While Neon Genesis Evangelion is easily one of my favorite shows in anime, I always was apologizing for it. I easily buy into the common idea of it being flawed, and having many problems. Part of my initial impression of the Rebuild of Evangelion series was how I liked some of the changes they made. I felt that the shows problems were being addressed in some way. But I didn’t quite trust this feeling.
Instead I rewatched the whole TV series over a period of five days. I took notes of my real-time impressions, and was quite surprised at how incredibly satisfying the whole experience was. I came in expecting to validate all my complaints, only to witness them evaporate. Why did I remember being so disappointed and frustrated? Why do I feel so impressed now? What happened to me? Did the show change?
A Quixotic quest to find the deep flaws of Evangelion
Before I continue, I need to distinguish between statements like “the show is deeply flawed,” or “Evangelion has many problems.” These are statements I took for granted coming into my rewatching. What I think is that a statement claiming ‘deep flaws’ needs to be objectively clarified. There has to be objective flaws identifiable and measurable in the text. I think the best example of such a flaw is the plot hole.
Are there plot holes in Evangelion? You’d think there are tons, given the rhetoric ‘deep flaws’ and ‘many problems.’ In my experience, I find none. At the very least, none that break any significant plot progression.
In the Tv Tropes list of plot holes in anime, you may be surprised to find not only there are no mentions of Evangelion, that there are few examples of at all. How can this be? Commenters in forums and blog posts call out shows regularly for ‘craters’ and ‘gaping’ holes in the plot. But we find that there is an important distinction between actual plot holes, and stuff that just bugs us.
If I scrutinize very closely, I’m sure I’ll find many things that bug me, but often these things aren’t significant enough to the plot. They may be world-building touches that aren’t as smooth as I want them to be. In any case, they are problems that I have with the show, and not necessarily actual plot holes that become the most significant arbiter of quality.
The heart of my [former] discontent
What impressed me initially about the show was first and foremost the robots and the related action sequences. While the battles themselves weren’t always spectacular, the confrontations with the angels were for the most part novel or remarkable.But on the other hand, not only do some of the battles seem spectacular, but they come across as iconic to the traditions of robot anime.
Then, the characters; the main cast who were all special in their damaged ways. Even Shinji, who frustrated me to no end was a character I would never forget. Thirdly, the mythology – the interesting (if dodgy) use of Judeo-Christian elements to create an involving science fiction world.
Given these impressions, it shows that when watching this show I am a robot anime fan first and foremost; a fan of characterization next; and a fan of world building third.
I became frustrated with NGE because I thought that the best way to end the series was with a climactic battle with angels, wherein the production pulls out all the stops and animates an intense, gory battle where all Eva units go berserk, et cetera.
Instead, the most I got was Tabris controlling Unit 02 who momentarily got in the way of Unit 01 as he made his way down to Terminal Dogma. The Evas grappled while Shinji raged and felt torn and betrayed. In the end it became a knife fight and it was good. Ultimately though, Tabris didn’t put up a fight. He remained in the form of Nagisa Kaworu, and the terrible thing was how he made Shinji crush him in Unit 01’s grip.
Then ‘Instrumentality’ started and I experienced this mindfuck in the form of two episodes of dialogue that is difficult to ascertain if it is happening in the reality of the show. The finale itself mostly working as a picture drama. The ‘victory’ at the end seemed wholly abstract, and fully divorced from the expectations for a violent robot battle kind of resolution.
The hated hateful protagonist discovers a way to like himself. WHOOPDEEDOO. I could never accept this as okay for all these years. The victory is so minuscule relative to both what was at stake, and how my expectations for action weren’t fulfilled. I thought of it as a terrible derailment on what was an amazing feat of storytelling up to episode 24.
Surprised at being surprised about finding brilliance and execution
If I were impressed by those episodes leading up to the finale then, I’m blown off my feet now. From the the opening act, the narrative used an interesting technique wherein the conclusion of what was a cliffhanger ending of the first angel battle was postponed until the end of the second episode.
While it was obvious that there was no real suspense because we don’t really believe that the protagonist actually dies in the first battle, the conclusion of the battle was postponed to the end so the plot is moved forward and we’re still gnawed by anticipation for the battle. Excellent work, and its legacy lives in the shows that came after, like Eureka SeveN .
