(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

For the past couple of months, this column has explored various mecha anime to showcase the variety within the genre. But when it came time to say goodbye to 2020 and embrace the possibilities of the new year, there was only one show that could take the gargantuan task of encapsulating the bleakness and loneliness, but also the moments of unity, we’ve had this year, all while ending on a rather optimistic note about the future. That’s right! It’s finally time for Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Evangelion‘s reputation as an inaccessible show — both in regards to it being out of print for years and also for its dense and layered narrative – can certainly be daunting. It’s fitting then, that the show’s story is equally daunting to its protagonist. Evangelion takes place in a world on fire, constantly under attack by giant monsters known as Angels. The only ones capable of fighting the Angels are a group of teenagers piloting giant robots called EVAs.

What starts out as essentially Ultraman fan fiction (not entirely a coincidence that this was made by the same director and studio who made a tennis anime fan fiction in Gunbuster) evolves into an abstract and intimate exploration of everything from mental illness to religion to loneliness to toxic masculinity to our relationship with anime as escapism. There is a lot to cover, so grab your copy of the Dead Sea Scrolls and get in the robot, because we’re taking a look at Neon Genesis Evangelion.

What Makes It Great

One thing that becomes apparent from the first episode is that Evangelion is a dark show. Now, there had obviously been dark anime before this – the ’80s was all about bleak and violent shows, and wartorn stories remain Gundam‘s bread and butter. But Evangelion is a slow burn of bleakness. The Ultraman influence is clear in the early episodes, which take place in a world constantly on the brink of destruction, but which still gets saved by the end of each half-hour episode. However, director Hideaki Anno adds small hints of an inherent darker reality that only become clearer and clearer until the show evolves into a near apocalyptical sadness-fest. The monsters become increasingly hideous and dangerous, and you eventually notice how every single character hides some inner somber secret or is generally miserable.

This somber tone is evident in the show’s approach to violence and action. A common problem with anti-war mecha shows like Gundam is that they talk a lot about the cost of war, but they still portray fights and war as cool and fun. That’s not the case with Evangelion. The fight scenes are traumatic, bloody, and outright terrifying, and the show never relishes in them or indulges in violence as entertainment. A scene where Shinji’s EVA is taken over and forced to fight an Angel-infested EVA is one of the most haunting things to be put on an anime show. Evangelion lures us in with imagery familiar to mecha fans, but the sleek, graceful robots are actually hiding pure nightmare fuel. And there are actually consequences to Shinji’s actions. As he quickly realizes, Shinji not only has the power to save people, but his violent actions create more suffering for others. War is hell, and Evangelion actually shows it that way, as Shinji tries to quit being a pilot many times during the course of the show, terrified of the traumatizing cost of his “heroism.”

And yet, despite the bleakness of the story, Evangelion sports the greatest opening theme of any anime ever. “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis” is one of those opening themes that (like the one for Death Parade) is incredibly misleading. The bizarrely upbeat song with sporadically philosophical lyrics is an absolute banger, one that not only becomes relevant to the story as it progresses and should be a crime against humanity to skip. Seriously, don’t even think about skipping the intro.

One of the most talked-about aspects of Evangelion is how the show quickly ran out of money in its latter half, leading to heavy use of limited animation and still images in some scenes. But Hideaki Anno manages to make a lack of time and money and turn it into a beautiful piece of abstract animation. The final episode explores the characters’ tumultuous psyche by reusing images from previous episodes alongside rough pencil sketches.

What It Adds to the Conversation

It’s really astounding to see how much animation has advanced in its portrayals of mental illness, resulting in weird, incredible shows like Bojack Horseman. When Evangelion did the same, it came out as a bit of a tonal whiplash for audiences who were turned off by the transformation from a cool mecha anime about robots fighting monsters into an introspective show that spent its entire two-episode finale in a metaphysical group therapy session. But really, Evangelion was always like that.

If you have to boil down the show’s treatment of mental illness into a single theme, it would be that of making connections with other people. The show may feature giant monsters and robots, but it’s really about learning to accept yourself and opening up to others. Each character is deeply flawed, but they all share a crippling fear of loneliness and a yearning to connect to others, even if they all struggle to express themselves. Really. The show literally manifests the barriers people put up to keep others away as physical force fields. This is why, when faced with the ending of the story and the culmination of an apocalypse-level event, Evangelion has no place to go but inward, turning the fight for humanity into a fight for one’s soul. Salvation comes not in the form of a final boss battle (like the anti-Evangelion successor, Gurren Lagann) but a young boy saying it’s okay for him to be here.

Another important question Evangelion asks is if it’s okay for people to enjoy anime and whether there’s such thing as meaningless escapism. Hideaki Anno is (or was) a self-proclaimed otaku, and after he realized what had been plaguing him for all his life was an undiagnosed crippling depression, he spent the second half of Evangelion confronting the pointlessness of his otaku life (there’s a lot more to this story, and you should read Aaron Stewart-Ahn’s take on it). Anno’s answer was a resounding no. You should not use mecha anime (or any other kind of entertainment) as escapism from reality. You should definitely not desire to step into an EVA, and he used the last two episodes of his massively popular show as a desperate plea to the audience to consider a life beyond their anime fandom. A plea to accept your flaws, but work on them. A plea to connect to others, and to enjoy life while you can. The Third Impact may not be a real apocalypse in our world, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t treat life like it could all end in an explosion of orange soup. When fans completely missed the point of the show and demanded a remake via death threats, Anno gave them what they wanted in the form of the giant middle finger that is the movie End of Evangelion.

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

Honestly, Neon Genesis Evangelion should by no means be your first anime show. If you’ve followed this column for the past year and a half, you should, however, have a pretty decent grasp of some common tropes and genres of anime and be able to not only enjoy but appreciate the deeper connections Anno is making to anime as a whole.

Still, even if you’re not super familiar with the history of Ultraman or mecha anime, there is still a lot to enjoy here. For one, the opening theme song is still a total banger, the characters are complex and sympathetic (except Gendo, the world’s worst father), and the animation is spectacular. Even when the show becomes very experimental and abstract, and the story gets incredibly bleak, it maintains an endearing, beautiful and hopeful message about accepting ourselves and reaching out to others.

As we say goodbye to the collective nightmare that has been 2020, and enter the unknown that is 2021, all there is to say is: Congratulations!

Watch This If You Like: Bojack Horseman, Planet With, Gunbuster, Serial Experiments Lain


Neon Genesis Evangelion is streaming on Netflix.

The post Say Goodbye to 2020 With ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’, the Bleak but Ultimately Hopeful Anime Masterpiece appeared first on /Film.