In Defense of… Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion (or Shin Seiki Evangelion for all you weaboos out there) was an anime franchise first started in 1995 and one that continues very lucratively to this day. It stands proudly atop many critics’ lists of best anime (or Japanese Animation) ever created, and is often considered among pantheon level in mecha (giant robots) Japanese culture, or even Science Fiction in general.
Of course, as all popular and lauded things go…it has recently come under scrutiny.
There appears to be a time limit for just how long something can be considered “cool” or “impressive” in the modern human culture. The amount of praise and adoration some piece of popular culture gains appears to be determinate on two things: its immediate reception, and its lasting popularity. In the case of something that comes highly touted, like the Oscar-winning Juno, the initial hype was near dizzying, which lead to an early round of backlash not long after its premiere and initial praise. However, expect the movie to come back into favor with the hardcore crowd in a few years, just around its very entry into the event horizon of obscurity. In the case of Evangelion, its’ beginning was less humble, and then grew into a sensation, causing the backlash to linger for a few years before leaping into full swing. As it has been now nineteen years (and I can’t believe that as I type this) since the show’s inception, backlash is coming on strong, and much of it is undeserved.
First and foremost, Evangelion is a good and entertaining story. Secondly, it is good and quality science fiction, and third it did something that each show that should be considered pantheon level should do: it pressed boundaries. It pushed the envelope. It asked dangerous and risky questions of both the established storyline, format, and even the genre itself, which truly should garner it the love and praise that has recently been stripped away by jaded (and admittedly rather young) minds who feel it is their part in youth’s rebellion to do away with the beloved forms of a previous generation. Science Fiction is both horrible and wonderful in that sense, as it is usually so steeped in human emotion and veiled reference to a current and everlasting human condition that strong bonds tend to be formed to whatever the viewer considers their “first experience” in the genre. Denizens of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor initially rejected Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor on the cult sci-fi BBC series Doctor Who, and both fans initially became wary of the modern continuation. I would be remiss not to discuss the ongoing battle between Captains Kirk and Picard of different generations of Star Trek, and now the arrival of the newest Captain Kirk (played by Chris Pine) will only add more zealous fervor to the debate. In this way, Evangelion is being passed over as “too popular” and “last generation’s fodder” by the current crop of young anime fans, but the show is still one of the highest caliber, and deserves its unmarred place in the history of Japanese animation medium.
As stated earlier, Evangelion’s plot and story are at the first and foremost of its appeal. In reality, the same can be said for any sort of entertainment. Man cannot live on Michael Bay-styled, action-heavy, plot light, adrenaline-fueled explosion demonstrations alone. In the history of entertainment and media, it is those who truly have a gripping and universal plot that survive past niche appeal and summer blockbuster chum and achieve true greatness. Evangelion’s plot revolves around young Shinji Ikari, the estranged son of Gendo Ikari, leader of Japan (and the world’s) last defense against giant invading aliens known as “Angels,” the organization known as NERV. NERV’s weapon is the Evangelion units, giant robots piloted by the souls and spirit of their young human pilots, who possess the true humanity needed to combat such inhuman invaders and power the massive mechanical exo-suits. This will be a spoiler-free article, I hope, so I will not say much more about the plot itself aside from that it revolves on keeping the Angels from destroying the planet. While that in itself seems a pitiful excuse for a plot, it serves as a solid foundation for everything that is layered on top, like a delicious dish of lasagna.
Culinary analogies aside, it is the characters that make Evangelion what it is. Without each of them, and their many idiosyncrasies and oh-so-human failings, it would just be giant robots beating on giant monsters and, while entertaining, after twenty-six episodes it becomes grinding and tedious, which is why I tend not to watch a lot of “fight-train-get stronger-repeat” anime like DragonBall Z. There’s just so much of the same plot I can take, but Evangelion allows the plot to meander to almost everyone involved at NERV, giving them all different problems and situations that, although sometimes exaggerated for the sake of drama (which is not a bad thing in this, the age of bland “reality programming”) are things that almost every human being had had to deal with at some point in their life. The show’s creator, Hideaki Anno, had said that