Spoilers ahead: Throughout this review are minor spoilers relating to the events and themes of Neon Genesis Evagelion, it’s follow-up movie, The End of Evangelion, as well as the recent four-part film series, Rebuild of Evangelion. Whilst no outright details are revealed, themes relating to the show’s climax and subsequent finale are. You’ve been warned.
Also, stick around for a trusty guide on each instalment of the NGE franchise – from what is what and where to start!
Neon Genesis Evangelion. Neon Genesis Evangelion. Oh man, this is going to be a long one. If you’re unfamiliar with the name (and it’s a wordy one, I’ll give you that), Neon Genesis Evangelion is an anime television series that ran from October 1995 to March 1996. It tells the story of schoolboy Shinji Ikari, who is called upon to pilot an ‘Eva’ – a colossal mech that defends humanity from angels; though in this story, they’re hardly the righteous crusaders of Earth. In NGE, angels are evil, formless beings that sporadically descend from the heavens above and wreak havoc.
And this anime became massive. So massive, in fact, that it’s still one of the most iconic anime to this day; frequenting all the ‘Top Ten’ lists and standing out against the likes of Cowboy Bepop, Code Geass and even Sailor Moon. It spawned a movie, countless millions in merchandise, and a feature-film retelling of the series in Rebuild of Evangelion – the last part of which was released in March of this year.
But why is Neon Genesis Evangelion quite so loved? What does it have that keeps its name and legacy enduring to this day? Well, easy, really. It’s got an enthralling story. For starters, NGE is packed with religious imagery; from various cultures and depictions – creating its own lore and universe that’s like our own… and yet completely different. To emphasise my point, the angels in Evangelion are evil – sent down at varying points along the show’s duration to lay waste to humanity; bolstered by powerful forcefields named ‘A.T. Fields’ (Absolute Terror Fields).
Ever since a near-cataclysmic event in 2000, dubbed ‘Second Impact’, humanity has retaliated against the ever-increasing angel threat by establishing NERV; an organisation within the heavily fortified city of Tokyo-3, which monitors the creatures and combats them with huge mechs, named ‘Eva’s, or ‘Evangelion’ units. These titanic structures of steel and other things, are the ultimate culmination of hubris – Man fusing angel and mortal soul into one vessel; each piloted by children (and almost certainly the inspiration for Pacific Rim). Shinji Ikari, the anime’s protaganist, pilots such a mech, named Unit-01, which is thrust constantly into the depths of combat and uncertainity – causing him to doubt himself, and question his own motives.
Basically, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a whole mishmash of things. On the surface, it’s a somewhat-dystopian mecha anime that subverts the idea of angels; depicting them in faithful, terrifying form but serving as enemies of humanity. But it’s also a show that, fundamentally, borrows heavily from Jewish and Christian mythology. You can watch it as light entertainment; or something much deeper, and more profound.
Well, you can watch most of it like that. For much of the show’s original 26-episode run, the story of man vs. angel is the focal point, along with a cast of characters you grow to love and hate. But around the episode twenty-two mark, things get… deep. Like, really deep.
Hideaki Anno, the show’s director and progenitor, borrowed a book on psychology by a friend (a move his friend promptly regretted, I imagine), and it became something Anno lost himself in. It made an obvious and lasting influence on his work; and left NGE as equal parts robot anime and psychological fever dream. The show’s finale – episodes 25 and 26 – are made up of internal struggles and conflicts between Shinji’s brain and himself, climaxing in an ending that both bemused and disappointed fans. The original series’ finale is… tough to understand, and doesn’t offer much in hte way of guidance.
Following this, Anno released The End of Evangelion a year later; a movie that was meant to fully realise the man’s intentions and act as the series’ true ending. And it’s a spectacle. A one-and-a-half-hour rollercoaster from start-to-finish – with engaging fight scenes, traumatic farewells and… still a lot of weird, psychological stuff. In fact, somehow, it’s even worse. Sexual paranoia and multi-layered parables snowball out of control in an avalanche of plot and metaphor, leaving the viewer rather perplexed, to say the least. It’s no joke when I say the series’ ending, and Neon Genesis as a whole, have left symptoms of depression in some viewers. Even if you’re the soundest of mind, it’ll have an effect on you.
And it’s supposed to. The show (and movie) talks about understanding life itself; recognising that pain is a fundemental and vital part of living – and escaping to dream-like fantasies doesn’t really do anything. It’s something schoolboy Shinji has to come to terms with, and becomes an integral part of the show’s climax. Anno himself has admitted to the influence from his own, four-year struggle with depression. And it’s this kind of mind-f**kery that’s helped make Neon Genesis Evangelion the phenomenon it is. Sure, it’s a great anime anyway, with an awesome concept, but the series’ finale is like no other, truly.
And it’s furthered by the diverse range of characters belonging to NGE, too, from the timid, introverted Shinji to mysterious and curiously reclusive Rei Ayanami, or mother figure, Misato Katsuragi – constantly shifting between professional and seductive. There’s Ikari’s father, Gendo, who remains distant and removed, or fellow Eva-pilot Asuka, who can’t help but berate Shinji the first chance she gets. You care about the characters; relationships; their fights, their fall-outs. Because they’re crucial to the psyche of each character – and the psyche is what Evangelion is about, at its core. The show takes the human self – the mind, the soul, the physical vessel – and makes it so damn fascinating. And also terrifying. Very terrifying.
