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Growing Up With Evangelion

by James Beckett,

Warning: This editorial contains spoilers for the Evangelion series and films, including Thrice Upon a Time.

In 2006, I had just turned 14. I knew what anime was at the time, of course; racing home after school each day to gorge myself on Toonami reruns of Dragon Ball Z and Rurouni Kenshin was still a vital ritual for me and all of my friends (and over the past couple of years, I was even able to start staying up late enough to catch Cowboy Bebop and Trigun on Adult Swim). I didn't know anything about Neon Genesis Evangelion, though, other than the fact that it looked like a cool science-fiction anime with pretty anime girls in it.

That shiny box art and promise of cute science-fiction girls was basically what motivated me to originally purchase the Evangelion Platinum Collection DVD boxset when my family departed on a road trip to Nevada. By the time we arrived in Las Vegas, I was completely spellbound, and perfectly happy to be left alone while the adults went to explore the casinos, since that meant I could binge the anime from beginning to end in the span of just a couple of days. I immediately began rewatching my favorite episodes during the drive back home, and I would revisit them again and again over the next few months. Thanks to the internet, I eventually learned that there was a whole additional movie, The End of Evangelion, which I found and watched as soon as I possibly could, as well. It has held its spot as my favorite movie of all time ever since.

My entry into the fandom is by no means a unique one. Though I didn't know it at the time, Neon Genesis Evangelion was (and still is) one of the most well-known and well-loved anime ever made. Millions of fans all over the world likely have very similar stories of their initial encounters with the show. Even before I began to unearth mountains of context and new perspectives on the franchise thanks to internet reviews and fan forums, I knew that Evangelion was special. Never in my life had I encountered a work that spoke so powerfully and empathetically to the many tumultuous emotions I was dealing with as a hormone-addled teenager. Though I wasn't yet able to articulate my feelings about the show very well, I could still intuit the emotional core of Shinji Ikari's tale, buried as it was beneath endless streams of postmodern philosophizing and tech-nerd world-building.

“Where should I go?” (From Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 25)

Thankfully, I have a much healthier relationship with my father than what Shinji and Gendo have in the original Evangelion series and films (and if you're reading this, Pop, thank you for supporting my ridiculously nerdy hobbies all these years – they're finally paying off!). I do, however, keenly understand the pain and confusion that comes from feeling neglected and mistreated by a parent that you have never been able to understand or completely reconcile with, and how that specific trauma can color every aspect of your life well beyond childhood. Yes, a big part of Evangelion's appeal for 14-year-old James was, in fact, getting to watch cool and creepy monster-robots stab a bunch of cool and creepy alien-angel-monster-things with their glowing science-knives, but Evangelion was the first time I had encountered a piece of pop-culture that dug right into my core with such ferocious power.

When Shinji was absorbed into the surreal mindscape of the Angel Leliel in Episode 16, “The Splitting of the Breast”, I was shown how a series could confront and dismantle its audience's expectations in a way that was exhilarating to watch. When Asuka's mind and soul were invaded by Arael in Episode 22, “Don't Be”, I learned the ways that you could use form and technique to not just tell a story, but to break it, and in so doing allow your audience to connect with your characters on an even deeper level. When I finally got around to The End of Evangelion—and all of the research and reading I had to do in order to understand what the hell I had just watched—I found myself in awe of the ways that Hideaki Anno and the crew at Gainax were able to transform their story into something beyond “just an anime”. Shinji's apocalyptic coming of age was an allegory for the pains of growing up and living in a painful world, and an achingly personal reckoning for Anno as an author, himself. In experiencing Evangelion, I learned that stories could be more than mere slices of entertainment or escapism; I learned that the purpose of art, in all of its forms and functions, is to provide a means for people to understand each other on a level beyond the superficial.

