Few anime shows have had as big a cultural footprint as Neon Genesis Evangelion. This is a thematically dense work of art as exhilarating as it is emotionally challenging, diving deep into themes of anxiety and depression while experimenting with the animation genre in ways not commonly seen on TV. When Evangelion first aired in 1995, the Japanese show quickly turned into a cultural touchstone, and its creator, Hideaki Anno, into an auteur, its overall effect on audiences not unlike that of, say, Twin Peaks in the U.S. Manga and film versions of Evangelion immediately followed, with the latter retelling the series’s controversial ending.
Almost a decade went by before Evangelion came back into the spotlight with the 2007 release of the Rebuild of Evangelion movies, a four-part series that comes to an end this month with the Amazon Prime release of Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time. What started as higher-budget remakes of the TV episodes quickly branched out to become their own phenomenon, commenting on and expanding the original show and promising another conclusion to the mecha anime saga about a post-cataclysm world in which the pilots of a giant bio-machine navigate the trauma of their combat-heavy lives. Whether you’ve been rabidly rewatching the series and former movies in anticipation or you’ve somehow never heard of Evangelion before now, there’s a lot to grasp ahead of the finale. But if the latter is more you, then it’s worth taking a step back to better understand the very big deal that is Thrice Upon a Time.
What is Rebuild of Evangelion in relation to the anime show?
Much in the same way that George Lucas was never fully satisfied with how technological, budgetary, and time constraints had limited what he could do with the original Star Wars trilogy, so was Anno reportedly dissatisfied with how much he had to compromise his vision while making Neon Genesis Evangelion. So in 2002, he announced plans for a four-film remake of his Evangelion series, “no longer constrained by technological limitation of 12 years ago,” which would finally allow Anno to tell the story “as he wanted it to be” in the beginning. Sound familiar?
That’s how we arrived at Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, a film that mostly retreads the ground of the first six episodes of the anime series (following Shinji Ikari, a teen piloting Evangelion Unit-01 against the alien creatures known as angels) and was clearly made with a much higher budget, allowing for smoother, crisper animation and a condensed, more streamlined story upon which the three proceeding films could build. Thrice Upon a Time still mostly follows the basic framing of the original show, this time remaking episodes 25 and 26 as well as the first film “remake,” The End of Evangelion (made shortly after the TV show ended). The difference is that this time around, we are introduced to different iterations of the main characters, particularly Shinji, who is drastically different in tone.
Anime remakes are nothing new; they’ve been around since at least the 1970s as a way to redistribute TV shows more easily in the era before home video. Shows would release “compilation movies” made out of footage from an series compressed down to the length of a feature film. Sometimes, these compilation movies incorporated better animation or changed parts of the story to make it flow better, like the Mobile Suit Gundam movie trilogy, widely considered to be the reason the show survived and became the phenomenon it is today. The compilation movies for Gurren Lagann also remade some scenes, including a complete do-over of the final boss fight.
But the Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy has a new ending entirely. Unlike even recent sequels to decade-old shows like Yashahime: Princess Half-Demon and Code Geass: Lelouch of the Resurrection, which similarly reframe their conclusions, Rebuild involves the original creator, who is revisiting his story with the advantage of hindsight, new technology, and a lot more time to be able to tell the story properly. It’s sort of like if Lucas had followed The Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition with Episodes VII, VIII, and IX rather than the prequels.
Can I skip watching the show (and previous movies) and just head right for the movies?
Yes, but I wish you wouldn’t. Let me explain.
Before the first Rebuild movie premiered, Anno released a statement about his intentions with the new films, calling Evangelion “a story that repeats” and one in which “the main character witnesses many horrors with his own eyes but still tries to stand up again.” According to Anno, the story is one of will, “of moving forward, if only just a little.” This reflects the ways the Rebuild movies exist in relation to the series. Although 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone is almost a beat-by-beat remake, there are enough subtle changes that fans quickly started devising theories about the true nature of the Evangelion timeline and whether this was more than a remake. 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance deviated heavily from the original story in terms of character work — new characters are introduced, and old ones are fundamentally changed — even if it mostly followed the same plot framework. The film ends in what seems like a total rejection of the original TV ending, before 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo introduces a time skip and a completely changed world that moves past the TV show into uncharted waters.
So the Rebuild movies are entertaining features that do indeed tell a self-contained story, but the changes Anno made from TV show to movie tell another story entirely and it’s necessary to understanding the meta-narrative that is Evangelion to its most ardent fans. This is particularly true when it comes to 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo, which replaced the notoriously upbeat tone of the previous two movies with 96 minutes of pain and nihilism. Anno himself, whose mental state has always been linked to the story of Evangelion, has admitted that the making of You Can (Not) Redo was his lowest point, and he entered a depression during its production. This bears out in the story, in which the main character’s suffering becomes almost unbearable, and the plot becomes a hopeless web of twists and turns that can confuse even the most hard-core followers of the franchise. To skip the series and original movies is to never truly comprehend the ways in which Anno struggled to leave Evangelion behind and why that struggle became a central, self-conscious theme in the final movie.
Why is the new film such a big deal in particular?
After finishing You Can (Not) Redo, Anno felt broken and confessed to not being able to set foot in the studio for a whole year, which led to his working on other films as a “distraction,” like lending his voice to his mentor Hayao Miyazaki’s film The Wind Rises and directing Shin Godzilla. Amid all this, Anno was involved in a legal dispute with his former animation studio, Gainax (which was behind the Neon Genesis Evangelion TV show), leading to further delays in the making of the fourth and final Rebuild movie.
This is to say that, when Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time finally got released in Japan earlier this year, almost nine years after the previous film, it was kind of a miracle. The film utilizes new technology, including some live-action techniques Anno picked up while directing feature films like Godzilla, to make an outstanding work of animation that pushes the medium forward while still looking back at what allowed it to get this far. CG and hand-drawn animation mix seamlessly to create an apocalyptic symphony of color and movement.
All right, I’m okay with some spoilers. Get into the specifics, please!
In Thrice Upon a Time, there is a palpable feeling that Anno wanted to throw everything he once kept close to his chest at the screen in a last-ditch effort to make his subtext into text. So aspects like Shinji’s relationship with his father are laid bare. But — BIG SPOILERS AHEAD! — arguably the biggest twist of the film is the outright confirmation that the Rebuild movies are actually part of a time loop. In the film’s climax, we realize that the story of Evangelion has actually repeated itself countless times, each time with small variations, reflecting Anno’s initial statement about Evangelion being “a story that repeats” until its main character is finally able to grow and move forward.
So … what next?
The ending of Thrice Upon a Time makes it very clear that this is the end of the story of Shinji and the Evas. But of course, never say never. Anno has said he is ready to move beyond Evangelion, and he recently expressed his interest in leaving animation behind to focus on making live-action movies, as he has accomplished everything he wanted to with Thrice Upon a Time. That being said, Anno revealed in a recent interview that he wants to explore the 14-year gap between the second and third films “in some form,” so this story may repeat itself yet again.