Evangelion seems to come back at turning points in my life.
I first watched the original series in the summer of 2005; like more than a couple of anime-obsessed noughties kids, catching an episode of the original 1995-96 TV series during the show’s brief run on Adult Swim inspired me to track down a DVD set and watch the whole thing from the start. I knew I liked big-ticket science fiction––the kind with epic scale, portentous philosophical musings, and quasi-religious themes (two years at a Jewish day school had left me fascinated by Gnostic and Old Testament iconography)––and I knew Evangelion was a canonized anime classic on par with Akira, Gundam, and Sailor Moon. It’s a crown jewel of the “mecha” genre, where young pilots command massive humanoid weapons (in this case, the titular “Evangelions”) in grand-scale armed conflict. But what immediately stood out in the context of catching a single random episode on television (episode 17, if any superfans are curious) was the way in which, compared to most anime and manga, the animated teenagers in this show spoke and acted like recognizably real people: they cursed, pouted, argued, flirted, and fought with their adult caretakers as awkwardly and tumultuously as actual teenagers. They didn’t always say what they meant or express their true emotions; they had trouble communicating and connecting with one another, even (especially) when they were lonely and hurting. These characters inhabited a world of grandiose fantasy where semi-abstract alien lifeforms (“Angels”) threatened the survival of humanity, yet their biggest struggles were altogether intimate and painfully realistic. The sense of impending cosmic doom carried by the show’s eschatological religious iconography and labyrinthine paramilitary conspiracies was directly linked to its characters’ precarious mental states and damaged souls, expressed in nakedly human terms that punctured the otherworld illusion of genre. There was something deeply uncanny about it.
One scene in particular made a devotee of me less than four episodes in: “I’m a coward!” the show’s shy, awkward hero, Shinji Ikari, cries out to a classmate over an altercation. “I’m dishonest, sneaky, and a wimp! I deserve to be hit!” Shinji’s stunned classmates have no response to this; neither did I. Watching this scene it felt, for the first time in my young life, as though my most private, taboo thoughts had been stolen from inside and reflected back on the screen.
That uncanny feeling reached a point of overload: from then on I couldn’t look away. Like the deeply troubled Shinji, I was 14 going on 15. Like Shinji––and more likely than not his adult alter-ego, the real-life anime director Hideaki Anno––I was not only shy and awkward in the extreme, but also severely depressed, chronically anxious, socially avoidant, sexually confused, and (as I understand is currently the preferred term) neurodivergent. You don’t need to know the exact details of my teenage misery and flirtations with disaster; I could have been any hurting misfit. Suffice to say that I was not happy. In Shinji, I and many other unhappy young people found our generation’s Holden Caulfield: a thorny, uncompromising, brutally honest avatar of alienation and hidden rage whose adult creator possesses exceedingly rare insight into the anguish of the teenaged mind. By the time I watched the show’s concluding theatrical feature, 1997’s The End of Evangelion––a still-unparalleled feat of beautiful, nightmarish animation wherein Shinji’s momentary acceptance of suicide triggers a psychosexual Gnostic apocalypse somewhere between Childhood’s End and Cronenberg, scored to bitterly ironic J-pop and unlike any other spectacle ever put to cel––not only did I feel less alone in my private pain, but my interest in cinema as an expressive medium was cemented for life.
A decade after the original show’s astonishing cinematic grace note, Hideaki Anno decided to restart it from scratch. Announced in 2006 as “Rebuild of Evangelion,” a series of four films retelling the story from the ground up, Anno’s surprise revisitation of the work that planted an iron flagpole in Japanese popular culture triggered shock and skepticism among international commentariat. Evangelion seemed, up to that point, not only very definitively concluded but something Anno was personally eager to disassociate himself from, having subsequently pivoted to small-scale live action films and publicly renouncing both the anime industry and its otaku fan culture. Why revive it now, except for the most cynical of motives: to capitalize on the unlikely merchandising empire it had spawned with its mass-producibly iconic images of sleek battling titans, doe-eyed teens and alluring cartoon women?
