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Beginner's Guide to Neon Genesis Evangelion

The complex saga broken down.

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.


The Story

 Shinj and Unit-01
 Shinj and Unit-01

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.

 Asuka and Unit-02
 Asuka and Unit-02

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.

Characters

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.

 
 
 
 
3. Rei Ayanami
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.
 
 
 

 
4. Asuka Langley-Soryu
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. 
 

 
5. Gendo Ikari
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?

 The dream team.
 The dream team.

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

 The true finale.
 The true finale.

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?

 The kids and their ghoulish Evas.
 The kids and their ghoulish Evas.

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.   


BUYER'S GUIDE

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.

hitsusatsu11on June 1, 2010 at 2:25 p.m.
My recommended viewing order:  
1) Original series (dub or sub) 
2) Directors cut episodes (dub or sub) 
3) Death and Rebirth (dub or sub) 
4) End of Evangelion (dub or sub) 
5 ) Rebuild 1.0 or 1.01 or 1.11 depending on which release (dub or sub) 
5) Rebuild 2.0 or 2.22 depending on if you saw it in theaters or DVD/Blue Ray (only sub is out) 
 
If your really into the series, I recommend watching it all Dubbed and Subbed, to see the subtle differences and different takes on things. 
 
Also read the Sadamoto manga for a alternate take on basically the same original story line, and possibly check out some of the slice of life manga's like Raising Shinji and Angelic Days.  
 
Also watch Petite Eva for lulz. 
 
But honestly I do not see the comparison to watchmen.
FoxxFireArt moderator on June 1, 2010 at 2:36 p.m.
This is a nice guide. One of the reasons that I never bought a box set of this series is that I had no idea which one to get. Platinum/Perfect/Director's Cut 

A lot of words that don't mean a hell of a lot. I had purchased a lot of the mangas, but stopped after I started my VIZ boycott.
 
I liked Misato. Pissed me off when she is killed.  I liked her enough that I was thinking of her when I was designing a character of my own. They don't look anything alike, but there are some similarities in some personality. More about being a carefree and decadent person, but who honestly wants to do right by someone she cares for.
 
I do have to say that I was never too concerned about the Lance of Longinus. I already knew that as the name of the spear that peirced the side of Christ in the bible. I just saw it as another piece of religious iconography.
barashinon June 1, 2010 at 2:37 p.m.
Just started watching and stopped half way through the series. Things got boring!!
nVisionon June 1, 2010 at 7:33 p.m.
Just watched the "you are (not) alone" dvd and it blew my mind. 
Cant wait to get hold of the other movies!
hitsusatsu11on June 1, 2010 at 7:44 p.m.
@nVision: O man, if 1.0 blew your mind, wait til u see 2.22!
MercuryCrusaderon June 1, 2010 at 10:50 p.m.
Everything Neon Genesis Evangelion did, Space Runaway Ideon did over a decade before it, and did it better.
 
If you liked Evangelion, see if you can find a way to watch Ideon. If you can't watch it because it isn't dubbed or because it was made in 1980, congrats, you're terrible.  If you can't watch it because of the characters or plots or something like that, but had no problem with Evangelion, that is confusing as crap.
hitsusatsu11on June 1, 2010 at 11:30 p.m.
@MercuryCrusader: Really? I think Eva has Ideon beat in every category. More interesting story, Mecha designs, characters, imo Eva has the big edge. 
MercuryCrusaderon June 1, 2010 at 11:43 p.m.
@hitsusatsu11:  At the very least, a lot of what Evangelion is famous for was inspired by Ideon. Unfortunately, most anime fans don't realize that.  As a result, Evangelion is seen as this totally unique, completely original concept that totally didn't get its inspiration from anything else.  Also Ideon apparently doesn't exist because it is old.
hitsusatsu11on June 2, 2010 at 12:02 a.m.
@MercuryCrusader: Well of course Anno was inspired by Tomino, they worked together before and Tomino was somewhat of a mentor to younger Anno. Eva draws on well known philosophy (both classic and modern, in regards to human instrumentality) as well as accepted psychology (Freud, Yung). The melding of all this together is unique in that it is a reflection of Anno's depressive thoughts expressed in a mecha anime. In my mind no anime before or since has melded together excellent characters, religious iconography, psychology, philosophy and wrapped them up in package of intense mecha action, great animation, and very nice musical accompaniment like NGE has. To me it is just an anime that "works" on so many levels. 
MercuryCrusaderon June 2, 2010 at 9 a.m.
@hitsusatsu11:  You almost had me until you used "religious iconography" which I'm sure Anno only used because "it looked cool" and nothing more.  Kind of like when kids who don't know Japanese start belting out words they kind of heard in an anime as a way to say "hey look, I know Japanese" but they really don't.  The psychological stuff is a bit more accurate. 
 
