Review

by Nick Creamer,

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Episodes 1-26 streaming

Synopsis:
Neon Genesis Evangelion
A silent specter floats through the ruins of a lost city, fifteen years after the tragedy that nearly ended the world. At the same time, the young Shinji Ikari waits to be picked up, rehearsing his reunion with the father who abandoned him. Suddenly, tremors crack the streets of Tokyo-3, and a great and terrible beast crashes to the earth. Shinji will have to fight this beast - this Angel, this messenger of the gods. As the pilot of Evangelion Unit 01, he and his fellow pilots will hold the fate of the world in their hands; but in a world defined by cruelty and failed connections, saving the world might be a simpler task than believing you deserve to inhabit it.
Review:

An apocalyptic vision of the end of humanity, or perhaps just a window to a personal apocalypse. Glorious battles that exemplify mecha action's appeal, tethered to a protagonist who'd like nothing more than to never fight again. Melodramatic excess and razor-sharp tonal restraint, from a creator seemingly at war with his own audience. The show's unprecedented success would change the anime industry forever, ushering in shows that revered its iconography even as they ignored its core lessons. Neon Genesis Evangelion is a squalid masterpiece, and at last it is available once again. Welcome to the end of the world.

With its collected DVD releases long out of print and no streaming options until its recent Netflix acquisition, Neon Genesis Evangelion is at this point often recognized more in terms of its influence and legacy than its actual content. This is understandable; the show has been largely unavailable for over a decade, and yet its influence on the anime industry is so profound that anyone who has seen it cannot help but see its legacy in modern productions. It also makes for one of those rare historical anecdotes that actually adhere to a satisfying narrative structure: Hideaki Anno drawing on his love of classic mecha, tokusatsu, Devilman, and much else to create something that changed the world, his deeply personal tale shaking not just the narrative and thematic assumptions of anime, but even its economic delivery method, heralding the age of modern late-night productions.

It's an alluring (if undeniably reductive) story, but with the show itself finally at hand, the length of Eva's shadow seems to lessen, or at least find its rightful source. Claims of Evangelion's influence or power being a result of its nature as a “deconstruction of mecha” are vastly overstated - many of the show's theoretically transgressive narrative choices were born in formative works for Anno like Space Runaway Ideon, and even the original Mobile Suit Gundam was far from an uncritical power fantasy. What Anno did bring to these sources was a painful acuity of perspective, and perhaps more importantly, an incredible directorial vision supported by one of the best production staffs ever assembled. Economic legacy and genre commentary aside, the most fundamental element of Eva's enduring appeal is the fact that it's a phenomenally executed show.

Mentored by Hayao Miyazaki, tested on the brilliant Gunbuster, and nearly burnt out by his experience on Nadia - The Secret of Blue Water, Hideaki Anno is undoubtedly one of the most gifted directors in anime, and Evangelion saw him surrounded with a stunning staff at the height of their powers. Character designs by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, the man whose angular, expressive style would define the classic era of Gainax productions. Storyboards and individual episodes directed by future titans like Seiji Mizushima (Fullmetal Alchemist, Concrete Revolutio), Tensai Okamura (Wolf's Rain, Darker than Black), and Kazuya Tsurumaki (FLCL), along with many equally gifted directors who'd follow Anno to Studio Khara. Several episode scripts by Youji Enokido (Revolutionary Girl Utena), key animation by Mitsuo Iso (Dennou Coil) and countless others. Soundtrack by Shirou Sagisu, whose iconic mixture of classical tracks and urgent, menacing originals would haunt the nightmares of a generation. Much of Evangelion's core team would go on to have legendary careers within the industry, and many names you might not recognize have continued to do quietly excellent work on Anno's Rebuild of Evangelion projects.

But talking about Evangelion's creator pedigree is perhaps just another way of talking around the text itself. The show's very first moments demonstrate Eva's profound dramatic power, conveying both the intensity and unexpected beauty of an Angel attack with astonishing grace. Staccato cuts present scant context before the camera jumps to a sea in turmoil, as helicopter blades roar in an immediate sensory assault. Then again, silence; seagulls idly sunning on immobile tanks, a vast and inhuman creature floating through a sunken city. We meet our forlorn protagonist Shini Ikari, and then a surreal mirage is shattered by violent noise. Loud, quiet, loud - the fury of an Angel attack contrasted against Shinji's private insecurities, and the strange majesty of this silent city.