When the first of Anno’s “Rebuild” films reached US shores in autumn of 2009, I was fresh out of high school. A traumatic chapter in my own life had concluded; I was left dazed and picking up broken shards. My family had changed. I had changed. But I still felt that acute pain of alienation and confusion that I’d known for so long. In Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone, Anno––along with series veteran directors Kazuya Tsurumaki and Masayuki Yamaguchi (better known as Masayuki)––recreates the first six episodes of the TV series with mostly strict fidelity. Only this time there’s a massive budget, conspicuous CG, unfitting product placement, and subtle script and scene changes that suggested a warmer, more pro-social slant to an infamously gloomy and tragic story. It was an odd, uncertain start to an utter black box of a creative project, one teetering precariously on the line between craftsmanship and commercialism. Its cocktail of nostalgia, hope, and uncertainty over new beginnings once again reverberated with me at a personally significant crossroads.
My first viewing of Evangelion 3.0 + 1.01: Thrice Upon a Time—the bafflingly titled, for-real-this-time final Evangelion film released on Amazon Prime last month—was on my thirtieth birthday. Like many so-called millennials, that three-decade milestone––the last slap in the face of definitive, inescapable adulthood––was and is a source of profound existential dread. If I am in fact “a grown-up”, I certainly struggle to feel like it. Personally, socially, professionally––navigating a world of complex financial and personal obligations, of fraught daily social negotiation, of information overload, of unprecedented instability where narratives twist overnight and identity is weaponized and commercialized––it’s all as frightening now as it ever was, and retreating to the nostalgic pleasures (and vices) of youth is ever-appealing, and ever-easy. Even before COVID shut down the world, most of my twenties were spent neither accomplishing anything of lasting value nor enjoying those pleasures commonly believed to be the privileges of youth: sex, adventure, risk, romance. I spent much of that time (far too much) alone, staring at void surfaces––walls and monitors––searching for ghosts of human presence that wouldn’t vanish the moment I reached out for them. Time, at times, has collapsed—hours, days, months and years lost in the slow-boiling guttural seethe of that which The Sopranos’ Dr. Melfi likes to remind us is “rage turned inward.”
It may be a tad unorthodox to preface a film review with this kind of personal reflection, but there’s really no other way to speak honestly about Hideaki Anno’s fraught pop-culture opus. Evangelion 3.0 + 1.01: Thrice Upon a Time is so bewilderingly maximalist in its ambitions, so conflicted in its heart, so dense and idiosyncratic from its title on down that it’s hard to know where to even begin gauging one’s own reaction to it except by probing inward. The final installment in the “Rebuild” tetralogy––which, over the course of 15 years and numerous Anno-imposed rewrites and delays, has morphed from a remake of the original series into a drastically divergent, exceedingly meta reimagining-slash-sequel––debuted internationally on Amazon Prime earlier this month. It has promptly gone on to break viewership records for the streaming service whilst––not for the first time in Eva history––polarizing diehard fans, earning a gamut of appraisals ranging from “an out and out masterpiece” to “the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” Mamoru Oshii, one of Anno’s most prestigious peers in the anime world, has dryly roasted Anno, calling his role at Studio Khara “more of a producer than a director” and lambasting his late-career work for lacking thematic coherence. It’s the kind of impassioned, radically divergent audience response characteristic of idiosyncratic auteur work, at a volume and frequency known only to mass franchise entertainment.
But none of this reveals what Thrice Upon a Time (henceforth 3+1) actually is; because what it is is a contradiction.
Banish from your heart any fear that the third Evangelion finale in 25 years might be overly conventional, or for that matter coherent. Starting immediately where 2012’s 3.0 left off, the film opens with good-guy team WILLE (led by Shinji’s leggy ex-guardian Misato Katsuragi) preparing for their final battle with good-guy-turned-bad-guy team NERV (led by Shinji’s ascetic dad Gendo), who intend to bring about a quasi-religious apocalypse using mystical alien technology. Meanwhile, a near-catatonic Shinji and his fellow Evangelion (“Eva”) pilots Asuka and Rei––all of whom, as revealed in the prior film, are now adults trapped in an endless adolescence from using the eponymous biomechanical monsters––are left trudging through the desolate wasteland that was once Japan. Upon reaching an encampment of survivors Shinji is reunited with some familiar faces and discovers that, while he spent years physically and mentally cut off from the world, his old friends have grown up and moved on.
