It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was 1995, it was autumn and fan-favourites Studio Gainax would unleash upon unsuspecting viewers a new series titled Neon Genesis Evangelion. An apparently jaunty science-fiction serial, about a young boy co-opted by his estranged father into fighting otherworldly invaders with the help of a strange, beast-like machine, few could surely have foreseen the emotional rollercoaster to follow, or indeed realised that they were witnessing the birth of a true anime icon.
Almost a quarter of a century later, as streaming giants Netflix prepare to get the show back out there for a whole new generation of fans, we here at Anime UK News thought it was a good chance to reflect on Eva, hopefully provide some words of explanation for newcomers and also offer some personal thoughts on what the show has meant to us over the years.
But for now, let’s get back in the damn robot.
The story of Evangelion certainly delivered plenty of big splashy set-pieces, with earth’s own freakish champions, the towering Eva Units, dispatched to battle the invading ‘Angels’ in increasingly desperate circumstances. Yet, it was the show’s more introspective elements that really seemed to strike a chord with the audience. Famously influenced by writer/director Hideaki Anno’s struggle with his own mental health, following a run of difficult professional experiences, the narrative touched on themes of personal isolation, the lengths we will go to for the approval of others, and the consequence of running from our own responsibilities.
Although critically acclaimed during its run, the notoriously baffling (or was it deceptively simple?) conclusion proved deeply divisive, allegedly even leading to death threats against Anno himself. Nevertheless, it became a great talking point at a time when the internet was appearing in more and more homes, fuelling apparently endless online discussion of the story’s meaning and, along with the hugely lucrative merchandise sales, helping maintain its place in the public consciousness and even keeping Gainax afloat through its well documented financial struggles.
While there has never been a follow up on TV, the astronomical commercial success of Evangelion has lead to theatrical features charting the abandoned original ending, many non-canonical spin-offs placing the characters in other settings and, most notably, the decade long sequence of remake or ‘Rebuild‘ films, providing an alternative take on the whole story from beginning to end. Even though we welcome Evangelion to Netflix as a new addition, in all these years, it’s arguably never been away.
For many fans, Eva was a watershed moment. Love it or hate it, just about everyone who sees the show has a story to tell about their experience – here are a few of ours:
The term ‘gateaway anime’ can mean completely different things depending on what decade you grew up in; for newer fans, they could probably name check a lot of shounen titles such as Black Clover or slightly older breakout hits like Code Geass and Death Note, since anime is nowadays so readily available on home media and streaming services, whether they are dedicated to anime or not. If you grew up from the 80s to the early 2000s however, we could only rely on TV channels which mostly broadcasted heavily dubbed and edited properties like Yu-Gi-Oh! or Dragonball Z, or sneakily get copies of older, more mature titles and hope we didn’t get in trouble for hiring a movie with a certificate older than we actually were, such as Akira and Ghost in a Shell. For me, I had experience with some shows we got on TV; like FOX Kids showing Sailor Moon, or SMTV broadcasting Pokémon, but there was one anime that transitioned me from the curious to a full anime fan, and that was Evangelion.
I mentioned this briefly in my Nadesico review, but the full story is that my step-mum used to work for the Sci-Fi channel and knew I liked some of the ‘Japanese cartoons’ so told me about an upcoming show called ‘Saiko Exciting’. I video taped the full show and from then on it completely changed my life; the show, hosted by a woman named Sarah Backhouse, would not only talk about the Japanese culture but also introduced me to whole new landscape of movies including titles such as Battle Royale and the programme showed two anime series; Martian Successor Nadesico and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Both were my introduction to not only ‘grown up’ anime but animation as a whole. Yes, in the West, we have The Simpsons and South Park but they were comedies, colourful and wacky in their stories without taking themselves too seriously. Evangelion however was dramatic, action-filled, raw with its emotions and told a story I had never seen before or thought could be told. I was too young at the time to truly understand the depths of depression that the original creator went through when making it, or the levels of psychology the show tried to demonstrate, but I was amazed by the scale of the story and how it pushed boundaries on what I thought was possible for a character on TV to think and feel at the time. I ended up recording all the episodes onto VHS, Nadesico too, and lent them to my friends at school, which helped them get into anime as well.
As my interest in anime grew, with my collection and taste expanding alongside means of obtaining it, my love for Evangelion still remained. It’s far from the perfect show; the animation can be very inconsistent, the writing and plot starts to dip in quality towards the final stretch and the infamous ending is well… you know, but the rawness of the show – from the emotions to the story telling to the characters that pretty much created the archetypes we see today – lingers, and its impact on the medium is something that will never fade from the anime landscape anytime soon. Even years later, as the Rebuild films attempt to rewrite the series, there are hundreds of fans still waiting on the long-overdue final movie. I remember back in 2010, at a BFI Anime Weekend, when they showed the first two Rebuild films, back to back. I went with one of the friends I first lent my Evangelion tapes to; the theatre was packed and in the final moments of the 2nd film, when Kaworu blasts in from the sky and promises to make ‘Shinji happy this time’, the whole cinema raptured into a huge cheer.
When the series finally drops onto Netflix, whether you’ve seen it 100 times before or never once in your life, I highly recommend checking it out, even if just to see how the brand-new dub holds out or watch it for the first time in HD. Some classics can stand the test of time, even if they’ve been redone better or become more refined in the long run, and Evangelion is a classic to revisit.
Similarly to Darkstorm, when I first saw Evangelion, I was far too young for it. Being the first time I can remember seeing a show that begins as something so breezy and adventurous, before steering into very dark waters as the end looms ever closer, it left quite an impression. So much so, that afterwards, I actually stopped watching anime altogether for several years, so convinced was I that I’d never see anything so profound in the medium again.
Nevertheless, that moment passed. After my initial struggle to process what I’d seen, I gradually lost interest in the show and my opinion of it waned considerably. I was convinced that, once you get past the age Shinji is in the series, your ability as the viewer to empathise with him and his situation would evaporate and all that would be left was a product of its time that just happened to set the trend for sci-fi anime over the next ten years or so. Not once did I have any inclination to revisit Evangelion.
Yet, more by coincidence than intent, I did end up seeing the show again, and I found myself being unexpectedly drawn into it. Despite thinking I might just watch a little of the first few episodes (the early, funny ones), before I knew it, I was back on the journey all over again.
Rather than being alienated from the main character, I think revisiting the show as an adult makes it easier to see the wider picture. This isn’t just the story of a young boy forced into an impossible situation, but that of a large group of diverse individuals, all of whom are somehow broken and human and trying to grasp on to a moment of happiness that has already passed. And some spiffy monster fights too.
So there we have it. Hopefully you are now suitably primed for the show, or at least duly amused at the sheer amount of hype being generated by something which is far from brand new. If you’re watching Neon Genesis Evangelion for the first time or if you’re revisiting it for the hundredth, be sure to let us know what your experiences of Eva have been like!