With the impending release of Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time, Alex Holmes takes a look back at the epic Evangelion franchise, from the original series to the Rebuild of Evangelion films that retell the story for a new age. Why is this series so popular? What makes it one of the most well-renowned (and most disturbing) science-fiction epics in anime history? Put on your plug suit, breath in that LCL, wonder about what the fuck Gendo is really up to, and join Alex in exploring why Evangelion touches a NERV.

“Touching a NERV” is a series about Neon Genesis Evangelion (Eva). Most everyone has heard about it over time, but here’s a little background for the uninitiated, Eva started as a TV series that aired between 1995 and 1996. It was an immediate smash hit, a clever deconstruction of existing Mecha tropes in Japanese anime. It deconstructs and literalizes them, magnifying the pain and trauma so frequently touched upon in the genre but never to this psychological level. Despite being so grounded in Mecha tropes, Eva is remarkably accessible, which led to its gargantuan success.

An appropriate comparison would be Watchmen, a book that can be enjoyed without knowing how much of its commentary is steeped in Alan Moore’s appreciation of classic, mid-20th-century superhero comics. Don’t know the characters are all Charlton analogs? Doesn’t matter. Rorshach is arguably inspired by the political beliefs held by one of the creators of Spider-Man? Doesn’t matter. Don’t know that Moore is a crazy bearded wizard from England who got famously ripped off and exploited by one of the largest commercial publishers in the world, which metafictionally reflects themes found in this, his most successful work? Not important if all you want to do is read a cool superhero story.

The same applies to Eva: You can invest in the rich tapestry of thematic concerns expressed by creator Hideaki Anno or just vibe with the good music and badass robot-versus-monster fights. But the reasons it ultimately endures are its rich characters, social commentary and meta-fictional storytelling.

I have two specific goals with these essays:

First: These are reviews of the existing Eva material, both before and after Amazon Prime Video’s upcoming Aug. 13 release of the final installment of Rebuild. Also that day, Amazon is simultaneously presenting the first three movies: Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone, Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance, and Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo). If you choose to start your Eva journey with the Rebuild movies, I hope this series can serve as a complement and a guide when you’re wondering what the hell you just watched.

Second: If you’re a returning Eva fan, hopefully you can enjoy my perspective and allow my writing to refresh your mind on the current status of the franchise. There is quite a lot of which to keep track. Once I’ve finished writing about the Rebuild films, I plan on doing a series re-watch as well, building up to the classic final movies. Watching it all together will hopefully bring new insights and appreciation.

There will be spoilers here. So if you haven’t watched those, be warned. But for now, we should start. So …

You Can (not) Reboot.

In all iterations, Eva follows Shinji, a schoolboy living in a fortified subterranean Tokyo decades after an apocalypse rendered the world uninhabitable. Monsters known as Angels roam the world. Shinji’s mother died when he was young, and his father, Gendo, is remote and abusive. Soon, though, Gendo recruits Shinji to become the pilot of a mecha known as Evangelion. Shinji makes new friends, falls in love and suffers severe trauma. That’s because when piloting an Evangelion, you feel everything it feels and connect with it on a psychological level. Plus, the truth behind the Angels, and Gendo’s mission, are just more gasoline on the fire burning in Shinji’s fragile, pubescent mind.

The initial Evangelion anime series has a famously obtuse ending. Although I personally love it, it received backlash from fans at the time and for understandable reasons. This led to one of the greatest anime films of all time, 1997’s The End of Evangelion. It’s a work of staggering psychological brutality and honesty. Anno has been open about his struggles with depression and mental illness at the time, themes that flourish in the violent, merciless conclusion to the original series. The End of Evangelion features depictions of graphic violence and disturbing instances of sexual violence, but never plays as exploitation. It’s a thoughtful, difficult work.

Still, this is a globally renowned series, and, as such, can never truly end. The fanbase keeps it alive. Let yours truly be a fine example: I own not only all the physical media and the manga, several model kits of Evangelion Unit 01 and several shirts, but I’ve been to the Evangelion Store in Tokyo three times. I’ve even been on the Evangelion VR ride in VR Zone Shinjuku. And yet, there is so much more Evangelion merchandise than I could ever manage to purchase.

I didn’t even get to ride the themed Shinkansen train, so am I really a fan?

In 2002, Anno started work on what would be now known as Rebuild of Evangelion. The idea was that Anno would finally be able to make Evangelion as he truly wanted it, free from budgetary or studio constraints with his own new Studio Khara taking the rights from previous studio Gainax. The End of Evangelion already showed that Anno was not afraid to tinker with his work and that nothing was a sacred text to him.

What was promised with the Rebuild series was for three movies to cover the original series, with a fourth film to present a new, definitive ending. Even End of Evangelion, despite promising a true ending, had its own ambiguities.

Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone was finally released in 2007. Like all Eva, it follows Shinji being forced to pilot a mech, the battles he wages, the friends he makes, the girls with whom he works. Most of all, it’s about his feelings.

Evangelion 1.0 Is set in 2015, 15 years after “the second impact,” aka the day the Angels arrived and killed off much of humanity. The oceans are deep and run with blood. The Angels had disappeared after the second impact, but now they’ve returned. To fight the Angels, the U.N. and the mysterious Illuminati-esque SEELE, created NERV, which is headquartered in Tokyo-3 and operates the Evangelions to fight against the Angels on humanity’s behalf. Their commander, Gendo Ikari, is also shady as hell, with his own mysterious agenda.

