Neon Genesis Evangelion came to life on Oct. 4, 1995, as a half-hour anime series broadcast on Japanese TV. The series has remained a polarizing enigma that provokes some of the most intense reactions and debate in all of pop culture.
Long before “binge-watching” or J.J. Abrams’ mystery boxes, Evangelion embraced the ambiguous and the avant-garde: a saga about adolescent pilots defending against an apocalyptic assault by entities known as “Angels,” which force them to confront their own psyches. The anime was a genuine phenomenon despite itself, its images having escaped to bullet trains, statues in theme parks, coffee cans, ubiquitous cosplay, the high-end art world, and of course, Hollywood, where plans were drawn for a live-action remake. But nearly 20 years later, no one can state definitively how Evangelion ended; the series is, to its core, simultaneously commercial and inaccessible.
For all its admirers, some believe that by the end, the show jumped headlong with jet thrusters over a churning sea full of kaiju sharks. Others embrace its mysteries on a deeply personal level. Evangelion, depending on who you ask, can be seen as an enraging cultural prerequisite or an enriching, life-changing viewing experience. I’m one of the latter, considering it one of the great works of pop culture. With the release of Evangelion on Netflix, a long-awaited, legal avenue of distribution for the series, discussion of the anime’s impact (or Third Impact) has risen again.
Before the turn of the millennium, and into the 21st century, Evangelion provoked an extraordinary response that anime viewers are still dealing with the aftershocks and implications of today. Part of this is because, on some level, the series was explicitly about fandom, made by fans desperate to express themselves. Watching the original anime requires some vital context to explain why there are multiple endings and how much of the series’ reputation derives from its failures. Evangelion movies are still being made, with a supposed fourth and final movie coming soon.
On its deepest level, Evangelion has become inseparable from the life of its creator, Hideaki Anno — and from the arc of coming to terms with his (and the audience’s own) lifelong struggles with depression and alienation, and how they often lead us to seek refuge and withdraw into inner landscapes of the imagination. But this pillar of culture all starts with a few nerds in one small room, and Anno, a brilliant prodigy among them.
In 1981, a group of hardcore anime and manga fans packed into a tiny house in Osaka, Japan, and with limited to no animation experience, began using makeshift tools to paint and punch vinyl cels by hand to create their own film. Unlike professional acetate cels, these cheap alternatives had a habit of sticking together, and yet the young hobbyists persisted. With an 8mm camera aimed downward at a linoleum floor, they shot their animation frame by messy frame.
Among the three principal filmmakers was Hideaki Anno, a college student with a highly erratic academic record. During the shoot, he called out the cel numbers, keeping track of them in his head because they either didn’t have or didn’t know about timing sheets. They were proto-otaku, born from the first postwar Japanese middle class, raised from earliest childhood on a subconscious diet of science fiction and fantasy. At that time, Studio Ghibli, Dragon Ball Z and Pokémon did not exist, and the slang term for socially awkward Japanese nerds with obsessive interests, otaku, had just started evolving from vernacular idiom into something far grander.
Their finished animated short, known as DAICON III, in celebration of the fan convention in Osaka, was rough and amateurish, but was received well by fandom and the industry. Off its success, Studio Nue hired Anno to work as an animator on The Super Dimension Fortress Macross (known more commonly in the West as the repurposed Robotech). An illustrator on Macross named Yoshiyuki Sadamoto later asked a co-worker about the strange, tall, often barefoot animator who had a habit of talking loudly and excitedly to himself. “That’s Anno. He worked on DAICON III. [...] He loves to draw mecha.” Years later, Sadamoto would work for Anno, designing characters for Evangelion.
In 1983, Anno’s friends attempted another short film for the convention, this time with far greater experience and better tools. The resulting animation was dense and hyper-saturated, sampling the entire collective unconscious of global nerd culture and packed with too many to catch in a single viewing. As DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and the Sugarhill Gang synthesized the music they grew up with into a new art form through the use of turntables and samples, Anno and his team did the same in the frames of DAICON IV.
