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The History of Evangelion

Andrew Osmond on the prelude to the First Impact

God Warrior

The 23-year-old animator Hideaki Anno watched intently as the giant monster – his monster! – made its grand appearance. First a huge red hand, the liquid flesh melting from the fingers, clutched the brow of the hill. Then the horrible head rose up, a great pointy slanting cranium, huge green eyes, white tusks hanging round a circular maw…

Anno watched the scene run its course. The monster sends explosive beams of light against the horizon, even as the flesh melts off its bones. The crimson detonations are massive even for anime. But the tour de force is the monster’s magnificent collapse. Its head slides from its shoulders, its flesh pours in rivulets, and its skull splashes down into the ghastly bath.

The artist saw all this… and he wanted to die. It just wasn’t good enough, Anno explained years later, when he was one of anime’s most famous names. The monster collapsed too fast; Anno knew he should have put more in more animation frames, but his director had told him to limit the number. That director was Hayao Miyazaki, and the film was 1984’s Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. Anno animated the “God Warrior” at the climax, the finest drawing in the picture.

Neon Genesis Evangelion Logo

Nearly 30 years on, we’re still watching Anno’s anime monsters, and wondering about his obsessions. Anno is far from the only artist who’s staggered under the epic visions in his mind, and his own self-doubts and fears. But there’s no-one else in anime who’s struggled so publicly as Anno, merging his life with his most famous work: Evangelion (see here for its entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction).

Evangelion started as Neon Genesis Evangelion, a 26-part TV serial in 1995. It used a familiar Japanese plot template: the teenage boy who drives a giant robot (or in Eva’s case, cyborg), using the huge and frightening body to fight monsters and save Earth. The lyrics of the TV song express the myth. “Like an angel without a sense of mercy / Rise young boy to the heavens as a legend!”

Evangelion’s world is recovering from a cataclysm when it’s attacked by a succession of titans called Angels. An enigmatic scientist recruits his fourteen year-old son, Shinji, to pilot a saurian-looking colossus, the Eva or Evangelion. So far, so familiar, at least to Japanese viewers. But Anno set out to do for the robot show what Alan Moore did for superheroes in Watchmen.

The “hero,” Shinji, is a hive of hang-ups, complexes and relationship phobias. In the first TV episode, when he’s charged with being a defender of the Earth, he doesn’t jump for joy. Rather he shrieks that he can’t and it’s not fair. He’s crushed by his own shortcomings; we see him interrogated in his head by figures on a train, or slipping into catatonic self-loathing.

Evangelion

Anno’s love-hate (sado-masochist?) relationship with Shinji culminated in a therapy session. After twenty-four TV episodes that seemed to leave viewers on the brink of a resolution, parts 25 and 26 were… weird. Anno served up a conceptual performance pieces on anime equivalents of bare stages. There were slideshow images, flipbook doodles and gnomic therapy-speak to boost Shinji’s psyche.

Spike Spencer, Shinji’s voice-actor in all the American Eva dubs to date, was so dismayed that he ranted at length on the end credits.  “Was this all in my mind?” he demanded, in character as Shinji. “What’s an Eva? Was that sort of a Freudian thing? Am I real? Does the bus run through here? Is that how you end a series?” Ad infinitum.

Anno had a breakdown after the show ended, caused by the strains of bringing it to the screen. For six months, he wandered aimlessly, as Shinji does in Evangelion. As if to stress his masochism, Anno wore sandals when there was snow on the ground. Anno was a self-confessed otaku, an obsessive fanboy, and Evangelion is often read as a psycho-portrait of a geek obsessed with cartoons and robot kits, alienated from adulthood and reality. On this view, the TV ending is a Shatner-esque snarl: “I won’t end the story, get a life!”

Neon Genesis Evangelion

But Anno returned to his studio, and made the cinema film, The End of Evangelion. It contained alternative parts 25 and 26, which were action-packed and spectacular, and seemed made to shock and shock and shock. Perversely brilliant, the film feels less like a sequel than a lurid fanfic, using sex and violence forbidden in the source. (Ironically, the TV version got into trouble with the Japanese network for a discrete, tender love scene between consenting adults.) After Shinji vents his rage and repression in an apocalypse to end apocalypses, the last moments ask if we’ve gone anywhere at all.