Shinji, Gendo’s son, is summoned by his father to pilot the iconic Evangelion Unit 01 under the command of Major Misato Katsuragi and alongside fellow pilot Rei Ayanami. Rei is quiet and withdrawn, hiding a connection to Gendo and Shinji. Shinji, being on-call at all times, is quartered with the expressive, beautiful Misato at her request, to get him to open up and experience human relationships. Understanding how to be connected with others will, theoretically, make him a better pilot, and it opens up a whole realm of awkward comedy for the shy 14-year-old and his hot, outspoken roommate. Hey, it’s not all dour. Shinji must decide ultimately why he pilots the Evangelion and what he wants for himself.

Evangelion 1.0 is very faithful to the section of the original story it covers, with some notable exceptions. One is, of course, the new animation. Even 14 years later, the animation still looks crisp and modern. The original show’s animation is also extremely good (and has its own inimitable style), but it’s hard to deny quite how stunning the difference is here. Second, the world-building is modified. It is not uncommon at all for anime franchises to release “compilation films” to cash in on a series’ popularity. Indeed that’s how Gundam got popular; the original 0079 series was released as three movies years after its initial run, to great acclaim. If you’re so inclined, these are now on Netflix, just in time for the Western release of Mobile Suit Gundam Hathaway.

Often, these film series omit side plots in favor of key details for time constraints and to motivate audiences to seek out the originals. Sometimes this can go badly (the Code Geass movies are heinous examples), but sometimes, as is the case with Evangelion 1.0, it works in the new film’s favor. The blood-red sea, for example, is a new addition that makes the Second Impact apocalypse more intense. Events from the show are excised for the sake of cleaner character arcs and a faster-paced narrative. Although I missed some of the smaller beats, Anno likely intuited that much of the audience for these films have seen the originals and don’t need to see that character work a second time.

This becomes clearer in the subsequent Rebuild of Evangelion films, which deviate a little at first and then violently in major ways. Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone is setting the baseline for upcoming films, luring experienced fans into a sense of comfort with a well-known story and introducing new audiences to the basic premise of the series. Shirō Sagisu also returns to pen the original soundtrack, which is a fantastic orchestration of so many of Evangelion’s classic sounds as well as one spectacular new orchestral track, “Angel of Doom.”

You Can (Not) Return

I’ve been a fan of Evangelion for over 15 years, just before Evangelion 1.0 was released in theatres. In that time, I’ve gained a lot more knowledge about Japanese pop culture and grown from a teenager into an adult with (I hope) a better understanding of culture in general. This time around, I immediately picked up the now clearly obvious Tokusatsu references, with the lines of tanks and military force being used a la Godzilla. It’s a clever way of setting a tone to be subverted but also to communicate how powerful the Angels are and set up the need for the Evangelions using universally recognized action language.

Seeing Evangelion for the first time after discovering my own personal Jesus in Gundam, the differences between it and Gundam hit me like a ton of bricks. The first thing you notice early on is that the Evangelions look like robots but they also look an awful lot more like humans than the war machines found in Gundam, which is the standard-bearer for piloted-Mecha anime. Like all Mechas, EVA-01 has hands, but in an early fight when it gets its armor shot off, you see … fingernails? And it can roar? Seeing this in the context of Gundam and other Mecha that preceded it gives Evangelion a feeling that is deeply, deeply fucked up.

I don’t want to spoil the nature of the Evas and Gendos’ ultimate plot, but as an adult, the spiritual and mythological aspects of Anno’s storytelling make everything feel a lot more disturbing. It feels like Gendo is messing with shit with which someone should not be messing. Speaking of Gendo, he fulfills a role often found in Mecha series (and Gundam), the authority figure who comes into conflict with the young hero.

But while Mobile Suit Gundam‘s Amuro, the model for all “teen heroes thrust into war in giant Mecha” has to grapple with a distant father and an experienced commander making his life tough, he also has friends, allies and a positive disposition who tries his best. His father loves him, but has other concerns in the scope of war.

In Evangelion, Gendo views Shinji faces as a spare part and is deliberately manipulating him for his own gains. Shinji takes the “sad boy pilot” from Gundam and turns it to extreme lengths. Every friend he makes is as messed up as him. He’s surrounded by abusive leaders. Monsters are trying to kill him. He has no idea how to deal with all the hot women in his life who have a lot more confidence and character than he does. A fan bumper sticker for NERV once said “you don’t have to be fucked up to work here, but it helps.” Shinji is insecure. He hates himself. He fears connection. All of that angst is the emotional core of Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone, and having gone through my own experiences, it hits much harder than when I was a teenager.

Still, the emotional core of Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone is ultimately optimistic. Shinji takes steps toward opening up and understands the power of relationships despite the possible pain they can cause. To anyone whose ever struggled with anxiety or depression, Shinji’s mantra, “I mustn’t run away,” is powerful and effective. Anno never cuts corners with the psychological trauma he inflicts on his characters, which makes their triumphs all the more powerful.

Although largely a retread (with some important differences) and summary of the TV series, Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone is a success as both an entry point for newcomers and old fans alike. It sets the emotional table and establishes the rules for the Rebuild series … before Anno blows it all up in Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance.