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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: Jun 10, 2023

Anime Mediocrity Turned into International Phenomenon!

Asuka standing in front of two giant robots. Inspired by Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Fanart © Japanese Cinema Archives

Director: Hideaki Anno

Cast/Voices: Megumi Ogata, Kotono Mitsuishi, Yuko Miyamura, Megumi Hayashibara

Related films: The End of Evangelion, Gunbuster, Gundam, Macross, Patlabor

Studio: Gainax

Year: 1995-96

Verdict: 3.5/6


Introducing Neon Genesis Evangelion (NGE)

It’s not easy to review a legendary anime series twenty-five years after it was released. Not only have the times changed, but what made the series seem innovative and groundbreaking in 1995 might very well be lost to the audience of our day. Nevertheless, Neon Genesis Evangelion became a hallmark in anime history.

NGE was made by a studio of anime nerds. In one semi-swift move, they both reinforced and reinvigorated anime stereotypes and ended up influencing a whole generation of anime and sci-fi followers in the process. In Japan, the series became an instant phenomenon. The global anime community followed quickly thereafter.

In spite of its great potential, Neon Genesis Evangelion ultimately stumbled as a result of its oversized ambitions. The magic was there, but the consistency and the much-debated series finale left many viewers disgruntled. NGE could have been one of the greatest anime series of all time. Instead, it fell short by reaching too far.

The Facts about Evangelion, Gainax & Hideaki Anno

Neon Genesis Evangelion (Shinseki Evangelion/新世紀エヴァンゲリオン) was originally aired on Japanese TV in 1995-96. It was produced by Gainax Studios and directed by Hideaki Anno. Its immense success influenced both the anime industry and Japanese popular culture forever after.

Before the production of Evangelion, Anno struggled with depression after Gainax’s cancellation of his project to make a sequel (called Aoki Uru) to Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise. Therefore, when taking on NGE, his goal became to create more interest in anime and increase its fan base (otaku) in Japan.

As ambitious as Anno’s goal was, it was achieved to an extent that no one could have ever foreseen. 10 million viewers tuned in for the season finale in Japan (according to Carl Horn). In 2013, the sales of memorabilia, action figures, and Japanese NGE-themed pachinko machines still accumulated an annual revenue of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Anno had already experimented with a similar scenario to the one in Neon Genesis Evangelion when he made Gunbuster in the late 80s. Both series featured struggling teenagers who fight alien invaders by controlling giant robots (mecha). Anno also applied similar psychoanalytical theory to develop his characters and story, more so in NGE than in Gunbuster, which by the end of the series left many viewers exasperated.

A Basic Plot that Captured Millions

The story is straightforward, at least for the first 15 episodes. Humanity is under attack by alien forces. The enemy appears in the sky, one after the other, in the shape of giant monsters called «angels». By researching and applying alien technology, humans try to fight back.

As such, the enemy forces are countered by huge robotic entities, which are controlled by a few selected teenagers. On paper, the plot might seem unrefined, but somehow it works well due to its free-spirited naiveté and captivating fight sequences.

As the series progress, the plot thickens. The giant robots are revealed to be a combination of alien technology, human biology, and mysterious cloning experiments. It turns out that the military organization NERV – by control of another organization called SEELE – is plotting to save humanity in more ways than one.

Convoluted Themes that Fascinated Millions More

Due to Anno’s personal problems at the time, Evangelion became heavily influenced by his newfound interest in psychology, philosophy, and religious mysticism. Anno himself described Rei as a schizophrenic representation of Shinji’s psyche. The latter suffers from an Oedipus complex, while Ritsuko suffers from an Electra complex.

Furthermore, Anno stated that Asuka, Misato, and Shinji all are similar to himself, that Rei is a reflection of his inner self, and that Kaworu is his Jungian shadow. And this is just the tip of the mentally melting iceberg. Between the lines, Neon Genesis Evangelion is rife with references to Freud, Lacan, and Kierkegaard.

In other words, NGE is a treasure trove for anyone with a sweet spot for convoluted storytelling and character depth hidden between the lines. Anno’s production choices were ambitious for sure. Mirroring his personal problems to such an extent was a bold move. Unfortunately, his production choices disappointed just as many NGE fans as it excited others.

The Hated and Debated Finale of NGE

Before discussing the series as a whole, let’s address the much-debated (two-part) series finale. Due to its bizarre change in tone, it was shunned by many Evangelion fans. In large part, the two final episodes elaborate on the characters’ inner problems. This could have been a good thing if the presentation matched the content.

Instead, we are presented with a sea of sequences that can best be described as Eisenstein-like montage clips. In itself, the dialogue is quite interesting, but for many fans, to end an action-packed sci-fi series with two episodes going down a surreal rabbit hole was a huge disappointment.

To appease hordes of disgruntled fans, the NGE team made an alternative ending in the guise of a feature film. The End of Evangelion was released two years later and is recommended to watch directly after NGE. Like the series, it also had its flaws, but at least it tried to present the series finale in a more accessible manner.

Personally, I found the final episodes much less vexing than many others. In fact, when getting to know the background about Anno, and the idea behind the character development, I found the finale to add a lot of substance. The need for a «manual» to get the big picture is somewhat exhausting, of course, but NGE suffers from far more serious issues than such.

