Neon Genesis Evangelion – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Neon Genesis Evangelion

 

Related: Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (true ending – included in review)

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth (summary)

Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone (new version)

Similar: RahXephon

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Ergo Proxy

Guilty Crown

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Psychological Science Fiction Action Drama

Length: 26 episodes, 1 movie

 

Positives:

  • World and mecha design.
  • Oppressive atmosphere.
  • The restraint in unfolding mysteries.
  • Varied enemies and action.
  • A cast of complex characters.

Negatives:

  • Handling of the 17th Angel.
  • The original episodes 25 & 26.
  • Final 20 minutes of the new ending.

(Request an anime for review here.)

I used to hate Neon Genesis Evangelion – hate with a burning passion, which I alluded to in my ‘Former Favourites’ list. The hatred was so strong that it was part of my core as an anime fan. When I brought up Evangelion to my friend the other day, the first thing he mentioned was my hatred of the series all those years ago.

Why the hatred? Well, it was my teenage mindset. I used to have a problem whereby one significant fault in a series I otherwise enjoyed could ruin the whole thing. My reaction was disproportionate to the fault itself. Evangelion’s fault was with the ending, and nothing has more negative impact on a viewer than a bad ending because it’s the last impression you leave with, the bad aftertaste of a banquet. It takes effort to override the feeling of a bad ending to remember your enjoyment before that moment. That was my weakness, to the point of venom.

To understand the significance of this ending, let’s go back to the start.

The world is nearing its end as Angels are descending from above to wipe out humanity. It has suffered two cataclysms already; it cannot withstand a third. The last hope lies with Nerv, a military agency in Tokyo 3 with only one weapon: the Evangelions, giant robots that can match the Angels. To unlock their full potential, they need pilots, 14-year-olds to be precise, capable of maximum synchronisation between human and machine. Shinji Ikari has been chosen to pilot EVA Unit-01, tearing him from his ordinary life to the frontlines where is father, who hasn’t cared for him in years, leads Nerv. He joins Rei, pilot of Unit-00, and Asuka of Unit-02 later.

Neon Genesis Evangelion has a perfect first episode, showcasing ‘in medias res’ (in the middle of things) with Shinji’s arrival in Tokyo 3. Misato, his guardian, is late as an Angel attacks, almost killing him, then a mine intended for the Angel detonates and rolls Misato’s car with him inside, ending the episode in him having to pilot the EVA. Rough first day. When you watch it, note how you understand the world and the situation without feeling lost, despite having zero lines of exposition. This episode and the three that follow are so strong that I watched the first DVD several times within a week as I waited to borrow the remainder from a friend at school. It sucked me into the world and I had to see more.

The first element that grabs me is the visual design. Evangelion wouldn’t have been so iconic without the unique look and feel to its world and mech designs. Everything was Gundam or a pale Gundam imitation at the time, so to see something so human and monstrous infused with mecha was revolutionary. The designs alone aren’t the reason for success. The use of the Evangelions cements them into memory. How often do you see a mech or vehicle so flashy, so overdesigned never justified by the anime? (“Why does that mech have giant spikes everywhere if it never uses them?”) Evangelions look the way they do for a reason and when that full potential blooms, it makes for the anime’s most memorable moments. That is to say, copying a Gundam design but keeping every Evangelion event the same wouldn’t have had half the impact than what we have here.

The second element of notice is the action and Angels. The action doesn’t simply look great; it’s creative. Hideaki Anno could have made the Angels straightforward Godzilla monsters that rampage about and take many shots to kill without effect on the grand plot. Instead, each Angel is creative in both design and threat. One Angel splits in two upon death only to regenerate a moment later, requiring both halves to die at the same moment, while another Angel is a nanoscopic virus that hacks Nerv’s central brains. Each encounter brings something new for the viewer and the characters. When Angels go after the mind or allies, Evangelion is at its best.

The human conflict adds a dozen layers of depth to humanity’s end. Shinji is a kid who just wants to feel needed, particularly by his arsehole of a father, though he is saving humanity, to be fair. His father has the weight of the world in his decisions. Not making him straight evil was a good choice.

Misato is another great character. She’s a total slob, drinks more beer than water and is a little pervy, but she has a good heart and cares for the kids – one of the few who does – making her the most human element of the series. Each supporting character receives enough attention for depth without breaking the hierarchy of importance to the plot.

I had it in memory that each DVD was worse than the previous until the final one nosedived. Rewatching Evangelion now though, I loved every episode until the 24th (rushed despite an amazing finale) because I can appreciate the points of view and purposes of characters I once didn’t like. For instance, I used to find Asuka annoying. She still is annoying, but I can see that she is a well-designed annoying. Perhaps it was Anno’s intent for teenage boys to find her annoying, much as Shinji does.

