This post is the final installation in a series of posts on Neon Genesis Evangelion and has no spoilers.
Baring the conceits and contradictions of the human heart to the world has always been central to the success of any story. Even the simplest story needs something for its readership or audience to grab on to, to relate to, to buy into. We no longer live in simple times. Stories in our day and age are complex, cloak-and-dagger games of expectations and counter-expectations, building audience expectations while hiding authorial intent until the last possible moment. Yet, a plot twist, no matter how ingenious in its conception, will still fall flat without a powerful core concept that resonates with the audience. Much of the success that Neon Genesis Evangelion has enjoyed, rests on its ability to expose in its characters the ugly vulnerabilities that all of us know exist in ourselves. It is an intimately psychological story centring on mankind’s complicated relationship with the very borders that define them yet keep them apart. The greater story of an impending alien invasion and mankind’s struggle to survive is ultimately little more than window dressing, a mechanism that allows for an exploration of the human condition within the bounds of the story.
Characterization is the first and foremost of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s strengths. To call its characters deeply flawed would be both technically accurate and profoundly insufficient; by the end, the audience comes to regard most of them with some mixture of sympathy and pity. The story centres on Ikari Shinji, a young teen who is summoned by his estranged father to pilot a semi-biological humanoid machine, called an Evangelion, to protect mankind from mysterious other-worldly beings known as Angels. At first glance, this is perhaps the epitome of a standard wish-fulfilment vehicle; an otherwise bland teenage male gets to pilot an awesome robot while beating aliens into submission. Toss in the fact that he is also frequently in the company of several attractive women and it seems like an animated version of any teen’s fantasy – until you actually watch the series. The characters in Neon Genesis Evangelion aren’t larger-than-life heroic figures, full of reckless courage and selfless dedication. They are very much human, often uncomfortably so. Shinji spends the series struggling with issues of anxiety, loneliness and self-confidence, while most other characters have equally complicated trains of baggage to deal with as well. The way these issues manifest themselves in these characters’ relationships and interactions is regularly ugly; in their own way, each character is emitting a cry for help but their fellow characters are incapable of either hearing or helping them. All of this results in some timelessly salient commentary on how mankind both craves and despises contact with the rest of its species. The other major theme of the series is confrontation; Shinji’s personal motto, repeated endless in moments of exceptional strain, is “I must not run away” – but it applies to most of the characters, too. The tragedy of Neon Genesis Evangelion is in how true to life it is; summoning the courage to face your fears doesn’t always lead to a positive outcome and is no guarantee of long-term happiness.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is a series with a fascinating central idea that powers its plot and characters, but is marred by less than stellar execution. The plot can be formulaic at times and its pacing can vary wildly. The narrative hides enough from the audience that even three quarters of the way into the series, it is hard to not feel lost. When things are explained, it is often an avalanche of information that can be hard to keep up with. The series gives off a feeling that its creator could not quite decide what exactly he wanted it to be; right from the first episodes, there are some dark scenes, interspersed among the lighter-hearted one and the transition is often a little jarring. By the end of the series, the tone is largely nihilistic; while appropriate to the narrative, the dark undertones to the whole plot became increasingly hard to watch. That difficulty would have been well-worth it had there been a pay-off in return – unfortunately, Neon Genesis Evangelion ends with a choice on the audience’s part. They have the unenviable choice between one, very poorly executed, unconvincing ending that offers the characters a much needed ray of hope or a significantly better made ending that ramps the already overwhelming depressive atmosphere up through the roof. The choice between the remote possibility of nonsensical happiness and the certainty soul-crushing hopelessness isn’t particularly appetizing but perhaps that was intentional. There is a good compromise available, though – the more recently made Rebuild of Evangelion series of movies fixes many of the pacing and narrative issues from the original series while remaining largely true to the spirit of the original series.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is a series that performs better in the metrics of importance and influence than in the metric of quality. As a deconstruction of a genre, it is nearly flawless in pointing out the number of ways that a traditional GUNDAM anime could go excruciatingly wrong; from the PTSD suffered by the pilots to the psychological stress a young teen living in a broken household (of attractive women) would encounter. Yet, as is the case with any deconstruction, it needs to remember what it was that made the vanilla versions of the genre so popular in the first place – there was always something exhilarating about imagining yourself in the cockpit of robot, going to fight alien monsters and save the world. In applying its cynical lenses to the genre, Neon Genesis Evangelion loses sight of what made the very works it was critiquing so successful. The result is a series that while engaging can be downright painful to watch.
Final Score: 6.5/10
I can’t help but compare this show to Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, which apart from being the first anime I’ve watched is one that I consider a more complete than Neon Genesis Evangelion. Yes, TTGL is objectively insane, but it’s a fun watch that still hits hard in ways that feel all the more impactful given the series’ wacky universe. The way I see it is like this – I don’t mind a series putting me through emotional hell if there is a payoff waiting for me at the end of it. In the case of Neon Genesis Evangelion that pay-off never really came. I thought it was on the way for most of End of Evangelion but the epilogue kind of undid a lot of the good that the rest of the movie did. In the case of TTGL, the payoff was huge and it was an altogether more uplifting story. I guess this might just be my personal preference, but I’m only ok with tragedy if there is a point to it – a story that basically tells me that life sucks and there is no reason for it is just too nihilistic for me to really enjoy even if I wouldn’t personally disagree with it.
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