The layouts, pacing, and narrative economy of that first episode are stunning, and offer an early demonstration of Evangelion's terrific design work. The Angel is composed of smooth geometric shapes and that one iconic face-plate, its unreadable nature and fluid musculature coming across as alien and somehow wrong. The urgent chatter of the response team's bridge, their individually coherent but collectively unreadable panic building into a sort of music of anxiety. The inventive and diverse bridge monitor readings, capable of ratcheting up tension purely through clinical language and visual discord. Many of the choices Evangelion makes are designed for a largely textural effect - even its allusions to a greater conspiracy are eventually discarded, and neither the scientific nor religious jargon is particularly coherent. But that's not the point; Evangelion is constructing a specific tonal backdrop for its true drama, embracing the dramatic power of classic genre tools to tell a very different story.

The key elements of that story are revealed across a first act that combines classic mecha action with a keen interest in the psychology of Shinji Ikari, as well as the classmates, copilots, and caretakers that surround him. Shinji's reunion with his father sets the terms for their relationship; Gendo high above in an unreachable glass chamber, telling his son that he has a use for him, and he must pilot the Eva. Shinji cowers in response, with even his would-be protector Misato Katsuragi urging him to do the impossible. And then Gendo wheels out the “substitute pilot,” Rei Ayanami, a girl so badly injured she can barely rise from her gurney. The actual fight Shinji experiences is so traumatic he can't even remember it; and when he does, his horror at what happened is tempered by the barest hint of validation from Misato, as she tells his silent back that he did something praiseworthy today.

Through long episodes of interpersonal drama and Angel attacks, Anno's careful eye for scene-setting and his team's evocative layouts give a sense of vitality and lived-in reality to every set and scene. Every shot is littered with details that tell us more about this world, from the disarray of NERV's offices to the architecture and climate of Tokyo-3. Sequences are storyboarded for maximum emotional impact, often using unusually long held shots, extreme closeups, or layouts focused on incidental scenery rather than characters to promote distinct emotional effects. Dramatic smash cuts to evocative title cards, match cuts illustrating symmetries unnoticed by the characters themselves, partial body shots elevated through anxious character acting; Evangelion is a shameless buffet of resonant visual riches.

Evangelion's first act, comprising the first eight or so episodes, serves as the introduction to both its cast and its thematic obsessions. We quickly learn that Shinji Ikari is a boy ruled by anxiety and self-loathing, who seems incapable of loving himself while deathly afraid of his father's disapproval, and thus a willing pilot for the Evangelion robot. The show tips its hand early with its Angel-free fourth episode, which depicts Shinji first running away from these responsibilities through an almost wordless sequence of tonal malaise, as he rides the trains until the trains stop, suffers a panic attack in the heart of an unfamiliar city, and ultimately finds peace in the kindness of a classmate. While continuing to illustrate Shinji's attempts to grow closer to others, and the pain that naturally results, we also come to know his captain-slash-surrogate-parent Misato, chief science officer Ritsuko Akagi, and the rest of NERV's sympathetic, emotionally nuanced bridge team. Then, after debuting the proud and combative third pilot Asuka Langley Soryu, Evangelion enters an almost conventional set of monster-of-the-week episodes.

Though Evangelion is renowned for how it eventually discards the conventional trappings of robot-on-monster drama, its middle act is both still fiercely dedicated to furthering its character-centric goals, and also an engaging series of dramatic digressions in its own right. There is no “average Evangelion episode” - each individual episode is elevated into a distinct work through the production team's profound skill, varied influences, and creative staging. Episodes will be constructed around engaging conceits like an overbearing countdown to a unique disaster, rapid cross-cuts of conversations that create an ensemble drama out of a diffuse crisis, or enemies that force the team to assess the battlefield in an entirely new way. Though it's been said that Evangelion was intended as a harsh rebuke of genre convention, its central act is elevated through the skill and creativity this team brings to a genre they clear love.

And of course, there are the battles themselves. Evangelion's robot-on-angel fights are a captivating combination of eerily distinct monster designs, creative tactical setups, and gorgeous, horrifying fight animation. Few shows can match Evangelion for conveying the true weight and scale of giants in motion, as their shuddering bodies shake the earth and raise up storms of dust, or their spent shell casings tumble to crush the cars beneath them. These battles are rarely staged to convey a sense of effortless grace or thrilling triumph - they instead convey the terror of being trapped in a tiny cage and forced to fight a creature with no face, as the only people you care about scream that you are going to die.

Evangelion is not a monotone rebuke of classic power fantasies, but it is also, emphatically, not a work of escapism. Its use of giant robots is not intended to echo the freedom and exhilaration of growing up; it instead conveys the terror of responsibility, the uncertainty of uneven ground beneath you, and the shame of being asked to be stronger than you know you are. In the face of an urgent call to action, Neon Genesis Evangelion speaks for all those who respond with “but what if I'm afraid? What if I fail?” Piloting the robot is a terrifying prospect in this show, and its portrayal of Shinji's attempts to come to terms with the Eva (and through the Eva, the rest of the world) is its greatest triumph.