From here 3+1 alternates down two divergent paths: one a muted character drama about arrested development, cyclical trauma, and the burdensome weight of the past; the other a sci-fi blockbuster epic about titanic beings and paramilitary forces warring for the fate of humanity. This narrative dichotomy has always defined Evangelion, of course, but the gulf in style and substance between the two has rarely been quite so pronounced.
After a ten-minute prologue sequence of continuous action spectacle that sees the Eiffel Tower used as a bludgeoning weapon, the film spends nearly a quarter of its runtime in the survivors’ encampment. That encampment, it turns out, is a close-knit workers’ commune, a sort of kibbutz at the end of the world, where people use whatever skills and resources they have to support one another and restore the land in a shielded oasis amid devastation. This segment––sedate, slow-paced, hand-animated, and enamored with the rhythms and details of agrarian working-class life as humanist antithesis to Evangelion’s customary alienation and destruction––most clearly suggests Anno’s tutelage by Hayao Miyazaki, and indeed it’s said Studio Ghibli assisted in the animation. Anno’s attempt to evoke Ghibli-esque whimsy in an unexpected character arc for the cloistered, alien-like Rei borders on overly precious––“Is this… ‘cute’?” she asks, gawking at a human infant for the first time—but the segment draws bite from Anno’s more familiar oeuvre of loneliness as the mentally and physically deformed pilots struggle to find their place in a world without Evas and Angels. For the first time in Evangelion, the story pulls focus to “ordinary” people trying to rebuild its fractured world rather than tortured souls battling over that world’s fate, and the Eva pilots are visibly out of place—but their contact with humanity’s communal spirit and indomitable will to live pointedly humanizes them.
Once this episode is resolved, 3+1 jumps right back into the esoteric sci-fi hokum previewed in its intro, a place where ludicrous new Proper Nouned science-mystical Macguffins are thunderously announced in every other scene (Anti-Universe! Spear of Gaius! Golgotha Object!); where stiffly animated, toylike CG robots and faceless enemy hordes tumble through spatially undefined voids in mind-numbing combat sequences devoid of comprehensible human stakes, more visually and narratively chaotic than coherent. Events happen, and happen in great magnitude, but they are often quite difficult to locate in any tangible network of actions, consequences and character motivations: in fact, the film sometimes seems to delight in depriving the audience of necessary context to understand what the hell’s going on, or burying that context under piles of in-universe jargon. As the last act bends near to breaking with heady meta-commentary on Evangelion-as-text, the script lays down ontological nuttery to make the Wachowskis bite their lips: “That’s Evangelion Imaginary!” proclaims one character, awestruck. “I never thought it actually existed!” (How much of the film’s bizarre dialogue might be attributable to Khara’s stilted, ultra-literal in-house English translation is open to debate.)
Even with its hefty running time (among the longest in the history of animated features), 3+1 somehow manages to feel both overstuffed and critically underdeveloped. The “Rebuild” series never knew quite what to do with the original TV show’s rich supporting cast, despite carrying over almost all of them plus new additions. That comes to a head as the film tries economically resolving over a dozen different multi-film character arcs in addition to Shinji’s, to wildly differing results: characters who seem like they should be narratively central (e.g. the long-suffering Misato, a major character in every previous iteration) are effectively cast off to the sidelines, while others who seemed peripheral are given depths we never may have suspected they had (or needed). Some characters get resolution in the form of extensive, dedicated sequences; others get inconspicuous throwaway details. Outside of Shinji, one gets the sense that Anno (who has sole screenplay credit) doesn’t truly know where to focus his attention, or if he even can.
