The Essential Strength of Evangelion

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.

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12 thoughts on “The Essential Strength of Evangelion

  1. Good to hear a positive voice in the crowd re: Evangelion. Granted, I haven’t seen it in a while, so my opinion might change on a second viewing, but I remember being particularly blown away by Anno’s direction when I first saw it. Say what you want about the writing, characters, or symbolism, but you’re right: the mood that he creates really is the best part.

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  2. I still remember those first two episodes like I just saw them yesterday. Shinji’s doubt and fear when first climbing into Unit 1, his desperation while fighting that first Angel, NERV HQ’s cold attitude of calculating losses, and the empty, hollow sound of Misato’s trite reassurances as Shinji laid on his bed in his dark room. I agree, Eva feels like something completely different from the expected. It is its lasting quality.

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  3. I hadn’t known this is a significant observation — I had just taken it for granted as part of what makes the thing work. But I’m glad you took note of it. I’ve struggled thinking about the things I’ve read about ‘paper-thin symbolism’ and what not, but somehow I felt that wasn’t critical to how awesome Eva felt.

    It truly feels awesome to watch; it’s very affecting — from Shinji’s train scenes, to his running away, to Kaworu’s disturbing proximity, to Asuka’s screams in complete dissonance to the Handel’s Hallelujah playing… to the multiple Rei clones floating, then dying by Akagi’s acts… Man, just thinking about Gendo taking his wife’s name instead of the other way around.

    I find it hard to find TV anime this dense with these kinds of touches, especially prior to 1994. And even if there are comparable or even superior works (arguably), I don’t expect them to be put together like this — a perfect storm of inscrutability, disturbing imagery, accessibility, fetching girls, and giant robots.

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    • It’s definitely something which can be taken for granted, so much so that often times when I see inevitable arguments about Evangelion being great/not great pop up, they all tend to ignore this fundamental aspect of the show in favor of arguing about stuff like how the characters are poorly written or giant plot holes and what-have-you.

      That’s why I wrote this, because I wanted this to be out there for people to take note of, and to understand that its influence comes less from being a finely weaved narrative masterpiece, and more of a constant jolt of emotions.

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  4. The moment I first really took notice of what made Evangelion different was in episode 4, when Shinji was watching the couple making out in the movie theater. At first he looks vague, but then his face turns to distaste, puzzlement, resentment. I hadn’t remembered seeing something like that in an anime TV show; it was a quiet shock.

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  5. I think that’s exactly what the deal is, it’s a show pointed squarely at the emotion of the moment, with all the ‘Otaku fetish cool’ as candy gloss.

    (seriously? tram cars that are secret 30mm autocannon stations? how the hell can you get a decent target lock when every shot should make the car swing wildly? oops, don’t THINK about it, FEEL how cool it is)

    (the power plug that fits into the Eva units is based on a Japanese petrol station pump nozzle)

    maybe it’s more like a meal. meant to be enjoyed in the moment and nothing else, and the memories left of how good it tasted right then is all that matters and not how it felt ‘coming out’ later.

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  6. The portrayal of emotions seems to be spot on. However, it’s a bit more than capturing the emotions of the time.

    Anyone would tell me it’s old news that Anno was depressed when making Eva. It would be a bit of a shock to tell people that his masterpiece was also a creative outlet for his severe depression. Or that everyone who was working on the show (except for him) was clearly not enjoying the experience.

    I cannot deny the fact that it had a direction, or that it had method to it’s depressive madness. However, when you strip away the technical beauty, all that remains was Anno’s rage, sadness, cynicism, and sheer hatred of everything he had come to know and love. All compressed into 26 episodes and 2 movies. Rebuild was probably a forced attempt to inject some much-overdue positivity to the entire franchise, after the success of Gurren Lagann, but it does not hide the fact that Anno, at that point in time, hated the world so much at that point in time.

    I leave it to you to speculate why was he so depressed.

    That, and it spawned Oruchuban Ebichu. Much could be debated about this, but it all evened out in the end.

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