Neon Genesis Evangelion is a dramatic character study that uses psychological references and themes in order to convey and analyze, through character development and psychoanalysis, the various mental illnesses and emotional problems of the principal cast, all of which is set against the backdrop of a deconstruction of the Humongous Mecha genre, and which also uses Christian and Kabbalistic symbolism to apply subtext to the show's various themes and plot points.
-Zero4ph, Youtube Watcher
I honestly couldn't have come up with a better summary myself, so we're going to just go with the above.
For me personally, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a well-made; thoughtful and engaging paradox of a series. It's one of the most influential anime of all time; it's one of the most infamous anime of all time; it's one of the most ambitious and bold anime of all time; and it's also one of the most overrated anime of all time.
Regardless of whether you think Evangelion is a work of genius or overblown pretense, there's no denying that there is something to this show that draws people in. Something that affects you on a psychological and emotional level. Something that leaves you in it's wake, thinking about what just happened and what you just saw.
I won't lie and say that this show's the greatest work of genius in the anime world. There could be a case made for that, but I wouldn't bother backing it. I will say that after multiple re-watches and analysis, this show does hold up as an excellent work of visual entertainment. Does it have weak points? Yes. Is it perfect? No. Is it pretentious? Yes and No.
But enough beating around the bush. Let's delve right into Studio Gainax's Magnum Opus shall we?
1) Forewarning the Robot
I didn't write this three-part review to kiss anyone's ass.
Not Hideki Anno's ass; Not Studio Gainax's ass and certainly not the asses of certain groups within the fanbase.
The Beauty of Evangelion is that much of this show lies in the "subjective zone" of artistic vision. What that means is that whatever people get out of Evangelion is going to largely depend on themselves. It's a like a painting that multiple people will look at and some will call the work junk while others will believe that it's meaningful. This is of course true with any medium art, but shows like Evangelion go the extra step and hence why it's intrinsically a base breaker for casual and hardcore anime fans.
That said. If you're part of the aspect of the evangelion fanbase who believe that people are less intelligent because they don't "get" evangelion like they do, leave now. Because there's nothing that we can exchange that will change either of our opinions or points of view on this series. As a fan of the series, I do believe that evangelion has one or two major problems and several other issues. If you believe that evangelion is "perfect" and that any dissenter is just a hater, then you won't get anything out of this review. Because what I see is no less valid than what you see because of evangelion's nature.
To quote Hideki Anno in a 1996 Newtype Interview: "Evangelion is like a puzzle, you know. Any person can see it and give his/her own answer. In other words, we're offering viewers to think by themselves, so that each person can imagine his/her own world. We will never offer the answers, even in the theatrical version. As for any Evangelion viewers, they may expect us to provide the 'all-about Eva' manuals, but there is no such thing. Don't expect to get answers by someone. Don't expect to be catered to all the time. We all have to find our own answers."
And believe me, the things that I'll say about evangelion are not thought of lightly. There are aspects of evangelion that I thought were great years ago that I know shrug at. There are characters who I hated that I now respect and relate to. There are plot-threads and themes that I've ping-ponged my brain back and forth over. If I'd done this review years ago, it would probably say something different than what I'm saying now. The point is that what I'm going to say about this series isn't from the words of an ignorant outsider who knows nothing about Evangelion.
This review will be written by someone who has watched evangelion many times, likes evangelion, respects evangelion, and "gets" evangelion even if I don't agree with everything that it has to say or how it presents itself.
If someone has a problem with what I'm going to say?
Tough shit, because I didn't start this gig to kiss anyone's ass.
That said, I'm not going to act like my perspective is the only valid one. I'm just one man talking about a cartoon show where an abused kid is forced back into his selfish mother's womb to turn everyone else into orange juice so that said selfish mother can become immortal. If you don't like it or agree with what I say, then you're free to do that.
With that out of the way, let's talk about a lot of the Good Things about this series...there's a lot, so this'll take awhile. Some of which are subjective according to taste and others are objectively inherent within the framework of the series. (And no, I don't care if there's no such thing as "true objective qualities".)
