Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Neon Genesis Evangelion

About 10 years ago or so, I stumbled on an anime series that, for better or worse, left a lasting impression on me-- Neon Genesis Evangelion. Most folks who have at least a passing familiarity with Japanese animation are aware of the series. Among those in the know, there isn't much of a gray area when it comes to opinions on the franchise-- folks either love it or hate it. I happen to be one of the former-- I am a HUGE fan.

Eva is one of Japan's most well known anime properties; its popularity can be compared to familiar U.S. pop-culture icons like Star Wars and Star Trek. When it comes to anime shows in Japan, Evangelion is one of the big boys. It's popularity abroad is something of a phenomenon as well. Even today, almost 15 years after its initial release, the franchise is still going strong, spawning a load of merchandising materials that would make George Lucas jealous.

So, what is it that makes Evangelion so special? As far as I'm concerned, the answer is fairly simple- Eva was like the Perfect Storm; when it hit, it filled a niche that didn't exist in Anime. Some might argue that it filled a niche that didn't, and still doesn't, exist in any form of pop-culture, be it animated or live action; on televison or the big screen. It rode into the public consciousness on the wave of popularity created by an anime staple- the Giant Robot Show. And once it got the audience hooked on its apparent 'monster of the week' premise, it dropped its mask to reveal its true face: a thought-provoking, controversial, well written, and well acted study of the nature of humanity. All with a liberal sprinkling of philosophical, psychological, and religious themes.

And all of the series' intricate plot-twists and turns were built on a simple yet shocking premise: A band of humans fighting against the forces of God to stave off the prophesied end of the world.

Here's a spoiler-free synopsis:

In the near future, a cataclysmic event called The Second Impact nearly wipes out the human race. Floods and climate changes eventually result in the human race being drastically reduced, and the survivors eventually rebuild a pale copy of the society that was.

There are some who believe that a mysterious organization called Selee had prior knowledge that the Second Impact would occur, and that they know the true cause of it. Some say that they gathered this information from lost books of the Bible called The Dead Sea Scrolls. There are also some who believe that a Third Impact lies in the immediate future. Presaged by the appearance of a series of Angels, the Third Impact is rumored to be the final judgement of God.. The apocalypse that will mark the end of Humanity.

Selee also seems to pull the strings of a shadowy military organization called NERV. NERV's purpose- to combat a string of gigantic, awe-inspiring beings called Angels, who's appearance is foretold by the Dead Sea Scrolls. The logic being if the Angels can be stopped, the end of the world can be prevented.

To combat the Angels, NERV has created a secret weapon- a group of gigantic, humanoid fighting machines known as the Evangelions, or EVAs for short. Without giving too much away, all I can say about the Evangelions is... well; keep your eye on them. Things aren't exactly as they seem...

One side note on the EVAs-- They can only be controlled by pilots chosen from a group of kids born around the time of the Second Impact. NERVE has 3 main units in its arsenal - the bright-red Unit 02, piloted by a volatile German/Japanese orphan named Asuka, the blue unit 00, piloted by a quiet, enigmatic girl named Rei, and the bright purple unit 01, piloted by the show's protagonist, Shinji Ikari.

As the series opens, Shinji is going to live with his father Gendo, who has been distanced from his son ever since the mysterious death of his wife.

Cold and stern, the father also happens to be the apparent leader of the mysterious organization known as NERV....

Gendo Ikari

After Shinji successfully proves the effectiveness of the EVA's in combating the Angels, the world's remaining governments decide to entrust NERV with their defense against the otherworldly threat. As the clock ticks down to the impending 3rd Impact, Shinji and his comrades find themselves fighting a war on two fronts-- they are tasked with defeating successively stronger Angels, as well as defeating their own inner demons and insecurities...

Earlier, I mentioned that most folks familiar with Evangelin either love it or hate it. I think that most of the hate comes from the way the 26 episode series wraps up. For the first 24 episodes, the story is told in a fairly straightforward manner. The action continues to ramp up, and as the stakes get higher, progressively larger bombshell-level revelations are unveiled. But as the story reaches its climax, viewers are not given the payoff they expect. Instead of providing a straightforward depiction of the show's endgame, the resolution is only alluded to. Paying close attention (I'm talking 'sitting in class taking notes' kind of attention) to the last two episodes will answer the viewer's questions about what happens, but the experience isn't as visceral as the events leading up to it. Put another way, it's as though the director spoon-feeds the story to you bit by tantalizing bit up until the end; at which point the spoon is rudely yanked away and we are told to wake up, think, and figure things out for ourselves.

Needless to say, this story-telling style rubbed many fans the wrong way. Fortunately, (or perhaps unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), the last 2 episodes were re-made in the form of a film called The End Of Evangelion. The movie recounts the events of the last two episodes, but from a different perspective. While the television series ends with the viewer safely experiencing the story's resolution from inside the protagonist's head. The movie cuts away this safety net, and gives us a raw, unpolished depiction of events.

Both the TV series, and the film End Of Evangelion are available on DVD from pretty much any movie retailer.

Both feature an especially well-made English dub.

TV opening to Neon Genesis Evangelion-

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