Anno’s breathless eagerness to impart the audience with Lore, his self-consciousness of Evangelion-as-franchise, and his drive to unite past and present in one final bow all recall George Lucas’s guns-blazing tribute to his own pop mythology in Revenge of the Sith. Lucas, of course—an artist with his fair share of similarities to Anno, and whose controversial Star Wars prequels have been compared to Anno’s Rebuild series more than once—was never in his life quite so determined to grapple with his most private personal demons on the screen right beside his fantastical, mythological creations. (Though a Star Wars trilogy where the revelation of Luke’s family ties prompts a whole film’s worth of apocalyptic psychosexual angst might have been better for cinema and the world.) Then again, Lucas clearly had a full, long-gestating story arc in mind that he saw his final film as an opportunity to fulfill. 3+1, grasping for direction, threatens to become so deeply submerged in an insular discourse with any and every type of Evangelion fan that it loses the light of day, only to be yanked back to surface level by the commercial incentive for gauche spectacle. Anno—like Lucas—now finds himself embattled between the rebel he once was and the emperor he’s become.
At times, 3+1 reads as the most cynical, soulless concession to an audience of eternally demanding deep-pocketed otaku in Hideaki Anno’s career. There’s no other way to put this than bluntly: the CG-addicted action sequences are not good. Action setpieces in the original Neon Genesis Evangelion stood out in large part by virtue of their ability––inspired by the sense of awe and brutal physicality conveyed in the original King Kong, Godzilla, and other godfathers of the kaiju and mecha genres––to transpose the fantastical (cyborgs, aliens, massive machinery) onto something physically and emotionally identifiable as our own world. One of the series’ many iconic shots––faithfully reproduced in 1.0, and called back to in 3+1 before end credits roll––deftly establishes its scale by framing a single footstep of the eponymous biomechanical monstrosity, a giant purple foot crashing onto an urban street in wide shot, cracking the glass walls of a telephone booth in the foreground with sheer force of impact. Likewise, despite their awe-inspiring stature, Evangelions were still bound by the restrictions of the physical world: the superweapon colossi ran on auxiliary power, and when unplugged had a five-minute ticking clock before battery depletion would seal the pilot’s doom. When the machines started acting autonomously and defying conventional physics, it was a sure sign that reality-bending psychedelic horror would follow. A hand-animated sequence of Asuka’s Evangelion taking on human military vessels and a series of eerily grinning hostile Evas in The End of Evangelion is legendary among animation enthusiasts for its painstakingly fluid motion, visceral choreography, stomach-churning body horror, and harrowing dramatic stakes.
“Rebuild” has long since decided that it wants to buck certain comparisons with the original series, and among these departures is its embrace of more cartoonishly exaggerated action sequences reminiscent of its creative team’s other work (including co-directors Kazuya Tsurumaki’s FLCL or Diebuster and Mahiro Maeda’s segments in The Animatrix) than Evangelion proper. That’s fine—3.0’s action scenes in particular had a kind of deranged beauty as Evas twisted, flew, morphed, and bled all over desolate underworld-like scenery—but 3+1 seems to lose the plot entirely with chaotic orgies of light, sound and atonal Bigness more mind-numbing than cathartic. As Evas grapple toyetic enemies—some, in a seemingly jaded touch of self-awareness, literally mixed and matched from previous Eva and Angel parts—in 3D rendering that looks nabbed out of a budget-friendly PS3 game, it calls to mind not so much Evangelion or even anime itself as the most overproduced mediocrities of Hollywood CGI spectacle. (Though comparisons have been made to the Agent Smith mob fight scene in The Matrix Reloaded, this film only wishes it could come up with an action setpiece using CGI that creatively—the cacophonous mock-climactic noise and inscrutable babble of the film’s big moments recall Matrix Revolutions, if anything.) Production materials for previous projects suggest Anno sees the mock-physicality of CGI as akin to the miniature effects in his beloved tokusatsu films; but he’s mistaken if he thinks this stiff digital lifelessness matches the charm of handcrafted objects placed before a camera lens. In the NHK behind-the-scenes documentary on 3+1––also available on Amazon and well worth a watch—Studio Khara’s CGI action sequence director is pictured taking orders from Anno: a young man in a Marvel T-shirt. One suspects this speaks volumes.