The short film was a triumph. Anno himself animated a series of buildings vaporized in a shockwave, which at the time was a technical and expressionistic marvel of childhood end-of-world fears. The animation became an artifact of legend, traded among anime fans and even — despite the non-legal, trademark-infringing status — getting pressed to bootleg LaserDisc. Made for otaku, by otaku, and about the dreamspace that otaku travel within, DAICON IV was a work of loving homage to the dreams of fans everywhere, becoming referenced in anime for years to come.
That year, while still enrolled as a student, Anno and the Daicon team made a tribute to Ultraman with live-action, in-camera special effects that were astounding for a team of amateurs. Anno was then expelled from college for not paying tuition, which may have been to his benefit.
The budding artist soon departed Osaka for Tokyo with a single bag and all his hopes pinned on animating for Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which a pre-Ghibli Hayao Miyazaki planned to adapt from his own manga. Anno got the job, and became well-known for sleeping at the studio. Despite Miyazaki’s mockery of Anno’s personal hygiene and obsessive hoarding of otaku goods, the two formed a mentorship that grew into a close and lasting friendship. Miyazaki ended up assigning Anno animation of the striking, technically rigorous, awesome God Warrior sequence in Nausicaa.
In December 1983, Anno reunited with his collaborators from the Daicon series to form the animation studio known as Gainax, arguably the first anime studio founded by fans who sidestepped traditional industry hierarchies. They immediately set to work on the ambitious feature film Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise, and with it came internal struggles, corporate pressure, and financial woes clashing against the dreams of fans now in business.
During a difficult period, the company kept itself afloat with risqué, semi-pornographic PC games. Anno still had larger dreams, and stepped forward with ambitions to direct a shelved, six-episode original video animation (OVA, a much cheaper direct-to-video release) series Gunbuster, after reading a script by Honneamise writer-director Hiroyuki Yamaga that moved him to tears.
Much like Evangelion, Gunbuster is ostensibly about young people piloting giant robots, but fused from disparate genres and elements. During a desperate battle for survival against an alien opponent that threatens humanity with extinction, a generation of adolescent girls are taught to pilot giant space-traveling robots in a last-ditch effort to save the human race. Japanese high school drama tropes fight for space with allusions to Top Gun and sports manga. Paired with an incredibly heady, obsessive interest in the specifics of relativistic time dilation caused by travel at the speed of light to go is a penchant for lowbrow comedy. The series has tons of “fan service” — the anime term for fetishistic pleasuring of its consumers through intricately rendered mechanical hardware and titillating imagery of women’s bodies.
But there’s something strange and distinct about Gunbuster. Moments of absurdly ironic, over-the-top emotional outbursts have a layer of absolute sincerity and pathos. The women protagonists, sometimes knowingly sexualized in a puerile manner, are still its heroes and given ever more complex inner lives. Over time, the plot mechanism whereby its teenage pilots leave Earth at light speed for days to defend it, only to return home and find their childhood friends have aged decades and are moving on, becomes an enormously poignant metaphor for otaku life. While your classmates marry and have children and build adult lives, you’re still a teenager stuck in a small bedroom dreaming of space battles.
The series culminates in an extraordinary final two episodes, animated in high-contrast black and white in the super-widescreen CinemaScope aspect ratio. After an high-stakes battle on a cosmic sci-fi scale (yet to be surpassed by any movie), a poignant epilogue that sends our heroines far beyond the future adds an emotionally bittersweet moment, marrying the hard and constant rules that govern space and time with heartbreaking sentiment about personal sacrifice. If you even mention the final shots of Gunbuster to some fans, their eyes start welling up.
Anno’s next project for Gainax was the television series Nadia: Secret of the Blue Water, originally conceived by Miyazaki. Although it has admirers, the physical production of the series and internal struggles within Gainax would lead more than one person to describe working on it as “hell.” Anno found the process so crushing that he dropped out of production entirely for several episodes, and, after the collapse of a movie sequel to Royal Space Force Honneamise, by his own reckoning, he completely shut down for four years. His own official biography mentions how brutal this period of his creative life was. Anno became fixated on the theme of “not running away” and wanting to make a work to explore this idea.
Then came Neon Genesis Evangelion.
In a statement of intent titled “What Were We Trying To Make Here,” drafted in July 1995 during production of this new series, Anno wrote: “I tried to include everything of myself in Neon Genesis Evangelion — myself, a broken man who could do nothing for four years. A man who ran away for four years, one who was simply not dead. Then one thought. ‘You can’t run away,’ came to me, and I restarted this production. It is a production where my only thought was to burn my feelings into film.”