“Are you lonely?” (From Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 22)

To paraphrase the late Roger Ebert, stories like Evangelion are “empathy machines”. I am nearly thirty years old now, and I have learned enough to know that nothing Evangelion has done, then or now, is entirely novel or new. In 2006, though, I was no older than Shinji Ikari himself, and Neon Genesis Evangelion was exactly the empathy machine I needed at that time in my life, when I could barely understand my own place in the world, and all of the complicated feelings I had about myself and the people around me. For a time, when I was a child, Evangelion felt bigger and more important than anything I had ever encountered, and I didn't know how any other work could ever surpass it, in my mind.

It wasn't long before I learned that Hideaki Anno had formed Studio Khara and would be turning my favorite anime of all time—my favorite anything of all time, really—into a series of shiny, high-budget movies. Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone premiered in Japan in 2007, followed by Evangelion: 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance in 2009. I was in high school by then, and much more well-adjusted (at least, so far as any teenager can be). I was also a fully naturalized citizen of the internet, and I spent hours scouring news sites (including Anime News Network) for any information I could get my hands on. I will even admit that, in my naïve and desperate desire to consume all of the Evangelion that I could, as soon as I could, I procured some questionably subtitled camera rips of the movies from file sharing apps like LimeWire. I shouted with glee at all of the kickass fight scenes and fan-favorite moments from You Are (Not) Alone, and I obsessively theorized about all of the changes to the established storyline that occurred in You Can (Not) Advance. By the time I graduated in 2010, the story of Shinji Ikari and his eternal quest to get in the robot had been a regular fixture of my life for years.

Evangelion: 3.33 You Can (Not) Redo would not arrive until 2012, though a bunch of setbacks on Funimation's part delayed its release in the U.S. for a long time, and since I had largely ceased my pirating ways once I became a “respectable adult”, that meant that I would not actually see the third chapter of Rebuild of Evangelion until 2016. Though Eva 2.22 had gone out of its way to make a few very notable deviations from the outline of its predecessor, 3.33 marked a full break from the original Evangelion narrative. Shinji and the audience both were suddenly catapulted into a future that was even bleaker and more alienating than what came before. There were familiar faces amongst Asuka, Misato, the new Rei, and many of the surviving ex-NERV freedom fighters that were doing battle against Gendo's somehow even more ludicrous world-ending schemes, but they were twisted beneath layers of mistrust, cynicism, and all of the tragedies that the people of the world were forced to suffer during Shinji's extended absence in the time between the second and third movies.

“It's no use, I can't hold it in. I've kept it pent up all these years.” (from Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo)

You Can (Not) Redo isn't just an aggressively disorienting and upsetting twist on the traditional Evangelion formula; it also barely functional as a standalone story. The never-ending piles of lore and exposition were becoming difficult for even franchise veterans to parse. The specific “who's”, “what's”, “where's”, and “whys” of the plot and characters were even more ambiguous than in the original series, and that's really saying something. Running just under 90 minutes, You Can (Not) Redo manages to be too much and not enough all at once, and by the time it ends you feel as if you've only just gotten half of a complete story. In 2016, I had spent just as many years away from Evangelion as I had had it in my life to begin with, and while I was fascinated by Evangelion 3.33, and even loved elements of it, I couldn't quite tell how much I liked the movie as a whole.

Like the original series, the Rebuild saga is a messy and proudly imperfect thing, so I won't pretend that some of my misgivings simply come from genuine issues I have with each of the movies. Even as I found more to respect about You Can (Not) Redo on subsequent viewings, it remained a fork in the road for my journey as a fan of Evangelion. Here was this story about a petulant boy who is eternally suffering through the same cycles of self-loathing, cynicism, confusion, and grim acceptance that felt so visceral and real to my fourteen-year-old-self. Now, in 2016, I was a grown-up. Like, actually a grown-up. I had just started my job as a high school teacher, where I was somehow legally responsible for the mental and emotional well-being of dozens upon dozens of Shinjis and Asukas, and I was even beginning work as a professional critic on the side. Hell, I was married.