he doesn’t understand why people like the characters in Eva (as it is known to us fans) because they are all “so messed up,” or words to that effect. Mr. Anno, I think we like them BECAUSE they are messed up, and we feel the same way sometimes. When I first saw Eva, it was at a particularly difficult time in my life, and knowing that someone else on the other side of the world who I will never meet was thinking the same things and putting them in a format I could understand and bounce my ideas off of…it was comforting. The characters of Eva, and the way they flesh out what should be a pretty standard anime plot, are what truly makes the show compelling, arresting, entertaining and worthy of praise and possibly even a few “best of” commendations. For me, it’s the only mecha I ever really got into.
Mecha is, of course, a form of science fiction. Giant robots battling aliens hardly seems anything but. However, Evangelion manages (in its last two episodes, especially) to become a true sci-fi epic in its own right, as opposed to just an action show with some science fiction elements. The last two episodes, and several leading up to them, gradually begin to move the focus of the entire series from battle to introspective, suddenly making you realize what’s going on with the characters beyond their charges, while still keeping a wholly terrifying villain just on the periphery. In short, it does what sci-fi is best known for: giving a fanciful and appealing storyline along with some heavy thought and commentary issues. Science fiction had its roots in the likes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and works courtesy of Edgar Allen Poe, and each time the new sciences afforded by the stories (and by the historical age they were living in) brought about new questions of ethics, perception, and humanity that cemented the genre as one beyond the standard fantasy fare of “slay dragon, rescue princess.” On a side note, it is one of my biggest pet peeves when a bookstore groups Fantasy and Science Fiction together, as the former is, in my opinion, action oriented and the latter is based in thought. After all, the first word in Science Fiction is Science, and Science requires quite a bit of thought. To this end, Evangelion manages to ask questions and delve deeply into the richness of sci-fi’s history, making something that truly deserves to be considered along with the classics. Sure, it may not end as bombastically as Star Wars or even the latest Star Trek foray, but those are what we nerds like to call a “Space Opera,” not Science Fiction. Sci-fi, true Sci-fi is something that leaves you scratching your head and pawing at the screen, perhaps even a little angry at the information denied you…but you know what? It makes you ask questions, and if that doesn’t sound like something rooted in Science, I don’t know what does.
Of course, some of the questions asked by the series are some people don’t exactly want to hear. For example, the two endings to the series (a second one was commissioned to explain the first one a little more, bad form!) are often criticized for being too confusing, too cerebral, focusing mainly on what is happening within Shinji’s own mind. While that is a three ring circus compared to the moments inside other character’s minds (which are still some of the most emotionally traumatic things I’ve seen on a screen) a lot of people wanted a conclusive ending where the Death Star blows up and everyone’s happy. The only problem is, and the same can be said for several beloved nerd franchises, is that ambiguity is how the world really works. The awfully simplistic artistic direction of the final two episodes and the ending, which is completely left up to the viewer to debate, is what any truly epic story should do.
While the two Matrix sequels were a bit of a muddle, I will give them credit for not tying everything up perfectly. A show like this should ask questions, it should deal with uncomfortable elements, and it should not end clearly. As such, it is probably not intended for the Halo-playing, Dew-guzzling frat-boy audience that is starting to approach anime, but that’s all for the better. Evangelion took chances, raised the bar, entertained, and left me asking questions. It is still one of the greatest anime productions ever, and the amount of recent criticism affixed to it will be seen only as bitter reverse nostalgia and soon forgotten, just like the love/hate relationship with
”hippie” culture in the United States. Evangelion transcends fad and fanboys, and will always be considered one of the best, so clueless newbies to the anime genre (like myself) can decide they want to check out “the best” and be completely blown away. It may not be for you, it may not be what you consider your favorite, but you will not be able to deny its place in History.

One thought on “In Defense of… Evangelion”

  1. chicken or egg

    Children save the world from aliens? Hmmm, Ender? Bean?
    And isn’t it amazing that in one of the first episodes of the TV version of Star Trek there was a Commander Christopher Pike? Now a Chris Pine stars as Kirk?
    Thought you would enjoy that.

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