NEON GENESIS EVANGELION (1995)

 

Format: 26 24-minute episodes on 8 DVDs

   (Note: Director’s Cuts of episodes 21-23 also exist but are not yet available in the States)

 

Rating: PG-13 (BN, AC, GV)

 

Type: Mecha

 

American Production: ADV Films

 

Japanese Production: GAINAX

 

Grading

 

Premise:

A-

Story:

A

Writing:

A+

Character Design:

A-

Mecha Design:

A

Animation:

B

Artistic Merits:

B+

English Dub:

A+

Musical Score:

A

Opener:

A

Closer:

C+

 

 

Humor Content:

C

Action Content:

A

Drama Content:

A

 

 

DVD Presentation:

B-

DVD Extras:

C

 

 

OVERALL:

A

 

Synopsis

      In the year 2000 a catastrophic meteor strike on Antarctica - an event referred to as Second Impact - melts the polar ice cap, causing the Earth’s axis to tilt and unleashing devastating floods that kill off half of humanity. Or at least that’s what the public is told, for in truth Second Impact was caused by the massive release of energy when a giant biomechanical being, referred to as an Angel and called Adam, was forcibly regressed into an embryonic state. (Why was this done? To prevent an even greater catastrophe is the implication, although there is also a suggestion of ulterior motives.) Fifteen years later additional Angels begin to appear, apparently with the intent of wiping out mankind. In that time the U.N.-sponsored organization NERV has been set up to develop a defense against the Angels, since conventional weaponry can’t breach their force field-like AT (short for Anti-Terror) fields. The products of NERV’s efforts are the Evangelions (Evas for short), giant biomechanical beings patterned off the original Angel who are capable of standing toe-to-toe with the Angels because they can generate their own AT field to counteract those of the enemy. The Evangelions are not supposed to be able to act without a pilot synching up with them, though, and only teenagers born in the wake of Second Impact seem capable of doing so. Thus the task and burden of defending the world against the Angels falls most heavily on three emotionally fragile 14-year-old pilots: the reluctant Shinji Ikari, the enigmatic Rei Ayanami, and the temperamental Asuka Langley Soryu.

      But this only scratches the surface of what’s really going on. This is a story rife with secret organizations, hidden agendas, layered truths, and symbolic meaning. Nothing is as simple as it seems, and battles are fought as much against personal demons as the invading enemy. What is the story of Evangelion really about? That is a question each viewer will have to answer for himself.

 

Quotes

      God’s in his Heaven, all’s right with the world. (NERV logo)

 

      “That is why NERV exists.” (Gendo Ikari)

 

The Long View

      Neon Genesis Evangelion regularly ranks high in fan polls of all-time favorite anime series conducted on both sides of the Pacific. It is, at worst, one of the best anime series ever made (though it has its detractors), and indisputably ranks as one of the most influential and controversial anime series ever. It is also one of the most important of all anime series for another reason: its 1995 release marked the first time that serious critical analysis was applied to anime. Feelings about Evangelion run so strong - both pro and con - that Hideaki Anno, the writer and director of the series, received death threats from fans dissatisfied with its original ending. All this about a simple story about giant robots fighting equally giant alien invaders?

      It isn’t as simple as that. Although Evangelion is built on tried-and-true mecha themes such as a boy piloting a special robot designed by his father, it breaks new ground for mecha by using extraordinarily complex and sophisticated storytelling, liberally mixing in religious references, and focusing as much on character development as the giant robots themselves (if not moreso). The result is a multilayered story subject to broad interpretation. Different viewers will read different things into the series depending on their age and life experiences; a teenager might see the series as being about coping with feelings of alienation, for instance, while an adult viewer might understand it as the story of a struggle to determine mankind’s own destiny. Or is it really just about the tenuous relationship the series director had with his own father? I find all three interpretations to be equally valid, and I’ve heard many others. One could probably devote an entire college course just to examining the themes presented here. For better or worse, little of the series is fully explained and none of it is laid out simply. Much of the meaning of what is seen, and the connections between various key elements, must be inferred.

