Shinji, Rei, and Asuka certainly weren’t the first or the last teenagers to step into the cockpit of an enormous mechanical killing machine, but they definitely did it better than anyone else. In 1995, Neon Genesis Evangelion arrived into a well-established genre dominated by the prolific Mobile Suit Gundam series. Some thought Evangelion had nothing more to offer the well-endowed genre, however, over the years, the series has captivated viewers time and time again. It has not only benefitted mecha anime, but all of animekind.
Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion came into being as a high-production anime hellbent on success. Commissioned by Gainax, Anno had a clear idea of what he would like to do with the series, borrowing ideas from another scrapped series and formulating them into something entirely new. Though Evangelion itself underwent very few changes throughout production, Anno found himself frustratedly pressed for time and funding. The series subsequently takes on a more serious tone and fights to preserve the psychoanalytic themes, particularly in relation to Shinji. As a result, animation was sacrificed and episodes were being filled out with still and repeated frames to save production time. Perhaps most disappointingly, the series ends pre-conclusion, in the heat of battle. The action is left out, though and the outcome unknown, so the only conflict the audience is privy to is the one going on inside Shinji’s head. Anno made up the difference later with two Evangelion movies: Death and Rebirth, consisting of an abridged version of the 26-episode series and roughly half an hour of new footage, and The End of Evangelion, providing the much-desired and incredibly confusing (to some, unsatisfactory) end to the series (by the way, if the 26-episode re-edit is of no interest to you, skip the first movie, as The End of Evangelion begins with the final half-hour of Death and Rebirth). Currently in production is an Evangelion rebuild which retells the series, including a promised alternate ending.
Evangelion stunned audiences, visually, with a sleek set of mechs geared more toward speed than power. The stark animation, which Gainax has been known to employ, helps significantly in designing the gaunt Eva mechs. The pièce de résistance of Evangelion’s Eva series is Eva Unit-01, the Test Unit, which as it happens is more sentient than its compatriots (I’ll forgo the details to avoid spoilers). Evangelion brought a fresh approach with its central concept of biomechanics: mechas bred from supernatural beings, much like their creators. It makes sense, then, that the Eva’s would ditch the clunky exterior of Gundam-inspired mechs in exchange for a more human shape of lean muscle clad in armor. It’s a very simple innovation that has led to a surge of similar features in series ranging from Eureka Seven (Nirvash typeZERO) to RahXephon (RahXephon/Ixtli) and even into the animal kingdom with Zoids (Liger Zero). Evangelion gave rise to a now commonplace plot point of the mecha genre: the living, sentient, humanoid mech.
The series also places a much greater focus on the existential crises and psychoanalysis of the main characters, primarily Shinji. This is a hard-left turn from the genre’s tendency to be action-oriented. Though the dimension is still pursued (we can’t have giant robots that don’t kill anything), the role is diminished and focuses more on the origin of the Eva’s and their connection to mankind. Shinji maintains the real teenage boy presence, struggling with a feeling of worthlessness and thinking himself incapable of piloting the great Eva-01 and protecting the world. This subconsciously drives him to seek the approval he missed from his deceased mother and absentee father, from his new Nerv comrades. As a result, his caretaker Captain Misato Katsuragi struggles to maintain a balance between giving him the motherly affection he so desperately craves, and her duty as his superior officer to prepare him for combat. Her character reinvented the “Onee-san” persona seen throughout the years, allowing the archetype as a more realistic juxtaposition of the affectionate slightly older woman and the still-young woman with her own needs and struggles.
Misato learns early in the series that Shinji is not the only one in need of mothering, though. Shinji’s fellow Eva pilot Asuka Langley Soryu is also lacking in that area and, as a result, Shinji feels a sense of kinship toward her, which translates into affection. Asuka becomes the ever-necessary tsundere. She classically plays up her own narcissism, has a crush on an older man, and insults Shinji at every possible moment. To complete the contrary nature of her character, she also suffers from jealousy, insecurity, and secret affections towards Shinji. And while Evangelion is certainly not the first anime to involve a tsundere character, there aren’t many as thoroughly developed as Asuka. The characters of Evangelion are often struggling within themselves, and some of them suffer nervous breakdowns over the course of the series, none more fully than Shinji, whose apprehension towards killing puts him at odds with his responsibilities and whose need for love withdraws him further and further into his own mind, where he realizes that he is possibly only using the women around him, Misato, Asuka, and the stoic Rei, whose backstory is cloaked in mystique for much of the series, for nothing more emotional scapegoats.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of those series that must be viewed by anyone and everyone interested in anime. Its influence has transcended genres and even redirected its own. Though its production may have been hampered in such a way that the series could not reach its full potential, it is overall one of the finest anime to exist and helped set the tone for what anime should be today. With its rich characterization and design wrapped up in symbolism and allusion-laden plot, Evangelion is a treat to watch.