Neon Genesis Evangelion sounds like it was named by someone playing the most pretentious game of mad libs ever. The Japanese name of the show, Shinseiki Evangerion, literally translates to “The Gospel of the New Century”, which is somehow even worse. If you don’t know anything about it, the name conjures images of some kind of art house deconstruction of Judeo-Christian dogma, or perhaps a really depressing Cyberpunk tale that is a cautionary story about the evils of powerful men and a reflection on the human soul.
It does not conjure images of giant, skyscraper sized robots shooting aliens that range in size from “skyscraper” to “asteroid” with guns the size of city blocks. The phrasing of that is confusing, so let me be clear – the giant robots have the guns. The enormous aliens have lasers, force fields, claws, death ribbons, and mind altering light rays.
My love of giant robots fighting giant monsters is well documented, so of course I decided to watch Evangelion when it became available on Netflix. I was enjoying the action sequences, then I got to the halfway point and realized it was an art house deconstruction of Judeo-Christian dogma and a cyberpunk cautionary story about the evils of powerful men and a reflection on the human soul told though the medium of kickass giant robot fights, which is the form I’m now demanding all reflective artwork takes.
I’m quasi-serious here. You want me to listen to how it is not creatures, but men, who are the real monsters? Fine, do it with giant robots. You want to talk to me about how human suffering is an internal construct we can rise above if only we reject the shackles of society? Throw some mecha in there and I am so game. Tale of the hardships of growing up in middle America? Well, represent those hardships with monsters the size of the small town that torments you, and I’m sold.
The point is, Evangelion is something you absolutely should watch, no matter what your tastes are. Here’s why:
Evangelion did not create the giant robot genre or the giant monster genre, and it wasn’t the first to look at those genres and go “Man, you know what would be great? If these two awesome things duked it out!” Those were, respectively, Nuclear Powered Android (1948), The Lost World (1925), and Gigantor (1956). It’s not even the first to look at those things and say “Hey, maybe a giant destructive force beyond the control of mankind could be somewhat metaphorical.”
What Evangelion did was revitalize interest in all of the above. In the 80’s and 90’s, Japanese animation was going through a slump owing in part to economic issues the country was facing at the time. At the same time, American animation was dominated by the post-Reagan deregulation influence, which allowed animated shows to be written as giant toy commercials. Science fiction in that era was also in what I like to call the “Post Star Wars Hangover” phase, where Star Wars had completely changed how we think about science fiction.
Popular culture was not interested in giant robots or giant monsters at the time, and where it was, it wanted Transformers or Voltron or later on Power Rangers – shows that are good and deserve their place in popular culture, but weren’t exactly drawing in adult viewers.
Evangelion changed all that. It had an explosive popularity in Japan, and is credited with both revitalizing the animation genre over there and helping anime break into the mainstream in the rest of the world. Wherever it went, it helped people break out of the mindset that “anime/animation is for kids.” Evangelion wasn’t the first anime to explore deeper themes, but it was the first to do so while being wildly popular.
If you’ve watched anything with either kaiju or mecha produced since 1996, you’ve encountered Evangelion influences. It’s practically as big in Japan as Star Wars is in the states, a cultural touchstone everyone knows. For an example of how this bleeds over into the real world…you know how back in the 80’s the anti-nuclear missile defense system was called the Star Wars program? Well, in 2013 during the Fukushima disaster, the Prime Minster of Japan made a reference to an episode that featured a nationwide blackout to deal with a national crisis to help contextualize what was happening.
That’s the level of influence we’re talking about. But of course, you’re now wondering why it got so popular. Well, it’s because it has…
Something for Everyone
First of all, it has giant robots and giant monsters. I might have mentioned that a time or twelve in this blog post. I’m sure I’ll mention it began, because as we know, every human being on the planet should love giant robots and giant monsters, so this should be enough for it to have broad appeal.
However, it has come to my attention that not everyone loves both those elements, or they aren’t enough for everyone to go watch something. I don’t understand that – it’s a bit like learning there are some people who don’t like oxygen – but if you’re one of those people that demand ‘substance’ or ‘plot’ or that I ‘get to the point already,’ Evangelion has you covered.
Do you like a gradually unravelling mystery centered around a deep conspiracy? Well, Evangelion has that, although it’s on such a slow boil that it takes a little while for it to even come to light – which is exactly how I the best gradually unravelling mysteries work. Do you like highly symoblic works? Evangelion draws its symbolism from Judiasm, Christianity, Kaballic teachings, and filters it all through a Japanese cultural lens. Everything – the giant robots, the aliens, the people – is symbolic of something. Like reflective science fiction? Evangelion’s mirror is the size of its enormous robots. A fan of looks at Christianity through a science fiction lense? Oh yeah, we have that in spades.
If you’re not into any of that inherently, there’s still the basic storytelling level – where this show absolutely succeedes.. It has a solidly structured plot both for the individual episode conflicts and the overall meta-narrative swirling around it. The characters are far more three dimensional than they seem in the first couple episodes and undergo believable arcs. It’s got action, it’s got romance, it’s got exploration of the actual traumas that would be endured by people going through this kind of hellish reality. There are slow and quiet episodes where the characters are given room to breath, and there are faced paced episodes that have you on the edge of your seat. The mysterious nature of the aliens, called ‘angels,’ give the show a horror feel at times.
And if you’re still leery of it because anime, well…
It Deconstructs Anime Tropes.
Stop me if you heard this one – an anime with three main characters. There’s the male, who is good guy who wants to help people and is overly emotional. There’s girl A, who is emotionally detached and withdrawn. There’s girl B, who is overly emotional and combative. The male, who is of course the protagonist, has two friends – one is the tough guy that respects the main character but also competes with him, and the other is the smart guy that mainly provides exposition. The first three characters have access to the tools they, as teenagers, need to save the world. The second two don’t have access to those tools yet, but they will get them sometime around the mid point.
Okay, you were supposed to stop me.
I’ll admit that when I first started watching Evangelion, I wanted to roll my eyes at the tropes. Teenagers save the world is probably my least favorite sub genre of Anime, because it always comes across as fake and forced, so this is going to be…oh. What’s that? The show is using teenaged characters so it can realistically delve into the psychological traumas that child soldiers face? And the two friends without powers aren’t going to suit up – or if one does, it’s going to be used to show how dangerous these machines are to operate?
And it does. The characters are all anime stock archetypes at the start, and then takes each of those stock characters and fleshes them out over the course of the show. I don’t want to reveal too much about how because spoilers, but each of them go through a character arc that is a believable outgrowth of being a teenager thrust into a war.
It goes beyond the principal three characters too. The adult characters are portrayed as adults – they’re flawed, but they are more than just children who own homes. The teens crushing on the attractive older characters is something the adults treat as sweet but never give of a vibe they’re even remotely interested because they aren’t perverts, instead having parental or older sibling-like relationships they try to establish with these kids. The teens crushing on each other does fall victim to some anime slapstick, but overall is treated as realistic and has an air of being ultimately doomed because all these teens are deeply traumatized.
That trauma is also well handled because it’s used to inform the characters and underlay the struggles they go through, but it doesn’t become a depressing mass sitting on top of the plot like a lot of modern day attempts at representing trauma, nor does it become something that’s awkwardly tacked on like some movies I could Iron Man 3 I mean mention.
If any of the above appeals to you, give Neon Genesis Evangelion a whirl. Strap yourself in, you’re in for one hell of a ride.
If you give it a try, let me know what you think in the comments below! And if you want a story that looks at other mythology through the medium of gods having math fights, check out my free book for a taste of Small Worlds.