Shinji Ikari is a 14-year-old boy living in a future civilization that has rebuilt itself from a previously unseen apocalypse known as the Second Impact. He’s sent to live with his estranged father in the megalopolis Tokyo-3, a reconstructed Tokyo that doubles as a fortress. His stern father orders him to pilot a giant robot. For perhaps the first time in anime history, Shinji is deeply conflicted about the order. He’s a withdrawn, passive, shy protagonist. He doesn’t just refuse the call of adventure; his cowardice is pathological. All of his social interactions are awkward and apologetic.
The one saving grace in his life are the women of various ages around him who support, challenge, embarrass, and befuddle him. There’s Misato, brilliant tactician and his legal guardian; Asuka and Rei, teenage co-pilots of the giant robots; and Ritsuko, a scientist. Shinji also has a pure and loving homoerotic relationship with a mysterious young man, Kaworu. There’s also a penguin named Pen Pen.
Volumes have been written about the psychosexual tone of Evangelion, which often hypocritically depicts adolescent sexuality with open candor about how shamefully, clumsily horned-up it can be. At the same time, it constantly exploits sexuality at the expense of its female characters — ruthlessly pursued by Gainax in its marketing and commercialization of the series — and in that tradition of “fan service” where the otaku audience must be satiated. Regardless, this cast of characters, with all of their intensely Jungian/Freudian baggage, plays a vital role in shaping Shinji and becoming his surrogate family.
That’s Shinji’s emotional infrastructure before the Angels attack. A bewildering array of opponents, provenance unknown, the Angels wish to destroy Tokyo-3 and can only be countered by Shinji’s father’s giant robots. They start as humanoid shadows of kaiju but quickly evolve into demented abstractions, sometimes even mere shapes, forcing humanity into a Darwinian arms race with transcendental beings.
Shinji keeps running away from his duties as a pilot and spends a lot of time alone listening to music on headphones, portentously flipping between tracks 25 and 26 on repeat. There’s something elusively nightmarish about these giant robots, the Eva units, which seem to resemble demons, and are revealed to be more biological than technological. The cockpits engulf the pilots in a breathable liquid that tastes like blood. You get the sensation there’s something profane about the entire subconscious desire to want to be in these humanoid guardians. Evangelion’s genre revisionism asks us to consider the psychosexual side of anime tropes: Why do we need this story that keeps getting retold? Is it damaging us?
The series is a collage of Japanese pop culture’s collective unconscious, with some Christian gnosticism thrown in (without much forethought) for good heretical and apocalyptic measure, and most unusually, vivid digressions into the characters’ psychological inner states. On paper, it’s a show about teenagers in sexy outfits piloting giant robots. As it progresses, that unsettling feeling, that nagging sensation that there’s something wrong with what we’re watching, dominates the action. Even the first episodes have shots with extraordinarily unusual pacing, and framing with the same methods as the most avant-garde, experimental cinema. There’s also a lot of kick-ass battles and humor to keep you hooked.
In episode 16, about halfway through production of the series, creatively blocked and unable to go further writing the story for the character of the ambiguous Rei, Anno asked a friend for a suggestion on some reading about mental illness in an attempt to better understand her. The book he picked up startled him. What he found within was a diagnosis of his own problems in life. It was revelatory. Anno had been struggling with depression all these years and hadn’t had the language or understanding for it, or even accepted that it could be a clinical diagnosis.
Evangelion changed after Anno recognized his own life’s struggle. The show became more tragic, and more apocalyptic. Several of the mysteries were given incredible twists that took Jungian concepts into a pure science-fiction landscape (in particular, the revealed origins of the Eva units might be the hybridized future of the Oedipus complex).
As the show crescendoed, hinting toward an catastrophic final battle, the final two episodes loomed on the horizon: 25 and 26. There are rumors, never confirmed, that although Evangelion was by this point an ever-growing success with a large audience, the ending had come up against Anno’s desire to make a series that was reactive and in flux — which led to an inability to commit to what that ending would be, along with massive budgetary issues.
