‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ and the Controlled Chaos of Hideaki Anno

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WARNING: The following contains vague spoilers for Neon Genesis Evangelion.

It was shortly after I’d had surgery on my knee that I first watched an episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion. My leg was in a brace, and I wasn’t allowed to bend it for about six weeks. I could barely walk, let alone leave my flat. I’d had an accident where I’d gone for a jog in the rain and fallen on some loose, upturned paving stones. I sat on the street for an hour waiting for an ambulance to arrive, and ended up having over sixteen stitches.

It was the end result of a stupid set of decisions I’d made that day. But I hadn’t been in the best frame of mind when I was making them.

For about two years prior, I’d been dealing with what I now recognise as anxiety and depression. I had no idea what it was at the time — I’d been in and out of the doctors with complaints about my physical health, thinking I had an eye condition, that I had chronic fatigue — but I was constantly being hit with uncontrollable moods that ruined my life for a few days at a time. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and I didn’t know how to fix it. I defaulted to a lot of self-destructive behaviour, which included eating too much, breaking random objects, and, yes, going for a jog in the rain.

The injury snapped me out of my stupor, or at least prompted me to realise that I needed help. I briefly thought I might never walk again; how easily all this could have been avoided if I’d been less stubborn and talked about my frustrations instead of attempting to solve them with panicked physical behaviour. I was embarrassed, but also relieved. I told myself this was a warning: stop being an idiot, and take care of yourself. I eventually went to a therapist, and found healthier outlets for my mental concerns. But in the meantime, with nothing to do but wait for my knee to heal, absorbing myself in film and television seemed like as good a solution as any. And Evangelion ended up being exactly what I needed to see.

Despite having studied the medium extensively at university, Hideaki Anno’s famed mecha anime had always seemed too daunting to handle. It was, by all accounts, a response to its cultural moment, an epochal work of art that transformed and revitalised an otherwise struggling industry. Without having seen anything of, say, Mobile Suit Gundam or The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, could I possibly appreciate the richness and scope of the material?

These reservations disappeared seconds into the opening episode. As anyone who’s fallen under the spell of Evangelion can attest (and now, thanks to Netflix, it’s easier than ever to get started) there’s an immediacy to its storytelling that’s seldom short of gripping. The pilot alone does a fantastic job of setting up an intricate premise through very simple, visual means. A title card reads, “The year is 2015 A.D.” before cutting rapidly between a gigantic monster — an alien being called an “Angel” — and the forces of the military sent to stop it. There’s quiet before the storm; the hum of cicadas accompanies a montage of an abandoned city, a distant loudspeaker urging evacuation the only presence of humanity within a desolate landscape of ruined skyscrapers and criss-crossing telephone lines.

Anno had been working in the industry for years by this point, and his mastery over sound and image is clear. It’s also present in the most difficult area to describe in audio-visual art: the rhythm. The introductions of characters such as young hero Shinji Ikari — whose continual refusal of the call is both maddening and painfully human — and Misato Katsuragi, the equally damaged adult sent to protect him, are perfectly judged, their animation styles and relationship to the spaces around them expressive in boundless ways. Shinji’s first encounter with his fearsome father, Gendo — the commander of sinister organisation NERV, in charge of dispatching bio-mechanical robots called “Evangelions” against the attacks of the Angels — is staged in a way where his father stares down at him from a platform, his smug face back-lit by a set of sterile monitors with Shinji’s more downcast expression, immediately conveying the power balance of their troubled relationship.

It’s not subtle visual storytelling, but Anno’s accelerated editing style means that every vivid frame adds up into something altogether more complicated. The transition between silence and noise, between action and inaction, is pragmatically poetic — efficient, lean, yet textured where it needs to be. And then there are the moments when the adventure serial storytelling breaks down, and suddenly leaps into the realm of the abstract and psychological. This first occurs at the end of the second episode, where Shinji — having piloted the Evangelion Unit-01 for the first time — looks at himself in the reflection of a nearby building. The “machine” he’s been using has just demonstrated a guttural form of sentience, and torn the enemy Angel to shreds. Anno cuts between a close-up of Shinji’s eye and the eye socket of the machine, which spontaneously grows a vagina-like outlet, out of which comes a large green eye. The image distorts, then goes black; all we hear on the soundtrack is Shinji emit a terrified scream.

