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Neon Genesis Evangelion

The oft-imitated pinnacle and eventual decontruction of the giant robot anime series, an analysis-- or even a quick summary-- of Hideiki Anno's signature work Neon Genesis Evangelion requires far more space and effort than I can muster for this purpose. Luckily, it's not entirely necessary, as the show's legion of fans have produced multitudes of websites analyzing it from many perspectives, down to the smallest of minutiae.

The anime itself has progressed through several sometimes conflicting and inconsistent permutations. The original version was 26 epsiodes broadcast serially on TV in Japan. The last five of these were later re-released in a special Director's Edition. An alternative ending to the series, comprising new versions of episodes 25 and 26 appeared as two overlapping films, Evangelion: Death and Rebirth, and End of Evangelion. Of the films, the former consisted of a summary of the series, along with 30 minutes of new content. The latter repeated the same new 30 minutes, and then brought the show to a conclusion that some consider alternative, some consider consistent but parallel, to the tv episodes.

The first part of the first film, Death, itself has several versions, depending on whether or not the scenes from episodes 21-24 are from the original series, from the Director's Edition, or a modified version of the Director's Edition. The final version, called Death^2 (True) contains several flashbacks to scenes in the Director's Edition of episode 24 that were not present in the previous versions or in the original serial, and makes some of the events in End of Evangelion at least somewhat comprehensible which are not otherwise.

Many fansites spend an inordinate amount of effort analyzing the relationship between the show and the content of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which play an increasingly overt part in the plot as the series goes on. However, this is, by the admission of some of the show's own production crew, mostly a graphical backdrop for the real story, which is the relationship that the awkward, shy, self-loathing Shinji Ikari has with himself, his peers, and his estranged father.

The television series eventually discards all the realistic trappings of the show-- both the robot anime and the religious references-- in favor of an interior monologue where Shinji finally learns to accept and love himself as a person. What happens in the physical world to Shinji, the other Evangelion pilots, Asuka and Rei, or to his father, the commander of NERV Branch 1, is more or less irrelevant. The serial conclusion almost leads one to conclude that the entire series up to that point has been a solipsist fantasy Shinji lives out in order to compensate for his condition as orphan, abandoned both by his dead mother and by his socially inept, emotionally stunted father. He invents a fantasy for himself in which the fate of the entire world falls upon his narrow shoulders, and succeeding in this task is the only way he can feel good about himself.

The films offer a somewhat different conclusion. Although we do see some of Shinji's inner psychological problems out on the screen in the last reel, prior to that we are treated to a gloriously gory and graphic depiction of the end of the world, starting with the grisly death of Evangelion Unit 02 pilot Asuka Langley, who having finally herself come to the realization that her mother really does love her, manages a nearly impossible task in defeating nine of the new Mass Production Series Evangelion units (units 09 through 13) in less than four minutes, only to see them magically revive, pierce her soul with a replica of the Lance of Longinus, and devour the flesh of her Evangelion alive. Whether things improve, or only get more dire and desperate after that is largely left to the audience to interpret for themselves. Much of this interpretation hinges on the idea of the Human Instrumentality Project, a secret project run concurrently with the Evangelion project, aimed at bringing about the end of human existence as we know it. Several characters, including Shinji Ikari's father Gendo and his ex-professor sidekick Fyutsuki, a secret organization called SEELE, and the United Nations, have varying degrees of knowledge about this project as well as differing motives and methods for bringing about its conclusion. However, the ultimate choice is left to Shinji to decide how the world ends (or begins), and the audience is given to decide for themselves what that choice was, both in the tv serial and in End of Evangelion. Some consider the two endings compatible, some consider them opposite, others consider them different alternatives in a situation in which the story itself does not have any one true ending. (Parts of End of Evangelion consist of pseudo dream sequences in which Shinji is offered various possible realities to choose from.)

A first time viewer of Evangelion is likely to wonder at first what the big deal is about the series, and about halfway through will wonder if he or she really understood what was going on in the first place. To be fully appreciated, both the serial and the concluding films require multiple viewings; luckily, the deep storyline and characterizations, accompanied by inspired, if sometimes minimalistic, animation and tour de force voice performances mean that these repeat viewings will be increasingly enjoyable. This anime isn't quite for everyone, but for those who appreciate it at all if often becomes their favorite.