It’s become oh-so fashionably cliche to say that Neon Genesis Evangelion completely changed anime forever. Nowadays, a deafening groan can be heard throughout the Internet whenever the dreaded (but always inevitable) ‘Eva discourse’ is brought up. It’s like seeing how Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band tops the greatest albums lists of every rock magazine ever, or how film connoisseurs still eagerly insist that Citizen Kane is cinema’s magnum opus.
And yet, nobody on Earth can ever deny the impact of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Its influence on Japanese media is felt in every single corner and is as culturally relevant as anything Akira Kurosawa or Osamu Dazai have made. And now that at the time of writing, it’s two-and-a-half decades old, it’s even bigger and more unavoidable than ever.
Every anime fan is destined to watch Evangelion at some point, like some sort of rite of passage.
How It All Started
It was the early 1990s, and the Japanese Economic Miracle had reached its final days. A decades-long era of prosperity was abruptly put to an end by the burst of Japan’s bubble economy, leading to a recession that would grip the nation for years to come. Anime studios declared bankruptcy and were forced to shut down their doors, marking the end of what was shaping to be a golden era for anime.
It seemed like a pretty bleak time to be an otaku. Even the up-and-coming boy wonders at Gainax was suffering from financial losses so heavy that they were on the verge of bankruptcy. And it was an even worse time for Hideaki Anno. The Gainax co-founder was in the middle of a tumultuous stretch with depression following the release of his television series Nadia: Secret of the Blue Water, a series he barely had any creative control over.
Anno would then slave over a bunch of other projects, none of which ever saw the light of day. It seemed that Anno’s career as an aspiring animator was coming to a screeching halt. That was until King Record representative and fellow Gainax co-founder Toshimichi Ootsuki gave Anno one last shot: to make an original anime about ‘something, anything.’
Inspired by his depression, Hideaki Anno set out to create an anime that captured the nation’s zeitgeist. Something that captured the ennui that he and countless other Japanese citizens had faced during the dire economic downturn. Anno also intended to make THE otaku-bait show, as he wanted to get hardcore and casual anime fans alike more interested in the medium of anime. So he brought on a team of like-minded nerdy, otaku animators to take influence from older anime series like Devilman, Ultraman, and Space Battleship Yamato.
This isn’t to say that the production of Anno’s series ran smoothly. Mainly because there was one huge risk at play: that Eva was to be a short anime television series, neither based on an already-existing property nor made for the sole purpose of selling toys and merchandise. Real-life events, namely the Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks forced Anno to make several key changes to the plot of his show, as his original ideas were deemed too controversial and realistic to be featured in an animated sci-fi series about giant robots.
On top of the national tragedies, Anno’s depression simply wouldn’t leave him alone during the show’s development. Midway through production, Anno hit a wall of frustration and suffered a mental breakdown.
When you take a lot of this into consideration, it should have been a complete disaster. It probably would have been scrapped and shelved with all of Hideaki Anno’s other failed projects, and abruptly and prematurely ended Gainax’s legacy forever. You’d think, but as fate would have it, the opposite happened, and thus…
A Phenomenon Was Born
The first episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion aired in October 1995. Viewership was initially low, although the numbers rose over time. The show started reaching prominence after the 14th episode when it’s now-famous psychological horror tone started to rear its head. It peaked at episode 18, having scenes of intense graphic violence considered too controversial given the family-friendly time slot it was placed in. It was at this point that audiences knew that Evangelion wasn’t going to be your typical mecha anime.
Needless to say, Neon Genesis Evangelion became a national sensation and catapulted Hideaki Anno to fame and fortune. By the end of the decade, its influence had spread throughout Japan like an unshakeable virus.
You couldn’t walk the streets of Tokyo without seeing Evangelion everywhere. No, really, you couldn’t. Stores everywhere were littered with Evangelion merchandise: artwork, toys, video games, t-shirts, shoes, coffee mugs, and if that wasn’t enough for you, subway trains, amusement park rides, and, of course, mountains upon mountains of unofficial fanmade doujinshis.
Evangelion’s success saved anime from being swept away by the economic recession. The show’s drama and hypnotically mindscrewy narrative proved to be a welcomed departure from the more episodic, action-driven anime of the time. Now anime was being taken more seriously, and otaku culture was considered a mainstay of modern Japan.
This Is (Not) the End of Evangelion
Of course, the 26-episode run of Evangelion was not the end of the series. In a move that would give Annie Wilkes a run for her money, fans became so frustrated by the final two episodes that they lay waste to Gainax’s office building and sent Hideaki Anno death threats.
