Neon Genesis Evangelion - Getting to End Again... Again
26 years ago, there was an anime called Neon Genesis Evangelion. It was a hugely successful show across the world, about giant robots fighting aliens and the psychological turmoil that said battles can inflict on their pilots. However, its bold ending proved controversial and led to a second attempt to end the show, this time as a feature film called The End of Evangelion. It too is an incredibly bold statement that, while more universally appreciated, still has its detractors. That response led creator and writer Hideaki Anno to try once again to tell his story through a "rebuild" series of films, which retell the story of Evangelion across four lusciously animated films, the final one of which was released worldwide last month. Most shows are happy to end once. Some shows get a second attempt. It is almost unheard of for a creator to get three attempts to end their story. But Evangelion isn't like most stories. If you're also a fan, you already know all this though.
I am totally fascinated by the rebuild project. As someone who watched Neon Genesis Evangelion last December for the first time, the show plays on my mind fairly often. However, it's a show that, especially when paired with The End of Evangelion, has a totally satisfying conclusion to my mind. So there was trepidation on my part. I like the nineties style of anime, I feel much of cinema allows for overly excessive indulgence in the interests of its male auteurs and quite frankly, the story already worked for me as it stood. In actually watching the rebuild though, I was delighted at its subversion of my dismissive expectations and I find myself compelled on multiple levels.
Which is what today is about. I want to look at Evangelions journey, how its endings play with each other and how it ultimately gels together. It should also be obvious but there will be spoilers. We're talking the original show first, then End, then the rebuild, so if you've only seen some of them, that's where you bail. If you haven't seen any of them, I recommend at least trying the show, because if you like it then you will end up kicking yourself for spoiling it by reading my ramblings. With those caveats then, let's advance into the beginning!
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-6)
I'm not going to recap the entire plot of Neon Genesis Evangelion, because there's not much point in that. Either read a Wikipedia summary or watch the show, my rephrasing of the plot serves little purpose, especially as there's a lot of the plot I still don't really understand. However, a brief recap is needed if we're to work through this first ending. Neon Genesis Evangelion is a show about Shinji Ikari, a teenage boy who arrives in the futuristic city of Tokyo-3 to reunite with his estranged father and leader of NERV, Gendo Ikari. Gendo isn't after a reunion though, instead wanting his son to pilot an Evangelion, a giant fighting robot designed to battle aliens known as Angels. If these Angels breach NERV headquarters, they can trigger an apocalypse event known as the Third Impact (there have been two other Impacts before the show begins, the last being 15 years earlier), so it's very important that the Angels are defeated.
Anyway, the show is about Shinji piloting his Evangelion and dealing with the relationships of the new people around him, including other pilots, everyone in the control room and his father. The problem is, Shinji struggles with extreme self doubt and depression, and the weight of expectation often comes close to crushing him. By the end of the show, Shinji's mission to save the world has failed due to secretive organisation Seele triggering the "Human Instrumentality Project", but the last two episodes are barely about that. They are instead incredibly stripped back, free of the fight scenes that drew in so many fans, as Shinji gets incredibly introspective about his relationships.
I think this ending is incredibly brave, as it boils down the core emotional elements of the show and removes any of the surrounding artifice. Through explicitly working out his relationships with other characters, Shinji gets to end the show finally happy. If you haven't seen the show, it's hard to explain how monumental that is, he is one of the saddest, whiniest characters in any TV show. A sad, whiny little boy finally gets his redemption by actually facing his problems instead of complaining about them. It has been said before (and will be said again by me, later) that Shinji is something of an insert figure for creator Anno, as Anno has struggled with depression for much of his life. That adds a sweetness to Shinji's happiness, in that it is Anno also working through his own depression. Not to complete success, it should be added, Anno would continue to fight depression throughout the production of the films to come, but it was a won battle in a contested war.
One final thing to mention before we get gonzo is that this conclusion is beautifully stripped back visually. In part because of production constraints as the show was wrapping up, the final two episodes of NGE are full of reused assets, still frames and storyboards. No other episodes use this technique and it creates a uniquely surreal feel to this conclusion, taking place as it does inside Shinji's mind. It blurs the barriers between the world of Evangelion and our own world, offering the audience the same path of redemption. No, our dads probably aren't responsible for the recent annihilation of mankind, but if we talk empathetically with others we might feel better about the world around us. It's a low key and sweet ending that brims with optimism.
The End of Evangelion (1997)
The End of Evangelion by contrast, is insane. It exists as an extended epilogue to the show because the original ending proved... Um, unpopular to say the least. Anno and his team at Gainax received death threats for the ending as it didn't deliver what fans wanted from their mech fighting anime. Though disheartened, the team wanted to please the fans and got to work on a new project of two parts, both to be released in cinemas. The first part, Revival of Evangelion, retells the story of the first 24 episodes of the show in a much breezier runtime. I have not seen it myself, but it leads us to the same ending as NGE, which is where The End of Evangelion steps in.