It’s these moments that eventually come to dominate — though it should be said that the series is a lot more fun than its reputation might suggest. Its first fifteen episodes, in particular, are a masterclass in tone and pacing. A psychosexual dynamic develops between Misato, Shinji, and his two fellow, female pilots — Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley — that oscillates between humour and high drama with ease. It was at least partially a repudiation of “otaku” culture, i.e. Japanese pop culture obsessives’ habit of objectifying the female characters of any given anime (arguing over the dreaded “best girl” label) so Rei and Asuka are designed to challenge male ego at every turn. Rei is almost comically reserved, resistant to reciprocating any emotion, while Asuka is anything but, a brash loudmouth whose intolerance of Shinji masks her more deep-rooted feelings of insufficiency and abandonment. The genius of the show is that it pays as much attention to the puberty-related developments of these three young teenagers as it does to the mecha storyline, which evokes Japan’s complex relationship with technology and progress. (It’s no wonder that Anno would go on to direct a Godzilla film — the portrayal of bureaucracy, where managing and corporate interests are depicted as voices emitted through black monoliths in abstractly lit boardrooms, is astute to say the least.)

Nevertheless, everything appears to be marching towards a triumphant conclusion. Then Episode 16 happens. Entitled “Splitting of the Breast,” it sees Shinji get absorbed inside a spherical Angel while piloting Unit-01. The rest of the team assumes he’s dead, but he’s not, and there’s an extended sequence that unfolds entirely within Shinji’s mind, in which memories, shapes, psychosexual imagery, and searching existential thoughts merge into one. And from that point on, the series folds in on itself. It becoming a horrifying subversion of expectations, where the attacks of the Angels keep escalating, and every character is confronted with their worst fears, all suffering some kind of breakdown as a result.

The creative direction Anno decided to take here is a tricky one. On the one hand, the studio he worked for, Gainax, was famously disorganised. Not only was it investigated for tax evasion — leading to the arrest of its president, Takeshi Sawamura, in 1999 — but production troubles meant that deadlines were missed and animation footage misplaced, leading to all kinds of cost-saving measures to ensure that the show could remain on air. Animation is re-used, some episodes simply recap the previous ones, while others have characters read poetry over various still images. It reaches what some fans see as a nadir in the finale, which scraps the original, expensive ending Anno had in mind — more on that later — with one composed almost entirely of prior footage, voiceover resolving conflicts in a dialectical manner.

And yet, against all odds, it works. By leaning into the chaos of production, Anno aligns the viewer with the characters, allowing us to appreciate the complexity of their misery. A sequence in Episode 22, where an Angel invades the mind of Asuka, succeeds because it keeps replaying the same clips, eventually degenerating into an epileptic montage of mangled frames, text, and scrawled pencil drawings. It’s an uncompromising, disturbing evocation of trauma, where the same unwanted memories keep playing, over and over again, as a kind of assault. (“My mind’s been defiled,” she says afterwards.) Another sequence in the same episode features a shot of two characters standing in an elevator together, tense and still, for over a minute. This kind of shot recurs a few times, most notably in Episode 24, when Shinji has to make a crucial decision, and he hesitates for a long, excruciating moment. Such an unusual deviation in rhythm is maybe the most dramatic example of cost-saving measures doubling as indications that the world of the show itself is on the brink of collapse. The pause is painful as a viewer, but even more painful for the characters; who are we, Anno seems to ask, to not suffer along with them.

This makes Evangelion sound like the last thing someone with anxiety and depression should want to watch, though there’s something about the nakedness of its pain, the experimental disregard for the rules of the medium, that makes it more cathartic than miserable. Anno himself has notably suffered from depression over the years, delaying progress on even his most recent work, and he takes nothing lightly. He doesn’t let his characters off the hook, but neither does he humiliate them for the sake of it. He’s unsparing, but he cares.

Nowhere is this clearer than the ending; or rather in two separate, albeit arguably concurrent, endings. The first is Episodes 25 and 26, and I have to admit that my love for the show doesn’t entirely extend to them both. Solving the characters’ arcs by having them work through them in voiceover is boldly experimental and admirable in theory, and rather deflating in practice. Evangelion’s greatest quality is its ability to balance compelling drama with more grandly metaphorical imagery, and moving entirely into the latter is as frustrating as one might expect. Having said that, the sequences in which the series is reimagined as pencil drawings and as a high school soap opera are fascinating, and the final scene is heartwarming while aware of the suffering required to get there. It’s a kind ending to a show that was often anything but.

