It’s a little intimidating to begin writing about a series as titanic as Evangelion; after all, few shows have earned as much critical ink over the years, or prompted such heated fandom divisions. Its own intrinsic value as a narrative and art object aside, it is easy to say, without hyperbole, that Neon Genesis Evangelion is undoubtedly one of the most important anime of all time. Produced by a relatively fresh studio at a time of great uncertainty within the industry, the show fundamentally affected not just individual narrative trends, but the industry’s overall financial and production model. The fact that anime airs late at night and is largely aimed at a specific, insular young adult audience is in part because of Evangelion; the fact that so many productions are intended not to sell discs, but advertise a variety of tie-in products is also a piece of its legacy. These trends built off industry conditions that existed prior to Eva (giant robots had been selling toys for decades at this point), but it’s undoubtedly true that without Eva, the anime industry would be a very different place.
Evangelion was also massively influential in an artistic sense, resulting in not just a wave of similarly styled productions, but also establishing a wide array of narrative conceits, character designs, and countless other signatures that would all go on to become accepted anime shorthand. Characters similar to Evangelion’s protagonist Shinji shifted from uncommon to ubiquitous following its release, and a focus on character interiority and psychological drama became a hallmark of the medium. Individual shots and dramatic beats have been recycled from Eva again and again, legitimately impacting the overall stylistic palette of anime as a medium.
Even today, Evangelion is still a titanic and tremendously relevant property. In terms of its influence on other series, modern shows are still heavily indebted to Evangelion in a variety of ways, from Flip Flappers’ reverent visual nods to Darling in the Franxx’s dubious attempts to echo its predecessor’s iconography and tonal seriousness. And Evangelion itself still earns scores of new merchandise and tie-ins every year (ranging from the obvious pachinko games to the delightfully ridiculous), while Studio Khara still plug away at the show’s remake-slash-sequel. We are now further from the beginning of the Rebuild project than that point was from the end of the series itself, and Evangelion still isn’t finished.
It’s clear enough that Evangelion had a profound artistic and economic impact on the anime industry itself. But beyond that, Evangelion was also a critical property in the development of many young anime fans, not just in Japan, but also overseas. The show spoke to experiences of anxiety, depression, self-loathing, insecurity, and unhappy isolation that validated the lived experiences of thousands of young viewers, elevating universal negative feelings into soaring, melodramatic theater. Few shows aimed at young audiences strike with the intensity and focus of Evangelion, and the honesty of its portrayal of these feelings made it an irreplaceable guide for many, an acknowledgment that it was okay to feel this way.
That impact, at least, is one I can personally attest to. Without Evangelion, I would undoubtedly not be writing about anime now. Though I already enjoyed anime at the time, it was seeing Evangelion at fifteen or so that taught me just how high this medium’s peaks can reach. I related to Shinji, loved the richness with which Eva illustrated all of its characters, and found hope both in its sympathetic portrayal of depression and its ultimate, hard-fought belief in the importance of human connection. Evangelion was the show that first embodied for me a specific sentiment so many of my favorites affect: “this world is a savage and unkind place, and we might not make it through, but we still need hope and we still have each other.”
Though Evangelion is a heavy and often brutally unkind show, its sympathy for its characters shines through, along with its belief in that core message. Evangelion’s sympathy is clear not just in the few moments its characters are actually happy, but also in the beauty and detail with which it captures every muddled-up, often contradictory facet of their humanity. Evangelion may not give all of its heroes unquestionably happy endings, but it sure makes you feel like they deserve them.
But rapturous recountings of Evangelion’s effect on my psyche can probably wait until later. For now, let’s begin the show’s first episode, which opens with its iconic OP segment. As we pan over cryptic, evocative religious symbology and nude figures, the dramatic chorus melody shifts into a more pensive verse. The overarching tone is sorrowful, guided by the melancholy poses and expressions of the characters. As the tension builds, so does the speed of the cuts, leading into rapidly flashing transitions that combine character art, dramatic stills, flat typography, and even uncolored sketches. The overall effect is a disorienting kaleidoscope, the rapidly shifting thoughts of a panicked mind – and then the song settles, leading into the stark announcement “The Year is 2015.”
