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‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’: Explained

In both the East and West, anime has a reputation for being a form of entertainment created for and consumed by children and teens. That being said, anime also has a long history of avant-gardism and experimentalism, with many series rivaling high-art in terms of emotional and intellectual sophistication. Perhaps the best example of this is Neon Genesis Evangelion, widely considered one of the greatest anime franchises ever made.

Neon Genesis Evangelion was created by the director Hideaki Anno, who had previously worked with legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki on Studio Ghibli films, including Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. The series aired in Japan starting in 1995 and eventually made its way over to the United States in 2000, where it began developing a cult following. 

In the years since the show has been declared a masterpiece. Its inclusion in Takashi Murakami’s Superflat exhibitions in the early 2000s garnered the show much acclaim as museum-quality, legitimate art offering a deeply complex reflection of director Anno’s struggles with depression, a  commentary on the postmodern condition, and a meditation on Japan’s post-nuclear anxieties. 

With that in mind, NGE is far from the most accessible piece of art ever made. The fact that the show has multiple endings, multiple timelines, and multiple spin-offs doesn’t help the matter either.  In anticipation of the release of the fourth and final Neon Genesis Evangelion rebuild, confusingly titled Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time, we’re offering an extremely truncated summary and explanation of the franchise — so you can be ready for when the last movie drops in August. Bear with me: this is about to be confusing.

An Extremely Brief Summary

The storyline of NGE is deeply detailed and filled with an almost inconceivable amount of obscure lore, but here’s the shortest explanation of the plot we could possibly come up with. (Forgive me for leaving out several key subplots, but there’s a lot to cover.)

Neon Genesis Evangelion tells the story of Shinji Ikari, a student recruited to pilot a giant biomechanical robot created to fight mysterious alien-like entities (known as Angels) attacking the post-cataclysm territory of Tokyo-3. Shinji’s father, Gendo Ikari, is a high-level official in a secret government program named NERV, which was created to combat these attacks. Because of his hatred for his estranged father, Shinji has complicated feelings about being handed such an immense responsibility. Gendo blackmails Shinji into piloting the mech (known as an Eva) by threatening to force an already severely injured Rei Ayanami (another Eva pilot) to battle in Shinji’s stead.

Rei, Shinji, and a third pilot named Asuka Langley Sohryu (a bratty and arrogant half-German, half-Japanese schoolgirl who Shinji may or may not be sexually attracted to) battle a series of increasingly powerful Angels in their respective Eva units until Asuka, facing defeat in battle, slips into a catatonic depression. Shinji, whose Eva had previously gone berserk, is meanwhile slowly uncovering the truth about his colleague Rei, who appears to be a clone created by Gendo and his shadowy organization, to be repeatedly sacrificed in the fight against the Angels. It is also hinted that Rei was created from the DNA of Shinji’s mother. In fact, Shinji’s mother is revealed to have been a scientist who worked on creating the Eva units (built using technology harvested from Angels) — until she was quite literally absorbed by the machine that Shinji himself now pilots. 

Kaworu Nagisa, another Eva pilot, is brought in to replace Asuka. He fights alongside Shinji, and the two form a somewhat homoerotic relationship — that is until it is revealed that Kaworu is actually an Angel in disguise. Kaworu breaches a secret crypto-governmental base in the hopes of making contact with Lilith, an ancient Angel that Gendo’s organization had kept hidden underground. Kaworu contact with Lilith has the potential to destroy all life on Earth. Shinji reluctantly kills Kaworu to save humanity. Now here’s where things get really complicated: it turns out that NERV was functioning as a cover for an even more clandestine organization known as Seele. Seele had been researching the Angel phenomenon for a long time and, informed by ancient prophecies, had actually orchestrated an apocalypse that would turn all life on Earth into a giant soup of semi-sentient slime — assuming that this new existence would represent a higher form of mass consciousness that transcends human limitations. Shinji alone is faced with a choice: to save humanity and individuality or to allow all human life to dissolve into an amorphous collective consciousness.

Multiple Endings, Explained

The original TV series ran for a total of 26 episodes, but Gainax, the studio that had created Evangelion, was not prepared for the demands that the show would put on animators — or their budgets! The show had become less action/adventure-oriented and more surrealistic by episode 16, partially as a result of exhausting production schedules and a lack of funds that forced the animators to become more clever and artistic — and, simultaneously, hopeless about the show’s future. By the time Gainax had gotten to episode 25, there was almost no money left — forcing animators to cobble together the final 2 episodes using mostly recycled footage from the previous episodes. 

The TV series, then, ends with the triggering of Seele’s apocalypse, represented in the abstract by a series of dream-like images, including the cast of characters inexplicably congratulating Shinji. For the most part, this ending is totally incoherent — although some have interpreted it as Shinji ultimately realizing the need for others, thus fighting against Seele’s doomsday initiative,The Human Instrumentality Project.

A few years later, following negative critical reactions to the series’ ambiguous conclusion, Gainax attempted to revisit the incomplete show in the form of two films: Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth and The End of Evangelion. Death & Rebirth was released in 1997 as a recap of the series. End of Evangelion, also released in 1997, is what most consider the series’ proper ending and picks up where episode 24 leaves off.

In End of Evangelion, Seele attempts to bring forth the apocalypse by releasing a series of mass-produced Evas, while Gendo attempts to fuse with Rei in order to reunite with his late wife. In a series of magical, surreal battles, Rei becomes a sort of gigantic demi-God who Shinji must either forfeit to — deciding that human life isn’t worth saving — or battle. Shinji ultimately chooses human individuality, defeating the Rei-kaiju. He awakens to a barren wasteland with Asuka. Shinji begins choking Asuka to death but is calmed when she reaches out to stroke his cheek. “How disgusting,” says Asuka, as the movie ends.

