It should go without saying: massive spoilers for Evangelion are ahead. Read at your own risk.
Last Friday, the classic anime Neon Genesis Evangelion launched on Netflix with a new English translation, marking the first time in years Studio Gainax’s 26 episode series, and their original movie counterparts, have been easily available in North America. While I don’t have a Netflix account (but have the whole series on DVD), I couldn’t be happier that it’s available for a new generation of fans to dissect. My excitement has had me ranting on Twitter about how much I love the show, but I think it’s time to dive deeper. Evangelion is something that’s touched me on so many levels, it’s changed my life in fundamental ways. It’s taught me just as much about the ways a story can be told as it has lessons about the greater world. There’s so much I could talk about it’s hard to know where to begin but, for now, I want to talk about my favorite part of the show and why it means so much to me.
If you’ve read the title, you’ll see that I’m referring to the last three episodes – and that’s bound to be controversial to a lot of people. But before we get into what the ending of the show is like, let’s set up the premise:
Humanity is on the brink of extinction, thanks to intergalactic beings called Angels. In order to battle these giant monsters, a shadowy organization, NERV, has built a series of giant robots called Evangelions (or Evas). For certain reasons, the only people who can pilot these Evas are fourteen years old. The show follows the stories of the main pilots – Shinji Ikari, Rei Ayanami, and Asuka Langley Soryu – as well as the stories of the people surrounding them, like Shinji and Asuka’s guardian, Misato, and Shinji’s absent father, Gendo, the leader of the organization.
Seen primarily through Shinji’s eyes, the first half of the show comes off as fairly typical. Shinji doesn’t want to pilot the Eva, and runs from scary situations. Asuka is the ace pilot. Rei simply follows orders. There’s deep psychological and philosophical issues going on underneath, but it could be any well made anime. Only around the halfway point do things change. The show starts leaning more into psychological horror. There are still big action scenes, but they matter less and less. Instead, we’re shown the trauma, guilt, fear, and other emotions the characters struggle to keep under wraps. Shinji in particular is given to self-introspection, analyzing every move he makes and his feelings towards others. Inescapable questions are represented on screen by giant squiggly lines that bolt like lightning. The ambiguity of his relationships with other people haunt him. Even happy places, like train cars, are no longer safe. We watch his depression worsen, knowing little can be done to help.
It’s been well documented that Evangelion was the product of series creator Hideaki Anno’s struggle with depression. It’s spelled out in Anno’s biography on the website of his current production company, Studio Khara. After leaving his previous show, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, and struggling for years to get another project off the ground, Anno was approached by a friend, Toshimichi Ootsuki, who essentially gave him an opportunity to make whatever he wanted. After some delays (and the launch of the manga in December 1994), Evangelion premiered on Japanese television in October 1995.
As Anno worked on the series, he began learning more about his depression and put what he learned back into the show to characterize not only Shinji, but the rest of the cast as well. After a mental breakdown following the end of the show in March 1996, it was several months before Anno was able to pull himself together and work on what would become The End of Evangelion for a theatrical release in 1997. During that period, as his biography states, he visited several Japanese islands and “[walked] around in sandals in a season when snow was still on the ground. This was a time for Anno when the days slipped by with no purpose and no meaning.”
This leads me back to the last three episodes of the show. Episode 24 (“The Final Messenger”/”The Beginning and the End or ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’”) begins after a series of events have left Tokyo-3, the city Shinji’s come to love and protect, in ruins. Several friends are dead. No one has time for him anymore unless it’s for work. As Shinji stands on the beach and stares out over the destruction, he remarks that there’s no one left he can call a friend. That’s when, as if summoning a genie from a bottle, someone new comes into his life: a boy named Kaworu Nagisa.
Kaworu comes off as awkward and abrasive, but since he’s the latest Eva pilot, he and Shinji have all the reason in the world to become fast friends. They start spending all their time together, going to public baths and talking about subjects like life and pain. When Kaworu grabs Shinji’s hand, Shinji stammers and makes excuses that he has to go to bed. But then Kaworu follows up by telling him the one thing no one else in the series has told him: the simple words “I love you.” Of course, they end up spending the night together.
(I am aware that the new Netflix translation muddies the waters a bit, changing a number of lines in this episode, like Kaworu’s “love” to “like.” I would hope that the spirit of these scenes is still kept intact, but fan reaction has been mixed so far. Since I haven’t seen it myself, all I can rely on is the old English translation for now.)
Whether or not the bond between Shinji and Kaworu is romantic (I choose to think it is), it changes when Kaworu is revealed to be the last Angel. When he makes his move to fulfill his goal and bring about the apocalypse, it’s up to a hurt and confused Shinji to stop him. In the middle of their fight, Kaworu admits to having a change of heart. His time with Shinji has made him realize that humanity is worth saving and in order to do that, Shinji needs to kill him. After some intense deliberation, Shinji complies. He then confides his feelings to Misato (in the original English dub: “I liked him, too.”) and the episode ends with him sitting on the beach, heartbroken.
