This is the second part of my review of “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” Read part one here.
Warning: this article contains major spoilers for “Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time.”
The journey to “Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time” is a long and complicated one but is integral to understanding the final product. After finishing “3.0,” Anno fell into a deep depression, which he said was “the natural result of having spent six years grinding down my soul making ‘Eva’ again.” He said that he couldn’t work on another film, but after working with his mentor Hayao Miyazaki on “The Wind Rises” and directing “Shin Godzilla,” production resumed in early 2017, almost five years after the release of “3.0.” However, Anno hit another barrier: he felt that he could no longer connect with Shinji and felt more aligned with his father, Gendo. He consulted Megumi Ogata, the voice actress who played Shinji, on what should happen, feeling that she was one of the only people who could grasp the character. Pandemic lockdowns were to serve as the final bump in the road for production, and finally, after almost a decade of anticipation, “Thrice Upon a Time” was released internationally on Amazon Prime Video on Aug. 13, 2021.
After kicking off with a thrilling action scene in which Mari defends a WILLE team that’s trying to restore Paris from Eva units deployed by NERV, “Thrice Upon a Time” does the single most unexpected move it could possibly make: it’s peaceful. The first hour or so of the film takes place in a commune that’s been preserved and houses seemingly every remaining human on the planet. The characters that we’ve seen previously in epic, life-threatening situations are now leading perfectly normal lives, getting by with the help of one another. Shinji, still in a catatonic state after witnessing Kaworu’s death, is reunited with Toji and Kensuke, who are now adults and doctors and handymen respectively. The only thing that evokes a reaction out of him is the explosive choker that’s been fitted on Asuka, which causes him to vomit. She eventually grows so annoyed with his indifference that she ends up force feeding him, but she does still seem to genuinely care about him—she even makes sure to put a scarf over her choker. Rei—or as the townspeople call her, “Mrs. Lookalike”—spends the entirety of this chunk of the film trying to gain an understanding of the world around her; she questions sayings like “good morning” and “good night,” cats and human babies, asks Shinji to give her a new name and settles down as a farmer alongside the elder women. After the bleak “3.0,” this should’ve been tonal whiplash, but it’s so serene, sincere and sentimental that it moved me to tears.
Of course, it doesn’t last forever. After Shinji tells Rei that her new name should remain Ayanami, she realizes that she can’t survive without constant exposure to LCL, the primordial soup that the Eva pilots are submerged in when piloting them. She thanks him for helping her find happiness and then explodes into LCL in front of his eyes. When the Wunder arrives to pick up Asuka, Shinji, seemingly recovered from his trauma, asks to join her, baffling the staff of WILLE after their cold treatment of him; Misato nonetheless places him in isolation and under surveillance. WILLE learns of Gendo’s plans to head to the epicenter of where the Second Impact occurred in Antarctica and chart a course after him. Mari and Asuka visit Shinji one last time; he reveals that he understands why Asuka was angry at his inaction, and she reveals that, at the time, she did like him but “grew up first.”
The entire second half of the film is the definitive climax of the Rebuilds as WILLE and NERV prepare for a final showdown that will ultimately determine the fate of mankind. Asuka goes in to attack Unit 13, but her Unit 02 refuses; she removes her eyepatch to reveal an Angel inside her eye, converting Unit 02 into an Angel. However, this is all a part of Gendo’s plan; Unit 13 absorbs Unit 02, and Asuka is approached by her “original,” revealing her to be a clone. Gendo transcends humanity and enters Unit 13, and Shinji assuredly asks Misato to allow him to pilot Unit 01. After two of WILLE’s personnel threaten to shoot Shinji after all he’s caused, Misato takes two bullets for him and grants him permission, telling him that she’s always been his guardian and will take responsibility for whatever happens. Now, the final showdown between father and son begins. After a fight in the surreal Anti-Universe, Shinji witnesses Gendo’s past and how Yui’s death traumatized him and helps him find closure. He then does the same for Asuka, returning her feelings from earlier and freeing her of the fourteen year old body she’d been trapped in, and Kaworu as well. He finally approaches Rei and tells her of his plan to completely reset the world: a “Neon Genesis,” a world without Evangelions. We then cut to a normal train station where Shinji, Asuka, Rei and Kaworu are all present and now adults. Mari appears before Shinji, and the two leave the station. As they exit, the scene cuts to live action footage of Anno’s home town, a drone shot that slowly pans across the cityscape before lingering on a sunset. The curse of Eva has been broken, and “Evangelion” has come to its final ending.
I watched “Thrice Upon a Time” four times in a span of three or four days, and although it may be too early to say for sure—it’s only been around two months since the film’s U.S. release—I feel confident in saying that it’s one of the greatest films ever made. It’s similar in scale to “The End of Evangelion,” but feels more like the repurposed, recontextualized shell of that film more than anything else; from frame one, there’s a persistent, furiously hopeful energy emanating from it, in contrast to the 1997 film’s bleak exterior. It’s a total monument and such a beautiful ending that I’d imagine even the greatest detractors of the Rebuilds would recognize it as a fitting conclusion.
