This spoiler-free review also covers Evangelion: Death(true)² and the End of Evangelion. Kinda.
It’s year 2015 of an alternative timeline where Earth was devastated by the so-called “Second Impact” in 2000, causing widespread destruction and misery. The society has barely recovered when a new threat, the Angels, appear. As the shady paramilitary organization NERV, led by commander Gendo Ikari, prepares its “Evangelion” cyborg-robot-mecha-things to fight the Angels, Ikari’s son Shinji is drawn into the center of events as he pilots the EVA-01 unit in battle. This starts a chain of events that deeply affects the minds of Shinji and the other pilots and leads into shocking revelations about the true nature of the world…
Saying that Neon Genesis Evangelion has greatly influenced modern anime industry is an understatement. If you’re an anime fan, chances are most of your favourite works have been inspired by Evangelion on some level or another – be it characters, lore, themes or other elements. That’s understandable, considering it is a brilliant deconstruction of the mecha genre and features some of the most iconic characters of the medium. But is it a good show?
It starts as any mecha story – the aliens attack and a young guy is drafted to pilot a big robot to fight ’em. But even in its first two episodes, it starts to show signs of being different, as the boy in question is a half-orphan who gets no empathy from his dad, is reluctant to get in the robot in the first place, and fails his mission miserably, getting slightly traumatized in the progress. He wants to run. Fighting aliens is not cool for him, it’s terrifying. Yet still he returns and gets in the damn robot (so fans telling Shinji to “Get in the Robot” can shut the F up). Then the series settles for a “monster of the week” kind of formula that continues until halfway through the series. Those episodes don’t have much plot significance and aren’t particularly interesting, but there’s still a lot of cool mecha action and character development (not to mention some actually fun moments).
Then arrives episode 16 and the story starts getting deeper, with first symptoms of series creator Hideaki Anno’s growing interest in psychology appearing. In the following episodes stuff gets darker, until ep 19 where shit hits the fan. Angels get worse, shocking revelations follow one another, we soon get the near-iconic Mind Rape scene, and it all culminates in the infamous episodes 25 and 26 which have varying artistic quality and are mostly exploration of the series’ themes taking place inside the characters’ minds. Not a particularly satisfying way to end the story, right? Fans, production crew and even Anno himself agreed, and thus the two follow-up movies were created. More on those later.
The initial anime series is a classic for sure, but it hasn’t aged particularly well. The limited animation, with low-quality 4:3 aspect ratio, does look a bit funky to a person used to newer animation. Netflix has digitally remastered the series in HD but with streaming bitrates it doesn’t really help. That said, the backgrounds are beautiful and the mecha fights have sometimes rather impressive animation.
Deep in its core, this series is about depression, anxiety and fear, but most importantly, the emotional barriers between humans, our incapability to connect with others on a deep level. The so-called “hedgehog’s dilemma” is discussed early on in the series, and it as a theme is revisited much later in a way you don’t see coming. Most of the main cast display these themes in a variety of ways. They’re all troubled individuals, deeply flawed, and that’s what makes them human. People who think Shinji should stop whining don’t understand that his behavior is completely normal for a person of his backstory who has to go through traumatizing experiences. Before this series, something like that was unheard-of in mecha anime, and that’s what makes Neon Genesis Evangelion so compelling: the way it deconstructs the tropes of its genre for a more realistic and engrossing experience.
A quick word on watching order: I highly recommend watching the initial anime series first (episodes 25-26 are optional but they do offer an interesting point of view to the events of EoE) and then the End of Evangelion. The other movie that’s also on Netflix, Evangelion: Death(true)², is basically a recap of the series and thus optional. Watching only the movies (first D(t)² and then EoE) is not recommended either because D(t)² doesn’t really work as a replacement for NGE – it’s more of a character-based recap and thus not in chronological order. But the End of Evangelion is a must-watch. It’s not comfortable to watch (then again, neither is most of NGE), with its brutal violence in the first half, surreal horror imagery in the second half and graphic nudity throughout, but it’s an experience like no other. Does it answer your questions about the TV ending? Some of them, but it also creates more.
Overall, if you don’t mind the flaws I mentioned, and want to experience a glorious part of anime history, just hop on Netflix, switch from dub to subs and enter the weird, complex, fanservice-y and wonderful world of Evangelion. It won’t be a comfortable watch but it’ll be an eye-opening one.
Don’t you f*cking dare to skip the intro.
Pros: Engrossingly realistic character study that touches complex themes
Cons: Animation hasn’t aged well, both endings are confusing and hard to understand
Highlight: A penguin in my post-apocalyptic mecha series? Hell yes!
I rate it: 9/10 (excellent)
All 26 episodes of “Neon Genesis Evangelion”, alongside “Evangelion: Death(true)²” and “The End of Evangelion”, are available to stream on Netflix worldwide.
“Neon Genesis Evangelion”. Scifi/Action/Drama, Japan 1995-96. Studio Gainax. Created by Hideaki Anno. Starring Megumi Ogata, Yuko Miyamura, Megumi Hashibayara and Kotono Mitsuishi. 26 episodes, avg. 23min. Netflix rating: 13+.