NEON GENESIS EVANGELION has been over for more than a decade, but time hasn’t diminished its popular nor it's controversy. Having recently entered the world of “EVA” as a beginner, myself, I can attest that this show is worthwhile viewing to anyone looking to get into anime. As I've said many times in my column, few stories have captured my imagination so totally as EVANGELION and I'd already rank it as an all-time favorite in any medium - - comics, movies, novels, video games, and so on. It's really that good and I encourage you to watch it now.
In the “far-away future” of 2015, the world of EVANGELION is suffering from the ramifications of the Second Impact, a mysterious global catastrophe. The official story is that a meteor crashed into the Arctic and melted the polar ice-caps in 2000, but that really isn't the truth. Even though half of Earth’s population is dead and some major cities are now underwater, daily life’s more or less going on as it has, barring the occasional angel attack.
You read that right - - angel attack. These things that are attacking are called “angels” but they definitely aren’t beautiful winged cherubs who dress in white robes and play harps. These angels are giant alien monsters who come in progressively more bizarre forms. When it becomes obvious that these beasts can’t be taken out with .50 caliber fire or heavy-duty rockets, the shadowy organization NERV slides in with a solution. It’s got a line of equally-strange giant machines called Evas which can take these monsters on, mano-a-mano.
Who better to pilot these walking weapons of mass destruction than some maladjusted teenagers, right? The story starts when young master Shinji Ikari is summoned to a rebuilt Tokyo-3 to save the city from Sachiel, the third of eighteen rampaging angels. It just happens that Shinji’s father, Gendo, is the head of NERV. It also just happens that Shinji’s the only one who can pilot the powerful “ Unit-01” Eva (and the reasons for that proved to be very… icky, by the series’ end.)
Shinji’s life of adventure begins thusly, as he’s joined by Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley-Soryu, two teen pilots who are just as troubled as he is. Since his mother’s long dead and his father's keeping him at arm's length, NERV’s captain Misato Katsuragi takes it upon herself to look after him as he balances the typical angst of attending high school and having to save the world every week. It's kind of like he's a freshman on the varsity basketball team.
The story goes that EVANGELION’s creator came up with this show after a four-year-long bout of depression, so that ought to give you an idea as to where these characters are coming from. Everyone's got some kind of emotional problem, and some fans have actually taken the characters to represent specific psychological disorders.
1. Shinji Ikari
The whiniest, wimpiest world-saving hero you'll likely ever encounter - - and that's what makes him so interesting. A shy teenager, Shinji questions himself and his motivations so much, he makes Hamlet look decisive by comparison. Somehow, though, he frequently manages to save the day. Somehow.
2. Misato Katsuragi
A captain of NERV who's simultaneously a red-blooded ass kicker and a bubbly RA. Not surprisingly, she has significant trauma in her past and some heavy "daddy issues." She adopts Shinji when no one else cares about him and they form a familial relationship that occasionally gets inappropriate.
The mysterious "first child" of NERV's program and pilot of the prototype Unit-00 Eva. Don't be fooled by her cute blue hair and big doey eyes; Rei's a big downer. She's reticent and unemotional to point of seeming autistic, and her true origins are messed on levels psychological, biological and, well, spiritual.
A feisty German fraulein, Asuka (pronounced "AHS-KAH) is the "second child" and pilot of Unit-02, an Eva with red coating to match her fiery hair. Outgoing and enthusiastic, she seems like the only normal Eva pilot, but when her fellows start doing better than her, she loses her self-esteem in the worst way.
Shinji's father and the commander of NERV, Gendo's a world class mastermind and also a world class jerk who's inhumanely cold and distant in relation to his own son. Surprisingly, he's quite the ladies man (though it's actually kind of gross.) Give him points for making white opera gloves work, though.
What Can This Be Compared To?
Calling EVANGELION just another giant robot anime is like calling WATCHMEN just another superhero comic. Much like that seminal graphic novel did, this show deconstructs the tropes of its genre and fills its cast with three-dimensional characters whose damaged personalities are a far cry from the straightforward heroes you’ll usually find in escapist fiction. If you enjoyed LOST for its complex storyline and long-standing mysteries, then you’ll love this show. It rewards you for paying attention and many later revelations will change your perception of earlier episodes if you watch them again. At times, the storytelling recalls the work of Stanley Kubrick, particularly 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, in that many key plot points are never stated outright and you’ve really got to use your brain to peace together the puzzle and decipher the heady ideas. That being said, it’s still a very accessible show, and you can enjoy it without fully comprehending all the deeper meanings. However, if you desperately need answers when you get to the end - - WHAT HAPPENED TO SHINJI'S MOTHER?!?! WHERE DO THESE EVAS COME FROM?! WHAT'S THE LANCE OF LONGINUS?! WHAT DID I JUST WATCH ?!!? - - I recommend checking out fan site ReVolution of Evangelion for an extensive exploration of the series' mysteries.
What You Need to Know
EVANGELION is the brainchild of Hideaki Anno, one of the co-founders of the animation studio, Gainax. The 26 episode-long series ran on Japanese TV from fall ’95 to spring ’96, and it was followed by two movies, DEATH & REBIRTH and THE END OF EVANGELION, in ’97. There have been several mangas that spin off threads from the story into different directions, but the show is always the original. It's not an adaptation. Currently, Gainax is putting out REBUILD OF EVANGELION, a series of feature-length remakes of the show, with animation updated to modern standards. You can think of these as big screen adaptations of the show, more or less, with altered characters and a streamlined story.
What Should You Watch?
Due to budget problems and censorship threats Gainax suffered while producing the series, the studio hasn’t always gotten to properly execute its original intention. As such, they’ve gone back and re-done parts a few times, creating a number of different versions. For clarity, you should get the Platinum Collection DVD box set instead of the Perfect Collection, as it includes “director’s cut” versions of key episodes with additional scenes and key alterations that really are necessary to understanding the show as a whole. You can skip DEATH & REBIRTH, as it’s just a condensed series recap, but you need to watch END OF EVANGELION. That isn’t negotiable. You are absolutely going to hate this series as whole if you stop watching with the last TV episode. Gainax ran out of money by the time they got around to making that finale, so it's an entire episode about the characters talking about their feelings and psychological hang-ups that leaves major points of the series unresolved. Think of END OF EVANGELION as the deluxe-sized final episode and be sure to check it out.
Once again, you ought to get the Platinum Collection, not the Perfect Collection, and then order END OF EVANGELION as well.
There you have it, NEON GENESIS EVANGELION broken down for the beginner. I can't recommend this series enough. A true tour du force, it'll warped your mind and maybe even change your life.