Netflix’s grand scheme to massively expand its content library includes scaling up its arsenal of both original and licensed anime. Many of the shows the platform has been getting the rights for have healthy fanbases, but only one acquisition warranted its own dramatic announcement late last year, even though the series in question originally came out in the mid ’90s. Neon Genesis Evangelion, one of the most popular and influential Japanese animated franchises ever, was originally distributed in America by A.D. Vision, but that company’s liquidation has left the show out of print here for over a decade. Its arrival on Netflix marks the first time it can be legally streamed in the US. That means a whole new generation of viewers can be blindsided by this masterfully made but dark, beguiling, and confrontational story.
Evangelion was produced by the studio Gainax and helmed by writer/director Hideaki Anno, a veteran animator who’d previously overseen several hits for the company. The series at first seems to follow the general expectations of the mecha genre, but gradually unspools something very different. What starts out as a story about a scrappy group saving the world, blending action, drama, and comedy in equal amounts, becomes something incredibly bleak. As a whole, the series mixes influences from classic anime like Devilman and Space Runaway Ideon, authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Ryū Murakami, Western shows like The Prisoner, both Freudian and Jungian psychology, and symbolism from Christianity, Kabbalah, and Gnosticism. The result is a work that’s both fascinated and frustrated viewers for nearly 25 years.
The show begins in the then-future year of 2015, in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event which killed billions and induced catastrophic climate change. To compound humanity’s troubles, giant creatures known as “Angels” have since begun to emerge and wreak devastation in pursuit of some unknown goal. To combat this threat, enormous mecha called Evangelions are produced and deployed, the catch being that they can only be piloted by teenagers. The main pilots featured are series protagonist Shinji Ikari, the enigmatic Rei Ayanami, and the headstrong Asuka Langley Soryu. Supporting them is a cast of various military and scientific personnel.
Evangelion‘s first half follows a monster-of-the-week formula: A new Angel attacks, and the characters have to strategize around whatever its special abilities are to destroy it. Along the way, cast members are introduced and given their own spotlight episodes, with the details of the setting filled in bit by bit, a larger story arc forming around the true nature of the Angels and the secret plans of Nerv, the organization fielding the EVA units. At this point, the series doesn’t appear to break the expectations of its genre, though it certainly leaves a lot more room for quiet, meditative stretches than said genre usually demands. Episode directors such as Seiji Mizushima and Kazuya Tsurumaki construct some jaw-droppingly animated setpieces.
Despite decades of advancement in technology, the fluidity of motion during the show’s action scenes has rarely been matched. More than that, Evangelion pays a level of attention to framing and careful editing that’s unusual for TV anime, not just for its time but even today. Aesthetically the show stands out as well, thanks to Gainax co-founder Yoshiyuki Sadamoto putting together some of the best designs in his career. Each character’s qualities — Shinji’s uncertainty, Rei’s enigma, Asuka’s cocksureness — are baked into the way he drew them. The EVA units look like no other giant robots in anime, slim and catlike rather than bulky. The Angels deserve special mention as a cavalcade of utterly weird, often terrifying monstrosities, ranging from a yonic whale with laser tentacles to a floating octahedron to a tiny two-dimensional being with a giant gonzo three-dimensional shadow. This was a group of artists at the peak of their skills giving it everything they got. Evangelion would remain noteworthy even if it continued in this vein and wrapped up as anyone might think it would at first. But instead, things got strange.
During the making of the back half of Evangelion, production troubles mounted, delays reached the point where episodes would be finished barely on deadline, and Anno’s research into psychology helped him clarify the depression he’d been suffering from for years. There are conflicting reports as to how much budget troubles did or didn’t play a role, but the visuals certainly become less polished at this point. (There are multiple scenes in which characters hold still and say nothing for agonizingly long stretches of time.) More importantly, the tone changes drastically. The Angels still come, but less frequently, with more episodes instead given to the characters interacting and reflecting on their circumstances. The focus moves from the logistics of defeating the Angels to the toll fighting them has on the protagonists. Action scenes are cut down in favor of dialogue. Backstories are laid out, with characters’ deep psychoses revealed and shown to be rooted in myriad traumas — Shinji witnessing the death of his mother and his father subsequently abandoning him, Asuka similarly watching her mother succumb to mental illness and suicide, Rei realizing she’s completely disposable as a pilot. Things get increasingly unpleasant and jarring; in one sequence rapidly cutting between past and present, a character is psychically attacked with memories of her abuse, all to the tune of the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.”
Evangelion reveals itself not as a traditional mecha show but a critique of mecha shows, as well as of narrative conventions popular within anime. Similarly to Watchmen, the series takes familiar tropes and then filters them through a lens of psychological realism, in the process exposing the troubling expectations underlying their respective genres. In Watchmen‘s case, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons explored the fascist impulse and repressed sexuality in superheroes. Here, Anno deconstructs the self-insertion fantasy driving many anime. The protagonists of these types of shows are generally young male “everyman” types, uncertain of themselves or even shy — reflections of the presumed target audience. Ultimately, such characters usually find their courage, win the day, get the girl, etc. Anno instead posits what might really happen if an introverted teen boy were put in the seat of a war machine and burdened with saving the world, and the answer isn’t pleasant.
