Management: This one’s all about Eva and Anno’s relationship with his fans, so it’s a bit thornier than most. As such, the usual caveats apply – this isn’t an attack or an indictment of anyone, it’s just a personal take on some very strange fiction. Hope you enjoy!
“I started this production with the wish that once the production complete, the world, and the heroes would change.” – Hideaki Anno
In attempting to justify the existence of the Rebuild of Evangelion, Hideaki Anno offers an interesting defense. In the words of my handy statement-of-purpose booklet, “I do think, why revive a title that is over 10 years old now? I also feel that Eva is already old. But in these 12 years, there has been no newer anime than Eva.”
Bold words, eh? On a very literal level, this is obviously untrue – we are beset by scores of anime of varying qualities every year. On a more critical level, my pithy response would be, “that’s not true – there have been literally dozens of anime since Eva!” And there have been – I don’t think Anno’s intent here was to directly disparage stuff like Utena or Bebop.
But on a metaphorical, cultural level? Well, that’s a bit more interesting. I’ve heard people describe some period of anime production as the post-Evangelion era, where the lessons of Evangelion’s success were used to shift the direction of storytelling and the industry. On a commercial level, yes, this is certainly true – Eva was a watershed moment, and continues to influence the industry today. But what was the point of Eva?
Well, to make money, as is true of all commercial works. But let’s get more specific about what Eva had to say.
“There are too many painful things for people to go on living in reality. Thus, humans run and hide in dreams. They watch films as entertainment. Animation, as a means to enjoy everything in a pure, fake world, is a realization of dreams and has become entrenched in film. In short, it is a thing where even coincidences are arranged and everything judged cinematically unnecessary can be excised. The negative feelings of the real world are no exception.” – Hideaki Anno
Eva looked at the anime-viewing audience, and it didn’t like what it saw. Insular people, stuck in various fantasies, afraid of honest interaction. This isn’t (just) me projecting – Anno has stated repeatedly that he sees the anime-viewing public as a nation of little boys wearing man-suits. So what story did he create?
He created a story for them. One that didn’t reject them – that understood them, and attempted to provide positive messages. A story about depression and isolation and the pain of human contact, that stabbed deep into the heart of the problems he saw, acknowledged them as valid and true, and attempted to claw its way back out. And Evangelion wasn’t a purely reactive work, of course – it was largely reflective of Anno’s own struggle with depression, giving its portrayal of these struggles a ring of truth and sympathy that a distant indictment never could.
It was a biting satire in many ways, of course, as the central characters clearly display. Like Asuka, ostensibly a textbook version of the classic anime “tsundere,” whose outward hostility belies an inward vulnerability. Anno made her real, and in making her real, revealed that that fantasy is a broken person – not someone to be fetishized and lusted after, someone who needs serious psychiatric help. Or Rei, the cold, doll-like girl, who accepts your presence with the same lack of reaction she accepts anything else. Anno had all sorts of things to say about that fantasy – that she’s barely a person at all, that her very existence is designed to comfort and make you feel needed, and, finally, that what you really want isn’t a partner at all – what you really want is a mother.
“Characters in animation do not cheat. They do not let you go for another. 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.” – Hideaki Anno
And between them, the audience proxy – one of the most beloved and reviled characters in anime history. Shinji Ikari. The boy spurned by the world, surrounded by people too caught in their own issues to do anything but use him, he himself too afraid of rejection to seek out human connection. Shinji is certainly a pointed character, but not an unsympathetic one – in fact, the layers of humanity written into his character make him even today one of the most recognized figures in anime history. His fear and failure and continuous attempts to avoid that which might hurt him are a reflection both of Anno’s own humanity and the humanity he saw in those he wanted to influence. Shinji might as well be the human face of anime itself.
But again, Evangelion is not a cynical work. Though Shinji wallows in self-pity and fears human interaction, he does not live without hope. Ultimately, he chooses to reject the comforting fantasies of instrumentality – he chooses to live as an individual, one who must reach out and touch others even knowing it will cause him pain. Shinji ultimately grows up, and through his triumph you can see the underlying optimism Anno feels towards his nation of grown up boys.
The years have not been kind to Anno’s optimism.
