When you meet acquaintances or family members you haven’t for a long while, it’s possible you’ll pick things up right from where you left off as if nothing had changed. But what if one of the parties involved “changed”, as far as they are concerned? They might get annoyed or even angry that the other side acts as if they know them, presumes to know them, when they merely know their past self?
What does all of that have to do with Neon Genesis Evangelion? Well, I’ve first watched NGE about 15 years ago, and my last rewatch had been either 8 or 12 years back. I happened to rewatch it during January, and it was quite unlike my experiences rewatching or rereading media in general, which usually subscribe to the first mode of meeting old acquaintances again – you get what you expect, you revisit all those fond memories, and if anything, those feelings are enhanced as you prepare yourself emotionally for these moments’ impact.
(This is a Things I Like post, it’s not a review, but more a discussion of the show and of ideas that have risen in my mind as I’ve watched it. There will be show-experience transforming spoilers.)
Neon Genesis Evangelion was more akin to the second way these reunions can play out, but in reverse. Imagine you meet an old acquaintance again after a long period of time, but during this time you haven’t met, you’ve had mutual acquaintances tell you many stories of how they’ve changed, of how they are now. And then you meet with them again, and they don’t match the updated mental image of them you hold in your mind, and it’s not because they’ve changed in a different form, but because they haven’t changed at all. That is the position I found myself in when I rewatched Neon Genesis Evangelion, when I was reunited with it.
I can’t overstate how important and influential Evangelion is in the modern anime community, how often it is references by other series, or by people who discuss anime. One of the results of that is that Evangelion not only spawned countless memes (“Get in the robot, Shinji!” as an example), but that Evangelion itself has become a meme, of sorts. Like a game of Chinese Whispers, the nature of the show itself somewhat transformed, even in my mind, when I’ve watched it numerous times. This isn’t too much of a surprise, as discussing a work with others can change how we view it. In Evangelion’s case, the case is muddied even further, as during the past decade, three Rebuild of Evangelion films have come out, and in them, the characters are closer to the way they’re viewed, rather than their original form.
For a concrete example, take a look at Asuka. Asuka is no longer simply Asuka Langley Soryu, a character within Neon Genesis Evangelion, but has ascended to being the archetypical “red-haired tsundere”. Asuka is somewhat of a brat, she lashes out at others because she feels insecure. That’s what we know, that’s what comes across immediately, and also what’s been carried on. The length and depth of Asuka’s loneliness, how much she hurts, and how much she fears to let anyone close, those are things we find as the series goes on, and are also “known”. But rewatching the show, I was struck by how much Asuka is a child. Beyond being merely “childish”, she runs around to get noticed by Kaiji and even Shinji, she pokes her tongue out at others, she hops around in her class, and bullies those who know she can be mean.
Asuka is very much a child, and for a character who’s fourteen, it makes sense, but part of the transcendental nature of the characters (amusing, that in a show that references psychoanalysis, the characters became Jungian archetypes in the anime subculture), that the characters as we discuss them don’t have an age, and if they do, it’s certainly not “junior high school students” in our minds. The characters are barely people as much as they are ideas and concepts. I find it extremely fascinating, as Evangelion is known for its deep and nuanced characters and characterization, it is known for being “psychological”, and yet, the discussion of the show, and the image that was left in my mind all those years later is much flatter than what those characters truly are depicted as.
In the same vein, the show feels different. I remembered Shinji coming out of the shower naked when he first encounters Pen-Pen, and Misato being described as a booze-hound and a slob, but the show had so many sequences that I’d write off as “tropey anime gags” that my mind simply erased, because a serious show such as Evangelion surely couldn’t have them, right? And more than that, the show has considerably more slice of life moments, slow moments, than I recalled. To cut down on the pacing? Probably to a degree, but the effect is actually similar to what I felt watching Aku no Hana, that we’re inhabiting Shinji’s body, that we feel trapped there as he is. You can’t rush it.
These sequences that my memory erased are also erased by the Rebuild films. There’s a difference between spending several hours with someone, or reading a single paragraph summary of it. As Evangelion is at its core a psychological story, the “lived-in experience” is paramount. To remove all the small touches, all the still shots of Shinji staring at the world, would just read as if we were watching Star Wars: Episode 3, that someone just randomly changes his mind after every statement they utter or is uttered to them.
