Throwback Thursday: The End of Evangelion Is an Aberrant Epilogue

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

When television series head to the theater, it’s often for sequels, reboots, remakes, or spinoffs. The case was different for Neon Genesis Evangelion, the Japanese animated series that became a sleeper hit of a giant robot anime that dealt with depression whipped up with spirituality.

The show unfortunately didn’t have enough money to finish with a bang, and its subtle ending left a bitter taste in fans’ mouths. With the fandom in a fury, creator Hideaki Anno decided to literally redo the last two episodes of the show as a feature-length movie. Not exactly the most traditional movie adaptation for a TV series.

A ghostly giant Rei

A giant Rei consumes the souls of Earth (or something). Production IG/ING Gainax

As a replacement for the more esoteric finale of episodes 25 and 26, the movie picks up where episode 24 left off. The teenage pilot Shinji Ikari is trying to cope with having recently killed his best friend, who turned out to be a murderous Angel—one of the beasts bent on destroying humanity in the series’ semipostapocalyptic future. Piloting a giant robot to save humanity doesn’t hold the same allure for Shinji anymore, considering this isn’t the first time he has had to fight a friend. Meanwhile, the other teenage pilot, Asuka, is in a coma after being mind-raped by an Angel, and pilot coordinator Misato is also dealing with crippling depression after having killed her best friend. Things are not looking up for these characters, and it’s only going to get worse.

The first act presents what many fans were hoping for from an Evangelion closer: lots of giant robot action. The humanity-saving, robot-coordinating organization NERV is under attack from outside organizations; wielding its infantry and giant robot armada, NERV’s underground headquarters turns into a bloodbath of an invasion. Big-lipped Angel robots starts savaging the base, leading to Asuka snapping out of her stupor to mount an energetic assault. Things go boom, guns go pow, and blood flows like wine through the corridors.

On one hand, Anno is giving the fans what they wanted—it’s as though the creators of The Sopranos realized their series finale was lackluster and decided to deliver on an action-packed ending of a movie. Rather than cutting away from the diner, the camera would hold on the most bloody shootout of the series. Would it provide more concrete closure? Perhaps. But would it be a better ending?

Shinji strangles Asuka

Shinji strangles Asuka at the end of the world. Production IG/ING Gainax

I don’t believe The End of Evangelion greatly improves on how the show itself ended. While the last two episodes were cheap on animation, they were not scant on ideas. Thematically, the series ended on the right note and culminated in Shinji overcoming his depression to become a whole person, albeit in a setting and pace better suited for a David Lynch movie. This first act of The End of Evangelion seems to miss most of these larger concepts and instead goes for the most flashy of action. While these scenes look spectacular, they feel derivative. When Asuka battles the invading Angel forces, there are shots and sequences copied directly from Space Battleship Yamato and The Super Dimensional Fortress Macross. What I loved most about Neon Genesis Evangelion was its boldness in addressing themes you didn’t see in other mecha anime along with scenes you wouldn’t typically view in general anime at the time. This film feels more conforming in that regard.

It is strange, however, that fans would praise the film for being less artsy-fartsy when the second act goes for a full-blown art film. Shinji’s mind becomes the landscape for more of the mental conversations and philosophies showcased in the TV series, but with much less to say this time. Where the show found meaningful and clever symbolism, the movie presents blunter displays. Shinji recalls a time when he was a boy building sand castles alone in the park; the park is shot intentionally to look like the body of a woman. (I’m surprised Anno didn’t make it more obvious by drawing the breastlike hills more pointy.) There are lazier references, as when the film stops at parking space 667, referencing the neighbor of the beast. And then there are the laziest examples of symbolism, when Anno literally paints cryptic words in the sky.

I initially read the script for the film before it came out stateside and thought that what I read must be fake. I did not expect there to really be a live-action scene showcasing an empty theater to act as a mirror for the frail existence of the audience, but there it was. I did not expect the screen to flash emails of angry fans, but there they were. And I certainly wasn’t expecting the opening scene when Shinji masturbates over Asuka’s comatose body, but there you go. I’ll give Anno credit in that his film at least has a few more daring elements than most theatrical anime would care to include.

A light-colored world

The world is consumed. Production IG/ING Gainax

The End of Evangelion has often been cited as one of the greatest animated films ever made, but I’d argue against such a claim. For one thing, it doesn’t work technically as a movie; Anno continuously rams visuals down our throats to emphasize that this is two TV episodes shown back to back, with title cards, breaks, and one set of end credits halfway through the film. Imagine watching this in the theater and not being aware of the running time, believing you only saw half a movie—and after you get through those midmovie credits, there is a five-minute intermission. Typically, intermissions are presented in movies three or four hours long, but this one is only 87 minutes. (Or is it 82 minutes without intermission?)

Despite being released along with a clunky prelude movie, Death and Rebirth, acting as a series recap, The End of Evangelion doesn’t stand as well on its own. It presents some stylish and surreal imagery for a theatrical anime, but unless you’re all caught up on the show, most of its nuances will be lost on you. It’s hard to feel for Asuka’s resounding return to form when you’re not aware of her mind-rape or dealings with death as a child. Without understanding Shinji’s journey, his silent nihilism comes off as more whiny and bratty than it really is. And there are a host of other character histories and events that all play into the final conclusion that could easily confuse those coming into the film cold.

The End of Evangelion poster

Production IG/ING Gainax

While the film has plenty of faults, I do commend it for being a TV-to-movie adaptation that shoots a little higher than most, even if it doesn’t reach the same potential as the show. The animation is gorgeous and the story explores deeper concepts of mentality and spirituality. But it’s far too locked within its TV lore to be considered one of the greatest animated movies of all-time. Such a pedestal is too high for a film that can only go so far with its ideas contained to two episodes.

This film can be found on DVD if you’re willing to pay. It is currently available on Netflix, but offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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