Following are some observations about what, to my knowledge, remains one of the most controversial and influential Anime productions of the last 20 years.
What is it?
- A story about a teenage boy who pilots a giant robot in order to defend the earth from giant monsters
- A satire of giant robot shows
- A story of how life on Earth came to be, and how it may end.
- A character study showing how a group of unique people deal with their insecurities
- A coming of age story
- A science-fiction take on early Judeo-Christian mythology
- A series of metaphors for loneliness
- Cute girls and fanservice
- About a character trying to answer the questions "Who am I?" "What is my purpose?" and "Is life worth living?"
What it did well
For first time viewers, it successfully grabbed a large audience by appearing to be a new entry into a popular genre - big robot shows (Gundam, Macross, et.al.). It maintains a mostly light tone through the first act. However it also took a lot of time with characterization. Evangelion's characters are its strongest point. Shinji isn't a cool gorgeous guy with spiky hair who kicks ass. He's a shy, awkward boy that viewers can identify with. If you weren't a bit like Shinji growing up, you knew someone who was. Many other characters that at first appear two dimensional turn out to have more complex motivations.
It effectively used the tools of animation to visualize a variety of psychoanalytical head trips.
It gives its viewers a lot to discuss. Of course, this is in no small part because of the ever increasing tide of unanswered questions, in which one answer often leads to a new question, and a great many of these questions lack clear answers. However, I prefer a story that makes one think and leaves things open to interpretation to one that wraps everything up in a neat package and tells the viewer what to think and feel.
Where it fails
Evangelion tries to be too many things and leaves too many questions unanswered. You find yourself invested in a great number of chracters, but it's really only Shinji who gets his due. While many of the show's mysteries can be solved through repeated viewings, others remain a complete mystery. And yet, there is still filler. In more skilled hands, the story could have been told more clearly and concisely. The elements of the show that satirize big robot shows are too different in tone to the rest of the show to really fit in.
I haven't watched it. Should I?
I think anyone who has any interest in anime should see it simply for how tremendously influential the show has been. The characters are vibrant, the story is intriguing, and the animation is quite good. If you enjoy a head trip, it shouldn't be missed. I also strongly recommend the English dub. Not every English voice is top notch, but there are more quality English performances than Japanese. I particularly enjoy Gendou's English voice.
What in the hell is actually going on?
The real point of the show is to discuss how humans deal with loneliness. How we create barriers around ourselves, and how we are hurt, and hurt others as a result. At the core, it's about Shinji's loneliness and search for purpose. That's the only story element that gets truly resolved by the end. Unfortunately, we'd also like to know what the hell was going on around Shinji, and that isn't terribly clear.
A special state of spoiler emergency has been declared...
Ok. So millions of years ago, a race of superbeings sent giant eggs out into space. Half of the eggs contained a creature called Adam, and the other half contained a creature called Lillith. Creatures that evolve from Adam become giant beings called Angels, and creatures that evolve from Lillith become the kind of life we have on Earth. Plants, animals, human beings. In Biblical terms, Lillith represents the fruit of life, and Adam represents the fruit of Knowledge. Each egg also contains a spear, called the Lance of Longenus, which prevents the superbeings (Adam / Lilith) from being able to act. (We've already got some sexual imagery going on here - spears and eggs...). Adam's egg contained the dead sea scrolls, instructions that explain how to use Adam and Lilith to cause the boarders between souls to disappear and combine all consciousnesses together.
Shablams! An egg of Lilith and an egg of Adam slam into the Earth. Adam's egg lands at the south pole, and Lilith's egg lands on what will become Japan. The stuff of life, which in the show is called LCL, flows out onto Earth and life begins to evolve
In the late 1990's, human scientists discover the eggs, which they call "Geo-fronts" and the creatures inside them. They begin experimenting in secret. Two groups are involved, Sele and Gehirn. Sele is run by a committe chaired by a man named Keel, and Gehirn is run by Gendou Ikari and Dr. Katsuragi (Misato's father). While there, Sele scientists remove Adam's soul....somehow...and place it in Koaru, who is an infant. Meanwhile, Gendou has learned that if Adam and Lilith come into contact with one another, they explode. Dramatically. Because human beings come from Lilith, it only takes human contact with Adam to cause this. Gendou takes all the data prior to this and leaves, but warns no one. Kablamo!
Back in Japan, Gendou and his team begin constructing Evangelions which are clones of Adam. They have no souls and cannot function without a will. Gendou's wife Yui allows herself to be absorbed by Eva Unit 01. Gendou creates Rei, a clone of Yui, and inserts Lilith's soul into her....somehow. Meanwhile, at a base in Germany, the mother of Asuka is mostly absorbed by Unit 02, leaving part of her soul in the Eva, but her body, and some of her soul remain. She goes mad and ultimately hangs herself. Back in Japan, Ritsuko Akagi's mother copies her mind into the Magi computers, kills Rei in a jealous rage, and then kills herself. I'm still not certain as to whether it is her soul that winds up in Unit 00 or if it is enough of Adam to sense Lilith's soul inside Rei. Whichever the case, it hates her.
Angels, presumably from other planets where life evolved from Adam, sense Gendou's plans and begin attacking. They are drawn to Adam and Lilith, and are either seeking to stop Gendou or perhaps simply wish to unite with them just as Sele wishes. Rei, Shinji, and Asuka fight back.
As the show progresses, Kaji steals Adam, which was reduced to a small embryo, from Sele, and Gendou retrieves the Lance of Longenus from Antartica, and it is revealed that the "AT Field" is merely the boarder of a person's soul. While this is never mentioned in the series, It's worth noting that in the opening credits there's a quick flash of "Absolute Terror Field." This plays into the theme of how we put up barriers around ourselves in fear of being hurt by others.
Human Instrumentality & Third Impact
Gendou puts the Adam embryo inside Rei. Rei now has both the fruit of life and knowledge and becomes a god. This triggers Third Impact. Everyone's AT field vanishes and all humanity's souls flood together. Individuality vanishes. All organic life on earth melts back into LCL. However, Shinji and Asuka are inside their Evas, and shielded from this. Asuka is unconscious and on the brink of death, and it falls to Shinji to determine what will happen. He can either accept instrumentality, give up individuality and become one with all humanity, or he can choose to remain an individual, accepting that with it comes pain, but also hope, and the possibility of joy. Ultimately, Shinji chooses hope. Shinji and Asuka find themselves washed up on a shore of a primordial sea. At first, he sees Asuka and reacts as if she is the hateful persona he imagined her to be in his mind, and he begins to strangle her. She caresses his cheek, however, and he relents. They are now the only humans on a new Eden - an Adam and Eve.