What turned me around on the majority of episodes was the craft that went into the mysteries that make the reader want to know more. As a teenager, I couldn’t perceive how the story metered out bits and pieces of information, foreshadowing greater reveals in the final act. Where did the technology for EVAs come from? What happened to Shinji’s mother? Who is Rei? So many questions. Study Evangelion if you want to learn the importance of mystery in narrative.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is well known for its psychological brutality and insane imagery, but there is a good amount of levity to stop the audience from wanting to completely blow their brains out quitting. Much of the humour revolves around Misato or takes place at school. She has this penguin living with her, not as a pet – maybe? More like a roommate. Who is this penguin? The strategic censorship is also funny and when Asuka moves in with Misato and Shinji, we get one of the greatest lines. Asuka wants to make-out with Shinji, you know, for fun, ‘cause that’s what girls do (?), but he hesitates and she mocks him. “I’m not afraid – pucker up!” he yells in retaliation.

Humour is important even to the darkest narratives, as it keeps the audience sustained and gives the dark moments more impact through contrast.

Evangelion reaches its darkest point in the two-episode finale, both in real life and in fiction. The original episodes 25 & 26 I still find terrible, if not worse because I can see more writing problems than before. The budget and time ran out, leaving almost no animation. Without going into spoilers, these episodes are mostly still shots of text, real life photos, and characters vomiting expository dialogue. Most attribute the poor quality to the visuals. Had the team had the budget, the episodes would have been great, they say. This isn’t true. Everything about these episodes is trash. The dialogue, the writing, the ideas, the imagery, the characterisation – all trash.

I hunted and bought The End of Evangelion after my school friends had mentioned a remake, though they hadn’t seen it. I eagerly booted it up and all seemed fixed. The visuals were back better than ever with spectacular action. The bad dialogue was gone. Each episode was double length. This was the ending Evangelion deserved. Then the climax began and threw all that the series had worked for, which to teenage me was a deal breaker, a ruiner of all good things. I hated the series since.

The climax is 20-minutes of imagery with a minute’s worth of plot. The visuals are nice and certainly better than the original version, but it’s too much when you don’t have the story to accompany it. The issue is build-up. It escalates and escalates, creating expectations that all will end in spectacular fashion. Instead…nothing. Now, a negative ending is fine but after such build-up, this just wastes the audience’s time. Five minutes of the best shots would have sufficed.

What do I think of the ending now? I don’t mind it as much. It’s still no good for the last 20 minutes, yet it no longer affects my opinion of the series prior. Simple compression would fix most problems.

And that’s where I stand today, at the end of a long journey of hate and love with a mere anime. I have debated at length with myself about where to score Neon Genesis Evangelion (one of the reasons for the review’s delay). I am still unsure. Who knows; perhaps I will change my thoughts again in fifteen years.

Art – Very High

It is incredible to think that we had such good-looking anime series in the 90s, drawn by hand. Evangelion doesn’t have the consistent animation of Cowboy Bebop, but its creative design drips with grit and atmosphere. Of course, this quality took a toll on the final two episodes. This rating assumes End of Evangelion replaces the original ending.

Sound – High

I didn’t notice until this viewing – because you often skip the ED after a few times – that the ending song changes each DVD to a different cover of Bart Howard’s ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ (popularised by Frank Sinatra). Some of these covers don’t work though I like the variety. Everyone knows the theme song ‘Cruel Angel Thesis’, which has become famous beyond its original use. Still a classic. The acting is where quality doesn’t quite hold up, in either language. A few examples: Asuka’s German in Japanese is…what Unit-01 does to the 13th Angel; several supporting English characters are a regular earsore; Japanese Shinji needed a male actor to pull off some scenes.

Story – Very High

Humanity faces the End Times and must place its hopes on three psychologically damaged teenagers and their mechs. Neon Genesis Evangelion never relents in punishing its characters, evoking a sense of hopeless that grips you until the finale disappoints. This rating assumes End of Evangelion replaces the original ending.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch. Regardless of how you feel in the end, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a must for any anime fan due to its importance and impact on the medium. Watch the original series with the director’s cut of episodes 21 to 24 (I insist) followed by The End of Evangelion. Return to the original ending for intellectual curiosity afterwards, if you wish (the remake reversed several decisions). Death & Rebirth can be ignored as a recap movie and the new scenes went into the director’s cut of the aforementioned episodes.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Deep NarrativeExtensive Character DevelopmentGreat MusicHoly S***Riveting ActionStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support CharactersStunning Art Quality

Negative:

Weak End

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