Rewatching Neon Genesis Evangelion: An Adaptation of One’s Memories

Neon Genesis Evangelion animeWhen 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.

Neon Genesis Evangelion episode 12 - Tropey Asuka

Not the Asuka of my memories.

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.

Neon Genesis Evangelion episode 19 - Replaceable Ayanami Rei

An example of a piece of the puzzle that completely changes how you take in the early episodes. Newcomers to the show often know of it prematurely.

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.

Neon Genesis Evangelion episode 26 - The Mindscape

Now that’s what we remember. Which version of this show have /you/ watched?

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.

13 comments on “Rewatching Neon Genesis Evangelion: An Adaptation of One’s Memories

  1. Grozzle says:

    Only an Eva post would have such a high incidence of “I, me, & my”.

    Very thoughtful and thought-provoking post, gj. I’ve rewatched NGE a couple more times than you, and EoE a couple more times than that, and it’s always different. I do feel I get something new out of it as I learn and grow.

    (For the record, my most rewatched film is Terminator 2, which is always the same : magnificent. And most watched TV show (fewer than T2) is probably Babylon 5, each time shedding new interesting light on Londo.)

    • Guy says:

      Yo Grozzle, good seeing you here :)

      Only an Eva post would have such a high incidence of “I, me, & my”. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

      I’ve decided sometime last year to try and have a few more “personal” posts in the blog, which describe my “journey” with something, focusing on the experience, rather than on a piece of media or a more abstract idea. I’m always more worried about these posts, and their structure, so I’m glad you liked it :)

      I’ve rewatched NGE several times, I just mentioned when the last time was, it’s possible I rewatched it both 12 and 8 years ago, and another time besides, heh. It truly holds up, doesn’t it? And yeah, it’s more than that it “holds up”, you get something different from it. That’s another reason I never feel reluctance about suggesting the show to newcomers to anime – you can’t rewatch NGE without watching it, so may as well watch it early, for the first time.

      Still need to watch S2 and beyond of B5. I know it gets better when they ditch Sinclair (worst actor being the lead is so bad) for Sheridan, but S1 was just so boring and threadbare after marathoning the entirety of Buffy prior that I couldn’t move myself to keep watching. I haven’t watched Terminator 2 in probably 15-20 years. My most watched film is probably The Matrix, or Princess Mononoke. Aside from kids I kept watching as a child or which aired yearly on TV, y’know.

  2. Aeternix says:

    My experience with Evagelion is one I will never forget. I watched it early on after I started getting into anime (Bebop got the addiction started, of course). After hearing all the praises for this show, I went in not knowing what I should expect. As a result, I have probably the most love-hate relationship with this show.

    For every good, analytic moment of philosophy or symbolism (which you mention brilliantly), there’s a moment of cliched, unfocused design or storytelling. Need I bring up the most tedious, pointless episode in the entire series whereby the main characters defeat the big bad angels via Dance Dance Revolution? (Dont get me started on the fanservice they shoved in the show for no apparent reason sometimes – episode 10 is one I refuse to think even existed). This doesn’t help that the show feels like two layouts for the series smashed together. All the episodes before episode 16 seem like a generic monster of the week show with a loose philosophical plot involving human relations. Then something happens in episode 16 that changes everything and the show becomes connected. Each episode all of a sudden leads into the next and the show starts revealing its true colours. Unfortunately, all this interesting stuff happens in the last half of the series and you have to trudge through the average beginning to get even close to the best stuff this series has to offer.

    I have heard it said that this beginning part is important in establishing a lighter tone to allow the characters to be presented to the audience, but I think that’s just an excuse. The show feels unfocused for the majority of its run and when it starts to tighten the plotting it’s too late to really articulate any of its rather brilliant ideas.

    Really, for everything I like in the original show, there’s something I hate. This doesn’t help the fact that the Rebuild movies (though tighter and much more focused) seem to loose all the deeper meaning that the latter half had. It’s infuriating to follow this series as I feel like the series is slowly drifting away from the stuff that made it special and turning towards the first half that maybe got people watching, but didn’t make the show such a talked about piece of fiction.

