I’ve long held a bias against abstract art, especially in film and television. While it can be representative of one’s personal experience and state of mind, it often came across to me as a mask for weak communication skills. Perhaps it belied a lack of maturity or sensitivity on my part, preferring tangible art and literature, rather than leaving things too open-ended. I don’t expect to be handheld through stories, but I expect—to a fault—the creators’ intentions to be comprehensible, or else it leads to chaos and confusion.
This was my frustration when I first watched Neon Genesis Evangelion, Hideaki Anno’s beloved and hyped anime franchise that started in 1995. I’d managed to miss the original series growing up, while consuming its contemporaries like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell. So, as luck would have it, my first time watching the series was at 27 years old, when it finally hit Netflix in 2019.
I was initially captivated by its progressive cinematography, killer score, and raw, emotionally honest writing. Its familiar mech versus kaiju beats provided a sense of security, while its religious symbology and subversion of genre tropes made me wonder where it was all going. The answer: Anno would be flipping the script at the midway point to psychologically deconstruct, break, and regress its characters before delivering an abstract ending. “That’s it?” I exclaimed, scratching my head. “That can’t be it!” I should have done my research before I dove deeper. Shame on me.
According to several friends and an article I read at the time, the next chapter was 1997’s The End of Evangelion (EoE). This film brutally retold the final two episodes of the original series, choosing to infuse more nihilism, violence, and abstraction than its predecessor. Even after watching Game of Thrones, my stomach turned as I bore witness to body and sexual horror, including pedophilia and sexual assault. The least concerning moment can only be described as the Rapture with giant robots and people transforming into primordial soup. I was left profoundly disturbed, which may have been the intent.
Upon its original release, EoE was a response to fan backlash, as well as death threats, to the show’s original finale. The film provides both a parallel ending and potential trolling on Anno’s part, forcing the main cast to suffer immensely as viewers watched in horror. This was beyond frustrating because I was now more confused, not less, with what was being conveyed. Glutton for punishment that I am, when Amazon Prime released the Rebuild of Evangelion series on streaming for the first time, I decided to endure the pain one last time.
The Rebuild series, released between September 2007 and March 2021, was Anno’s reimagination of the television series’ story into four films. It’s simpler overall, but still a tough pill to swallow. It changes the pace and direction of the story and throws in some new characters, while also dialing down some of the more questionable moments from EoE. Its themes of isolation, depression, and anxiety remain. Its psychological and religious symbolism is more overt than before. The production quality, as expected, is top-notch, and seeing the mechs in HD is truly a treat. However, an HD reboot of a messy story inevitably winds up being a shiny mess.
Alongside the Rebuild, Amazon also released a behind-the-scenes documentary of the final film, Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (yes, that’s its actual title). In the doc, Anno struck me as a troubled soul caught in a state of arrested development, seeking catharsis through coming-of-age storytelling. In this regard, he seemed a kindred spirit of Star Wars’ George Lucas or Harry Potter’s J.K. Rowling, constantly aiming to update or redeem their most prized work. His knack for anachronistic confusion, convoluted plots, and weird titles also places him in the company of Kingdom Hearts’ Tetsuya Nomura and Metal Gear’s Hideo Kojima. All of these franchises are known for taking audiences on deeply emotional journeys, and Anno’s magnum opus is no different. But it might not be the emotions I seek in art nor entertainment.
I cannot deny that Evangelion is artistic and Anno a consummate, meticulous auteur—for better or worse. Notwithstanding, perhaps it’s time I accepted that this franchise isn’t for me. Whether I caught on too late to connect with its subtext or I just hate abstract art, its manic themes and symbolism are interesting yet over-hyped. While I’ve been trying to understand Evangelion and its fandom for two years, I can’t imagine doing this for two decades. As the credits roll on Thrice Upon a Time, all I’m left thinking, like Eva’s last two endings, is “Thank God it’s finally over.” Then again, that was kind of the “Cruel Angel’s Thesis” all along: finding serenity after constant pain. I pray that Anno has found the same with the close of this final chapter in the franchise.