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The end of the Evangelion experiment

Grappling with the arc of Shinji Ikari, and creator Hideaki Anno’s Rebuild journey

In the four-film Rebuild of Evangelion series, lonely, depressed teenage protagonist Ikari Shinji (Ogata Megumi) listens to his father’s old Walkman on repeat, shuffling back and forth between tracks 25 and 26 without progressing. Shinji lives in his father’s shadow, and it doesn’t seem coincidental that these numbers align with the final entries in Neon Genesis Evangelion, the 26-episode mecha anime series the first two Rebuild films condense and retell.

Episodes 25 and 26 are unexpectedly abstract, owing to a combination of budget and scheduling issues, and the story being finalized late in the game. They were also highly divisive among fans in 1996, so series creator Hideaki Anno eventually remixed them several times, starting with the theatrical remake, The End of Evangelion. Anno has now told Shinji’s story for over 25 years, cycling back to the beginning of his saga each time it seemingly ends, and finding new ways to express what episodes 25 and 26 represented at their core: a desire to live, and to accept all the beauty and ugliness that individuality entails.

But how can Shinji, Anno, or the audience let this emotional breakthrough stick, if they can’t break free from the cycle of Evangelion itself? An answer finally materializes in Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time, the challenging final chapter in the franchise, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime. It involves going back to the beginning, where it all began for Shinji: his painful relationship with his father, and the way it took hold of him in version after version of the Evangelion story.

Rebuilding Evangelion

Anno kicked off his Rebuild film project in 2007 — a decade after The End of Evangelion — with Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone (and the slightly expanded version, Evangelion 1.11). 2009’s Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance soon followed, re-released with minor adjustments as Evangelion 2.22. The first movie opens exactly like the show, with Shinji being recruited by Captain Katsuragi Misato (Mitsuishi Kotono), who works for Shinji’s estranged father, Ikari Gendo (Tachiki Fumihiko), at the Japanese paramilitary organization NERV, the last line of defense between the monstrous, inter-dimensional “Angels” and a third global cataclysm.

The first two films largely retell the show from scratch, but they’re also enhanced for fans who’ve followed the franchise from the start, and know the entire story in its many iterations. For instance, the films don’t explain the extent of Gendo’s perversions in the show — like the fact that he cloned his late wife Yui to create Shinji’s teenage teammate Ayanami Rei (Hayashibara Megumi), or that Yui’s biological form exists, in some fashion, within the enormous biomechanical Evangelion piloted by Shinji — until well into the third film. In the meantime, these ideas linger through subtle hints and glances. They feel like Pandora’s Box waiting to be opened once more as the Rebuild series unfolds, and the story makes significant departures from the TV show, departures which culminate in a long-awaited confrontation between father and son.

Shinji stands in front of his Evangelion with his father looming in the background in Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone Image: khara, Inc.

These changes are often uncanny. For instance, for the films, Anno changes the surname of Shinji’s NERV teammate Soryu Asuka Langley (Miyamura Yūko) to Shikinami Asuka Langley. Both versions of the character are child soldiers bred for war, and they’re both fittingly named after World War II naval vessels (Japan’s aircraft carrier Soryu and destroyer Shikinami, and America’s USS Langley), though the film version, Shikinami, doesn’t appear to be weighed down by the same baggage as Soryu, who was trapped by the trauma of discovering her mother’s body after she committed suicide. For the first time, it seems as if this character might have a shot at being liberated from her cycle of suffering, in which she seems destined to pilot an Evangelion forever. The series is steeped in Biblical imagery, but its central struggle to break free from death and rebirth feels fundamentally Buddhist.

These differences in Asuka’s backstory first manifest as her confident decision to pilot the new Eva Unit 03, which becomes possessed by the spirit of an Angel, and which Shinji is subsequently forced to destroy — or rather, which his Evangelion is forced to destroy on autopilot, with him trapped inside it. (His passive presence is necessary for his Eva to function.) In the show, Unit 03 was piloted by Shinji’s classmate Suzuhara Toji (Seki Tomokazu), a minor character who ends up losing his leg in the process, and who ends up dead in the manga. In the second film, though, it’s Asuka who ends up gravely injured during this event. While having Asuka pilot Unit 03 seems, at first, like a way to streamline the show’s plot so it involves more important characters, the domino effects of this alternate story become apparent soon after.

