Last week heralded a momentous event: the worldwide debut of Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time, the definitive conclusion to Hideaki Anno’s anime franchise, on Prime Video. Why is it momentous? Well, because the Evangelion series is widely celebrated for reinvigorating and redefining the Japanese animation industry, with its production values, narratives, religious allegories, and musings on humanity all being of exceptional quality. These attributes have resulted in Evangelion amassing a legion of fans across the globe, and hence, a great deal of anticipation for the feature-length finale.
For those who are unfamiliar with Evangelion, and wanting to see the new film without being mystified, yours truly has provided this handy recap of the entire series, from its televisual origins right up until the third instalment of the cinematic reboot. This article will contain spoilers, so those wanting their viewing experience of the other Evangelion media to be unsullied are best advised to look away now.
The TV Series
In the beginning, there was Neon Genesis Evangelion, a 26-episode series that debuted on October 4th, 1995 in its native Japan. Its story takes place in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world that is under attack from large, omnipotent monsters referred to as “Angels” throughout the series. Defending against these threats is a well-financed, transnational militant outfit known as NERV, which has developed giant mechanical weapons capable of defeating the Angels. There’s a catch though – the machines can only be operated by a teenage pilot who is linked to the interface.
The programme largely centres around Shinji Ikari, the pilot of EVA Unit-01, whose father Gendo is the director of NERV’s operations. Shinji fights the Angels alongside the “First Pilot”, Rei Ayanami, and the two are later joined by the feisty Asuka Langley Soryu, who pilots EVA Unit-02. When not defending the world against an Angel attack, Shinji lives in Tokyo-3 under the guardianship of Misato Katsuragi – who is also his superior at NERV – and attends school, there struggling to connect with his fellow students.
Neon Genesis Evangelion was created and overseen by Hideaki Anno, who drew inspiration from the mecha anime of his youth, as well as his own experiences with depression. The latter is what better informs the narrative, being an examination of loneliness, mortality, purpose, and the burden of expectation. Though fleeting in comparison to these philosophical discussions, the giant robot fights are quite exhilarating too, being among the best that the industry has ever produced.
There are some inherent weaknesses with the series, including the concealed motivations of the characters, slow pacing, and the sexualisation of the female characters; yet the harshest judgements are often reserved for the final two episodes, which some viewers deemed too vague and allegorical for their tastes. Nevertheless, the programme remains a standard-bearer for the medium and, alongside Pokémon and Cowboy Bebop, is broadly regarded for popularising anime in the West.
Death, Rebirth & The End
After the mixed reception to the final episodes of Neon Genesis, Anno set to work on a feature-length production that would serve as a comparatively straightforward conclusion. The narrative would eventually be released in two parts, the first of which, Evangelion: Death & Rebirth premiered in March 1997. Much of the film was little more than a clip-show summarising the key moments of the TV series, with the exciting, all-new material saved for the last half-hour – which itself was essentially an extended teaser for the second movie.
Said movie was ultimately released three months later as The End of Evangelion, a retelling of Episodes 25 and 26 of the show. This picture serves as a grand culmination of everything hinted at in the TV series, directly and explicitly revealing what happens to the characters through the most haunting, harrowing and enduring imagery ever witnessed. What’s more, in a continuation of the series’ tone, the film also offers complex, existential discussions about what it means to live meaningfully.
Quite ironically, Evangelion fans who loathed the series finale found themselves even more displeased by End of Evangelion, taking aim at the depressing plot and ambiguous epilogue. Some circles have gone further in their criticisms to suggest that the movie is Anno’s way of trolling his audience, pointing to not only the screenplay, but also the credits rolling mid-film, and an extended live-action sequence that includes a crane-shot of a bored crowd in a cinema.
Yet for every detractor, there is just as much fervent support for End of Evangelion – it’s often cited as one of the best anime films of all-time and one of the greatest animated films generally, thus cementing the franchise’s legacy. Its creator was lauded too as a visionary and innovator of the artform; but Anno, ever the perfectionist, was unsatisfied with his work and soon began development on another feature-length instalment.
You Can (Not) Rebuild
A decade after The End of Evangelion came the first in a series of films known as the Rebuild of Evangelion, ostensibly starting the franchise afresh and introducing it to a new generation. Titled Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, the picture is a virtual rehash of the TV series’ first six episodes, with only the slightest of changes to the music and plot. The visuals are the most noticeable difference, with large objects such as the EVA Units and Angels being computer-generated animations, while the hand-drawn characters, surroundings and backgrounds are all richer in colour.
Next came 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance, going in the opposite direction and deviating wildly from the source material by gifting fan-favourite Asuka with a new introduction, different surname and fresh character arc. The ending of the film is a wilder change still, retconning the series’ timeline by seeing Shinji inadvertently trigger a second apocalypse in a desperate attempt to save Rei’s life – a conclusion that is heart-wrenching on multiple levels. Less appealing is the character of Mari, a newly-introduced, hyper-sexualised EVA pilot whose sole function is Fan Service.
Following the highs of the second Rebuild film was the relatively sedate 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo, taking place 14 years after the prior movie’s events. Shinji awakes – having been placed in a coma since the “Third Impact” – to find himself in the custody of WILLE, a ragtag command of defectors from NERV and other freedom-fighters. It’s a slow and rather obscure narrative, one that will surely test the patience of even the most ardent Evangelion devotee; in all other respects though, the picture is satisfying, containing the same exquisite illustrations and music as its predecessors.
And now comes the fourth and final instalment of the Rebuild saga after quite a lengthy delay, arriving five months after its Japanese premiere and eight years after the previous movie’s theatrical run. The response in Evangelion’s homeland has been largely positive, with Thrice Upon a Time breaking box-office records – despite the pandemic’s ongoing presence in the country – and critics lavishing praise upon the film, but whether that success will be repeated internationally remains to be seen.
In any case, all of this will hopefully provide some context as to why a film about giant fighting robots is one of the most hotly-anticipated releases of 2021.
This article was originally published for Rating Frames on August 12th, 2021.