Neon Genesis Evangelion (NGE) is one of the towering works of Japanese animation. A synthesis of Japanese ideals, pop culture and its creator’s struggle with depression, it’s the most famous and personal work of Hideaki Anno, a director and animator at Studio Gainax who would later go on to join Studio Ghibli. A tricky, melancholic and lyrical series, it’s finally available to watch, courtesy of Netflix, without the need for piracy or overpriced secondhand DVDs.
Broadcast between 1995 and 1996, the show follows Shinji Ikari, a teenager recruited by his absentee father to pilot a giant bio-machine – an ‘Eva’ – to fight the monstrous ‘Angels’ that are attacking the futuristic city of Tokyo-3, humanity’s last fortress. Moving in with his new guardian Major Misato Katsuragi, Shinji’s hatred for his father and fear of fighting results in an identity crisis for the ages.
NGE may sound like a familiar set-up to fans of mecha anime, but it quickly turns into something different. Its world is continually on the precipice, its fights more upsetting than thrilling, with a focus on traumatic, bloody violence. It’s loaded with religious imagery; references to Kierkegaard and Jungian archetype (particularly that of the anima, the unconscious feminine side of a man, and its reverse, the animus) abound. Look to the likes of Devilman: Crybaby (2018) or Steven Universe (2013-) to see the reach of the show’s influence.
But Evangelion stands apart from its imitators in its treatment of mental illness. It features giant mechas, but it’s mostly about learning to live with yourself. The Evas themselves are more than just a bipedal form of military might – through them Anno introduces concepts integral to the show’s emotional through-line, such as culture’s ability to bring people together. The show’s relationship to Japanese pop culture is essential, its deconstruction of that world extending to the very animated form and genre it inhabits. It’s a staple of what’s known as ‘Superflat’, the Japanese postmodern art movement that examines the hollow nature of consumer culture.
While it’s no easy watch, Evangelion isn’t without its surface pleasures. It’s brought to life with animation that is detailed, beautiful and horrific, particularly in the design of the otherworldly Angels and the fearsome, humanoid Evas. Shiro Sagisu’s score includes memorable themes that amplify the show’s dramatic heights and emotional depths. Plus, every episode starts with the greatest opening theme of all time, and closes on numerous different covers of ‘Fly Me to the Moon’. Some haunting, some bizarre, the hopefulness of each theme begins to stand out as the series becomes increasingly bleak.
It’s a show that sparks frustration and confusion as often as it does elation and emotional clarity; Anno’s jarring and elliptical style often obscures the complex mythology, alternating between walls of jargon-heavy dialogue and long periods of silence. It also takes its time introducing the main cast – Rei, the first Eva pilot, is seen in the first episode but is only truly introduced in the fifth, while Asuka (a bratty, hostile child who seeks validation through piloting her Eva, and the series’ MVP) doesn’t show up until the eighth.
In the early episodes, Evangelion can feel like a show aimed squarely at teenage boys (crushes, big robots etc), but Anno hints at complications from the start. It engages with objectification and the stunted ways in which men interact with women, and wonders at the root of the cause. As it explores these characters and fills out its backstory, Evangelion settles into an Angel-of-the-week rhythm for its early half, each episode coloured with a goofy sense of humour (plus some teen angst), while bringing Shinji a little closer to happiness. Slowly but surely though, Anno tears it all away, the series becoming increasingly abstract and abrasive, diving deep into the characters’ insecurities.
The now infamous finale, made as the production was running out of both time and money, threw out the fight narrative for an abstract journey of introspection, exploring the characters’ psyches in what is best described as a metaphysical group therapy session that brings Shinji toward self-understanding. Reusing images from the show alongside rough, expressive pencil sketch animation, the episode is bizarre but surprisingly cathartic. Yet fans and critics alike demanded a new ending, and so Anno remade the finale with the 1997 film The End of Evangelion. Where the original finale left the show’s complicated mythology behind, this gave fans the answers they desired, and they weren’t pretty. It’s a psychological onslaught of a film, dooming each beloved character to various horrible fates while showing them in agonising detail.
These dual endings actually serve to compliment each other; the message of the series finale is still intact in End of Evangelion – a therapeutic reminder that as long as we’re alive we have the potential to be happy, and understand each other and ourselves. It is also the greatest realisation of Shinji as a character, who is representative of the obsessive ‘otaku’ culture and toxic masculinity. He’s also a confused, sexually frustrated and lonely teenage boy, spiralling through self-hatred – who also happens to hold humanity’s fate in his hands.
Evangelion is a difficult but truthful expression of what it’s like to struggle with depression. Its emotional honesty is what makes it so unforgettable and guarantees its immortality – in fact it’s still going, with a quasi-reboot named Rebuild of Evangelion, a four-film retelling of the story that started in 2007 (the fourth film is slated for 2020). As Anno himself put it, it’s a story that repeats; a story that tells us, giant robots or not, that the hardest part of being human is just being.