The year is 2015. It’s been fifteen years since the world suffered a cataclysmic disaster, which wiped out unimaginable portions of life and land mass, a great deal of which is now permanently underwater. While the cause of the incident is unknown to the general public, those with special clearance are aware of The Angels, giant celestial beings from the heavens who’ve come to Earth with the apparent task of ending humanity as we know it. In response to this, the secret organization NERV began to recruit a select few overbearing and overemotional young people, yes, teenagers, all of whom were born one year after the incident, which has been mysteriously dubbed “Second impact.” These young heroes have been tasked with piloting the Evangelion, a trio of giant cyborgs that have been proven to be the only weapons capable of fighting off the extraterrestrial threat and defending the remaining populace of this post-apocalyptic world, including what few loved ones they may have, all as humanity clings to the last remnants of society!
But all is not what it seems, as NERV seems to have it’s own agenda, independent from the harrowing exploits of the young pilots. Their seemingly altruistic goal of protecting humanity from the ever-present threat of extinction may only be a ruse that’s concealing a deeper, perhaps even more sinister scheme. These pilots consist of the first child, Rei Ayanami, a quiet and emotionally closed-off girl who’s shrouded in mystery; The Second child, Asuka Langley Soryu, a half-German girl with deep-seated superiority issues and an attitude to match; And the third child, Shinji Ikari, estranged son of the project’s director who wants nothing more than his father’s approval. These children must battle the constant threat of the Angels as well as each other and the increasingly shady people pulling their strings, all while coming up with new strategies on the spot against enemies that never show up in the same form twice, and especially never from the same angle. In order to understand each other, they’ll have to understand themselves. Will our heroes be able to protect us from total annihilation, or will they themselves prove to be the unwitting heralds of our demise?
Over the years, Neon Genesis Evangelion has garnered something of a larger than life reputation, which is why it’s so strange to hear people gloss over it’s massive budget restrictions. To be fair, they’re not a problem too often, as Gainax has proven themselves time and time again to be good at working under shoestring budgets, but it does become a problem once in a while, and to the show’s great detriment, it does so really early on. While there are later episodes that use obvious budget saving tactics that wouldn’t fool even the greenest of novice otakus, the ugliest material of the series takes place right in episode 3, where Shinji is settling into his new life at school. The budget for this particular episode was clearly drained bone dry, with stilted movements, frozen pictures with moving mouths for extended periods of time, and I swear I’m not making this up, a lengthy sequence where the number of students in Shinji’s class appears to change drastically between shots. Even by the standards of low budget old-school anime, this is just embarrassing.
Thankfully, it’s not the norm. It’s the exception, not the rule. There are other episodes where characters are badly drawn or inhumanly stiff, but never to the same level of concentration, and the animators clearly got better at it as the series progressed, right up until the obvious budget crash towards the end. I don’t think the budget ever really picked up, at least not to any sort of progressive degree, but it does get a lot better at preserving and allocating money, so that the big action scenes that take up the middle of the series can be just as epic as they need to be. The increase in artwork quality is also a huge point in it’s favor, as an improved grasp on framing and shading make even the stiffest of dialogue exchanges and character moments look passable at worst and thoroughly engaging at best. The character designs are a bit rough, but they’re thoughtfully done, incorporating similarities between certain characters that you don’t even realize are there until further viewings, with Shinji’s similarities to his father only being the tip of the iceberg.
When I said earlier that Evangelion employs budget saving techniques that wouldn’t fool most viewers, I was of course referring to the more discerning viewers who wouldn’t be drawn in by the animators dangling keys in front of their faces. There are too many moments where they stopped having the characters do stuff and instead just switch to a minimalist perspective and psychoanalyze the characters, with a thin veil of lore giving it enough of an excuse to separate it from similar Gainax shows that did the same thing, like that old trainwreck Kare Kano. It’s easy enough to get drawn in by all this psychobabble, and I’ll spend a fair amount of time later on going into detail about why you shouldn’t, but if you don’t, then you’ll likely see nothing more impressive in it than a cheap, transparent attempt to save a buck. This is concentrated mostly in the final quarter of the anime, which means you won’t have to put up with it often, but damned if seeing that one extended shot of Unit 1 and the final angel doesn’t attract most viewers to start massaging the fast forward button.