After everything else that’s happened to him, what finally breaks Shinji is having to kill the only person to show him love. Episode 25 (“A World That’s Ending”/”Do you love me?”) and 26 (“The Beast That Shouted “I” at the Heart of the World”/”Take Care of Yourself”) chronicle his breakdown, as well as those of the other characters, as the plot hurdles towards a climax. Starting with the simple “why did you kill him?” Shinji’s torment begins with him in a folding chair, answering questions that appear on screen as if asked by an omnipotent force. As he interrogates himself, his self-doubt and guilt continue to manifest. He’s led down a rabbit hole of increasingly desperate and nihilistic thoughts until he decides it’s ultimately better to live in a world without pain.
Suddenly, all of the main characters gang up on Shinji and demonize him, confirming his worst fears about the people in his life. Whether this is all a projection of his mind, or if all consciousness has melded together is unclear, but over time he starts trying to work through his issues to reach a breakthrough. Using different art forms, he’s taught about self-identity and what being “Shinji Ikari” means to him and those around him. He’s shown another reality where everyone is well adjusted and “normal,” where their biggest concerns are being horny teenagers, getting to school on time, and having fun with the new substitute teacher. It could be a scene out of any slice of life anime, but it’s used here to illustrate what could be if things were different – if he were different.
As Shinji begins to understand this, everything else he’s learned clicks into place, too. He realizes that things don’t have to be so bad if he works to change them and life is worth living after all. The world around him shatters, and suddenly he’s standing on the Earth as the major characters circle around, clapping and congratulating him on his breakthrough. Cut to credits, end show.
As an ending, it’s very avant-garde, very “out there” to say the least. It’s difficult to describe and I’m sure way more confusing to someone who hasn’t seen it for themselves. For as much as I try and explain it, I’m not sure I understand it all, either. Dan Schindel at Hyperallergic has another synopsis you can read if you want more explanation, but like I said, Evangelion is supposed to be interpretive. You may reach a different conclusion than I did, and that’s okay. Neither of us are going to be wrong.
Regardless, these last two episodes remain controversial to this day because they refuse to explain themselves or much of anything else. The plot is thrown out the window. Structure is meaningless. The Evas themselves are pretty much absent. Though I think they work perfectly with the way Episode 24 leaves Shinji emotionally, “emo” fourteen year olds are a certain breed of annoying for some people and navel-gazing with them won’t help that. Keeping in mind that this show is also the story of Anno trying to work through his depression may help, but not everyone can relate to that feeling.
When the last episodes aired, reaction in Japan was so bad that death threats were sent to Anno and the team at Gainax. As an article by Aaron Stewart-Ahn at Polygon lays out, Anno was not apologetic about this ending. When word came that a new movie was being developed to take its place, tickets sold out long in advance. However, instead of existing as a way to make nice with fans, The End of Evangelion became a cry against fandom. Characters die gory deaths, Shinji plummets to rock bottom, and footage of the death threats are shown in the film. There are more giant robot fights too, but they’re wrapped in such heavy emotional context, it’s hard to know what to feel about them.
To say Anno channeled everything of himself in the series is, to me, an understatement. To work under emotional stress on a show that changed during production, like Evangelion, and have it turn out this way is astounding. Even The End of Evangelion has been widely accepted by fans as an experimental masterpiece and has been featured on several “best of” lists, including Time Out’s “100 Best Animated Movies”.
Some people accept the movie as the definitive ending of the series, but I’m not so sure about that. In my opinion, The End of Evangelion and the last two episodes make up two halves of the same whole. One is a somewhat literal interpretation of what happens during the climax of the show, while the other is a journey through the emotional interiors of Shinji and several others. In most stories, audiences wouldn’t be able to see these emotional arcs play out because the plot is usually held with primary importance, but because that’s not done here, we end up learning much more about Anno’s mental state and capabilities as an artist, just as much as we learn how the characters feel.
The End of Evangelion needs the last two episodes to have its full effect. As experimental as they are, it’s not as if this style of storytelling was thrown at audiences with no warning: the whole show has been leading up to these moments. From Episode 2 (“An Unfamiliar Ceiling”/”The Beast”), which holds back from showing the entirety of its climactic fight until the end of the episode when Shinji is in bed and cannot escape the PTSD-like flashbacks, to Episode 16 (“SIckness Unto Death, and…”/”Splitting of the Breast”) when Shinji is consumed by an angel and his inner thoughts make up most of the episode, we’ve been prepared for this. Whether or not we like that method of conveying the story is something we must decide for ourselves, but these examples, and countless others, lay out how a show like this can build to such a complicated finale.
