by Luv Mehta
In 1995, Neon Genesis Evangelion, a Japanese animated show based on an original script and running for 26 episodes, represented a seismic shift in the form and format of storytelling not just in anime, but in multiple forms of media all over the world, to the extent that even modern US animated shows have multiple references to its imagery.
In 2021, the final Evangelion movie, Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon A Time, was released theatrically as the final piece of Evangelion storytelling. While it's possible that the studio might make spinoffs of varying quality and scope in the future, this is the final end of Evangelion (funnily enough) as a story told by a singular vision.
In 2010, I watched Neon Genesis Evangelion for the first time and felt five emotions all at once upon finishing it - disappointment, wonder, catharsis, anger and confusion - and all those intensified upon watching its followup theatrical movie, The End Of Evangelion. Since then, Eva has had a tight grip on my psyche and tastes, being the one piece of media I've always called my eternal obsession.
Over twenty-two years later, I've watched the final Eva movie and I have a lot of thoughts, and I'm struggling to put all of them into words. But let's try anyway.
(Heavy spoilers for all of Evangelion follow here)
You Can (Not) Forget
First, the boring history portion - Neon Genesis Evangelion was released at a time when adaptations of manga (Japanese comics) were the norm, and while anime original series were not unheard of, they were generally in the minority. NGE was a monster-of-the-week series that turned into a psychological mystery, and since there was no source material for viewers to read and know its direction, everyone was hooked. Some of the main characters of the show (the ones I mention in this article further down, anyway) were as follows:-
Anno had been famously upfront about suffering from depression throughout the production of NGE, which he changed substantially to reflect his growing self-loathing and isolation. The TV series and End of Evangelion, therefore, exist as fascinating pieces of art that humiliatingly reflect the psyche of a single creator. That's why I find it so interesting that Evangelion spawned a trillion-yen franchise and became part of the cultural lexicon of Japan - for a point of comparison, Star Wars is a similar cultural touchstone for USA, but the movies that kickstarted the franchise are substantially safer and more universally beloved.
Ten years after End of Evangelion, Anno released the first in a series of films called Rebuild Of Evangelion, a new rebooted continuity for Evangelion that would take the story of the original series with updated animation, a new score and better mental health on the part of Anno himself. The first movie (Evangelion 1.0, released in 2007) covered the original series' first six episodes and made a few changes but was mostly faithful, then the second movie (Evangelion 2.0, released in 2009) loosely covered the next thirteen episodes and ended up being simultaneously more cheerful and more devastating, with a completely different direction taken for the ending. The third one (Evangelion 3.0, released in 2012) took that new direction and plunged the story back into gloom and isolation, and as the films reflected Anno's relapse into depression, the series went on hiatus for nine years before finally concluding with Evangelion 3.0+1.0, released in 2021.
And that's the history of Evangelion. Now that the boring historical context is out of the way, it's time for what this article is really about - MY history with Evangelion.
You Can (Not) Rebuild
Back when I was a schoolkid and watching as many classic anime series as I was able to pirate, Evangelion stood out from the rest for how thoroughly it angered and confused me, made me want a different story that was more traditional and concluded in a more satisfying way for me, and never left my mind. I hated the ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion, an abstract duo of episodes that refused to conclude the story and only concluded the emotional journey of its protagonist - a hatred I moved away from after a few years and many rewatches. I hated The End of Evangelion for being so misanthropic and contemptuous of its viewership - another hatred I moved away from after a few years and many rewatches. The twenty-six episodes and concluding movie of the original run of Evangelion stayed rent-free in my head and constantly challenged me, and my opinions on it kept changing and mutating.
Now, I think the original run is a masterpiece, and Neon Genesis Evangelion is easily my favourite anime series ever, and (possibly) my favourite television series ever. I love how the series focuses on multiple characters and their internal emotional journeys, and while it still feels frustrating when these characters can't meaningfully form connections with each other because they're afraid of heartbreak, it still feels nakedly human.
The above stands as an interesting contrast to my thoughts on the Rebuild series. Eva 1.0 made a few changes while still largely being the same story, but Eva 2.0 had extended scenes where the characters DO end up forming emotional connections with each other, with heartfelt conversations, teenage crushes and explicit actions taken towards emotional fulfilment. The third movie dialled it all back, however, restricting its focus to Shinji and leaving him isolated and shattered - while End of Evangelion feels like the most emotionally raw movie in the franchise, Evangelion 3.0 feels like the most emotionally cold.
Eva 2.0 became my favourite story in the franchise upon my first watch, and Eva 3.0 left me unsatisfied. But of the first three Rebuild movies, Eva 2.0 was the movie I progressively felt more disappointed by, with time and more rewatches, and to explain why, I need to talk about Nagisa Kaworu.
The central three characters of the series are the Evangelion pilots Shinji, Rei and Asuka, with Shinji being the lead protagonist - much of the focus is on Shinji's personal journey through depression, self-acceptance, and psychosexual self-hatred - he has clear attraction towards Rei and Asuka, his two female co-pilots of the same age, and there are hints of them reciprocating to a certain extent, but none of the three are emotionally healthy enough to confide in each other or open themselves up enough for even a clear friendship. The hedgehog's dilemma, a philosophical metaphor brought up in the show itself, describes it best - these people want to be close to each other, but being close to someone means vulnerability and the risk of being hurt, which they're all afraid of. Rei and Asuka don't receive as much of a focus as Shinji, but their inner psyches, along with their conflicts and traumas, are still explored and interrogated to a large extent. Throughout the show, it's clear that the three would benefit from knowing someone who's emotionally open with them, expresses clear and explicit affection without fear, and shows them that they're worth being loved.
