Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion ★★★

(forward: this review is going to be mostly personal, because it feels like a particularly appropriate way to review this film and series.)

Before I had a love for film, I had a love for video games. As a teen gamer in the early '00s I became obsessed with a cult classic JRPG called Xenogears (Squaresoft, 1998). The narrative wove Judeo-Christian mythology, Freudian psychology, and Nietzschean philosophy into a millennia-spanning sci-fi epic, with anime-style mecha ("Gears") at the center. The game had its flaws, including a notoriously rushed second half due to budget cuts, and the fact that the "game" simply wasn't, er, very fun. But it didn't matter, because everyone knew you played Xenogears for one thing: the complex characters and deep, compelling storyline.

Unfortunately, time has not been kind on my love of JRPGs. Where I once saw profound, thought-provoking narratives I now see sloppy, overbearing storytelling. I still feel nostalgia toward these games and my experiences with them, but I've almost entirely abandoned the genre and video games, generally. They no longer move me.

Watching Neon Genesis Evangelion and its concomitant film, The End of Evangelion, I couldn’t help but remember Xenogears, with similarities ranging from uncanny to plagiaristic. Simply put, Xenogears would almost certainly not exist without Evangelion. And it made me a bit sad, really, that I didn't discover Evangelion during my high school years. I probably would have been just as obsessed with it then as I had been with Xenogears. Unfortunately, at this point in my life, I see in it too many of the same problems I have with JRPGs. For starters . . .

Complexity is not inherently profound.
Complexity is not inherently profound.
Complexity is not inherently profound.

I wish more sci-fi anime adopted this as a mantra. In too many of the acclaimed works of the genre — from Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell to Satoshi Kon's Paprika — I get the sense that, for many viewers, the presentation of great ideas justify a multitude of cinematic sins; delivering a "mind-blowing experience" is enough to cover narrative shortcomings. Evangelion resides very much in this zone, where so much of its reputation revolves around how much of a mindfuck it is. But throwing a kitchen sink full of ideas at the wall does not produce depth — it creates a fucking mess. And a mess of ideas is exactly what Evangelion is, though I admit its ambition is endearing at times.

To be clear: the questions and ideas Evangelion explores are interesting. They should be to any human with half a brain and a curious disposition: what constitutes the true individual "self"; what it means to take ownership of one's life, however meaningless it might seem; the psychological underpinnings at tension in our relationships that drive them forward or to ruin, etc. But it's not enough to just barrage your audience with existential questions. Profundity comes not so much from asking a probing question or presenting a novel idea but rather from how the question is asked or the idea is presented. I can understand, at least philosophically, why someone would be intrigued by the final few episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion and the second half of The End of Evangelion. It takes huge narrative risks and subverts audience expectations (my understanding is that The End of Evangelion only exists because there was a huge public outcry for an alternate ending to the series). But while I respect the ambition, the execution of these narrative risks just seemed so poorly done, so hastily put to screen, that seeing so many call it an unequivocal masterpiece almost has me questioning my own sanity.

And that, ultimately, is what I actually find most interesting about Evangelion. Not the series itself, not the infamous deconstructive ending, but rather its reputation. Why does it resonate with so many people? Why do so many think this is an unassailable masterpiece when, to me, it just seems like some fairly rudimentary existential philosophy packaged in a sci-fi veneer to appeal to a young, teenage demographic? Am I just an out-of-touch grump?

In many ways, I should have been the ideal convert to the gospel of Evangelion. I struggle with depression. I feel pulled toward nihilistic conclusions about the meaning of my life and broader humanity. I think about death and my mortality all the time. I grew up in a religious household and, though I’m probably an agnostic at this point, I remain utterly fascinated by religious language, imagery, and narratives. I struggle with inaction and taking initiative. I often feel powerless to change the narrative of my life to one of my own choosing. I escape into realities — fantasies — of my own making to avoid having to deal with the harsher truths of existence. I struggle with self-love, which, at least in part, drives me to hurt people I should love. In short, I could often see myself in many of the characters and situations — particularly Shinji. And yet, rather than experiencing a deep emotional catharsis through Evangelion — finally, someone understands me! — I felt mostly unmoved by the whole disjointed, oblique experience. The fumbled storytelling severed any intellectual and emotional connection I might have had with its intriguing ideas.

I realize I haven't talked much about Evangelion itself in this review. I didn't talk about any specific plot points or characters. This has been far from a logical defense of my issues. But, as I mentioned at the beginning, Evangelion seems to mostly try and appeal to its audience on an emotional, perhaps unconscious, level, so I tried to respond to that impulse in kind. I suppose this is me taking far too many words to say: this didn’t work for me. I wish it did, but it didn’t. And maybe I just need to accept, like I did with JRPGs, that sci-fi anime in general doesn’t speak to me now as it might have to my younger self. I can’t get past all of the jargony dialogue, all of the overwrought spectacle, all of the narrative complexity pandering as profundity.

And maybe that’s okay. I’ll always leave the door open.

(postscript: the use of pop music at a critical juncture in the film felt so awkwardly out of place that it made all of Makoto Shinkai’s controversial use of pop music in his anime films seem entirely benign by comparison. woof.)

Trevor liked this review