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Anime Reviews: Neon Genesis Evangelion
While Evangelion was slated to be the greatest action anime of the 90s, budget problems and cancellation relegated it to merely being a mixed bag instead.
Title: Neon Genesis Evangelion a.k.a. Shin Seiki Evangelion
Series Length: 26 episodes
Air Dates: 10/4/1995 to 3/28/1996
Age Rating: 13+ (mild violence with moments of gore, mild language, some suggestive sexual content)
Summary: Shinji Ikari is what you might call a troubled youth. As an infant, his mother died due to mysterious circumstances, and not long afterward, his father abandoned him. Years later, 14-year-old Shinji receives a summons from his father, but as he waits for his transportation to take him where his father awaits, an alien being called an "Angel" attacks the city of Tokyo-3. Just in the nick of time, said transportation arrives--enter Misato, one of the top officers at NERV, the organization headed by Shinji's father. On the trip to NERV Headquarters, Misato tells Shinji about his father's work, particularly that his sole mission is to defeat the so-called Angels. His weapon of choice? A several-story-tall synthetic humanoid construct known as Evangelion, which seems to be the only viable method of fighting back against the Angels. However, the Evangelions can only be piloted by specific individuals, and the only operational unit is to be controlled by Shinji, but can Shinji really be the savior of humanity?
The Good: Loving throwback to giant robot anime of the 70s and 80s; great action and animation; immensely memorable music score; artsy direction; story and characters are initially engrossing
The Bad: Science fiction elements and symbolism never fully realized or explained; goes overbudget and cannot disguise it; story and characters never reach their full potential; rushed ending
The Ugly: The ending is so horribly misunderstood that it's almost comical
WARNING: Long review is long.
It's time for the big one. You knew it was coming. Some people say it's the greatest anime ever made, some say it's the worst, some say it's the most overrated, some say the most underrated, and so it becomes extremely difficult to even mention the series without feeling like a fight's gonna break out. So, do I think the series is good? Bad? Overrated? Underrated? Let's find out!
One of the first things you have to realize about Evangelion is that it wasn't created in a vacuum at random on a whim. This was the culmination of nearly 15 years' worth of the folks at GAINAX's love for anime. They were fanboys in their youth, they grew up with Macross and Mazinger Z and Mobile Suit Gundam, they built the plastic models of famous Yoshiyuki Tomino and Go Nagai robots, and they also, you know, made a highly-acclaimed animated advertisement for DaiCon IV in their basements back in 1983, and there were only 5 members at the time. All of their love and admiration for animation was poured into Evangelion, where their aim was to create a sci-fi epic in the same vein as the shows they grew up with, while also adding a modern touch. This kind of stuff is really interesting if you're a fan of older anime, so it's no surprise that a great chunk of Evangelion's fanbase also loves those older shows--the series' creators did, too!
But that's all dusty ol' ancient history and stuff, maaan. I wanna see giant robots killin' the crap out of each other, maaaaannnnn. I don't wanna watch somethin' just because it's all nostalgic, myyyaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnn. Well, if high-tension action is what you want, then Evangelion delivers in spades. Right from the get-go, we have a giant alien thing blowing stuff up and then there's a giant robot and they clash and it's quite brutal and dramatic. And then episode 1 ends. As the series goes on, you learn that it's the nature of the Angels to be progressively more intelligent, so these battles are only gonna get more intense from here. Whether it's an all-out giant robot fist fight, or a strategic gunning mission, or even the (unexpectedly exciting) computer hacker vs. the virus Angel battle, you're gonna get your action fix and it's not gonna be the same thing every time. And when it's time to throw down, you know you're in for a treat.
A lot of the excitement generated by these fights is due to the series' fantastic art and animation. This was the landmark series that bade farewell to the predominantly rounder style of the 70s & 80s and forever set the more angular design style as the anime standard, and by God, is it a wonderful standard to have been set. It might be harder to appreciate as a newer fan, but the characters' designs have become iconic to the point of being archetypes, and there are a great many modern anime that owe their entire look to Evangelion. As far as the animation goes, we've seen GAINAX's signature hyper-active action style and highly emotive gestures before in their previous works (The Wings of Honneamise, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water), but here's where it made its mark. As mentioned in my Gurren Lagann review, GAINAX loves to spice up their action scenes with lots of huge, leaping bounds and extreme camera angles, and this is where most people got their first taste of it.
Another highlight of the series is its phenomenal soundtrack. Much like the series' art style, it has also become iconic within the anime community, featuring what is possibly the most beloved opening theme in all of anime. The background music is no slouch, either, boasting some exciting tunes like "Decisive Battle" and "The Beast" while showing off its softer, more beautiful, and often more eerie side with tracks like "Rei I" and "Thanatos." Though, talking about the series' music wouldn't be complete without mentioning the soothing yet unintentionally hilarious cover of "Fly Me to the Moon," which is used as the series' ending theme. And now, let's briefly discuss the voice acting. The Japanese version's great, the English version's awkward due to being a mid-90s dub done by ADV, but it stays faithful and it's not terrible to sit through. Well, that was quick. Overall, the series is an aural joy.