The first film speeds through Shinji’s TV arc of willingly piloting his Eva. His reasoning in the film is tied to his affection for his teammate Rei who, like Asuka, is marginally more forthcoming than her TV counterpart. Shinji has a similar affection for the warmer Asuka of the film series, which leads him to run away from NERV after his father manipulates him into harming her in Evangelion 2.22, thus resetting his character to who he was when the first film began. While the Rebuild films form a cycle of repetition in an overarching sense, by retelling the story of Neon Genesis, they also present repetitive character cycles within the film series itself, where Shinji attempts to break free from his emotional solitude, but is constantly rewarded with pain and alienation.

The second film’s climax begins similarly to that of the first, with Shinji once again rejecting his role as an Eva pilot before overcoming his cowardice and deciding to rescue Rei. Returning to the same dramatic well so many times might seem like falling back on the familiar, but it soon becomes apparent that for Shinji to keep making heroic returns, he has to abandon the team in the first place. The problem for Shinji isn’t that his triumphs don’t stick. It’s that their ensuing fallout, in which people get hurt regardless, are a result of his delayed decision-making in the face of difficult choices.

Perhaps the deeper reason for Shinji’s misery is that he keeps running away. But as the series explores, the core factor under his story of overcoming cowardice is that he always has something, or someone, to run away from in the first place: his father, Gendo.

Shinji’s Eva transforms at the end of Evangelion 2.22 Image: khara, Inc.

The climax of Evangelion 2.22 finally sets the film series on a new course. In Shinji’s absence, Rei is forced to confront the invading Angel, which devours her, along with her Eva. Shinji finally springs into action, and his grief sends his own Evangelion — the iconic purple Unit 01 — into a transcendent rage, until it transforms into a divine being, glowing in the sky.

In the context of the mecha genre, it’s a spectacular power-up. However, in the scope of the franchise, it also represents Gendo harnessing Shinji’s repressed anger and loneliness. Gendo’s secret plans involve triggering the end of the world, and Shinji isn’t aware that his own father is deliberately channeling his agony as the key to causing the Third Impact. Shinji’s love for Rei, the first person in the series with whom he shares a genuine connection, is corrupted by Gendo — since Rei is a mirror image of Yui, it’s as if Gendo is corrupting his own love as well — resulting in billions dead. During this unthinkably horrifying moment, the second film ends, and the Rebuild series diverges from Neon Genesis Evangelion for good.

A new beginning

Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo (and its updated release, Evangelion 3.33) departs from its predecessors’ 16:9 aspect ratio, in favor of a more cinematic 2.35:1. When it begins, it feels like mere moments have elapsed for Shinji, but 14 years have passed since the events of Evangelion 2.22, as if to kick off yet another new cycle of the story. (Similarly, about 14 years passed between the Second and Third Impacts at the start of Neon Genesis.) The world is radically different from the one Shinji knew. Its streets and buildings are blood-red, bearing the stain of his failures, and they remain largely empty.

Asuka, who was gravely injured in the previous film, now wears an eyepatch, and while she’s 14 years older, she remains trapped in her teenage body, a cursed side effect of piloting an Eva. Misato, Shinji’s upbeat, purple-haired recruiter, who once liked to frolic and drink, is now withdrawn, and hides behind dark glasses, a high collar, and a low-brimmed military hat. She leads WILLE, a new organization dedicated to destroying what’s left of Gendo’s NERV, and she imprisons Shinji, her former ward, using an explosive collar meant to prevent him from transcending his physical form while piloting his Eva. The last time he did, he nearly caused the end of the world, though the question of whether this was truly his fault eats away at him.

Either way, the blame also lies with Gendo, who took advantage of his son’s anguish to take one step closer toward “Instrumentality,” an apocalypse where the walls between individual bodies and egos are torn down, and humanity returns to a primordial form. It’s the only way Gendo can be reunited with his wife, who died when Shinji was young.

Asuka in Evangelion 3.33 Image: khara, Inc.

In Evangelion 3.33, the macabre emptiness around Shinji echoes the nihilistic questions he’s now facing. Rei, it seems, did not survive the end of Evangelion 2.22 in spite of Shinji’s attempts to save her, so his actions may have amounted to nothing.

When Shinji returns to the ruins of New Tokyo-3, where he inadvertently caused the cataclysm, his father continues to reject him, and he finds a new version of Rei, implied to be a more recent clone programmed to be even more subservient to Gendo. (Rei, too, seems destined to be reborn into Gendo’s employ.) But Shinji begins to find some semblance of salvation in the company of fellow teenage Eva pilot Nagisa Kaworu (Ishida Akira), who we know from previous iterations of the story to be an Angel in human form. He is also a key that unlocks the relationship between Neon Genesis and Rebuild.