    To be honest, End of Evangelion to me is the perfection of the series. It completely understands what it wants to do and does it with a tight script, beautiful visuals, tension, and wonderfully directed sequences. It does get a bit pretentious and likes to indulge in its own splendor, but at the same time I appreciate how committed the movie is to wrapping everything up and making sense of the loose sketch the last two episodes of NGE had.

    When talking a look at the original series, it really feels only ‘above average’, which pains me to say it because I love this show so much. Every time I get upset with the way the show is going, I think about a single scene from End of Evangelion, or even the famous train waiting scene in episode 4 and realize how brilliant this show is when it’s in its groove.

    I’d definitely be interesting in rewatching the series again to see if I still feel the same.

    • Guy says:

      As a result, I have probably the most love-hate relationship with this show.

      This sentence is both entertaining and illuminating, seeing how many people say it. It speaks to how personal the experience feels, and yet, the truth is, there are others by your side who feel the same.

      I disagree the lighter tone is needed, and I disagree it does what you say, though it also does that. The first half is needed because in this very, well, psychological story, meaning one that is focused mostly on the relationships between characters and what makes characters work, you have to actually understand the characters.

      The early part serves a two-fold purpose, it both allows you to understand the characters, and it makes their transition later on both understandable and impactful. Imagine you cut all of that stuff out, by watching the first Rebuild film, and then immediately skipping to what comes later in the series proper, you can still understand anything the characters go through, but you don’t feel it, you don’t feel the characters, and for this story, it makes it almost meaningless.

      The “plotting” goes on hyperdrive later on, but that’s not the strong point of the series, is it? It’s the characters’ journey going on hyperdrive that matters, and it only works because of all the scenes where Shinji sat alone on a train, all the times he stared at those unfamiliar ceilings, is it not?

      As for episode 7, it was very “Shounen moral”, it was an episode designed to show how Shinji and Asuka learned to cooperate. Was it silly? Yes, but it actually had more of a purpose than the magma-diving “tense episode”. Also, that combined attack in the end with the music playing, it was simply magnificent :P

      I’d definitely be interesting in rewatching the series again to see if I still feel the same.

      I’m not going to claim I know what sort of experience you’ll have as a result, but it’d undoubtedly be one.

      • Aeternix says:

        “It’s the characters’ journey going on hyperdrive that matters, and it only works because of all the scenes where Shinji sat alone on a train, all the times he stared at those unfamiliar ceilings, is it not?”

        It’s funny. I actually like this moments a lot and if I think they weren’t bombarded by the over-the-top more “shounen average mecha” stuff they threw in, I think the show would be stronger. And while the lighter tone is nice, I felt it was poorly integrated. I don’t know how and why specifically, only that it just felt off when I first saw it. There were moments where I was kinda bored by the more “Yeah Shingi! Fight this random angel of the week!” in comparison to the more physiological stuff that was peaking under the surface layer stuff that was going on.

        Maybe its because I unfairly compare this show to Rahxephon and think Rahxephon is far superior – the plotting, tone, characters, and setting feel much more clearer and the message the show wants to give is much more optimistic and compassionate than the “humans can and never will understand each other” message Evangelion gave off (at least at the end of the final movie). Maybe that’s what I hate most: the lack of clarity. Evangelion is a beautiful, passionate project yet EXTREMELY rough around the edges. Perhaps that’s why the Rebuilds piss me off. They lose the passion in exchange for polish.

        As you can see, the conflict within me is quite strong :P

        And yeah, I agree, maybe I will have a better experience a second time.

        • Guy says:

          Maybe its because I unfairly compare this show to Rahxephon and think Rahxephon is far superior

          I just can’t agree, certainly not about the “plot and setting”, and probably not even on characters. RahXephon is the single show that tried the hardest of them all to be NGE. No show is as much of an NGE clone as RahXephon. I guess if you watch RahXephon first, that it imprints itself on yours and what comes later suffers (just like watching an adaptation, or switching between sub and dub). RahXephon has a couple of great characters, but it drinks far too deep into its “mystery for mystery’s sake” and even “character who speaks nonsense for sake of it” than NGE does. It actually makes it background backstabbing sub-plot matter, which I think is to the detriment of the show. Though episode 17 is magical.