Another facet of these less-than-exciting action scenes is Mari Makinami, a character new to the “Rebuild” films whose purpose in the story (beyond selling more merchandise) has always been dramatically opaque and, save for some abstracted meta-symbolism toward the end, never becomes much clearer. She handily represents the film’s other most off-putting indulgence: like other young female characters herein, she is typically framed in sleazy, quasi-pornographic camera angles carefully calibrated to invite audience leering at every opportunity. Evangelion and its creators have always had a fraught relationship with “fanservice”––not just “serving” the fans in a narrative sense, but in the sense of presenting luridly hypersexualized shots of female characters (often young adolescents) for the presumptive straight-male audience to salivate over. A burlesque attitude toward the representation of young female bodies has long been an accepted norm in anime fan culture, and curiously this objectification is often seen to complement rather than contradict female characters’ portrayal as empathetic or strong. But the original Evangelion seemed much more conscientious in its deployment of hypersexualized imagery than what is seen here: in the series, leery camera angles were typically used to signify Shinji’s burgeoning sexual id, and starkly desexualized nudity was deployed by contrast to complicate and challenge the audience’s vicarious pleasure in ogling finely sculpted cartoon assets. No such subversive intent is apparent when 3+1 shoves close-up animated breasts and cameltoe into center frame during ostensibly dramatic scenes, or luridly insinuates that two of Shinji’s love interests may have a lesbian relationship with one another (an angle only hinted at in scenes where they’re talking about him); rather it seems like another cynical concession to the very sort of adolescent fulfillment Evangelion has traditionally approached with deep skepticism. As with the CG-addled action, the gratuitously trashy sexual fanservice scenes read like a weary Anno, no longer personally invested in this story, conceding his work’s own status as juvenile audience-pleasing pulp and trying to satiate a rabid fanbase in sequences handed off to an understudy.
Yet whatever its turbulence and teetering narrative scaffolding, there is no forgetting for too long that the captain of this unwieldy ship is still the man behind Neon Genesis Evangelion. For every miscalculated deployment of CG modeling as pseudo-Hollywood spectacle, there’s another usage consciously tapping into the uncanny valley for a surreal blending of mediums recalling David Lynch’s twisted creations in Twin Peaks: The Return. Armies of pearly-skinned, mannequin-like headless nudes and photoreal seas of gushing purple liquid herald the coming of the film’s apocalyptic climax, juxtaposed as always with Anno’s pet fixations of painstakingly rendered military vessels and titanic organisms fused with complex machinery (one giant ship sports what appears to be a monstrous, bloody spinal cord that must be moved into place by teams of human operators). An iconic image from End of Evangelion is reprised with a Frankensteinian blending of traditional animation, photography and CGI—the result is appropriately unnerving.
3+1’s visual palette is replete with callbacks subtle and large to all of Eva’s history, up to and including a diegesis-shattering finale whose very premise is itself a callback to (or, one might argue, a continuation of) Eva’s glory days. Anno, a prodigy who’s lived and breathed animation for the better part of half a century, has practically a sixth sense for magnetic compositions which, through repetition and iteration, recall feeling, characters, and themes as powerfully as any of his musical collaborator Shiro Sagisu’s iconic leitmotifs. (The eclecticism of Sagisu’s score, incidentally, indicates just how many different directions this film extends in creatively: you will hear everything from choirs to jazz to raging guitar licks to Simon & Garfunkel pastiche to classical samples to soulful ballads with goofy English lyrics reminiscent of Cowboy Bebop—and more than a couple reprised motifs that defined past Eva productions.) In a bit of postmodern audacity that would impress Quentin Tarantino, Anno uses 3+1’s own status as franchise-capping finale to reverse tragedy through metafiction: scene staging and compositions are lovingly recreated or reframed from The End of Evangelion, but with positions and outcomes reversed to illustrate how characters destroyed by their respective tragic flaws in the 1997 film have grown and changed by learning from their mistakes. In these moments, settling metafictional arcs that have existed for as long as the characters have lived in Anno’s head, the distance between author, text, and audience converges on absolute zero.