Evangelion used to be this impossibly important thing, to me. It was sacred, or as close to sacred as something could be for a kid who found more comfort in Evangelion's patchwork theology of fictional robot monsters than whatever might be found in a real religious text. Ten years on, I was a different person, seeing Evangelion as the flawed and frustrating thing that it always was. This was inevitable, I suppose, and I still loved the series, but I loved it in the same way that one might love memories from their childhood home, and what I was feeling in 2016 was similar to that same pang of melancholic nostalgia that comes with seeing how little of your old room has changed since you left to make your way in the world, and reckoning with how much you've moved on, since then. You can't ever really sleep in that bed of yours again, after all. It's too small.

“I'm not protecting anything.” (from Evangelion 3.0 + 1.01: Thrice Upon a Time)

It would be another half-decade before I was able to finish the story. Evangelion: 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon A Time doesn't just boast the most unwieldy name of the entire film series, it is also the most complex and challenging of the movies by far. It took twice as long to produce as any of the other movies, and even when you factor in the time Anno took off to go and deconstruct another kaiju classic with 2016's Shin Godzilla, the final product of Thrice Upon a Time is a testament to Anno and Studio Khara's intent. It runs at over two-and-a-half-hours, making it one of the longest animated films in history, and nearly every minute of that runtime is packed to the brim with more lore, more explorations of the strange new lives that the Eva pilots have found themselves thrust into, and more opportunities for Anno to break apart and rebuild Evangelion so completely that there is absolutely no question of what Thrice Upon a Time is here to do. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, the true end of Evangelion.

Evangelion 3.0+1.0 was released in Japan back in March of 2021, after experiencing a number of delays due to the still-ongoing COVID pandemic. It only just premiered across the rest of the world, including the United States, on August 13th of 2021. That was yesterday, as of the time of this writing. Even more than You Can (Not) Redo, this final Rebuild movie is something unlike anything we've ever seen in Evangelion, even as the film constantly recycles and recontextualizes elements from across the entire franchise. The original television series, The End of Evangelion, and even the cross-media empire of spinoffs and fan works—Thrice Upon a Time is in conversation with all of it.

I've only seen the movie all the way through once, as of yet. It is an exhausting gauntlet of half-explained exposition and inscrutable plot developments, barely coherent as a standalone movie, and all of the lore and backstory is only partially comprehensible if you're a longtime fan. There are now so many varieties of Eva Units, mock-Eva Units, and Eva-powered battleships that only the most dedicated of wiki editors will be able to keep track of them all. That is to say nothing of the three different apocalyptic scenarios that are of key importance to the plot, which all may or may not be the same event.

It is, in fact, the apotheosis of Hideaki Anno's particular brand of High Falutin' Evangelion Bullshit, and I would be lying if I told you my time watching Thrice Upon a Time wasn't filled with an increasing sense of dread. After spending fully half of my life waiting to see the story of Evangelion to its true ending, I was afraid that the terrible prophecy of You Can (Not) Redo would prove correct, and that Evangelion would never hold the same power that it once did for me, and for so many others like me. It would no longer be this inextricable artifact of almost mythic power. It would simply be a cartoon that I had mixed feelings about. Some good, and some bad. That's life, right?

“Could it be that I am afraid of Shinji?” (from Evangelion 3.0 + 1.01: Thrice Upon a Time)

Except, that is life. Anno knows it, and so too does Evangelion. As Thrice Upon a Time breaks out of its endless cycles of robot-on-robot violence, it builds towards a climax that is so cathartic and precise in its power that it moved me to tears, and its power comes precisely from how Evangelion wields its many imperfections with as much pride as its achievements, and how it reckons with the places that Shinji, Anno, and the whole of Evangelion's fans must go, if they are ever to move forward.

The film echoes the visuals and the story beats of The End of Evangelion right up to its final act, in which Shinji must face his father Gendo on the most metaphysical and abstract battlefield that we've yet encountered. This is where our hero makes the most unexpected choice of his life: He talks to his father. And he says goodbye to all of Evangelion. There is so much in the imagery and themes of this final act that I could easily spend another three-thousand words breaking it down, but what matters the most to me, right now, is the fact that Anno, the conniving bastard, managed to break my brain and my heart one last time by making exactly the empathy machine that I needed in my life. Again.

