Evangelion 3.0+1.0‘s heady attempt to bid farewell not just to the series of ‘Rebuild’ movies of the seminal mecha anime, but the ideas of the series at large, has a lot to deal with across its meaty runtime. But its choice to slam the brakes on the forward momentum and ask its characters to sit with the prospect of processing their trauma makes for an opening that is some of the series’ finest ever work.
If the final message of Thrice Upon a Time is that a reward for our heroes coming to terms with themselves and helping those around them is a world where the Evangelions never existed in the first place, the opening act of the film serves as a yearning for that seeming impossibility in a world where they very much do. If we believe Hideaki Anno it’s also the final message of Evangelion at large — the story is meant to be the ultimate iteration upon and farewell to the series’ long arc about coping with trauma and identity.
The opening act of the film (which is difficult to even say, considering it takes up nearly an hour of the two-and-a-half-hour runtime) is set in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic fallout of its predecessor, You Can (Not) Redo, released nearly a decade beforehand. But unlike Evangelion’s prior witnessing of the apocalypse, Thrice Upon a Time asks us, and its heroes, to sit with the aftermath of such an event in an extended period of time and dares to hope for the healing that might come after such an event.
With You Can (Not) Redo climaxing with a disastrous, cataclysmic event known in Evangelion’s lore as an Impact — a near-extinction event of which there were already, at that point, three such events already in its put-upon world before this — Thrice Upon a Time opens with our protagonist Eva pilots Shinji, Asuka, and Rei wandering the red-tinged wastelands of what little is left of their former home, Tokyo-3.
Asuka and Rei are silent as they navigate the ruins, beaten and bruised, frustrated at what they’ve witnessed, while Shinji — who inadvertently set this Fourth Impact going, believing he was instead undoing the previous cataclysm — is rendered into an almost catatonic state, dragged along by his allies… mute, unthinking, unfeeling, a shell of even the distant, traumatized teen that he was even before this horrifying turn of events.
After wandering to an eventual pickup point, the trio is taken to what now stands as a surprising safe haven in the wake of this calamity: Village 3, a tiny self-sustaining area made up of refugees and survivors of the Fourth Impact from Tokyo-3, thriving in its outskirts.
Life in Village 3 is presented as tough, but peaceful and almost idyllic. It’s painted in intimate details and vivid colour, where our perspective and time (a resource that Evangelion, in both its TV and cinematic iterations, has often squandered) is given to appreciate everything from relaxing cats hiding among train carriages to the fluttering of freshly-planted rice fields on the village’s outskirts.
It is a stark contrast to the sci-fi, highly urbanized world that we have so far been presented in Evangelion before this, replacing the sharply angular, high-tech, and brutal architecture of metropolis with the soft, mundane intimacy of rural living. The people of Tokyo-3 are still here, but they have found peace in a world that is quite unlike that city: because they still have each other.
Those people include Shinji, Asuka, and Rei’s former schoolmates, Toji Suzuhara, Hikari Horaki, and Kensuke Aida, who have all done what the former trio cannot possibly comprehend, let alone do: grown up and moved on with their lives, away from the daily business of apocalypses and Evangelions. Toji has become a town doctor (not because he has the skills, but simply because he wanted to help other people), and married Hikari, having a young child with his high school crush. Kensuke, ever the survival and outdoorsman geek as a teen, is now a sort of watchman of all trades for Village 3, maintaining its defences, scavenging food and materials for himself, and repairing faulty tech when and where they can get it.
They are all, by and large, happy and at peace with themselves, something that is almost completely alien to Shinji, Asuka, and Rei. Part of this is baked into Evangelion’s esoteric worldbuilding — introduced in the prior film is the “curse of Evangelion,” a peculiar affliction that renders Evangelion pilots unable to physically age beyond being approximately 14 years old, so they literally cannot grow up as their counterparts did.
Part of it is just that the kinds of lives the denizens of Village 3 now lead are simply unfathomable to youngsters whose own lives have been subsumed by the nightmarish hell that is piloting bio-organic weapons of divine importance against unholy abominations that want to undo the very world as they know it.
