On October 4th 2015, Neon Genesis Evangelion turned twenty years old, ten months after we entered the year it was set in. I decided to do something different to honour the anniversary of such an iconic series. So here’s some reasons why I fell in love with the series, and some reasons why I don’t love it as much as I could…
Why I love it:
It makes you think
One of the things I love about any series is the moments where they really make you think. Evangelion has plenty of these, questioning what makes a good person, whether mankind has a right to interfere with the natural order and whether that power should be given to one person. All of these themes are present in Death Note – another one of my favourites. Just as Light’s grey morality caused some self-reflection, Shinji Ikari’s emotional journey made me consider whether I’d do the same in his position. Like with Light Yagami, most of the answers were ‘no’, but the fact that it made me doubt for a moment, proves that there isn’t always pure black and white. I like the fact that it’s mentally stimulating enough to prompt a debate. I like the fact that it’s so full of religious allegories, raising questions of what it means to be a God. I like the fact that you can read between the lines. A lot of people don’t appreciate series that require too much brainpower, but most of the time, I’m the opposite. Being able to think about it makes it so much more engaging.
The characters are multi-faceted.
And it isn’t just the moral dilemmas that are complex. Each and every one of the main characters are developed to some extent, revealing their backstories and motivations. Understandably, the majority of the focus is on Shinji, but the other chosen children and the people around them are explored. We see the parallels between Shinji and Misato’s father-related problems. We see the contrasts between how Shinji and Asuka handled their mothers’ deaths. And how Asuka’s past affects her relationship with Rei is made explicitly clear. All three of the original Children have been wronged by the adults in their lives – being used and seen as disposable unless they show their usefulness. The difference lies in how they react, even if it ultimately leads to their own destruction. They each have their own reasons why they pilot the Evas; Shinji to prove himself to his father, Asuka because it makes her feel worth something, and Rei because she was born to pilot. But as I said before, there is no clear cut distinction between good and evil. Characters who seem pure to start with make decisions that blur the lines and make them more multi-faceted than before. While some of the actions that they make, I can’t forgive (see later on this article), some of them do not affect my judgement of their character, because I understand that good people can make mistakes, especially if they’re 14 years old.
Strong Female Characters
Worryingly often, when an action series has any kind of woman among its cast, they tend to fall under the Strong Female Character ™ trope. Yes, that is with capital letters. You’ve most likely seen the type, the kind of girl whose worth lies in how well she can kick ass, without any effort to make her three-dimensional and flesh out her personality. However, a 20 year old anime is giving life to their females much better than a lot of media today, and isn’t that a sign that we should be doing better? A lot of the action is carried out by the women, most notably Misato as commander, and the pilots of the other Evas (especially Rei when Shinji’s being a weenie) but these are not their defining features. Evangelion is far from a feminist series but the diversity of its female cast is a definite plus. There are quiet girls, girls with attitude, scientists who are good at what they do, commanders, schoolgirls and even women who like other women (I’m looking at you Maya). And like I said before, we explore their backstories, and discover what makes them human. Ritsuko’s troubled relationships with her late mother, Gendo Ikari and Rei Ayanami drive so many of her decisions, right down to the very last moment. She balances this recklessness with a logical side necessary for her position as head of science, the conflict making her an interesting character to follow. These women are truly strong female characters, and not the capital letter kind.
The Evas are more than just robots.
Another thing which interested me about Evangelion, is the fact that the Evas themselves are so much more. In a lot of the mecha anime that I’ve seen over the years, the robots are just machines, just tools to be used. But from the moment Eva Unit 01 moved its hand in episode one, Evangelion has been different. They’re almost human with minds of their own, minds that require a pilot with a compatible brain. And if the pilots can control the Eva while synched, the Evas can control the pilot. Because of this, we get things like Berserk Mode, were the person inside can temporarily lose their humanity. While there are major spoilers of what the true nature of the Evas is, particularly Unit 01, it is clear that these giant mecha are not just robots. Even the LCL fluid inside the entry plug is unfamiliar and interesting, as each plug is filled with this breathable liquid which can carry oxygen directly to the bloodstream. It’s these factors which pull the series closer to the sci-fi genre – something which is very welcome, as straight action can become a repetitive mess of explosions and testosterone sometimes. Add in the semi-sentient nature of the Evas and it’s a recipe for success. By making it more science-driven, it makes you wonder if it’s logical. By making it more philosophy-driven, it makes you wonder if it’s ethical.