In the TV series, Kaworu is the only person to show Shinji unconditional love — the kind he lacks from his father — and when Shinji is forced to kill Kaworu in episode 24, it fractures Shinji’s psyche, setting the stage for the abstract montages of episodes 25 and 26. Kaworu appears briefly in Evangelion 1.11, where he awakens from one of a series of identical coffins, hinting at the cyclical nature of the story. He also appears after the credits of Evangelion 2.22, where his brief dialogue hints both at an awareness of Shinji’s existence, even though they haven’t yet met, and an awareness of the fact that they have met in other versions of the story.

“This time for sure, I’ll make you happy if no one else,” Kaworu says. This implication, that Shinji, Kaworu, and the other characters are living out inescapable cycles of destruction — and that Kaworu is somehow aware of it — is never logistically clarified. But for an audience largely aware of older versions of the story, it resonates thematically, and resembles the feeling of being trapped within self-fulfilling cycles of self-loathing, as Shinji so often is.

Kaworu’s awareness of Shinji’s unending misery sets him on a new path in Evangelion 3.33, where instead of fulfilling his function as a harbinger of doom, he promises to help Shinji reverse the course of his actions, and undo the worldwide damage he was manipulated into causing. The divine and graceful Kaworu is the first character to break free from his pre-ordained role, and he offers Shinji a chance to break free from his cycle as well — but things don’t go according to plan.

Shinji has the chance not just to rebuild the world and bring back the billions who died, but to liberate himself from an emotional limbo in which his actions may or may not have meaning, and in which his former comrades blame him for causing harm that may have been outside his control. He doesn’t know for sure, but he desperately needs to. However, their mission, deep in the crater of Shinji’s Third Impact, turns out to be yet another manipulation by Gendo. Kaworu recognizes this manipulation and offers Shinji a way out, but Shinji, in his desperation to fix the world and fix his own mistakes, nearly triggers a fourth (and final) cataclysm.

This time, the oncoming destruction is undoubtedly Shinji’s fault, and he is freed from the uncertainty and meaninglessness of his actions in supremely ironic fashion. He is now certain that his actions are destructive. He is certain that they result in pain for everyone else. The aftermath is bloody and horrific. On some level, Shinji might even welcome this outcome — or any outcome, for that matter. Perhaps having a concrete reason to hate himself is easier than a lingering uncertainty about his place in the world.

Rei screams in Evangelion 3.0 Image: khara, Inc.

The most nightmarish thing of all is that in order to prevent the apocalypse, Misato kills Kaworu, and Shinji is forced to watch him die a horrific, painful death up close. The ripple effects of this tragedy can be felt throughout Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (and its updated release, 3.0+1.01), in which Shinji is paralyzed by grief, and by the fear that his love for people only causes them harm — what the show refers to as “the hedgehog’s dilemma.”

The final film is an hour longer than its predecessor, and it uses that time to portray a world attempting to rebuild itself. In the years that have elapsed since Evangelion 2.22, Shinji’s classmate Toji, who was allowed to escape his doomed role in this version of the story, has grown up, married, and become a father, while Shinji has remained frozen in adolescence. As the two old friends catch up, Toji becomes a reflection not only of what the world is fighting for — a chance to lead a normal existence, filled with love — but of all that Shinji has lost. In living out version after the version of the same story, in which fear and indecision cause harm and keep him trapped in his teenage body and mind, he has lost time, love, and happiness, which cannot help but read as self-criticism of Anno’s nearly three-decade-long involvement with the saga.

The question of how to break free from this narrative cycle is challenging, and Anno answers it in equally challenging fashion, by returning to the source of Shinji’s alienation: his childhood abandonment.

Sins of the father

Thrice Upon a Time is the first version of the story in which Shinji’s relationship with Gendo is more than just an emotional backdrop, albeit a deeply affecting one. The film’s climax involves Shinji and Gendo, in their respective Eva units, hurtling into an abstract realm, in which their respective memories and traumas become as potent as any weapons they wield. Here, Anno returns to the plot of episodes 25 and 26 once more, in which Shinji’s psychology is writ large in the form of impressionistic montages, and his very existence, as a person and as a fictional character, is deconstructed through sketches and storyboards which break him down to his barest elements. Only this time, Anno applies this approach to Gendo as well, the series’ cruel and aloof antagonist, in order to get to the heart of why he abandoned Shinji in the first place.