The music, composed almost entirely by Shiro Sagisu and distributed by King Records, received the 1997 Kobe animation award for Best Original Score, and I feel bad for whatever anime it was competing against, because they had no chance. The entire score is largely comprised of big, elaborate orchestral band pieces, and unlike the shaky at best animation quality, they go all out with the musical accompaniments. There are too many memorable tracks to count, including most of the angel battle themes(Dance like you want to win is a particular favorite of mine) and the repeated domestic tracks from the show’s more contained moments. There are a handful of pre-existing songs, like Hallelujah(The generic choir version, not the Leonard Cohen version). It’s a fantastic soundtrack, but the best part is still the opening, Cruel Angel’s Thesis, which in addition to being a great song is probably the greatest use of stock footage in an op that I’ve ever seen. The closing theme, a direct cover of Sinatra’s “Fly me to the Moon,” is sung by a different actress and in a different style every episode, in all of it’s engrishy glory.
Since the dub for Evangelion was released over ten years ago, it contains a lot of names you might not be used to hearing. That’s not to say they don’t show up anymore… Although Sue Ulu, Jaxon Lee and Kurt Stoll have long since retired… But for the most part, they’re names that have faded from the voice acting A-list with time. The Evangelion actor who’s probably the most well known these days is Tiffany Grant, who’s still churning out an impressive amount of work 23 years into her career. She also puts forth what’s probably the best performance of the series, playing the egotistical glass cannon Asuka, speaking in flawless German when she needs to and brilliantly following along with every single psychological facet of her character, from the arrogant boasting to the more tsundere-like ranting and nagging, including what easily puts her over the top, the young fraulein’s more fragile and broken moments. Alison Keith probably comes in second with her portrayal of the fan favorite Misato, the guardian of two of the pilots as well as a strong, dependent Major seeking revenge against the Angels.
I don’t think Spike Spencer did a bad job with Shinji, and after all, he was probably the perfect choice for the role, but the material he was given did him no favors. Shinji is a whiny and self-loathing adolescent boy, so in turn, that’s exactly what Spike plays him as, all the way down to the cracking voice and doubt-filled inflections. He didn’t exactly make the character likeable, but to be completely honest, I go back and forth on whether or not he was even SUPPOSED to be likeable, so points for accuracy. The same goes for Amanda Winn, later Amanda Winn Lee, for her performance as Rei, which she excels at despite it not being a very demanding role. She stays flat and monotoned throughout, but there’s still nuance to the performance. It is worth noting, however, that this is quite possibly the only good performance I’ve heard from her, as she is in fact my least favorite English dub voice actor. Her voice has a very uneven and unnatural quality to it, to the point that some of her roles have sounded like she was recording her lines in the back seat of a moving roller coaster, and while I’d love to give you some examples, all I have to do is point you to when she breaks character in the final episode.
Beyond these, there aren’t really any stand-outs, as almost everyone plays their roles equally good. Gendoh Ikari had two different voice actors, one for the series and one for the Director’s Cut, but you can barely tell the difference, and I mean that in a good way. He’s kind of a flat character like Rei, but instead of apathy and a lack of emotions, Gendoh needs to be played with a very specific level of strength and determination, the voice of someone who never leaves the office and can’t help but look down on anyone who’s less committed than he is. The directors’ cut also swaps a bunch of other modern names into the cast, such as Greg Ayres, Vic Mignona, Monica Rial, and even the short-lived Mandy Clark. The adaptive writing is mostly faithful, rarely making any changes beyond rewording certain lines to match the lip flaps, or just to change the timing of certain lines and the order in which they’re said. I know that sounds like a lot, but it never really takes away from the intent of the original material, and even when it comes close to doing so, it happens during moments that are acted more than well enough to justify them. Is it as good as the dub? No, but it does grow on you if you give it a little bit of time, and it’s pretty good in it’s own right.
