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Anime on DVD: Neon Genesis Evangelion
Neon Genesis Evangelion Introduction In the entire history of anime, perhaps no other title has been so praised, so maligned, so debated and so controversial as Neon Genesis Evangelion. Evangelion was originally a 26 episode TV series from GAINAX, the same studio that brought us such acclaimed titles as Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, Gunbuster, and Wings of Honneamise. It originally ran in Japan in 1995-1996. Later, several movies were also released to provide an expanded ending for the series. At first glance Evangelion appears to be just another giant robot anime. But for a number of reasons it takes that overused genre and does something completely fresh with it. Evangelion has become the standard by which all future giant robot anime will be compared to. Synopsis
Giving a complete synopsis of the story of Evangelion is both difficult and a disservice to the reader. One of the hallmarks of Evangelion is the number of shocking revelations and developments that occur, especially in the second half of the series. Reading spoilers in advance is strongly discouraged for this series. But on the surface the series goes something like this. The year is 2015 A.D., 15 years after the catastrophic event known as Second Impact: a meteorite impact in Antarctica that wiped out half the human race. However civilization seems miraculously resurrected after this disaster. Cities teem with advanced technology and even convenience stores are stuffed with goods. But a shadow seems to hang over the survivors in the form of mysterious "angels." The only thing capable of battling these strange beings are the Evangelion units. Piloted by a group of select teenagers, these giant robots are mankind's only line of defense against total annihilation. As scientists and researchers try to discover the mysteries behind the angels, the alien creatures appear to become more intelligent and sophisticated with each new visitation. But are the angels really evil? Or, as their name implies, are they divine punishment for mankind's transgressions? But regardless of what they may be, mankind is determined to fight back with every resource it has... no matter the cost. Characters
It is apparent early in the series that the focus of Evangelion is on the characters. In fact, this series can be considered more of a character study than a mecha show. The characters are flawed and very human, with much more going on internally than appears on the surface. You will not find any perfect heroes in this series. In fact, some of these folks are tough to like. In the course of the series the viewer will watch them go through both triumph and tragedy; in the end, we ultimately gain an understanding of why they are the way they are. The end result of the series is nothing less than an examination of human psychology and the human condition through these characters. Through them you may catch glimpses of yourself.
The protagonist of the series is 14-year old Shinji Ikari, the so called "Third Child." Estranged from his father (who also happens to be in charge of the agency that operates the Evangelions) he is extremely introverted and shy. Much of the series focuses on his attempts to relate to other people, his relationship with his father, and his role as a pilot which has put him in a position of receiving praise and attention for the first time in his life. Joining Shinji as fellow Evangelion pilots are Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Sohryu. Rei is withdrawn to the point of being nearly autistic; she doesn't seem to have any respect for her own life. Asuka is Rei's polar opposite: she is driven to be aggressive and boisterous in order to confirm her own existence and attract the attention of others. Another major character is Misato Katsuragi, Shinji's commanding officer and roommate. Quite capable as a tactician and probably the closest thing to a "heroic" character in the series, she is also a borderline alcoholic. Getting to know these characters is one of the pleasures (and frustrations) of watching Evangelion. Storytelling
Though Evangelion goes into depth with its characters, it does not mean the story and plot are neglected one bit or that there are no good mecha battles. In fact, the story is excellent, blending such diverse elements such as philosophy, psychology, religion, conspiracy mysteries, bio-technology experiments, and, of course, giant robot action. The well thought out and established technologies and settings of the Evangelion world help to meld these elements; AT Fields, LCL, the Geofront and the Evangelion units themselves aren't just used for battle sequences or because they're cool, they also have other roles in telling the story and getting across various ideas. One of the best things about the series in terms of the story is that as secrets are revealed they often bring up more questions in the viewer's mind. You will constantly be trying unravel the mysteries yourself before they are explained. Both foreshadowing and flashbacks are used perfectly to draw the viewer in and explain or remind us of past events. The action sequences (primarily mecha-based) are executed with extreme passion and intensity, as the stakes for each angel confrontation seem to increase with every battle. They also complement the quiet character interaction scenes very well.
Evangelion is noteworthy in that the story starts out more or less as the typical teens-pilot-giant-robot-to-save-the-world anime, but about halfway through the series things begin to shift and pick up momentum. There are really no filler episodes; though some episodes seem like just another angel attack, there is enough plot and character development in each episode to make all of them essential to the series as a whole. In the second half of the series you come to realize that you're caught in a web of lies and secrets and that you've only been shown a part of the whole picture. As the truth starts to come out you discover you're at the top of a rollercoaster with no choice but to endure the fall along with the cast of characters. The latter parts of the series become downright morbid in contrast to some of the lighter early episodes, as the characters' sanity and sense of self is continually (and sometimes brutally) assaulted. The Controversy
It isn't the religious content of the series that is so controversial, but rather the way it ends. Without giving anything away, many of the mysteries built up during the course of the story go unresolved. The last two episodes focus on the characters' mentalities and the main themes and ideas the series is trying to deal with rather than answering questions about the plot. Even more maddening is that apparently important events are shown briefly out of context or only hinted at, leaving us to wonder what's going on. Fans who expect a climactic mecha battle and to have all the questions wrapped up are in for a surprise, to say the least. Eventually GAINAX produced a movie (several actually, but that's a story for another article) that expands on the ending and fills in some of the blanks in order to appease fans. But no matter which ending you prefer, there are still many things about the series intentionally left open to personal interpretation. Was this series making a religious comment or was it just another giant robot anime? What was it trying to say on the topic of relationships between parents and children? Or on dreams vs. reality? Was this just director Hideaki Anno's way of exorcising his personal demons? Questions like these are still debated by fans to this day. The fact that so many examinations and analyses are performed is a testament to Evangelion's successful mixture of diverse but well integrated elements and nearly inexhaustible interpretability. Everyone who watches Evangelion will come away with something different, which in itself is one of the main ideas that is promoted by the series. Technical Quality
If Evangelion has a weakness it's the quality of the animation. Action sequences are generally good and there is sufficient detail in backgrounds and characters. However, there is a lot of static imagery and re-cycled footage. Quite a bit of the editing work looks sloppy (jumping frames at scene changes, etc.). More recent mecha shows like Gasaraki look much better. However, passing up Evangelion because of the mediocre animation quality is like not watching Casablanca because it's in black and white. The music, on the other hand, is very good, particularly the use of some classical pieces towards the end.
As for the DVDs themselves, there were some problems with the first disc prompting ADV to later release an improved, re-mastered version. Extras are pretty light, mostly just character profiles, although the discs contain both Spanish and French language tracks in addition to the standard English and Japanese. Summary
Evangelion is a must see series, not only for anime fans, but for anyone who likes skillful storytelling that involves exploring ideas and expanding the mind. Although many people find the TV ending disappointing and the series requires more mental and emotional involvement than some viewers are willing to give, Evangelion remains a series that anyone who considers themselves an anime fan should see. - Adam Schenker