Welcome back, dear reader, to Touching a NERV, our look at the Rebuild of Evangelion series. Last week, we covered the third and penultimate in the series, Evangelion 3.0 – You Can (Not) Redo. We looked at the way that film seriously diverged from the material of the original anime series, which this four-film story is ostensibly remaking, and how that fits with the ongoing meta-commentary by creator Hideaki Anno. Evangelion 3.0 took this series completely outside the realm of expectations, leaving viewers and fans disoriented and, in some cases, angry. Shinji Ikari and his companions faced a completely open-ended future for the first time in decades, and nobody knew what to expect. After watching it in 2012, I would have to wait nine years to find out.

So, get ready for emotional catharsis, realize that you’ve changed as a person over this past decade, get ready to go outside and prepare to say goodbye to all of Evangelion with Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0: Thrice Upon a Time.

I already captured my initial thoughts on Thrice Upon a Time in my previous review on this site. It’s my favorite film this year and will be hard to unseat. It’s currently my third-favourite anime film of all time (behind only Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack and My Neighbor Totoro). I think Thrice Upon a Time is a stunning and mature ending to a decades-spanning saga. I avoided spoilers in my review so that I could dive deep into them in the last essay for this cycle of Touching a NERV — and here it is.

Unlike my previous essays in this series, I’m going to discuss the technical aspects first. As I’ve said in each entry, the voice acting and the soundtrack are both out of this world. The cast remains incredible, having played these roles for almost 30 years and giving it their all as they say goodbye. Composer Shirō Sagisu embraces the finality, too, delivering a varied soundtrack that ranges from quiet and soulful to the bombast required in a story like Evangelion.

What’s most astonishing about Thrice Upon a Time from a technical standpoint is that the direction is more dynamic than previous entries; Anno has certainly learned something from his time directing Shin Godzilla. For a series that made its name throwing out the rulebook and embracing surrealist imagery, Thrice Upon a Time ups the ante. Anno utilizes different styles of animation at the end as we see into the world of each character. Visually, he embraces the toyetic nature of the Evangelions in strange ways. It lives up to the reputation of the series. It’s sure to make uninitiated audiences shake their heads and wonder “What the … ?” A truly stunning technical achievement.

The story opens with a giant battle between Evas and Angels in Paris to give audiences the goods before returning to Shinji’s story, picking up where we last left him in the ruins of Tokyo-3 with Asuka and Rei. Shinji finds himself dragged to a human settlement that exists thanks to his friend Misato’s WILLE organization. He’s left to recover from the traumatic events of the series thus far, and that recovery takes an hour of runtime.

A Simple Life

That’s right: Nearly half of Thrice Upon a Time is set in a Ghibli-esque rural village.

At first, Shinji can barely move or engage with anyone. He’s wracked by PTSD from the events of the previous film. He can’t seem to get a “win,” and even when he does (like in Evangelion 2.0), it backfires horribly. It’s only through the day-to-day normalcy of the village and life with his friends that Shinji finds himself able to move forward. As in real life, time and support are the answers. When Shinji starts to come around, it truly feels like he has taken his time and is slowly learning that he’s capable of being loved.

Of course, to achieve peace, he does have to get in the Evangelion one last time. But now he’s not doing it because he thinks he has to do it or because anyone else is ordering him to: He’s doing it because he wants to do it, because he knows he can use it to save his friends. But that’s the storytelling payoff for an hour of thematic thoughtfulness.

Through Shinji, Anno argues that real life is good and important. He slows the series down in order to show that the action and violence of the series isn’t the answer; being part of a community you care for is. Caring for others, and being connected to the world, is the key to living a good life. It’s accompanied by typically un-Evangelion acoustic-guitar tracks and has its own rhythm compared to the rest of the series. You can just feel the place.

Rei, too, undergoes development. We haven’t talked about Rei much in this series so far because Shinji functions as Anno’s voice, but her arc here is also important. Rei is one of the most iconic characters in the series: She’s the purple-haired first pilot of Evangelion, always withdrawn and without her own agency. It’s revealed over time that she’s actually a series of clones derived from Shinji’s dead mom. (There are layers to that reveal that I’m not even going to unpack here … maybe when I reach End of Evangelion). As a character, though, Rei is notable for not knowing who she is or, frankly, how to be human. She was bred for the singular purpose of piloting an Eva. Here, she learns what it means to be herself and how to be human.

Shinji, Rei and Asuka all remain in arrested physical development thanks to “the curse of the Eva,” which keeps them eternally young. When Shinji awakens in the village, he meets Kensuke and Toji, friends from school who were MIA during the events of Evangelion 3.0. Because they’re normal, they aged up during the decade-plus timespan of the series. They live real lives. They’re fighting each day for their normal existence, not for the existence of the world. Families, kids, jobs. Our heroic pilot trio is able to see adulthood divorced from the warring nature of their childhoods spent piloting mechas to fight aliens. It changes them and helps them grow. Anno depicts adulthood as a positive thing, which contrasts with the way Evangelion generally depicts adults as manipulative or dysfunctional. This is a series that argues adulthood is more than just holding onto your geek obsession. It’s a four-movie series running nearly 10 hours that ends with the argument, “OK, it’s over. Now go outside and live your life.”

Things Go Boom

This is where the heavy spoilers come into play, so turn back if you haven’t seen the movie.

The second half of Thrice Upon a Time is just as incredible as the first, albeit in a different way. Anno spends the first half arguing the audience needs to move on from Evangelion, and he spends the second half reminding them why he’s still one of the best in the business. In a way, the second half of the movie says, “Yeah, I’m telling you to move on, but I assure you the time you spent obsessing over my stories was well spent.”

