Neon Genesis Evangelion is coming to Netflix in the spring of 2019, making it available to watch in America without pirating it or shelling out hundreds of dollars for an out-of-print box set for the first time since its American license ran out in 2011. It’s a show that’s had a huge impact on me, and one I ultimately find more interesting than strictly enjoyable. Despite its depressive tone and meandering plot, it’s worth watching for anyone interested in anime as an art form.
Neon Genesis Evangelion was directed by Hideki Anno, who previously worked at Studio Ghibli before co-founding Gainax. It was broadcast on television from 1995 to 1996, then followed up with a few movies. Despite the studio struggling to finish the show and running out of money in the process, Eva is one of the most celebrated and influential animes of all time.
I was probably too young to see Evangelion when I watched it, which is why it’s permanently imprinted in my brain. I was 13 and coming to terms with the fact that there was an imbalance in my brain chemistry that made me numb to all emotions, as well as doing my best to ignore my suspicions that I wasn’t straight. Watching Eva when your mind is in that state is like sticking your brain in a blender. Anno himself struggled with depression during the production of Evangelion, and the show deliberately taps into the fraught headspace of people deep in the throes of mental illness.
The show centers around Shinji Ikari, whose absent father retrieves Shinji to make him a pilot of a giant mech called an Eva in order to fight the monstrous enemies called Angels that are attacking the futuristic city of Tokyo-3. At the time the show premiered, this was a pretty common setup for giant mecha shows. Someone’s dad is a scientist who made them a giant robot after abandoning them for years, and instead of traumatizing the child they’re overjoyed. Eva took a different approach. Shinji hated and resented his father; he doesn’t want to pilot an Eva or fight in a war, but he has to do it anyway. Things go poorly.
Over the course of the series Shinji and his fellow pilots are so changed by their experiences as child soldiers that they begin to lose their grips on reality. Asuka Langely Soryu, the fiery ace pilot, is so focused on success that she can’t make connections with other people and expresses her deep loneliness as anger. Rei Ayanami is a docile, submissive woman who literally has no identity of her own, a fact which slowly untangles her. As the show progresses, becoming more and more grim, the next episode previews continue to ironically promise more fanservice.
It’s not fun spending time with these characters. It’s not enjoyable to watch Shinji come close to a mental health breakthrough episode after episode, only to push away the people who care about him in the end. There’s a reason why “Shinji, get in the fucking robot,” has become a joke among fans. Eva is slow and plodding, and sometimes characters feel more like mouthpieces for Anno’s thoughts about society than actual characters. It’s still brilliant. Every time I watch it I feel like I’m being transported inside Anno’s brain.
Art doesn’t have to be fun to be impactful. I don’t love watching Citizen Kane, but Orson Welles’s skill as a director is still shocking after all these years. I’ll probably never read Watchmen again, but it’s a beautiful example of how to tell interconnected stories in a comic format, and it fundamentally changed comics in its wake. I’ve been in the middle of Infinite Jest for several years at this point, and although I read novel-length portions I love every once and a while, getting through it is a chore. But in their respective genres, these works made such an impact on their respective forms that I felt like I have to at least attempt to experience them so I can really understand their influence.
Don’t watch Neon Genesis Evangelion when it comes to Netflix expecting to have a good time. Watch it so you can understand how this particular show lives on through the shows that it influenced: the ripoffs that came in its wake like (arguably) RahXephon, Ganaix’s later metatextual offerings like Tenga Toppa Gurren Lagaan, shows that deconstruct their genre like Madoka Magika does, or even Hollywood movies like Pacific Rim. Watch it for its frankly beautiful animation, especially the brain-melting, Non-Euclidean designs of the enemy Angels and the expressiveness of the rough sketches and line drawings from near the end when the studio ran out of money. Watch it to see a hard but truthful expression of what it’s like to be struggling with depression.
At the very least, watch it so that whenever you see a pale-skinned, blue-haired, submissive female character in an anime, you know where that trope came from.