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Neon Genesis Evangelion

***NO SPOILERS***

 

In the year 2000, humanity is devastated due to a cataclysmic event known as the Second Impact. This event (thought to be a meteor impact) radiates outwards from the epicenter of Antarctica, completely annihilating the southern continent and raising sea levels to critical heights due to the ice melting. Much of the coastlines are now permanently submerged underwater and the human race is reduced by half the population. The details surrounding the incident are mysterious, and few people know the full story behind it...

 

 

Fifteen years later in the bastion of Tokyo-3 an extrajudicial organization outside of the reaches of the government known as NERV works on machines known as Evangelion as well as various other experiments. The Eva are giant mechs whose sole purpose are to combat a strange menace known as Angels, unreadable collossi who do nothing but attempt to leave a trail of destruction in their wake. Conventional weapons do nothing against these terrible beings, and so it falls onto the Eva and the pilots who control them to be the last line of defense against humanity.


Unfortunately, things aren't so simple for the people who are chosen to steer the Evangelion. Teenagers are chosen due to their abilities to sync with the onboard systems of the giant mechs. And be it due to the unique symbiotic nature of the Evas and their pilots, the mental damage sustained by having your nervous system hooked up to the machines and forced to fight, or simply mere happenstance the main three teens are... somewhat off, to say the least. It is in this situation that the prodigal children are thrust, three of our major characters. Their names are Shinji Ikari, Rei Ayanami, and Asuka Langley Soryu.  Suffering from various psychological barriers as well as mental anguish these kids are put into a position in which the fate of the world rests in their hands.

 

 

In any other anime they would adapt to their situation with remarkable malleability and be sitting there throwing rocket punches and shooting laser beams with reckless abandon. They'd wipe the floor with the baddies and then laugh at it over pizza later, as the world is saved once again. Neon Genesis Evangelion is not one of these series. Instead it is an absolutely brilliant deconstruction of the mecha genre. Childish fantasies aside, what would really happen if some kids with fragile minds were thrust into a position rife with danger, with trauma and sorrow, and the fate of the human race at stake? Evangelion seeks to answer this question and many more over the course of its run, and focuses less on the mech battles themselves than on the battles people fight within their minds. The psychological aspects are Evangelion's bread-and-butter, and it indeed brings the subject's psyches in focus so that you may witness their descent from something resembling happiness to the depths of insanity and right back in a cycle of horrific suffering. Sprinkle on some religious imagery, occasional light-hearted or fanservice moments, and attempts at pretending to have deeper meaning than is actually present and you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from what some consider to be Gainax's crowning masterpiece.


Of course you couldn't do this without the characters themselves, and some fantastic ones they are. Let's start with Shinji Ikari himself. This boy is the forerunner of the wimpy, whiny types of male protagonists you see quite often in anime nowadays. He's not the typical shounen hero who is raring to battle giant robots with sheer willpower and manliness. Instead he has absolutely no sense of self-esteem whatsoever, and suffers through existential crises as to whether his very being serves any purpose whatsoever. He's constantly second-guessing himself. Afraid to get close to people for fear of pain and betrayal, he exists on the fringes of society and makes no attempt to rectify his situation due to his complete lack of self-worth. In a fight-or-flight situation without fail he will try his damnedest to pick flight every single time. It's an archetype that Shinji pioneered (we've seen ones like these in everything from Rosario + Vampire to Mirai Nikki) and to be honest it takes off a bit of the pathetic edge that has made his character infamous. Don't get me wrong, he's still utterly pitiable, but for what it's worth he has some redeeming qualities and badass moments sprinkled in throughout the series. He is wildly flawed though, so don't go in expecting some sort of morally unshakable superhero that can overcome all obstacles with a smile on his face and a sure demeanor.

 

 

And then you have Rei Ayanami, yet another character that has sparked a whole new series of archetypes known as Rei-type danderes. Characters who are almost entirely unreadable and show little emotion if any at all as well as loosely following her design (Yuki Nagato would be the most famous example). Anyhow, Rei herself is a girl with short hair and piercing eyes who seems to be utterly detached from the outside world. She obeys orders without question and hesitation no matter what they are, and remains steadfastly loyal. She is in every way the perfect Eva pilot. However, beneath the emotionally austere exterior lies a whirling tempest of feelings as she struggles with questions about her identity. Who is Rei Ayanami? Is it her physical form, is it the being with which she observes the physical world, or is it her persona as seen from the eyes of the people who surround her? Is she but a mere reflection of someone else's delusional mind? The only person she has any faith in is Gendo Ikari, Shinji's father and the commander of NERV. She idolizes the man and may or may not even harbor romantic thoughts towards him. While at first glance she may appear to be the one amongst the Eva pilots who is most grounded in reality deep down she is just as messed up as the others.


Finally we come across Asuka Langley Soryu, a fiery haired German girl with a bad attitude who transfers to Japan along with Evangelion unit 2. Loud and obnoxious, she's the type of person who wants to hear constant praise for her work and be the best at everything. Lest you think to find her nothing more than a typical bratty character however you'd be extremely surprised to find out that she is nothing of the sort. Indeed, beneath the bravado and brashness lies someone deeply unsure of herself. She doesn't just crave the praise, no, it's the very platform upon which her fragile psyche is built upon. Considering she has no faith in her own abilities she needs the constant reassurance of others to maintain her headstrong personality. As you might imagine her manner of thinking clashes wildly with Rei and Shinji, and brings them to loggerheads several times throughout the series. They must learn to work together in order to defeat their common foe no matter what their personal feelings may be. While she may not come off as the most pleasant of protagonists at time I nevertheless feel she is one of the strongest characters here.