No one could have expected what would happen.
The final two episodes of Evangelion — and for those warding off spoilers, yes, this is the end and we’re going to discuss it — are nearly indescribable. Shinji confronts his own self and his friends in inner space via radical visuals and sound and an overwhelming philosophical dialogue. Sometimes expressed as rough pencil or crayon drawings, photocopied photographs, sometimes a squiggly line, layers of text interrupt the screen as a voice in your head. Alternating realities present themselves. There’s animation that reveals everything to be happening on a movie set.
And most unexpectedly of all, there’s hope. A desperate, wailing, expressionistic cry for help; a plea with the audience to consider life outside and beyond the confines of mecha, of a genre, of a fandom.
A reality emerges in which Shinji and his friends aren’t exploited monster pilots, but just kids in high school. In the most unforeseen twist ending I’ve ever come across, pop nihilism is turned into pop optimism. Shinji faces up to his cowardice to take on a task even more daunting than an end-of-the-world robot battle: He defeats self-loathing to accept his self and his friends’ love, and live. As he has this epiphany, a final wall is literally shattered: The last hopeful word that closes the series is repeated by all the characters (even the penguin), addressed directly to the audience.
At the very end, Anno himself chimes in. There’s more to life than these fantasies; go live them, it begs of the main character, who, you realize, is you.
“Episodes 25 and 26 as broadcast on TV accurately reflect my mood at the time,” Hideaki Anno said in his first interview after the series ended. “I am very satisfied. I regret nothing.”
A few months later, Anno wearily defended this ending at a convention in the U.S. When asked why the ending of the series was so confusing, he reiterated the same, saying that if you didn’t like the ending, “Too bad.”
Gainax producer Toshio Okada claims that after the finale, Anno shaved his head, a sign of severe contrition in Japan. Though it’s hard to tell from this distance, by all accounts the reaction to the end of the series was wildly polarized and at times extremely negative — especially, Anno noted, on the internet, where the discourse veered into death threats.
In what remains of a few fan-translated fragments of a Japanese interview conducted by manga author Nariko Enomoto, finishing the series while recognizing his own depression left Anno in a state of deep existential crisis. He reportedly contemplated suicide. Hayao Miyazaki consoled him, a memory that to this day moves Anno to tears. He has stressed over the years how much of himself he put into Evangelion, and how it left him utterly empty. Even Anno’s personal biography on his current studio’s website talks openly about these struggles.
But Evangelion had become too much of a success. Movies were quickly announced that would act as an alternate ending to the series, with some resemblance to early ideas Anno had and with budgets that the show could never compare to.
Anno later declared in the Japanese magazine NewType that “Evangelion is like a puzzle, you know. Any person can see it and give his/her own answer. In other words, we’re offering viewers to think by themselves, so that each person can imagine his/her own world. We will never offer the answers, even in the theatrical version. As for many Evangelion viewers, they may expect us to provide the ‘all-about Eva’ manuals, but there is no such thing. Don’t expect to get answers by someone. Don’t expect to be catered to all the time. We all have to find our own answers.
”Evangelion is my life and I have put everything I know into this work. This is my entire life. My life itself.”
A year later, the theatrical release of End of Evangelion would reprise and remake episodes 25 and 26. Just as Shinji couldn’t stop listening to those two tracks on his walkman, Anno was caught in a loop, replaying them yet again.
Since it was sold as the “true ending” that Evangelion should’ve had originally, expectations and hype for End of Evangelion were enormous. The first movie, Death:Rebirth, was a condensed re-edit of the series with some new scenes and featured part of the opening of End of Evangelion. Journalist Boo Stewart, living in Osaka at the time, says screenings of End of Evangelion sold out weeks in advance. She attended a showing so packed that she had to watch the movie standing.
Shinji, the audience surrogate, starts End of Evangelion by visiting his friend, competitive co-pilot, and often confusing crush, Asuka, in the hospital, where she’s been rendered comatose by a battle. He masturbates to orgasm over her unconscious body on the precipice of death, and says to himself, “I’m beyond fucked up.”
That’s how the movie begins.
