Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most famous and influential shows in all of anime history and whether you’re a fan or a detractor there is no denying this fact. As time has passed however, Evangelion and its legendary status have been thrown into question. Critics will say that its story falls apart or makes no sense, that it’s chock full of plot holes, that its characters do not act as proper story characters. And all of this might be true; going over Evangelion with a fine-toothed comb reveals that much of its symbolism is paper-thin, and that its characters tend to not have much personal resolve or major development. That’s okay, though, because none of that is the truly essential strength of the series.
What is Evangelion‘s biggest strength then? To explain, I’ll use some examples from the series. Not any particular example, as my memory’s faded a bit, but some common ones: Shinji riding the train, and an Angel Attack.
There Shinji is, sitting on an empty train, listening to the same two tracks on his Walkman as the sun sets and ambient noise echoes through the city of Tokyo-3. You can sense how little he thinks of himself, how easily he gets into a rut, how much he prefers to just ignore the world if he can.
Then a grotesque monster appears. It’s vaguely humanoid, but the angles of its body and its lack of a real “face” make it incredibly jarring, even moreso when this song starts up. It’s not really an “evil” song so much as it is one that announces an inescapable and impending doom. That monster, called an “Angel” apparently, is disturbing. You can feel a certain mood, just as you can feel Shinji’s mood of doubt and despair and frustration, and that is where Neon Genesis Evangelion gets you.
The main strength of the series is in its ability to convey moods to its viewers. Whether it’s a character’s mindset or the setup to an action scene, you experience this strong understanding of the emotion the show is trying to make you feel. Whether you like him as a character or not, with Shinji you can always feel his crushing depression in every scene. So too with Asuka, where you can always feel her absolute fear of failure, and with Rei there is the constant sense that she is struggling with something and that she doubts her own identity.
While Evangelion came out at a time where it captured the zeitgeist of Japanese youth, and it owes much of its success to that fact, I think the ability of the series to transmit moods and emotions to the viewer is its primary and longest-lasting legacy and is the thing that makes it accessible and relatable over a decade after its creation. It’s what draws people in, it’s what causes people to reject it, and it’s something that it does better than nearly every other series in anime history.