 

 

In case you haven't noticed yet, a low sense of self-worth is a theme that runs rampant throughout all three of these protagonists. Be it with their identity or their very being themselves they must come to terms with who they really are and attempt to reconcile their images with their actual beings in their own way. Asuka thrives on the praise of others, Rei withdraws from the world and hides her emotions, and Shinji attempts to build a barrier around himself and run away whenever it is in danger of being breached. Behind the haunted eyes of these three youth lurks abundant pain and a tenuous grip on reality at best. This is an anime that loves to drag out all the tortured feelings that these teenagers do their best to digest.


Coming along for the ride is Misato Katsuragi, a woman who serves as a boss, friend, and mother to Shinji all rolled into one. After seeing how Shinji's father treats him she quickly took him under her wing and offered him a home with her. She is an extremely intelligent and capable woman. And yet, just like every other being in this circus of suffering she has her own demons she has to battle with. Or to attempt to drown under gallons of beer. Whatever works for her. As the sole survivor from Antarctica of the Second Impact she has devoted her life to working at NERV and doing whatever she possibly can to prevent another cataclysmic event. And even though she grapples with feelings of resentment for her father as well as her own sexual urges and feelings of uncertainty she must put on a strong face in order to be able to act as a bit of stability for Shinji and later Asuka too. In many ways she's much like Shinji himself, and so she knows from experience what it's like to feel how he does.


As for the rest of the characters they are all varying shades of importance that don't quite measure up to the tempest of depression that pervades the main four ones I just named. Gendo Ikari himself is a man that is an absolutely brilliant commander, but as a person he is the biggest rat *** on the face of the planet. He abandoned his son and made no effort to contact him again until he was needed, much like some sort of tool or appliance. His work drove his wife to the grave and his child into self-hatred. The man is simply ruthless and cold-blooded. There's also characters like Ritsuko and Kaji, but there's not really all that much that can be said about them. The Angels themselves are beings who have no personality whatsoever, they just appear and do nothing but attempt to destroy all within their way (at least until you get to the final Angel, but that's a story for another day). You might think that's a terribly boring premise for a villain, and in any other series you'd be right. Monster-of-the-week is generally a very poor plot device. However, the monsters in this series merely serve as a backdrop, as props that only serve to move the strange experimental look into the human mind forward. The monsters that the characters face inside their own psyches are far more cruel and merciless than the titans that await out on the surface.

 

 

Now, let's talk about the visuals of this series. They're decent. But wait, no, I can't say that. They're decent... at first. It is notorious at this point that the budget for the series was even more pathetic than Shinji himself. This anime is absolutely a high-profile master of scrimping and saving as much animation as possible. Scenes with a single solitary drawing stretch on far too long with added audio, they try to avoid showing mouths or movement whenever they possibly can, and they outright reuse anime whenever it seems even vaguely reasonable. In the final two episodes they finally abandon even the illusion of quality and outright resort to sketches and markers to progress the storyline along when their remaining reserves of money dried up. I actually found that honesty kind of refreshing. The character designs themselves are simply iconic. Shinji is kind of a plain guy with no remarkable features,  and yet out him in his Eva suit and he is instantly recognizable. The fiery redheaded Asuka and cool blue-haired red-eyed Rei are pretty much synonymous with the thoughts of the series itself short of the Evangelion robots themselves. The hulking goliaths are the face upon which the show calls itself a mecha, and they are certainly well-designed creations. Everything here screams classic and easily identifiable, and it's a refreshing change of pace from the moe nature of many of the more modern animes.


As for the aural department, NGE has a fairly nice soundtrack. There's not really too much that I can say in this area, but for what it's worth it suits the anime nicely. But what I want to talk about is the opening. That beautiful, beautiful opening. From what you can discern of the visuals of the OP there's an almost palpable feeling of epicness that it simply exudes. It pours out into the stream of consciousness a series of disjointed images of happiness and sadness, melancholy and determination, and the Tree Of Life looming over all. It showcases what the show is about fantastically. And as if that isn't enough, they chose to pair that with an absolutely amazing song called Zankoku no Tenshi Thesis (The Cruel Angel's Thesis). I finished the series a few days ago. Since then I've listened to this tune roughly fifty times, so you get an idea of how much I like it. It starts off really calm before adding in a infectious rhythm and the addition of horns and other assorted niceties. It's the perfect choice to open a legendary series with. Last but not least there is the matter of subs and dubs. Unless you're a purist, watch the dub. I found it to be one of the finest dubbing jobs I've yet heard, right up there with Fullmetal Alchemist. Not too much to say, there's little nitpicking I can do (except for a simply awful line Ritsuko delivers near the end). Watch the dub.

 

 

Final verdict: 8.75. There's a lot to bash about this series. The shoddy animation that at points almost delves into Inferno Cop levels. The pretentious nature of the hollow ideals and religious symbolism that it spouts without any actual substance behind them. The points where it does generic anime type things and shoves in fanservice or silliness. And the ending which transcends even the absurd and goes into the downright esoteric. And yet, despite all that, this is an anime that even twenty years later manages to not only be watchable but positively amazing. It has a great opening, fantastic characters, and a sense for psychological breakdowns that is almost Higurashi-esque in its implementation. Neon Genesis Evangelion is the Universal Migrator of anime, one which has given birth to many things that have since become tropes of the medium. And as the forefather of these innovations it still manages to reign supreme as a series that still remains fresh and relevant even in modern times. Whether it be a case study for the history of anime or simply one hell of a time-waster you owe it to yourself to experience the majesty that is Neon Genesis Evangelion at least once. Like a cruel angel, watch the young boy become legend.



~Stranger 2014



(Author's note: Expect a review on End Of Evangelion within the upcoming days. And if you decide to watch the series before then all I can say is make sure you watch EoE immediately after. You'll be glad you did.)

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