Sunday, October 4, 2015

RR Neon Genesis Evangelion (anime)

The year is 2015. The place: Tokyo-3. 

We take a break from our Halloween Marathon for the occasion. It all began exactly 20 years ago, on October 4.

Here's a great cult classic series that got so complicated, even the people making it had no idea what it was really talking about anymore...

Fly me to the moon, and let me review Evangelion among different mediums:

Name: Neon Genesis Evangelion also known as Shin Seiki Evangelion/New Century Evangelion, Evangelion or simply "Eva"
Created by Hideaki Anno
Original run 1995-96
Genre Post-apocalyptic/Mecha/Thriller anime series

You may love it. Or you may hate it. Some live by this series and worship every thing put out by Hideaki Anno and co. Others might use this series as an example for the excess of commercialization that surrounds the release of anime series and point out the way Gainax made a mockery of what was once an original challenging propriety.

But you have to recognize Shin Seiki Evangelion, or as we know it oversees, Neon Genesis Evangelion, remains a belove cult phenomenon that had a huge impact on animes as a whole.

Evangelion had such a huge impact on the medium, you can easily describe animes before and after its release.

Before the series animes tended to be mostly exclusively aimed at young children, outside the odd few theatrical movies (which I already discussed about in my first Studio Ghibli reviews) and rare OVAs (or original video animation), and made on the cheap (and some would argue, they still are). Production companis usually going for quantity over quality. Producing huge seasons of hundred of episodes, in fact most animes being almost exclusively all adaptations based on whatever manga was popular at the time around. And let's not even start with Western studios relying on Japan for animated filler work.

Evangelion was the product of the then-young animation studio Gainax (only founded in 1984!). And it successfully managed to become a piece of pop culture and easily one of the most recognizable anime series across the entire world.

It is pretty unique, since it isn't actually that old a propriety and was actually an original creation at the time, not directly based on a previously existing material.

Evangelion is first and foremost the product of the legendary studio Gainax. Founded by a bunch of animation students and long time fans of the medium (aka big time "otaku" nerds). Hideaki Anno, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, Hiroyuki Yamaga, Takami Akai, Toshio Okada, Yasuhiro Takeda and Shinji Higuchi. The studio was formed around the production of animated openers for the scifi/fantasy Japanese conventions Daicon III and IV. Following this first work that helped establish them, they made a few handful of short and longer films. They finally launched a first in-house animated series called Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water which ran from 1990-1991 and was highly successful around the world.

The studio only wanted to work on original creations (although that sort of changed since then). Following the success on Nadia they were given free reign to produce another series. With Hideaki Anno at its head as main director and animator they developed Neon Genesis Evangelion, produced by Tatsunoko Productions, which would air from October 1995 to March 1996. It would be followed by two "films" concluding the original anime before finally getting a reboot of sorts in 2007 with the "Rebuild" film series. Alongside the anime, a manga companion book was launched and only finished not long ago in 2013, illustrated by series character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto.

Creating the story, the team at Gainax wanted to make the ultimate anime series they would have loved to see as fans of the genre. A more dignified adult series. Almost checking a list of everything growing up. Giant robots? Check! Monsters? Check! The series is not a straightforward adventure or comedy series like most "super robot" animes were. It had some serious philosophical undertones as well as politices, science-fiction, religious themes and even, yes, some fan service.

The story takes place in the year 2015.

We are introduced to Shinji Ikari, 15 years old. Shinji was just sent to the city of Tokyo-3 for some unknown reason. Once he arrives there he discovers he was just selected to become a pilot for this giant mecha they call a Eva unit. Turns out his father is in charge of NERV. And he is quickly thrown into situation as this giant monster, an "Angel", just arrived on the scene and they need someone to pilot the Eva. The other pilot, an enigmatic blue-haired red-eyed girl they call "the 1st Children", Rei Ayanami, is badly injured from a recent test of the Evangelion Unit-00.

We later find how these Angels all seem to be coming after the NERV headquarters located deep beneath the ground.