There can be no such thing as peace as an Evangelion pilot. What we are shown, over and over in the franchise, regardless of iteration, is that to pilot an Evangelion is to accept unspeakable horror, within yourself and around you, as a daily matter of fact. To be an Evangelion pilot is to teeter on the edge of cataclysm every time you go into battle, not quite sure whether you’ll fall in or throw yourself in willingly. A life without them, without that conflict? A chance for peace in the aftermath? Even attempting to reach such a possibility, as seen in the three films before Thrice Upon a Time, is shown to be almost a folly, a road down which only further trauma lies. And yet, suddenly, in Village 3 Asuka, Rei, and Shinji are thrust into this chance for peace.
This rehabilitation is not taken lightly, and Thrice Upon a Time’s decision to open with such an intentionally languid place allows us to sit with all three teens as they slowly open up to the life being offered in Village 3. Rei — who we’ve learned at this point, as she was in the original show, is just the latest in a long line of cloned beings manipulated at the behest of Shinji’s distant father, Gendo Ikari — goes on perhaps the most complete journey, as we see her childlike wonder at the world presented around her develop into an earnest, yearning delight at the simple and honest life she now finds herself in, working the fields with the other villagers by day, relaxing with Hiroka or reading by night.
Asuka, always the most outwardly irascible of the main Evangelion trio, takes a rougher path, with quiet moments futzing about on an old game console giving way to flashes of anger — at herself, at Shinji in particular, at the world around her. But even she slowly learns to both find some semblance of calm in herself, and particularly with Shinji, as he works through the horrors he endured in You Can (Not) Redo. He in particular gets the most focus in terms of the impact of his rehabilitation, learning once again to reconnect with people like Toji and Kensuke, and then with Rei and Asuka, finding a reason to carry on in the form of the connections he makes and the purpose he places in them.
It’s a slow, painful process, and it’s hard to unequivocally say each of the teens is “fixed” by the end of it — anything but, as we’ll see — but it’s a powerful view of their healing processes that only really happens because of the world establish in Village 3 itself, a tiny little pocket of the post-post-post-apocalypse where Angels and Evas don’t exist. And yet, they do, and that forms the bittersweet climax to Thrice Upon a Time’s move away from the village and thrusting into the setup for its narrative endgame.
Village 3 is peaceful and idyllic in the moment, but it’s only rendered as such thanks to shielding technology Kensuke has to constantly maintain, holding back the sea of red fallout from the Impacts and roving monsters left in their wake. And because the machinery of that world of Angels and Evas still exists beyond its protective bubble, that world still has to come and demand the sacrifices of our heroes’ lives in the process.
Rei, having spent too much time away from the protective LCL that maintains her clone body, dissolves before Shinji’s eyes after bidding him a melancholic farewell, the life she wanted for herself in the village impossible for her to have ever achieved. Asuka and Shinji are healed by their time in Village 3, but only really enough to be thrust back into that curse of Evangelion, to fight the fights only they can. Village 3’s “world without Evas” is, we are bluntly and sadly told, fragile at best; if read cynically by the audience at worst a delusion, a stopgap only delaying the inevitable end.
Yet its existence, and its keen focus in the first hour of Thrice Upon a Time, is vital, a necessary catalyst the film needs for it — and Shinji’s — ultimate thesis. By the time the young pilot has confronted his father in Thrice’s climactic battle, he has put the healing he went through in Village 3 to the test, as has Asuka, and is rewarded in being able to connect to his father and help him, in turn, understand his own trauma.
It is the base point for what Shinji decides to do when given the power to create a new world of his own desire as a reward for helping to heal the people around him — after all, the new world he makes, his Neon Genesis, is a world where Evangelions don’t exist, a way to find the peace Village 3 had not just for himself and those closest to him, but the world in its totality.
Perhaps it makes sense then that, in the brief glimpse we see of this “world without Evas” at the very end, Thrice leans towards Evangelion’s love of metatext. In transposing Anno’s characters into a facsimile of his own hometown, the city of Ube in Yamaguchi prefecture for their new lives, the director offers us something of a compromise between Shinji’s two temporary homes. Not quite the bustling environs of Tokyo-3’s urban megalopolis, not quite the rural mundanity of Village 3, but a mix of both: the lives once lived by these teenagers, now free to grow up, let go, and move on with their lives, and the lives that could’ve been, offered to them as a place to heal in Thrice Upon a Time’s opening act.
It’s peace all the same at least, made possible by taking Village 3’s promise of possible peace and making it a reality.