What follows is one of the most sustained assaults on an audience in mass entertainment. Everybody dies, horribly. The characters we’ve come to know and love are viciously and graphically slaughtered, then the massacre widens until everybody in existence melts into a puddle. Shinji — possibly experiencing the extinguishing of his own individuality, trapped impotently in a frozen Eva-01 that’s been used in an occult ritual to bring about the literal apocalypse involving a gigantic clone of his mother merged with the apocryphal Lilith emerging from the moon as if it were a poisoned seed — once again falls into the void of inner space. The scene is strewn with philosophical dialogue that pushes further than the series ever did into abstract filmmaking. Anno flings around text like Jean-Luc Godard does (although it’s possible that the animator picked up the technique from one of his favorite movies: another massacre film, the Japanese war epic The Battle of Okinawa).
But this inner reckoning is harsher and crueler, and it eventually gets interrupted by live-action footage: an audience watching the movie itself, a photograph of the Gainax offices defaced by graffiti, a montage of emails and internet messages mixed with praise and exhortations for Anno to kill himself. Imagery appears of a crying child staring at the icons of Evangelion as if they were on an abandoned playground that is itself being lit like a movie set. The movie spirals ever inward until it’s left with only Shinji desperately attempting to understand why his relationships, especially with women, are so fraught with fear, hurt, and abuse. He has one final choice: to let all of humanity merge into one single formless consciousness as he desired, or to preserve our individuality with all the misunderstanding, loneliness, and pain that goes with it.
The final scene finds Shinji waking up on the shore of a blood-red sea, the world utterly ruined. Asuka is with him. He tries to choke her, but takes pity when she is merciful to him for a moment. She looks at him, weeping, and says, “Kimochi warui,” or, translated ambiguously, “I feel sick.”
Then “THE END” on a stark white background.
“They literally sent us outside after the curtains closed and the next screening let in before we’d even collected ourselves,” Stewart says. “STUNNED SILENCE. No one said a word and filed into the streets quietly. I don’t think we understood what we’d just seen. There was a kind of trauma surrounding it... I remember the light being such a blinding contrast to the dark solitude of the theater... It felt so appropriate for that particular film which was urging the audience to experience life beyond the screen.”
End of Evangelion is a brutal experience. The animation is technically astounding but seems composed of otherworldly, iconic imagery that, in mutating canonical and religious depictions of the end of the world, feels at times forbidden, as if gazing upon it is a violation of things better left secret to the human race.
There is never-ending discussion and controversy about the motive of this, of why Anno felt the need to remake those episodes at all. He has never completely clarified his intentions. What is certain is his intention for us to struggle with the work and its meaning. All we’re left with are his few elusive statements, and the work itself.
Some in the Evangelion fandom need reassurance that End of Evangelion was the ending that Anno always intended, despite his insistence that he had perhaps conceived elements of it at one point but had abandoned them to stand by the original series’ ending. There is an interpretation that End of Evangelion is a sort of act of revenge on an unappreciative audience. My own view is that that’s a gross simplification of something much more complex. The series is about what being an otaku does to you socially. It’s fighting against itself as much as any notion of the audience’s satisfaction. A lot of it can be seen as a direct homage to one of Anno’s favorite anime, Space Runaway Ideon, which ends in a massacre and cosmic transcendence.
Having opted for hope in the first series, Anno’s own remake still says something similar, but with blaring anger. I do not find End of Evangelion to be a hopeless movie; in the end, all it asks is for us to try and understand each other despite the enormous pain that requires.
Paradoxically, in our time of aggregated and ever more fluid opportunities for weaponized, anonymous rage and entitlement, consumerism has merged with a canonical ideation of pop mythologies. Quasi-religious belief in “true” versions has become normalized, and they are debated every minute of every day online. It has become far easier to find death threats against creators these days, especially those who are challenging dominant hierarchies. All of these ideas aren’t even subtext in Evangelion, but overt. Every time Evangelion gets remade, the mix of giant robots that make for beautiful toys and blasphemous religious iconography with attractive teenagers in skintight armor suits keeps leading to ever more jagged interpretations of annihilation.
As Anno himself said in 1997, quite knowingly and self-aware, to French journalist Pierre Giner:
You need to understand that Japanese animation is an industry that is, for the most part, male, and as is quite evident, everything is made for their gratification… Animation is on certain points, very close to the pornography industry. All your physical needs are met. You can watch different animations and find anything you desire.