In any case, a lot of the themes in Evangelion derived heavily from Ideon, which I found to be a better show overall. Your average anime fan doesn't even know Ideon exists (your average anime fan doesn't know a lot of things, not getting into that). I'm pointing out that there is another show that predated it that had the same themes (and for all intents and purposes, the same production level; Ideon was cut short while Evangelion's last few episodes made it look like a mismash of budget constraints. Then Ideon had two movies to wrap up the ending, the first episode being a summary of the TV series and the second being the real ending, which Evangelion then used in a similar manner).   Regardless, they're both fine shows on their own merits. I'm just not a teenager anymore and can objectively look at Evangelion compared to everything else made that had similar thematic elements. And as a result, I did find Ideon to be the better show of the two. 
 
That being said, I'd rather not have either show represented in Super Robot Wars games anymore because AT Fields are overpowered defensively, and Ideon is overpowered offensively.
hitsusatsu11on June 2, 2010 at 3:11 p.m.
@MercuryCrusader: The religious iconography has an important place in NGE. Even if you think the actual symbols are only for show, the effect it has on characters are important. One example would be Misato's faith and concept of God, which is seen through her dialogue and in the significance of the cross she wears.
 
Don't you think your coming off as a touch to anti NGE? Ideon is in no way a perfect show and in many design and plot elements is less serious and more childish then NGE. Also the Ideon itself looks like the Gun cannon from MSG. Maybe instead of assuming anime fans are dumb for their preferences, you should accept a majority simply believe NGE is better than Ideon.
LeoTravis10on June 2, 2010 at 4:46 p.m.

One of the first anime titles I brought from "The VHS days" back in the mid 90s. Didn't like the concept at first but got a better understanding when I brought the Platinum sets years later. 
  
For me it's best to get the Platinum boxsets and EoE if there's any left. That's the best way to fully experience Eva in the anime side. Very good extra content on the Platinums including the Mythology of Eva which was interesting to watch. In the manga side I would get the Eva mangas. Came out before the anime did and it has better understanding and I'm a fan of Sadamoto-san's art over the years. 
   
As far as the Rebuild series it's still out for debate among most people but IMO It's decent. Like how they used some of the manga concepts into the films but I wish they would get into it a bit deeper. 
 
Great job on this Eva beginner's guide! 

MercuryCrusaderon June 2, 2010 at 9:06 p.m.
@hitsusatsu11:  Yeah, I'm not so much "anti-NGE" as I am a disgrunted, old fart that thinks you young'uns think you know it all, even though I'm acting like a know-it-all.  And yeah, Ideon isn't a perfect show, but neither is Evangelion.  That title goes to Voltes V probably.
hitsusatsu11on June 2, 2010 at 9:13 p.m.
@MercuryCrusader: Lol fair enough. As far as older mecha shows, I'd give it to MSG or Zetta both had problems imo but they made RR what it is.
ethan staff on June 2, 2010 at 9:22 p.m.
@MercuryCrusader: @hitsusatsu11:  
 
What's the next guide Tom should write up?
hitsusatsu11on June 2, 2010 at 9:27 p.m.
@ethan: Depends, I would think he'd right up DN since he's watching it now. After the success of him watching and now writing up NGE and tackling DN, id love to hear his take on Lain or Elfen Lied. Certainly it's interesting to see a one time self proclaimed anime outsider go at some "difficult" titles. There was great interest/debate when he reviewed Eva episode by episode, and DN seems to be doing the same. I'd say stick with the "more mature" theme. 
MercuryCrusaderon June 2, 2010 at 9:50 p.m.
@ethan: The expansive history of one of Japan's most popular Super Robot shows: Mazinger Z.  This will be impossible as it'll require watching an early 1970s show spanning over 90 episodes, along with the manga that inspired it, the just-as-long sequel Great Mazinger, the second sequel Grendizer, the various crossover movies, the early 2000s OVAs of Mazinkaiser, the recent Mazinger Z reboot Shin Mazinger, etc.  But man, would that be a fun research project.
ReVolutionOfEvangelionon June 4, 2010 at 7:17 p.m.
Well thanks for mentioning our site.
 
Oh, the "Mysteries of Evangelion"?  Nothing is a "mystery" because nothing is beyond our comprehension if we apply our minds to rational analysis.
 
Minor points:
 
There are 17 Angels, not 18. 
 
You seem to be spelling "Nerv" in all capitals as "NERV".  Its not an acronym, nor does the series consistently spell it using all-capitals.  I explain, with screenshots, in this video:
 
 
  
"What happened to Shinji's mother?"
 
Oh, they explained that in End of Eva.   As for the "Contact Experiment"...that was no accident; as she explains in flashbacks in EoE to Fuyutuski, she knew *exactly* what she was doing.
 
"Where do Evas come from?"
 
Evangelions are clones of the first Angel, code-named "Adam".  Except for Eva-01, which is a clone of Lilith.  Adam and Lilith are Seeds of Life.  Angels are also the children of Adam, created from Angel-eggs that Adam made.
 
