After 19 years and 14 volumes, the Neon Genesis Evangelion manga finally came to an end this past week. During that time there have been an Evangelion anime series, five films, lots of games, and even numerous other manga. Yet, after all that, it remains entertaining enough to stand on its own.
Good — Changes that Excite the Imagination
From start to end, the Evangelion manga is filled to bursting with numerous tiny (and not so tiny) changes to the anime's story. Sometimes there are plot changes, like Rei launching in Eva 01 to fight the third angel before Shinji's arrival or Asuka and Shinji meeting at an arcade and not on the ship. Other times they are lore-based, like the number of overall angels.
Moreover, character relationships — especially the ones between Rei and Shinji, Asuka and Shinj, and Kaworu and Shinji — develop in different, if not the opposite, ways from their anime counterparts'.
Yet, at the same time, the manga manages to never stray too far from the source material. So, for the most part, these differences, while glaring to anyone who's a devotee of the anime, don't dramatically change how the overall plot unfolds. Thus, the manga balances carefully the new and the old — making each tiny difference seem world-changing in its implications while never breaking from the original story so far as to be unrecognisable.
Good — Can Hear Other Characters' Thoughts
But perhaps the biggest change between the anime and manga isn’t found in the plot or lore but in the way the story is told. In the anime we are only ever able to see into one person’s head: Shinji — and seemingly only at the moments when he’s on the edge of personal crisis. The manga, however, gives us much more access to not only Shinji’s thoughts but also the other main characters.
Sometimes it’s just a simple random thought bubble, but in the cases of Rei and Kaworu, they each have several scenes where we are privy to all their thoughts. Especially in the case of Rei, this changes the whole way of viewing her personality when you can concretely know her thoughts, motivations, and memories.
Good — More Back Stories
Along with the many changes, the manga is also filled with numerous additions — many of which flesh out the back stories of the characters. The anime never really talks about Shinji's past after the death of his mother, but the manga has several scenes dedicated to what it was like before he returned to Tokyo-3 to be an Eva pilot. Kaji, perhaps the most mysterious character in the series, has an entire chapter dedicated to his origin story as a child growing up in the aftermath of the second impact.
Gendo's motivations and his relationship with his wife are detailed more clearly; and a lot of “screen time” is spent on Yui, her relationship with the Evangelions, and her mysterious fate. It is an interesting look into what makes these characters act the ways they do.
Mixed — Jailbait Nudity
Let's be clear here, all the Evangelion pilots are 14 years old. And while it's not (except for one scene) presented in a sexual context, there is an awful lot of naked Rei as the manga version of the story nears its conclusion. And no, I don't mean the non-sexualized nipple-less nudity of the anime I mean full frontal nudity, nipples and all. Does her nudity add to the story in both characterization and in a deeper symbolic meaning? Yes. But it's still a drawing of a naked, underage girl.
Random Thoughts — What Isn't There
This section contains moderate spoilers for both the anime and manga of Evangelion. Skip to the next section to avoid them.
The problem with being so immersed in everything Evangelion is that little by little, it all bleeds together. It’s easy to assume what happens in one telling of the story happens in all iterations of the story. But the Evangelion manga has many cuts as well as additions — and not just in the number of angels.
Much of the relationship between Asuka and Shinji is absent. While she comes to befriend him, the vast majority of the scenes that build their tsundere romance are gone and she remains much more fixated on Kaji.
Thus, it is the relationship between Shinji and Rei that becomes the focal point of the story. Her death and the climax of the End of Evangelion (now with Kaworu completely cut) are far more emotionally gripping than in the anime. In the end, it becomes not so much a story about a young man trying to deal with the emotional complexities of life (though, of course, that theme is still present) and instead becomes the story of a young woman quite literally giving the world to the boy she loves.
If you are a fan of Evangelion, either the original anime or the Rebuilds, the Evangelion manga is well worth a read. While different in many ways from the anime, these numerous changes serve to keep the manga interesting and keep it from devolving into a boring carbon copy of the anime. Moreover, if you are a fan of “what-if” or “alternate universe” retellings, this manga coupled with the original anime makes for a great experience.
Neon Genesis Evangelion ran (intermittently) in Shonen Ace magazine from 1994 to 2009 and Young Ace magazine from 2009 to 2013 in Japan. Volumes one through thirteen (of fourteen) have been translated into English by Viz media.