Enter Kaworu, another Evangelion pilot, a character with almost as much influence as each of the core three, despite only appearing in a single episode in the original run. For Shinji, Kaworu represents exactly the kind of person I described above - an external force of affection that makes someone feel loved and accepted, so they might feel safe enough to open themselves up and love someone in return. Kaworu doesn't need an internal arc or unresolved traumas by design - he's a person meant to show the protagonist what it feels like to be accepted and loved, and what it looks like to accept and love someone. His death is a tragedy specifically written for Shinji as well, to drive him inwards because of that loss. He returns in Eva 3.0 to fulfil the same role, and similarly acts as a simple character fulfilling Shinji's need for company and acceptance after being hated and isolated from everyone in his own life.
What I'm trying to say here is, Rei and Asuka can't be characters with the sole goal of driving Shinji's character development in the TV series, because they're fleshed out with their own internal arcs and wants and needs, so Kaworu can act as a singular force to accomplish that goal - this is why I actually like the focused simplicity of his raison d'etre.
So anyway, Rei and Asuka in Eva 2.0 are characters sketched with the sole goal of driving Shinji's character development.
Their personal traumas are acknowledged, sure, but their personal character arcs all revolve around Shinji. Even Eva 2.0's version of the iconic elevator scene with both of them highlights this change - in the original series, their conflict comes from Asuka's drive towards superiority as a need for personal fulfilment and her dismissal of Rei as a puppet, versus Rei's own personal motivation for satisfying the role placed on her conflicting with her increasing desire for increased personhood.
In Eva 2.0, the conflict is because both of them like Shinji, and he clearly prefers Rei.
This is the main reason why I had become increasingly sceptical of the Rebuild movies as a whole - while the series did majorly focus on Shinji, the first three Rebuild movies near-exclusively focus on him, to the detriment of all its other characters. This can be mainly attributed to Anno, since he explicitly sees Shinji as a stand-in for himself, identifying with him the most and giving him all his neuroses and fears - which becomes more interesting with the case of Eva 3.0+1.0, the fourth and final Eva Rebuild movie.
You Can (Not) Return
There's a nine year gap between the third and fourth Rebuild movies, and Anno gave the reason for it a few years ago - he had relapsed into heavy depression, and he felt like his viewpoint had changed so drastically over the years that he couldn't identify with Shinji anymore, relating more to Gendo, Shinji's abusive and aloof father. He had to go to the voice actors for the characters and ask them how to conclude the character arcs, and this has seemed to affect the movie pretty prominently - the myopia of the movie's perspective was one of the most frustrating things about the third Eva movie, which chose to solely focus on Shinji, and Eva 3.0+1.0 has a thirty minute portion focusing on characters other than Shinji, and depicting a pastoral settlement of survivors trying to do their best and live a good life in the ruins of the world. This REALLY helps in getting us invested in the fate of the world, especially since we've seen numerous apocalyptic events in Evangelion without really seeing the humdrum sweetness of ordinary life beyond our main cast, and we need an anchor point to make us care about not wanting the world to end again. And in the backdrop of it all, Shinji lies wordless and paralyzed, unable to eat or speak.
Eva 3.0+1.0 is laser-focused on providing character-arc conclusions for everyone in the cast, be it tragic or happy. We saw a Rei growing to be happy in the first two movies, then saw her removed from the story completely and replaced with a clone developed separately and receiving no character moments in the third movie, so seeing this Rei clone go through a fully developed tragic arc in that pastoral portion of the movie made me completely emotionally hooked. We saw Asuka in the first two movies, but I didn't like her character development in those movies revolving solely around her crush on Shinji, so seeing her acknowledge and explicitly resolve her feelings was really cathartic to watch.
A huge part of this fourth movie was the focus on emotional catharsis, actually. There's a third act that goes into full-blown phantasmagorical imagery, sights and sounds inspiring more spiritual horror, and a lot of new pseudoscientific terms being tossed at us like machine-gun fire, and yet the movie never loses sight of the fact that all it's doing is providing more space for emotional catharsis. And the moment it completely won me over was when it finally emotionally dissected Gendo Ikari, the primary antagonist of the entire series - while his motives and reasoning weren't really surprising, hearing him emotionally talk about how much he was in love with his wife (the enigmatic Yui Ikari), how empty and horrified he felt on losing his wife, and how much he overcompensated to supress his feelings and dump his self-loathing on to other people was extremely satisfying.
All this, and the ending leads to a reset - one for the entire universe, one where Evangelions never existed in the first place, and all its characters are seemingly happy and fulfilled. Time resets are a pretty old trope in stories, especially in anime (I can mention two massively popular anime series that use the same trope off the top of my head), and the fact that Eva uses such an old trope to end its story is slightly disappointing, but I don't mind all that much. This is Hideaki Anno's conclusion to the story, not just for us, but for himself. No more Evangelions, and no more trauma. Hopefully.
And that's also why, while I think this is the strongest Rebuild Of Evangelion movie so far, it's also no masterpiece. How could it be? Neon Genesis Evangelion and The End of Evangelion weren't just masterpieces, they were earth-shattering stories that disrupted everything in their path and influenced countless stories for years to come. The most the Rebuild movies could ever have done was exist in their shadow, and all Eva 3.0+1.0 could ever do was finish the franchise in a satisfying way.
And it did! It just feels strange - I've always told my friends that Eva is, and always will be, my eternal obsession, and it's not going to change. Now, there's a satisfying capper on a franchise that has resisted imparting any degree of satisfaction, and that's fine, but I still feel strange, and I can't put my finger on why.
Maybe it isn't even about Evangelion, in the end. Maybe it's the fact that an incomplete chapter from my teenage years came back, said "Miss me?" and proceeded to conclude itself with a satisfying paragraph. There's closure, not just for Evangelion, but for that chapter of my life.
Maybe, in the end, I should just get used to the concept of closure.