In short, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a once-in-a-lifetime anime. It’s hard to put into words, and yet you could quite easily write several essays on it (or a thesis, if you will). The show takes the teachings of Jung and Freud, wraps them up in a ball of adolescent sexual fantasy and feeds it through the facade of an action-packed, apocalyptic adventure movie. There are a plethora of themes that run throughout NGE; and all of them could be picked apart for weeks.
From the rampant real-world imagery and mythology woven throughout, to Anno’s views on the human soul and living as one, it’s impossibly intricate. And indisuptably clever. It gets inside your head; I mean wow, this series really sinks its teeth deep into the recesses of your mind. It makes you think, it makes you cry, and most of all it makes you question. NGE leaves you feeling something; and I’m sure that something differs from person to person. It’s intense, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone watch it unless they’re sure they can deal with its themes, but it wouldn’t be the same show without them.
NGE shows you the desolation of a vacant planet in horrifying reality; but illustrates how living alongside others can be a source of unending, boundless pain. It deals with the idea of a God and, if such an entity exists, whether it’s ‘good’ or not. What even is ‘goodness’? Evangelion gives you a taste of the human consciousness; whilst dealing out violent fight scene after fight scene; as angels are mutilated and ripped apart, as Evas are crushed and battered time and time again.
There’s a reason its name still dominates the anime scene to this day. I really don’t think we’ll see another Neon Genesis in our lifetime. And maybe that’s a good thing. Like angels and humans, there’s only really space for one on this earth.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: The Guide
Neon Genesis Evangelion – This is the original, 26-episode anime that ran from 1995 to 1996, telling what was meant to be a pretty complete story, before fans asked for a clearer climax and creator Hideaki Anno got to realise his complete plans in The End of Evangelion. The original anime was released in Japanese, but promptly dubbed for international audiences with English-speaking voice actors. Note: the original series is available on Netflix, albeit with newly-dubbed voices, different from the original dub. There are many lists out there on how these dubs differ!
The End of Evangelion – A full-length, feature film released in 1997 as a follow-up to the 26-episode series, telling the clearer climax to the complete story – specifically episodes 25 and 26. The original series and this film are commonly seen as the general NGE canon, and what most fans refer to when discussing the anime as a whole. As a result, both of these are a must-watch. As with the original series, this film was broadcast in Japanese, and later dubbed by English-speaking actors, and once more – with new actors – when hosted on Netflix.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death – The first part of a 1997 film, Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth. Though released before The End of Evangelion, the two parts of this film are generally regarded as unncessary watching. The first part, Death, is a re-cap of sorts, of the first 24 episodes of the original anime, along with a few extra, additional scenes and re-drawn sequences; though nothing of real importance. Not required watching, but perhaps something to look through when you’ve finished the original series and film.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death(True2) – Simply an edited version of the Death(True) film, which itself was an edit of the original Death film. Whereas Death(True) removed some footage from the original feature, Death(True2) added the footage back in. I only note this release because it is what is on Netflix at the moment (dubbed the second time round as with Netflix’s other Evangelion releases). Otherwise, it has no difference to the previous entry in our guide.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: Rebirth – The second of two parts in the film, Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth. Whereas the first part (Death) is essentially a recap with a sliver of exposition, Rebirth is simply the first 24 minutes of The End of Evangelion, albeit in a more primordial state. Rebirth was released as a kind of teaser to fans of what was coming with the climactic End of Evangelion movie – and thus, if you watch that film, Rebirth is completely obsolete. There is no real reason to watch this.
Rebuild of Evangelion – Perhaps the most interesting entry on this list. Rebuild of Evangelion is a series of films – of which there are four in total – essentially retelling the story of Neon Genesis Evangelion for a wider and newer audience. However, Rebuild doesn’t take long to make a major departure from the original series, telling a new story with new characters, different plot points and a completely new ending. Even the original characters have different sides to them not conveyed in the original NGE series. Rebuild consists of Evangelion 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone (2007), Evangelion 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance (2009), Evangelion 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo (2012), and Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon A Time (2021).
Note that there are also minor reissues of the above movies with names such as ‘Evangelion 1.11′ – these are simply versions with slight edits, generally released for home media, and do not differ greatly from the original, theatrical cuts. The Rebuild films were also released in Japanese (with subtitles), and subsequently dubbed over by the original English-speaking actors. To date, they are not available on Netflix. The final film in the series, Evangelion 3.0+1.0… has also not yet been released outside of Japan.
In short, it can seem daunting knowing where to start. The original anime and follow-up, The End of Evangelion are must-watches and, as stated before, serve as the general, complete NGE experience. Death & Rebirth may prove interesting for after, but as a whole make for unnecessary viewing. The Rebuild of Evangelion series of films, however, are certainly worth a watch – just make sure to separate them, and their characters, from the original anime. They are remakes, and convey a totally different story. Whilst at first, they do not share the same ‘dark tone’ as the anime, they quickly descend into similar, psychologically intense issues and themes, and I do recommend them after viewing NGE and EoE.