Mea culpa, Jet-Alone
I can’t go into every moment that demonstrates the superlative quality of the show, but here are a couple that really got to me. I had once truly believed that the episode involving Jet-Alone, when the United Nations tried to out-do NERV by making their own robot, was filler. When I revisited it I found several things of note:
- How the show raised the issue of misogyny
- How the show put forward that it is as about Misato as it is about Shinji
The attitude of the UN boys was to dismiss NERV, especially when it sent Dr. Ritsu Akagi (and Misato) to do a “man’s job” (attending their demonstration, saving the world, &c). Then they set out to demonstrate their ultimate weapon, the Jet-Alone – a comical representation of the Japanese salaryman: an individual tool that can be run by committee/bureaucracy.
It fails, and the warnings Rit-chan gave them about putting a nuclear reactor within it came true. It was going to have a meltdown, and there was nothing they can do about it remotely. Who saves the day? Misato. How does she do it? Sheer guts.
She goes into the critical reactor of the Jet-Alone, and when the manual code fails to stop meltdown, she physically stops it by pushing the emergency cooling system into place (all 100 lbs. of her).
Then, it’s revealed that the whole mess was sabotage orchestrated by Gendo Ikari and NERV. Who undermined who? Who played brains? Who played brawn? At the end of the episode, what of misogyny? Delicious.
To think I dismissed this as filler!
Dancing when I wanted to win
While I think Asuka’s entrance in episode 08 (Asuka Strikes!) gave me iconic moments (Unit 02 skipping over Aircraft carriers and battleships wearing a cape!), the succeeding episode: Both of you, dance like you want to win! is superlative in that it makes for a brilliant representative of the possibility and the element components in anime storytelling. If I were still teaching in university and I had an opportunity to feature anime, I would easily take this episode and make it part of the lesson if not build one around it.
Episode 09 had these things going for it:
- A wide range of humor and comedy (slapstick, sexual, irony, meta)
- Framing of the ‘love stories’ to occur in the narrative (the ‘innocent’ and childish Asuka x Shinji, then the pained, regretful, and sexual Misato x Kaji)
- Plot progression ongoing despite the slice of life method of delivering the entertainment
- Bureaucratic dynamics, as manifested in Fuyutsuki’s embarrassment over both loss and victory over the angel.
- Developmental Psychology (aggression and submission dynamics between Askuka and Shinji relative to skill development)
- A dramatic set-piece battle between two pairs of giant robots using a ridiculous conceit (dancing and choreography of attacks to classical music)
All these things was presented via conventions native to anime (visual, comedic cues, characterization turns, referencing traditions) that can still be found in contemporary shows. Truly a rich, meaty episode!
The End of Evangelion
To recapitulate, the crux of my disappointment then was the finale. It represented what seemed to me a tiny triumph of a protagonist I find little sympathy with, told through a wretched excuse for animation.
As much as I want to declare NGE a Misato story as much as a Shinji story, Misato’s takes a back seat. She is a main protagonist indeed, but a secondary one above all the rest. Shinji, the depressed boy in search of an identity is faced with it, and the choices before him.
The choice that everyone is waiting for him to make (as ‘everyone’ is constructed within the space of ‘Instrumentality’) is to accept himself for everything he is, and everything he is not. This too, is love.
I only had my own moment of this kind of clarity as an adult, I was already 25. It may seem a very difficult path that Shinji had to take to get to this distinction of being, but his discovery went down far easier than many other adults’ – those I witnessed while volunteering in many personal transformation programs and training. It is consistent with him being a teenager. He finally ‘got it,’ and it does merit congratulations.
Many adults go through life hating themselves and remain crippled this way – unable to accept, and therefore love others. Neon Genesis Evangelion made a very bold move by making this particular struggle the very heart of its story.
Is the finale entertaining? Possibly not, or at the very least not as entertaining as the comedic, dramatic, and/or action high points in the show. But what it is, is challenging. I wasn’t up for a challenge 7 years ago when I first watched it. But I was ready for it now, and I can say that the finale really belongs with the other highs in the show that I really got high about.
The show didn’t change. I did.