“I don’t see any adults here in Japan. The fact that you see salarymen reading manga and pornography on the trains and being unafraid, unashamed or anything, is something you wouldn’t have seen 30 years ago, with people who grew up under a different system of government. They would have been far too embarrassed to open a book of cartoons or dirty pictures on a train. But that’s what we have now in Japan. We are a country of children.” – Hideaki Anno
You can’t blame him, really. Among the many accolades heaped upon Evangelion, it’s even been perhaps sarcastically called “anime’s Citizen Kane moment.” This is hyperbole, of course – everyone wants their Citizen Kane moment. But the comparison is actually a kind of interesting one, if only in a negative sense. Citizen Kane was important because it helped demonstrate the things only film can do – the structural power, the way the frame can be so much more than simply a window to a stage play (though obviously it wasn’t the first to demonstrate this). Evangelion does sort of do that, though it was hardly the first either – it certainly uses animation to tell a story that would otherwise be nearly impossible. But I think the more pointed comparison to make here is to what Evangelion actually did. Though its messages were largely concerned with opening the windows on the lives of anime viewers and casting a harsh light on their fantasies, did the works to follow reflect these themes?
Not at all. Creators saw the success of Evangelion and didn’t think “it’s time for anime to grow up and stop catering to these fantasies,” they thought “look how much people love these articulations of these fantasies! Look how much people like dark robot shows! Let’s make those!” It’d be like if directors watched Citizen Kane and thought, “what people really need are more stories about newspaper magnates!” No, even worse – it’d be like if they watched it and thought “what an inspiring story about a wealthy, successful man! If only we could all be so lucky!” They saw the tropes used in Evangelion, but didn’t follow through with the show’s indictment. And who could blame them? The fans certainly wouldn’t.
“Audiences have come to need a work only as an escape from reality, as a comfortable dream, judging everything on the criterion of moe, while creators’ intellectual paucity and the jumble of trivial touches have encouraged that structure. At the same time, TV-type mass consumption, which prizes instant gratification and simplistic results, laid the impoverished grounds of contemporary Japanese entertainment…” – Hideaki Anno
And so Evangelion became popular. Incredibly so. Perhaps it initially did resonate in the way that was intended – but in the years since Evangelion, anime has not grown up. Asuka and Rei are fetishized and copied again and again, not held up as the last gasp of their archetypes. In the years since Evangelion, works that you could truly call post-Evangelion have been the exception, not the rule.
And so Anno is mad.
Fortunately, Anno still has an ace up his sleeve – Evangelion itself. Though the original Eva casts a tremendous shadow, it is still a very polarizing work – it’s a “love it or hate it” show, it’s “great but flawed,” it’s “an interesting show let down by its weird ending.” And so on. But hey, Anno can fix that – he can rebuild it! New and shiny, with a fresh coat of paint and all those old, troubling wrinkles ironed out. He can make the version everyone can enjoy!
“…giving rise to masses that can only respond with praise for superficial details and technical proficiency; with tears, laughter, fear, or some outpouring of simple emotions; or with identifying and particularism. And here we are, in this stagnant state of affairs. I am stuck here myself. It’s embarrassing and frustrating, and I also regret that I contributed to it. I want it fixed. The sooner, the better.” – Hideaki Anno
Or, well, so I assume some people thought. And they had every reason to – the first Rebuild of Evangelion is more or less that. A condensed version of the first six episodes, with punchier pacing and a whole lot of polish. Yes, it certainly curbed the interiority – the psychological focus so key to both the love and the hate attracted by the original. But still, Evangelion! In HD! Even I (to enter this history lesson personally, as if this weren’t already all my questionable interpretation of the facts) was swept away by it – yeah, it wasn’t as good in many ways, but that ending! Even to someone who loved the original specifically as a character study, this felt something like fanservice – seeing the characters who still loomed so large in my memory wage war on a scale Gainax’s budget had never allowed.
Then the second Rebuild came out. This one was… different. Not like the original. Well, sort of like the original – like a very specific interpretation of the original.
Evangelion 2.22 was Evangelion as written for people who didn’t like Evangelion.