Shinji Ikari is a character whose hesitance to act, whether it’s to fight a monster or simply reach out to a friend, is genuinely aggravating to watch at times. And instead of growing more confident over the course of the series, his experiences render him more withdrawn and terrified. His role as an EVA pilot is less to boldly face the enemy than to follow the instructions the adults give him, bearing the weight of constantly almost dying and inflicting death and destruction for them. He has no lofty desire to save the world, but does what he’s told out of a misplaced desire for validation, particularly from his distant father Gendoh, who leads Nerv. This is a less-than-flattering portrait of the audience, and every other character is similarly revealed as an emotional wreck. The post-apocalypse is a backdrop so often taken for granted in sci-fi entertainment that to see something treat such a premise this starkly is startling.
The shift from action to psychological drama culminates in the last stretch of episodes, in which one by one, each lead suffers some kind of mental breakdown. This peaks in the infamously divisive final two episodes, which take place almost entirely within an allegorical mindscape and feature heavy philosophical discussion amongst the cast. Told mainly through the reuse of previous footage, line work rather than full animation, and surreal imagery, it has no action and no apparent resolution to the show’s overarching plot. There’s a five-minute sequence in which the characters are slotted into a parody of high school comedy shows. It does end with an emotional breakthrough for Shinji, but many viewers found this deeply unsatisfying. Thus did one of the first big online fan backlash campaigns begin, with Gainax headquarters getting vandalized and Anno being sent numerous death threats.
The vitriol was such that, despite Anno and his collaborators maintaining that the final product matched their artistic intent, Gainax commissioned a new ending in the form of a movie. The End of Evangelion, directed by Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki and released in summer 1997, can be viewed as both an alternative and complementary version of the show’s last two episodes. But Anno wasn’t about to cave to pressure and simply give fans what they wanted. Rather, End of Evangelion is even darker than anything in the series, with the conflict (against other humans and their EVA units rather than Angels) gruesomely claiming much of the cast. If the show documents the process by which these characters are worn down to nothing, then this is what happens when they’re reduced to exposed nerves. The style is aggressive, growing only more chaotic as it goes. Anno’s response to audiences failing to grasp the product of his melancholy was to impose that melancholy on them. Bodies are torn apart, warped, and melted. Someone’s arm just falls off. All of humanity is lured into a shared cosmic consciousness through a ritual evoking both Christ’s crucifixion and the Kabbalistic Sefirot. It’s a Lynchian picture of the tormented mind, depression’s figurative end of the world made literal.
The movie’s final act doubles down on everything the show’s finale did, again delving into philosophical speculation through experimental techniques. At one point there’s a split-second montage of pictures of death threats sent to Anno. It’s one of the most potent cinematic “Fuck you”s ever devised. And yet the film isn’t a work of pettiness, but rather a deepening of the series’ themes. Removed from television, it could explore teenage angst and sexual frustration much more explicitly. Its deeply upsetting content (it opens with a sexual assault, then things only get grimmer) is there not simply to shock the audience, but rather to finally shake them awake to the whole point of the story — that the violence they ask for from their entertainment is an empty thrill, that they can’t find fulfillment in escapism. It asserts again that Shinji’s only hope is not to beat the “bad guys,” but to learn to open up to people.
Evangelion did not stop there, and remains a hugely lucrative property both in Japan and across the world. There have been different comic book and video game adaptations, and absolutely endless merchandising. The dissonance between the series’ themes and general attitude and the sheer number of tie-in products is ridiculous. It’s similar to how The Sopranos never seemed like it should be as popular as it was and is, how its deepening misanthropy was constantly at odds with its high viewership, its audience never as critical of the characters as the writers were. That Evangelion simultaneously holds such antipathy toward otaku culture and is one of its greatest totems is a strangely fitting irony. Hideaki Anno is one of the unlikeliest blockbuster auteurs ever, and the directions he took in his masterpiece feel at least partly like a response to this.
Most recently, Rebuild of Evangelion, a movie series remaking the show that’s written and supervised by Anno, has been coming out. Once again, his depression has dogged the production, with the last film finally set to release in 2020, 13 years after the first one. While it remains to be seen how this version wraps up, it so far has followed a similarly pessimistic trajectory. In Anno’s continued refusal to give fans exactly what they want, he repeats the series’ core message. And, in a rare thing in remake culture, each version feels fresh, turning the cyclical nature of mental health into an opportunity to incorporate new insights each time. Despite the franchise’s inescapable bleakness, this gives it a paradoxically hopeful edge. Perhaps you can’t defeat depression, but you can persist. The vicious End of Evangelion eventually gives way to a gently uplifting monologue: “Anywhere can be paradise as long as you have the will to live. After all, you are alive, so you will always have the chance to be happy.” It then ends with an act of violence disrupted by tenderness, an image as troubling and ambiguous as the series itself.