Before I get into the meat of this review, first I need to drop a disclaimer.
I am a huge fan of the original nineties anime Neon Genesis Evangelion!
So, when the opportunity to review the second installment of the four-part Evangelion theatrical reboot, landed in my inbox, I scrambled for my inhaler before realizing that I’m not asthmatic.
For those of you who don’t know what Neon Genesis Evangelion is, let me explain:
Before kids in the West sipped Boba drinks, dressed in what can only be described as “Nintendo goth”, and thought it was cool to smile big and throw up peace signs with one hand, they were rather naïve to the cultural phenomenon in Japan; the phenomenon of manga and anime. This started to change in the eighties and nineties. Films like Katsuhiro Otomo’s epic Akira (based on his manga of the same name) and the film works of the master, Hayao Miyazaki, such as Nausicaa of the valley of the wind and Castle in the sky, started to turn heads in the West, culminating in the cultural invasion in the early 2000’s. Even with the continually growing success of Japanese manga and anime in the West, it pales in comparison to the following in its home country. And one of its biggest names is Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Neon Genesis Evangelion was created as a TV series and manga respectively, but it’s the twenty-six episode TV show that spawned a huge, loyal following. Created by Hideaki Anno, the show follows Shinji Ikari, a 14 year-old boy in Neo Tokyo-3, who is thrust into becoming a pilot of a giant mecha called an Eva unit. Along with several other 14 year-old pilots, Shinji Ikari is saddled with the fate of the civilization that remains after Third Impact, an apocalyptic event that wiped out half of humanity. With his Eva unit, Shinji battles against enemies called Angels, while playing a role in plans that are kept secret from him. The show was full of religious themes whilst staying far away from allegory. But, while the main story appeared to be a giant robot story with religious iconography, for me the show was always a clever ruse of large battle sequences that cleverly hid the more philosophical and psychological aspect of adolescences and the trappings of the human mind. The show constantly wars with itself for its identity and makes it seem like wonderfully planned forethought. This is never more present than in the last two episodes of the show where Anno does away with the physical story and, instead allows the last two, pinnacle chapters to play out completely in the mind of young Shinji Ikari, who finds acceptance of himself from this internal evaluation, showing the importance of understanding why you do what you do. Many fans of the show were so outraged by this that Anno went back and made a movie length version of the last two episodes showing the external, physical conclusion to the story, entitled End of Evangelion. To understand how big this kind of a move was, it would be like if the creators of LOST ended the show without showing any of the events on the island. Bloggers would have had a fit! Personally I felt this decision was right, as I was always more interested in Anno’s surreal editing style that came with the characters more private, inner scenes. And making the final, explosive exterior story as a theatrical release allowed Anno to stretch his limited TV budget to a more monetary and time allowing one, creating the best looking and consequently more engrossing and cinematic work, fitting the final installment. At this time Anno also experimented with editing the whole show into a single movie and releasing it as Death and Rebirth.
After eleven years Anno brought Evangelion back to the big screen with the first installment of a complete retelling of the series in a proposed tetralogy called Rebuild of Evangelion. Entitled Evangelion 1.0: You are (not) Alone, the film gave Anno the chance to go back to a time of great creative struggle for him , and with the backing of legions of hungry fans and even hungrier merchandisers, make the cinematic experience he had originally intended. The film did a complete revamp of the visuals (not just clean it up like those Disney shysters) instead of magnifying the original 16mm film. The team bumped up the visuals with CGI and added details for the new aspect ratio, but whilst the visuals got a do-over, much of the story stayed faithful to the original first six episodes of the show, making the film seem like Death and Rebirth spruced up and made all pretty like. But, after the credits rolled Anno gave us an anime TV series staple and showed a teaser for the next film, something that appeared at the end of each episode of the original show. In this we got to see a glimpse of some hinted at major changes for the story, and as I finished the next film Evangelion 2.0: You can (not) Advance (set to release in the US on Friday), I can safely report that change has come, and not all of it is sitting right with this Evangelion fan.
The last words on the film-ending teaser said, “More fan service coming next time.” At this time I’m not sure if the “service” in 2.0 was more for Anno or the fans, as this installment adds some CG work that, while creating more epic cinematics and pacing, felt reminiscent of George Lucas’ Special Edition Star Wars Trilogy, pulling me out of the narrative with jarringly polished CG work that conflicted with Anno’s very technical and film-like animation style. To be fair, it has been almost a year since I have gone through the entire original series. So, to test the merit of these newly imagined scenes I watched the series version of a scene where the Eva units battle an Angel that falls from space, along with the newly imagined version in 2.0, and I gotta say both had merits and faults. The original looked surprisingly dated against the new footage, and that’s a big admittance as the original’s artwork is still, to this day some of the best that this medium has ever seen. Also the pacing was nowhere near as compelling as the new version. 2.0 just ramped up the excitement befitting a theatrical release, and the visuals were more in line with End of Evangelion. But, once again those damn CG models stood out like sore thumbs, killing the mood in some pretty key moments. They looked like they were layered over the artwork, giving it a separation as if covered in cling-film. At this time, with the new version not settled in my mind quite yet, I can’t tell you which one comes out on top. I just can’t. Neither are bad, in fact both are amazing, so really my quibble might just be my die-hard love of the originals, something all geeks must fight, and if it’s your first time experiencing the Evangelion universe then you’re not going to have that problem.
Pure semantics in closely related scenes are not the only changes though. There are some pretty hefty plot changes, and added scenes, and once again, it’s a case of hit or miss on all of them. There is a sensational scene where Shinji and his classmates are taken to a huge aquarium where the worlds surviving marine life are kept. The huge artificial sea is bordered with the uninhabitable red sea of the world that Shinji lives in. At the end of their visit the children stand on the border of the old world and the new, as they reflect on how this microcosm of contained, preserved and ultimately imprisoned life reflects their own existence. Take careful note of which sea the characters face, as each one tells much about each character’s inner thoughts and it illustrates that Anno is still a master at this type of filmmaking. There are also changes that don’t work so well at this time. A new character is introduced, an Eva pilot called Mari Illustrious Makinami, and she makes very little sense at this time, “Illustrious” as she might be. She steals an Eva and wrecks it, leaving Shinji to pick up the pieces. Also we see a ramping up of damage done to and decommissioning of the Eva Units, Neo Tokyo-3, the Geo Front (An underground city under Neo Tokyo-3), and, ultimately the pilots. This is a major theme in the show, but the increase in these major close calls take away a little of the mounting tension every time it happens. Basically the movie ramps up the “cry wolf” moments to the point that you lose the tension.
A big change, and one that I really like is the relationships between Shinji and his fellow pilots from the original series, Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Soryu (renamed Asuka Langley Shikinami), who is reintroduced in the beginning of 2.0. These relationships are given time to be more thoroughly explored and Shinji finally gets some concrete acceptance verging on romantic from these two, even if it’s just the viewer that see it. But, it is the internal struggle that seems to be reduced in pursuit of the more external embellishments, and that is a sad, sad fact as it is Shinji’s internal journey that is paramount for me and the systematic dumbing-down of it, hurts the strength of the narrative.
All in all, Evangelion 2.0 is a mix of ups and downs that will continue to create discussion within its rabid fanbase, something it has been successful at doing from the very beginning. Overall I’m impressed with the new direction. Sure, I have some problems with it, but I’m a die-hard fan, I’m always gonna get a nerd-migraine every time they change something. But I’m also always trying to get new people to watch the show, and right now I couldn’t tell you if I’d give people these movies or the original series, and that is an achievement in itself.