Evangelion’s status as a cultural monolith might make it seem potentially unapproachable, but the show’s first moments demonstrate it’s as urgent and thrilling now as ever. One of this episode’s greatest tricks is its consistently purposeful and dramatically charged shot transitions, and the cut from that white-text-on-black-background announcement to the rushing waters is the first of them. The sound of helicopters overhead and the presumed speed of the water’s movement immediately overwhelm the senses, setting the viewer directly in the path of whatever’s coming next. And that sense of mystery and anticipation is key as well – we learn nothing that the characters and events don’t naturally make clear, while everything we don’t know conveys a sense of deep unease and immediate danger.
Our first shots of that mysterious threat contrast the creature’s otherworldly body against the sharp, mechanical designs of the human world. Images of this strange creature swimming past a drowned city are iconic, beautiful, and mysterious all by themselves. The sunken city inherently provokes questions as to what brought the world to this state, simultaneously fleshing out the known state of the world and prompting intrigue as to its greater nature. In scene after scene, small digressions or odd visual concepts present natural questions, loading Evangelion with both evocative imagery and copious narrative hooks.
But though this opening sequence offers plenty of overt questions, its greatest triumph is its control of atmosphere. There’s an almost painful sense of anticipation as the camera cuts over rows of parked tanks, the aggressive weaponry clashing harshly against the sunlight, cicadas, and idle seagulls. As more shots introduce us to an empty city undergoing an evacuation, the sense of anticipation and unease only escalates, the quiet of the city implying a hidden violence. Our ground-floor perspective and lack of context only heightens the tension, creating a sensation of having just missed the evacuation ourselves, and being left behind to greet whatever is coming.
That framing also sets us directly in the headspace of our protagonist, Shinji Ikari. Evangelion’s clever cutting again bolsters its storytelling here, as a match cut from an unnamed woman’s files to Shinji himself simultaneously tells us who he is, what he’s trying to do, and why he’s lost out here. His first fully formed statement is a sad capitulation: “I shouldn’t have come here after all.” Then a strange girl briefly appears on the road beside him, and all hell breaks loose.
Even the way this episode conveys the movement of the “angels,” the strange creatures attacking this town, ties their assault to an immediate, parsable experience. Shinji’s first impression is one of overwhelming volume, and the physical reflections of an angel’s step echo those you might witness during an earthquake – rattling metal shutters, furiously whipping power lines. From its opening shots up until this moment, Evangelion presents a perfectly realized vision of actually experiencing such a cataclysmic event from the ground floor, the scale of its violence made most clear through our narrow, imperfect perspective.
At this point, Evangelion tips its hand, and we’re introduced to the NERV control room. As Shinji is rescued by a woman calling herself Misato, we consistently cut back to the military’s top generals throwing every weapon they can at this new threat. The angel’s menace is thus maintained on both an intellectual and emotional level – “this thing casually swats missiles out of the sky” versus “this thing is so large you need to drive around its feet, so strong that even the blowback of attacking it is catastrophic.” Additionally, this segment also acts as a natural and exciting explanation for why conventional military forces are powerless against these creatures, and how Gendo Ikari came to direct the counteroffensive in the first place. Many science fiction stories set up arbitrary worlds where villains and heroes seem predetermined – Eva takes place in a world much closer to our own, where the conventional military only hands off control because they’re powerless and desperate.
