Anime Classic Neon Genesis Evangelion Is Finally on Netflix. So Why Are Some Fans Upset?

Photo: Cartoon Network

If you have a pulse and a Netflix login, you’ve probably at least heard of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the Japanese anime that the streaming service recently licensed for American audiences. Evangelion debuted in Japan in 1995 and has since earned a reputation as a controversial, psychologically complex, difficult piece of art. The franchise is also an anime classic — equivalent in acclaim, auteurship, and cultural footprint to America’s Twin Peaks or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

A significant subset of its vocal fans, however, have spoken out against the Netflix release, taking issue with Netflix’s new English translation, which replaced the one that first came to the United States more than 15 years ago, as well as the omission of the series’ iconic ending theme song, a version of “Fly Me to the Moon.”

If this brewing backlash seems like a deterrent to new viewers unfamiliar with the series, it’s worth taking a step back and survey what’s been gained, as well as lost, in Evangelion’s translation to Netflix. Here’s a question-and-answer guide to everything you need to know about the 26-episode anime and its two movies, Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth and End of Evangelion, all of which are now available on Netflix.

Why is Neon Genesis Evangelion such a big deal?

Evangelion has been one of the most popular anime series ever created pretty much from the start. Series creator and director Hideaki Anno conceived of the show as a kind of postmodern giant robot series — a send-up of other shōnen anime properties (which target a young male demographic) like the Mobile Suit Gundam and Space Runaway Ideon series. Protagonist Shinji Ikari fights monsters in what is more or less a giant robot, though it looks suspiciously humanoid, and is tasked with saving humanity, only to learn that saving humanity takes a massive toll on his mental health. Along the way, Evangelion stages epic, city-demolishing fight sequences and manages to make a nuanced argument for the human condition.

Writer Mike Crandol succinctly explained Evangelion’s appeal at the Anime News Network in 2002, just as the show’s first American DVD box set was about to hit the shelves: “It can be enjoyed at face value as an expertly realized sci-fi action adventure, but it is also a bleak satire of the genre, a coming-of-age parable, and a treatise on confronting loneliness and uncertainty in the adult world.”

The show opens as an action series centered on several characters in the near future (2015 once qualified as the near future) fighting the so-called “Angels,” massively destructive beings that demolish buildings and seemingly want to wipe out human life. By the final two episodes, however, its plot has taken a backseat to trippy, simplified animation and a patchwork of voice-over–driven psychoanalysis of the main characters. When the final two episodes aired, Anno infamously got death threats because viewers were so put off by the shift.

Evangelion is like a puzzle, you know,” the director told Newtype, the Japanese monthly magazine dedicated to anime and manga, in 1996. “Any person can see it and give his/her own answer.” That’s at least partly because Anno reportedly couldn’t always decide what he wanted the answer to be. He crammed Evangelion full of themes and iconography from Judeo-Christian texts, science-fiction novels, Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (which Anno helped animate), and even a Robert Browning poem, among other sources, but he got really obsessed with psychology after falling into a deep battle with depression. Thus, Evangelion’s TV run ends with the lead characters’ minds being systematically shredded apart and put back together.

Death threats aside, Evangelion was a major success, one that saw fans clamoring for a “real” ending. To Anno’s credit, he refused to compromise in the two follow-up films, which should be watched in conjunction with the series and are also newly available on Netflix. The first 67 minutes of the film Death & Rebirth are a clip-show retelling of the TV series, while its final act functions a sort of replacement 25th episode. That replacement 25th episode, “Rebirth” is also the first section of The End of Evangelion, which serves as a replacement and complementary ending. End is much more explicit than its TV series counterpart, packed with brutal onscreen violence, a sexual assault, and the literal melting of humanity.

On the whole, the franchise can be grim — and it doesn’t always make perfect logical sense — but it’s also fascinating television and filmmaking. As Crandol wrote in 2002, “Paradoxically, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a work that suffers major shortcomings yet still has managed to become a resounding critical and commercial hit.”

The “commercial” piece of that is why Netflix licensed the show in the first place.

Why is it such a big deal that Neon Genesis Evangelion is on Netflix?

For the better part of the last decade, Evangelion had previously been out of print after its English-language licensee, ADV Films, went out of business in the late 2000s. The only way you could watch it for years was through shady pirating methods or buying after-market or bootleg DVDs. “There isn’t anything in anime like Evangelion,” writer Max Genecov recently wrote in a long analysis of the series’ bootleg history for Polygon, “nothing that has been so popular but has made itself so scarce.”

Thus the show was locked in an odd state of rights limbo over the years, with rampant speculation as to how much it might cost a Blu-ray distributor or a streaming service like Netflix (a company that spent $100 million to license Friends) to license the whole series. In the end, Netflix did pick up global streaming rights to both the TV series and the movies — a deal that likely cost north of $3 million, by conservative estimates. In every Netflix market around the world, Evangelion is available to stream.

So why are some fans mad at Netflix?

When the show hit Netflix, fans raised questions over changes that have been made to the show’s translation into English for its audio and subtitle tracks. The dub that appears on Netflix is not the same English ADV dub released in the early 2000s, nor are the English subtitles the same. Instead, what appears on Netflix are new translations of both, created by Dan Kanemitsu and David Fleming, respectively.

The translation issues fans have flagged are numerous and on the whole aim toward a more literal translation, sometimes at the expense of Evangelion’s themes and subtext. One scene that became a target of backlash originally featured an emotional exchange between the protagonist Shinji and the male character Kaworu Nagisa. In the original English dub, Kaworu tells Shinji “I love you,” whereas in the Netflix dub, he says “I like you.” As Aja Romano at Vox pointed out, this significantly alters the meaning of Kaworu and Shinji’s relationship, which had been coded as queer for a quarter-century leading up to Netflix’s dub.