          It’s one of my older pieces, and essentially a “review”, but here is my piece on RahXephon.

          Rebuilds lose a lot, and I wouldn’t say it’s “passion” as much as it’s “depth, and actual characters.”

  3. anon says:

    I saw Evangelion as a teenager for the first time, so obviously I identified with the teenaged main cast. Coming back to it 10-15 years later, I was shocked at how fleshed out the adult side characters were too.

    • Guy says:

      I think noticing the adult cast are actually characters is mostly surprising after you see how much adults don’t exist, or are one-note caricatures in most anime these days, which is very unfortunate.

      Also, we tend to remember the side characters less, especially for nuances, I guess.

  4. King Marth says:

    I watched Neon Genesis Evangelion and End of Evangelion for the first time recently (watching End of Evangelion before finishing the last two regular episodes). However, prior to that I had seen all three Rebuild movies and, more importantly, played in one Evangelion tabletop roleplaying game (Adeptus Evangelion) with a very canon-styled plot and ran another game with the obscure not-really-Christian references replaced with obscure not-really-Shinto references. With all this, finally seeing the original source material made many things make more sense. It was fun to see how my actions as the Rei/Kaworu character in a similar situation compared to the actual source.

    Most surprising departure from my mental image: Relatively few Angels explode. They even capture Shamshel’s body.

    It was nice to see more from the adults, as the interactions between Misato, Ritsuko, and Toji largely escaped both the rebuild and popular culture. I also enjoyed seeing some more monsters-of-the-week both earlier on and later, which may reflect my shallow tastes, but it does also give you time to better know these characters as mentioned.

    It may take another rewatch to get a clearer picture of it, but there was a little bit of something neat: People making terrible decisions based on a coherent but broken set of values. I find Rebuild 3.0 to be a perfect example of this (which makes watching it far more bearable), and Ritsuko takes that role here in the original series. I hate plots where the problems can only possibly arise when everyone involved is willfully sabotaging their best interests… but if that’s recognized and explained by how they are desperate for one goal and ignore consequences, it’s a bit better.

    • Guy says:

      Isn’t it always the case that the worst decisions we make are exactly those we know are sabotaging our own best interests and yet can’t help it? To a degree, this, with or without the knowledge, but where we observe our own internal code and it leads to ruin is the core of Greek Tragedies. Isn’t NGE to quite a degree, including opposing the Natural Order, going against God, and the whole filial struture, a Greek Tragedy? :D

      And yes, the rebuild are like reading cliff-notes. I can’t help but really shake my head at people who think you can watch Rebuild instead of watching NGE. Even for the early “slice of life” episodes, which are covered by the most loyal movie, 1.0, you just lose too much character, too much pacing, which matters…

      The concept of roleplaying in an existing world, and dealing with a situation similar to the original is always similar, due to the narrative determinism that is inescapable, but obviously, there, more than anywhere else, the concept of “mind-translation” exists. This is much more of a purified translated form than the mass mind about the show. I wonder if you ever had, “Damn, they’re doing it all wrong!” moments, heh.

  5. Kamille says:

    even as an adult this series still fcks with my head. When shinji masturbates in front of an unconscious asuka, when misato has sex with kaji in the back of a bar, the ending of the movie… All the characters in this series are sick in the head.

    They really dumbed it down and censored a lot on the re-telling of the movie compilation. They did not have the guts to make something equally controversial.

    • Guy says:

      “Controversial” is not meaningful in and of itself. Having those moments is not meaningful in and of itself, it’s merely a vehicle to make a statement on the nature of people, on the nature of the cast.

      Also, to say the characters are “sick in the head” is very similar to me to “Shinji is a pussy”. It not only lacks empathy, but misses the point – we’re all “sick in the head”, which the show is making, or rather, we’re all fighting against ourselves, against our loneliness. Notice all those moments you pointed out are characters trying to make a connection.

  6. […] blogger and friend, Guy, mentions in his post about rewatching Neon Genesis Evangelion that at times he finds that he is “watching himself watch a show”, but my personal […]

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