2) Deconstructing the Robot
The deconstructive/psychological angle for character arcs is rarely done in anime, especially at the time. Some anime did touch on psychological issues, but they didn't dwell on them to focus on the plot and action. The psychoanalysis stuff was essentially a minor detail for characters that added flavor, but wasn't looked into all that much. Which makes sense considering that animation has a huge need for momentum and drive.
In an animated feature, characters need to be active both mentally and physically and need to be doing something when on screen. Otherwise, that's just a waste of paper and ink. A psychoanalysis is something that requires stopping in place and going within a character, which in turn can slow things down. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but trying to slow things down for something that was considered unimportant compared to everything else in the story didn't seem like it could engage anyone. Especially if that psychoanalysis leads the character down a self-destructive path.
Evangelion on the other hand, acknowledges that the psychological aspects of the characters are important and goes into detail about how they affect the characters actions and agency. It deconstructs the idea that a character's psychological state can be put on the back burner. It also goes further to show what happens when you put the fate of humanity in the hands of people deprived of badly-needed therapy.
Bad things happen.
Many of these characters all have issues and it is a constant factor in their decisions and attitudes towards others.
I also appreciate that Evangelion throws in a different perspective about being "thrown into the cockpit" and that not everyone will become an instant ace or even like their situation. Realism is a word that's thrown around a bit too much for my taste, but for the time period and the genre in question, I'd say that it fits for this story.
The pilots in this show are not brave and selfless heroes. They're all neglected teens who have been brainwashed, emotionally blackmailed and manipulated to be child soldiers. Soldier is a relative term here since even the organization that they work for doesn't even give them proper preparation and training for a para-military role. They're essentially being molded into obedient puppets meant to only do as they're told even if the orders are questionable and stupid.
Piloting the titular evangelions is not a joy ride either. Using those bio-mechanical demons requires a biological and psychological link to the robots which deals mental and physical pain on the pilots. Which in turn makes they're already fragile states all the more worst. Someone once mentioned that "there's a reason why 'Shinji, get in the robot!' is nerd shorthand for 'grow up and accept the emotional pain and sacrifice of adulthood'". Except that these kids had no preparation for this coming of age test and worst yet, it's essentially forced on them in the worst way possible just to pave the road for humanity's extinction. Essentially making their sacrifice and pain an essential shaggy dog story.
3) Writing the Robot
Most of the cast is well-written and developed to where they're closer to "real people" rather than being strict archetypes or stereotypes. Real is also a relative term, so we'll stick with three dimensional and dynamic characters. I'll wait to go into depth about my thoughts on these characters in Part 2 or else Part 1 will be way too long. However, I can give you a brief-run down about the cast as a "thesis".
My personal favorites being Shinji, Kaji, Rei, Pen-pen, Ritsuko and Kaworu.
I mostly like Misato, but not her unadmitted failure as a guardian or as a mentor for Shinji and Asuka, guess that can be considered a love-hate relationship.
I'm not a fan of Asuka, even admitting that she has her interesting aspects and backstory. She's also a decently written complex character, but I just couldn't give a damn about her because she's too much of a whiny and selfish bitch who bullies people around to hold up her own fragile false ego.
Even the side-characters get plenty of characterization and development. Toji, Hikari and Kensuke are pretty decent kids; The bridge bunnies are all distinct with their own interests and personalities; and Fuyutski is pretty likable and seems to me to be a wounded man full of regret whose resigned to tagging along with a scheme that he can't really control.
Yui-sama's an enigma whose pretty hard to figure out. Overall though, she's clearly a worst parent than Gendo since at least the Commander is honest about being an asshole.
Gendo is fascinating and his goal to reunite with his wife is identifiable. But not only is he an unpleasant character to watch, he's also one of the worst commanders and plotters that I've ever seen on screen. And SEELE is actually worst as an antagonist despite apparently having a lot of power.
All in all, Evangelion features a good cast. Some are great, some are okay, and some are bad. But they all have some role to play in this epic tale and they're all memorable enough to leave some kind of impression.
4) Designing the Robot
I'll be brief because there's not much to say.
