Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most famous — and polarising — anime ever created. And it always seems to fall into one of three categories: Anime fans love it, hate it, or love it but hate the ending.
I've talked at some length about what it was like to be an anime fan back in the 56k modem era, and how difficult it was to even lay hands on anime. Because of this, it wasn't until my second year of high school that I saw Evangelion for the first time.
This story has been republished to coincide with the worldwide release of Neon Genesis on Netflix later this week.
I had heard about Evangelion for years — and by that I mean many people said it was "good." It was also 30 bucks for two episodes and not available at my local video stores. But in my second year of high school, I became friends with a Russian student who was also an anime fan. utilising the new-found resources of EBAY, we each imported our favourite anime on Singapore VCD to watch with each other. Mine was Record of Lodoss War; his was Evangelion.
Like most anime I watched at the time, we marathoned it in one sitting. At first Evangelion seemed pretty standard: a young boy pilots a giant robot to stop giant monsters.
But the tone was totally different from similarly themed giant robot series. There were no happy friendships, no easily explained character motivations (for neither heroes nor villains), and a psychologically broken main character. It was simply unlike anything I had seen before.
As the series neared its climax, the early light-hearted comedy moments were steadily replaced by moments of soul-crushing despair or stream-of-consciousness philosophical debates set inside Shinji's head. I was enthralled. And then I experienced the ending.
Frankly, I hated the final two episodes of Evangelion (sans the brief scene showing Shinji's life if he wasn't defined by being an Eva pilot). It was as if the end of the story had been cut and replaced with Shinji stuck in an hour-long lecture on the nature of humanity and interpersonal relationships.
Still, despite the series' ending, I was a die-hard fan, showing the series off to friends as often as possible — though I would leave the room and let them watch alone whenever the ending episodes rolled around.
It was a year later when I first discovered and then procured a copy of what I had dreamed about: the feature film The End of Evangelion. It was everything I hoped for, a true ending to the Evangelion story showing not only the turmoil inside Shinji's head but the real world consequences of his actions.
But when Asuka uttered her final line and the credits suddenly started to roll, I was surprised — and more than a little confused. The movie was over but it felt like the ending had been cut off half-way. I was sure I had missed something.
I rewatched it. Then rewatched it again. I began reading essays and opinions online, then went on to explore a list of biblical references that connected to the series.
For the first time in my life, a movie made me think — made me work to appreciate it. And little by little I came to understand and love the film. Even today it's a film I revisit frequently. And every time I watch it I still find something new.
Over the following years, I watched many anime, though my watching tapered off to one or two series a year after moving to Japan. But when the Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy of films was announced-my love was rekindled. In preparation for Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone, I went back and watched the whole series again.
Then I saw the film. I hated it. It was nearly shot-for-shot identical to the series with only the most minuscule amount of new content. Moreover, it cut out a good hour of story from the series. I felt like I had wasted my money and could see a better paced, fully realised version of the story on my DVD player at home.
So when the second film, Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance came around, I had no intention of even spending the money to see it, figuring that it was just going to be another recap. Luckily for me, I was dragged to the theatre by some friends to see it opening day.
It was fantastic. It took the setting and characters and ran with the story in a new (yet similar) direction — exactly what I like to see in a theatrical adaptation. For those new to the series, it was a good story; and for old fans, it was a constant game of using our knowledge of the series against us to form unexpected plot twists. I am excited to watch it again this month before heading into the third movie.
In closing let me say this: age has definitely changed how I look at Evangelion. It's no longer a show about giant robots fighting monsters. Nor is it a random collection of religious imagery and philosophical musings.
For me, it's really just a show about a boy struggling to learn how to deal with other people — a character study on the double-edged sword of loneliness and companionship. Moreover, it's a series that exposits nothing, but, at the same time, shows you everything and isn't afraid to make you work for your own understanding.