This spring, Netflix will bring the mid-’90s animated series Neon Genesis Evangelion to the platform. For fans of the series, it’s an occasion on par with the Second Coming. For others, it’s a head-scratcher: What is Neon Genesis Evangelion? In short: It’s an anime — and so much more, making it difficult to know where to start.
Evangelion tells a concise and beautiful story that tracks the psychological trauma of its teenage hero characters, who stand as the sole fighters of a war that humans don’t stand a chance of winning. They’re required to pilot giant robotic monsters (Evas) to battle inscrutable enemy ones, called Angels. It’s a losing game from the start: Friends are hurt, repeatedly, irrevocably; our lead, Shinji Ikari, is put through the ringer time and again by his own father. At the same time, he’s going through the pains of puberty, and working alongside two high school girls is not helping him focus.
This is the story that unfolds over the course of the original anime. Yet Evangelion is more than just the 26-episode series that wrapped in 1996 (and has been held in high esteem in the years since). There are also two direct feature-film follow-ups, and an entire set of movies that “retell” the TV show’s story.
If you’re an anime fan who still hasn’t seen the show but means to, you may be tempted by film-length recaps. They’re much more readily available than the original series is (until it’s streaming, that is), and they theoretically condense 15-ish hours of action and drama and existential dread into a shorter package with sleeker, modernized animation.
To you, I say: Don’t do this. Don’t watch the Rebuild of Evangelion film series before watching the anime as it was. Hold out for Netflix. There is a correct way to enjoy the anime, and it requires patience.
Begin with the beginning: the TV show
Evangelion is notorious not just for its scattershot pacing, but also the production hell that begat it. Both are obvious when you watch the anime. Don’t be scared off by this: It doesn’t affect the quality. It also doesn’t hinder the storytelling. There’s something necessary about how Evangelion folds perfectly in half, from an action anime not unlike Gundam to an introspective treatise on emotional abuse, adolescence and their ties to mental health. A recap slides into the middle of these two parts to make that transition, if not easier, pointed.
The notoriously dialogue-heavy, two-part finale may also be a turnoff to people who know the show only through retrospectives or memes. It’s followed by yet another recap, Death & Rebirth, and then the very dark, depressing and gruesome cinematic conclusion, The End of Evangelion.
Death & Rebirth is absolutely essential. It retells the entire season up until these final moments, but it includes new scenes for episodes 21 through 24. The revamped episodes are referred to as the “director’s cut” versions, and they fill in gaps left behind by the original broadcast editions of these episodes. (The director’s cut of episode 22 in particular is required viewing, and should be seen in place of the broadcast edition. It’s very upsetting! But also good.)
Also included in Death & Rebirth is the first cut of episode 25 of the 26-episode anime. It’s worth a watch too, but mostly out of curiosity; it also is essentially the first part of The End of Evangelion, which you should obviously watch after you finish episode 26.
Altogether, the original Evangelion anime will do a number on your psyche. Have fun!
But what about the movie remakes?
Does this sound intimidating and maybe bizarre? It might, especially since the handier Rebuild of Evangelion seems tonally clearer at first. The goal of the films, according to the animation team, was to bring the series to a wider audience, one that didn’t watch the original show. Thus, they appear to be modern retellings ... at first.
The first film, Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone., retreads the ground of the anime’s first six episodes or so, making it a mostly contained action film. It’s beautiful, and clearly made with a much higher budget than the original series. Director Hideaki Anno reportedly suffered from severe depression while creating the 26-episode series, but found himself more able to work on the tetralogy. The first three of the Rebuild movies hit theaters at a steady clip, from 2007 to, most recently, 2012.
The next two movies diverge from that “accessibility” premise. There continue to be scenes and story beats from the original show, but there are also completely new characters. The ending of Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance., the second movie, bucks expectation completely; it somehow fits in episodes seven through 26 and then keeps on going with an original plot. The third movie continues that thread, becoming something else entirely.
All of this is to say that, if you want to watch Evangelion and think you can get away with just watching the movies, either first or alone ... don’t. Don’t do it. They’re not equivalent, but supplementary. Watch them on their own accord and for their own merit, sure. It’s still advised to get to them after watching the anime, to have a better understanding of how and why the Rebuilds go off in different ways, and to keep yourself from having much different preconceived notions going into the TV show.
Plus! Even the movies get kind of convoluted to keep up with. The DVD versions of the Rebuild films are rebranded — 1.11, 2.22 and 3.33, respectively — and come with new animation and other tweaks. Oy.
Personally, having watched 1.11 before watching Evangelion from the beginning, having the more generic beginning of the show compressed into a singular film without the successive twist that immediately follows the first six episodes of the show was an emotionally bereft and unspectacular experience. It should not be your introduction to the brooding, difficult, brilliant Evangelion.
Most importantly: With the final of the four Rebuild films, 3.0+1.0, not expected until at least 2020, you’re better off just doing yourself a service by watching the classic Studio Gainax anime in full. That’s the one that gave birth to the legacy. You may have to wait until 2019 to do so, when the classic Neon Genesis Evangelion saga is part of your Netflix subscription — since the most complete DVD box set is out of print and costs hundreds of dollars from resellers — but it will be worth it.