It was close to a decade between me seeing the first two episodes of Eva, when the were the only episodes released on VHS, dubbed, in the high street, and my finally finishing it. This is where my anime experience really began – and for me, it is the big one. This is the anime that kick-started the current movement towards intelligent, eloquent and ambitious anime series that really drew me in. Just as Dragonball influences everything in the popcorn-entertainment side of anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion pushed back the boundaries of what can be achieved in just 26 episodes. And unlike Dragonball, Eva has yet to be bettered.
On the surface, the concept seems banal. Strange creatures are attacking the earth, and the only ones who can save the planet are 14-year-old pilots of Evangelions, which appear to be giant robots. Not the most original prospect of all time. But then we begin to see the references to Christian mythology, and though there is little real significance to the allusions, they give a veneer of intelligence that makes you pay attention. Then the characters begin to develop, and it becomes clear that not only are the adults very much adults, doing their laundry, having affairs and neglecting their children, but the children are children: they bicker, their hormones are out of control, they are confused about their sexuality – the boys fight, the girls menstruate, and Shinji reacts to extreme situations in increasingly inappropriate ways, until one incredibly memorable scene by the side of a hospital bed in one of the movies. People who think that anime is just for kids need to pay attention.
Honestly, the power and inventiveness of the storytelling makes this amongst the few things I consider to have most influenced me in my life – in any medium. I didn’t see it all when I was about Shinji’s age, but I saw plenty of it, and I am not exaggerating when I say that my ideas of visual impact, good storytelling and the way people interact have been shaped by the anime. It is that important to me, and while I know that there are some slow episodes, some bad ideas for angels that should have been left out in favour of more development of the exemplary peripheral characters, at its best, Eva’s untouchable. The angst-&-robots-by-numbers of Soukyuu no Fafner and Gundam just can’t compare.
But then there is an issue of contention in any discussion of Eva – the ending(s). There are three, essentially: first, the final episodes of the series. These left some unsatisfied, so two movies were made, one of which is mostly recap, the other of which basically follows on from there. These provide the ‘saabisu, saabisu’- ie fanservice - that Misato promises throughout the series. There are huge fight scenes, the characters get another chance to shine, we get sex, explosions and a high body count, including casualties amongst the principle cast. And the world ends. However, despite some fantastic scenes, these movies in my opinion don’t provide a more satisfying ending. They spell out what Instrumentality is a little better, but their flaws are their shallowness in delivering a trite climax that the audience wanted, and the empty ambiguity of the ending.
The last episodes didn’t go down well because they look bizarre. Taking place entirely within the minds of the characters, this alternate perspective is represented by different types of art, from line sketches to watercolours, which often look lazy, as though the episodes were never finished. This works far better than the empty symbolism of the movie, and crucially, it coheres. Shinji learns that he doesn’t want all the souls of the world to mingle. He wants restraints, and he wants the freedom to choose what he can be. He imagines his ideal, normal life (bizarrely, yet appropriately, given Shinji’s character, extremely like the beginning of a typical shoujo series), and then realises that he CAN change what is around him, and it is how he perceives things that really matter. This is what the series was building up to, and while the final scene is rather abrupt and a touch silly, it works far better than the explicit, bangs-and-flashes apocalypse of the movies, which only further complicated the story and irritated fans. The original worked.
Brilliantly adult despite its juvenile characters, Eva is a strong and cohesive story, a simple premise spun out into some fascinating character studies, and peopled with some of the best characters found in any medium. One of my top five anime of all time, and certainly the first one I loved, I cannot recommend it enough, ending included.
(originally written 28.6.05. Since then, the new rebuild movies have been announced and released: You Are (Not) Alone and You Can (Not) Advance)