Neon Genesis Evangelion is a 1995 anime series produced by Studio Gainax and directed by Hideaki Anno that ran for 26 episodes, which, despite issues with time and terrorism holding the team back, soon became the highest selling anime series of all time. Tell me if you’ve heard this before: A 14 year old main character needs to pilot a robot and save the world from aliens, along the way amassing a group of cute girls of the same age who also pilot giant robots and fight said aliens. That’s “most” mecha shows in the 70s and 80s. Pretty basic, right? Well what if I told you that all the bullshit angst and depression that these types of characters usually go through, was made genuine, and became a legitimate part of who they are, instead of a plot device thrown in there because why not? And what if the implications of these aliens was taken fully into account, as was the actual explanation for why they need little fucking kids to pilot the robots? Yeah, that’s Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Aesthetically, Eva is uhhhh…. Eva. The character designs are slick and detailed, using a wide variety of shades and having a bit of a lankier and more human feel to them. The mech designs are extremely alien and eerie in nature, but also have a very slim and compact design, especially compared its predecessors like the original Gundam, which is a bunch of styrofoam cubes placed on top of each other. The fight animation is famously impressive, with clean lines, very unique settings and ideas, and fluid movement. What goes unnoticed usually is the way timing and sound effects are used to truly convey how huge and heavy the Evas, which is the random name they give to the robots, are.
I can’t talk about NGE’s production without talking about the direction. Anno is a crazy director, and he pulls tricks in Eva that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. A good chunk of the dialogue is shot with both of the characters in the same frame, and shots tend to flow well because of how the position of the previous shot leads your eyes to where they should be for the next one. During moments of intensity, the cuts are rapid and feel almost uncomfortable, to really ramp up the tension, and to great effect. Even the launch of the Eva, which happens in almost every episode, is cut together like they’re about to run out of time in the episode or something.
About ⅔ through the series, a whole plotline had to be scrapped because of a recent train bombing. Because of this, the final 6 episodes of Eva are infamously minimalist. Episode 19 is an absolute tour de force of animation, and it looks nearly film-quality, but the rest of the series drops off hugely. Not even entirely in a bad way, as some of the most powerful scenes in the show were made far more effective because of the creative things that Anno and his team had to do to make the scene happen at all. The ending of episode 24 is the best example.
The soundtrack is very iconic and fitting. The first half relies more on music that sounds bombastic and exciting, like Decisive Battle, while the second half uses more strange and synthetic tunes, to match the darker themes and more psychological nature of those episodes.
The voice acting is extremely impressive. Evangelion’s cast is nuanced and human, and the actors manage to sell it completely. Ogata Megumi’s Shinji scream is legendary for being absolutely mortifying and making the audience feel just as pained and scared as the characters. Fumihiko Tachiki manages to pull off Shinji’s dad, Gendo, being both terrifying, imposing, and sympathetic at the same time. Yuko Miyamura’s performance as Asuka is the tsundere voice, yet the softer and more complex side of Asuka is made even more powerful in contrast. Megumi Hayashibara’s impression of a baked potato is shockingly accurate. Few can portray Siri’s voice with such effort and grace.
As for the sound design and sound effects, they compliment the show rather well. The sounds of crunching bones kinda causes physical pain, in a good way. The way that the sound of birds, crickets, crowds, etc is used to convey loneliness or isolation is the highlight in the sound design department, though. Anything I’m forgetting with the sound? Oh shit, how could I forget? I haven’t mentioned the ED yet, which switches between many different covers of the classic song “Fly Me to the Moon.” Nothing else with the music? Okay, moving on.
Onto the characters. Shinji Ikari, the protagonist, is a 14-year-old boy who was abandoned by his father at a young age, after his mother’s death, which caused a lifelong need to please others, leading him to just do what he is told. He has a fear of upsetting people who he gets close to, so he isolates himself with music and keeps himself distant from people. His arc throughout the series, rather than being a straight line, is more like peaks and valleys, which I feel is the more realistic approach in this case. However, his panic attacks, while sometimes understandable, can be unrealistic or downright silly at some points. Most of the time, it’s not a problem, but there are a few very noticeable moments of Shinji acting in a way that I couldn’t imagine a human being acting.
Asuka Langley Soryuu, otherwise known as “Patrician Choice”, is a 14-year-old girl who joins the cast in episode 8, and acts as a foil to Shinji. While she is bombastic and tsuntsun, it’s caused by a burning insecurity, which causes her to need others to be impressed with her. While Shinji wants to get by just pleasing people, and not standing out, Asuka wants to stand out as the best. She steals every scene she’s in, and remains my favorite aspect of the series. Asuka is the best.
Rei Ayanami, otherwise known as “Plebian Choice”, is a silent classmate of Shinji’s who drops in and out of the series at different points, mainly just to deconstruct some troupes and be scary, then leave. Her arc does get an extremely satisfying conclusion in the film sequel, End of Evangelion, but in the original series, she has more of a plot-based resolution than a character based one.
Most of the other characters can’t really be talked about without spoiling more than I already have. I will say: Misato, Shinji’s guardian, is the most natural and realistic character in the show; and Gendo, Shinji’s father, is a phenomenal villain.
Character nuance and little plot details are conveyed rather subtly, especially in the first half. Little gestures, symbols or directing tricks will tell you more about the characters than over-the-top unrealistic characterization ever could, and things are often implied rather than stated. It’s not even a particularly “subtle” show, but it definitely does leave a lot of great details, and it certainly is a subdued experience compared to most anime. A rewatch of Evangelion is genuinely as impactful as the first watch, which I can’t say about a lot of shows, especially these days.
However, all of that doesn’t apply to the themes of the series. Neon Genesis is not remotely subtle with its themes, and it really shows. Three whole episodes, two of which are the final two episodes of the series, are spent expositing ideas. It’s not even narratively sensical either. It just comes out of nowhere, and takes place entirely inside Shinji’s head. While the final 2 minutes of the series are among the most cathartic and profound in the series, the two episodes prior of theme-dumping is not warranted.
The pacing is occasionally a bit awkward as well. Some episodes around the middle could be tightened up a little bit, to make for a more compact experience, and could probably shave an episode or two off the total runtime. The tone also shifts majorly 3 times, without really any warning, and it’s jarring, strange, and could have very easily been patched up.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is among the most genuine, natural and emotional experiences within the anime medium. While it has some issues with pacing, the ending, and some forced emotions occasionally, it remains so great because it understands people. It takes great strength to look within yourself and create a work that explores the way that we feel on the darkest of days. It’s a timeless classic, and, if nothing else, is worth watching for its impact on the industry.