In this ongoing epoch of sequels and prequels, there is a great deal of time and attention devoted to world-building; this is a skill that can make or break the (cinematic) universe, we are told. Not nearly enough thought is given to world-ending, however, mostly because nobody wants the gravy train to stop.
Not Japanese animator and filmmaker Hideaki Anno, though: with the Amazon Prime Video release of Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time, Anno’s tetralogy of Neon Genesis Evangelion anime movies is finally, definitely over. Thrice Upon a Time, originally released in March, was the highest-viewed content on Amazon Prime Video Japan since its launch, and has received rave reviews across the spectrum — rightly so, for it lives up to the franchise’s illustrious history and in fact, delivers the coherent, compassionate-yet-realistic, narratively satisfying conclusion fans have been craving for a long time now.
Of course, it took 26 years and three other ‘endings’ to reach this point: there was the original 1995 anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion (26 episodes), the alternative-ending film The End of Evangelion (1997) and the repackaged, re-edited Revival of Evangelion (1998) which had several minor, often cosmetic differences from its 1997 progenitor. The new tetralogy (with Anno as chief director, alongside Masuyaki and Kazuya Tsurumaki as co-directors) began in 2007 with Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone, followed by Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance (2009) and Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo (2012).
The essentials remain the same for all of these Evangelion sets. For the most part, the narrative follows three teenaged protagonists (in the post-apocalyptic ‘Tokyo-3’) who pilot gigantic war robots called Evangelions or ‘Evas’: a young boy called Shinji Ikari (Megumi Ogata), and two young women, Asuka Langley Soryu (Yuko Miyamura) and Rei Ayanami (Megumi Hayashibara). The Evas, built to fight equally gargantuan, otherworldly beings called Angels (most of whom have suitably angelic Hebrew names like Ramiel, Israfel, Gaghiel and so on), are controlled by a ‘we’re-above-the-rules’ paramilitary organization called NERV (‘nerve’ in German) where Shinji’s father, scientist Gendo Ikari is Director. Of course, Shinji, Asuka and Rei’s real battle is with clinical depression, anxiety, loneliness and the trauma inflicted by the constant bloodshed in their lives, not to mention the considerable sins of their parents (all of whom are connected to the shadowy origins of NERV)
How did a low-budget animated series from the 1990s spawn so many retellings and sequels? Quite simply, Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most important, ambitious, critically acclaimed and wildly popular anime franchises of all time, paying tribute to some classic anime tropes while changing others forever. Dealing heavily in religious (mostly Catholic with some Shinto; lots of crosses and Biblical references), philosophical (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard), scientific (Mandelbrot, Dirac) and psychoanalytical (Freud, Lacan) themes, Neon Genesis Evangelion pairs heavy-hitting mecha (an anime/manga genre featuring robots-in-combat) madness with intense, hyper-focused interior monologues, trauma trajectories and elaborate coming-of-age arcs.
In 2018, it was estimated that the Evangelion franchise was worth nearly $15 billion, including movies, manga, merchandise and especially pachinko machines (Japanese arcade games/gambling machines, usually with both mechanical and digital components). The volume of academic and fan literature based on Evangelion could give Star Wars or Batman a run for their money. Its eye-popping success gave a somewhat sagging anime industry a shot in the arm in the mid-90s.
Basically, if Japanese animation is not your thing, Neon Genesis Evangelion may well be the biggest mass media phenomenon you have never heard of.
The seeds of Neon Genesis Evangelion were sown during a four-year-long depressive phase Hideaki Anno endured following the release of Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (1990), a Jules Verne-inspired anime series that he directed — but wasn’t given enough creative control over (or so he felt). Anno’s depression and his eventual realization that he couldn’t run away from his problems led to the development of Evangelion’s core theme, according to him; Shinji Ikari’s crushing loneliness and the eventual confrontation of his inner demons. Several classic Evangelion episodes are, in fact, about the difficulties of interpersonal communication, overcoming trauma and other classically psychoanalytical themes.
The fourth episode, for example, features a remarkable convergence of Evangelion’s aesthetic and thematic concerns. Titled ‘The Hedgehog’s Dilemma’ in the English version, it’s named after the eponymous Arthur Schopenhauer fable and psychoanalytical concept. A group of hedgehogs seeks warmth from each other during a cold night, but they’re afraid of getting too close to each other for fear of hurting the others with their thorns. This illustrates the behavior of people with borderline personality disorder in particular; swinging between aloof, hurtful and deeply empathetic.
In the episode, Shinji’s relationship with his mentor Misato Katsuragi follows this trajectory. The distant Shinji and the awkward Misato both have troubles with communication, thanks to their traumatic pasts, which leads to Shinji leaving NERV and Misato’s house (where she’s allowing him to live). But by the end of the episode, they seek each other out again and are able to communicate, however ineffectively, without hurting each other outright. During Shinji’s short-lived escape, he walks through a field filled with sunflowers resembling the ones Van Gogh painted, alluding to the similarity between these two loners’ anxieties and fevered states of mind.
Similarly, the 16th episode’s Japanese title translates to ‘In Sickness Unto Death, And…’ which is a reference to The Sickness Unto Death, a classic work by 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. In Kierkegaard’s Christian framing of the matter, “despair” is the titular sickness unto death (a fate worse than pain, grief, suffering or indeed, even death itself). In this incredibly overstuffed-with-ideas episode, a mathematically improbable Angel called Leliel terrorizes Tokyo and the other Eva pilots before facing off against Shinji and his Eva Unit-01. Leliel is 600 m wide but only 3 nanometers thick; what appears to be its shadow on the ground is its true body while the sphere seemingly up in the sky is its true shadow. This is explained by Misato using a concept invented by the British physicist Paul Dirac: a vacuum filled with negative energy electrons, called ‘the Dirac’s sea’.
Soon, the Dirac’s sea swallows up Shinji and Unit-01 where Shinji has a conversation with his own subconscious, seemingly, where he investigates his own grief and whether it could actually drive him. “Is it okay to live by stringing only the happy things in life together like a rosary?” he asks.
Thrice Upon a Time proves itself to be a truly refined ending. Its juggling of genres is flawless — high-octane mecha battles precede the contemplative, bittersweet midsection before a sense of quasi-religious peace and calm pervades the third act, with its heavy emotional/psycho-sexual beats as Shinji Ikari confronts his life, his choices and yes, his father and mother too. The film even manages to comment on the commodified nature of the franchise itself; one last mirror trick by Anno. At one point during the climax, Shinji and Rei Ayanami are having a conversation about the end of the world, much like Neo and the Architect do in The Matrix Reloaded. The backdrop for both scenes is an array of screens playing possible iterations of the hero’s life. In Shinji’s case, these are scenes from the original Evangelion TV series and the movies preceding the concluding tetralogy — a ‘multiverse’ narrative solution, as the zeitgeist goes.
But it’s the words that stayed with me more than this allusion. Shinji says: “I’m going to rewrite the world into one without Evas. A world where people can really live.” Ayanami hesitates before replying, “Birth of a new world,” followed by those magic words, whispered: “Neon genesis…”
I’m not ashamed to say that I bawled freely even as I had literal goosebumps. This has always been an intensely personal series for its fans, and this moment hit the bittersweet spot like never before.