In Evangelion 3.0+1.0, we are at last allowed to meet Shinji Ikari, not as the scared young boy that he has been for these last 25 years, but as the man he was always destined to become. A man who has finally learned not just to live with himself, but to find the joy and meaning that comes from living for others. After all of these countless battles and breakdowns, after whole TV series and movie franchises and video-game adaptations and light-novel spinoffs worth of the same misadventures, over and over, this conclusion sees Shinji harnessing the cosmic power of whatever the hell the forces are that shape the world of Evangelion to accomplish the only thing that could save his friends and his world: He has made a life for himself, and for his loved ones, that doesn't have anything to do with the Evas, or with the story of Evangelion. I don't think I ever expected Shinji's story to end with him confronting the fictional nature of his entire existence and then tearing it apart to set his loved ones free, but here we are. It kind of makes perfect sense.

“The birth of a new world. Neon genesis.” (from Evangelion 3.0 + 1.01: Thrice Upon a Time)

Obviously, I'm not arguing that literally abandoning and/or destroying the world of Evangelion is the key to unlocking true happiness for its fans, or what have you. I don't think Anno is, either. It is okay to love stories about sad boys and big robots that blow stuff up really good. It is okay to love the characters that live in those stories, to feel pain when they feel pain, and to find joy in their happiness. That said, it is also okay to let those things go, to allow them their place in your past while you forge a new future for yourself. Evangelion isn't the Holy Bible for anime geeks. It isn't the work of art that will show you how to live the life you've always fantasized for yourself.

It's just…an anime. It is an important and exceedingly entertaining anime, yes, and one that deserves all of the praise and scrutiny it has earned over the years, but it is an anime, all the same. A small thing, in the grand scheme of each of our lives, and there isn't any one person on this Earth who needs Evangelion, or any other anime like it, to make them happy. Even Hideaki Anno will be okay, when it is gone. So will Shinji, and Asuka, and Rei, and Mari, and all of the others who will continue on, in some way or another.

I am nearly thirty years old, now. I have lived a lovely life, so far. To the James of 2006, such an age would have felt like an utter impossibility. If you had even asked me just a few years ago, when I was standing at that Evangelion-shaped fork in the road, I might have told you that I was still very scared at the prospect of getting older. I was worried that the person I was growing into was too far removed from that boy I had once been, and that it would not be long before the path back to that state of mind was lost to me forever.

Now, in 2021, it feels like I've barely begun my life, still. I have a home that I am proud of, I have work that satisfies and challenges me, and I have a wife who is the shining star of my entire world. What I think Evangelion wants to tell us with Thrice Upon a Time is something I only think I could have been ready to hear now, at this exact point in my life, where I empathize more with Shinji the man than Shinji the child.

“Well now. You're talking like a real grown-up.” (from Evangelion 3.0 + 1.01: Thrice Upon a Time)

It is telling us that it is okay to grow up. It is okay to grow older. Maybe you'll still carry the myths and comforts of your childhood for many years to come, or maybe you will let some of those stories go to make room for the new ones that you will find. There will be others who love you, not for who you thought you were meant to be, but for the person you have actually become. They will help you on your way through the world, and you should return their love in kind. You will tell them good morning, and good night. You will tell them hello, and goodbye. You will take their hands and work with them in order to build a better future. You will be okay.

Evangelion 3.0+1.0 doesn't just manage to provide a fitting conclusion to Shinji's story, and it doesn't just serve as an exuberant display of Anno and Studio Khara's skills as artists and creators. It also gives the fans who grew up with Evangelion a chance to see themselves in its story one final time, and to know that if Shinji can find his place in the world at long last, then so too can we. I don't personally need to leave Evangelion behind in the same way that Hideaki Anno does, but it is good to know that if and when that time comes for me, I will be able to say “Goodbye” with a smile on my face, and for one last time, I will also be able to say “Thank you.”

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