The running joke among Neon Genesis Evangelion fans is that its creator, Hidekai Anno, invented depression.
The things you watch or read in your formative years become part of the fabric of who you are – they inform the language of your heart from that point onwards. They bleed into your vocabulary. They shape the way you view and interpret the world. So when Shinji Ikari, a young man crippled by sadness, grief, insecurity and loneliness refused to get in the damned robot … I sympathised.
Editor’s Note: This is a full review with spoilers. If you haven’t seen Evangelion 3.0 + 1.01 yet, or the prior films in the series, save or bookmark this page until you’ve seen the films for yourself.
Hell, I sympathised up until the very end of the series, where this damaged kid, saddled with unbearable burdens by the worst fictional Dad of all time, Gendo Ikari, was given the keys to the figurative god machine.
Suddenly, poor Shinji was handed the ability to redo the world; give things a second chance. But self hatred, grief, self pity… these things are like a blanket for anyone who is suffering. Beyond simply becoming accustomed to the pain, you begin to feel that it’s somehow what you deserve. For all the yelling directed at Shinji to get up on his feet and fight, the plain and simple fact is that he’s always been the victim.
The Rebuild series of Evangelion films, which began back in 2007, did something truly magical. Anno’s well chronicled descent into legitimate decline during the production of the show began to morph Shinji’s arc into something deeply meta-textual, turning a dark mecha adventure into a treatise on learning to accept your flaws and love yourself, if only just a little.
Anno’s second swing at the ending with End of Evangelion veered clear into self-hatred, and an almost jubilant level of loathing towards his own work. Asuka, a living metaphor for Evangelion, is lying on the beach before a blood-red ocean of LCL, and is strangled by Shinji.
The hatred, exhaustion and self-defeat boil over, and we’re left with this.
In Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time, however, something miraculous happens.
Shinji looks down at Asuka – and by extension, his entire body of work, with a wry, satisfied smile on his face, and says simply… I liked you too.
Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time is the most ambitious thing I’ve seen in many, many years. It’s fractured structure doesn’t feel like a screw-you to the viewer; it doesn’t sneer, it doesn’t turn it’s nose up at the notion of hope. It is, rather, a full-throated, shockingly wise and ardent defence of caring, of persevering, of getting back up off the mat.
Take, for example, the village where survivors of the Third Impact dwell. Fans of the series will already be well aware that twice now (three times if you count Sadamoto’s stunning manga series, which you really ought to), Shinji has reset the world. As Kaworu’s ring of coffins on the moon are testament to, this is a cycle of suffering, built on the assumption that you cannot redo.
But the villagers, kept safe by Misato and WILLE’s technology, don’t know that. How could they? So they do what real people in the real world do: they get up off the mat. Toji, Kensuke, Hikari … they’ve used the trauma they’ve lived through to become better people, and to help others. There’s value, the village asserts with it’s every waking moment, in living on after the darkness recedes.
Kensuke, talking with a slowly recovering Shinji, says “We don’t know how long this place can survive. But we’re going to struggle on and live until the very end.” Hikari, talking to Rei with a smile on her face, says, “Life is a continuous struggle of tough times and good times. There’s nothing wrong if every day feels the same as today. That’s how it is. Right now is the youngest I’ll ever be, and I want to live to the fullest right now.”
These quotes might sound grim, but they’re delivered amongst the effervescent sunshine of the village, with both Kensuke and Hikari calm, happy and at peace as they muse to our slowly recovering EVA pilots.
When Shinji finally does step up to the plate, it’s a Shinji we’ve never seen before. He’s wise beyond his years, perhaps because in a very meta sense, Anno has been here before, too. Both he and Shinji are ready to finish this story for the last time, and both of them tussle with the deeply damaged Gendo. At first, they clash in a performative Freudian melee, before Shinji realises that fighting isn’t the solution. Giant robots aren’t going to fix anything.
So he does something staggeringly bold: he calmly psychoanalyses his father. And it becomes apparent, right here at the very end of things, that Gendo was the source of all ills, precisely because he couldn’t let go of his wife’s death.
He wanted to reboot everything; to create a world with no barriers, where he could be back with his wife again. He wanted the opposite of what the village represented — he wanted to crawl, effectively, back into the womb.
But after various attempted resets, Shinji (and by extension, Anno) now knows that you have to make your traumas a part of you, use them to grow. So he shows his father the error of his ways, and lets him go. He then takes each of his friends, walks them back through their traumatic pasts, and helps them heal themselves. He makes sure everyone he loves is OK, seizes the etch-a-sketch that is the world of Evangelion … and shakes it. Hard. And before he is wiped from the board, too (reduced to an animated storyboard sketch), Mari dives in and rescues him.
Shinji says to Rei (as she holds a doll sharing the name of Hikari and Koji’s daughter, mind you) that “I won’t rewind time or revert the world. I’m just going to rewrite the world into one that doesn’t have EVAs.”
By that rationale, the WILLE survivors – and the villagers – would remember what happened, but they’d be able to live on, and enjoy a world without EVAs as their reward. The entire lesson here is that a reset, a mind wipe, doesn’t work. Forgetting and denying trauma doesn’t work – the good and the bad that shape you are what’s important. Shinji wants a second chance for us to live on, having gained from our losses, having evolved. Having grown up.
And that’s what we get – a grown-up Shinji, flirting his butt off with Mari, on a train platform across from Kaworu, Rei and Asuka, alive and well. Shinji and Mari clearly remember what came before, directly quoting prior conversations, but what’s remarkable is how it’s the willingness to keep those memories seems to have made Shinji an adult.
Hell, he saved the world … and he did it without fighting.
I realise this might seem ponderous, but that’s what Evangelion is: big. Heavy. Profound. But finally, the story has found something truly unexpected: optimism, and a litany of messages which feel shockingly timely. I’ll leave you with this: an afterword from Hideaki Anno’s in his wife Moyoco Anno’s manga Insufficient Direction. This was written back in 2005, just before Anno began his work on the Rebuild series.
Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time is the perfect ending to the series, and it seems somewhat apt that Anno has, in the year when many of us are at our most depressed, our most Shinji-like, created something capable of curing depression with such staggering ease. It’s a monumental piece of cinema, and a testament to the human spirit.
Congratulations, Shinji. And thanks, Anno. You both nailed it.
Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Paul Verhoeven is an author, broadcaster and TV presenter. His books Electric Blue and Loose Units are out now through Penguin, and his podcasts, DISH! and Loose Units, are available everywhere you get your podcasts. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and in person, if you can find him (he’s very good at hiding).