While many anime series come and go without a great deal of notice, there are some which stay in the minds of fans and are still hot topic for discussion for a long time afterwards. The classic saga Neon Genesis Evangelion, produced by the animation studio Gainax, is one of those. First aired in Japan in 1995 and its alternative ending ‘End of Evangelion’ appearing in the cinemas in 1997, the controversial sci-fi series is still the flagship title for its UK and US distributor AD Vision and the feature films are also being given the box set re-release treatment by Manga Entertainment. Not only that, but the as-yet incomplete graphic novel has reached its ninth volume and there is news of a live-action adaptation in the pre-production planning stages.
For existing fans (or any member of the anime community for that matter), it is seen as a series that needs no introduction, having a profound and sometimes even life-changing effect on its viewers. For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s perhaps easy to wonder what the fuss is about. Compared with newer mecha drama series such as ‘Rahxephon’ and ‘Full Metal Panic!’ the animation shows some very obvious signs of cost cutting and the characters come across as being in need of psychiatric help rather than being landed with the task of saving the world. So, how exactly did this series become so influential in the anime industry and acquire such a devoted following?
Although the ‘humans vs. supernatural life forms’ theme has been covered on numerous occasions in anime (especially the mecha genre), it was unusual at the time for the action and fan service to take a back seat to very powerful and thoughtfully written character drama. The start of the series is quite light-hearted with frequent moments of comic relief and provocative poses courtesy of the female members of the cast and the battles against the mysterious invading ‘Angels’ drives the plotline along. The mecha designs are extremely memorable and original, and are much more awe-inspiring and mysterious than they first appear. However, the story slowly begins to take a darker and more introspective turn with comedic moments becoming less frequent and the director’s interest in philosophy and Freudian psychology beginning to show.
It soon becomes apparent that the series is mainly about the characters. The young hero, Shinji Ikari, is a shy, introverted fourteen year old who would normally be the last person one would expect to be in the front line to dramatically save the world. He is lonely, fragile and awkward among others. A fairly ordinary boy in other words, placed in an extremely difficult situation with serious misgivings. The other two teenagers given the task of piloting the Evas and saving mankind are also well thought-out and undeniably human. The enigmatic Rei Ayanami, a quiet and placid girl, is devoted to her job as pilot but is constantly aware that her very existence is a means to end at the hands of those in power; in stark contrast, the fiery Asuka Langley Sohryu hides deep insecurity and isolation behind a brash exterior. Their guardian and superior, Misato Katsuragi, has an equally troubled past which she buries under her devotion to her work and copious amounts of alcohol. To some degree or other, viewers can relate to these and the other characters, making the series a very personal experience.
And that could be the missing piece that makes Eva what it is. Prior to the making of the show, the director Hideaki Anno suffered a four year battle with clinical depression, and was anxious to share what he learned from his experiences: to adapt, to change, to face the problems head-on (leading to Shinji’s famous “I mustn’t run away!” monologue). Inevitably, part of his own personality crept into the characters he created. It’s easy to look upon the behaviour of Shinji, Rei, Asuka, Misato and the rest, and think “Why do they make those mistakes?” The answer is often that they are reacting as any one of us would in an extreme situation. The setting of a battle for survival in a post-apocalyptic future world may be fantastical, but it features personalities that ordinary fans can relate to.
Outside of the drama, the Eva story breaks the mould as well. Religious references (which didn’t cause misunderstandings until they were shown to Christian Western audiences) aside, budget problems threatened the completion of the story, making the already low-budget animation noticeably worse. By the end of the series, fans were expecting a dramatic and revelation-filled conclusion that resolved the complex relationships and conspiracies. What was in fact shown was ambiguous, quirky and apparently posed more questions than it answered. The result was a flood of letters of complaint to Gainax and even death threats aimed at Anno himself. Following a large cash injection, it was decided to remake the ending and allowing the inclusion of footage that had been too expensive and violent for the original TV broadcast. The release of the result, End of Evangelion, fuelled the myths and rumours already circulating and proved to be deeper, braver and more open to interpretation than the series itself. I’m not going to include any speculation here as to what it is trying to say; it is so open-ended and every viewer is likely to have their own opinion on it and what it means to them. That is however the whole point of the film, not to mention the rest of the series. While it may well be Anno’s way of exacting revenge on the fans who expressed their disappointment at the series ending, End of Evangelion was a deeply moving, multi-layered yarn. In short, he crafted a story with meticulous attention to detail and left the viewers to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions.
Since then, other series and films have used Eva’s themes of teen angst, organic mecha, breathtaking musical scores and the like, but never in the same way before or since. While the show threatened to ruin the studio during its production, it has been a bestseller in the worldwide anime market, and allowed for subsequent Gainax successes such as ‘FLCL’ and ‘Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi’. Love it or hate it, Evangelion’s position in anime history is assured and if the plans for a live-action adaptation come to fruition this is likely to continue.