In fact, I’d argue that the last episodes of Evangelion are the real meat of the story. By using Episode 24 as a gateway, the narrative transitions so smoothly from the objective events found there, to the subjective events of Shinji’s mind, it’s hard to believe how much of it rests on how well we know Shinji as a character. Everything else, from the giant robots to the way the show uses Christian iconography, are just layers to be peeled back. They’re the necessary parts that help establish context and make it easier to connect with the universal emotions of the story. Using this connection, we’re taken from Shinji’s most selfish thoughts to one of the most life-affirming endings I’ve ever seen. The “congratulations” scene has been a meme for years because of how wildly the mood shifts, but it’s one of the biggest reasons I love the show so much. It shows that at the end of the tunnel, there’s still the opportunity for light. In this case, for someone to say “congratulations” or “I love you.”
This was an ending I desperately needed when I first saw it as a teenager. At the time, I was sixteen years old, and was just coming to terms with the fact that I’m gay. Unlike a number of people in the LGBT community, my time in the closet was short. I met a boy a grade below me, realized I had a massive crush on him, and spent the next handful of weeks dealing with that before coming out. This threw a wrench into who I thought I was, and made me rethink everything I knew about the world around me. My anxiety and depression returned. I lost interest in my classes. I distanced myself from my handful of friends in hopes of making new ones. I was isolated, alone, and just amazed that one person could walk into my life and change everything just through his existence.
In this relatively short time, Evangelion was there. I realized that I felt just like Shinji. His relationship with Kaworu is likely the first time he’s ever had to think about liking a member of the same gender. Sure, he’s only fourteen, but who knows if it would have occurred to him otherwise? If I hadn’t met this one boy, how long would it have taken me to figure things out? The relationship between the two may not be the healthiest to latch onto, but it meant everything to me. It was the positive reinforcement I needed, saying that, yes, people can live their lives not knowing they’re queer until one day – they do.
As I dealt with my sexuality and mental health, a lot of Shinji’s thoughts in those last episodes sounded just like mine. I struggled with pain. I was afraid people only pretended to like me. Like Shinji, I imagined all of the nasty things they’d say about me behind my back. In most shows, we might only get a small glimpse of this as the plot rolls on. What made me fall in love with Evangelion above all else was how much it lingered on this confusion. Every inner-battle Shinji fights, every regret, every moment we spend inside of his mind could’ve just as easily been inside of mine. That’s how real it felt.
I continue to admire these moments because it always felt like Anno and his team effectively said ‘screw traditional storytelling. We have something more to say here.’ When I learned about Anno’s emotional state later on, it meant even more to me because it felt like he was trying to speak to people just like him. People like me. That connection makes Evangelion the kind of show that can work for stalwart genre fans, but also one that can grab unexpected audience members, too. I’ve always enjoyed this transgressive look at storytelling because it doesn’t chase what the audience wants. It has its own ideas to explore and asks people to engage with it to reach something deeper. If you don’t like it, then it’s just not for you. Not everything is for everyone.
What I also admire about Evangelion is that there’s a new series of movies, several spin-offs, and a level of merchandise that rivals KISS, but nothing takes away from the power of the series. Each new story feels like a reinterpretation instead of a way to keep the franchise going. All of them, even the manga that proceeded it (and didn’t end until 2013), accept Evangelion for the show that it is, and the ending as part and parcel with that. Its artsy and experimental nature hasn’t stopped it from becoming one of the most important franchises to hit Japan in decades.
I fully acknowledge that not everyone will like the way Evangelion ends. There are scores of people who hate the show as a whole. N B Yomi at Reel Rundown wrote a guide that provides some context about the complaints people have against the series, if you’d like to read into it. I get that some people don’t like how the show uses Christian symbolism like other stories may use Norse mythology. I see the casual sexism and weird sexuality that the series employs throughout its run. I can even see how some people might not like the characters, and to me, being able to empathize with Shinji and the others is one of the most important things about the show. I just connect with this show on such a huge level that I can look past these things and enjoy what I love. It’s rare that this happens for me and I’m glad to find something to relate to in this way.
When people tell me about their teenage years, and how pieces of media like My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade, helped get them through those rough patches, I feel that. It’s the same way I talk about Evangelion. More than the show as a whole, these last three episodes hit me at the exact right time, and it’s hard to imagine what could have happened if I never watched them. Maybe I could have found something that took their place, maybe not. I’m a little afraid to think of what that version of my life might be like. I most likely wouldn’t be in the same place in life that I’m in now. It could be that my nostalgia and personal connection means I’m seeing brilliance where there isn’t any, but I don’t believe that. As controversial as they may be, the last three episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion are what make this show what it is. I’d still find something to enjoy if they never existed, but without them, the show would never mean as much to me.
Are you watching Evangelion for the first time? Or all over again? Share what you think in the comments below, contact me on Twitter, or email me your thoughts at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios.com! I’m always down to talk about Eva with people. To check out more of my work go here.