Evangelion portrays the mindsets of its characters with empathy and nuance, as they all struggle to value themselves and connect with others in the wake of various personal traumas. Shinji's loss of his mother and abandonment by his father form the crux of his emotional trauma, but his divergent efforts to connect in spite of that pain illustrate the full spectrum of anxiety, depression, and self-loathing. Misato Katsuragi struggles with her relationship with her own father, while her role as the pilots' caretaker makes her constantly grapple with her self-image, shaky conception of what it is to be an adult or parent, and need for personal connection. Asuka's childhood trauma actually informs her bravery and pride, while simultaneously making true vulnerability with those around her almost impossible. Their personal journeys twist and turn, as each of these fractured heroes attempt to be good to each other, and perhaps even be good to themselves.

One of the great strengths of Evangelion is that no character in this show is just playing a narrative role. Every member of the cast is a distinct person, with their own beliefs and goals and fears and methods of self-expression, as well as different mechanisms for concealing their true intentions. The messy collisions of these distant personal islands naturally facilitates the show's drama, as a classic rule of storytelling (“let your conflicts emerge naturally from the base natures of your characters”) is used to illustrate Evangelion's most fundamental conflict (the inherent impossibility of true mutual understanding and honest human connection).

It's no surprise that if you ask five Eva fans for their favorite character, you'd probably get five different answers. Characters like Asuka and Misato initially present themselves as strong and confident archetypes, only to reveal layers of subtlety and sympathy over time. Rei and Ritsuko say more with their eyes and hand gestures than most protagonists accomplish in a full series, while even the bridge crew demonstrate divergent personalities, philosophies, and passions. When these characters fail, you lament with them. When they triumph, their victories are yours.

And of course, there's Shinji. The poster boy for the Evangelion franchise, ground zero for references and memes, the boy who Mustn't Run Away. Evangelion's portrayal of Shinji's profound anxiety, self-loathing, and depression is so piercing and personal that it still rings in my mind, nearly twenty years after this show first changed my life as a teen. From the wholly tonal, visually driven experience of episodes like that harrowing fourth to the confessional, Freudian interrogations he undergoes later on, Evangelion is the best portrayal I've seen in anime of what it is to be young and deeply, fundamentally unhappy.

Shinji's journey is portrayed with bracing acuity from the first episode, as his father's request to pilot the robot is countered by scattered accusations, helpless sobs, and an emphasis on his shaking, helpless hands. Evangelion's overarching focus on the lived reality of depression and self-loathing means it will always be a polarizing work, a story that some see as much ado about nothing (a feeling likely amplified by the show's cavalier attitude towards lore and connective narrative tissue). But to those who truly struggle with reaching out to others, who crave connection and yet fear its consequences, Evangelion offered an adolescent bible of emergent selfhood.

Every element of Shinji's emotional journey is conveyed with clear sympathy and brutal specificity, a reflection of the deep depression that led Anno to create such a work. There is nuance and love in Shinji's strange, transactional relationship with Misato, as well as his growing rapport with Rei. His trials with the brittle Asuka help teach him the diverse ways people can express their truth, as well as to not take the jagged edges of others' personalities as his own failing. The violence of his father's aura helps teach him how to let go, while the memory of his mother's warmth reminds him that some things are worth saving. Evangelion lingers over messy processes like developing a healthy level of self-regard, and the pain of having newfound confidence betrayed by unhappy circumstance. The care and thoroughness with which Evangelion explores Shinji's psyche is inspiring, and reflects the show's overarching dramatic priorities, typified by that key repeated question: “why do you pilot the Eva?”

By tying their fortunes in battle to their psychological states, and setting the endpoint to its apocalyptic drama as a renegotiation of the fundamental relationships between human beings, Evangelion insists that there is nothing more epic, consequential or important than the deeply personal. By gradually shifting its narrative to a self-reflective interrogation of its characters' feelings, it posits that overt narrative movements are simply the shadows cast by fundamental human truths, and that the work of postmodernism is simply a recalibrating of narrative focus towards what is most fundamentally human. It's a philosophy that felt genuinely transformative when I first watched this show, and which has continued to define my relationship with narrative art. I love the stories that find epic theater in the smallest of human conflicts, and Evangelion stands as a paragon of the personal as universal, a resounding declaration that unless we can love ourselves, nothing else matters.

The show offers a clean metaphor for the terror of joining the adult world, but is also inextricably tied to Anno's mindset, the personal depression that informed the show's run and the personal hope that resolved it. His love-hate relationship with otaku identity feels baked into the show's violent reframing of classic power fantasies, and is embodied through characters like Rei, the mother-wife of such keen interest to both Freud and rejection-averse anime fans. Anno's personal war with his own sense of self-worth feels seeded into every episode of Evangelion, and it's a testament to both the clarity of his vision and the profound strength of his team that the resulting show doesn't feel insular or unrelatable at all - instead, its articulation of personal pain feels not just universal, but actually joyous.