"So if Evas and Angels come from Seeds of Life, what are Seeds of Life?"
 
4 billion years ago, stereotypical Scifi God-like Progenitor Aliens (like from 2001: A Space Odyssey) seeded the galaxy with life, by shooting out into space these artificial life-producing creatures called "Seeds of Life" that land on a planet and start up an ecosystem.
  
Seeds come in two kinds:  "Fruit of Knowledge" types, like Lilith, produce what we consider standard terrestrial environments, which result in sentient races of millions of people.  
 
"Fruit of Life" types, like Adam, produce Godzilla-like kaiju monsters, like the Angels, which are giant and have superpowers but are few in number and not really sentient enough to make a civilization.  They're not life as we know it.
 
There are Angel-planets and like, Na'vi-planets (with sentient races) "out there" in the Eva verse we just don't see them.
 
The big rule is that an Adam-type and Lilith-type can never land on the same planet; the aliens feared that if they merged, they could have "both the fruit of knowledge and the fruit of life" and become a Living God (Godzilla-like superpowers AND the sentience to put them to interesting use...)
 
Purely by accident, Earth got two Seeds.  Originally Earth was supposed to be an Angel-planet, as Adam landed here 4 billion years ago.
 
But then Lilith violently crash-landed into Earth (the debris from the collision later reformed due to gravity, creating Earth's Moon)....so Lilith started spreading a terrestrial ecosystem ("primordial ooze" that gave rise to single-celled life), and Adam went into dormancy.
 
"What is the Lance of Longinus?"
 
 
A control mechanism that the aliens sent along with the Seeds.  Lilith's got destroyed in her collision into Earth.  As the only remaining Lance on the planet, Adam's Lance made the best of a bad situation, an d "Turned off" Adam, sent Adam into a dormant state, rather than let two active Seeds exist on the same planet.  The Lance is recovered in episode 12, and then used as a control mechanism on Lilith.
 
"What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?"

 
Not an actual religious text.  They're a manual the aliens wrote that they sent along with each of the Seeds as a warning, and guide on how to stop Adam and Lilith if they both landed on the same planet.  
 
The shadowy Seele organization (a power cabal which is a generic mish-mash of the Fresmasons and Illuminati) found the manual but hid its true nature from the world, and when they found  out about Adam and Lilith, decided to abuse this knowledge, and merge Adam and  Lilith under their own direction, to harness the power of a Living God for their own ends.
 
"What is Second Impact?"

 
Seele sent the Katsuragi Science Expedition to find Adam in Antarctica, then using the Lance of Longinus with Adam....intentionally turned Adam on, in an unstable way, which resulted in Adam exploding.  The goal was to reduce Adam to a controllable, embryonic form...and that worked.  However in the few minutes that Adam was "active" it was able to 1 - spread the Angel-eggs of the 16 Angels (Adam's Children)...which got spread across the world in the explosion, and 2 - the explosion from Adam flash-melted Antarctica, causing massive tsunami and raising the global sea level, cutting the population of Earth in half.  Seele knew this would happen, they didn't care, it was a necessary sacrifice for them.
 
Problem was....merging Adam and Lilith won't work if any Angels are still active.  So they had to make the Evangelions -- cloned from Adam's genetic material -- to fight them.  But the real goal of the Evas is to assist the Adam/Lilith Hybrid when it gets made, in making the "Anti-AT Field" that will "merge all minds into one" on a global scale.
zaldaron June 8, 2010 at 5:29 p.m.
Only have the perfect collection but watching that for the second time and talking about it on my blog here on the site.  Going to be analyzing the episodes as I go along.  Come check it out!
 
((interesting comments on the end of eva, I actually liked the end of the series and haven't watched that one, guess I"ll have to check it out))
MetalGearFlaccidon June 17, 2010 at 9:20 p.m.
@ReVolutionOfEvangelion: I think he wanted those to be left as a mystery for the viewers; you may already have a large amount of working theories that explain them in a way you understand, but maybe he wants those seeing it for the first time to get their own ideas? But I'll give you the 17-18 Angels thing. He might have gotten it from the Rebuild series.
 
In addition to revolutionofevangelion.com, I'd like to suggest evageeks.org for fans wanting more in addition. The forums are an awesome way to debate theories and ideas, with new ones being thought of every day. Nothing is as set in stone as everyone thinks, and it's cool to see old ideas and thoughts completely get revamped when new information is found. 
Check out their wiki for some awesome lost stuff, such as a few propositions for alternate endings to the series (werewolves. yes, werewolves), and info on some interesting extracannonical data.

Dig Deeper into Neon Genesis Evangelion

After its premier in 1995, Neon Genesis Evangelion became famous as one of the most dangerous and groundbreaking anime of all time. It has spawned three ongoing manga and three movies, with three more on the way.

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