This is not precisely the “retelling” of Evangelion that was advertised: it is a metatext that is not even thematically coherent without Neon Genesis Evangelion, the prior text to which it’s responding. The previous “Rebuilds” hinted at this from the start, but 3+1’s final act becomes so brazenly self-referencing as to make it totally undeniable. No work without Eva’s franchise status, pop-cultural stature, and towering auteurship could get away with this kind of naked self-reflection and not come off as masturbatory, but somehow 3+1—messy and conflicted though it may be––ultimately gets away with it.
In the final half-hour, the film sets itself free. Much like the original series finale, 3+1 eventually slags off the tortured constraints of plot and abandons itself to a free-associative symphony of images, words, and raw emotion. As its characters descend into Instrumentality, an otherworldly dimension of merged consciousness and fluid reality (think 2001’s “Beyond Jupiter” combined with a radical therapy session) Anno yet again strips back animation’s layers of artifice, putting the film’s own production materials on the screen to try grappling with what precisely “closure” might mean for this conjoined trinity of characters, audience, and artist. What it means is soul-searching, an inventory of all Evangelion that has come before; a reckoning of cast and creator’s lingering regrets; a series of heartfelt goodbyes; and finally, a breakthrough of that stifling insularity built up on years of fond and painful memories, as Evangelions literally erase themselves to open up a new world. As End of Evangelion destroyed the world to a J-pop ballad about suicidal regret, 3+1 restores it to one about a mother’s infinite gratitude for her child. For a man who has inhabited these people, this medium, and this universe for much of his life, the most profound image Anno can conjure––and with one of the most phenomenally, earnestly absurd title drops of all time, no less—is a fantastical, nigh-religious Gnosis that shatters the medium itself, the artifices of animation peeling back layer by layer before our eyes as the last remaining Eva pilots walk hand-in-hand into our very own reality. If you have ever felt anything for these uncanny golems on the screen––these drawings given life by a piece of a writer’s soul––it’s almost impossible not to feel something by 3+1’s end credits roll.
At the same time: for a man who’s very publicly struggled with mental illness, sexuality, and neurodivergence, it might be said that Anno’s ideas about “closure” and “growing up” are tritely conservative, even hypocritical. There’s no mystery to the metaphor of turning Eva’s protagonists into 28-year-old adult children who don’t know how to function in society. Go outside, get a job, get a spouse, join society, baby boomer Hideaki Anno seems to be telling his millennial audience who grew up on Evangelion––it worked for me! Anno, of course, is a wealthy celebrity and subject of fawning national broadcast coverage who’s been helped out of depressive episodes and given tremendous opportunities in life by his world-famous celebrity friends. Visionary though he may be, his success has undeniably made him a face of the establishment he once rebelled against. Much of what Neon Genesis Evangelion seemed to question about anime and the society that produced and consumed it––its objectification of women, romanticism of heteronormative gender roles, status as consumable wish-fulfillment fantasy, conception of duty and self-sacrifice as stoic conformity to a neoliberal social order––the “Rebuild” series appears to celebrate with a phony Cheshire cat smile.
I went into 3+1 skeptical. Years since I saw the last film, Evangelion is no longer the defining personal influence it was in my teens, and with the benefit of maturity and critical distance the adolescent absurdities of its genre-pastiche-as-confessional-psychodrama conceit are made readily apparent – not least of all in the Rebuild series, which has clearly luxuriated in its commercial stature as much or more than any expression of Anno’s personal vision. Yet in the scenes of a late-20s, Neverland-cursed Shinji Ikari sitting dead silent, despondent and awkward among his now-grown-up friends, isolated from their adult lives and their thread of community, I felt that old uncanniness begin to creep under my skin again. The emotional texture of these scenes recalled specific, private moments in my recent past. They made me remember a socially distanced dinner last year where I’d sat six feet away from middle school classmates I hadn’t seen in more than seventeen years. The classmates were grown-up, with careers and relationships and financial concerns they discussed at great length over curry and wine. Still stewing in a cold, dark prison I’d helped to construct so many years ago, I felt cut off from this existence. I was silent, unable or unwilling to match their projections of confidence in their paths. I tried, awkwardly, to talk about the experiences we shared that I remember vividly––people we knew, games we played, the Ralph Nader T-shirts one of them always used to wear. I did not mention my memories of being shunned and mocked and driven to tears by those very guests in front of our class. It became apparent that not one of these memories I could call up effortlessly, sunny or painful, was even ringing a bell for anyone else involved in them. All the excitement and all the pain I’d felt back then was and is still vivid to me; for them it has faded to dust. I was the last child there.