A decade earlier, back in September 2000 there was this incident called the "Second Impact". A supposedly "deity", codenamed Adam, blew up somewhere around the North Pole, which destroyed most of the world, ravaged the eco-system and left a huge mark on human history. SEELE was put in place to keep things under control. (But they might actually be after initiating a Third Impact, following foretold words written in the "Dead Sea Scrolls".)

Shinji's parents, Gendo and Yui Ikari were actually working on the original prototypes of Evas, apparently cloned from this Adam. (Yeah, Adam and Eve, I wonder where they got that from..) Yui "died" during an experiment in front of Shinji's eyes at a very young age.

Shinji is put under the care of this NERV administrative Misato Katsuragi. He discovers what it's like having the fate of the entire mankind in his hands. Eventually it's too much for Shinji to bear.. and he tries to quit... several times!

At school he makes some friends. He meets this country kid Toji Suzuhara and this military otaku brat Kensuke Aida. Toji's angry at Shinji for his reckless control of the Eva which put his sister in the hospital. But after saving them during an Angel attack and getting to see how hard it is on Shinji to pilot it, they slowly become friends.

Shinji slowly opens up to others as the series progresses. He is quite intrigued by Rei and the strange bond she seems to have with his father. A new pilot, the chosen "2nd Children" (before Shinji) arrives in Japan from Germany, this girl Asuka Langley Soryu. Asuka loves to put on a nice sweet face in front of adults, but she's really awful with Shinji once they turn their backs. Toji becomes a pilot but it all turns to disaster rather quick. Then later on the SEELE executives select a pilot of their own, this strange white-haired boy named Kaworu Nagisa...

Then things turn really ugly real fast as the story heads to the end...

Things spiral out of control and SEELE's plans are rushed to their conclusion. The "Human Instrumentality Project" is put into action.

Whatever it is supposed to be...

Evangelion ran on TV Tokyo for 26 episodes, from October 4, 1995 to March 27, 1996.

Despite the voluntary post-apocalyptic setting, it mostly uses this futuristic Tokyo as a backdrop for the exploration of these characters and the human mind. Using these young pilots as a kind of deconstruction of the classic mecha anime genre.

The basis of Evangelion's narrative structure and story actually find their root in Gainax' earlier work, Nadia. In fact there's a lot of references borrowed from their first series.

Evangelion also contains a lot of direct allusions to all kind of animes that inspired the team such as Space Battleship Yamato, Mobile Suit Gundam or also Devilman to name a few. The series also takes some notes from a few oustanding novels like Andromeda Strain, The Divine Invasion, or also old TV serials like Thunderbirds, Ultraman and Ultra Seven.

Unlike the manga adaptation, most of Gainax creators had an hand in the creation of Evangelion (and we would have to wait until the recent "Rebuild" movies to finally get the proper singlehanded vision of Hideaki Anno regarding Eva).

Anno imagined all the characters as reflects of parts of his personality, and from there built their relationships and the problem each would go through. All the characters in Evangelion appear to be tied by similar traumatic past events in their lives. And as unique as each character was, it was easy for most views to be able to identify with one or another character. The series leaves enough room to interpret them. By default, Shinji is kind of whiny and the complete opposite of your usual ideal super robot anime protagonist. Through the series he keeps running away from his responsibilities, he's withdrawn from others, he avoids human contact as much as possible. Asuka is over-confident at first, which hides a troubled past. The clone of Yui, Rei, has kind of a negative relation with the world, she says she doesn't feel anything but you get to see her burn her hands in one of the first episodes, directly referring to the time she saw Gendo burn his own hands once to save her life, before she finally realizes her own worth.

Sadamoto designed all characters to be easily identifiable in one quick glance, all distinct enough, all with their own traits. And it shows, just look at the broad appeal the female characters quickly proved through all the Eva merchandise over the years!

In a way, Gainax changed the game back then. They offered a new way to see animes, both regarding their content, the production and how to market and sell a license. Sure, it's not all good when you get down to it, but they sure knew how to sell Eva and make it a standout for generations to come.

