#1 In the middle of the apocalypse
Humanity in Neon Genesis Evangelion isn’t doing exactly well. After an event known as “The Second Impact” occurred 15 years prior, antarctica was annihilated. Sea levels rose across the world and seasons vanished in favor of perpetual summer. An unimaginable amount of people died, either as a direct result of The Second Impact or in the chaos that ensued after.
That’s not all.
Humanity is also under attack from an unknowable force known as The Angels. Cosmic creatures of unknown origin; powerful enough to shrug off even the most powerful weapons invented by mankind. The only tool capable of defeating them are the Evangelion units created and maintained by the shadowy organization known as NERV. These giant robots—piloted manually by people whose entire nervous system is synched with the machine—are the only hope of defeating the angels. The only hope of staving off mankind’s complete demise.
This setting is incredibly grim and that’s reflected everywhere across Neon Genesis Evangelion. The world teeters on the edge of complete ruin. Cities are destroyed, the land and climate tarnished, and what few people remain are all but resigned that the end may be upon them. Any battle with an angel is a decisive one. We win, or we are all doomed.
The fate of the world lies with the Evangelion pilots. A lot of weight for some very small shoulders.
#2 Tragically flawed characters
Much has been said about the psychology of Neon Genesis Evangelion and its characters. People far smarter than I have written incredible articles and recorded excellent video essays on these topics. I won’t get too much into it here, but know that there’s A LOT of discussion on this topic.
A lot of this talk revolves around the pilots themselves. Shinji Ikari, Asuka Langley, and Rei Ayanami are all young teenagers from troubled backgrounds, now charged with saving the world. Shinji is severely introverted. Abandoned by his father at a young age, only to now be rudely summoned to become a pilot for his organization. He is fragile and weak-willed, but so desperate for praise and acceptance that he does what’s asked of him anyway. Even so, he is prone to emotional breakdowns and frequently tries to run away from all his responsibilities. Especially when those responsibilities would call for him to look inward to change his behavior.
Asuka and Rei too have their problems too. They are all well-rounded characters with unique motivations and captivating arcs throughout the series. While I hesitate to use the word “fan”, I was most interested in Asuka. She’s a fascinating character, who steadily descends into a jealousy-induced rage as she falls behind the other pilots. She can’t accept her own mistakes and comes to see injustices in everything that happens to her. In parallel, the viewer learns more and more about her past; the events that made her the way she is. It makes her deeply pitiful, even when she is at her most offputting.
The adults in the story fare little better. They carry scars of their own and—even on the precipice of mankind’s doom—are obsessed with their own ego and desires. This is what makes Shinji’s dad Gendo such an iconic character. A complete bastard of a father, wholly indifferent to the emotional needs of others. He is pivotal in securing mankind’s future, yet also uses his resources and manipulates everyone to further his own private goals. Whatever those may turn out to be.
See, this is what happens. I say that I’ll keep it brief, but the nature of Neon Genesis Evangelion is that any discussion of its characters is going to end up far longer than its author intended. Its telling that the final 2 episodes of the show are almost nothing but characters discussing their exact feelings, needs, and flaws—only for there to still be still enough material to debate that fans have remained invested for years.
#3 Damn fine action scenes
All that smart stuff is nice and all, but shouldn’t distract from a far simpler fact: Neon Genesis Evangelion is a very cool action series. It’s about teenagers in giant robots fighting monsters. Sure there’s a deeper meaning to it all, but it’s still an exciting mecha anime even when you disregard everything else.
Neon Genesis Evangelion was the brainchild of some of the most talented people working in anime at the time. Director Hideaki Anno had been an influential animator on some of most visually amazing works of the 80s. Neon Genesis Evangelion is also influenced by an earlier sci-fi anime of his: 1998’s Gunbuster. These were a studio and people that knew how to make kick-ass mecha anime, and they delivered on that exactly.
The stakes are high and the battles intense. Robots clashing against monsters with visceral impact, while wielding giant sci-fi weapons. Buildings and the landscape around them are completely destroyed, wrecked by the impact of these colossal entities and the many explosions they cause. It is so fucking cool that the series is still worth watching today, even if you are used to newer anime.
Don’t even get me started on End of Evangelion.
#4 Iconic robot designs
What helps these action scenes stand out even more is how iconic the design of the Evangelion units is. Compared to the bulky, toy-like structure of a Gundam or even Gunbuster‘s mechs, the Eva units are surprisingly lean. Something that makes them look more human, which is subverted on multiple layers.
Firstly, while they do look human-like, there’s something undeniably feral about them. A beast-like element to their design that even layers of armor can’t obscure. The slight hunch to their posture, the sharpness of the eyes, they’re not like the Franxx mechs that were designed to be charmingly human-like. These machines embody mankind’s capacity for violence. This is at its most literal when an Evangelion goes berserk; at which point it’s prone to charging around on all fours as it tears into foes with little grace.
The second subversion is that the Evangelion units are also biological in nature. They are living creatures, below all that plating. Pilots are injected into them and their nervous systems are aligned. When the Eva unit is wounded, the pilot feels that as well. They feel ALL of it. The operators are not always quick enough to break the synchronization before an Eva unit is dismembered or otherwise gored.
And to be simply honest: they just look really cool. I love the shape of the armor, the pointy protrusions, and the stark colors. Units 01 and 02 look so amazing and are the only mechs that I’d ever consider getting figures of.
#5 Every angel is different
Looking cool is not a trait exclusive to the Eva units either. The Angels are a strange and unknowable foe, which is expressed both in their abilities and their designs.
Neon Genesis Evangelion far precedes the recent fad of drawing biblically accurate angels, but it taps into a lot of the same energy. Angels are not pristine, winged people, but can be anything and everything. Some possessing superficial human traits, while others take on incomprehensible forms or no form at all. The first angel in the series is more like a kaiju for the Evangelions to wrestle with as it trashes around the city. A later one is a gem-like, geometric shape that just floats around ominously, firing lasers directly from its “body”.
The further the series goes on, the more fucked up these angels become. A spider-like creature kilometers in width that bleeds acid from the numerous eyes on its main body. Or even angels that can mess with people psychologically.
This makes them one of the most incredible foes in all of anime.
More like this…
Darling in the FRANXX: Drama-heavy mecha series about teenage pilots.
His and Her Circumstances: Anime by Hideaki Anno that explores its characters’ psyche.
Land of the Lustrous: Desperate battles against frightening, divine enemies.