A few scenes further into Evangelion, a line of dialogue broke through: Shinji, at his lowest point, is sitting despondent in lakeside ruins where he’s chosen to isolate himself. Rei approaches him innocently, trying to make conversation; and for the first time in the film, Shinji’s bubbling reserves of anger and pain burst forth as he lashes out at her. “Why are you so nice to me!?” he cries.
There’s half a beat. “It’s because we like you.”
Shinji turns around; this time, it’s he who is speechless. And again, so was I. These words were ripped almost verbatim from conversations I’d had with a friend during a recent depressive episode. I pushed that friend away because I simply couldn’t fathom why someone would be nice to me without an ulterior motive. That they liked me was simply unthinkable; certainly not something I knew how to process in that moment. I had no response but withdrawal and rage.
I didn’t tell anyone about these conversations.
Anno still speaks my private language.
What redeems Evangelion, what makes it artistically noteworthy even at its messiest—and 3+1 is the messiest it’s ever been––is that uncanny force of raw personal expression. Hideaki Anno, like the great postmodern and genre auteurs, melds “high” and “low” forms of expression in such a way that tension between the two bypasses our ironic detachment. Like great pop music, it isolates a gem of deeply felt, experientially authentic human truth and crystallizes it in aestheticized form. For all his vocally tortured relationship with escapism and anime itself, Anno is clearly a true believer in the power of fantasy to reflect and elevate primal truths in a way more realistic, representational art and fiction cannot. Evangelion, its knotted mythos and epic imagery lending the feelings of the young and lost a nigh-religious sense of gravitas, does precisely that. Evangelion isolates feelings of loneliness, anxiety, sexual uncertainty, and the like that are very real for young people––particularly mentally ill and / or neurodivergent young people––and uses its genre trappings (powered by Anno’s undisputed genius as a crafter of stylized images) to elevate them to outright mythic levels of cosmic import. That’s exactly how these feelings feel to those experiencing them.
The esotericism of Eva’s capital-L Lore and borrowed Gnostic mythology are a smokescreen (not irrelevant, but a smokescreen) hiding a work that functions so heavily on primal, ultra-personal emotions it all but inevitably collapses into the surreal. It may be Anno’s therapy session in pulp fiction form, but Anno’s capacity to channel something raw and bleeding within himself into his chosen medium of pop art, his inability to distinguish the personal from professional—his total convergence of art, product, audience and self––produces a result that can only be described as uncanny. And that’s what grabs people. People look at cartoon characters suffering and saying intimate, uncomfortable things they themselves might have said––or only thought––and they’re naturally compelled. Like great pop music, or any art that tows a careful line between impassioned overstatement and dreamlike ambiguity, people look at Evangelion and see their own individual emotional experiences reflected back in operatic scope and volume.
With Thrice Upon a Time, Hideaki Anno has finally, definitively (maybe) put Evangelion to rest. As animation bleeds seamlessly into photography in the film’s closing moments while no-longer-familiar characters dash toward the horizon, it luxuriates in a world of unspoken possibilities where fantasy and reality converge and dissipate; where author, characters, and audience are unbound from each other, free to pursue their own destinies yet forever shaped by the time they spent together. Evangelion and Anno shaped me, and for better, worse and everything in between there will be nothing of its like on the screen for a long time to come. With any luck, maybe one day I can give something of myself that shapes even half as many people in kind.
Evangelion 3.0 + 1.01: Thrice Upon a Time is now on Amazon Prime.