Fans and casual viewers might have noticed a switch on the show around episode 16. The series took a noticeable turn for a more psychological route rather than the action show it was initially presented as. And there's a reason for that. It was both to emphasis the impact of the end of Evangelion and partly to also, yes, help keep the funds of the production in the budget. The young studio ran into a lot of problems at the time, behind the scenes, and they were also running short on time AND money. But Gainax didn't mind going more metafictional for the ending.

The deadlines proved harder to keep in check. The airing was only a few episodes behind the production. Early on they quickly found themselves deviating from the original plans for Evangelion, the number of Angels was soon reduced from the original planned 28 to 18 (where Sadamoto's manga went for the more appropriate number of 13 instead). Due to running low on budget, the show was forced to save the "saving the world" angle for a much more personal individual introspection, an exploration of each of the main protagonists' mind. Which coincided with Anno's growing interest in psychology back then.

This explains why the episodes became much more abstract as time went on, why they kept relying on flashbacks, incorporating storyboard art directly on screen, mixing real life photographs and often have fixed pictures voiced over for budget cuts. But at least they were smart to keep all the animation for the Eva fight scenes.

At the time this provoked a huge controversy regarding the end of the series. While I always thought it worked in the context of the show, you gotta admit there's a reason why a ton of fans were annoyed and angry at Studio Gainax.

That is the main reason why Anno and Gainax revisited the end of Evangelion in the later two animated features Death & Rebirth and The End of Evangelion in 1997.

And thus the cycle of endless revamps of the story of Evangelion began. But Anno always described the show as something sort of stuck on repeat, a continuous loop:
"Eva is a story that repeats. It is a story where the main character witnesses many horrors with his own eyes, but still tries to stand up again. It is a story of will; a story of moving forward, if only just a little. It is a story of fear, where someone who must face indefinite solitude fears reaching out to others, but still wants to try."
There's a lot symbolism through the series. Many themes and imagery are directly derived from Buddhism, Kabbalah, Christianity, Judaism and Shinto.
Eva gives the audience a lot of room for interpretation with very littles on the show. It's easy to take whatever direction you prefer with this series. For Hideaki Anno himself it remains a pretty personal journey. An exploration of the unconscious and the subconscious. A lot of characters appear "broken", with a lot of emotional baggage. Asuka seems to suffer a form of PTSD, Rei and Shiny both relate to the oedipus and electra complex. The show deals a lot with depression. And on the surface you have a pretty basic story of a young pilot, Shinji, going to a sort of rite of passage into manhood to please the father he never had.

Sure, with all of this content the series also suffers some certain downfalls. It almost loses itself in way too many layers. But since it offers no definitive read, that is precisely where a lot of "expanded universe" material can take roots, a lot of books, mangas, various games and even merchandise were able to take a single facet of Evangelion and make it their own. The anime itself never stranded too far from its original core, it never blatantly gave itself into one cliché or another (like, say, fan service or even the religions themes - something the movies would actually embrace a lot more).

Evangelion is huge and complex.

It can sort of become frustrating towards the end, not even counting how abstract episodes were by the end. This post-apocalyptic tale of giant robots was always a complex story from the beginning. It has a lot of religious allusions. It can be fantastically animated. Everything seems perfectly connected through the scripts. It's an intelligent series beyond its initial pitch. It's thought-provoking. And it's forever synonymous with great 1990s anime. The plot threads are deeply intertwined and almost convoluted. It had a huge cultural impact in Japan and has since become a huge phenomenon.

Evangelion also had some fantastic music. Sometimes bigger than life, epic, reminiscent of great old Kaiju films. And some other times seemingly straight out of a school comedy anime. The music was brilliantly composed by Shiro Sagisu, long time partner with Gainax over the years. There's been countless soundtracks released throughout the decades, which is testament enough of his brilliant work on the series, always topping most charts in Japan (and beyond). It's a great biblical-like score which makes use of classical music at times, but also symphonic compositions. And let's not forget to mention the fantastic catchy and memorable cult opening intro, in my eyes easily one of the best anime themes ever made - "A Cruel Angel's Thesis" performed by Yoko Takahashi. And the accompanying "Fly Me To The Moon" interpreted by different voice actors through each episode.