As I've mentioned, the ending of NGE proved controversial because it was so introspective and metaphorical, so that is jettisoned pretty quick here. It's not totally gone, but fans want to see a big Asuka fight and then the end of the world, things that they didn't get with the TV finale. A big Asuka fight and then the end of the world is exactly what we get, rendered in sensational visual splendor. If you haven't seen the film and don't plan on it, watch this clip of The Third Impact. Words are unable to explain the emotional response that one has to the visuals and sound in combination, it's sensational and incredibly visceral. Most impressive though, this is still pretty much the same ending as the show. Characters who died remain dead, the Third Impact occurs, things get weird with Rei. It's just a different way of telling the same ending.
The same ending, to a point. One detail of difference I love is in how Shinji changes his mind. He essentially triggers the Third Impact in a moment of rage against his father, but realises his mistake quite quickly. Remember at the start of the last paragraph when I said the introspective metaphors weren't totally gone? That's here. While inside his EVA, Shinji thinks through his life and comes to the conclusion that for as much as people make each others lives more difficult, "human instrumentality" is not the way. We could all be one large pool of Fanta-like liquid, but life is boring that way. Therefore, Shinji undoes the Third Impact. Everyone returns from their return to nothing into their bodies. The weird large Rei is destroyed but Shinji and Asuka are dropped onto the shore, where Shinji briefly attempts to strangle Asuka. He stops though. Why he stops, I'm not 100% sure, it's ambiguous. Once again though, it feeds this idea of choosing to turn away from annihilation. To, as Renton or George Michael would say, choose life.
Anno hasn't let his formal playfulness go though, there's lots of fun visual stuff going on even as he tries to apologise for his former abstractions. Once again, the barriers between reality and fiction are blurred, further even than before. One of my favourite moments is when we're greeted with shots of an empty cinema, slowly filling up. Where before the fourth wall breaking elements reminded us of Anno's closeness to Shinji, this entrance into the space of the viewer makes the audience realise their similarity with Shinji. This is all late game, and therefore less here to get an audience to relate to a character but to again offer a way out. To remind an audience full of sweaty nerds that you're not going to find solace through anger or through becoming some primordial soup, but instead through acceptance of the difficulty of human interaction.
The visual aspect of The End of Evangelion is much more visceral than the end of NGE, which is why its emotional impact feels much more visceral too. This is an ending which I consider to be ultimately hopeful, but only after great difficulty and work. It's as if between these two projects, Anno has changed perspective from "happiness is achievable if you look after the people around you" to "happiness is achievable if you look after the people around you, but even though that's going to be really difficult to get right, you should keep trying. You are not alone."
The Evangelion Rebuild Project (2007-21)
Ten years goes by. Anno is toiling away at other projects including some live action work, but he eventually returns to Evangelion through what is referred to as the Rebuild Project. As I was initially led to believe it, this is a project that aimed to retell the story of Neon Genesis Evangelion but through a series of feature films with updated animation. That idea didn't interest me much because I love the style of nineties anime more than the modern sleekness, but I eventually gave it a go because I needed another hit of Evangelion. And hot damn, that was a great move on my part!
The first film is as I expected. It's called Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone and I can only apologise for the confusing title but you'll just have to look past it, there's more to come. It retells, in familiar terms, the story of roughly the first seven episodes as Shinji comes to Tokyo 3 and meets the team at NERV. Asuka isn't here yet, but there's some cool mech fights and pretty animation. It's good, but not that special. The second film (Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance) goes in a whole different direction, covering a similar stretch of episodes but ending with the triggering of the Third Impact, something that should still be at least two hours of film away from happening. It's a wild gambit that pays off and pushes the story of Evangelion into a new direction, ironically advancing the plot in terrifyingly exciting ways.
That new direction is a world that is explicitly post-apocalyptic, a territory I love. The world our characters know has ended, but they're still here, so what next? Next, as it turns out, is also a little complicated. The third film (Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo) takes place fifteen years after the narrowly prevented/diverted Third Impact, the aftermath of which we never get to see and only hear tale of. That means we have a lot of catching up to do and the 96 minute runtime feels like a sprint to the finish as we catch up with characters, discover the apocalypse and get Shinji to the point where he's ready to set off the Fourth Impact. He is stopped and walks off into the desert with the Rei clone and Asuka, looking for something. Redemption? Annihilation? Salvation? You'll have to find out in the next film, set only a few hours after 3.0 but releasing a painful nine years later.
This nine year time gap is due to Anno once again hitting a period of deep depression. He had emerged from it after finishing Evangelion with End of but in making the Rebuild Project, he had accidentally returned to his depressive state. He took a break from the franchise, made Shin Godzilla and then returned to make a film that would be pushed back again because of our own real world apocalypse. But it's here now, it came out. It's real. The story has finally ended on Anno's terms, with Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time.
I adore the first hour of this film. I adore the last hour too, but the first is the one that plays best to me. After a prologue in which new Rebuild character Mari liberates Paris in a battle that climaxes with using the Eiffel Tower as a weapon, we get this beautifully slow hour in which very little happens. As I said, there is a fifteen year time gap that the audience and Shinji have missed, so we still have a lot of catching up to do.
