There have been a few seminal anime features over the years, from the groundbreaking Akira more than 20 years ago, to Ghost in the Shell back in 1985. The latter was such a successful cyber-thriller that it spawned an enjoyably convoluted TV series and two further sequel movies. Another great title to add to the list is 1995's Neon Genesis Evangelion, which takes the same idea of young kids with strange mental powers that was found in Akira (and was an extremely popular theme in many Japanese anime) and throws religion and robots into the mix. The original - and fairly adult - TV series charted the ongoing apocalyptic conflict between a paramilitary organisation known as NERV, and a group of monstrous otherworldly beings known as Angels. NERV's primary weapons were giant robots called EVAs, piloted by a number of precocious teens, who faced-off against each successive Angel in a series of epic, city-levelling confrontations.
Whilst the series did have an ending (albeit one that did not exactly tie up all the loose ends), ever since then the history of the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise itself has been plagued by number of attempted reshoots to the ending, none of them really satisfying the original intentions of the production crew. In 1997 Death and Rebirth was released, essentially the union of a 'compilation episode' featuring key clips from across the entire TV show - albeit watered-down and made more child-friendly - partnered up with an alternate ending, called Rebirth. Out of budget, Rebirth was never completed, and it was not until the end of the year that fans got End of Evangelion, which replaced Rebirth and became the new official ending to the series. Compiled as a feature-length movie in 1998 - Revival of Evangelion - fans were probably fed up with so many newly-tinkered variations of their favourite anime.
Ten years' later and the franchise has been revisited again (like Ghost in the Shell 2.0, only more extensive) for a new Rebuild of Evangelion project, consisting of four feature-length instalments. The first three parts were supposed to tell the same story - reshot, often cell by cell - as the original TV series. And the fourth? Yes, you guessed it, it's yet another new ending. Thus far, only the first two movies have been released, and even they themselves have different incarnations. The first was released as the theatrical Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, and was followed up by an initial home video release called version 1.01 - with reshot cuts. Then a further variation, with 3 minutes of extra footage, called version 1.11 was released, the most complete cut thus far (expect a complete 4-part collection with potentially even longer cuts!). So after all that, was this seminal, persistently tinkered-with anime actually worth revisiting?
It has been fifteen years since the world was devastated by the apocalyptic disaster known as Second Impact, and now the alien Angels that instigated said attack have returned to instigate Third Impact. Shinji Ikari is a whining, precocious 14 year-old boy who gets caught in the crossfire between the impotent UN Army and the 4th Angel, and is rescued by Lt. Col. Misato Katsuragi, and brought to the headquarters of the clandestine paramilitary organisation, NERV, which just happens to be run by Shinji's estranged father, Gendo. NERV was established to protect New Tokyo-3 (a version of Tokyo built to go underground in times of emergency) from the alien Angels, which project a near-invulnerable AT field. To such end, Gendo has created giant robots - Evas (pronounced Ay-Vah) - the only things capable of engaging the Angels in combat. Unfortunately the machines are restricted, not only by having to be physically linked by cable back to NERV control (because of the power they require) but also in that they must be piloted by 'special' children that can form a 'connection' with the mechanised units (the scientists at NERV determined that children are the only ones who can connect with the units because, apparently, they have no souls). After the only other child involved in the project, the shy girl, Rei Ayanami, is injured in combat, Gendo pressures his son to pilot one of the Evas, forcing the boy to grow up rather quickly, and slowly realise that the fate of mankind itself may just be in his hands.
Evangelion has always been acclaimed for its interesting blend of mythological ideas, political machinations, soul-searching philosophy, pubescent angst and post-apocalyptic mechanised warfare. It is at once an expertly realised sci-fi actioner, a bleak, post-apocalyptic satire and a coming of age allegory. And with both Christian and Jewish symbolism worn on its sleeve, and many ideas drawing parallels with the premise for Scientology, the story - as a whole - can become dauntingly complex.
To get the gist of the ideas offered, a little research is needed, whereupon it can be found that the origins for most of the characters - or at least what they represent - can be related to Creationism: i.e. the Adam and Eve story. Although found in Christianity, the full 'Director's Cut' of this story can only be accessed through the Alphabet of Ben-Serah, in Jewish mythology. Here we get to learn about Adam's first wife, Lilith (officially the world's first feminist) who refused to submit to Adam as 'the superior male' and left the Garden of Eden to settle near the Red Sea and take up with a group of demons. Apparently God sent a bunch of Angels to retrieve her, with orders to kill 100 of Lilith's demon children for every day that she did not return (as was typical for Old Testament-era 'bad-ass' God). Lilith conversely put a curse on all of Adam's children that were not protected by an amulet bearing the names of the Angels, and refused to return. At which point we return to the normal ending of the Creationism idea - God creates Eve from Adam's rib and everybody lives happily ever after (until they get hungry), albeit with the caveat that - in Jewish lore - sick children should have the names of angels written on their wrists.
How does this all relate to Evangelion? Well, in quite a dark way, actually. The story itself is positing the idea that the Angels that invade Earth are Adam's descendants, disciples sent to retrieve Lilith (who, fans of the series may remember as being the Angel buried deep within the NERV lair), who have to fight Lilith's demon children, aka mankind. (This is further emphasised by the secret Human Instrumentation Project, SELEE, which seeks to do Lilith's bidding and destroy the Angels.) Throwing away the rule-book, this revelation reinforces that fact that there are no good guys or bad guys in this story: the Angels themselves, whilst admittedly disliked by audiences for their depletion of the human population, only come across as 'bad' because we see it from the human point-of-view. Couple this with the Oedipal insinuations (the robot that Shinji pilots houses the 'soul' of his dead mother, which - arguably - gives the EVA 'supernatural' powers) and you have some dark themes running through Evangelion.