This mere "deconstruction of the mecha genre" had such a huge success, it's a cultural icon that influenced other animes for decades to come. It spawned an entire franchise revolving around and over Evangelion, there's been a few films, many more manga, a ton of merchandising all setting record sales from within and outside Japan, overseas. It's a billion yen-worth empire that helped establish Gainax on its own.

But for myself, I will always see Evangelions as what it was always meant to be originally - a loving tribute of the entire anime medium as a whole, a tribute to animes by fan,s for fans, and a weird clusterf*ck sometimes.

Overall, love it or hate it, you can't deny how unique Evangelion is.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is part-intelligent series, part-fan service galore. Combining some of the best thematics and plot devices from old school anime. It has surprinsingly a lot of character development, a decent story and some very neat design ideas. It also helped define some of the worst parts of it, like long dragged-on filler episodes, slow-paced dialogues and all-new annoying tropes authors keep coming back.

It really plays well on several viewings. It's well worth going through the show again decades later, or as an adult. It has so much to offer!

It's also easily one of the most well marketed anime series ever produced. But it's not without its flaws.

Evangelion is Highly Recommended to any anime buff and fans of animation in general. Some considering it the pinacle of the anime medium (which I can see why, but I wouldn't necessary agree with this statement). But be warned: the last few episodes are a lot more experimental. It can easily alienate the more mainstream audience (the controversy at the time reached such a high, Anno and Gainax would regularly receiving death threats!). And it doesn't even directly resolves the main storyline. But I find it fascinating. Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most enduring franchise. It had a huge impact on the genre. People keep making theories all over the world to this day. It has a lot going for it. Its unique distinct design for the mechas alone is so memorable, a far cry from the traditional heavy robots you usually see in Gundam and the likes, a lot more sleek and almost feminine in appearance (for a reason..). Eva is a huge influence on Japanese pop culture as a whole and its legacy can be seen nowadays.

The series would be followed by two very strange movies, Death & Rebirth in March 1997, and The End of Evangelion in July 1997. Gainax always wanted to offer a much clearer ending and a proper continuation to the story, but they couldn't do it at the time on the TV series. In 1996 they announced they release a first film, Death & Rebirth, recapping the entire 24 episodes of the series, followed by a second complementary movie offering an alternate ending to Evangelion, much to the satisfaction of disappointed fans. The End of Evangelion is a complete retelling of the final two episodes and then goes for a different climax to offer a more general point of view of the events unlike the personal mind trips of the last episodes of the anime. I will be reviewing these two later on.

There's also the aforementioned manga adaptation, illustrated by the chara designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. It focused a lot more on the psychological aspects of its main characters and the plot was a lot more developed since Sadamoto took his time writing the series, he could use elements from the show, the movies and even some allusions to the recent movies.

There's been a lot of spinoffs over the years. Anime-wise, the series might have been over (not counting the movies I'm discussing below), but Eva received all sorts of continuations in the form of spinoff mangas. There's been a parody series, a "shojo" series, etc. which we'll explore some other time.

Over the years there's been all kinds of video games based on the series, mostly visual novels but also a few RPGs and card games. Merchandising revolving around Evangelion is a $400 million -worth empire that all ranges through all the market, from countless new action figures every year to this day. but also all kinds of CD sountracks, audio dramas, digital devices, body pillows, etc. You name it! Sega has the license for most toys and games. (Not so) strangely, most items have been depicting the female cast of characters moreso than the Evas. If you want a rational answer rather than blame it on otakus, a lot of toy manufactures have complained the stylized design of the Evas is too difficult to work with.

And at the moment, the Evangelion franchise is still alive and kicking. Announced first in 2006, Gainax has been making new animated films called the "Rebuild of Evangelion". Four movies that would retell most of the original series first before spinning into a new direction (some people theorizing it is actually a continuation in disguise): "1.0 You Are (Not) Alone" in 2007, "2.0 You Can (Not) Advance" in 2009, "3.0 You Can (Not) Redo" in 2012, with the final film "Evangelion: 3.0+1.0" expected next year for the canon end of the story on the show (2016).

I give it:
2.5 / 3 DonPatchis!

No comments:

Post a Comment