“Changing the tribulation of reality into dreams and conveying that to the people… is that what our work is? For the sake of people who forget reality until the bill comes due, who want to devote themselves to happy fallacies. I guess that’s our job in the entertainment and service sector.” – Hideaki Anno
Sick of that boring interiority and psychological focus? Toss it! Tired of all the kids being so emo all the time? Let’s make Asuka perkier… and give her a crush on Shinji! Hell, give everyone a crush on Shinji – he’s supposed to represent the audience, right? And that’s what we do to the audience – we give them what they want. Speaking of things the audience wants – explosions! And another female character – hey, let’s have her fall on Shinji’s face! What’s her backstory? Doesn’t matter. Explosions! And you know what, screw sad-sack Shinji – now he’s the hero! Let’s make him save the girl! EXPLOSIONS!
Evangelion 2.22 was very popular. Finally, the Evangelion people had always wanted! No more tempering your praise with caveats and troubled ellipses – Evangelion was pure! Everything the audience wanted, they received. Everything that had made Evangelion “difficult” was sanded off. It was grim and wacky and charming and expensive and pretty and full of big, dramatic setpieces – all that stuff the original was minus everything the original actually said. Evangelion 2.22 was the least post-Evangelion film imaginable – an Evangelion designed to miss the point of Evangelion. And boy oh boy were people excited for Part 3.
Part 3 was excited for them, too.
“Eva is a story of repetition.” – Hideaki Anno
If Evangelion 2.22 is Eva yanking the “give the people what they want” lever up to 11, 3.33 is Eva straining that lever until it snaps, tumbles through the air, and falls back to earth somewhere behind the couch or something. You want Shinji to get in the fucking robot? Well, so does he, too bad doing that fucks everything up. Because it was never about him being a sissy you goddamn idiot, it was about his troubles not being ones that could be solved through an external source of pride like piloting the Eva Unit. You’re the ones who wanted the robot – you’re the ones seeking a fantasy where the weak boy can triumph, because you’re the ones grappling with the issues Shinji actually has difficulty overcoming.
If I’m being a little too harsh here, I apologize – but Evangelion 3.33 certainly doesn’t. The film is that direct – rambling and disjointed and strange, it barely qualifies as a narrative at all. And I don’t think it’s really trying to. That ranting paragraph up there? That’s what Evangelion 3.33 is.
3.33 is a lecture. 3.33 is a conversation.
“It is a story where our protagonist faces the same situation many times over and determinedly picks himself back up again.” – Hideaki Anno
The film doesn’t work emotionally outside of the context of the original. The events that happen are too disjointed, the character journeys too divorced from immediate emotional touchstones. Well, aside from very specific touchstones. Like Shinji crouched beneath the stairs as the monsters attack (as he did at the start of End of Evangelion). Or Shinji visiting Rei in her sterile home (as he did when he first went to give her an updated keycard). Or Asuka standing in the sunlight, legs squared as she stares down on Shinji (as she did during her first appearance of the series). Or Kaworu’s entire presence, a strange cipher given resonance not by this film, but by the existing mythology this film is taking for granted.
3.33 only exists as a coherent emotional statement in the context of the original series. It moves from shot to shot, touchstone to touchstone, playing off the viewer’s familiarity with images and moments mythologized by the series’ legacy. And it doesn’t just reference these things – it warps them. As I said, 3.33 breaks the dial on fanservice. Shinji now actively seeks the Eva, but this confidence leads to no good end. Rei, always the exemplar of the mute, accepting, “safe” love interest, is now truly a doll – a non-person, the dead end of human engagement represented by the fantasy she once exemplified. It’s a cautionary tale – the most direct statement yet of Anno’s dissatisfaction with the self-limiting fantasies of anime, told through a broken movie that barely even works as a movie at all, reliant on the viewer’s familiarity with a series that enjoying the previous film almost required you to dislike.
“It is a story of the will to move forward, even if only a little.” – Hideaki Anno
So as a piece of cinema, it’s a rather strange production. But as a conversation? As a distillation of what makes Eva Eva?
Evangelion 2.22 is Eva divorced from what gave the original its emotional and thematic power – Evangelion 3.33 is that emotional and thematic power divorced from all else. It actually digs deep on the messages of the original, using its 14 year timeskip and incredibly narrow focus to discard every single thing that doesn’t make Eva Eva. And instead of getting caught in the fan-pleasing trappings of the original, it focuses wholly on its core points – the futility of dwelling in the past, the pain and necessity of honest connection, and the need to find self-generated pride and your own way forward. No longer is Evangelion content to hide its human focus and strident message behind a sci-fi facade – this is what Evangelion is, and this is what it has always been trying to say. This is Shinji’s story – the story of a scared boy who isn’t sure how to move forward, and the story of every single person out there the truth of his journey reflects.
