Neon Genesis Evangelion’s characters suffer a lot.

I learned about the series from one of my co-workers back in my LucasArts days. I’d seen some mecha anime, but nothing like Neon Genesis Evangelion. On the surface, it seemed to hit a lot of the trope checklist with a frustrated young pilot, Shinji Ikari, who’s essentially a chosen one saving the world. But from the moment it began and I heard Ikari screaming from the pilot’s seat, I realized I was in for a world of pain.

There’s a titanic struggle with these monstrous goliaths, referred to as Angels, seeking either a reunification with their father, Adam, or a resetting of all life with the second Angel, Lilith (honestly, every time I read online to figure out what’s going on, I get both more intrigued and more confused). The mystical, historical, and scientific blend into one another to create an utterly fascinating, but convoluted, mythos that draws on all the world’s religions. It’s mecha action with a spiritual message that incorporates metaphysics and ontological questions about existence while juggling the mental health of its characters.

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The pilots aren’t heroes in the traditional sense and these mechas are more like mechanized beasts. Part of it is because EVA-01, which Shinji pilots, has a soul within it that sometimes goes berserk and has a mind of its own. Both the EVA and the pilot go through hell just to get them to move and it’s excruciating watching their interactions. No episode would be complete without Shinji screaming in agony. The adults feel a little bad, grit their teeth, and let the kids keep on enduring their suffering since it’s humanity’s survival at stake here. In pursuit of that goal, everyone is willing to do whatever it takes. It’s a brutal truth, and one we, as viewers, accept with each passing episode, even as we cringe at the punishment the characters endure.

In many ways, the sixth episode, “Showdown in Tokyo-3,” epitomized what makes the series so mesmerizing.

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The opening of the episode begins with a recap of where the last one ended; the fifth angel, Ramiel, attacks Shinji’s EVA and perforates the EVA’s armor with its deadly beam that’s powered by an inner torus reactor. An octahedron in appearance, Ramiel is essentially two reflective pyramids stacked on top of each other at the base. It has one of the strongest Absolute Terror (A.T.) Fields among the angels, making it impervious to most attacks. It also has a massive phallic drill that it uses to bore down into the GeoFront in a type of inception that begins with Nerve HQ’s destruction. All of the defenses Nerve has built fail to deter Ramiel’s infiltration.

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I appreciate that the way the humans defeat the monster isn’t just, let’s leave it up to the super hero kid, Shinji, to save the day. There’s a tactical element to the battle that imbues it with realism and makes what’s essentially a big mecha/kaiju fight into something akin to actual warfare.

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Misato Katsuragi, who’s in command of tactical operations, begins a series of tests to determine what does and doesn’t work against the new angel. That includes deploying an inflatable dummy mimicking Shinji’s EVA 01, as well as shooting Ramiel with a Type-12 mortar from a train. This allows her to gather basic intelligence on the strength, and range, of Ramiel’s beam, as well as determining what type of defensive capabilities it has (an approach Daenerys from Game of Thrones badly needed)..

From there, Katsuragi realizes that close quarters combat would result in failure since Ramiel’s A.T. Field is too strong for penetration. She devises a plan to snipe the angel from a distance with an experimental positron rifle. Katsuragi has to take everything into consideration during its planning, including the power source (all of Japan), geographical scouting for the best position to snipe from, and even computer simulations by the Magi determining its success rate (they give it an 8.9%, which is better than any of the other plans they have). She also has to juggle politics as she convinces her superiors to let her try her plan, knowing that if she fails, that’s the end of NERV, and humanity.

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Just when things are becoming a bit too cerebral, the show gets back to the more personal level. Shinji is still recovering in bed from his previous encounter with Ramiel. He’s traumatized by the encounter and the last thing he wants to do is get back into the EVA. All that awaits in the EVA is pain. On top of that, Shinji’s dad, the commander of NERV, is a total asshole that abandoned him when he was young.

That’s when the other pilot, Rei Ayanami, appears by his hospital bed. She has a mysterious background and seems indifferent to human interaction for the most part. But she’s dedicated to her duty, standing in stark contrast to Shinji. She unquestioningly will take part in the operation and tells Shinji more or less that if he won’t take part in the mission, she’ll take his place. They are both awkward, though Shinji is shy in his awkwardness, whereas Rei is assertive in hers.

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They make for an unlikely pair. Rei is given the assignment of guarding Shinji while he takes the shot since he has a higher sync rate with his EVA and this mission needs almost perfect precision as the rifle has to be adjusted for deviations. When Shinji protests that he hasn’t even practiced this, his superiors tell him not to worry. He’s not convinced, but Ayanami tells Shinji she’ll protect him. Her cool confidence is meant to be heroic, but putting the fate of humanity on their shoulders seems cruel no matter how you spin it.

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Operation Yashima, named after a historical battle, commences. All of Japan gets drained of power. Shinji has two chances to take out Ramiel with the enormous rifle. No surprise, he misses the first because Ramiel fires a countershot. Was it all in vain? But when a second blast fires at Shinji and it looks like the mission will fail, Ayanami comes to the rescue with her shield made from the heat plating of a space shuttle. The shield begins to melt from the heat as does her EVA’s arms. It’s a grueling wait as the rifle has to recalibrate its target. When it finally does, Shinji takes the second shot, which thankfully, takes out the geometric fortress of death.

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The toll the combat takes on the pilots is viscerally painful. Everything about the show oozes with suffering. Saving the world isn’t easy, nor was it meant to be. Existence is costly and traumatic. There are the angelic forces that don’t care if humanity survives or not as they have their own agenda. But humanity mirrors their indifference by sacrificing a group of children in the hopes of fending off the Angels. The burden and the pressure is on these kids to do the impossible. Every time they pull off a victory, it eats away at their own souls to the point where the EVA and pilot are inverse reflections in a sort of Dorian Gray sheen.

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Shinji and Ayanami find a brief moment of solace in each other’s companionship at the end of the episode. That both completely misunderstand each other’s motives in the process is not as important as that they find a reason to keep fighting.

But at least we get a lyrical “Fly Me To The Moon” song in the end credits to soothe us.

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