Neon Genesis Evangelion Rewatch is a series of essays where Willow Maclay will be covering the streaming release of Hideaki Anno’s landmark anime show.
Since around the 1990s, when serialized television started to overtake the medium and episodic storytelling fell by the wayside, television shows usually ended in climactic fashion with a definitive ending that wrapped everything up nicely. The best television series, however, end on an ellipsis. Some of this storytelling is incidental, a product of a show being cancelled before it could finish is story, but sometimes ending without the curtain coming down is the intended effect. David Lynch, popular American avant-garde director and chief mastermind behind the television series Twin Peaks, famously stated that he never wanted to solve the murder of “Who killed Laura Palmer?” because that question fuelled all of the narrative, and without an answer he could take the story in any direction he wanted. Even when her killer was unveiled and the ratings tanked, he came back for one final episode to ask another question with the reveal that FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan) had been possessed by an evil entity known as BOB. David Lynch wanted another season, but it wasn’t granted. This left the narrative hanging, but the show was never “finished” because when a television show asks questions instead of giving answers, there’s always more to unravel and uncover in that distinct world. Lately, North American television has become obsessed with the notion of bringing old televisions shows back from the dead. It’s the Lazarus era of television, and an interesting one, because with the passage of time you can take characters in an entirely new direction and give them new problems. Not all of these shows are as willing to take the risks of that story-telling device, but it does illuminate television's greatest property as an evolving organism that never reaches its narrative endpoint. In this way, it has an advantage over cinema, because filmmaking is usually closed off to the experience of one single expression, but television can become novelistic, because it has the advantage of time passed. With each new chapter fresh context can be given to everything that has already happened in past episodes and everything that will happen in the future. The greatest television series understand that the narrative of television is circular and Neon Genesis Evangelion is one such television show.
Hideaki Anno, the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, never had the ending of this show mapped out in his head. His typical means of production saw him plot things episode by episode. GAINAX, The studio who funded and animated much of Evangelion, ran into production problems for a myriad number of reasons, but Anno’s play it as it lays production style was one contributing factor. This incidentally made the original ending of the series a truly esoteric one, which saw lead character and head mech pilot Shinji Ikari, dive inward to consider whether or not he wanted to go on living and whether or not he could find happiness. It was ultimately a positive, optimistic rendering of depression as metaphor and animated with a sparseness, full of sequences of rough sketches and limited cel animation. In my essay for End of Evangelion, I covered the controversy surrounding the fan response to those episodes, but the gist of it is that many found it beguiling and unsatisfying for a show that would delve into the surreal, but promised action. End of Evangelion was the second ending for the series and gave the fans the action that they craved, but that also proved to be a polarizing experience. End of Evangelion was a more cynical movie, and it even contained one sequence in live-action which pointed the camera back out at the audience and forced fans to ask themselves what they actually wanted or needed from this anime and from themselves. Even with this, it is a humanistic film that deals with death in clinical matters of here and then gone, only eulogizing character deaths when necessary. End of Evangelion gave fans of this series the apocalypse that they craved, but it also set in motion an effect that has seen Hideaki Anno coming back to Neon Genesis Evangelion again and again to retell this story. Think of it like a jazz musician re-recording a track multiple times throughout their career and changing it ever so slightly depending on where their mood might be at given the time of recording. As long as Hideaki Anno is alive, Neon Genesis Evangelion will not be an art-work that is written down in stone, but rather something that evolves.
Roughly ten years after End of Evangelion, which also ends on a question mark that sees the human race wiped out entirely except for Shinji Ikari and fellow child pilot Asuka now functioning as Adam and Eve figures for a desolate future, Hideaki Anno decided he needed to return to Evangelion. After founding studio Khara he took the Evangelion name with him and gathered animators and sponsor-ships to help fund this brand new retelling of his gargantuan anime series. Anno said before production started on the first movie that “Without looking back, without admiration for the circumstances, we aim to walk towards the future....We realize that we are creating something that will be better than the last series. “ Time will tell whether or not Anno’s claim that the “Rebuild of Evangelion” movies will prove to be better than the show, and with the fourth and final movie in this series being released next year, audiences will soon be able to decide for themselves which story they prefer. Knowing Hideaki Anno and Evangelion’s propensity for abstract endings the final film will likely be just as polarizing as the previous endings for the television show and End of Evangelion.
