I guess I found it hard to call myself a fan of anime when I’d only seen bits and pieces of Neon Genesis Evangelion. I’d rented an episode or two, read about it on various websites, and knew my brother raved about it, but that was it. Unable to live with such hypocrisy, I snagged the “Perfect Collection” (all 26 episodes on 9 DVDs) as soon as it came out, hoping my investment would be worth it. At first, I have to admit I was disappointed. The animation was decent enough, the mecha designs were cool, and the premise seemed intriguing enough, but something was lacking. Something that gradually revealed itself with each episode.
On the surface, Neon Genesis Evangelion seems like your typical “big robot” story, the kind that seems all too prevalent in anime. Powerful aliens are threatening to destroy Mankind, with humanity’s only hope lying in a group of powerful robots operated by a group of 14 year-olds. Man, where was this when I was in junior high?
Honestly, I felt like I was watching “Power Rangers” at times. A giant alien descends, completely obliterating everything in its path. However, in the end, some predictable gambit or last-ditch miracle would save the day. About 10 episodes into the series, I was getting pretty disappointed and wondering how Best Buy handled DVD returns.
The basic storyline is this: in 2000 AD, the “Second Impact” occurred in Antarctica. Supposedly caused by a meteor strike, it wiped out nearly half of the world’s population and throws the world into chaos. However, the year 2015 finds life restored to some degree of normalcy. That is, until mysterious creatures called “Angels” begin to attack. The only weapon against the Angels are the Evangelions, massive robots that can only be piloted by a select group of children born 9 months after the “Second Impact.” Overseeing the Evangelions is the agency known as “NERV,” a top-secret group that seems to have an agenda all its own concerning the Angels, the Evangelions, and their pilots.
Thrust into this is Shinji Ikari, a troubled child whose father, Gendo Ikari, just happens to be NERV’s commander. Shy and awkward, he has a serious complex towards Gendo, who abandoned him at an early age for NERV. At first, Shinji recoils from his father and the agency, but an Angel attack forces Shinji into action.
And for awhile, the series seems preoccupied with showing one Angel attack after another, with little rhyme or reason. Mysterious terms are thrown about (“Human Instrumentality Project”), obscure religious references (the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Magi) become major plot points, and disturbing clues concerning the Evangelions’ true natures are revealed. As the series continues, all of these begin to gel, especially in the second half. Soon the storyline’s true depth comes out, though it remains as mysterious as the Angels and NERV’s true aims.
Neon Genesis Evangelion’s real strength lies in the characters, in their relationships and flaws. All of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s characters are flawed, but none more so that Shinji. As the series goes on, Shinji is explored in full detail, revealing an awkward young boy terrified of being alone, of what others will think of him. This plays out in his relationship with his father (who only sees Shinji as a tool), his fellow pilots (who are either ambivalent to him or see him as a rival), and those he works with at NERV.
At first, this awkwardness is seemingly played for cheap laughs only. One episode has Shinji and fellow pilot Asuka (Shinji’s fierce rival) forced to work together, with humorous results. But watching these people, even the youngest, struggle with their growing inner demons keeps you glued to the storyline’s details.
It certainly doesn’t help matters that Shinji and the other Evangelion pilots are constantly bombarded by combat with a deadly force. The series goes into great detail exploring the effect that the battles have on these children, physically and emotionally. It can be a very riveting, disturbing, and emotional experience.
One sequence stands out in my mind, as Shinji’s Evangelion is taken from his control and forced to destroy another Evangelion. Unbeknownst to Shinji, it’s piloted by one of his few friends, a fact he doesn’t find out until after the fact. It’s a powerful, moving sequence, as Shinji begs his father to stop, to no avail. When Shinji finds out the truth, the sense of hurt and betrayal is tangible.
As the series nears the end, you wonder how they’re going to wrap everything up. How they resolve all of these mysterious subplots that, until now, have remained footnotes, mentioned briefly in early episodes. Just what is the “Human Instrumentality Project”? Just what is the purpose of the Angel’s attacks? What is the true nature of the Evangelions? What are NERV’s true aims? It seems like the series is headed towards one final climactic battle, a final showdown between NERV and the Angels. And hopefully, answers to all of the questions, not to mention fitting resolutions for Shinji and the others.
While there is a final confrontation, it’s probably not the kind you’re expecting. There will probably be a fair amount of head scratching during the last two episodes, which consist of a blurry montage of psychological and metaphysical images and themes. There’s an unexpected ending, but one that strangely feels more satisfying and touching in its resolution than any action-packed showdown. It also opens up some interesting possibilities, not for sequels, but for closure.
So… was it worth the hard-earned money I spent? In a word, yes. It lives up to the hype, to the mythology, to the press that surrounds it. Neon Genesis Evangelion is controversial, action-packed, muddled, exciting, confusing, and maybe even profound in a way that most anime you see isn’t. But that’s probably why it’s been touted as one of the most important anime series ever. Not because of the animation (which is good), or the mecha designs (which are pretty cool), but because of an engrossing storyline. A storyline that must be seen from beginning to end to truly appreciate the characters, references, depth, and resolution. Its sum is truly more than its parts, it will stick with you long after the final credits roll, and you will want to put aside a few days to watch it all over again.