And now, we must discuss the series' artsy-fartsy direction style. While shooting a giant robot anime sounds simple--show two robots punching each other out, show some reaction shots, have an explosion!--Evangelion's director, Anno Hideaki, would never stand for such simplicity. If you've got some shadows, silhouette the scene! If there's an extreme emotion, change the colors until it's distorted beyond recognition! Got a wacky camera angle? Use it! White text on black background? EVERYWHERE!! While this kind of thing would drive a lesser show (and director) to madness, it all works perfectly here, giving Evangelion a very distinct feel. And when you throw in all the aforementioned action, music, and animation, you get a unique experience that can never be replicated. Until Hideaki's next work, of course.
So now we've reached the teetering point between the series' good and bad points, and both sides hinge on the two most important aspects of any series: characters and story. And because we're still in the good half of the review, that means all was not lost!
The story begins, innocently enough, with a giant alien creature destroying the city. And our reluctant hero's gotta stop it. And from there, it just builds and builds, leaving us wondering what the next Angel is gonna be like and how our heroes will deal with it, but there are also many other plot threads that keep us interested, like the origins of the EVAs, NERV's plan vs. Seele's plan, and also each character's own personal arc. And that leads us to the characters, who are portrayed in a very realistic light and arouse both sympathy and frustration. Shinji, for example, starts off being extremely insecure and afraid, but he begins to open up a little and face his fears as the series goes on, but never fully purges himself of his demons. We're pulled into his struggle, we learn what troubles him, and we get an exclusive peek into his psyche. We want to both cheer him on when he moves forward and slap him when he doesn't, and that's only the main character. We get similarly intense looks at the other characters, making them very interesting...at first. Sadly, things do eventually take a turn for the worse.
Now we're gonna talk about where Evangelion went wrong, and for those who want the short version, it basically involves the entire final third of the series. This is where the series needed to be at its best, too, so it's a real shame. The series is winding up for the big climax and you're expecting everything to come to a head and for all to be revealed, but no, that would be something from a perfect world. Instead, all we get is a king-size load of problems. And here they are:
Problem #1: Many elements are brought up, few are explained. Why do the EVAs need to synchronize to a specific person? Enjoy an extremely brief explanation in a flashback episode! Why do the Angels explode with cross-shaped explosions? Never explained! Where do the Angels even come from? Space? ADAM? The TARDIS? All of the above? To put it simply, if something piques your interest and you want to know what it's all about, don't hold your breath for any real explanation. If you get one, you pretty much just got lucky. There is a reason entire fansites were founded to discuss this stuff, after all.
Problem #2: The big, fat, stupid budget problem. GAINAX always seems to drop the ball when it comes to balancing their budget--at least, before the 2000s. While they would later get better at disguising their low-budget moments (See: Kare Kano), they had absolutely no clue how to do so in Evangelion. The action sequences in later episodes were still intense and nail-biting, but it came at the cost of the animation budget for everything in between. Still shots, silhouettes, off-focus shots, and reused animation ahoy! The cut in the budget was mainly due to TV execs finding the series outrageously shocking and inappropriate, and so the series was allowed to finish off its current season, but after that, you're done. No more budget, no more episodes. You've got until episode 26 to tie it all up, and then it's gone. And hey, that leads to...
Problem #3: The story and characters were cut short. Evangelion was originally going to be something like 50 episodes, but as you can see above, it only made it to 26. Remember the opening animation where the EVA sprouts golden ethereal wings? It was originally going to be its true form in a final epic showdown, but it never happened. It is just one of many (and I do mean many) pieces of evidence that prove the series should have been longer. Want another? In episode 24, we're introduced to a new character named Kaworu, who becomes a very important figure in Shinji's life, and it was plainly obvious that he was destined to be a major character, but alas, cancellation and whatnot. Only 23 minutes for your entire story arc, sir! And it's not just the story; the characters suffer, as well. Any and all progression they were making in bettering themselves is thrown out the window entirely. That's because...
Problem #4: The ending is an incoherent, rushed mess. It took me many viewings to finally understand what the ending was all about, and considering the circumstances, it was probably the best ending that could have been made. But leaving that all aside, it's more still shots with a metric ton of white text on black backgrounds with stock footage and clashing philosophical and ideological ideas being thrown back and forth like it's a game of "football" between Johnny and Mark. You've been following the series this long, and all you had to show for it was a migraine and a broken TV (because you punched it, of course). The sheer animosity that fans had towards the ending has led it to becoming one of the most infamous in pop culture history. Is this how you end a series?!
Phew! Now then, with all that said, would I still advise you to watch Evangelion? Well, it's a long and complicated subject, but the answer is yes. Not only is it one of the classics that has become required viewing for anime fans, but it also shows incredible promise in its early episodes and is enjoyable on that level. It also serves as a good cautionary tale for any aspiring animator or director out there, showcasing both what to do and what not to do. Either way, everyone should watch Evangelion at least once in their lives, because it just gets awkward in any detailed conversation about anime if you haven't.
Final Score: 7 out of 10. Even though there are numerous problems caused by poor handling of budget and the unfortunate cancellation of the series, the first two-thirds of the series still has enough action, drama, mystery, comedy, and horror to justify its popularity.