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? Grab your vague Christian iconography, contemplate whether an Evangelion has a soul (and, if so, whose), and launch up to the surface of Tokyo-3 to discover why the Evangelion franchise touches a NERV.

You Can (Not) Change

Welcome back, dear reader, to “Touching a NERV.” Last time, we covered a brief history of the Evangelion franchise, as well as the first Rebuild of Evangelion film, Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone. This time I’m going to skip all that exposition and move right into Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance, a real mind-melter of a sequel.

The first film played things by the book and was beloved by fans. It was what fans wanted and more of it, with enough small twists to enhance but not necessarily change the Eva they knew and loved. Evangelion 2.0 , on the other hand, twists those expectations and starts to show what the Rebuild series is truly all about.

Right off the bat, Evangelion 2.0 introduces Mari, a new Evangelion pilot not seen in the original franchise whose presence immediately shakes things up. That’s not all. We’re also re-introduced to Asuka, another Evangelion pilot and one of the most iconic characters from the original show. This is the iconic Asuka, brash and full of fire as we know her … but also different. Altered. New. She even goes by a different name now of Asuka Shikinami Langley rather than Asuka Langley Soryu. The manner of her introduction is also altered, which is the first hint that 2.0 is going to radically alter even the characters we know and love.

Subsequently, director Hideaki Anno continually changes direction at small moments from the original story and acknowledges it within his own new storytelling. For instance, a test-pilot role taken by a previous character is now taken up by another, and the original character is relegated to the sideline, muttering how they missed their shot (ostensibly about basketball in the actual story, but edited to create a meta-joke nonetheless).

All of this builds up to the climax, which is where Evangelion 2.0 crosses the rubicon. The returning Shinji, finally piloting Evangelion of his own free will and for his own desires, makes a fateful decision to rescue his beloved Rei from the depths of a horrific Angel that has swallowed her whole. He breaks through barriers of reality to save her, creating a branching point from the original series narrative. Everything from the climax of 2.0 promises to be entirely different from the original conclusion to the Eva saga.

You Can (Not) Understand

There’s a lot more to pick apart with Evangelion 2.0, which matches its story twists with a deeper dive into Anno’s thematic and symbolic obsessions. In true Evangelion fashion, decoding its pleasures relies on the in-story events, the meta-aspects and the bizarre middle-ground between what we know of Anno and the stories he’s telling that have tenuous regard for the common laws of fiction.

First, let’s look at the meta-aspect. There’s a lot of memes about “get in the Robot, Shinji” which play on Shinji’s hesitancy to pilot the Evangelion. The point is that Shinji does not want to get in the robot, and the factors holding him back are real and crippling. Sometimes I’m annoyed because a subsection of the fanbase doesn’t understand that the joke of the meme is that Shinji is a fleshed-out character and that the Eva is something often forced upon his real issues, that Shinji’s choice to fly the Eva, when it happens, is a triumphant moment that doesn’t solve all his problems. The Evangelion is not inherently empowering; it simply represents brief moments of control that Shinji is experiencing in his ongoing, internal apocalypse. Fans who complain about Shinji being a coward or a wimp are missing the point.

I often think that characters like these hit too close to home for many readers and so derisive humor is the best defense they can muster against the piercing truths on screen.

Those truths, though, are uncomfortable, which is something seen in the way Evangelion influenced other anime in the decades after its debut. We compared Evangelion to Watchmen last time, in that they’re narratives that deconstruct their genres while also working as excellent additions in and of themselves. They’re multi-layered works. Like Watchmen, though, Evangelion‘s dark tonality was lifted by many imitators who didn’t match the emotional power of Shinji’s journey or the rawness of Anno’s approach to depression and post-pubescent angst.

Rather than looking into a show about self-actualization and growth, many fans and fellow creators stopped at the “dark robot good” take on the series, which has frustrated Anno in subsequent years. Anno’s frustration with aspects of the Evangelion fandom also are well-documented, and it has been argued that Evangelion 2.0 represents Anno pulling the rug out from his own fans. Unlike in the original telling, Shinji overcomes his angst much sooner, choosing to get in the suit and make the big-hero play.

And from that moment, everything in Evangelion changes. It’s as if Anno is asking his fans, “Well, you want to take the wrong lessons from Eva? You want to have a Shinji without issues? You want the big-hero boy in the robot kicking ass and doing whatever he wants? Well, here you go and enjoy what you’ve wrought.”

As someone who loves the story and always found Shinji’s emotional journey wrought, tough and real, the changes to Evangelion 2.0 are a heartfelt triumph. Giving Shinji a win early on and allowing it to backfire emphasizes why the prolonged psycho-drama in the first movie was necessary for its (relatively happy) conclusion. It works on the meta level but also in the context of this telling of Shinji’s story. The reality-bending rescue here is a combination of emotional catharsis and incredible action spectacle that nonetheless screams at audiences about the importance of knowing, and caring, for yourself. Shinji succeeds at rescuing the woman he loves because he sets aside his issues to get in a suit and be a hero, but the costs of not truly dealing with himself are dire.

In this film, Shinji learns the hardest lesson about placing his self-worth totally in the hands of others. He self-actualizes, at a terrible cost. It plays as a refutation to fans who didn’t understand the original series, but also as a what-if twist for fans who did love Shinji that doesn’t negatively impact the power of the original. In some ways, it enhances it. Despite Shinji growing faster than before, his growth does not come without consequences.

You can never truly defeat your demons. You can only find new ways to fight them.

You Can (Not) Succeed

On technical fronts, Evangelion 2.0 is a complete triumph. The animation is clear and crisp, and the enhanced visuals really sell the shocking destruction wrought by the Evangelions and the Angels in the battle for the fate of the earth. Anno’s eye for imagery in the midst of action carnage results in iconic imagery that has been seared into my mind from the first time I watched this in theatres.

Composer Shirō Sagisu’s soundtrack is arguably his best work. It combining rousing renditions of Evangelion classics, as well as multiple stunning new choral arrangements of the themes. There are also two beautiful renditions of classic Japanese folk-pop songs, as performed by Rei’s voice actress, Megumi Hayashibara, at key moments of the film. It all soars when juxtaposed with the otherworldly, violent and vibrant imagery of Evangelion 2.0.

At the end of Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance, it’s only natural to have some questions. What do the fans want? What does Anno want? Are the two in conflict? What does the rest of the Rebuild of Evangelion series look like?

I think that Anno delivers a powerful and stunning film filled with outbursts of human emotion and deep empathy for those who suffer. It’s a cathartic and moving spectacle that subverts expectations to tell a story more powerful than a simple remake. Like all of Evangelion, Anno leaves a lot up to the audience to parse through and interpret; I barely scratched the surface here. I’ll leave some of that for the sequel, Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo, which makes Evangelion 2.0 look like child’s play.