Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Anime review: Neon Genesis Evangelion

It has been a little over a year now since my big reintroduction to anime began. While a large part of that was my re-watching various Gundam series, I give the most credit of keeping me interested in the medium to Neon Genesis Evangelion. It’s true that my watching Evangelion for the first time last March was light-years behind the general anime public. But I can honestly say that, despite some confusion I felt while watching it, it is by far my favorite anime series ever conceived.

[WARNING: potential minor spoilers ahead.]

For those not familiar with Neon Genesis Evangelion (as I’m sure there are others like myself who are a bit behind with the times), it takes place in the year 2015, a time when mankind is utilizing NERV’s EVA units to fight off other-worldly creatures known as Angels. Shinji Ikari, the son of NERV head Gendo Ikari, is asked to come to Tokyo-III in order to pilot EVA Unit 01 and fight the Angels. Shinji has not seen his father since he was three years old, and as such, Shinji initially refuses to aid his father, until he sees the severe wounds fellow pilot Rei Ayanami has received from battling the third Angel. Understanding that Gendo plans to send Rei out to fight in this condition, Shinji changes his mind and pilots EVA Unit 01. Shortly after he begins fighting with the Angel, Shinji blacks out after EVA Unit 01 sustains too much damage. We are then given a peek into Shinji’s future relationships with his roommate Misato Katsuragi and fellow pilot Rei Ayanami, as well as the frustration Shinji harbors towards his father. Humurous sequences are sprinkled throughout, a distinct contrast to the otherwise serious and somewhat dark nature of the first two episodes. After the prospects of Shinji’s new life in Tokyo-III are covered, the focus shifts back to the events of the Angel battle, and we see that EVA Unit 01 reactivated without manual override, and entered a “berserker” mode, in which it tore the Angel apart before surviving the Angels’ self-destruction.

The aforementioned is an overview of the first two episodes. As the series progresses things become not only far more complex, but also increasingly dark in subject matter. The religious symbolism becomes more and more frequent, and the true nature of the Angels and NERV are not revealed until near the end of the series. Around the middle of the series, Kaji’s secret investigation teases at what might be, but in the end the truths behind NERV, SELEE, the Angels, and the EVAs are executed as some of the most carefully orchestrated plot twists in any television series.

The characters in Evangelion are all brilliantly portrayed. Around the middle of the series, it becomes obvious that creator Hideaki Anno put plenty of time into developing each and every one of them. A large part of that stems from the fact that there are three main characters, about a dozen secondary characters, and a handful of tertiary characters (depending on how you look at the characters, your interpretation may differ).

Shinji recieves the largest focus, and every so often viewers will get a look into his thought processes from directly inside his head. These sequences often come on without any sort of warning and can be rather trippy, but they are incredibly important to the eventual outcome of the series. As the show progresses, Shinji sort of travels two paths at the same time. One is making him stronger by proving himself in battle through EVA Unit 01, while the other has him questioning what he is fighting for and his increasing distrust and dislike of those around him.

Some fans have expressed a dislike towards the character of Shinji, arguing that he comes off as too cowardly and depressed. While there is a large amount of truth to this, he is fourteen years old and dealing with raging hormones. That combined with the fact that he has never had a good relationship with his father, never had much of a chance to get to know his mother, is thrust into the care of a woman whom he barely knows and who isn't entirely sure of her own parenting abilities, and both figuratively and literally carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, it's not much of a surprise that Shinji acts the way he does. While Shinji may not be the most likeable lead character in any given anime, Anno and his team did a near-perfect job on portratying the realistic effects of that sort of pressure on a teenager.

Asuka Langely Soryu is the pilot of EVA Unit 02, and hails from Germany. She is incredibly determined to prove herself, usually appearing hot-headed and egotistical to her peers. She constantly competes with Shinji to be known as the greatest EVA pilot, a challenge to which Shinji doesn’t much understand nor care her reasoning for. All of this is a façade, however, as it is revealed later on in the series that Asuka and her mother have a very dark past.

Rei Ayanami, pilot of EVA Unit 00, is far more limited in her view of the world. A large part of this is due to the fact that she is not a normal human being, and as such does not fully comprehend the ideas of human emotion, attachments, and questioning others. Rei’s story is mostly of self-discovery and of the understanding of human nature, all from the perspective of an outsider looking in.

Every single character in Evangelion has some sort of psychological or social issue to cope with, some of which are not resolved by the finale. Between the psychological breakdown of the characters and the constant Judeo-Christian symbolism, the series hides a lot more under its surface than the first few episodes imply. As the Angels the pilots are combating become more difficult, their psychological statuses degrade and their relationships with one another strain. Although the giant EVAs and Angels are not exactly applicable to everyday life, the issues and confrontations that the characters face are easy to relate to. For better or for worse, Evangelion will likely be a massive mind trip for many viewers.

The soundtrack of Evangelion is incredibly varied, borrowing from jazz and rock influences, while combining this with traditional orchestral pieces, including Handel’s “Hallelujah” and Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”. Constant reprises of original pieces including “The Beast”, “Thanatos”, and “Borderline Case” will serve as the various themes to the major events in Evangelion, and ultimately fit their respective sequences perfectly. The opening theme of “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis” and closing theme of “Fly Me to the Moon” flow with the series fittingly, even if their sounds do differ a fair amount from the rest of the soundtrack.

Every sequence is animated beautifully, and the team at Gainax should be commended for that, considering their constantly dwindling funds as the series progressed. That said, the Angel fight sequences become less spectacular near the finale, and many animated sequences were repeated in order to save money. Even so, the repetition is effective, especially when used in segments where viewers get a look inside Rei, Asuka, and Shinj’s minds.

I could go on for days about the different theories of Evangelion, the mythology therein, the great debate over which conclusion is the true ending, etc. But whether or not you enjoy the anime will largely depend on how you as a viewer perceive the show’s events. To have someone try and tell you the exact science of Evangelion is a fallacy in and of itself – Hideaki Anno explicitly expressed that some aspects of the show are meant to be open-ended and wholly up to the viewers' interpretation. While this review may be rather vague, it is done as such deliberately. Neon Genesis Evangelion is an incredibly complex anime, and even after the first viewing, I wasn’t convinced I had completely understood everything. Part of me doubts I ever will. As for the acting, the Japanese voice actors do a splendid job in conveying the emotions of their characters, while the English dub is decent enough, but still could have used some fine-tuning. The ending has stirred up a huge amount of controversy among the anime subculture, and I personally prefer the End of Evangelion film ending as opposed to the finale at episodes 25 and 26 of the original series, though I won’t discredit what Anno accomplished with the show’s conclusion. All in all, the series is what you perceive it to be – some people will love it and others will hate it. There is no denying the impact is has had on anime and sci-fi entertainment over the past fifteen years, though, and although I feel there is no such thing as a perfect anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion is about as close as it gets.

My Rating: 10 (out of 10)

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