Still, we're getting a little carried away here. Evangelion is basically Carrie set to a backdrop of Transformers meets War of the Worlds, and infused with rich mythology. So, in essence, it is not about religious 'events', nor even about giant robots staving off alien invaders, but actually just about a teenager discovering himself, discovering sexuality and having to come to terms with the existential dilemmas and inherent loneliness stemming from the responsibilities of being an adult.
Shinji is, of course, the Carrie of the story: a shy, emotionally-repressed child. However, the more irritating aspects of this kind of character have been emphasised here to an almost unbearable degree. Often labelled as 'the first emo child', Shinji was positively painful to watch in the original series, and - since many of the scenes are replicated identically here - much of that sentiment has been transferred over to the movie incarnation. You Are (Not) Alone introduces him, surrounds him by a bunch of female characters (who all have issues), and gives you the first few sparks of the fractured childhood memories and inherent pathological depression that define the character.
Amidst his eccentric female companions we get Misato, the Lt. Col. at NERV who - rather unbelievably - becomes his flatmate and reveals herself to be something of a drunk and childish prankster, despite her propensity for dishing out decent battle tactics. Then there's Ritsuko Akagi, the aggressive NERV scientist behind the child-injected-EVA project, and Rei Ayanami, the first EVA pilot: an emotionally detached and almost suicidally-introverted girl. Add into the equation his estranged father, who appears to care more for the life for the young girl Rei, than for his own son, and it really is no wonder that he seems permanently both repressed and depressed.
Fans of the original TV series will find themselves conflicted over the rather strange beast that is Evangelion 1.11. Sure it's glossy, a modern update, but some may view it as nothing more than an excuse for the producers to churn out the same material and rake in yet more money. I can see how this might be the general feeling (it is, after all, just an abridged - albeit with minor new extensions - version of the first 6 episodes of the original TV show) but considering the troubled history of the 1995 production (the creator had a nervous breakdown and the budget was halved in the latter end of the TV series' run, both events that many cite as reasons for the finale's lack of coherence) most will agree that, despite lots of tinkering, this is a piece of work that has never quite been adequately completed.
The new Evangelion tetralogy purports to change this, and both succeeds and fails in this regard. On the plus side, the often painful-to-watch soap elements of the TV series have been distinctly abridged in this, more action-orientated, revision. And further in that regard, the battle sequences have been (mostly) positively enhanced and make for truly thrilling viewing. Shinji's last-ditch attempt to best his first Angel opponent using a battle-damaged Eva, is still a standout moment in the production, but his second desperate fight, on ever-diminishing reserve power, is also a tremendously exciting engagement. And you can't beat the closing conflict of this 'instalment' for sheer scale of devastating, Shinji's third battle seeing him given a frak-off big sniper rifle so he can shoot the heart out of a shift-shaping pyramid which is busy levelling nearby mountains. The new Evangelion brings out the best in the action, and strings it together with enough of a plot, enough mythology, allegory and unexplained conspiracies, to give it the spirit of the original TV series, even if not quite the substance.
And that's where fans will be disappointed. Whilst extremely pretty, and very slick and streamlined, this new reworking adds little new to the proceedings and, in fact, takes away quite a lot of the character development. Newcomers won't miss anything that they didn't know was supposed to be there in the first place and, honestly, many fans will probably be pleased to ditch some of the overly-emo stuff, but much of the missing footage went some way to creating more well-rounded characters. Still, perhaps the later instalments will rectify this, and - maybe - the final product will not suffer from this alternate method of character development. I guess only time will tell, and since it will probably be several years before we get the closing chapter (it has taken 3 years for the UK to get a release of the first chapter, and the second only just came out in Japan) we have to expect that - even after completing this tetralogy - the producers will probably want to release a 'complete movie' edition, potentially even more tinkered-with.
As it is Evangelion offers newcomers a nice (if innately incomplete, since it's only Part 1) introduction to the franchise, and perhaps even to anime itself. Infinitely more accessible (it's amazing what cleaned-up cell animation and advanced CGI can do for 15-year-old material), it ostensibly offers up plenty of large-scale, post-apocalyptic carnage as giant mecha units go up against huge alien monsters, with the totally destructible city below them as their arena.
Many may still wonder what the hell is going on (you'll find yourself halfway through before any decent explanation is offered), and many others will question the rather strange imagery (crucifixes etched into the cityscape by the destruction, marginally disturbing teenage nudity and the kind of arterial blood-spurting you would expect from something like Kill Bill - emanating from both the Evas and the Angels) but few will not be at least viscerally entertained by the action and the undisputed thrills. You genuinely feel like lives are on the line, most obviously those of the kids' who are in the direct line-of-fire, and you also get a good sense of the desperation that they feel at having to rise to the adult challenge of defeating these seemingly insurmountable opponents. It's real David-versus-Goliath stuff. Only David's got a Very Big Gun instead of a slingshot. If you like your anime brutal, with reasonably decent character and story development, steeped in religious mythos, and driven by large-scale mass-destruction action sequences, then it doesn't get much better than Evangelion.
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