      Repeat viewings are required to catch all the scientific and religious references present in Evangelion, and research will be required for most viewers to fully understand them. The Jewish Kabbalah, the Sephiroth, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Lance of Longinus, Lilith, the Black and White Moons, the Room of Gaf, biological constructs used in gene splicing, particle theory, the poetry of Robert Browning (in the NERV logo), Freudian theory about the structure of the mind - all of these and more come up in the series. The name for the seeming force field defense of the Angels and Evangelions – the Anti-Terror Field – comes from psychological theory about the defenses traumatized children construct to protect themselves. (And trust me, this bit of knowledge not only makes perfect sense given how the series plays out but also casts some scenes in an entirely new light.) The names of the Angels are also significant, since they roughly represent their nature. (Gaghiel, the Angel of Fish, appears as a massive aquatic creature that must be fought underwater, for instance.) Even the name of the series is packed with meaning; “evangelion” is a Greek word meaning “gospel,” so one translation of the original title would be “gospel of a new creation” - a reference to a key plot point about the world coming to an end and beginning anew should the Angels ever reach (in effect, return to) Adam, whose body is (supposedly) being kept crucified on a cross and skewered by the Lance of Longinus in the lowest level of the brain-shaped NERV facility in an area referred to as Terminal Dogma, whose entrance is called Heaven’s Gate. (Wrapped your brain around all the meaning in that yet?) Once you’ve viewed the series and the follow-up movies I highly recommend doing some online investigation, because there is a wealth of information out on the ‘Net that can provide new insights. One excellent resource is the program book for the theatrical release of the End of Evangelion movie, which is more commonly known among fans as the Red Cross Book. It contains insight direct from the GAINAX studios about various topics which come up in the series. I have listed some additional links for Evangelion research at the end of this review.

      Depth of writing is not the only thing that distinguishes Evangelion. Equally important is its cast of central characters. Although many of them might appear at first to be common anime stereotypes, they are developed well beyond the norm through the revelation of their psychological foundations and then put through emotional and mental wringers as the series progresses. At the center is Shinji Ikari, aka Third Child, aka the pilot of Eva-01, a boy deeply troubled by issues of abandonment and isolation and burdened by doubts about self-worth. This is a boy who (we learn) was watching when his mother died and was subsequently cast aside by his father. Though it falls to him to Text Box: Side Note: Rei’s Popularity
	Despite her unassuming personality and secondary role, Rei has become a fan-favorite character. She typically ranks high in fan polls of all-time favorite female anime characters and is the most frequent subject of fan art in the series. Even an album of Evangelion- related music was named after her; The Birthday of Rei Ayanami was released on her fictional birth date, whose day she shares with her Japanese voice actress.
save the day more often than not, he is reluctant to accept a heroic role.

      Just as important to the story - but used less - is the blue-haired and red-eyed waif Rei Ayanami, aka First Child, aka the pilot of Eva-00. Soft-spoken, withdrawn, and with a deliberately obscured past, Rei suffers from an utter lack of self-worth and severely underdeveloped emotions. This combination of traits gets her labeled as a “wind-up doll” by Asuka, which would be an accurate description if not for the brief occasions when feelings that she poorly comprehends reveal themselves. She lives and dies only to serve her Evangelion duties and the mysterious Human Instrumentality (also called Human Enhancement) Project because, as she puts it, “I have nothing else;” that her name in Japanese means “zero” is probably not a coincidence. The true identity, nature, and purpose of Rei are some of the biggest ongoing mysteries in the series and the full answers, when they start coming in later episodes, are without precedent. She begins the series gravely injured from a problematic start-up test and is not seen much in early episodes.

      The third of the core trio of pilots is the red-haired part-German girl Asuka Langley Soryu, aka Second Child, aka the pilot of Eva-02, who first appears in the eighth episode but becomes a major character from that point out. Outwardly, Asuka is everything that Shinji and Rei are not: fiery, temperamental, extroverted, confident, and prideful. She quickly comes to regard Shinji as a rival and Rei as a threat. Inwardly, however, dark events in her past have left her just as troubled as the other two. That her pride and sense of self-worth are intrinsically linked to her success at piloting her Eva is her Achilles heel; when she is so soundly defeated in later episodes that she has to be saved by others, she descends into an intense emotional meltdown. It is an ugly but fascinating sight to watch.