In the 20 years that it’s been out, the public perception of Evangelion has been all over the place. It’s not the MOST poorly aged anime I’ve ever seen… I can think of a few certain titles from far more recent years that have fallen much harder and faster from grace… It was once considered one of the greatest anime of all time, if not THE greatest, which is an attitude that’s not only declined, but in today’s market, Eva worship is a simple, recognizable sign of rookie status, someone who hasn’t seen enough titles to compare it to. There are still die hard fans out there, who believe it to be some profound psychological masterpiece… We’ll stick a pin in that idea for now… But the growing critical consensus is, and has been for a while now, that Evangelion is little more than pretentious nonsense. In order to talk about this anime, I’m going to have to address these concerns, because no, I don’t think it’s THAT pretentious. I’m aware that I may be alone in this, but from what I can tell, a few problematic elements have been blown way out of proportion.
First of all, the definition of pretentious is as follows; If someone or something is attempting to impress by pretending to have greater importance, wisdom, depth, meaning, etc. than it actually possesses, then it falls into the official definition. Things aren’t pretentious because they seem smart, but because they’re not as smart as they want to look, and frankly, to tell the difference, you’ve gotta be smart enough to compare what’s being boasted to what’s actually there. In the case of Evangelion, there are a few pretentious elements at play, but it takes up nowhere near the majority of the material. For starters, I have to call them out on this because I don’t think anyone else has, there’s the episode titles, and I can provide a quick example; In an episode where two kisses take place, the title will be “Those women longed for the touch of other’s lips, and offered them their kisses,” or something, I’m paraphrasing. Titles that sound overly busy and full of purple prose that are meant to give the feeling of greater meaning or profundity to otherwise unimportant moments.
The other example is some stream-of-consciousness material that occurs toward he end of the series. I won’t go into too much about the bullshit this part of the series is loaded with, because I already said a lot of it in the animation portion, and besides, other reviewers have done a far better job of it than I ever could. Seriously, if you want to see the philosophies of Evangelion get a triumphant curb-stomp, look up Jesuotaku’s review, it’s not as hard to find as you might think. What I will say is that there’s a pretty good rule of thumb for judging pretension… If a story uses very little words in order to say a lot, then it’s probably profound in some way. If it uses a ton of words to say very little, then yeah, it’s pretentious. I won’t give away what’s going on in the official series ending, but to paraphrase(something I can do far too easily), it’s saying that with billions of different perspectives of awareness existing in the world, it’s impossible to fully understand anything, least of all other people and even yourself. They find so many different ways to say this, through constant repetition and rephrasing, that it very soon starts to feel like padding for episode length.
So yes, there’s some obvious pretension going on, but to it’s credit, that stuff is mostly only relegated to the final quarter of the series, and even then, barely half of that. Having said that, the series doesn’t get off to the best start either, as the first quarter of episodes suffer a slight case of growing pains, introducing a few of it’s main characters, who really don’t flourish well on their own, and the lackluster animation from those episodes doesn’t offer much support. Thankfully, the very concept of teenagers with room to grow piloting giant cyborgs to fight celestial monsters is more than promising enough to carry even the most reluctant viewers through, and thank God for that, because something happens a quarter of the way into the series that automatically brings all of it’s best qualities to the forefront. Evangelion truly shines when it’s in it’s element, with all three pilots gathered and a brand new Angel showing up to challenge them in brand new ways each episode, and the level of creativity and thoughtful writing that goes into these battles is nothing short of insane. It’s a bit episodic, yes, but it’s by far the best Eva has to offer.