Even though the original episodes look somewhat dated twenty years later, the story is still as fresh as ever. As someone who was completely new to the series last year (despite having an unwatched copy of Death and Rebirth stashed in my anime collection for years), I found myself thoroughly enjoying it regardless of how old it is. Two decades after it was first released, you could expect to have already been exposed to cheap imitations of the original, which would ruin its uniqueness. But the plot is still ‘new’ – still largely unpredictable. Even with some of the plot twists floating around on the internet, the journey to get to those points is mostly unspoiled so with careful browsing, you can enter the series as a blank slate. Even though the visual quality of the original 26 episodes is showing its age, the art style would not look out of place in a new release. In fact, the reboot movies used exactly the same style, only upgraded with cleaner graphics, making it look like a brand new series. The Rebuild quadrilogy is an ongoing movie series which retells the story of Evangelion, with some changes. The fact that the series is still so well loved, with the opportunity to revamp and introduce new storylines without spoiling the existing ones, is great. I know that the Rebuild of Evangelion has caused a lot of controversy in the fandom, particularly with the long-term fans, but I personally think that it’s the perfect introduction to someone who wants to watch the series, but lack the time to watch the episodes, or are distracted by the aesthetic of mid-90s anime. I would recommend watching the original first, as the reboots don’t go into as much detail, but the fact that more people are discovering the series through those films is always a positive thing.
And why I don’t:
With Evangelion, its greatest strength is also its weakness. Even though it’s thought-provoking and more engaging than your average anime, it can cross the line into pretentiousness. At times, it almost feels like it’s trying too hard to be intelligent. Any series that includes references to religion and mythology risks taking itself too seriously. While the majority of Evangelion finds the balance, and many of the original 26 episodes manage to handle all of the series’ mythos, trying to tie everything up at the end proved to be difficult. Budget cuts in the final episodes didn’t help, leading to reused footage and minimalistic new animation which made it even harder to understand. And that’s not even mentioning the Congratulations scene. The studio was later able to afford to redo the ending, releasing movies to cover what was missed first time round but it was still confusing. This pretentiousness has infiltrated a considerable portion of the fanbase, prompting not only online speculation, but academic journals as well. As I said before, I like reading into things, and fan theories are something I enjoy, but given that Anno himself said that he only included Christian imagery because it seems foreign and interesting to Japanese viewers, trying to look for meaning in those religious references seems counterproductive. You can pretend that you understood all of End of Evangelion, but you’d probably be lying.
Sexual Assault (Trigger Warning)
A major issue that I have with the series is how it deals with sexual assault. On more than one occasion, Shinji took advantage of Asuka while she wasn’t able to give consent. Once, trying to kiss her while she was asleep, and once in that infamous hospital scene in End of Evangelion. The first is normalised, as we’ve already been made to feel sorry for Shinji. Asuka shouts at him when she finds out, calling him a creep. While that’s definitely the case, it’s sort of played for laughs, in a “poor Shinji doesn’t know how to deal with girls” kind of way. Even though this isn’t as serious as it could’ve been, it’s not funny either. This is especially true considering that they’re 14 years old, and girls that age value kisses more than older women. It comes across that he’s forcing himself on her, and if it isn’t stopped at that stage, it could get worse. And get worse it does. In the hospital scene, it’s true that exposing her was an accident, but how Shinji dealt with that is an important distinction. He could’ve have corrected his mistake, and covered her up, but his actual decision was inappropriate. But at least that is acknowledged, by Shinji saying that he’s “fucked up”, and the Asuka in his dream sequence calling him out on it. The majority of that scene was unnecessary and my enjoyment of the series is lessened because of it.
Another scene in that movie which alters how I see the series, is the moment when Misato is dying. She kisses Shinji, promising to give him more when he got back if he got in the Eva. While Misato is my favourite character of the whole series, this feels uncomfortable and creepy. Even though the age of consent is 13 in Japan, Youth Protection Law prohibits adults from having relations with children under 17. Shinji was 14 and Misato had just turned 30 at that moment in time, so the fact that she is over twice his age and he is still a child means that had it actually happened, it would be illegal. While I understand that she probably had no intention of following through, even if she wasn’t about to die, it’s still unsettling. And searching for fanfiction in the Evangelion section provides so many Shinji/Misato stories. I’m usually the type to let people pair whoever they want, but when it crosses the line and involves underage children, I don’t like it. And it’s not just Misato. After Kaji’s throw-away line about buying Shinji a drink, the Shinji/Kaji pairing took off, and that’s just as bad because the age gap is the same. It’s not like there are no other yaoi alternatives, as Kaworu is only 15 and shows an interest in Shinji. And even if Asuka does like Shinji, I think she deserves someone who won’t take advantage of her. Because a lot of the popular pairings don’t feel right, I tend to avoid some of the online content. This is uncommon for me, who likes to consume as much of a series as possible.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.