Anno, after having yet another nervous breakdown, spent most of 1996 alienated by his celebrity status. The following year, he exacted an act of ‘revenge’ by releasing the feature-film The End of Evangelion, a dark reimagining of the TV series’ finale that refused to adhere to traditional narrative or cater towards the fans’ egregious demands.
It seemed that Anno really wanted to end the series, nay even the entire franchise itself, on an intensely alienating, spiteful note. The opposite happened; the film went on to win a bunch of awards and is now considered one of the greatest anime films of all time. The irony couldn’t have been more mind-boggling. Anno would then leave Gainax to found his own Studio Khara, then expand the Eva universe with the ongoing Rebuild of Evangelion movies, thereby ensuring that his famous franchise would never truly end.
The Story Unfolds
Neon Genesis Evangelion takes place on a post-apocalyptic alternate Earth, where hyperdimensional beings known as Angels threaten to wipe out what remains of humanity. Gendo Ikari, one of the higher-ups at the mysterious weapons manufacturing company called NERV, summons his estranged teenage son Shinji to pilot Evangelion Unit-01, a giant biomech created to defend humanity from the Angels. Together with NERV commander Misato Katuragi and fellow pilots Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Soryu, Shinji becomes an unwilling, reluctant hero of humanity.
The depressed, lonely, self-loathing protagonist of the series. Shinji’s distant, virtually non-existent relationship with his father has created a serious strain in his confidence and ability to communicate with others. Despite that, he constantly pilots his Eva to fight the Angels in order to win his father’s approval. When he’s not at war with the Angels, Shinji is at war with his inner demons, with his struggle to understand himself being a recurring element of the series.
A mysterious girl who pilots her own Eva alongside Shinji as part of NERV’s mission to destroy the angels. She also seems to have a special connection between Shinji and his father. Being so quiet, aloof, shy, and emotionless, she doesn’t reveal much about herself or her past, inadvertently becoming the biggest mystery of the show.
What isn’t a mystery, however, is her impact. No, I don’t mean Third Impact; I mean the impact she had on pop culture. Her reserved personality coupled with her sleek design made her popular with the boys, making her a prominent figure in anime culture.
Asuka Langley Soryu
A foreign exchange student hailing from Germany, Asuka first appears a third of the way through the series as a feisty hot-head driven by an overzealous ego. She takes pride in her Eva-piloting ability and constantly belittles those who don’t see eye-to-eye with her. Asuka initially expresses dislike towards Shinji for being (what she sees as) cowardly and stupid. However, her relationship with Shinji grows over time, and exponentially becomes more and more important as the series progresses.
An adult woman who plays double duty as a NERV commander and Shinji’s guardian and often struggles to find a balance between the two. Despite her age and credentials, Misato is often shown to be very immature, constantly shrugging off responsibilities in favor of drinking cheap beer (even at 9 o’clock in the morning). She’s also secretly desperate for male attention, as evidenced by her affection towards her ex-boyfriend Kaji and her smothering, overprotective, mother-like tendencies she expresses around Shinji.
Cold. Calculative. Manipulative. Not exactly someone who qualifies as ‘father of the year’ material. Gendo Ikari shows no affection towards his son and just sees him as a body necessary to pilot the Eva. In other words, to Gendo, Shinji is not a person as much as he is just a means to an end. But what is that end? It would seem that it would be to defeat the Angels, but Gendo seems to have another ulterior motive in mind.
Arrival on Netflix
Evangelion did not air in America until 2000, nearly five years after its inception. Contrary to popular belief, the show first aired not on Toonami, but on PBS, specifically its San Francisco-based KTEH-54 affiliate station.
The first two episodes would see a highly-edited-for-content release on Cartoon Network in early 2003, but Americans did not see all of Evangelion in all of its uncut glory until it aired on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim in 2005. After a scant few other international broadcasts, re-airings of Evangelion disappeared altogether. Unless you were willing to spend a couple hundred bucks on its Blu-ray, there became no legal way to watch Evangelion.
That was until the 2019 Netflix release changed that. Finally, there was the legal, cheap way to watch Evangelion. And so conveniently too! If this sounded too good to be true, then surprise: it was.
The Netflix release came with a new set of subtitles and English dub that slightly, but noticeably, changed the context of many important scenes and conversations. Most controversial of all was the removal of the iconic ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ song that played at the ending of each episode, all because Netflix supposedly could not pay for the licensing fees.
Naturally, these changes caused a lot of backlash throughout social media, with many fans complaining that the changes made the show feel inauthentic and not the true representation of Evangelion.
Fans are hoping that one day we might see an international release of Evangelion with all of its original trappings still intact. One that doesn’t take close to $1000 to purchase. Still in all, if you are willing to take the plunge, the Netflix release remains the easiest and most accessible way to watch Evangelion.