Eva After

As Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time raises the bar of Letterboxd’s Top 250, Kambole Campbell assesses the (probably) conclusive end of Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion masterwork.

Neon Genesis Evangelion has concluded no fewer than three times, but its latest ending—the very last?—is resonating with the Letterboxd community more loudly than usual.

Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time is the culmination of Hideako Anno’s ‘Rebuild of Evangelion’ series. Since its August release on Amazon Prime Video, it now sits at number 90 on our Official Top 250 Narrative Feature Films list (1997’s The End of Evangelion is at 25). More than that, Thrice Upon a Time has raised the bar of the Top 250, raising the prestige list’s minimum rating to 4.2 out of five stars, by pushing out the last 4.1. Thrice up!

Even after stellar directorial work in live action—the wild, handheld experimentations of Love and Pop (1998), the haunting reflections on loneliness and escapism of Ritual (2000, starring fellow director Shunji Iwai), and the incredible mix of bureaucratic satire and gross monster action of Shin Godzilla (2016)—Evangelion is still probably Anno’s most popular and most discussed work.  

For those yet to get in the fucking robot, Evangelion transports the viewer into a world ravaged by the mistakes of the previous generation and left to the youngest to save what’s left, fifteen years after a worldwide cataclysm. An anime series broadcast on Japanese television from 1995 to 1996, Neon Genesis Evangelion centers around troubled teenage boy Shinji Ikari. He is recruited by his absentee father Gendo to pilot a giant robot (that’s not really a robot) called an Eva, to fight the monstrous enemies called Angels, which are attacking the futuristic city of Tokyo-3.

The series’ first finale was notorious for its weird abstraction, which came in part from working with restrictions, the production out of money by its end. Eventually, the finale got a do-over in the 1997 film Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion, an aggressive assault on the senses that took a more visceral route to a similar emotional conclusion. Thrice Upon a Time, Evangelion’s third finale—and the fourth Rebuild film—looks to revisit all of its endings and leave the series behind, for real this time. Probably.

The very premise of the show, and subsequently the films, is a love letter to Anno’s favorite TV shows, the tokusatsu franchise Ultraman perhaps most prominent among them. Thrillingly, Anno is the screenwriter of the upcoming Shin Ultraman and writer/director on Shin Kamen Rider—and he’s finally free from the tyranny of Eva to make these things.

Evangelion is just as jovial and goofy as such shows, but also frequently turns some of the pleasures of mecha and giant-hero series on their heads. ‘An Unfamiliar Ceiling’, the second episode of the original Evangelion series, might be one of the best examples of this, as it immediately cuts to the aftermath of the first battle, and fills the episode instead with long, eerie silences and still frames.

As well as its lasting popularity and its status as a go-to in many a ‘must-watch’ anime list, both the show and the films found a renewed surge in viewership in mid-2019, when Netflix acquired the international streaming license for the original series, the recap films, and finale film The End of Evangelion (all of which are soon to get their first international home Blu-ray release as well). They landed on the streamer in June 2019, and by that July, Letterboxd data showed a clear bump in logged views and watches—the “Netflix effect” in full flight.

The Rebuild trilogy saw a similar spike in Letterboxd numbers in August this year, as fans and newcomers alike watched and rewatched in preparation for the storied fourth film.

Looking through the highest Letterboxd ratings for this, er, final finale, we can see fans reassessing the series as a whole through Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time. In this last film especially, Neon fans take into account what Anno himself was going through and intending. Thrice Upon a Time invites wide interpretations, but a number of writers focus, lovingly so, on how it’s the work of a changed man.

Esther writes: “EoE felt like a pure product of Shinji’s mind, and 3.0+1.0 feels more like a product of Gendo’s: desperately grasping for domestic peace, and as narratively chaotic as it is aesthetically straightforward.” Juan, who has followed the series for the greater part of their life, writes: “It took Anno 26 years to figure out how to let the story he’s been telling come to a close, for his characters to be happy and finally embrace existence by experiencing life and other people, and it took me nearly 30 years to do the same.”

Zach, already three viewings in and frequently moved to tears, feels that the finale is: “Evangelion rebuilt and rephilosophized until it breaks and shatters and reiterates itself in an essential new form: understanding the pain of codependency and feeling, forging it into an exuberant lust for life where every human you’ve ever known has always been a part of you and will be forever.”

If this is all too much for you, we can always rely on Yi Jian to get to the point: “Anno said please for the love of god forget about my work and go outside for once.”

A wooden set from Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time.
A wooden set from Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time.

Appropriately—as Thrice Upon a Time is itself a reflection on Anno’s own career—the conclusion encompasses every ending of Evangelion there’s ever been (even the manga!). There are moments that channel Anno’s love of toku shows; patented playfulness with digital imagery; the mashing together of mediums. One such delightful instance of that meta and unpredictable Evangelion staging is a trip into what’s called the “anti universe”, a space the characters can’t fully perceive. We see a series of wooden sets and sound stages replicating Evangelion locations, quite literally laying out Evangelion’s inspirations in Anno’s aforementioned love of toku shows.

“In the midst of the over-precise maximalist hellscape we’ve spent so much time with, we’re finally able to slow down, to breathe,” writes Sean, of the effect of this staging. “Even the animation shifts because we’re finally seeing the world as it should be—the landscapes become less precise, more impressionistic, lending themselves to a tender beauty rather than the previously cold aesthetic… All that expresses a better world: a world without Evas because that’s the world Anno wants.”

Live audience detail from The End of Evangelion.
Live audience detail from The End of Evangelion.

It’s a recollection of how both the original series and then the finale film The End of Evangelion stripped away all the shading work and even in-between drawings to remind us of the personal touch of the artists. All three finales emphasise the porousness of the boundary between the work and the audience, the work and the creator—The End of Evangelion even making the switch to live-action, reflecting a cinema audience back at itself.

For all its sci-fi complications and Biblical implications—the transgression of man upon heaven and hell—Gendo Ikari’s nightmarish plan for human salvation ultimately lies in the same impulse that Shinji has, to flee from that which would hurt him. Thrice Upon a Time stands apart from the other entries in this long-running franchise thanks in no small part to the fact that it’s the most Gendo ever explains himself. He has his own Evangelion finale moment in realizing that the world he was building would also isolate him from his potential to be happy. And, as Anno has been telling us (and in part himself) for nearly 30 years, you always have that chance.

It’s a big and unwieldy undertaking, but this feels fine. If anything, it leans into this, and revisits the rough-hewn nature of the finale to the TV show (episodes 25 and 26). Incomplete drawings and animatics break down and reform exciting meta moments that visualize the scenery of the characters’ lives as something staged, drawing attention to its own theatricalities and the voice of the author. There’s even a new emotional meaning brought to the ‘Neon Genesis’ part of the title, in a way that will make some roll their eyes and others (me) applaud with delight.

The two-part television finale and The End of Evangelion are often presented as an either-or choice. Those who prefer the original praise its seemingly more empathetic presentation, while the film often wins favor because of its comparatively higher-budget thrills and bewildering aggression. For my money, rather than being a binary choice between two drastically different conclusions, both endings are complementary, and far more alike than people give them credit for.

Thrice Upon a Time is a final realization of this, synthesising all Evangelion endings: Shinji’s self-acceptance, his acceptance of the pain that comes with living, finally allowing himself to move forward.

Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time’ is on Amazon Prime Video.

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