This first hour is dedicated to looking at how people move on once their world has ended and the answer is, they move on pretty well. Many still wish for the way things were, but it's a new life whose charm is its simplicity. There's at first a surreal tone to the landscapes that evokes Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara, but the surreal is not presented as an enemy to the inhabitants and instead presented as a simple state of being. When we take Evangelion as an extended metaphor for battling depression, it's refreshing to realise that after it feels like your world has ended, you still have a world left to fall in love with.
After all this slow paced character drama, patient audience members are rewarded with the Fourth Impact, an apocalypse event that dwarfs the Third Impact in both scale and visual splendour. Shinji attempts to stop his father Gendo from annihilating the world and succeeds through the thing that has redeemed him in every one of these endings: compassion. By reaching out to Gendo through another extended sequence of visual metaphor (one which includes the iconic train featured through much of Evangelion, more storyboard sketches and a set piece on a soundstage reminiscent of those found in old kaiju films), Shinji convinces his father to give up the dream of seeing his wife again through annihilation. So powerful is this moment of compassion that Gendo, wielding power whose origin and quantity is so immense I am incapable of describing it, removes all of the Evangelions from the universe.
In practice, what this act means is that all the children who had been forced into becoming pilots of killer robots are now... normal. They get to hang out, properly explore their emotions, go to school with no complications. The final scene shows us just that. Shinji is at a train station and is embraced by Mari. His adolescent crush on Asuka has had the time that all crushes like this need to fade with grace. He smiles. Shinji Ikari, one of the most perpetually perturbed characters in fiction, has found happiness. It didn't take removing the people in his life to be happy, only to focus on what the issues of his life were and to resolve them.
To finally emphasise Shinji's relationship to reality and the viewer, the final shot is of Mari and Shinji running from the train station and into what is either a lifelike recreation of Tokyo or genuine footage of Tokyo. I couldn't tell which, but both have the same effect. That effect is to tell the viewer that our reality is one in which it's capable to be happy, so run headfirst into that opportunity. Maybe sad, lonely viewers of anime can leave the house, pick up social skills, eventually get a girlfriend. There's hope. You just have to go outside and love the people who are around you to be loved. Where there was nuance in the previous two endings, there is now little. All that is left is exuberant joy. Shinji deserves that. Anno deserves that. We deserve that.
Third Time's the Charm
I think I am somewhat in the minority of Evangelion fans, in that I find plenty to love in every single ending that we've been presented. NGE offers abstract resolution, End of Evangelion presents us with surreal scale and Thrice Upon a Time gives the audience both, wrapped up in what feels like a genuinely conclusive ending. They all offer different emotional responses too. NGE ends on a note of happiness, but I find it a note that is uncanny, as if the audience are being clued into the fact that this whole situation isn't perfect. End of Evangelion is a little exhausting, but it has relief at the prevention of the end of the world. And then again, a remix on the same emotions, Thrice Upon a Time is a genuinely upbeat end that feels hard earned after a lot of difficult work.
It's almost impossible to say for sure, but I highly doubt Hideaki Anno had planned to have three distinct endings when he began Neon Genesis Evangelion. Yet, there's a magic to how well these three endings compliment each other. The emotional aspect is something we've already covered, but thematically they work together too. When combined, the message to fans is that happiness lies in loving the people around you, loving yourself and being able to remove the obstacles from your life to allow that love to grow to the fullest. Like how (bingo cards out everyone, here comes a classic) David Lynch reincorporated elements of the original Twin Peaks narrative into The Return in ways that he almost certainly couldn't have planned 25 years prior, Anno used the already brilliant groundwork of his past to create a work that is only as great as it is because of all the work that comes before it.
Would I have been happy with just one ending? Yeah, probably. As I've said, I think they're all great. But in an age of directors cuts and remakes and re-releases, it's very rewarding to see a creator take his original work and redo it in a way that refuses to damage its own legacy and instead reaches angelic heights.
My Ending That is Not an Ending
If you have made it to the end, wow, thank you! This got really rambly and out of hand and I spent far too much time writing it. I've also been bouncing around between post-Uni jobs, so it's taken me a while to sit down and write it. If you enjoyed it though, that's amazing.
That's not what this bit at the bottom is though, I have an announcement. I'll announce it more publicly soon, but you can get in early as a thanks for reading the whole way. Ready? Here it goes:
I am ending this blog.
However, I'm ending it in the way in which Evangelion ended, which is to say I'm not really ending and more rebuilding. There is a new site that is under construction, I'll share a link once I'm happy with it, but it'll be the new home for all my ramblings. The hope is, it'll look nicer and more professional than the current, fairly amateur setup.
The good news is, this means very little difference for you. I'll still post my little ramblings on social media whenever they're ready and they'll still be in blog form. If you're one of those people who for some reason enjoys reading over my back catalogue then you're also in luck, this blog is not going anywhere. For as long as Blogger exists, this blog will exist. If at any point it seems like Blogger is going under, we'll sort an alternative then but for now, it's all okay.
So expect the new and improved Quite Nerdy Blog within the next week. I'm hoping to have it up and running ready for when I'm at London Film Festival, so I can get some great coverage out. Other than that, thank you again, I love you, see you on the new blog.