivating, and wholly unlike anything else the world of anime has ever offered, or likely ever will.”

“A Cruel Angel’s Thesis” by Yoko Takahashi is the classic Evangelion opening theme.
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