It is no exaggeration to say that Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most important pieces of media I’ve ever consumed in my life.
It just found me at the right time – I was fourteen, keenly searching for something that felt big enough to capture the enormity of the feelings building inside of me as an adolescent girl, the alienation mixed with that desperate need to connect at the same time. My much cooler big brother introduced me to it, and at first, I didn’t understand a thing. I mean, actually, I still don’t, but God, I love it. I’ve shown NGE to pretty much everyone in my life, and I’ve probably watched the original series and the End of Evangelion movie at least a half-dozen times top to bottom in the last decade. I know it’s flawed, but there’s something about that world that has a bit of a sacred place in my heart: it made me feel heard at a time when very little else could, and I’ll always love it for that. Plus, the robots fight the monsters! Gendo does the thing with the hands! Pen-Pen! There’s so much to adore.
Which is probably why it’s so strange that I’ve only just watched the rebuild movies. I’m not entirely sure what took me so long to get to them – there are four now, spanning from the late noughties to last year in terms of release, plenty of time for me to jump in and get acquainted, but last week was the first time I did the lot of them, back-to-back, at last.
And since this is a movie blog, it seemed only right that I take a little time to talk about that experience here. I thought about doing just a straight review of these films – in short, the first two are great NGE media and not very good as pieces of cinema, while the third and fourth actually adapt well to the new medium and make for genuinely solid films in their own right as well as exploring new aspects of the NGE world. But truly, Neon Genesis is a creation that defies straight good/bad review, because it’s so phenomenally personal to me, and I want to approach these movies a little differently.
Hideaki Anno famously created the original NGE series in 1995 under the shadow of an enormous depression – I don’t think you could watch the show and think anything else, to be honest – and that’s a huge factor in why I’ve often come back to the show. I’ve dealt with mental health bullshit my entire life, and it got particularly bad in my teen years (doesn’t it for everyone?), and seeing someone turn the weight of that into something so powerful was something that spoke to me at the time I first came across it.
But, like any show or book or movie you come back to over and over again, it means different things depending on the time in your life you come back to it. As a viewer, we bring different experiences, perspectives, approaches to the stories we come back to, and their meaning can morph as you grow up, depending on when you found them and when you came back to them.
Which is not a revelation to consider. But what I do really love the idea of is a creator being able to come back to the same story, the same characters, the same universe, with a new perspective. Hideaki Anno’s choice to come back to Neon Genesis Evangelion has been seen as indulgent by some people – the story is already told, after all – but it offers a unique chance to explore a story with a new approach influenced by the experiences they’ve had in the intervening time.
Neon Genesis is a story that’s inextricably linked to emotion; Anno’s state of mind irrevocably influences the characters, the choices they make, the path they follow, and the shape of the world, and that gives these rebuilds a real sense of vitality. Because his perspective at the time of making them was different than the first time around – the differences, both big and small, in the story and the setting and the people who populate it reflect not just the newness that returning viewers can find in it, but the way Anno as a creator has changed, and the new courses he has laid out for this story to take. As with so much about NGE, it’s a totally unique approach, a return to re-parse old ground and dig up what new seedlings have started to sprout there.
The rebuilds feel genuinely fresh, in a lot of ways, thanks to this new perspective Anno and company are clearly bringing to the world of post-apocalyptic Japan I love the idea of not just viewers returning to media to find new routes into it, but writers, too. Stories contain pieces of us – the people who consume them and the people who create them – and the NGE rebuilds are a perfect intersection of both those things.
By Lou MacGregor
(header image via Escapist magazine)