What is Neon Genesis Evangelion? Is it, as some have said, a work of art, one of the best television shows ever made and the product of a visionary genius? Is it, as others have said, an overrated piece of shit fueled by cliches that is nothing more than depression and hot air? Or is it, as many say, an excellent show that the creator ruined out of a combination of spite and desperation? Is it literature, or is it nonsense? Is it even entertaining? Moreover--years after "Congratulations", in a world profoundly changed, is it even relevant?
Having finished Evangelion last year, I would say that thankfully, Evangelion is relevant. That isn't to say that it is the best anime of all time, as some have claimed it as being. FLCL, a work by the same studio, is probably better, as is Revolutionary Girl Utena, a series that applies similar thematic techniques to a different genre (magical girl rather than giant robot). Even RahXephon, a series from the 2000s that takes many, many cues from Evangelion, could be said to be far more coherent than the series it took its inspiration from. But if you tear away the rumors, the backlash and the pretenses of greatness, you are left with Evangelion at its core: the story of a screwed-up kid coming to terms with himself in the face of overwhelming odds. In other words, your run-of-the-mill giant robot show. The main difference, in fact, between your run-of-the-mill giant robot show and Evangelion is that while your run-of-the-mill giant robot show might care about things such as plot or catharsis, Evangelion builds its cast and concepts like dominoes and then goes into a fit and knocks them all down at once. But this is in pursuit of plumbing the depths of human suffering, so that's okay. The ends justify the means!
The Story: For Those Who Have Been Living Under a Rock
For those who have never heard of Evangelion, it goes something like this: it is the end of the world as we know it. An event known as Second Impact melted the ice caps and submerged much of the planet under water. In these apocalyptic times, fourteen-year-old Shinji Ikari is called to the transforming city of Tokyo-3 by his father, Gendo. Shinji hopes that his father has invited him because he cares about him, but Gendo actually wants him for other reasons. Vast beings known as Angels are descending one by one on Tokyo-3, and the only things that can fight them are hulking monstrosities called Evangelions. Staying with military captain Misato Kusaragi, Shinji is eventually joined by Rei, a quiet girl with little care for her own personal safety, and Asuka, whose abrasiveness hides her own fragility. So it comes to be that three fourteen-year-olds are all that stands between unfathomable cosmic horror and the repetition of the event that almost ended the world.
Episodes 1-13: How to Make a Giant Robot Show
Evangelion is relatively sane for most of its run. It is never conventional: the second episode delays the action payoff of the series' first big battle to the end, the Angels remain intimidatingly abstract throughout and the show is thoroughly soaked in religious iconography. But if Evangelion begins as a show about giant robots, then it is a show about giant robots made by people who know giant robots very, very well. Each episode riffs on different ideas and concepts, tying them together in ways that are self-aware and very, very clever. Most importantly, Evangelion sports perhaps one of the most distinctive casts of characters of any anime ever. They aren't necessarily likable--Shinji can be frustratingly indecisive, Asuka irritatingly brash and sometimes cruel--but they are definitely human in the kind of undefinable way that defines the best fiction.
Episodes 14-26: How to Eviscerate a Giant Robot Show
Then the show hits its second half. Hideaki Anno, the director of Evangelion, was buckling under the weight of depression during the creation of this half, and it shows. Episode 14, a recap episode, begins with a slide show of images that coldly analyzes what has happened so far and then descends into madness. Episode 16 features a prolonged discussion between Shinji and what is either himself or the angel Leliel. Further episodes push the story even farther into insanity, killing off characters and viciously deconstructing the psyches of those who survive. It's almost as if Anno grew to hate what he had created and tore it to pieces with his own hands, seeking for meaning in its entrails. Either that, or he grew convinced that he could take what he had and make it transcendent. On the surface, Anno fails: the last two episodes of Evangelion practically drop the plot all together, pulling all the characters together into a group therapy session and watching how Shinji reacts. The result can hardly be called entertaining.
So is Evangelion still relevant?
As a matter of fact, despite the aforementioned issues, it still is. The philosophical babble spewed by the cast of characters at the show's end hold seeds of truth. Shinji has been reviled by many as one of the most unlikable protaganists ever to be hoisted on a work of fiction, and while this very well may prove to be true I would like to say that at eighteen years old, I saw something of myself in him. I think it was around the time that the ghosts of Shinji's "family" tell him that they don't hate him--that he only thinks they hate him because he hates himself--that I realized that Neon Genesis Evangelion really was meant by the creator to be a Gospel for a new generation, a call to arms against fear and anxiety. Whether Anno succeeded could be debated to high heaven, but I think that it is safe to say that in his search for meaning, Anno hit upon something. Whether that something is meaningful or meaningless probably depends on the beholder.
On the whole, though, Evangelion is really an anime of moments. If the show itself is not superior overall, then it is seeded with moments of true greatness, moments that come frequently. Shinji's first berserker rage; the battle with Ramiel; EVA-02 jumping from ship to ship; the brilliant minute-long fight choreographed to music; Unit-01 exploding out of the Dirac Sea; Asuka and the Hallelujah chorus; Unit-01 eating Zeruel and roaring at the moon. It's in these moments that it becomes clear why, exactly, Evangelion became so popular in the first place, and why, years after its creation, it holds up: not as a philosophical treatise, or as a metafictional deconstruction--although it is these things, to degrees of varying effectiveness--but as the story of the end of the world, of a family of broken individuals and of a young boy named Shinji Ikari who will become a legend, whether he likes it or not.