Shinji reunites with Misato and her crew and heads off to face his evil father, Gendo, one final time. Given the fact that the previous Rebuild films always ended in calamity, I expected the same from Thrice Upon a Time. Shinji has never faced off with Gendo before; the original series doesn’t include this confrontation in its narrative.

As the heroes suit up for their confrontation with NERV, the movie acknowledges the weight of this conclusion. Anno understands the audience wants to see this story play out and also knows how viewers like me were feeling at the end of the franchise. Familiar music and visual cues from the classic series reappear to herald the final adventure. Shinji is given an opportunity to resolve long-running relationships before heading into battle, truly self-assured for the first time in the series. It’s a celebration within the story and for viewers watching.

The final battle with Gendo, such as it is, takes up a large portion of the second half of the film. Thrice Upon a Time really does something Evangelion has never done before: It shows us who Gendo is. Gendo has always been an elusive presence in the series, plotting big, evil plans with the ultimate goal of getting his dead wife back. He’s willing to destroy humanity and bring about the apocalypse to do it, even if it means abusing his only son. Rarely has Anno given him much characterization otherwise. In this film, we realize he’s just like Shinji. He’s scared of connection and loss, and his whole plan is to remove all things that separate people — quite literally, in that he wants to merge everyone together. The irony, of course, is that he pushes his son away to do so.

All of Gendo’s mad plans and schemes within schemes come from his inherent loneliness. Nothing in Thrice Upon a Time absolves Gendo, but it’s also a much more nuanced take on the bad dad archetype than the original End of Evangelion. The key to their confrontation, in the end, is for Shinji to approach their situation with empathy. Gendo may or may not be redeemable, but the best thing Shinji can do is grow beyond his father’s weaknesses. He has hated and feared his father for his whole life but comes to pity him in the end. Shinji is able to move on from the sad monster who made him by being the bigger man, by embracing his emotions and humanity.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a final Evangelion story without blowing apart reality in the process. Anno’s penchant for meta-commentary comes out in full force during the final battle. Gendo and Shinji’s battle breaks through the barriers of fiction. As a device, Anno introduces an imaginary Evangelion that can be anything you want it to be, which leads to Gendo and Shinji fighting within literal Evangelion toys before moving into an animated re-creation of the actual stage at Toho used to make the film. This is all an anime, Anno says, as he breaks our hearts with story and our minds with action.

After Shinji has had closure with Gendo, Anno takes time to give closure to the rest of his other main characters. Each of the characters finds solace by moving beyond their traditional roles for the first time.

Asuka, the red-haired, hyper-confident pilot who lives for battle, finds home in the arms of Kensuke, a normal person. In a gorgeously animated segment, we see Asuka, represented as a child, being told by Kensuke, “You are who you are. That’s fine. That’s OK.”

Rei, as we covered earlier, is able to develop her own role in a community and embrace her humanity. She agrees to help Shinji with his plan to restore the world, only without Evangelions. It’s time to say goodbye to who they were and what was expected of them. It’s time for them to move on.

And then it’s time for Anno to say goodbye.

The End (?) of Evangelion

After saying goodbye to his friends, the story fades away before returning to an image of Shinji on a beach (a classic motif in the series). The animation dials itself back to its most basic state — no CGI, no shading, no bombastic visuals. Just lines on a piece of paper to remind us: This is what Evangelion is. It’s an animated story. It’s moved us, entertained us and consumed us, but it’s time to put it to rest. Shinji says he’s not going to rewind or rewrite the world but rather create a new one: a Neon Genesis.

Anno isn’t saying he wants people to throw Evangelion away, especially not as it offers them emotional catharsis. I think he knows people will be returning to his work over and over, so he offers a message of comfort for those who reach the end. It’s OK to move on. Evangelion is awesome, and Anno knows it even if he downplays his success. He believes in the power of the stories he’s telling and tells them better than almost anyone, but he also knows the danger of becoming obsessed, of disassociating from the world around you. The Rebuild series is both a brilliant retelling of the original Evangelion and a statement by Anno about what he’s learned over 30 years of running one of the most influential anime series ever made: There is happiness without Evangelion.

It’s noteworthy that the only character to join Shinji on the beach at the end of the story is Mari, who was introduced in Rebuild to inject some unknown into the retelling aspect of Anno’s project. How would this new character change the way the story plays out? She represents the uncertainty of an unwritten future. Having the final scene be a grown-up Shinji and a grown-up Mari taking one another’s hand and shouting “Let’s go!” as they run into a new future is a perfect ending to a series built on balancing nostalgia and lessons learned from living a long life.

Sometimes the person who completes you isn’t the one you expect. Sometimes the show you’re obsessed with tells you to go outside, and the story it tells makes you understand just how profoundly empathetic that sentiment can be.

In the final shot, as Shinji and Mari run into their future, the camera zooms out to show the real-world town of Ube, director Anno’s home. The last words we hear, juxtaposed to the city filling the screen are the song lyrics “I’ll love you more than you’ll ever know.” For Anno, Evangelion was a journey spanning most of his adult life; for the audience, connecting with Evangelion was, in some ways, a connection with Anno. Despite being grumpy and trollish to his fans, Anno has left fans with a magnificent four-part story that embraces what they love about his work while also assuring them that moving on is OK. Care for others. Remember that cycles can be broken. Remember that there are always second chances even if they present themselves differently than you expect.

You are not alone.

You can advance.

You can redo.