While the Gendo side of this narrative delights through action, military jargon, and incredibly stark imagery, Misato and Shinji’s drive focuses on relentlessly efficient characterization. Even that first gag image introducing Misato tells us something fundamental about her character, and we very swiftly learn to revise that profile with her cool badass affectation and her underlying, internal messiness. The first major conversation they share results in a series of snipes and counter-snipes that establish each of them as believable and multifaceted people. Misato is self-assured, carefree, and overtly friendly, but also somewhat petty, brutish, and easily annoyed. Shinji is straightforward, polite, and sensitive, but also stiff, insecure, and very moody. Each line they share bolsters these impressions while also furthering the narrative itself, all while their natural acceptance of the world as it is makes believing in that world easier for us in the audience.
As the tension rises, our transitions between Shinji and Gendo become ever closer, each transition reflecting on both narratives. Misato’s questions regarding Shinji’s relationship with his father lead into Gendo assuming a cowboy’s mantle, confidently telling the generals that beating this monster is “what NERV was created for.” When his subordinate Fuyutsuki questions his confidence, considering they don’t have a pilot, Gendo responds “another spare will be delivered soon.” That callous line transitions us directly back to a terrified Shinji, illustrating the nature of their relationship without a word. “He wouldn’t have sent for me unless he needed me for something” is Shinji’s own explanation, accompanied by the one shot that will forever represent the whole of his childhood.
Every image and line of dialogue throughout this sequence comes off as efficient, natural, and loaded with vivid subtext. The gorgeous shot of the geo-front, which Misato describes as a “fortress for all mankind,” raising more questions than it answers. The subtle detail of Shinji’s letter from his father being a taped-up mess, undoubtedly shredded and then painstakingly repaired. The fact that Misato herself isn’t particularly accustomed to her new office’s architecture, lending a dash of mundane relatability to this imposing structure. The first exchange between Misato and Doctor Akagi Ritsuko, which simultaneously establishes Ritsuko as “perpetually put-upon coworker” and “knowing, fond friend” in one begrudging sigh. As anticipation builds, Evangelion naturally slots in storytelling and exposition wherever it can, leading into a mech introduction that speaks for itself.
Evangelion’s first episode is built outwards from this meeting of father and son, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. The appearance of the Evangelion itself is certainly imposing, but Gendo’s appearance above it frames him as more imposing still, an unreachable reminder of the family Shinji lacks. The array of monitors present Shinji as a specimen Gendo is analyzing, alternating between amusement and disappointment. Gendo’s request seems to already embody their relationship in miniature: Gendo wants his son to be something he never was, and never could be. Tasked with getting in a giant robot and facing that monster outside, Shinji looks to the closest thing to a friend for support – but Misato is a professional, and she too dragged him here for a reason.
“Get in the robot, Shinji” has been repeated often enough to become a meme, but it bears acknowledging that telling Shinji to pilot this thing is a terrible, totally inhuman request. The fundamental excitement of powering a giant machine and defeating evil has fueled the giant robot genre for decades, but the fundamental terror of that concept is often unaddressed. Having seen this angel attack from the ground floor, denied the safety of distance or comforting scale, Shinji’s response here feels utterly natural, almost inevitable. And Gendo’s callous use of Rei, the heavily injured alternate pilot, as an emotional prop feels that much more clever and cruel. Shinji resolving that “I mustn’t run away” isn’t the resolute battle cry of a natural champion – it’s the last defense of a scared child, manipulated by adults into believing he must prove he deserves to exist.
Evangelion’s first episode ends in breathless anticipation, as the beautiful mechanical animation of the Eva unit launching form their own sort of climactic payoff. As Shinji accepts his unhappy fate, an array of dazzling monitors and breathless bridge chatter emphasize the seriousness of the moment, giving Evangelion its own language of action. Born in an era that still heavily valued mechanical animation, Evangelion graciously benefits from the priorities it would soon supplant, burying Shinji’s loneliness in the mechanical glory of humanity’s last hope. As gates shut and dials spin and screens blare their terminal payload, Fuyutsuki asks his superior if he’s really prepared for this road. Gendo doesn’t have to answer; he chose this path long ago, and only god can judge him now.
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Bobduh , 2018-09-07 14:23:28
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