In the early years of Studio Ghibli, master director Hayao Miyazaki gathered a team of young artists together to help him craft his first classic, ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’ (1984). It was an enormous, ambitious project, unlike anything before attempted in Japanese animation. One of those animators was Hideaki Anno, a young man of instantly-apparent skill who Miyazaki personally mentored. He contributed to some of the most powerful sequences in ‘Nausicaä’, but this isn’t where Anno became an important cornerstone in the history of anime. It took another ten years before he look his unique and uncompromising artistic vision and crafted it into one of the most successful and acclaimed anime series ever created - one often credited with cementing the success of anime in the West. Sprawling, ambitious and at times harrowing, his series ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ is still a standard against which animation as an art form is measured against.
For those unfamiliar with the series, the name itself can make it sound intimidating, but while its title and its content are breathtakingly complex, the narrative running through it packs quite a punch. Set in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event, young high school student Shinji Ikari finds himself taking part in the EVA program: a military operation where teenagers are used to pilot giant organic mecha against an invading army of ‘Angels’, frightening and enormous celestial beings hell-bent on finishing their job of wiping out the human race. These pilots mentally connect with their EVA’s, but because of their complexity, only teenagers can operate them. What makes Shinji so special is that he is the son of the director of the program, an estranged relationship that has never been repaired. Trying to connect with his father while finding himself in impossibly dangerous and terrifying battle situations, Shinji finds himself holding his mind and his emotions together for dear life.
The series (which ran for one season in 1995 and 1996) took elements now seen as staples of anime (complex technology, giant robots, human/robot hybrids, post-apocalyptic settings) and imbued them with a depth of character and theme that was totally distinct. The characters, which also include the fellow pilots in the program and the administrative staff, are all incredibly rich, and the situations Anno throws them into are equally thrilling and unforgiving. The series was an instant success in Japan and internationally, but Anno’s vision and ambition for it soon exceeded the parameters of television, to the point where the series ran out of money to execute the complex climax he had in mind. Later, he revisited the ending with an enormous animated film that tried to tie together the many threads he had set in motion, but the compromises in the series meant it never reached the heights (and depths) he had hoped. Then in 2006, almost a decade after the series was put to rest, it was announced that Anno was returning to his masterpiece with a series of animated films. However, this wouldn’t be a remake or a reboot; neither of those titles fit what he had in mind. This was going to be a "rebuild".
Rather than starting from scratch, the four films (of which the third, ‘Evangelion 3.33 You Can (Not) Redo’ is finally released on Blu-ray this week by Madman) use the animation of the series as a starting point, cleaning it up and using computer animation to bolster it. For example, the first film, ‘You Are (Not) Alone’ is essentially the first two or three episodes as seen in the series, albeit with slightly different pacing and improved animation. For the most part, it is shot-for-shot identical. So the "rebuild", in one sense, is literal - Anno is using the pieces of the series to reconstruct his story. However, in rebuilding the story, he is also taking it closer to his original, enormous, harrowing vision, so that in the second film, ‘You Can (Not) Advance’, he begins to take the story into new and unexpected territory with a shocking narrative time-jump we’ve never seen in the series before. Motivations shift, narrative points change and the characters find themselves in increasingly more difficult situations, building towards something far more cinematic. The restrictions to his storytelling are left behind, and by the time you reach the third film, he has jettisoned his compromised ending for something far more complex and visually staggering.
Those who love the TV series will have already discovered the joys of the rebuild, but for those unfamiliar with it, these films are the only chance to delve into Anno’s epic, as the series has long been out of print in Australia (perhaps due to the long-rumoured plans for a restoration and Blu-ray release). What the films offer new fans is a consolidated distillation of 'Evangelion'. We might lose the fantastic subplots, but with less time to play with, the story finds tremendous clarity and focus. This is Shinji’s story, one that takes the fantastical concept of teenagers fighting monsters in giant robots and places it within the framework of familiar human psychology. At every step of the way, Anno reminds us that these pilots are teenagers, and the enormous responsibility placed on them, coupled with the biblical horror of the Angels, causes them to crumble and crack. These are child soldiers, sacrificed for the greater good, and what makes the child-adult tension so much more potent is that the man sacrificing Shinji is his own father. The scope of 'Evangelion' is enormous, often overwhelming and bordering on impossible to understand, but much like the 1988 anime masterpiece ‘Akira’, it is held together by the human relationships. When we finally reach the third film, where Anno has jettisoned the original trajectory of the series and blasted us into unfamiliar territory, this combination of the intimate and the epic make the series something to behold, braver and more enormous that almost any other piece of animated storytelling.
At every step of the way, Anno reminds us that these pilots are teenagers, and the enormous responsibility placed on them.
It also helps that the rebuild allows him to truly blast open the scope of the series. When I saw the third film at a special screening in 2013, I named it as one of my top 10 films of the year, so staggered was I by it. The opening sequence is one of the most ambitious I’ve seen in an animated film, almost the anime equivalent of the opening of ‘Gravity’. The films looks beautiful, the visual effects are stirringly used and the cumulative effect of it, further tearing Shinji between the duty of his responsibilities and his needs as a teenager, hit you like a train. It’s tremendously exciting that Madman is finally releasing ‘You Can (Not) Redo’ on Blu-ray, as it offers the chance for new audiences to experience it at full force and for others to revisit it as they continue to dissect the complex mechanisms of Anno’s epic.
It’s unclear when we will see the fourth and final film in the series (tentatively titled ‘Evangelion 3.0+1.0’). It was originally set for release in Japan late last year, but Anno has since been handed the reigns of the beloved Godzilla franchise. The wait to see what he has in store for the end of 'Evangelion' is bordering on torture, especially as ‘You Can (Not) Redo’ took us places we had never been before. Whatever he has in store though, you can be relatively confident that it will be biblical in its scale, uncompromising in its philosophy and unforgiving for those characters who have survived till the end.
I spent years being told I should watch ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’, but with only a passing interest in anime, I continuously put it off. What time I wasted - there’s nothing quite like Hideaki Anno’s masterpiece: a breathtaking combination of action, character, religion, psychology and philosophy. What makes his Rebuild of 'Evangelion' so important and special is that it offers us a chance to see the entirety of its scope, closer to the intentions of its creator. There’s amazing work happening all over the world in the field of animation, pushing its boundaries and its storytelling, but I think this project might be the most important. This is storytelling that demands every ounce of your attention and patience, but once you find yourself intrigued and intoxicated by it, you really have never seen anything quite like it.
’Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo’ is available this week on Blu-ray and DVD from Madman. The first two films are also available on Blu-ray and DVD. Unfortunately, the DVD releases of the TV series and its companion films are out of print.