Unfortunately, this all adds up to an extremely inconsistent level of quality throughout the series. I’ve seen shows that started out great but went downhill towards the end, and likewise, I’ve seen shows that were difficult to get into, but turned out to be rewarding at the end. Well, Evangelion is one of very few anime whose best material is in the middle. For more than half of the episode count, you could easily count this series as not only one of the greatest action anime of all time, but one of the greatest mech shows of all time, and that’s coming from a guy who’s not easily impressed by giant robots. It’s exciting, it’s inventive, and it’s damn funny to boot, but that’s still only a portion of the series. Now, you might be asking, how is this possible? The truth is, while Evangelion has many different problems plaguing it, there’s one issue in particular that I believe to be the core of everything wrong with it. For all the intense action and sci-fi fantasy that it offers, for all of the rich lore that’s so easy to get lost in, for all the intrigue keeping us guessing, let’s just say there’s a reason I worded my plot synopsis to not highlight any character in particular.
All of Evangelion’s worst problems begin and end with Shinji Ikari, who is… By all conceivable measures… A terrible main character. He doesn’t do anything you’d expect a protagonist to do, and he winds up hurting not only the story as a result, but other characters as well. The reason the middle of the story is the best part is largely because, for that stretch of episodes, Shinji’s not treated like a central main character. He’s not given any special attention, or any special development. Starting immediately from the debut of Asuka, Shinji just kind of fades into the rest of the cast. If you took any given episode from this portion out of context, you could be forgiven for thinking that Misato was the main character, or that there ISN’T even a main character, and instead the focus is on an ensemble cast, or more specifically the three pilots as a unit. I know a lot of people give Asuka shit for being egotistical and annoying, but she is the life of this series, as Shinji is way too busy reacting to her capriciousness and Rei actually shows some personality in response to the competitive Asuka provoking her.
I may complain that Shinji has so little agency that he makes Jupiter Jones look like Indiana Jones, but he gets more tolerable the less he’s expected to do, and that should have been a warning sign right from the first story-board panel. As a cypher, his job is to have the plot and premise of the story explained to us through him, and he does the bare minimum of this, learning about the fight between Angels and Evas for our sake before breaking off from the larger plot by whining about his own self-interests. He’d rather complain and refuse to make any forward progression, but due to his lack of agency, his refusals ultimately amount to nothing. Throughout the anime, the only thing he’s interested in is gaining the approval of others, and he gets so singularly invested in his own shit that they had to introduce an entirely different character… Misato’s “It’s complicated” guy Kaji… Just to get the ball rolling on what’s supposed to be shocking reveals later in the series. That’s supposed to be the main character’s job, and the fact that his story is so entirely divorced from what’s actually going on behind the scenes creates a huge tonal dissonance that ruins the impact of what could have been a much more interesting build to the climax.
There’s a critiquing device out there that has you asking one very simple question: Whose story is it? Who’s the real main character? Who has the motivation, who has the arc, who’s affected most by the plot? Well, let’s look at Shinji. He wants approval from his father. Okay, I’ve heard of worse arcs… How does it play out? Well, if Gendoh was a more interesting character, which I’m sad to say he’s not, then he’d use his heartlessness and lack of love for his son to manipulate the kid, using Shinji’s longing as a carrot on a string, offering false hope that Shinji would uncover so he could reject his own father and rise above it as a stronger character. Instead, the writers make no attempt to hide how little Shinji matters to Gendoh, making him as unlikable as possible to the detriment of the plot. We know Gendoh will never love Shinji, because there’s no nuance to his character, leaving Shinji to be motivated by little other than the fact that he’s good at something he thinks others can’t do. We’re supposed to grab onto his belief in his father’s humanity, but when Gendoh’s heartlessness is played up to the point that he winds up making borderline nonsensical decisions just to look as evil as possible, it just feels like everything our hero does is in vain. We know Gendoh’ll never open up, there’s no reason to get invested.
