Neon Genesis Evangelion: A Primer
In September of 2018, Netflix announced it had somehow, miraculously, acquired the US streaming rights for Neon Genesis Evangelion, marking the first time the show has been made easily and legally viewable for North American audiences since the Platinum Complete Edition DVD set released in 2005. Odds are, if you know anyone who is vocal about watching anime, you are aware of Evangelion’s existence and could have an interest in watching the show’s 26 episode run (and final film, maybe). This piece serves as both a primer for the subject matter dealt with in the show, and as a plea to give it a chance, now that it is available. Neon Genesis Evangelion may be animated, but it is most certainly not meant to be treated like a cartoon for children. It is not that, in any way.
Neon Genesis Evangelion broadly falls under the category of “mecha” anime. It occupies a similar space as things like Pacific Rim, in which giant robots are piloted by humans in order to fight big monsters. Evangelion primarily focuses on Shinji Ikari, a 14 year old boy brought to Tokyo in the far-off future year of 2015 by his father, Gendo, to be the pilot of the robot EVA-01. The goal of the Evangelion units is to fight giant alien monsters, designated as “angels,” as they attempt to wipe out humanity. Every few episodes, another angel appears, and then Shinji has to get in the robot, go out and fight the angel, defeat it, then rinse and repeat for 26 episodes and a movie. Straightforward enough, right?
Wrong. Very, very wrong.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is most concerned with the mental states of its main characters and the traumas they experience as a result of the Evangelion project. While Pacific Rim revels in how awesome the fights are and how cool it would be to pilot something like the Jaegers, Neon Genesis Evangelion actively criticizes and seemingly despises that mindset. The first episode is comprised entirely of build up to the fight with the first angel, and ends right before the fight begins. It starts properly in the second episode, but ends quickly and brutally, smash cutting to Shinji waking up in a hospital bed after getting hurt. While we do end up seeing the end of that fight later, Evangelion is more interested in interrogating what would drive such a timid and emotional 14-year-old to take on such a daunting responsibility, how Shinji copes with the PTSD and depression that results from piloting EVA-01, and the ways his mental health affects his relationship with the rest of the characters.
I say all this about Shinji, but by no means is he the only one treated with depth and examination of character. The other two EVA pilots, two teenage girls named Asuka and Rei, have their own mental health concerns and traumas, and deal with them in very different ways. In addition, pretty much all of the female characters fit into some standard archetype of anime girl characters, like the tsundere (tough, loud, and rude but secretly a softie), the kuudere (cold, logical, blunt, and opinionated), and the dandere (emotionally distant and unavailable, aloof, quiet). None of the characters end up one dimensional, and pretty much all the characters that matter are given the chance to breathe and develop as events play out and things get dire.
Due to this subject matter, Evangelion is an emotionally taxing show to get through. The focus on trauma and depressive spirals partly stems from the fact that the creator Hideaki Anno (most recently, director of Shin Godzilla) has a history of clinical depression, which manifested itself during the production of the initial 26 episodes. Anno also became increasingly frustrated with fandom, which led him to construct Evangelion partly as a takedown of anime culture, which is ironic considering that it has become a flagship of modern day anime fandom. The film End of Evangelion (which also is hitting Netflix and should be watched after the full 26 episodes) takes this distaste with fandom to an extreme, as Anno made the film partly as a response to the multitude of letters, both positive and negative in nature, he received after the finale of the show’s 25th and 26th episodes. None of this is to say that Neon Genesis Evangelion is without moments of levity and joy. A lot of these characters legitimately enjoy each other’s presence, and a lot of standard anime trappings do line the outside of the show, to the point that there is a random animal companion hanging out in Shinji’s apartment. Luckily, Evangelion never lets these overwhelm the actual examinations of trauma and depression that underlies the events of the show. Neon Genesis Evangelion’s take on these aspects of mental health speaks to me personally, as I see a lot of myself reflected in a lot of these characters’ depressions. That being said, a lot of terrible things happen to children in this show. Evangelion comes with a massive content warning for suicidal imagery and ideology, sexual assault, self-harm, domestic violence, and weird corpse stuff. When coupled with the fact that it’s mostly children dealing with these traumas and cosmic scale threats, I can 100% understand someone not being able to handle how much this show is, and I respect that.
However, if these things are not triggers for you, I beg you to give Neon Genesis Evangelion a chance. Evangelion is very interested in ideas of transhumanism, bodily autonomy and modification, and humanity’s potential salvation through cataclysmic devastation. These are not new ideas for anime or science fiction (Akira was pondering similar topics back in the 80’s). However, Evangelion approaches these high concept questions without ever losing sight of the characters caught up in the larger bureaucratic machinations which prompt these existential questions and crises. In addition, the show builds to an immensely satisfying, if devastating, ending that offers a perspective on transhumanist collectivism that I have not personally seen outside of Japanese media. Despite taking a turn into the weird and the abstract in the latter third, Neon Genesis Evangelion remains focused and grounded in its characters throughout. This focus on characters, their mental health, and the traumas in their lives make the conclusion that much more affecting and powerful. For how weird, perverse, depressing, and oppressive Evangelion can be, it ends on a weirdly hopeful note, one that I hope resonates in today’s society as much as it did in the 90’s. In my Fresh Eyes on the original Godzilla, I said that it is inevitable that humanity will destroy itself. Neon Genesis Evangelion takes that a step further and asks “is that really such a bad thing? What comes after?” In a world that feels constantly on the edge of oblivion, I think it is an important question to consider. Neon Genesis Evangelion is, in my opinion, a great point to start with such consideration, while also being a cool show about big robots fighting aliens.