Nine years. That’s how long it’s been since Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo, director Hideaki Anno’s last entry in the Rebuild of Evangelion series. In those nine years of waiting, I have lived almost one-third of my entire life. Back then I was in my early 20s, in school, basically a kid still (not that I knew that). In that time, I met the woman of my dreams and got married. I have a career. I traveled internationally multiple times, including to Japan. Friends and family came and went. I’ve learned a lot about life, and most of all, I’ve learned a lot about myself.

Throughout that time, my mind often refers back to Neon Genesis Evangelion, both the series and the Rebuild versions of the story. It’s a foundational element of my tastes and personal philosophies, and has even driven my travel choices; one day, I’ll return to the Evangelion Store in Tokyo. The series has been a big influence on me as a person and has often been a balm in hard times. Shinji’s struggles are a reminder to hang on to life despite pain and setbacks.

Now, after nine years of waiting, 14 years since the start of the Rebuild series and 26 years of the franchise as a whole, Evangelion has come to an end. Does it live up to the hype? Does Anno still have what it takes to surprise a multi-generational audience that has grown along with his signature series?

Worth noting, before we begin, that I’ve been working on a series of essays, “Touching a NERV,” that deep-dive into the Rebuild movies, starting with Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone. Be warned that I am going to dive into spoilers here, although I’m saving some of my deeper analysis of Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0 for my “Touching a NERV” column.

Let me frame the basics: Evangelion in all forms follows Shinji Ikari, a 14-year-old forced to pilot a giant mecha by his horrible father, Gendo, who happens to run a shadowy organization called NERV — which exists to fight Angels, a species of mysterious kaiju that ravaged Earth after an apocalypse known as the “second impact.” Shinji is as impulsive, emotional and afraid as any real-life 14-year-old — a quality that sets him apart from the steely-hero fantasies of other “real robot” anime about young men going to war and making something out of themselves. He’s also haunted by sexual anxiety, which is made worse by his beautiful compatriots, Rei and Asuka.

The original finale of the franchise, End of Evangelion, remains a surrealist high point in anime history but left many fans dissatisfied. With his Rebuild series, Anno started revisiting and reworking his story with decades more experience under his belt and a new vision for what Evangelion means. These aren’t remakes per se but rather retellings that operate as straightforward Evangelion stories and meta-commentaries on the old series and its cultural impact. They’re the most personal stories ever made about giant robots hitting massive monsters.

At the start of Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0, Shinji is once again in a dark place. Nothing he does can ever seem to please anyone, including his father or his compatriots. At the end of Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance, Shinji heroically saves someone he loves, only to see his action result in another apocalypse In Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo and everything continue to get worse for him. It feels like nothing he does matters. Getting in the giant robot isn’t the solution to anything, but it’s all anyone wants from him.

So Anno, being an ever-contemplative director, slows it all down. The first act of this film puts Shinji in a rural village, working through his issues. When he first arrives, he’s mute and almost catatonic. Simply put: Shinji is depressed. Anno himself has openly discussed his own depression and suicidal urges, and his depiction of Shinji here feels very honest; you can feel Anno’s empathy for Shinji here in every shot.

What’s needed when people are in this dark place is for someone to understand their trauma and let them heal. To be reminded that they’re OK, and that they’re loved, no matter what they’ve done or what they believe themselves to be. The village allows Shinji, and the audience, to experience this type of catharsis. This is the journey Shinji must experience in order to resolve his story. It also becomes Anno’s vehicle for deconstructing and reconstructing the meaning of the Evangelion series.

Using his knack for surrealism, Anno has Shinji experience meetings with grown-up versions of characters the audience knows. It’s an obvious meta-commentary about how Shinji and his fellow pilots literally don’t age. They’ve been around for 26 years and remain 14 years old through each incarnation. They are destined to exist in this eternal stasis because a story like Evangelion, no matter how many times it is retooled and retold, cannot progress beyond what fans will accept.

Slowing things down is Anno’s way of reminding those same fans that to him, the important part of Evangelion is finding a better way to express his view of life, not just retelling big fight scenes. The aforementioned emphasis on healing from depression is just part of Anno’s larger message on the importance of making real, human connections in your life. Anime characters never grow, but people do, and being part of the flow of life is as gratifying as any anime series.

Of course, giant robot fights are an important thing in the context of watching an Evangelion story. So once Shinji is healed, the film barrels towards its final confrontation with Gendo. The climactic fight contains some of the most stunning animation I’ve ever seen, topping even the benchmarks set by the previous Rebuild movies. The voice actors are uniformly excellent. Megumi Ogata, in particular, nails it as Shinji Shirō Sagisu delivers another incredible soundtrack. Of course, Utada Hikaru delivers (as they have for the entire Rebuild series) a fantastic closing-credits track that captures the mood of the piece. It goes without saying that not everything is a success in this film, but my quibbles are minor and barely worth mentioning.

Anno made Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0 a farewell to Evangelion and he’s done a magnificent job pulling out all the stops. Every major character gets the send-off and emotional catharsis they deserve. This isn’t the same sort of brutal conclusion as End of Evangelion. In 2021, Anno seems to have a much more zen approach to everything. He has nothing to prove to anyone anymore. Anno has been open about his feelings regarding obsessive fandom (and those feelings really drive Rebuild, as I discuss in my ongoing series) and Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0 feels like one last plea from him for fans to take a look a the world around them. Love Evangelion all you want, but don’t let it get in the way of more important things.

It struck me that 14 years ago, I’d have sat and watched Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0 in one sitting, annoyed at any interruption. When I watched it now, my viewing was interspersed with the interruptions of adulthood — chores that needed to be done, errands to be run, meals I needed to cook for my family. It didn’t bother me at all; I was happy to do them and then return to the film I’d waited almost a decade to finally see. There’s far more to life than Evangelion, and I’m glad. Anno is saying “Let go” but in a fond tone, with a story that weaves together life’s pain with the potential for happiness and optimism even in the darkest places.

I’m glad this movie took nine years to make. Fandoms these days are incredibly impatient, but I’m glad I had the time to grow and I’m glad Anno did, too. I don’t think the 2012 Anno could have made this film. Certainly, the 2012 Alex wouldn’t have been ready for it. I’m glad it came in 2021.

How do you end a series that is so influential and means so much to so many people? You do it the way with a thoughtful, touching story that imbues action with grace, heart and growth. It gives fans what they want while telling them what they may need to hear.

Goodbye, Anno. Goodbye, Evangelion. Thank you for everything. I’ll keep growing.