Reviews of Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) and related work

Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995Moving picture, 11 hours)

Anno Hideaki (director).

Review refers to the Renewal/Platinum DVD versions with integrated additions from the feature film Death.

In a fifteen-year prelude to the apocalypse, factions maneuver to control the completion of humanity. Bestial machines with disturbed child pilots protect its keys from surreal and mysterious creatures in near-future Japan, rebuilt following the destruction of Antarctica, which flooded much of the world and wrecked the climate.

“Was it not so, O Morquan! King of Japan, whose lofty jet they say at times assumed the semblance of a snow-white cross against the sky?” – Moby-Dick (1851).

Anno’s magnum opus is original, jagged and mesmerizing, but Neon Genesis Evangelion didn’t spring from a vacuum. Like Space Runaway Ideon (1980), the giant mecha of Evangelion fuse Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) with its superheroic predecessors, as remade in “Giant Robo: The Animation” (1991). Ikari Shinji is less gung-ho and less generic than Ideon’s Cosmo, a lot more like the directors of both shows. Like Nagisa of Fight! Iczer-1 (1985), he does not want the job. As in Iczer-1, The Incal (1980) and “Interface” (1993), Freudian psychology underpins the SF action, drama and horror.

Though it did not spring from a vacuum, Evangelion is complete on a level all its own. On a mere TV animation budget, slashed for adult content, Anno combined what is supposed to be impossible. The show is hilarious and unsettling, a risqué, even pandering comedy with all the abrasive, unfunny earnestness of puberty. It’s got colourful and horrifying tokusatsu-/kaijū-style battles with implausible happy endings punctuating black ruminations on human relationships in the abstract. It’s a hugely entertaining spectacle and, at the same time, it is absolutely sincere. In one TV series you get the visceral glory of Eva-01 sucker-punching Zeruel through a concrete wall in episode 19, Kaji watering his melons at the emotional apex in episode 21, and Anno using the most basic elements of verisimilitude in the craft of animation—a ground plane—to explain his feelings on self-conceptualization and socialization after abandoning mimesis, in episode 26.

It’s art, but it’s barely science fiction. The technobabble is pulled from mythology, psychology and cell biology instead of physics, but it’s still just technobabble. The bakelite is a callback to the history of Gainax, not a piece of worldbuilding. Much of the background is left unexplored in the TV series, merely implying influences comparable to Erich von Däniken or H. P. Lovecraft’s godlike aliens dressed up in Judaeo-Christian emblems for exoticism, similar to their use in Mobile Police Patlabor: The Movie (1989) and Anno’s own Nadia (1990) which has embryonic versions of the score by the same composer. Evangelion’s apocalypticism is more haunting, its Angels ever more invasively intimate. It reminds me of the primal and obsessive angst of the early Christians, of Revelation (ca. 95 CE), but not of actual Christian beliefs: It is the intrinsic cataclysm of The Quiet Earth (1985) and the extrinsic, equally permeating cataclysm of Godzilla (1954) and other nuclear cinema, rather than Yahweh’s work.

When the official translations mention Angels, the term is shito (使徒, apostle), not tenshi (天使, angel), apparently because the sh of shito is so close to the palatal fricative h of hito (人, person) that whenever NERV personnel spot a human on their instruments, they have to use the term ningen (人間, human) to disambiguate. In this instance, the borrowing of Christian terminology serves the purpose of foreshadowing the shared nature of humans and other monsters. The English-language name for SEELE’s project is Instrumentality, named not after the shadowy, telepathically spying leaders in Cordwainer Smith’s science fiction, but instead having the same source as Smith: Christian theology, where priests performing the sacraments and/or the authors of scripture are thought to be instruments of the gods. In SEELE’s version, the relationship is reversed. More material relationships with The Bible (ca. 110 CE) are weak. When Gendō talks about the Dead Sea scrolls, for example, that’s a plot token dipped in a digest of the Kabbalah for added flavour, not the real scrolls. It’s technobabble and namedropping for atmosphere, not real theology. Early English translators of the series didn’t seem to get this and mistakenly interpreted アポプトーシス as “apotheosis”, when it’s actually “apoptosis” with a possible double meaning in mind.

It all works better as a whole than I can account for. The characters are certainly wonderful, brought to life in a perfect storm of Sadamoto’s designs, skilled animators and brilliant actors, but I think it is Anno’s sincerity that really carries the show. He meant it, whereas The Incal, for example, was “only” entertainment, in spite of its spiritual currents.

NGE changed the industry and raised awareness of animation among Japanese intellectuals. For example, in a 1996 article, young philosopher-critic Azuma Hiroki praised NGE against a blanket assumption that “anime as a genre is dead”, barren for the preceding decade, due to industry introversion (“autism”), and furthermore, that Anno revived the genre and “brought anime to a final closure” (「アニメ的なもの、アニメ的でないもの」, quotes from the official translation “Animé or Something Like It”; the article is a review in InterCommunication 18, 1996; written before Death). As for flaws, rewatching this on Netflix in 2019, it took me about ten seconds to get over the loss of “Fly Me to the Moon” due to licensing hell. Dan Kanemitsu’s translation is faithful within the constraints of studio mandates and works well enough.

References here: Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997), Gasaraki (1998), Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (2001/2005), Mahoromatic: Automatic Maiden (2001), All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001), 24 (2001), RahXephon (2002), One Hour Photo (2002), Kiddy Grade (2002), Gunparade March (2003), Shadow Star Narutaru (2003), Fafner (2004), Lost (2004), Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011), Pacific Rim (2013), Stations of the Cross (2014), “Me! Me! Me!” (2014), “Neon Genesis: Impacts” (2015), Stranger Things (2016), Shin Godzilla (2016), Devilman: Crybaby (2018), SSSS Gridman (2018), Shanghai Fortress (2019).

animation fiction Gainax Japanese production mecha moving picture series

Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995Sequential art with text)

Sadamoto Yoshiyuki (writer-artist).

Read in 2019.

Though it is an adaptation of the TV series into sequential art, the first chapter of this version was published before the series began airing and was made by the same artist who designed the characters for TV.

In the early volumes, there are scenes where Sadamoto thoughtfully adds details that improve the story without taking away from its other (non-story) attractions. For example, in the last chapter of volume 2, Misato reveals that she took in Pen-Pen because he was an experimental animal who would have been put down without her intervention; this is a passable reason for her to have a weird pet, and a parallel with Shinji, hence a good reason to mention this background detail. In the same chapter, the NERV agents who escort Shinji to the train follow him onto the platform and care about whether he’s really leaving, whereas in the TV series, they are inexplicably absent from the platform (in every shot). Shinji’s former teacher, a notable omission from the TV series, is replaced with an older couple (an aunt and uncle with their own kid) who appear on the page (for the first time) in chapter 16 and receive a little bit of characterization still later.

Near the end, Fuyutsuki spells out more of the deep background than was shown in the first animated versions, including the dual seeding of the Earth and what Instrumentality actually entails. However, even here, who sent the seeds is unclear, and the gigantic project of building and running NERV without spilling its secrets is just as mysterious as on TV. There is a little more talk of a god being responsible, rather than the aliens supposedly planned in early scripts, but the god is not named or characterized. Many minor lacunae, such as how Aida and Suzuhara got into Unit 01’s entry plug in combat, remain off screen.

Some of Sadamoto’s changes are more invasive. Asuka gets an early win on her own, actually demonstrating her superior intelligence, talent and training, which is an improvement, but then she loses her battle against the EVA Series. Tōji is the focus of volume 6, adding a welcome depth of detail to his tragedy, including a scene where he personally tells Shinji about being selected; this, too, is an improvement simply on the grounds of believability. Thought bubbles provide an additional psychological interiority to Shinji, showing him to be just as depressed as he appears to be in the TV series, but also more forward, more petulant and markedly more judgemental. His body language is amped up compared to the TV version, putting his emotions closer to the surface. Sadamoto strips his solitary wanderings in episode 4 down to the single scene of encountering Aida on a meadow, pulling out a lot of the emotional impact. On that train platform at the end of volume 2 (which corresponds to the end of episode 4), Misato actually gives Shinji a hug instead of merely repeating the ritual phrases for returning home, and—in a continuation of the scene into the next volume—Shinji laughs out loud with Aida and Suzuhara. In general, the characters are a little warmer, and the blood-curdling screams fewer.

More obvious changes include: Kaworu is less of an ethereal ideal and more of a realistic teenage weirdo, present through a lot more of the narrative. The second Rei develops a love of Shinji, including holding his hand by a romantic gazebo in a moment of happiness. Shinji never masturbates over Asuka in the hospital, nor does he express a corresponding depravity by other means. Gendo is the one who rescues Shinji from the troops, thus actually helping his son, and explaining his own motives at greater length. Instead of quickly rematerializing on a beach with a despondent Asuka, Shinji appears to have been reincarnated—again with Asuka—into a very similar civilization, rebuilt after what may be tens of thousands of years: The EVA Series has been fossilized standing up and is still standing in this future world. The reincarnated teenagers have no memory of their previous unhappy lives, a situation resembling the “school sitcom” alternate universe of the TV series, and not an improvement.

There is no equivalent to Anno’s live-action rebuttal to his irate fans. Sadamoto’s version is the more conventional and genre-bound, on every level. Though the art is beautiful, the artist does not find his medium’s strengths in quite the same way Gainax found the strengths of moving pictures. Still, Sadamoto is a surprisingly competent writer. In volumes 4 and 5, in particular, he adds comedic scenes that work just as well as the original’s. At other times, including the final battles, he sticks too close to the original keyframes. At its heights, the work is moving, but the truly jarring emotional power is not there.

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Death & Rebirth (1997Moving picture, 101 minutes)

Anno Hideaki (director), Tsurumaki Kazuya (director).

This added the catastrophic birth of the Giant of Light, among other things.

Animated feature film released to theatres after the controversial ending of the original series. The first half, named Death, is a summary of the TV series (episodes 1-24) with some additional footage, directed by “Masayuki”. The second half, Rebirth, is itself only the first half of an alternate ending, directed by Tsurumaki.

Death is artful, but incoherent. It’s just a refresher, inadequate as a summary for those who never saw the original series. This film is therefore obsolete. The only significant footage that hasn’t been recycled is of preparations for a recital, which does not fit into the canonical plot anywhere, despite Shinji himself playing the cello in the original. The additions to the main plot have been worked into Renewal and The End of Evangelion (1997), while the purpose of a summary faster than the TV series is served by the first installments of Rebuild.

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The End of Evangelion (1997Moving picture, 90 minutes)

Anno Hideaki (director), Higuchi Shinji (storyboard artist).

Based on the original scripts for the end of the TV series, executed with a full cinematic budget.

Theatrical feature animation, with moments of other media. It’s not a complete remake: This film is both Rebirth and the sequel to Rebirth, forming an alternative or complementary plotline with regard to the last two episodes of the TV series. The film incorporates elements of live action, including pictures of real death threats to Anno and footage from a screening of Death & Rebirth.

Furious genius. The title The End of Evangelion is an invention for the foreign market, just as Neon Genesis Evangelion itself is a studio-mandated corruption of the original title, Shin Seiki Evangerion (Gospel of the New Century).

References here: Death & Rebirth (1997), “Anime Tencho” (2002), Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), SSSS Gridman (2018).

animation fiction Gainax Japanese production moving picture remake

Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone (2007Moving picture, 98 minutes)

Higuchi Shinji (storyboard artist), Anno Hideaki (supervising director).

Seen in 2013.

Quite compressed, but all of the original Angel fights are included covering up to episode 6 of the TV series. Of the various changes, the largest is Misato showing Shinji what he is fighting for by revealing Terminal Dogma and Lilith, information Misato herself was not privy to by this stage in the TV series.

First in a series of four feature films, named Rebuild of Evangelion, telling an increasingly original version of the entire story. Produced at a new studio, Khara, but again directed by Anno Hideaki.

The Rebuild films are more visceral, mainly as a result of the higher budget. It’s put to good use. The great visual beauty of Diebuster (2004) is added to an intelligently polished narrative. My only serious complaint is that the Fifth Angel, and improbable civilian involvement in that fight, should have gotten a more substantial revision, akin to the now brilliantly impressive Sixth Angel. Silly prehensile CG kaijū ribs don’t cut it. Even the Sixth Angel is still slightly flawed: Its drill looks better than it did on TV, but the twisting of the material is inconsistent with its hyperdimensional contortions, which leaves all other surfaces flat in 3D.

Actually showing the collective human effort of the war against the Angels makes a great addition, especially the various huge crews working to execute Operation Yashima. The comparative nakedness of SEELE in this version, working without their committee disguise, makes it seem as if they’ve taken control of society to a much greater degree, ever since Second Impact. That event is barely even mentioned, perhaps for fear of too much exposition boring the audience. On the other hand, Gendō plainly states that each Angel is complete unto itself as an alternative humanity. Gendō’s villainy is a little bit sharpened even in this first outing of the remake, so much so that he might have arranged the otherwise mysterious disappearance of Rei’s entire medical crew during the Fourth Angel’s attack.

animation fiction Japanese production moving picture remake

‣‣ Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance (2009Moving picture, 112 minutes)

Higuchi Shinji (storyboard artist), Anno Hideaki (supervising director).