That's right, joyous. Though Evangelion is renowned for being uncommonly cruel to its characters, you couldn't possibly call it cynical. This is a show about desperately wanting to get closer to others, but feeling the pain of that closeness too acutely to make the leap. This is a show about suffering under your own personal trauma, yet still reaching out and holding on to the shaking hands at your side. This is a show about failing and despairing and slowly returning to your feet, even with no assurance that things will ever truly get better. This is a show about how, no matter how impossible it is to truly connect and understand one another, we can never, ever stop trying. This is a show about hope in the face of oblivion, and the human flame that can never truly be extinguished. This is a show that depicts us at our very worst and says yes, these too, these unhappy and wretched souls are still utterly deserving of love. This is Evangelion, and we are lucky to have it.

Addendum: as I'm technically reviewing the Netflix release specifically, I suppose I should evaluate the unique foibles of their streaming version. Their adapted script on the whole feels slightly more stilted than the classic ADV script, and there are occasional strange language choices throughout (with Kaworu's ‘you are worthy of my grace’) standing as one of the most inexplicable. I personally found the most egregious issue with this script to be the lack of on-screen translations for many of Eva's Japanese title cards; those title cards often serve as a dramatic punchline to their preceding scenes, and I hope translations are soon offered. In spite of those issues, the vast majority of this script feels perfectly natural, character relationships are still intact, and the show's overall dramatic power is maintained. Additionally, the new dub stands as a marked improvement over the fairly dated ADV performances, in spite of echoing some of the issues with the subtitle scripts. I have issues with this script, but still feel comfortable recommending the release to any newcomers to the franchise.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A+
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A+
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : A

+ A stunning work of profound emotional power and insight, constructed by one of the most impressive animation teams ever assembled
Ending feels abrupt without End of Evangelion to accompany it, clever workarounds can only do so much to mitigate the limited animation of the final episodes

Director: Hideaki Anno
Script:
Hideaki Anno
Yoji Enokido
Shinji Higuchi
Mitsuo Iso
Akio Satsukawa
Hiroshi Yamaguchi
Storyboard:
Masayuki
Hideaki Anno
Kiichi Hadame
Shinji Higuchi
Hiroyuki Ishido
Tsuyoshi Kaga
Akira Oguro
Tensai Okamura
Keiichi Sugiyama
Kazuya Tsurumaki
Episode Director:
Masayuki
Ken Ando
Naoyasu Habu
Naoyasu Hanyu
Hiroyuki Ishido
Tsuyoshi Kaga
Shoichi Masuo
Seiji Mizushima
Minoru Ohara
Tensai Okamura
Masahiko Otsuka
Keiichi Sugiyama
Akira Takamura
Kazuya Tsurumaki
Tetsuya Watanabe
Unit Director: Kazuya Tsurumaki
Music:
Claire
Hideaki Anno
Sumiharu Arima
Bart Howard
Tatsuya Ikeda
Kayako Ishuh
Masahiro Itami
Masairo Itami
Michio Kagiwada
Isao Kaneyama
J.J. Key
Norio Koyama
Makoto Kuriya
Tomoko Kusakari
Hijiri Kuwano
Tsutomu Maruyama
Osamu Matsuyama
Hiroyuki Minami
Junko Miyagi
Eric Miyashiro
Obawo Nakajima
Kohji Nishimura
Neko Oikawa
Smio Okada
Akira Okazawa
Toshiyuki Omori
Tony Orly
Shiro Sagisu
Shigehiko Saito
Kiyoshi Saitoh
Hidetoshi Sato
Masahiko Sugasaka
Yoko Takahashi
Yuuichi Tokashiki
Yasuyuki Watanabe
Rolf Wilson
Keiko Yamakawa
Hitoshi Yokoyama
Fujimaru Yoshino
Original creator: Hideaki Anno
Character Design: Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
Art Director: Hiroshi Katō
Animation Director:
Masayuki
Shinya Hasegawa
Takeshi Honda
Nobuhiro Hosoi
Toshio Kawaguchi
Kazuchika Kise
Tomonori Kogawa
Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
Satoshi Shigeta
Shunji Suzuki
Kazuya Tsurumaki
Mecha design:
Hideaki Anno
Ikuto Yamashita
Director of Photography: Yoichi Kuroda
Producer:
Noriko Kobayashi
Akiko Odawara
Teruaki Sanematsu
Yutaka Sugiyama

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Neon Genesis Evangelion (TV)

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