Towards the end of the series… And I’m going to try and avoid spoilers here as much as possible… Something disastrous occurs, involving one of Shinji’s friends. The build-up is contrived as hell, with everyone connected to the event either assuming Shinji already knows what his friend is doing, or just not wanting to tell him for one reason or another, and it gets even more contrived when the thing goes wrong, and Asuka is cut off from telling him, because Gendoh’s solution relies heavily on his son being in the dark, but he shouldn’t even KNOW that Shinji’s in the dark over it, and that’s not even considering that he could have easily explained the actual problem to them while achieving a better outcome. But hey, screw logic, we’ve gotta make him look like a complete sociopath so that Shinji can rebel… Again… And try to leave… Again… And ultimately come back for the same reasons that he came back before, albeit with greater stakes. It’s probably the worst episode in the series, and it serves as a perfect example of how the writers went out of their way to keep Shinji in his own little bubble.
Of course, what Shinji and Gendoh DO have in common, aside from their looks, is that neither of them are given a proper backstory. Oh, we see them in the past, but it’s always in someone else’s backstory, and we’re never shown anything from their own. We see Gendoh as a part of Professor Fuyutsuki’s backstory, but we never learn where he came from, what his motivation was before Yui came into his life, or what drove him apart from his son. Speaking of the devil, we see Shinji as a child in other peoples’ backstories, and we learn that he ran away to live with his teacher, but we’re never shown why he ran away, what his life was like with Gendoh as a single parent, what his life with his teacher was like… All we know is that not having his father love him was hard on him, but he was told this, not shown it, which makes him very difficult to sympathize with. So who is the main character? It’s hard to say. If you include the movie, then Asuka has the best arc. Rei has the best backstory. Misato has the best relation to the ever thickening plot. And yet, Shinji is the focal character, dealing with issues that are annoying in the beginning and pushed aside for the show’s best material, before they have to pull some pretentious post-modern existentialist bullshit just to give him a resolution that it would take a theatrical ending to not conclude, but ultimately rewrite by using him as a tool for other character’s resolutions… Which is where he’s at his best.
Neon Genesis Evangelion, at least the original series, is currently out of print, although I have heard rumors that Funimation is planing to rescue it. A couple of different collections are available online, including the thin-pack Perfect collection, which I luckily bought when ADV films put it out twelve years ago. It’s worth about 350 dollars now. The movie, End of Evangelion, which is required viewing if you want to skip the last two bullshit episodes of the series, as it’s really the only way to complete the experience. Another film, Death and /rebirth, is literally the worst, so don’t get tricked into wasting your time and money on it. The Rebuild movies, released a decade after the series debuted and dubbed for American release by Funimation, is much easier to find, at least in regard to the three films that have been released so far, and I do highly recommend them. There are also several manga adaptations of the series, most of which are available stateside, but I haven’t read any of them.
Evangelion has been a highly influential series ever since it was released, with it’ themes, ideas, and story elements being simultaneously ripped off wholesale and used with respect, to the point that even Attack on Titan probably wouldn’t exist without it(seriously, compare the two). It also proved, for better or worse, that anime could deliver more depth and mature themes than people were used to, especially from a mass-marketable action series. While it may have struggled to find it’s stride and stumbled towards the finish line, you have to remember that before Eva came out, there really wasn’t anything like it in existence, it’s similarities to other Gainax properties aside. It was a pioneer, and it took a lot of major risks, which paid off a thousand-fold in helping to form the market as we know it today. It’s a flawed series, with uneven quality and one of the worst protagonists in anime history… I mean, this is basically the story of an entire chessboard where the focus is on a pawn who doesn’t even make it to the other side… I still highly recommend watching it. Just don’t forget to skip the last two episodes and conclude with End of Evangelion instead. I give Neon Genesis Evangelion a 7/10.