Seen in 2013.

Kaji grows his watermelons and speaks hideous English. The plot corresponds roughly to episodes 8–12, 18–19 and some material up to episode 23 of the TV series, with a lot more new stuff.

Among numerous changes, Asuka takes the place of the original Eva-03 pilot, a new pilot character who enjoys the work is introduced, and Asuka and Rei have a romantic rivalry over Shinji, leading into a plan to cook dinner for Gendō and his son, to bring them together.

The narrative is more sloppy than the first film, on par with the lower moments of the TV series. The injection of moe and creeping titillation is a drag. There is still great attention to detail but in a manner that feels directed at the long-time fans. For example, despite being present in the first film, Kaworu remains one of many characters pushed to the margins. Similarly, Misato is shown and mentioned as having experienced Second Impact first hand, but only just barely, without the shots of the elder Katsuragi putting her in the impromptu life boat, or that boat on the ocean. Asuka has her mother’s doll, but not her mother, and so on. This must be confusing for newcomers, beyond the dense weirdness of the original.

I love the ecological angle, with a long visit to a special water purification facility protecting some oceanic wildlife from the broken Antarctic. It’s both good worldbuilding and the franchise’s most sincere attempt to illustrate the profound influence of the lifelong apocalypse on the minds of the children, some of whom have never even heard of turtles.

The action scenes continue in the same amazing mode as the last fight of the first film. Most of the Angels are designed for 3D CG in a way that uses the natural abstraction of the medium to enhance the alien wonder of these alternate humanities: It is more beautiful than Hollywood’s typically more naturalistic CGI, but at the same time, it has the immediacy of a terrorist attack. Zeruel is sublime. 2.0 is positively first-class action cinema, but despite two attempts at musical sequences similar to “Komm Süsser Tod”, the apocalypse never reaches the transcendent strength of End.

References here: Love & Pop (1998), “The Water Museum” (2009).

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‣‣ Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo (2012Moving picture, 96 minutes)

Higuchi Shinji (storyboard artist), Anno Hideaki (supervising director).

Seen in 2014.

Shinji materializes out of the LCL into a world where the only real decision he ever made—to rescue Ayanami Rei a second time—was pointless, probably cost billions of lives, and makes him a pariah.

A turn back from action toward introspection, but retaining the heightened apocalyptic elements. A turn away from remake onto a new path, but still loosely based on episode 24, focusing as it does on a new Rei, Kaworu’s love, and Shinji’s despair. The overt human-on-human conflict is an elaboration upon the concept of the human attack on NERV in End, humanity being the 18th Angel in that continuity.

The time skip is great, except the use of “Eva no jubaku”, which should have been restricted to Shinji alone, the same way that more realistic time dilation is restricted to the main character of Gunbuster: Aim for the Top! (1988). I love the fact that the world appears to have moved on during the skip, including a continuation of Third Impact and—likely—several Evas that we do not see. It’s Diebuster again, and it all feeds beautifully into the crucial anti-heroism of the piece.

The introduction of the Wunder is a fun scene in itself: A nonsensical homage to the tradition represented by the White Base, the Solo Ship and the Macross, dating back to the Yamato. Its first battle is scored with tongue in cheek, but does little to build the story.

Reviewing the US Blu-Ray, Zac Bertschy interpreted the most significant dramatic movement of the film to be the realistically failed expectation that one person’s sincere love—Kaworu’s—can cure the self-loathing of another: Shinji. This is indeed a good centerpiece, and the scenes with Kaworu in the busted-up Unit-01 hangar are great, but 3.0 is again more sloppy than the previous film.

It is a minor plot hole that the people of Wille, in their vindictive contempt and despair, do not warn Shinji about the likelihood of meeting a new Rei clone, but they assume they had plenty of time to do it, and Fuyutsuki does explain the whole thing before Shinji chooses to get in Unit-13. I am more disappointed to see the ecological aspect of the apocalypse lost, along with the idea of NERV needing workers.

I don’t understand how the ruined Geofront base is supposed to work with no visible personnel other than Gendō, Fuyutsuki, Ayanami and Nagisa, whereas Wille still needs lots of people, even after the dummy-plug and Eva mass production project have been spun off into compact drones with AT fields. If Gendō and Fuyutsuki can trick even Kaworu into carrying out their scheme, they should be tricking a few workers too.

References here: “Until You Come to Me” (2014), “Confidential: Evangelion: Another Impact” (2015), “Cassette Girl” (2015).

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