This will take some explaining.
In the mid ’90s, the anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion sparked something of a revolution in the medium. Designed as a kind of pastiche and critique of mecha shows its creator, Hideaki Anno, had enjoyed as a young men (mecha being giant robot shows), Evangelion was an alien-invasion story filtered through Anno’s current mental state – which was of a very depressed man, who had given his life over to work in a medium and business that he could find no meaning in.
Neon Genesis Evangelion as a story had many of the trappings of a regular mecha show – big robots fight alien monsters that attack Tokyo – 3. But these trappings, however excellently executed, were a vehicle for exploring existential pain. The main character, Shinji Ikari, has not seen his father for a decade, since he was four, then suddenly is called to come to his dad’s place of work, NERV, to pilot these strange and mysterious robots, the Evas, which are the only weapon that can protect against the attacking aliens, called Angels. Why the Evas need to be piloted by teenagers, why these kids have to be plugged into the machines and symbiotically synced with them so they feel the pain of the combat, why all of the angels come to the only place in the world where Evas can fight them are all mysteries answered throughout the series, but the real drama takes place in Shinji’s isolation and misery. He hates his father and is desperate at the same time for his approval. As the series goes on, the (almost universally excellently conceived, staged, and animated) robot fights lose ground to the internal struggles. Famously, the last two episodes dispense with the story almost altogether and are more like an extended therapy session for Shinji.
This lead to outrage and death threats from the audience, since however esoteric and off-putting and alienating the above description makes Evangelion sound (and it is all those things) it was also wildly popular. According to Wikipedia, by 2013 it had grossed (in all its incarnations) nearly $1.3 billion. Which would make it an obvious series for the creator and production company to milk for everything it is worth, which was how the Evangelion Rebuild movies were widely perceived, when announced nearly ten years ago.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is always strange and fascinating, and Evangelion 3.33, the movie I’m ostensibly reviewing here, continues that tradition. It is actually the fifth Evangelion movie (3.33 was 3.0 in theaters and is 3.33 on home video release, similarly with its predecessors, 1.0 and 1.11, 2.0 and 2.22. Do not ask me why). The first Eva movie, Death and Rebirth, was an extended clip show of scenes from the original anime, and then about 30 minutes of new animation from the upcoming movie, The End of Evangelion, a re-telling of the last two episodes with a lot more monster fighting and a lot less therapy, but it still ended up as a deeply esoteric and strange production, mired in the protagonist’s mental problems, and in the ostensible end of humanity.
For a while, the End of Evangelion was really the end, but now comes the Evangelion Rebuild – a four-movie series that is a complete retelling of the series. At first, with Evangelion 1.11: You are (not) alone, it was simply that – the first six episodes of the series, animated in widescreen and with feature-level animation but largely the same story points, often shot for shot. Evangelion 2.22: You can (not) advance broke with what had come before, introducing completely new characters and situations, reconfiguring scenes and motivations. Rebuild also changed the inward nature of the characters. Shinji was allowed to become less self-loathing and more forceful. The second pilot, Rei, was nearly a monotone doll in the TV series but she began to come out of her shell a bit. The third pilot, Asuka, was just as brash and inwardly scarred as the first, but she had less trouble opening up, and occasionally thought about others. These first two movies seemed to be Evangelion with some of the edges shaved off.
Which makes this, the third Rebuild movie, a weird and, for fans of the darker and more twisted aspects of Eva, welcome surprise. It cracks the story wide open, and goes off in completely unrecognizable directions.
Fourteen years have passed since Shinji’s actions at the end of Evangelion 2.22, when, in order to rescue Rei from being devoured by an angel, he lets his emotions run away with him, triggering his Eva to grow beyond its physical bounds, and, ultimately, triggering an apocalyptic event (that’s the sort of thing that happens in Evangelion).
Where Shinji has been for 14 years isn’t clear – the movie begins with his rescue from outer space by Asuka and Mari, a mystery pilot who showed up midway through Eva 2.22 with little explanation. Neither of them have aged in the 14 years hence, but the world has changed. Shinji is a pariah amongst his former teammates and friends, with a head-exploding collar put around his neck, lest he ever get the chance to pilot another Eva and cause another apocalyptic event.