The moment also serves a powerful narrative and thematic purpose, given that it comes at a moment in the plot where Shinji feels he is utterly unworthy of love. The concepts of loving and liking are defined a little differently in Japanese from how they’re defined in English, so while “like” may be a more literal or true-to-source interpretation, as Kanemitsu has argued on Twitter, the change smacks of straightwashing their relationship. It’s all the more awkward given that Kaworu and Shinji are speaking to each other in a bathhouse.

That isn’t the only place where the Netflix dialogue feels unnecessarily stilted or clunky by comparison. Voice actor and writer Scott Frerichs has shared a lengthy Twitter thread of comparison videos between the old dub and the new. Whether it’s Misato casually describing herself as an “international civil servant” in the new dub versus a “government official” in the first one — or the way the new dub refers to the individual pilots as the “first children” or “second children” as opposed to the “first child” or “second child” — or the fact that the new dub’s pronunciation of secret government agency Nerv (Nerve? Nairv? Nirv?) is inconsistent throughout — it just doesn’t always work.

Why didn’t Netflix just use the original version of the dub?

Netflix has not responded to request for comment on its reasons for making these changes, but Jason DeMarco, senior vice president and creative director of on-air for Adult Swim, told Vulture, “I would guess the ADV dub was rejected due to rights issues.” DeMarco was instrumental in getting the ADV dubbed version of Evangelion to air on Cartoon Network’s Toonami and Adult Swim blocks in the mid-2000s, and he has pushed to include more anime on air in his long tenure at the network.

“Although [the ADV dub] wasn’t a bad dub, dubs from that era are frequently looked down upon by current fans, so a new dub probably sounded like a fun way to drum up interest in the show,” DeMarco pointed out in an email. “Dubbing is important in any territory for a show to achieve maximum penetration, because there’s a large segment of the audience who just doesn’t want to watch something with subtitles.”

What else is different about the Netflix version?

The new dub also recast the voice actors for the show, to the dismay of the cast behind the original English dub.

“This time I will be heartbroken if I don’t do Rei’s voice,” voice actor Amanda Winn-Lee tweeted last year, as rumors began to fly around a new dub. “I poured so much of my life into that original show and those movies.” The rumors were later confirmed as Casey Mongillo, Ryan Bartley, Stephanie McKeon, and Carrie Keranen were cast in the roles of Shinji Ikari, Rei Ayanami, and Asuka Langley Soryu, and Misato Katsuragi, respectively — replacing original English cast members Spike Spencer, Winn-Lee, Tiffany Grant, and Allison Keith.

To the dismay of those who love ending credits, Netflix’s release also omitted Evangelion’s iconic, karaoke-style renditions of Bart Howard’s “Fly Me to the Moon” from its American release. The song was primarily performed by Claire Littley and Megumi Hayashibara in the original release, along with variations and alternate versions appearing on each episode, for a total of 31 versions of the song. It has been replaced with a piano track from Evangelion’s soundtrack.

As of this writing, Netflix has offered no official explanation as to how these creative decisions were made.

Should I still watch Neon Genesis Evangelion?

If you are interested in a fascinating, psychologically complex anime and have some familiarity with the medium, the answer is probably yes. If you want to experience Evangelion — and it genuinely is an experience, the same way watching Twin Peaks or 2001: A Space Odyssey are experiences — Netflix has made it very easy. I’d start with episodes 1–26 before watching The End of Evangelion. That’s the full story. Death & Rebirth has a few deleted scenes, but the vast majority of the film is a rehash of the series or is included in End.

Despite the concerns over the translation, this is still the most complete version of Anno’s story that will be conveniently and legally watchable in the United States for some time. It is also likely much more affordable than shelling out $200 for worn-out DVDs from the mid-2000s. Visually, the franchise looks more stunning than it has ever looked before, thanks to a Blu-ray–quality HD transfer.

Even the new dub, for all its detractors, isn’t that bad. All of the new cast members deliver respectable performances, and tonally, the voice direction feels more reserved than that of the ADV dub. Several of the series’ character-driven scenes land with a quieter emotional subtlety than the vocal peaks and valleys of 2000s dubbing. That aspect of the dub does feels like its own fresh take on a familiar work.

Mostly, though, you should watch Evangelion because it holds up. The series endured because it transcends most audiences’ expectations for what an anime or television broadly can accomplish within narrative and budgetary constraints. DeMarco still recommends it without reservation.

“Like all brilliant, multilayered art, it stands the test of time and rises above its genre,” he said. “Beyond the amazing animation, design, and music work, it’s a story about adolescence, growing up and coming into one’s own personal power and responsibility, and dealing with depression.”

It’s worth noting that Anno, after enduring years of mental health issues and fan backlash, has since returned to Evangelion. He’s directing a tetralogy of films titled Rebuild of Evangelion — the last of which is scheduled for release in 2020. None of those films have been added to Netflix, but they retell and expand upon the series with new characters, relationships, and narrative devices. Anno’s statement announcing his return to the series resembled poetry and also telegraphed his view on Evangelion: “It is a story of will; a story of moving forward, if only just a little.”

For all their grittiness and horrors, the 26-episode series and The End of Evangelion are ultimately hopeful, optimistic works of art that argue for communication and collective human empathy. We could all use more of that in our lives.

Why Netflix’s Evangelion Is Controversial — and Essential