On the surface the first rebuild movie entitled Evangelion 1.0: You are (Not) Alone, isn’t that different from the first six or seven episodes of the initial television show, but if you dig into the form of the movie it reveals an altogether different emotional experience. In the television show, long static shots that revealed the interior psyche of characters were present even in the first few episodes. This was a choice of cinematic form to force viewers into the heads of the main characters like Shinji Ikari and his caretaker and military strategist Misato Katsuragi. It was a brilliant gambit to introduce aspects of slow cinema into the anime in order to convey the deeper traumatic aspects of war, parental neglect and chronic depression. Those aspects of slow cinema were soon intertwined with an abstract surrealism that evoked the deepest fears of personal and worldwide catastrophe. It was a television show of totemic imagery that clearly conveyed everything that needed to be said emotionally and philosophically through image montage. In the television series these cinematic techniques gave Evangelion a spiritual kinship with silent film, because the image based storytelling and gaps of quiet space resembled a type of filmmaking that had to exist without sound. Evangelion’s production difficulties only exacerbated these “problems”, but these limitations of production incidentally birthed a form that was really unlike anything that had been seen in anime before this series. With the mammoth popularity of Neon Genesis Evangelion other studios tried to make their own version of the television series by copying Anno’s interests in doomed characters with mental trauma who tried to solve all their problems with robotic warfare, but these imitators paled in comparison to the original show. The Rebuild movies have a similar problem. The initial series casts such a wide shadow over everything that it can sometimes become difficult not to ask yourself what the point is in retelling this story with a bigger budget and a computer assisted blend of hand drawn and CGI animation. But the Rebuild movies are worthwhile because of their differences, and are striking in part due to how they deviate formally and narratively from the original master-work.
With a wider more traditionally cinematic aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (and 2.35:1 in the third film!) and a budget to do whatever he pleases, Hideaki Anno's Rebuild movies lean into the action-oriented aspects of Evangelion, and some of the introspective elements fall by the wayside. With less time to let scenes hang and give characters space to ruminate on how they are coping, it can feel as if these movies gallop to the foregone conclusion of warfare without the ramifications and mental difficulties that come with being an adolescent tool of combat. This isn’t a negative necessarily, but merely a comment on the type of story-telling that happens in these movies. Instead of considering how these characters feel in the private spaces of bedrooms and their minds the Rebuild movies focus on how they respond to one another in battle. These sequences are gorgeous, abstract in their own right, due to animation that feels heavy on line-work and gravity-defying aerial maneuvering. In the original series, Asuka could only pirouette in the sky for so long before she and the Angel (the giant monsters of this series) came crashing back down to Earth. However, in the Rebuild movies she can be bird-like, present for all time like a ballet dancer who is only comfortable in the sky. The image usually twists with her which creates a disorienting effect of losing where she’s at in combat, before realizing that the geography and motion of her attack is less important than the movement itself. To watch her animated in the sky feels freeing for her and for this crew of animators, some brand new to Evangelion, working without the restrictions of a rigid television schedule, they too spread their wings.
The first two Rebuild movies feel downright optimistic in comparison to the television series. The second film, Evangelion 2.22: You Can (Not) Advance, in particular feels hopeful about the future. There’s an extended sequence where child pilots Shinji, Asuka and Rei visit an Aquarium and are thrilled to see marine wild-life for what seems like the first time in their lives. After the cataclysmic Second Impact, which wiped out billions of people and much of Earth’s ecosystems and wild-life, the Oceans desalinated from the result of a mass melting of the Polar Ice Caps. Seeing Fish is like seeing a miracle and it’s the sort of extravagant joy that these characters were never given in the television series. The Earth seems to be in better shape as well, seemingly breathing for the first time in years, and this is emphasized by a scene where Shinji visits a garden that was planted by Misato’s former boyfriend Kaji. These images are bright, lavish in colour and give off a feeling of lush cool, which was not common in the heat-streaked nightmares of a world gone too hot in the television series. It’s these little differences that make the Rebuild movies worthwhile. It’s almost like a happy ending, until Shinji fights an Angel and in an attempt to save Rei Ayanami accidentally starts the Third Impact.
The third movie in the series, Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo, takes a hard left into brand new territory for the series. After Shinji Ikari causes the Third Impact the world is in ruins and Evangelion circles back around to the type of depression storytelling that dominated the original series. The title of this movie becomes a mission statement to force Evangelion into brand new directions, and that happens here with the introduction of brand new pilots and an editing technique that is borderline abstract due to how frequently it drops viewers into situations where the new mythology of Evangelion is being discussed, but not actually explained. It is intentionally disorienting and that alienation is used to mirror how Shinji Ikari feels as a new martyr for the human race. The irony is that in either version of this story Shinji Ikari is damned. In the original series Shinji was too introverted and passive to complete the mission of staving off the Angels to truly make his father Gendo happy, but in the Rebuild series he was finally aggressive and saved Rei Ayanami, but in the process accidentally brought upon the Third Impact after his Eva unit went berserk. Shinji Ikari is a truly hopeless protagonist who seems to be cursed to play out his own undoing for all eternity in different realities from now until the end of time. Shinji Ikari is like Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck! being torn apart by his own Creator-as-God as Hideaki Anno’s true muse. Even with these mammoth changes to the form and narrative structuring of Evangelion, this is still a series about one boy who is battling against circumstances out of his own control. It is Shinji Ikari’s fate to bear witness to the end of everything, and it is Hideaki Anno’s to tell this story again and again.
These essays are dedicated to the memory and artistic longevity of those who lost their lives in the terrorist attack at Kyoto Animation. The studio worked on the background animations of Neon Genesis Evangelion in the 1990s.