And such reservations are far from damning, as Anno was subsequently given funding to make the ending he originally conceived as a film, called Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion. There’s no getting around it; I’ve seen The End of Evangelion a number of times now, and not only is it Anno’s masterpiece, but I’d likely consider it among the ten or so greatest films I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. It’s too rich a cinematic object to fully delve into here, but everything that’s wonderful about the series comes together in a propulsive, ever-morphing package that’s less a straightforward conclusion than a symphonic detonation of its source. He resolves narrative threads while killing off his characters in the most brutal ways possible, staging a fight between monsters to Bach’s “Air on a G String” before envisioning the apocalypse as a horny teenage boy’s temper tantrum. There are visual references to Christianity, the Qabalah, and baroque paintings. The world ends to the sound of an upbeat pop song, there’s a Brakhage-esque montage incorporating death threats Anno received during production, and there’s even a sudden shift to live action. It really has to be seen to be believed.

Again, it’s the rhythm that’s key, showcasing the infinitely expressive properties of animation that Sergei Eisenstein once championed. But beyond this, the reason I find The End of Evangelion so moving — in spite of its rampant brutality — is because it is, essentially, an argument against suicide. It follows a teenage boy who is so traumatised by his interactions with other people, so wracked by anxiety and doubt, that he wishes his feelings would cease to exist. And they do. He is given the option to exist in a world of nothingness. But nothing comes from nothing — and so, Shinji learns, pain is essential to being human. He chooses life, in all its messy, horrible glory. The final scene is mysterious enough that it can be simultaneously read as a rejection and affirmation of this thesis. I’ve always chosen to believe the latter (the final line is either translated as “How disgusting” or “I feel sick” — it’s the “I feel” part which is important, not to mention the tender cadence with which it’s said) though what sticks is Anno’s visual acuity. Most anime fans would immediately recognise the image of a giant head submerged in a red lake, crucified figures floating in the night sky, and it’s this image that Anno leaves us with — two damaged teenagers making a choice to live in a world of ruin, their futures uncertain, but with a cautious belief that, one day, they might find happiness.

It’s all this and more that I responded to when coming to terms with my own mental health. To put it mildly, it gave me perspective; no matter how difficult I might think my own life, at least I wasn’t being forced to climb in the cockpit of a monster at the behest of my tyrannical father. But even the simple act of seeing the emotions I had been reckoning with tackled on such a grandiose scale was oddly comforting, transformative in a way that only deeply personal art can be. It helped me recognise how performative my self-destructive behaviour was, and how easy it was to lose perspective when spending too much time inside my own head. How, when your life is governed by fear, it’s always tempting to run away from your problems; that it’s always better to feel something, even pain, than deny such feelings outright. The show is multifaceted enough to appeal to a broad spectrum, including transgender critics and even the same “otakus” whose culture was being skewered. But it’s also a rare instance of a work of art coming along at the right juncture in my life to make it irrevocably, unforgettably personal.

***

After Evangelion, I delved into Anno’s back catalogue, which I’d recommend to anyone keen on the series. Having founded Daicon Film with Takami Akai and Hiroyuki Yamaga — who would later go on to make Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise in 1987, the first feature from Gainax — he was part of the team behind Daicon III and IV Opening Animations, two short films made for a science fiction convention in 1981 and 1983, respectively. Essentially working for no money on an abandoned factory floor, their innovative technique made them rock stars among the niche crowd they appealed to. Viewed even on terrible quality on YouTube — their unauthorised use of music and corporate iconography means it’s unlikely they’ll ever be restored — you can see why they inspired such excitement. Daicon IV, in particular, is a blast, using ELO’s best song to propel an orgy of nerd culture and experimental animation into the stratosphere. (The moment when the swords dance with each other in time to the piano solo never fails to make me smile.) It’s also of note for being one of the foundational texts of the same “otaku” culture that Anno would both embrace and rebel against in his later work, a pleasing irony that doesn’t detract from the purity of its no-holds-barred celebration of pop culture.