      Chief among the supporting cast members is Captain (later Major) Misato Katsuragi, a beer-guzzling, high-strung, late-20s beauty who is NERV's Director of Operations and the guardian and sponsor of Shinji and Asuka. She is charged both with directing actions against the Angels and supervising the Eva pilots, responsibilities that sometimes fiercely conflict since she is strongly dedicated to both duties. This conflict is only symptomatic of the deeper forces at work in her psyche: though she hated her father for abandoning her mother for his research, he did sacrifice his life to save hers during Second Impact (which she witnessed first-hand and was left so traumatized by that she didn’t speak for years afterwards) and she did take a boyfriend who was the spitting image of her father. She is most troubled by feelings of loneliness and has difficulty relating to people on anything other than a purely physical level. Her counterpart is the scientist Ritsuko Akagi, a friend of Misato’s from college who is the daughter of the woman that designed NERV’s Magi supercomputers. She is also one of the leading developers of the Evangelions in her own right. Seemingly cool and collected, Ritsuko nonetheless has emotional problems of her own. Later in the series they are joined by Ryoji Kaji, Misato’s scruffy, laid-back, and yet deeply philosophical ex-lover. Though he turns out to be a double-agent for the Japanese government, he is the only prominent character who seems emotionally well-adjusted. All three of these characters know at least part of the full story about the Evangelions, but not even Ritsuko, who is privy to substantially more than the other two, knows everything.

      Leading NERV is Commander Gendo Ikari, Shinji’s estranged father. The Commander is a man at war with God, one who believes absolutely in man’s ability to use science and technology, rather than faith, to transcend obstacles. He is a hard, uncompromising, and emotionally distant man who regards most people just as further tools and resources; ethics are not even a consideration. The only person who can soften him is Rei, which may seem odd at first but the reason for it is strongly implied in the late stages of the series. He has goals for the Evas and Human Instrumentality Project that differ from those of SEELE, the German-based secret organization that really oversees and directs NERV, thus making him the only person in the series who truly knows everything that’s going on. His chief subordinate, Commander Fuyutski, is his former professor and mentor. Fuyutski is a generally upstanding man who seems weary with life. One gets the sense that he was involved in the Eva program by Gendo because Gendo knew that Fuyutski’s scientific curiosity would overwhelm his sense of justice at revealing the truth behind Second Impact.

      Several recurring minor characters, such as classmates of Asuka and Shinji and some of the key NERV technicians, also play significant roles but are not as well-developed as the aforementioned characters and not as crucial to the overall story. Much more important are the Evas themselves. Most giant combat suits in mecha series before Evangelion came along were boxy and somewhat clunky, more resembling a heavily-armored medieval European knight than anything. The Evas in Evangelion are sleek and monstrous-looking, however. Although they occasionally do use really big guns, they are clearly designed and depicted with fluidity of movement and hand-to-hand combat in mind. Even in that regard the Evas differ from other mecha of the time, for their use of “progressive knives” or even their own hands to destroy threatening Angels makes the fighting much more up-close-and-personal than the mecha duels with giant swords seen in other series. Also novel for the series’ time is the severe power restraints the Evas operate under; they can only function for a few minutes when not tethered by their power-supplying umbilical cables. Then there are the times when the Evas occasionally go berserk and/or act on their own, almost like they have their own souls. . . but I digress.

      The writing merits for Evangelion are incomparable among anime series. You will not see a finer blending of storytelling, dialogue, and characterizations anywhere, and unlike most series the quality of the writing only increases as the series progresses. Although the writing is overly melodramatic in the early going, the later episodes of the series regularly achieve a nail-biting level of dramatic intensity; if there is an anime series out there which does better in this regard, I have not seen it. And where else would you see an anime director dare devote over half a minute of episode time to a single unchanging scene, even if for dramatic purposes? The technobabble describing the fine points of Evangelion operations is amongst the finest you will hear anywhere, and an effective soundtrack powers the fights and dramatic scenes with potent scoring that includes excerpts from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” Handel’s “Messiah,” and Frank Sinatra’s version of “Fly Me To The Moon” (also the closing number). The animation is good, but Evangelion takes a hit on the rating in this category for using significant shortcuts, like having characters frequently talking with their mouth out of sight. The artwork is generally good, with its strongest merits coming in the introspective scenes and innovative use of flash-frames.

      The English voice work is one of the things that makes the American release of Evangelion truly special. All of the principle English voice actors are anime dubbing veterans, and many of them turn in the best work of their careers here. There is not a single English vocal performance in the series that rings false, as each performance effectively captures the spirit and emotions of the character. Of special note is Amanda Winn Lee’s inspired turn as Rei Ayanami which, like the performance of the original Japanese voice actress, is completely contrary to the kind of character she normally voices. Also deserving special note here is Tiffany Grant’s stellar performance as Asuka, both for the quality of her work and her personal addition of German invectives; although I’ve been told that her pronunciations aren’t perfect, it’s still an effect lacking in the original Japanese. The translation of the series, while not perfect, is true enough to the original that little of the original meaning is lost.

