Neon Genesis Evangelion. NGE. A titan in the world of anime, considered by many to be one of the great classics. It was not entirely original for its time, but the way it handled its subject material was dark, gritty, and was something that hadn’t been seen much if ever during the time period. The original TV series was first broadcast in October of 1995, and ended after 26 episodes in May of 1996.
The story follows Shinji Ikari, and a convoluted plot line that boils down to “robots fight giant monsters.” Of course, the plot is much thicker than that. It’s a masterful coming of age story that challenges the typical tropes and archetypes of the shonen mech genre. In many shows about “giant robot defeats evil,” the main characters are badass, mech-controlling dudes that save the day. In NGE, however, the main characters are downright annoying. Shinji Ikari is a flat out unlikeable character. He’s easy to relate to, but in all the ways that cause us to reflect on our own shortcomings. He is cowardly and reacts to situations in the way a real human would react.
This is where NGE’s true beauty shines through. The realism of the characters is something I haven’t seen matched in any anime since. They’re all just kids, and they act like kids. Too many shows fall into the trap of writing their child characters like adults. A kid, when asked to do something he doesn’t want to do, is going to resist and say no. Simple concepts like that are masterfully presented in NGE.
The realism of the characters then lends itself to the horrific side of the story. When you see Shinji being forced by adults to put himself into situations where he could absolutely lose his life, it feels extremely weighty. I’ll admit that most shonen anime fail to give the concept of death an appropriate amount of weight. Even in Naruto – only one major character dies, and it’s at the very end of the series. We never feel like the characters are in any true danger because they’re the good guys! The good guys can’t lose and they can’t die. We always know that no matter how bad a good guy gets beat, he’ll wake up in the hospital in the next chapter.
In this show, though, the stakes seem to be higher. The relatability we have to the main character drives this. He’s just a boy – he doesn’t have any special powers and he can’t do anything extraordinary. He’s simply human. This keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire show. When I watched it, I constantly found myself thinking “okay, this is it. This is the episode where Shinji dies.”
Spoilers past this part.
For the sake of brevity, I won’t be talking about the confusing plot line. The show on its own is expertly crafted, and although the plot can be difficult to follow at times, I don’t believe this detracts from the overall experience of the show. The characters and their motives are still interesting regardless of whether or not you can understand what’s actually going on. The ending of NGE is a hotly debated topic in the world of anime. Even if you’ve never watched the show, you’ve probably heard mumblings about “the end of Evangelion.” There are two distinct endings to the show, and a bit of a confusing timeline. There’s the ending presented in the original TV series. Then, after the TV series ended, a movie was released titled “The End of Evangelion.” If you want a concise summary of the endings, I highly recommend watching this video by IGN.
The ending of the original series is abstract and uses varying art styles to illustrate Shinji’s dive into his own subconscious. It doesn’t implicitly state much, and leaves a lot to be figured out. A lot of people dislike the original ending for that reason. In this ending, Shinji figures out why he’s been suffering, and manages to push through his own mental blocks to do what he needs to do. I’ll admit that it doesn’t seem entirely on-par with the tone of the series, and I do prefer the darker ending of the movie.
In End of Evangelion, the ending is flipped. Shinji does not move past his own mental blocks and rejects the idea of growth. A lot of fans felt confused by the completely opposing endings, and some even felt betrayed by the writers. This has led to the reviews for NGE to be pretty mixed. Almost everyone agrees that the content, art, sound design, and writing for NGE is a masterpiece, and the concepts presented are unique. However, most reviews come down to an opinion on the ending(s).
This show ranks among my top three favorite shows of all time. I honestly describe it as a true masterpiece, and I consider it to be a classic in the world of anime. I recommend that everyone who calls themselves a fan of anime watches this show. It sticks with me to this day even though I watched it many years ago. Regardless of which ending you prefer, you have to watch it. Go watch it. Now.