Despite their distance, Shinji lives in his father’s shadow, which the film dramatizes by presenting a younger Gendo who looks almost identical to Shinji. As the film rips apart at its seams, it allows both father and son to peer deep into one another as a means to peer into themselves; they may be different characters, and representations of different personality traits, but they’re ultimately part of the same story, which wrestles with the existential question of how to deal with the fear and loneliness inherent to being alive — even in a world where love is briefly possible.

A giant red hand comes down from the black sky onto red electrical wires in Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time Image: khara, Inc.

The climactic scene is framed as Shinji’s final, desperate attempt to understand and connect with Gendo, after years of remaining stuck on tracks 25 and 26 of a Walkman which, it turns out, was once Gendo’s way of staying cut off from the world, for fear of being hurt. The film’s empathy for its most vile and vicious character is moving, especially when he finally embraces Shinji and turns off the Walkman, potentially for good. But the climax also serves as the final barrier for Shinji himself. The screen contorts and fills with a collage of live-action footage and nightmarish animated imagery, similar to the abstract crescendo of The End of Evangelion. Anno folds every version of Evangelion into one, combining the heartfelt optimism of the original show with The End of Evangelion’s nihilistic aesthetic odyssey, so Shinji may finally dig deep and find the parts of his own story which were once inaccessible.

The same loss Shinji experienced after the deaths of Kaworu and Rei, and the same fears of isolation throughout his entire life, also plague Gendo, whose soul began to corrode when he lost his wife. They are more alike than they realize — even the Evas they pilot are nearly identical. And not only are they each other’s final challenge, they also share a common goal: forgiving Gendo.

The only way Shinji can escape the next cycle is by ending it before it begins —by making sure the next version of his world exists without Evangelions, though without erasing the past and all its hardships. As he lays this plan out to Rei, footage from previous versions of the story is projected onto them, as if to collapse each iteration into one, and capture the myriad of internal challenges these characters faced at a tender age. Each avatar may have existed in different universes, but to the audience, the combined versions of Shinji, Asuka, Rei and even Gendo have symbolized the rigorous struggle for self-acceptance, one with many failures, but ultimately, a slow and uneasy transition towards triumph.

The Evangelions were created by Gendo, and while they represent mechanical power fantasy, their souls and bodies also house enormous trauma and torment, which Gendo, like many other characters in the series, will not or cannot let go of. Together, in this abstract dreamscape, father and son help bring each other to a better understanding of themselves, and of the ways their fears of loss and abandonment have kept them at arm’s length from other people. When Gendo plunges a mythical spear into every existing Evangelion, including his own, a glowing light emanates from each one, as if souls were being freed from within each Eva — not just the ghosts trapped in each’s machine DNA, but the souls of their pilots, in a way, who are finally liberated.

In its final moments, Thrice Upon a Time offers a glimpse into what this liberation actually looks like, when Shinji, Asuka, Rei and Kaworu all show up to a quiet train station as adults. Some of them are coupled together, or standing with significant others they met elsewhere in the story; Shinji is waiting for his former teammate, Mari. The film allows the characters to grow up for the first time, and to lead fulfilling adult lives outside the bounds of this mecha-kaiju story. The cycle ends for good, not because the characters’ pain no longer exists, but because that pain no longer takes all-consuming physical form, to which they constantly return. As Shinji and Mari sprint out of the station, hand-in-hand towards the future — a scene made exuberant by Utada Hikaru’s song “One Last Kiss” — the animated footage begins to blend into live-action, and the final shot pulls back to reveal the real Ube-Shinkawa railway station and the skyline of the city of Ube, Anno’s home town. Like the characters, Anno is finally able to look beyond the boundaries of this story, and of the genre in which he’s been immersed for more than 25 years. All it took was going back to the beginning and staying there long enough that all of Shinji’s torment finally materializes, and takes a form so tangible and familiar that it can finally be embraced.

By breaking apart the boundaries between the many versions of this story, and between characters like Shinji and Gendo, Anno triggers an Instrumentality of his own, a kinder version, born not out of fear, but of self-acceptance and understanding. Evangelion’s physical scale may be that of a Biblical epic, but its intimate emotional story has always been about finding ways to survive mundane, everyday sorrows; the kind that even shattering grief turns into, after a while; the inevitable, numbing, silent suffering which people are expected to repress.

After Shinji is finally embraced by his father, he says: “I’m fine. I think I can handle pain and heartbreak.” May we all be so lucky.


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