      The episode opener, which features the song “Cruel Angel’s Thesis” and uses graphics perfectly-synched to the music, is one of the best openers of any anime series. The closer is much more ordinary. The graphic content does include some bloodshed and suggested nudity, but the rating is more for the intensity of the action than anything.

      Although Evangelion does have some humor, it is not a main feature of the series and fades away completely as the series progresses into its middle and later episodes. Its action sequences are so well-staged that you never get the sense that the pilots aren’t at risk. Just as good is the series’ dramatic content, which is among the finest ever put into an anime series.

      To say that the 1995 airing of Evangelion on Japanese TV completely redefined the mecha genre would not be an exaggeration. Mecha series made after it are markedly different than those made before it. Its influence can be seen in both mecha and character design; blue-haired, red-eyed girls with stunted emotions can be found in many later series, for instance. The “plug suits” worn by the Eva pilots also proved to be an influential style, as something similar to them appears in several later series. A greater impact can be seen in storytelling, where a heavy emphasis on character development is now routine in mecha series but was uncommon at best before. Evangelion also led the way in encouraging greater complexity in mecha storytelling and in introducing religious themes and symbolism into its content. Its influence on anime in general can be seen in its innovative mixing of detailed animation, still shots, and frames of text flashed almost too fast to read. As one writer puts it, “Shinseiki Evangelion pretty much forced anime producers, directors, and writers to rewrite the rulebook.”[1]

      Finally, some comment must be made on the controversial nature of Evangelion. That it is riddled with Judeo-Christian imagery will certainly raise the eyebrows of many a Western viewer, although GAINAX personnel have claimed that a lot of the images (such as the cross-shaped blast patterns) were used merely because they looked good rather than because they were actually supposed to mean something. The series’ messages about human nature and the way it skips around completely explaining anything are more justifiable issues of debate. The biggest controversy about the series, though, concerns its final two episodes, when the Human Instrumentality Project comes to fruition. These two episodes are utterly unconventional and stylistically different from the rest of the series, though I argue that they are merely a logical extension of it. I feel that anyone who watches them through multiple times must acknowledge that they are a brilliant resolution to the series. They don’t resolve a lot of things, however, and are widely-reviled for being unsatisfying; in the end, they are just too unconventional. The director received both great praise and strong criticism for those two episodes, which sparked him to make an alternate ending that became the Death/Rebirth and End of Evangelion movies. These were ultimately more satisfying to fans but actually did not resolve things any more neatly than the original ending. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the last two episodes work for you or not.

      Neon Genesis Evangelion is not a series that is universally-liked. Some have deplored it for its excessive grimness, the fact that it is centered around an anti-hero that is not especially likable, and of course its unusual ending. It is a series that leaves a strong impression on anyone who watches it, and I do not believe that anime fans can consider themselves true otaku until they have seen it and made a decision on it for themselves. It is the series that I consider the all-time best among anime series, however, and I give it my highest recommendation.

 

DVD Extras

      Character bios and company previews only. The DVDs get a slightly better rating than they normally would because they offer four different language tracks (Spanish and French as well as the standard English and Japanese). Allegedly the Director’s Cuts, when they become available, will offer substantially more extras, and the follow-up movies are loaded with them.

 

Links

The Evangelion Otaku Page - http://www.evaotaku.com/index2.html

      - Provides several references not available elsewhere, including translated versions of the Red Cross Book and other supplementary material released by GAINAX, translated scripts, Director’s Cut details, and alternative scripts.

 

NERV Headquarters - http://www.nervheadquarters.com/

      - A solid (if poorly-edited) collection of information on many Evangelion-related topics

 

Principle English Voice Actors

Role

Voice Actor

Shinji Ikari (3rd Child)

Spike Spencer

Rei Ayanami (1st Child)

Amanda Winn Lee

Asuka Langley Soryu (2nd Child)

Tiffany Grant

Misato Katsuragi

Allison Keith

Ritsuko Ikagi

Sue Ulu

Gendo Ikari

Tristan MacAvery

Commander Fuyutski

Guil Lunde

Ryoji Kaji

Aaron Krohn

Maya Ibuki

Kendra Benham

Makoto Hyuga

Brian Granveldt

Shigeru Aoba

Jason Lee

Toji Suzuhara (4th Child)

Joe Pisano

Kensuke Aida

Kurt Stoll

Hikari Horaki (Class Rep)

Carol Amerson

Chairman Keel

Rick Peeples

 

 

 

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[1]Drazen, Patrick, Anime Explosion: The What? Why? and Wow! of Japanese Animation (2003: Stone Bridge Press), 303.