Having co-founded Gainax and contributed to Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä in the Valley of the Wind in the interim — he was responsible for the animation of the monstrous God Warrior at the film’s climax, obviously — his next major project was Gunbuster, a six-part science-fiction OVA (Original Video Animation, i.e. a miniseries or film made primarily for home video). It’s a clear precursor to Evangelion: Earth is being invaded by an army of insectoid aliens, so young women are being trained to pilot robots in space to repel them. The plot is seemingly inspired by Top Gun, of all things, but what starts as a silly 80s actioner grows progressively more serious, as teenage heroine Noriko searches for her missing father and Anno relentlessly probes her existential angst. Much like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Gunbuster uses the “time dilation” principle as its primary dramatic tool. But the dividends it pays are unexpected and emotional, and the craft is incredible throughout. The final episode, in particular, is a knockout, a black-and-white, years-spanning epic with one of the most powerful final scenes in anime history. It’s essential viewing.

The popularity of Gunbuster and its merchandise meant that Gainax was emboldened to take on a more ambitious series, a 39-part serial called Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. Based on a pitch by Miyazaki himself, Nadia plays out, at first, like an aquatic adaptation of Castle in the Sky. A young nerd, Jean, comes to the rescue of a magical princess, Nadia, who’s being pursued by a gang of incompetent thieves and a relentless evil organisation. But it doesn’t take long for Anno’s sensibility to assert itself. When they join forces with the mysterious Captain Nemo and his submarine, the Nautilus, the story becomes about the battle between good and evil, rooted in the kind of moment-to-moment immediacy — and honesty about the nature of warfare — that one expects from its director.

One episode sees a gang of crew members trapped in an area of the submarine that’s sprung a poisonous gas leak. They make assurances over the intercom that they’re prepared to die to ensure the safety of the rest of the ship, but at the last minute they change their minds, screaming, too late, for freedom. The next episode is focused entirely on their funeral. It’s difficult to imagine a kid’s show doing something so bold today.

Unfortunately, Nadia marked the first of a few instances where Anno’s genius was, in some way, compromised. While the first 22 episodes and last 5 are the work of a master, production troubles meant that a large section in the middle was given to a different animation team in South Korea. The quality of the material nosedives as a result, and while it’s easy enough to skip through, it’s a blemish on what is, otherwise, a great series.

Different compromises eventually dogged Anno’s post-Evangelion project in 1998, though what remains is still so wonderful I’m baffled by its comparative exclusion from the anime canon. An adaptation of Masami Tsuda’s manga Kare Kano — a.k.a. His and Her Circumstances — it’s a change of pace for the director, a schoolyard romance between “perfect” student Yukino Miyazawa and her academic rival Soichiro Arima. While his work has always had a sense of humour, Kare Kano is his funniest by far, not to mention his most visually daring. The premise is that Miyazawa is pretending to be a polite, normal student, but in reality she’s a goofy ball of neuroses. So Anno’s animation bounces accordingly between traditional anime and messy, frenetic, almost Chuck Jones-inspired madness. There’s a surfeit of on-screen text, montage, voiceover, split-screen, blink-and-you’ll-miss visual gags, even replicated manga panels, that’s so unlike the rhythms of anything else in the medium that it takes a while to adjust. But once you do, it’s more truthful and entertaining about adolescence than virtually any Hollywood film on the same subject.

None of Anno’s insight into mental health is lost in the transition to comedy, either. Arima, for instance, is revealed to have been abandoned by his parents as a child, his façade of normalcy an effort to protect himself from what he sees as corrupting influences. The difference between Kare Kano and Evangelion is that everything is treated with a lighter touch. The comedy, romance, and delicate pathos are heightened by an honest acknowledgement of life’s pain, with Shiro Sagisu’s memorable score as the binding glue between its wild tonal shifts. There are differing accounts over what, exactly, happened behind-the-scenes in the back half of production — Anno stepped away as director after 16 episodes, possibly because Tsuda objected to how her work had been adapted to emphasise comedy over drama, though this has never been confirmed — and as a result, the series has a troubling lack of closure. But it’s the one I’ve found myself revisiting most frequently, his warmest work and most underappreciated masterpiece.