Hated by people he thought were his friends, forbidden from doing the one thing he’s good at when he finally decides he wants to do it, Shinji takes an opportunity to escape his captors and flee back to his father back at Nerv – but there, things are no better. Rei is alive, but she has no memory of Shinji, or even herself. She just follows orders. Another pilot, Kowaru, seen briefly at the end of Evangelion 1.11 and almost as briefly in 2.22, becomes Shinji’s only companion.
Kowaru’s presence is a call back to the end of the television series, where he appears for one episode, gets killed, and somehow managed to be one of the most popular characters not only in the series but in all anime fandom. His presence in the Evangelion Rebuild, and some of his dialogue hint that this entire movie series might not be a retelling of Evangelion at all but a sequel after the catastrophic events of End of Evangelion, where the goal of one of many shadowy groups in the series, Seele, is to implement the Human Instrumentality Project, which creates a singularity and turns all of humankind into a single group consciousness. Or something. With this series, what really happens is never clear.
What’s also completely unclear is how much anyone not totally on-board with this entire convoluted history and who has no interest in any kind of metatextual analysis would give a damn about Evangelion 3.33. As a non-obsessive Evangelion fan, I find there are some pleasures to be found even if one cannot be bothered to delve into the intentionally obscure details.
One of the things that makes Evangelion engaging is the amount of in-world practicality it commits to. While the concepts at play move from the physically absurd to the completely impossible, within that framework Evangelion minimizes hand-waving, and tries to approach a kind of physical realism. For instance, the opening shot of Evangelion 3.33 is a long, long shaky-cam shot of a round object, floating in the air, with radio chatter over it. Eventually it becomes clear this is an object, falling down from orbit, setting off different sets of rocket thrusters to decelerate into orbit. The object is a ship containing an EVA. This isn’t just giant robots jumping into space, but an attempt at a sort of realism. It pushes Evangelion closer to real Science Fiction than most series in the genre.
And while most of the first 30 minutes and a good deal of the last 15 of Evangelion 3.33 have intense action sequences, the long, long middle section is all self-doubt and misery. New characters are introduced early on, and then disappear for what is essentially the rest of the movie. Old characters are briefly glimpsed. It is impossible to know if an audience not fully steeped in the world of Neon Genesis Evangelion would get anything from this movie but confusion.
As a fan (but not a fanatic) I find the entire experience of these Rebuild movies fascinating. It’s apparent to me that Anno and the whole Evangelion crew are very specifically toying with their audience, giving them what they want and snatching it away just as quickly. It’s not Eva without the angst, but a new psychological game being played out by the series’ own cold, remote father. Many fans have found this movie to be frustrating, but I was engaged throughout, and only frustrated that, though this movie was released in 2012 in Japan and just two years ago in the U.S., the fourth and final film in the series (titled Evangelion 3.0+1.0) has no release date in sight.
Funimation, who has released this and the previous two Evangelion Rebuild movies, have been doing a terrific job with both the packaging and the presentation of the films. As with most anime releases, there is an English dub along with the original Japanese dialogue. I watched the film subtitled, but spot checked the English version and was gratified to find a number of actors who performed the English dub 15 years ago reprising their roles in this new version. The extras are large in number though most of them are of the TV spot and trailer variety. Maybe the most interesting is the Rebuild of Evangelion 3.0, an 11 minutes selection of behind-the-scenes footage of the animation process, done entirely in work-in-progress shots as they develop into final scenes. There is no narration, no scenes of the staff working, and getting something out of this short requires a lot of concentration, but for the interested it demonstrates just how committed to the details of their world the Evangelion creators are. Also included in the package is a 52 page booklet with character designs and an explanation of much of what we’re looking at in the Rebuild of Evangelion short. I reviewed the film on DVD, and was surprised at just how good it looked.
While I can scarcely imagine a less suitable entry point for Evangelion than this movie, for the intended audience (folks like me) it’s a fascinating and strange entry into a fascinating and strange collection of stories. It raises questions, and only ever answers them with more conundrums. But that’s what Evangelion is for.