Tokyo-3 and Nerv HQ essentially are their own unspoken characters. They are designed beautifully and stalwartly, demonstrating that this is humanity's last stand. Tokyo-3 is the outer town of a grand castle and Nerv HQ is the main keep. If Nerv fails to stop the angels, then the castle will fall and humanity dies. The city also becomes more lifeless and devastated as the series goes on, as if demonstrating how hope is ebbing away even with each victory. The people are leaving, there's craters everywhere, neighborhoods and city districts are abandoned, and entire power grids give out.
Nerv HQ also has an aspect of mystery to it. It's designed as a colorless pyramid within a hidden green valley. It's like a tomb hiding the corpse of a long-deceased king and the treasure buried with him. HQ itself appears to be a grand modern-day crypt with various passages, tunnels, doors and so on that only a select few people can fully navigate through. But if this is a the crypt, then where are all of the bodies?
The employees are the bodies. They just don't know it yet.
The eva and angel designs are pretty unique and dynamic. I love how evangelion seems to invoke the strengths of humanity and the worst of humanity the same time with it's looks and sheer concept.
They're very organic and humanoid despite technically being robots (or cyborgs if you want to be technical). It becomes clear early on that these evangelions all have their own sense of agency and some of them don't like being controlled. Eva Unit 00 tries to kill its pilot twice and nearly succeeds both times; Eva Unit 02 tunes out its pilot (not that I blame her considering Asuka); and Eva Unit 01 seems to be controlling Shinji as much as he controls it.
The Angels all look wildly different from each other and each evoke a sense of dread. They seem alien, yet earth-bound at the same time.
Which is unsurprising when it's learned that angels are 99% identical to humans despite their vast unique designs: Sachiel looks like an aquatic humanoind eel monster; Shamsiel looks like a tongue combined with a vagina with tentacles; Ramiel is a singing blue diamond; Gaghiel is a whale; Israfel is a ninja; Sandalphon is a newborn magma shrimp; Matarael is a spider; Sahaquiel is a one-eyed asteroid; Iruel is ebola for computers; Leliel is a big black ball; Bardiel is white goo; Zeruel is an armless knight built like a tank; Arael is a glowing bird; Armisael is a glowing DNA umbilical cord; and Kaworu/Tabris is a pretty white-haired boy.
I don't see the family resemblance. You?
5) Plotting the Robot
Story's strong, straight-forward and uncomplicated at first (up until the ending, but we'll get to that one in a second).
Not simple obviously, just uncomplicated.
It has two primary story plot-lines centering around Seele/Gendo taking steps towards the Instrumentality plot and Nerv and company stopping the angels from wiping out humanity. As time goes on, a mystery's pretty obvious and the clues that are found raise some fairly interesting questions about what's really going on and what the angels really are.
6) Fighting the Robot
The action is never predictable which makes it exciting and puts me on the edge of my seat. Especially when the angels are involved.
Because apart from not look each other, they're all packed with unique abilities and a nigh impenetrable defensive barrier.
Even the evas struggle to overcome these demi-god kaiju despite having their own barriers to neutralize the angel's barriers. There's even a few times when the bridge need to come up with a different plan of action. The characters are in a state of constant tension and need to find different, risky and creative ways of stopping the Angels. Sometimes they need to stop and make a plan or they just have to work on the fly and go balls to the wall.
My favorite fights in particular are against Zeruel; Ramiel; and Tabris/Kaworu. Honorable mentions include the Iruel; Leliel and Arael confrontations.
Plus, there's more going on in these fights than just mindless action, there's also some kind of personal, physical or spiritual conflict represented in these battles. The Leliel, Arael and Armisael fights are as much struggles to survive as they are strange communications between the eva pilots and the angels. The Angels appear to be less concerned with destroying these humans and more interested in understanding how they think and what they find important. Which in turn makes things worst for the pilots as per the case with Asuka who went into a coma and Rei who blew herself up.
There is a lot more to talk about, but we'll save all of that for next time. There we'll be talking more about some subjective thoughts both good and bad about Evangelion's main characters. After that, we'll go to the "not so brilliant" things about evangelion.
No running away from this now...
Continued in Part 2.