Understanding Evangelion

Since anime is art and art is subjective, critics and fans have come up with several theories to explain what actually happens in the show. None of these ideas are mutually exclusive, nor can they be proven or disproven. Four major strains of thought have seemed to emerge:

The Straightforward / Modernist Interpretation: The events of Neon Genesis Evangelion are meant to be taken at face value and understood literally. The story is about man’s struggles with both God and technology and humanity’s experience of both joy and pain. Shinji’s final choice represents a humanistic appreciation for individuality. The abstract stuff is just the result of budget constraints.

The Psychoanalytic Interpretation: Anno had researched psychoanalytic theory while grappling with his own depression, which informed the show’s story. The writings of Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein are referred to in the show’s English episode titles and plot points of the series map onto Freud and Klein’s theories of human psychosexual development. Shinji’s journey, then, could be understood as a metaphor for his movement from what is known in Kleinian theory as the paranoid-schizoid position (the solipsistic and wrathful mindset of the infant) into the depressive position (in which a human begins to understand the concept of loss). Similarly, the story may be interpreted as Shinji’s conquering of his Oedipus complex (the show explores the difficulties of his triangulated relationship with his father and mother) and his entrance into the world of adult sexuality, as he moves from homosexuality (his relationship with Kaworu) to heterosexuality (his relationship with Asuka).

The Postmodern / Superflatist Interpretation: The show is a self-reflexive meta-commentary on otaku culture, anime itself, and the struggles of its animators. NGE, in this line of thought, is a self-aware deconstruction of the tropes of giant robot anime (like, for example, Gundam) that also serves as a critique of the animation industry or aspects of Japan’s infantilized, post-nuclear culture. The abstractions and surreality, then, are reflections of a kind of cultural schizophrenia brought about by technology and existence in a genocided, post-atomic society.

The Nihilistic Interpretation: The story doesn’t make sense and doesn’t actually “mean” anything at all — it’s best to be understood as a series of gorgeous aesthetic images and experiences rather than interpreted at all.

Rebuilds, Spin-offs, and Re-releases
Dark Horse Comics

After even one viewing of NGE, it’s obvious that there’s a lot of smaller sub-plots and mythos that simply aren’t covered in the show. A 14-volume manga series with the same name ran from 1994 to 2013 and more thoroughly explained what, exactly, the Angels are — amongst offering more in-depth explorations of each characters’ psychology. This manga isn’t particularly easy to find in the United States, although fan translations and scans are currently floating around the Internet.

Another spinoff manga that recapitulates the original NGE story, titled Neon Genesis Evangelion: Apocalypse Campus, ran from 2007 to 2009 and was released in the United States by Dark Horse comics in 2010. NGE also had a few Japan-only video game spinoffs and playable novels that similarly delve deeper into Anno’s strange world.

In 2007, the first film in a series of so-called “rebuilds” — titled Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone — was released. These rebuilds, still written by Anno and starting the story over from the beginning, explored an alternate re-telling (or alternate timeline?) of the events of Evangelion, completely redone with higher quality computer animation and digital ink. Without the constraints of traditional animation, these stunningly beautiful movies might be closer to what Anno originally imagined the show to look like — however, the story is even more dense and confusing.

In the subsequent rebuilds, the Angels actually do succeed in destroying most of Earth, leaving behind a massive post-apocalyptic nightmare world that Shinji is forced to protect. This story also introduces Mari Makinami Illustrious, a new Eva pilot, who may or may not be a double-agent for another shadowy organization. Kaworu plays a bigger role in this version, and his complicated (romantic?) relationship with Shinji is explored in more depth. Netflix re-released the original Neon Genesis Evangelion series, Death & Rebirth, End of Evangelion, and the first three rebuilds in 2019. The show had been difficult to find before these re-releases, and fans were thrilled to have it so readily available once again — everything looks stunning in their HD remaster. However, due to licensing issues with the original voice-over tracks and score, the show’s entire dialogue was re-recorded with new voice actors, and all of the original music was replaced. Reactions to the new audio were mixed, but some fans were particularly enraged with the new translation, which rendered Shinji and Kaworu’s relationship much more ambiguous and less romantic or homo-erotic.

New Movie and What’s Next

Anno’s rebuilds took a frightening amount of work — Anno was reluctant to even complete the sequence for personal reasons — and the last two films had been delayed several times. 3.0+1.0 faced even further delays due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Finally, the last rebuild of this tetralogy was released in Japan in March of 2021. The movie will become available for streaming in the United States on Amazon Prime on August 13, 2021.

Anno has stated that this is the conclusion to the rebuild narrative and that it is his final project in the Evangelion universe. Whether he sticks to his word or decides to revisit this world in the future remains to be seen. That being said, a few animators are working on their own imaginings or expansions of Evangelion without Anno: short films titled Evangelion – Another Impact (Confidential), Neon Genesis IMPACTS, and until You come to me [sic], set in the world of Eva, have been released.

Anno’s more recent projects that are unaffiliated with Eva retain striking thematic similarities with his best-known work. Shin Godzilla, an Anno-directed, live-action, postmodern reinvention of  Godzilla, was released in 2016 — it even features reinterpretations of the original music from NGE. His upcoming film, Shin Kamen Rider, is set to be released in 2023 and is likely to offer a similar postmodern reimagining of the beloved titular character. Rumors of a fully realized Neon Genesis Evangelion theme park — and rumors of a fully live-action reboot of the series — have been floating around for years. However, the extent to which this gossip will ever come true remains a question. Meanwhile, NGE is still one of the most influential and important anime shows ever made, and, somehow — even after decades of viewership — still garners serious debates and spawns nearly endless memes that reach out into the furthest corners of the Internet.

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