The Missteps that Made Neon Genesis Evangelion Stumble

After five episodes, NGE seemed to be on the path to becoming a perfect anime series. But two major problems made it shake like a house of cards standing outside on a brisk autumn day. For one, most of the characters were terribly underdeveloped (at least before consulting Anno’s manual on reading between the lines of NGE).

Throughout the series, only two characters were properly developed: The protagonist Shinji, and his caretaker and landlord, Misato. A few other character backgrounds were explored to some extent, but not enough for the audience to bond or get invested in the characters.

The other major issue was the haphazard organizing of the episode order. As mentioned, the first five episodes made for a strong start. It all felt fresh and invigorating. Soon thereafter, a highly predictable episode pattern emerged: The monsters arrive, a counterattack is deployed, and the day is saved. At this point, the fight sequences became repetitive, predictable, and less engaging.

In short, Neon Genesis Evangelion would probably be a more enjoyable watch if one-third of its content was trimmed away. Episodes 6-15 could easily be cut without taking much away from the overall experience. These episodes mainly consist of meaningless intrigues and dilemmas of the soap opera kind. Their absence would make for a more succinct experience rather than challenge your patience.

Minor content from said episodes should be kept, though. Episode 8, for instance, contains the obligatory introduction of the iconic character Asuka. She might just be the most overrated anime superstar of all time, but a necessity, nonetheless. Rarely did we see a more annoying character than Asuka, with her constant nagging and immature attitude. This was, of course, intended, but that doesn’t make her any less irritating.

Why Should You Watch Neon Genesis Evangelion?

By the 15th episode, NGE had lost its grip and seemed to be a lost cause. But suddenly, an unexpected turn of events made it all worthwhile again. The story dived into uncharted territories, exploring the background of the characters and the currently occurring crisis.

As such, the series moved from a state of childlike fantasy to a full-fledged sci-fi vision of unfathomable depth. From episode 16 till the two last episodes, NGE does a lot of redeeming moves that make the series a worthwhile experience, especially for seasoned anime and sci-fi fans.

Not to forget the atmosphere, which is a big reason why Neon Genesis Evangelion will never go out of style. Whether we call it «nostalgia in a new wrapping», «Gainax magic» or «anime spirit incarnate», NGE has that perfect 80s anime vibe that we old-school anime nerds just can’t get enough of.

It doesn’t really matter that the story is confusing or the character development is flawed when the images hit a nerve that resonates with all anime lovers. This is why NGE is a recommended watch to anyone with an interest in anime. If it was one thing Anno and Gainax knew how to do right, it was to design and draw anime images that made all sci-fi and anime lover’s dreams come true.

The Evangelion Phenomenon’s Legacy and Influence

Anno’s frustration with lack of interest in his work was a reflection of the anime scene in the late 80s. Following the economic crash in 1991, the production of anime declined and broadcasted anime TV series decreased. Many anime production teams were struggling, but the community was still there, hungering for anime entertainment.

Then came Neon Genesis Evangelion, at the right time, in the right place, and took the world by storm. Its impact was so widespread that the series arguably was instrumental in launching the otaku phenomenon on a global scale.

NGE inspired hordes of anime makers to follow in its footsteps or even take inspiration from its concept and production style. Serial Experiments Lain (1998), Revolutionary Girl Utena (1996-98), Rahxephon (2001-02), and Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion (2006-07) are but a handful of anime series with parallels to NGE.

The influence of Evangelion was significant, not just in the anime community but in Japanese popular culture in general. The merchandise sales quickly reached astronomical levels. NGE memorabilia would soon spread to all corners of the world. To this day, it is a force to be reckoned with, whose presence appears in every comic bookstore, cosplay event, sci-fi convention, and gaming expo around the world.

Final Verdict for Neon Genesis Evangelion

Even though yours truly kind of enjoyed the surreal experience of the two last episodes, I would prefer an ending that better matched the rest of the series. The entertainment value would probably go up if the final episodes had been split up and spread out over the entire series. Then, the surreal content would not be so overwhelming and instead function like tiny character-building drops of background information.

The final episodes are far from weak, but they suffer from being a too big departure from the rest of NGE. As previously mentioned, episode organizing is a major issue, which is underlined by the bizarre onslaught of hefty character analysis in the two last episodes.

That being said, the series as a whole is still gripping, aside from the somewhat cyclical pattern in episodes 6 to 15. The atmosphere and artwork alone are enough to ensure that Neon Genesis Evangelion never loses its grip on the viewers. The action is solid and entertaining throughout, albeit somewhat repetitive in the first half of the series.

In short, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a mandatory anime series, if not for its story or depth in characters, then for its atmosphere and significance in anime history. NGE was a turning point of sorts, a transformer of 80s anime into a prototype for modern anime makers to look back at and take inspiration from in the decades to come.


Wayback Machine: 庵野秀明

Unfortunately, for this series, there simply does not exist a version good enough for us to recommend. Several DVDs and Blu-ray releases can be found online, but be advised: These vary greatly in quality, some are without subtitles, and keep regions in mind. EBay or YesAsia are probably your best bets.

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