-Adam Arseneau, DVDVerdict.com
Genre: Mecha, Post-Apocalyptic, Postmodernism
Creator: Hideaki Anno
Length: 26 episodes
Highlights: A masterpiece of anime
Enter our protagonist, a teenage boy named Shinji Ikari. He is summoned to the fortress city of Tokyo-3 by his estranged father Gendo, head of the branch of the United Nations tasked with destroying the Angels (NERV). In order to do so, he needs Shinji to pilot an enormous mecha called an Evangelion. Despite his initial objections, Shinji consents to being a pilot. He, along with fellow pilots Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Soryu, becomes responsible for protecting the world.
Sounds simple, right? Well, it’s actually not. You see, Neon Genesis Evangelion does start out as a relatively standard action-packed Humongous Mecha anime series. However, over time, the series slowly but steadily turns into something very different. By the end, the series has transformed into a complex character study rife with sophisticated psycho-analysis of each character. It delves deeply into existential and transhumanist philosophy, and becomes enmeshed with Christian-Judeo, Kabballah, Shinto, and other religious symbolism. There’s biting social commentary and brutal genre deconstruction.
And it’s depressing. It’s really fucking depressing. Hideaki Anno wrote the series when he was going through a particularly bad spell of depression, which he has struggled with all his life. Evangelion became his way of excising his feelings. As a result, the entire story is an allegory for depression, among other interpretations. Notably, there is no one point at which the series becomes extremely depressing; each episode is just slightly bleaker than the last, until eventually you wonder how the series got to such a point. The way I prefer to watch anime is to watch a number of episodes back-to-back; this proved impossible to do with Evangelion, however, as it just becomes too depressing to watch all at once.
As an example of this dark tone, the show brutally deconstructs one of the virtually omnipresent tropes of mecha anime: the child or teenager who becomes the pilot. In most shows, this happens despite the fact the “pilot” in question lacks any sort of formal training; rather, there is some reason why they, and only they, can pilot the mecha and save the world. Evangelion looks at this trope from a very different point of view: that these pilots are actually child soldiers. What do you think would happen in the real world if you put a teenager into the cockpit of a giant robot and told them they are responsible for saving the entire world? They would probably crack under the pressure of knowing that they were solely responsible for the fate of the human race. Evangelion shows this by having Shinji, Rei, and Asuka struggle with a multitude of psychological issues which often impair their ability (and sanity). Far from being archetypal heroes, they are flawed and struggling people. Hideaki Anno himself once commented that "It's strange that Evangelion has become such a hit — all the characters are so sick!"
And of course, if you try to make any sense of the show’s plot or the meaning behind it, good luck. The show is chock-full of religious symbolism from a wide array of sources. Christian crosses are side-by-side with the Black and White Moons of Shinto thought and the Tree of Life from Kabballah Jewish mysticism. Complicating even further any interpretation is the fact that Anno reworks the ideas to fit the Evangelion mythos by changing some of their meanings, and by intentionally conflating religious ideas with scientific concepts. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Lance of Longinus are both present in the series, but taking those names at face value will only lead to confusion (although disregarding the symbolism entirely is likely even more confusing).
So what does it all mean, you ask? What does this show use complex psycho-analysis, contradictory mystical symbolism and general depression to say? You have to draw your own conclusions on that. Evangelion is not the kind of show where someone can sit down and easily explain to you what it meant. It is too complex, ambiguous, and personal for that; rather, the viewer must come to their own conclusions about what the show is trying to say. For example, the way I interpret it is that Hideaki Anno is commentating on the philosophical paradox of human identity resulting from our individuality at the same time that humans desire connections with each other. But, this is one of many interpretations; I’ve heard of people understanding it as an allegory for Anno’s depression, a retelling of Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil (or the Pink Floyd album The Wall) in anime form, that the show is a feminist work from a male perspective, numerous interpretations based on various aspects of Christian theology, or a grand vision of the future through the lens of Transhumanist philosophy.
These numerous ideas about the show partly result from the fact that it rarely makes any attempts to be completely clear, and many details remain unrevealed to the viewer or are only hinted at, prompting people to draw their own conclusions. And it can often be just plain confusing. In fact, the fan outcry about just how confusing the final two episodes of the show were led Studio Gainax to create a film called The End of Evangelion to clear things up. However, the film is often considered to be even more confusing than the initial ending that some fans were so upset about. Even worse, eventually fans realized that the film, instead of being an alternative ending as Anno initially claimed it was, could very well in fact be the same ending as the one presented in the show, but from a different point of view. Mind-screwy indeed.
And yet, despite all this, Neon Genesis Evangelion was a monumental success. In Japan, it has reached the same level of pop-culture saturation that Star Wars or Batman has in America or Doctor Who possesses in Britain. It has spawned numerous spin-offs, a huge amount of merchandise, and a significant amount of academic debate and research regarding its meaning and cultural and philosophical significance. It is widely considered the greatest anime series ever created. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those interested in its unique cocktail of action, psychology, religion, and philosophy, and depression, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a work that will inspire debate, questioning, and glorious confusion for years to come.