Anime series Evangelion has mesmerised Japanese audiences since the mid-1990s with its story of angsty teens who fight Earth-destroying "angels" from the cockpits of giant robots. With Evangelion 2.0, its blend of teen drama, techno-action, and apocalyptic mysticism hits Stateside.
You don't have to be a giant Evangelion fan to enjoy Evangelion 2.0, showing in dozens of theatres across the US this week. It's the second half of a planned four-movie reboot of the original Evangelion TV series, which for Western audiences will feel like an unexpectedly pleasing combination of Ender's Game and Twilight. Depressed, reluctant hero Shinji is a young teenager whose power-mad scientist father has neglected him in favour of his work with the special forces group NERV. His main NERV project is developing the Evangelions, or Evas, giant biotech robots that bond directly with their pilots' brains. As the series begins, we learn that Shinji and a handful of other teens are the only people who can successfully bond with the Evas and fight off the deadly, mysterious "angels" who are bent on destroying the Earth.
It seems the angels, who take many giant, deadly forms, are responsible for "Impact 2", an event that destroyed most of the Earth. We're not entirely sure what the angels want, but each time they appear they are in trippier and more abstract guises, shooting weird rainbows and gushing oceans of blood. Like Shinji, we're confused about why the angels are enemies and why only certain people can pilot the Evas in the war against the angels.
As Evangelion 2.0 opens, Shinji is now established as a somewhat experienced, though still reluctant, pilot of an Eva unit. He's taken out a few angels, but has yet to win his cruel father's approval. Plus, he's curious about another pilot named Rei, a young woman who has a strange bond with his father and never shows any emotion - even in the face of terrifying danger on the battlefield. Plus there are two new Eva pilots - both cute girls, as it happens - whom he needs to reckon with. And he still hasn't gotten over his father issues.
For American audiences, one of the things that will feel odd and refreshing about Evangelion 2.0 is its weird mix of depressing battle-weariness and sex-comedy romp moments. There's a running gag with Shinji accidentally seeing his female roommates naked, and his crushes on various girls often crop up in the middle of dark scenes about death and having your will sublimated to that of a military machine. In this way, Evangelion 2.0 manages to inject Twilight-style cheese into what is otherwise an intense, disturbing story about being robbed of your innocence in war. In the teaser for the movie below, you can see how odd the tone is - the song is actually in the film, sung by Rei. In fact, there are a number of scenes where extremely sweet songs form the backdrop to awful carnage.
Evangelion also has some breathtaking concept design. The NERV base where the Evas are kept is deep beneath the city of Neo-Tokyo 3, a city that is essentially mobile. Its buildings can all be reconfigured, or sunk underground. Every morning, vast, gorgeous solar panels rise out of the ground to meet the sun, and the train tracks neatly rearrange themselves for the commute. There are several scenes where we simply watch the city in motion, and realise that this urban space is like an Eva - it's city-as-robot, just as Shinji is child-as-robot.
The teen soap opera side of the series is part of what made it so popular in Japan, but it's also popular because being an Eva pilot is such a rich metaphor for growing up. Shinji's father forces him to pilot the Eva, and seems only to value him for what he does when encased in an armour he barely controls. Indeed, sometimes the armour takes on a "dummy pilot" that forces Shinji to watch as his robot body carries out hideous violence against his will. Shinji, always depressed, often wonders if people like him for who he is - the little, geeky Shinji - or only care about the work he can do piloting the Eva.
Growing up is like donning the Eva shell - it makes you stronger, but often the person you really are gets lost. You are controlled by your robot, instead of the other way around. Evangelion 2.0 asks whether it's possible to take on grown-up responsibilities and stay human at the same time. And the answer is as complicated as the mystery of the angels.