Anime classic Neon Genesis Evangelion plugs into 2019’s political climate

Finally available to stream legally via Netflix, the 25-year-old Japanese TV series feels more relevant and striking than ever


Misery loves company and that company is, apparently, TV viewership. Many of the defining series of this year are feel-bad downer watches, especially HBO’s anxiety-boosting triptych of Chernobyl, Euphoria and, of course, Game Of Thrones (no matter where you stand on that divisive final season, The Bells really does go for the jugular).

Netflix may be aiming to counter this barrage with the third season of its comparatively lighthearted Spielbergian 80s sci-fi-horror hit Stranger Things this summer, but the streaming titan has already provided the world with the more revolutionary, thoughtful and daring alternative – and it’s a nearly 25-year-old cartoon series about kids fighting monsters in giant robots.

Neon Genesis Evangelion initially aired in Japan from 1995 to 1996, and its disturbing, deconstructive take on mecha anime proved both wildly popular and confounding with mainstream audiences at home and a persistently enormous cult following abroad. Largely out of print and unavailable to legally stream outside of Japan for more than a decade thanks to exorbitantly priced and Byzantine licensing, Netflix’s worldwide distribution deal has given the series its first true second life.

The world it returned to on June 21 is much stranger and often scarier than that of the mid-90s, which only means that Evangelion is more relevant and striking than ever. It’s the bingeable peak TV drama we need right now, grittier and eerier than any of its live-action competition in a way that perfectly captures the tenor of our uncertain, impossible times.

The story goes that Studio Gainax co-founder Hideaki Anno originally created Evangelion as something he could pour his entire being into, including his perceived failings. The show’s characters are immensely fallible, stock shounen anime archetypes like the plucky boy hero and the demurely mysterious love interest reduced to screaming children and unsettlingly blank faces. They’re more human not in spite of these flaws but because of them, and Evangelion knows this, dissecting their psyches through the surprisingly incisive and often mundanely matter-of-fact drama that occurs not only in between the giant robot fights but during them. Those battles are always for the fate of the planet, yet it’s not a thriving world.

The plot of Evangelion unfolds as earth is still reeling from an enigmatic cataclysm known as Second Impact, which wiped out half of all its living things through ecological collapse and the petty warfare that followed. To watch the show in the era of the climate emergency is monstrously chilling, not only because the never-ending hazy summer of Tokyo-3 feels more tangible now but because its characters sabotage themselves while trying to prevent further calamity from the threat of the extraterrestrial “Angel” antagonists.

Whether they’re scared, deluded or outright inconsiderate of others, Evangelion’s entire cast is fundamentally not mature enough to handle the burden of global safety placed upon them. Protagonist Shinji Ikari is 14, and he handles the responsibility of piloting the titular ultra-powerful, skyscraper-sized mech suit like any puberty-addled kid would: he chokes, he makes excuses, he hopes for someone with more experience to bail him out. He straight up goes AWOL early on, and there are still 22 episodes left for you to watch him and his fellow Eva pilots make more devastatingly human decisions like that.

Meanwhile, his estranged father Gendo doesn’t want to help guide the son he traumatized, instead preoccupied with secret plans that include frequent meetings with the menacing Illuminati-esque group SEELE, who seem to not really want to save humanity so much as they want to liquidate it to a more manageable state through an engineered apocalypse of their own.

We’ve seen over the past few years how those with power and resources have become unpredictable man-children like the Donald Trumps, Jair Bolsonaros and Doug Fords of the world or, more alarmingly, they’re messianic tech billionaires who’d likely care more about monetizing survival methods rather than finding real solutions for the environment. In any case, good-intentioned people appear powerless to stop a doomsday that may have always been fated to happen.

But maybe it’s not actually the end. Anno’s fascination with the Psychology 101 concepts of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung was unusual for a show aimed at teenage boys, manifesting in characters often entering womb-like states of introspection or an interrogation of their shadow selves. These arty dream sequences tend to result in much-needed epiphany, but as with all aspects of its production, Evangelion never settles for clean answers. After one such internal odyssey, Shinji learns a key truth about himself, which causes his Eva unit to gruesomely tear its way out of the belly of an Angel like a supersized version of the famous Alien chestburster scene. A few episodes later, pilot Asuka Langley Sohryu has dark, traumatizing secrets exposed by another Angel, which causes her to spiral into depression before her own important realization acts as the catalyst for a bloodbath of a fight.

Such moments of crisis are opportunities for ugly, viscerally executed revelations that radically redefine a character’s world of perception for the better. As summarized by the tag line for the towering theatrical film The End Of Evangelion, which wraps up the series in a grotesque orgy of biblical and psychosexual horror imagery, “the fate of destruction is also the joy of rebirth.” Our self-made Armageddon might just be a therapy session we all really needed to have, and there may be some other unknowable existence beyond that once we get it over with.

Is that an optimistic reading of a show that infamously went off the rails and got even more hopeless and abstract as Anno sought to better understand his own battle with depression? Depends on who you talk to. Still, Evangelion’s specific cocktail of relatable mental health struggles, looming apocalyptic tone and large-scale sci-fi action feels like it was tailor-made for the collective consciousness of 2019 where politics both personal and global collide with unfeeling corporate empires churning out spectacular iterations on beloved geek properties, all as an avoidable mass extinction event approaches.

Our present is confusing, overwhelming and horrifying, like you really are Shinji at the controls of a machine he doesn’t understand. Few pieces of mass-marketed media have ever relayed as many specific truths about humanity as Evangelion does while still ripping as a gloriously dorky robot saga. That Netflix seemingly toned down some of the content in its new translation – most controversially in the case of the queer-coded subplot between Shinji and the bishounen Eva pilot Kaworu Nagisa – only makes a stronger case for the series’ continued ability to startle even when its content has become more normalized.

Then again, perhaps Evangelion has always been the new normal and we simply didn’t know this whole time.

@philwitmer

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