Even after 26 years, Anno still commands each shot with meticulous precision and deploys wild experimentation in the narrative and visuals—there’s a direct callback to Rei’s gigantic, seraphic form from “The End of Evangelion” that’s rendered through one of the most brilliantly deranged usages of CG animation I’ve ever seen. It draws on everything that came before it—the generally incomprehensible nomenclature, surreal imagery and earnest personalities—but cements itself as an entirely new vision, which echoes its characters’ journeys as they become new people over the course of the film. After all, Anno has changed, and for better or for worse, we will never get anything that resembles the “Evangelion” from the 90s ever again. The revelations that Shinji had in the first two endings are externalized and projected onto the rest of the characters, giving them each their own gratifying ending instead of honing in on just Shinji. But if there’s any moment to single out from “Thrice Upon a Time,” it’s its final moments—Anno freeing his characters, allowing them all to find their own closure and live a peaceful life in our reality. The tagline for the film reads “Bye-bye, all of Evangelion,” and while it may sound foreboding, the theme song “One Last Kiss” assures us that the farewell is for the best; there couldn’t be a more touching sendoff to the franchise than the lyric “I love you more than you’ll ever know.”
Across all of its 26 episodes, five movies, three endings and total 1,100+ minutes, “Neon Genesis Evangelion” is a life affirming masterwork and has cemented itself as an enduring landmark in pop culture. But while it obviously deserves the attention and praise it’s gotten, there’s a side effect that came with that’s been quietly chipping away at the true purpose of the franchise and has fed its controversial nature: consumerism. Like any insanely successful intellectual property, “Evangelion” has been marketed and productized to no end, and while it’s easy to laugh about how ludicrous some of it is—who is buying “Evangelion” themed eye drops, ramen cups and razors?—it’s also something that, when you take into consideration how important and purgative making it was for Anno, seems like a backhanded compliment. These characters that he saw himself in and humanized were turned into commodities, icons and advertisements devoid of any meaning or personality. It makes “Thrice Upon a Time” that much more impactful as a deconstruction of its cultural status and a reconstruction of its characters as real people.
Even worse, though, is the mindset that plagues anime fanbases, particularly when it comes to fan service. “Evangelion” incorporates themes of sexuality—Asuka frequently makes advances towards Ryoji Kaji, her guardian after her mother died, in an attempt to appear more mature and confident, Misato weaponizes her femininity and has difficulty connecting with people outside of intimacy and Rei is so indifferent that she has no shame or embarrassment in appearing nude in front of Shinji—but sadly, a large chunk of the fanbase is attracted to these characters for the wrong reasons. The women of “Evangelion” are strong characters with gripping personalities and stories, so it’s upsetting (and grossly disturbing; Rei and Asuka are minors, after all) when people dilute them down to nothing more than sex objects. In a franchise where there are an endless amount of subtexts that can be interpreted any which way, it’s disappointing to see one of the more straightforward themes be so blatantly missed.
It seems unlikely that we’ll ever know what the subtexts of “Evangelion” are (or were) truly about, but even if we try to ignore it, it always seems to come back to the question: what does it mean? Well, if we’re talking in a literal sense, I have absolutely no clue. There are many details that I left out of both parts of this review not only because I don’t want this to go on forever but because the mythology surrounding the events of the franchise is confusing beyond belief. There is so much jargon-like terminology—the Lance of Longinus, Absolute Terror Fields, the Seeds of Life, I could go on—that I don’t think I’ll ever come close to understanding how the world of “Evangelion” works, but that never mattered to me, and it never will. “Evangelion” taught me that I didn’t have to understand something to resonate with it, which is a belief that I now apply to everything I watch.
But more than anything else, “Evangelion” has helped me figure out who I am. You can spend your time dissecting the dense religious imagery and psychological subtext that courses through its veins, but the core of this show is its characters, and what you get out of it will depend on how much you resonate with their experiences. Shinji’s anxieties, eventual indifference about life and tendency to run away from pain; Asuka’s belief that her only purpose in life is being an Eva pilot and urge to project a strong, confident exterior; Rei’s struggle to find out what it means to be human and what her emotions are—they’re all characters that I saw pieces of myself in before I even knew what those pieces were.
“Evangelion” is a work of art that showed me the real experiences of another man on the other side of the world, and I’ve always been able to find solace in knowing that I’m not alone, that somebody out there in the world has felt the same things I’ve felt. Even after countless watches, I still find something new every time I revisit it—the dynamic between Shinji and Asuka that I initially interpreted as comedic on early viewings hit so much harder when I realized that they’re both kids going through puberty who are unable to express their vague sexual attraction and feelings to the other because of the immense stress they’re under and Asuka’s abrasive exterior—and it always makes it that much more cathartic when the characters overcome their burdens.
I don’t think I could ever fully express just how important “Neon Genesis Evangelion” is to me. It’s helped shape who I am today, and I’ve carried it with me throughout the years and will continue to do so. But after almost 26 long years and three endings, there’s little left to do other than listen to Hideaki Anno: it’s time to say goodbye. We needn’t escape to the imaginary worlds in movies and television; even if there’s an apocalypse, you can be human, grow, love, hope and rebuild. We can live together for today, see each other again and get along.
Thank you for giving me one last kiss.
I’ll love you more than you’ll ever know.
Bye-bye, all of “Evangelion.”