My treatment of various characters had also been somewhat different, as we learn of just why Asuka is so traumatized much later in the series than I remembered, so my read on her motivation, on her intense loneliness, came from knowing how she was abandoned, and how she must prove her usefulness, small moments that read very differently, as if she’s just a normal fourteen year old otherwise. Likewise, that Akagi Ritsuko has been sleeping with Ikari Gendo? It seems like such a small thing (and we don’t find out about it nearly until the series ends), but it paints the whole show’s fascination with the concept of motherhood (also tied to its references to Freud), and of characters being there as replacements to others, in an even starker light.
There were also other small moments of surprise, such as Kaworu, a very important character, only appearing in a single episode in the show. His importance is such that in my mind’s eye, I was sure it was at least 3-4 episodes, but it’s not.
What did I think of the show as a whole? I’ll admit that it was a tad harder to watch the show, rather than watch myself watch the show, which is also something that happens more when I watch an adaptation of material I’ve consumed before than simply rewatch material I’ve watched before. It’s me questioning whether I like this material because I remember liking it, because it’s “good”, or because I’m “supposed to like it.” I mean, sometimes I rewatch something I used to like and realize it’s crap (see Braveheart), but it wasn’t the case here. I did wonder how tolerant I’d have been of this show, had I watched it now, as a currently airing show, with its ponderous pace, and all those “standard anime tropey gags” which make me sigh these days.
But when it comes down to it, I still liked Neon Genesis Evangelion quite a bit. I’ve heard it said the show “ages with you,” and like most classics, whenever you watch it, it has things to teach you, about yourself, and that your reaction to it (as with many seminal works) is more indicative of your place in life at the time of engaging with it than the material itself. Do you resent Shinji? Do you sympathize with him? I must say though, that on this front the show was somewhat of a failure for me. I could understand the characters, and they all came off as fully-realized people, let alone characters, but I didn’t feel myself in any of them, I didn’t feel myself in their struggles. But I could see my past self, my teenager self’s thoughts, my post-army self’s thoughts, in various characters and interactions.
Anything from episode 18 onward is still a wild ride (102 screenshots for episodes 1-17, 1,055 for 18-26, for comparison), and this time around I was much less confused by the backstory, and could focus much more on the psychological breakdown that reached critical mass. I also never noticed before, but Ogata Megumi as Shinji did such a good job every time Shinji screamed in the cockpit, that I can’t help but wince at how sore her throat must have been afterwards.
As always, I can’t reconcile the “Shinji is so weak!” with what actually happens in the show, and it feels as if it must originate from people who speak of the show without actually having watched it. Well, episode 24 gave me an interesting thought, that “Shinji is a pussy” actually comes from him admitting his love for Kaworu, and the attack on masculinity seen therein.
Before I conclude this piece that is somewhat about Neon Genesis Evangelion, somewhat on how you can come back to a property that lives in the shared community mind and find it “different” without actually changing (because how can it), and quite a bit on my own journey back to this show, that was one of the first anime shows I’ve watched, I’ll say a few words on End of Evangelion.
Unlike the main series, I think this is my first time rewatching End of Evangelion, and while Neon Genesis Evangelion is still a masterpiece in terms of storytelling, characterization, and directing, it’s much harder for me to wrap my head about what I think and feel of EoE. Is this a film that continues the messages found within the series, and sometimes goes too far in spelling out the themes in case people missed them before? Yes. Does it flesh out some characters’ motivations and feelings, which might have been suspected prior but are certainly helpful now, such as Gendo Ikari’s? Yes, certainly. Does it sometimes wallow in beautiful self-indulgence, giving us a marvelous yet superfluous sequence as Lilith-Rei consumes Earth’s souls as Komm süsser Tod plays? Definitely.
Was the film necessary? Was the film a precursor to Anno’s indulgent Rebuild of Evangelion 3.33? Is it deep and insightful, or base and pandering, complete with a twist ending? An artistic masterpiece, or an attempt to recapture the glory of one’s recent success? It’s all of of these things. It’s definitely an experience, which is more interesting to think of than reach any conclusions about, honestly. Komm, süsser Tod (Come, Sweet Death) is a perfect analogy to the film as a whole, both the song on its own, and the sequence it plays in (including that it plays just a bit too long, for comfort).
Neon Genesis Evangelion, a series to watch and rewatch, and it’s a different experience each and every time. It’s different because, apparently, not only are we different people each time we come to the series, but so are the characters. Imagine that.
My question to the readers: What is your experience with Neon Genesis Evangelion (both within and without the show)? If you’ve read this post and haven’t watched the show, I’m still interested in your answer.