Unlike Miyazaki and the rest of his contemporaries, Anno has enjoyed a parallel career as a live-action filmmaker, making a set of films in the late 90s and early 2000s using some of the earliest, roughest forms of digital photography. These films are more of an acquired taste, though they have an ambition of form that’s weirdly hypnotising. Love & Pop, his other 1998 project, is about schoolgirls on the streets of Tokyo turning to “compensated dating”, a less extreme form of prostitution. It’s a strong contender for one of the ugliest films ever made, with bleached colours and blown-out fish-eye lenses, but Anno uses this to his advantage. He’s given the freedom to place his camera everywhere, and I mean literally everywhere — in microwaves, on model trains, on the characters’ arms, even beneath their clothes. He cuts between them with a quick and self-conscious eye for absurdity, never settling for the easiest choice. It’s a sincere attempt to re-imagine a coming-of-age story through a uniquely digital lens, and the ugliness actually works in favour of its downbeat story of capitalism run amok. It doesn’t always work, but it certainly makes other films of its kind look safe by comparison.

I haven’t been able to track down Ritual, about a depressed filmmaker’s obsession with a woman, and I found Cutie Honey, his adaptation of the popular 70s manga and anime about a big-breasted female superhero, quite sexist and annoying. But Ryusei-Kacho, a comedic short (viewable on YouTube) about a commuter who competes for the best seats on trains, is a triumph. Anno attacks the project with the energy of the world’s most overqualified student filmmaker, thriving off the tension between the action’s cartoonish avoidance of realism and the harshness of the camera used to capture it. It uses the fantasies of the main character — a former rock star who’s buried his personality beneath the guise of a businessman — as an analogue to the fantasies of an amateur filmmaker, complicated by Anno’s own troubled relationship with the creative process. Along with Speed Racer, it’s the closest live action has come to capturing the spirit of anime; the key to success in both cases is sincerity, embracing the flat and ridiculous in pursuit of the sublime.

Anno’s latest (and hopefully not final) phase of his career saw him leave Gainax and found Studio Khara, where he returned to the Evangelion well and produced an on-going series of remakes, or “rebuilds”, of the show: Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone (2007), Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance (2009), and Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo (2012). I’ve only seen the first of these, and I have to confess I wasn’t a fan. It compresses the first six episodes into a feature, with improved animation and a few minor changes in details. It omits all the interesting texture that isn’t essential to the overarching plot, and combined with the lack of punctuation between episodes, it feels both rushed and pointless. I’ve heard that the next two diverge from their source material somewhat, but I’m not sure I care enough to find out. Why try to improve on perfect imperfection?

Much more interesting is Shin Godzilla, his 2016 entry in the Godzilla franchise, which he co-directed with his old Gainax cohort Shinji Higuchi. Unlike most of the other sequels, remakes, and reboots over the years, Anno and Higuchi’s film is a satire of government politics, focusing on logistical attempts to prevent civilian casualties and cooperate with other nations, such as the United States. Anno, once again, embraces a messy, amateurish style in his live-action filmmaking, cutting between hundreds of camera set-ups and filling the screen with text. (There’s a great recurring joke where every time the main character gets promoted, his title appears on-screen, longer than before.) But there’s a newfound sense of maturity in his style that accompanies the bigger budget, and his portrayal of Godzilla itself is terrifying. There’s a scene where the monster uses its famous atomic breath, and it’s like something from Evangelion come to life, operatic music playing over images of complete and utter devastation. A measured optimism slowly emerges, the film morphing into a rich and humane blockbuster that acknowledges the weight of disaster — it was developed in the wake of Fukushima — while simultaneously suggesting the possibility of rebirth. The film apparently helped Anno out of a bad spell of depression, which makes its post-climactic note of peace, however temporary, all the more moving.

***

Are any of these works as good as the original Evangelion? In some of their individual elements, yes. Some are brilliant in different ways. But Evangelion comes together in a way that I doubt even its creator could have predicted. It’s one of the great works of art about broken people, that pushed its form into new, frighteningly original territory. And having been out of print for many years, it’s now available to a bigger audience than ever on Netflix. While the new discourse surrounding “problematic” elements might grow tiresome, and small things lost in the transfer, it’s an important act of distribution for one of the most important shows in history.

Weirdly, I’m in no hurry to revisit it again. I’ll find myself regularly revisiting portions of episodes — the synchronised dance in Episode 9, for example — but thinking about the overall sweep is almost too painful to bear. Almost. I’ll get around to it. It’ll always be there, if not on Netflix or my hard drive then in how I now watch and experience art. It’s a permanent reminder of how destructive it can be to spend too much time inside my own head, how irresponsible it can be to run away from my problems, how pain is temporary and life will always contain opportunities for happiness. Like the scar across my right knee.

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