If you’ve not seen any of these Evangelions, don’t worry. The movies are aimed as much at first-timers as true believers. But you need to have seen the old Evangelions to appreciate how different the first two new films are from each other, though the second follows directly from the first.

Evangelion 1.11 – You Are (Not) Alone was the equivalent of the special editions of the Star Wars films. It condensed the first six TV episodes, sprucing up the TV animation with CGI, redrawn scenes and a few brand-new moments that contradicted the story fans knew. In itself, it’s an excellent film, with a strong, satisfying arc. The animation is splendidly made over for the CGI age, with a crystal Angel monster that screams as it morphs into abstract geometric shapes to slice through cities.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Yet many fans were disappointed, because they’d wanted something brand new. It wasn’t the first time Anno’d spruced Evangelion up; there’d been tinkered DVD editions over the years, and the film seemed more of the same. Evangelion 1.11 was made by Studio Khara, Anno’s independent studio, though it was supported by Gainax, which made the TV version. In 2007, a Gainax rep told me that the next three films would be increasingly different from the TV show, and the final end would be unrecognisable.

That promise is stupendously borne out by Evangelion 2.22 – You Can (Not) Advance. The animation is all new, topping anything we’ve seen before. The Eva giants race around cities like athletic Godzillas, using speed-ramps the size of skyscrapers, or they hurtle through the blue sky like outsized secret agents, smoothly animated in lavish detail for the cinema. According to Gainax, Anno revelled in the films’ higher budgets and expansive schedules. Those schedules have been extensively revised. The third and fourth Evangelion films were originally meant to have been released in Japan in a double bill, back in 2009!

For anime addicts, there are innumerable details to savour. For example, a sky-flying battle in the second film sees an Eva weave through a web of hero-seeking missiles. Today such spectacle is a trope of many SF anime, such as Eureka 7, but it was pioneered three decades ago by an animator called Ichiro Itano, who happened to be Anno’s mentor. Fans call the effect an “Itano circus.”

At the other extreme, Evangelion 2.22 reprises a notorious scene from the TV show in which two female characters stand tensely in a lift. In the TV version the “scene” was one frame that seemed to be held forever. The film has (mercifully!) more motion, and crucially changes the action so that a previously passive character stands up for herself.

Indeed, for fans of the “old” Evangelion, the second film seems to be all about changing behaviour. Shinji and other characters act in more mature, constructive ways than they ever did before. Gainax points out that Anno changed in a rather crucial way since the first Evangelion; he’s married now, to the manga artist Moyoco Anno. If Evangelion is about Anno’s struggle with himself, then the film suggests he might have made peace with his “otaku” self, with the Anno who obsessed over the perfect giant in Nausicaa.

mari.jpg

He might also have made peace with his audience. Back in End of Evangelion, Anno inserted glimpses of the hate-mail he got from fanboys. In Evangelion 2.22 he plays noisily to those fans, with slash-fiction gags, copious cheesecake and a brand-new character, the girl super-pilot, Mari Illustrious Makinami. Yes, she’s a pin-up babe (reportedly made to look “British,” with bookish glasses) and a merchandise opportunity. But she also seems a knowing “Mary Sue” surrogate; that is, a character inserted into a fictional world by a frustrated fan writer to improve the story.

But there’s a sting. We won’t give the film’s plot away, but halfway through, the new, upbeat story seems to be attacked by the old, downbeat one. Events start to return to their fatalistic patterns, and the new story elements must fight for dominance. The trend continues in the third film, Evangelion 3.33 – You Can (Not) Redo, which will be released by Manga at a future date. It’s set in a hugely altered world where everything has gone dark and doomy once more. Much of the film pushes the idea that this could be a paranoid nightmare, as everything Shinji thought he’d won is snatched away, and former friends turn stone cold and threaten to blow his head off. But who’s that handsome boy, playing a piano in the middle of nowhere?

Is Anno still at war with himself after all? What will the fourth and last film, which might open in Japan this year, reveal? Last October, Anno dropped some clues at the Tokyo International Film Festival; read our exclusive interview here and report here. All we (don’t) know is this: it won’t be a simple, easy answer…

The first two Evangelion movies are available now in the UK from Manga Entertainment.

Evangelion 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance Trailer

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