“It is a story of the resolve to want to be together, even though it is frightening to have contact with others and to endure ambiguous loneliness.” – Hideaki Anno
And it goes beyond the original, as well – instead of being content to repeat the message of the series, it makes it clear it is speaking to an audience that needs something more than that. While the audience clamors for Shinji to get in the fucking robot, Shinji himself questions whether getting in the Eva ever solved anything. His constant refrain through the film is “what am I supposed to do?” – but the answers he receives are not meant only for him. Kaworu claims he should practice piano – take up a skill, even if he seems clumsy at first, and keep working at it. Mari simply tells him to grow up a little. And Asuka gives Rei perhaps the most direct advice of all – ‘stop thinking about what some proxy version of you would do, think about what you truly want to do.’ No longer are these messages couched in terms of sci-fi melodrama – though there are still action setpieces, they are utterly divorced from the film’s thematic and emotional core. As Shinji himself obsesses over his meaningless sci-fi narrative, those who care about him give him (and the audience) the advice he actually needs to hear – quit thinking about the story and grow up a little. This is about emotional intelligence, not fighting in giant robots.
The fact that this film is intended for an audience raised on Evangelion is clear even in the title – You Can (Not) Redo. Revisiting Evangelion isn’t going to fix your current problems – only moving forward will do that. The tape recorder, one more classic touchstone of the original, is a neat metaphor for that – Shinji clings to it as a comforting relic of the past, and eventually asks his friend Kaworu to fix it, but it, like everything else, must eventually be discarded if a new future is to be gained. And of course, this all works on the meta level of the Rebuilds themselves being a revision – this version isn’t going to make you happier, and it’s not going to be the same as the original, but maybe a new Evangelion can at least do some good. Evangelion 3.33 consumes the fan reactions to Evangelion, distills their essence to gross parody, spits out the core message of What Shinji Must Do, and challenges the audience to do better this time.
“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.” – Hideaki Anno
And so Evangelion 3.33 has earned itself some controversy. Which is almost certainly the point – Anno wouldn’t have baited the hook with 2.22 if he weren’t trying to tell people things they didn’t want to hear. But of course, in the context of the original, 3.33 is a clear progression – polished and sharpened, it’s Evangelion with the bones exposed, Evangelion with no room for misinterpretation. And personally, I think it’s fantastic – beautiful, focused, angry, and absurd, it’s one of the most passionate statements of purpose I’ve seen. It isn’t just a reflection of the original – it’s a reflection of the original as transmuted by the crucible of fan reaction, fan expectation, fan mythologizing. Given all the tools the original Evangelion provided, the fandom chose to stay in their sandbox, and Anno disapproves. “You’re not just an idiot,” Asuka spits at Shinji, realizing his failings go beyond just ignorance, “You’re a brat.” Anno has revised his estimation of the fandom, and this angry shaking of their shoulders is the result.
Yet in spite of all this fury, there’s no arguing that even Rebuild isn’t a deeply optimistic work. As angry as he comes across, Anno also clearly loves what he does – he wouldn’t make these if he didn’t, and he wouldn’t be hammering on these same messages in such strident fashion if he didn’t think there was still good to be done. 3.33 has spawned some very angry reactions, but so did episodes 25 and 26 back in the day – at that point, his actions were partially based in financial necessities, but those episodes still said what he wanted to say. Asuka might as well be Anno’s own mouthpiece at the end of 3.33 – though she yells at Shinji for his weakness, she grabs his hand and drags him towards the future all the same. Time may have tested Anno’s optimism, but it has not found it wanting – like Evangelion itself, the course of Anno’s career leading back to this project proves that no matter how dark it gets, someone will always be there to lend a hand. And whatever the future of anime may bring, as long as we still have writers and directors passionate enough to risk making their fans angry, I think we’ll be okay.
Granted, that’s certainly not a truth universally acknowledged. And in fact, one of anime’s other recent acts of historical revisionism makes a strong argument in the opposite direction. So perhaps I really should get around to reviewing that Madoka movie…