I have been watching Neon Genesis Evangelion again recently. I just finished watching episode 16, the infamous one in which Eva-01 violently rips its way out of an Angel. At this point, I think my thoughts are set in stone somewhat.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is a franchise that I adore very much; I am one of those types that just eats up the merchandising like Homer Simpson eats, well, anything. I am not exactly wealthy, so I do not own nearly much as I would like, but I can guarantee that if I had the means I would buy anything related to the series. Even that infamous NERV bucket. Which, at around 4,980 yen (roughly $40.00 in 2015), is a giant rip-off compared to the Home Depot Bucket at about $4.00. Yeah, well, it’s a NERV bucket! Limited edition! (It’s also a steel bucket, FYI, whereas the Homer Bucket is plastic).
I own the Perfect Edition of the original TV series, plus the Director’s Cut versions of the last few volumes (so, if memory serves, around the last six episodes). I also own The End of Evangelion, two versions of Rebuild of Evangelion 1.11 (one DVD and one Blu-Ray), two versions of Rebuild of Evangelion 2.22 (the official FUNimation DVD release and an imported copy from… I don’t know where).
As for reading material, I own some volumes of Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s official manga, the first volume of Angelic Days (which I actually like), the “Der Mund” artbook by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. I am tempted to get Ayanami Raising Project, but I do not want Campus Apocalypse and Shinji Ikari Detective Diary, thank you very much.
I, of course, own those figures. Those two small ones were actually by lottery; they come in these little pink capsules. In Japan, they are dispensed at vending machines, and they are supposed to be random (if you have seen A Certain Scientific Railgun, Mikoto would go to a Gekota machine whenever she saw one; kinda the same idea, but I don’t think those come in capsules). Not pictured are two Revoltechs, one of Eva-01 and the other Eva-00, still in the boxes (you can kinda see the boxes at the bottom).
Of all the merchandise I own, Evangelion merchandise beats the rest by far.
There’s more, but I think you get the point.
Considering all of that, would it be strange for me to say that Neon Genesis Evangelion is not my favorite anime? (for those curious: it’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time). In fact, would it be strange for me to say that I think Neon Genesis Evangelion is not even great?
Perhaps I could get away with saying something like that, if I were more specific: Neon Genesis Evangelion the franchise is great, while the Neon Genesis Evangelion the show is not.
What is it about this show that I do not like? Well, most of it can be summed up as: it is just too inconsistent.
Let us forget about the animation (which is more famous for being inconsistent), and let us focus instead on one important element that the show cannot decide upon: tone.
In the beginning, the show manages to nail down a pretty bleak tone. I have the feeling that Hideaki Anno was trying to capture a world on the brink of extinction; the use of Christian symbolism, the world shadow government, huge amounts of resources being devoted towards fighting off the Angels. Chairman Keel tells Gendo that the Human Instrumentality Project is humanity’s last hope, and carrying out that project is NERV; NERV is a global effort, operating in at least a dozen countries, completely devoted towards defeating the Angels and carrying out that Project. It all has a very “End of Times” feeling to it. Heck, you might even say that the Second Impact is the Great Tribulation (both events marked by mass suffering, war, catastrophe, famine, etc.) and that Third Impact is the Second Coming (Eva-01 becomes God and all humanity transcends into heaven)*. It seems that humanity is preparing for one last (catastrophic) event, and that event is so important that the entire human race is contributing towards it.
Not only did the tone start out dreary, but the show also made it clear that its characters are suffering. Episode 4, “Hedgehog’s Dilemma,” (one of my favorite episodes by the way) in particular focuses on the stress that Shinji is feeling. One thing that many people seem to have missed is that Shinji is a child soldier; at fourteen years old, he was conscripted into the paramilitary organization NERV. Shinji is a child expected to engage in armed combat. Episode 4 conveys this stress by creating an “other worldly feeling,” in that Shinji wanders around Tokyo-3 but always ends up in situations in which he feels like he does not belong. He begins to feel lost. Hideaki Anno creates one of my favorite scenes in the entire series in this episode. Shinji is standing in the middle of the park. He can hear nothing but the things from faraway, and instead of painting the scene with predominantly orange colors (as it is the afternoon) the scene is painted with purple. Purple is not necessarily symbolic for anything, but the point is that the world feels alien to Shinji; afternoons in anime are generally orange, and rarely are they purple anywhere (I, at least, do not remember any). Shinji hearing things from far away, rather than what is next to him, further adds to the “other worldly” feeling. Shinji’s stress manifests itself as detachment and lack of direction.
This is the sort of thing I like about Evangelion. I think perhaps the best thing about the series is that it satisfies the sadistic aspect of people. I like to watch these people suffer. Not because I hate them, but because watching them suffer is just so entertaining.
The big weakness of the series, then, is that its characters are not suffering all the time. The tone of the series is not always dreary and bleak; sometimes I forgot that this world just came out of the greatest catastrophe in human history (and it preparing for an even bigger one). Sometimes, everything is just happy, normal, typical. In other words, I feel that the show loses its focus. It took what made it strong, shifted itself away from that, and then returned to it about halfway through. I do not watch this series for the teenage comedy antics of Shinji, Rei, and Asuka crawling through an air duct; nor do I watch this show so I can see Shinji and Asuka play twister. The happy humor episodes are, well, boring. While those were fine episodes, I feel that they were placed in the wrong series. I watch this show to be entertained, and the most entertaining parts are when the characters go through trauma.
When the series finally snaps out of it and puts the suffering at the forefront, it becomes great again. All of this culminates in The End of Evangelion, which I consider better than the TV series because it knows exactly what it wants to accomplish (a lot of suffering).
The End of Evangelion is, then, supposed to be the best part of the story. It should be the part that made its influence last for so long, right? I do not think that it was the talent of Hideaki Anno and Studio Gainax that made the show memorable. There are definitely many other anime that I enjoy more than Evangelion, but none of them have taken as much money from me as Evangelion. More impressively, none of those can claim that they were so dominant in the anime industry for almost 20 years and counting. If I were to pinpoint a reason, I would say that the franchise’s greatest strength lies not in the show but in its marketability; in other words, Neon Genesis Evangelion may not be the best anime, but it is the best at selling.
*In which case, Chairman Keel is the Antichrist that united the world under one government.