Neon Genesis Evangelion is… a lot to deal with. It doesn’t help that my youthful obsession of anime has grown weak but even as a teenager this series was always ALOT to process. That’s remained true up through the Rebuild of Evangelion series that’s premiered in four installments: Evangelion 1.0 (2007), Evangelion 2.0 (2009), Evangelion 3.0 (2012) and finally Evangelion 3.0+1.0 (2021).
For those not aware, Evangelion started as Neon Genesis Evangelion, a 1995 Japanese anime about mentally unstable children who are conscripted to fight giant monsters called “Angels” using giant fighting robots called “Eva”. The show is famous now for its aggressive cult following and complex themes about the nature of psychological well-being, anxiety, depression and self loathing (see: Film Crit Hulk’s extensive breakdown).
The Rebuild films are a hard reboot and reimagining of the series from its original creator Hideaki Anno. Starting out as a mostly faithful recreation, the series diverges radically starting with the end of the second movie and explores the consequences of a new timeline where the show’s nominal villains get closer than ever to accomplishing their goals of sparking the apocalypse.
If that’s a lot to process, YOU LITERALLY HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOURE IN FOR. Evangelion is one of the most dense and wordy anime franchises ever and the movies arguably make the problem worse. It’s made worse by the fact that the Rebuild films aren’t just a continuation but a parallel continuity that exists to re-evaluate elements of the original anime and recontextualize them with the benefit of a larger budget and more mature creators.
To be frank, I don’t know fully what where dealing with here. The film mostly feels like a ponderous mess with splotches of notably good ideas and moments of beauty, surrealism and introspection. That doesn’t mean it works though. I watched Evangelion 3.0+1.0 with three experience anime fans who were all familiar with the original anime and they HATED this movie.
They thought it was too long, that the animation was too rushed at critical points in the story and that the narrative didn’t resolve in a meaningful way. They felt entire stretches of the film were useless fanservice that didn’t add anything, that the movie throws around obscure proper nouns that mean nothing too often, that the exposition was endless and annoying, and that the ending was not dissimilar to Return of the King’s multiple false endings.
Still, I can’t help but at least think the movie was interesting. Anno is once again trying to tackle the same themes that he addressed in his previous outing with the franchise, and the subsequent troll movie End of Evangelion that he released to anger the entitle fanboys sending death threats to his studio.
I can see the threads in this new film and see the weird frays at the ends of the film and I can see that there’s something interesting here. I just can’t deny that the film is mostly a ponderous slog. Still, it’s an interesting ponderous slog.
Like the previous shows, it uses its ending to meditate on the nature of maturity, adulthood, surviving trauma and coming to terms with grief. Just as the previous anime ended with its character essentially going through a kind of abstract therapy that allows him to rebuild the world after the apocalypse, this film ends with characters standing at the cusp of the end of things finally coming to terms with lifelong unresolved grief.
Ironcially, Shinji actually ends up being the most mature character by the end of the film. Considering the previous two films involved him accidentally causing the apocalypse to prematurely start TWICE, he comes into the film with an almost catatonic state of guilt and emotional distress. At a certain point, he just decides to stand up and accept the reality of his situation and ends up running laps around the other characters.
This character journey might be too rushed to be frank. Historically, Shinji isn’t a character to change this quickly. If there’s any benefit to this though it’s that it really lets the other characters process their emotions during the final stretch. He actually gets to be the emotional therapy and help others need to escape the pain and sadness of their lives. They’re all desperately in need of the realization that they don’t have to live lives alone. As a result, the movie essentially plays variations of the “congratulations” scene four times in a row.
I particular liked the ending: where the actual animation breaks down into black and white animation cells and live action footage as the characters are revealed having finally aged to adulthood. The moment reflects the furthest most point of maturity we’ve ever seen Shinji as a character and symbolizes it as the moment that he truly comes to life, by showing that he literally lives in the real world now.
These characters that all desperately wanted to escape the horror of their lives now have evolved to a place where they can be happy in reality, without the need to destroy the line between imagination and reality to do it (if the show’s famous religious symbolism is implied to mean anything here, it’s that mysticism and religion are coping mechanisms that keep people from fully maturing and potentially threaten the world itself).
Beyond the ending, I also enjoyed some of the most slice of life elements to Evangelion 3.0+1.0. The film marks the first time we’ve actually gotten to see what it’s like to live as a normal person in this universe and makes it actually seem quite engaging and interesting to be a farmer or an electrician in a world that’s undergone no less than three recent mass extinction events. For the first time, the series realistically makes me think that there’s real people that the Eva pilots are fighting for.
Again though, all of these details and character moments are buried in the film’s 2.5 hour runtime. I can’t begin to work out what it is that Rebuild of Evangelion accomplishes as a story in its own right. Maybe it more fully delivers on a handful of themes from the original anime and adds some needed levity and fan service but without the unending stress and anxiety, it’s not Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Maybe it’ll all come together for me in time but this is gonna be a film I need to mull over…