Giant robots piloted by earnest human beings, battling through Tokyo or the Japanese landscape: this is what lies at the heart of every work in the “mecha” genre. But there is a giant robot show that stands beyond all others, not only for the giant robot fights it gave to the world, but for so much horrible, mind-wrenching symbolism-heavy psychodrama.
So this, then, is the anime series known as Neon Genesis Evangelion.
The Story: In Which Several Young Pilots Fight Monsters, Only To End Up At The Mercy Of Their Own Inner Demons
In the year 2015, the world is still recovering from a near-apocalyptic event known as Second Impact. A new crisis emerges as bizarre and mysterious beings–known as “Angels“–begin attacking Earth. Hope lies in the UN agency known as NERV and the young children who pilot the “Evas”–a series of giant robots designed to take severe punishment and preserve the human race from extinction by these unnatural foes.
Shinji Ikari has just been drafted into this war, but doesn’t want to be an Eva pilot. Yet he does pilot an Eva and prove victorious against several Angels, finding some sense of self-worth through the necessity of his actions. But not even protecting humanity is enough to keep Shinji from losing himself every other episode in a cycle of intense introspection and self-loathing. Thus, the battle for humanity’s continued existence is tied to Shinji’s own struggle to define himself and be reconciled with the horrors he faces in the line of duty.
The Cast: Sad, Broken, Fatalistic, Or Insane–Take Your Pick
It’s interesting to note that every major character in this series has some deep-rooted flaw or psychological trauma that gets reexamined, especially toward the end of the series. So here are the major contenders:
- Shinji Ikari: A teenage boy with an extreme inferiority complex who can’t bear to get close to anyone, desperate for his father’s love and unable to help anyone else with their own major issues; believe it or not, he’s the show’s protagonist.
- Misato Katsuragi: NERV operations director and Shinji’s guardian; she’s often torn by the demands of her duty and her personal interests, especially when it comes to protecting Shinji’s sanity.
- Rei Ayanami: An Eva pilot with strong ties to Gendo Ikari, Shinji’s father and the mastermind behind all of NERV’s successes; she has few social graces and a dark past that ties into the show’s mythology.
- Asuka Langley Soryu: A German-born Eva pilot with a condescending, hyperactive personality that easily makes her an irritable character… until the show reveals her traumatic past and makes her one of the most pitiable characters ever.
- Gendo Ikari: The commander of NERV and Shinji’s father, who keeps his son at a distance despite a long absence; has close ties to a shadowy cabal in Germany known as SEELE, which is trying to start a “Third Impact” and is working on a “Human Instrumentality Project.”
- Ritsuko Akagi: A leading scientist for NERV who, despite her close friendship with Misato, is keeping quite a few secrets regarding the true nature of the Evangelion Units and the real history of Second Impact.
- Ryoji Kaji: An agent for the Japanese government and NERV, as well as Misato’s on-again, off-again boyfriend; he’s actually one of the most mentally balanced and likable characters, which is saying something considering this show.
The Style: Ok, Seriously, What In God’s Name Is Going On Here?!
Evangelion has a very distinctive style. It’s the kind of show that gives us giant robot monsters fighting Angels whose appearance defies all logic. It’s the kind of show where a brand of supercomputers are called MAGI, the Angels explode into cross-shaped columns of light when defeated, and occasionally one of the characters breaks down into a mental collapse that features random words and images flashed at the viewer at an alarming, unintelligible rate (threatening the audience’s own sanity at times).
To be fair, a lot of the psychological weirdness of the show can be attributed to its creator, Hideaki Anno. At the time, Anno began undergoing therapy for clinical depression and incorporated a lot of his own angst into the traumas faced by the main characters–all of which culminated in the final two episodes, breaking down all pretense of a traditional narrative and giving way to intense self-examination.
Final Verdict: You Will Not Leave This Show Without A Few Scars
Evangelion is one of those shows that tests its audience with horrors and puzzles as much as it delivers awesome battles and personal triumphs–much like how The Prisoner once tested and attracted an audience in its own era. However, it’s still redefining itself given how popular and question-raising it’s since become.
There were two anime films released after the end of the series, Evangelion: Death and Rebirth and The End of Evangelion. The first is just a re-edited clip show, and the second is possibly one of the most bizarre and horrifying ways to show the End of the World in fiction. However, hope comes now in the new series of films known as Rebuild of Evangelion, which compresses the series into four films while downgrading the angst of the main cast in favor of more awesome feats of heroism and courage under fire.
And really, beyond the Freudian analysis and esoteric imagery, isn’t that what mecha anime is all about?
Bibliography: Neon Genesis Evangelion (anime). Prod. Studio Gainax. Cartoon Network (Adult Swim). October 4, 1995 – March 27, 1996.
The End of Evangelion (film). Directed by Kazuya Tsurumaki and Hideaki Anno. Produced by Mitsuhisa Ishikawa. Toei Company, Ltd. 1997.
Rebuild of Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone (film). Directed by Hideaki Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki. Produced by Toshimichi Otsuki and Hideaki Anno. FUNimation Entertainment, 2007.