After Evangelion, Anno turned his skills toward live action, adapting two Japanese novels. He made the extremely avant-garde Ryu Murakami adaptation Love & Pop, which pushed digital video cinematography to its limits to tell the story of a group of teenage sex workers. He followed this with Shiki-Jitsu, an existential tone poem about the difficulties of creating, based on Ayako Fujitani’s novella Touhimu, shot on 35mm film.
Other works showed a voraciously intense desire to work limitlessly. After reading lots of manga romance novels by female writers, he tried an adaptation of Kare Kano, which he supposedly quit in protest quietly after facing creative restrictions. One episode turned the characters into popsicle stick cut-outs. Cutie Honey was a live-action hybrid adaptation of a classic anime, a sort of cubist rendering with real people that predated a lot of the visuals of the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer.
But in 2007, able to build his own animation studio, Khara, he decided to remake Evangelion once again — this time completely from the beginning, with resources and time he never had before. The rebuild of Evangelion movies continue their production to this day.
In recent years, Anno has opened up about how remaking Evangelion all over again as a series of new movies has led to more struggles with depression. As anyone who copes with depression knows, it’s a lifelong battle. He now credits his wife and friends with saving his life.
The effort demanded that Anno take another break. He voiced the main character in Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, and the two continue to insult each other lovingly to this day. He also co-directed the politically subversive Shin Godzilla with his lifelong friend and Daicon collaborator Shinji Higuchi. Anno’s entire body of work was given a retrospective at the Tokyo Film Festival in 2014, where Ghibli’s Toshio Suzuki declared him to be the future of anime.
Life has gone on for Hideaki Anno. And now in the present, the final Evangelion movie seems closer than ever. Still, he has said he no longer wants Evangelion to be his life’s work.
Even when this movie is finished, there is no canonical Evangelion. Only the story of a fan, full of doubts, trying to find meaning in the stories they love and the life they’ve lived. Like we all are.
Moyoco Anno, Hideaki’s wife, herself a highly regarded manga artist, created a simple autobiographical diary manga, Insufficient Direction. It’s about the ordeals of being married to an otaku, no less one as intense as Anno. What emerges most from the book is love, in all its infuriating and hilarious complexity.
Anno contributed an afterword:
Instead of making you want to dwell in yourself, her manga makes you want to go outside and do something, it emboldens you. It’s a manga for tackling reality and living among others. My wife lives like that and I think that’s why she can write like that. Her manga accomplished what I couldn’t do in Eva to the end.
In 2016, an animated short was made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Anno’s Studio Khara, based on manga by Moyoco. It’s cute and funny, but surprisingly emotional and extraordinarily honest about Anno’s continued struggles. Thanks to Noroino Hanako, you can watch it in English here.
When I first watched Evangelion on VHS tapes, I spent most of my time with a group of friends online — people with fake names I’d never end up meeting in the physical world and wouldn’t even know how to find these days. We were all juvenile males who bonded over nerdy pop culture with a lot of internalized rage and inside jokes and loneliness.
One of them started appearing online less and less. I asked him what happened. “Oh, I watched Evangelion. I know it sounds ridiculous but it had a big effect on me and changed my life.” Shortly afterward, without a goodbye, he disappeared unnoticed from this angry little online gang. I did, too.
Given everything about the series that is difficult, polarizing, and challenging, and questions the very nature of why we enjoy these stories, it has always surprised me that Evangelion has become so successful around the world, and I’ve sought to know why.
As Netflix’s re-release inches closer to reality, my own discussions about the show were highlighted by many anonymous people from all over the planet sharing their own stories of how their viewings of Evangelion helped them make sense of their isolation, loneliness, and depression. For all I’ve written and investigated, the answer as to why is obvious and simple. Neon Genesis Evangelion, like the best art, no matter the form or the version or the telling, tells us a difficult, universal truth. And what that truth is, Hideaki Anno keeps trying to say, is up to you.
Aaron Stewart-Ahn lives in NYC. He is the co-writer of Mandy (2018). He is currently working as a screenwriter, on a Thor project for Marvel Comics and Serial Box, and a documentary about police brutality.