The weirdly named psychedelic Japanese anime Neon Genesis Evangelion has finally arrived on Netflix, after years as a cult hit with no easy way to watch. It's dark, twisted and an influence on modern sci-fi the world over
If you have enjoyed any high-tech sci-fi in the last 20 years, you owe a lot to the legacy of Neon Genesis Evangelion. The ludicrously named Japanese anime, which is coming to Netflix on 21 June, is not only the product of a mishmash of philosophical sci-fi classics, Kabbalah and the big mecha cartoons that preceded it: it’s also a seminal work of science fiction.
Neon Genesis Evangelion – named as such because it "sound[ed] complicated" – does not have the monopoly on thoughtful science-fiction, nor does Japan. But in terms of how we have come to understand the future in a visual sense, Eastern art has had a huge part to play: from the dystopia of Akira, to the philosophy of Ghost In The Shell, to the trippy religiosity of Devilman or the minimalist horror of Serial Experiments Lain, Western directors have long admitted inspiration from Japanese classics (which, in turn, do borrow from your William Gibsons and your Philip K Dicks.) Neon Genesis Evangelion is a part of this: it helped create an age of science fiction in which consequence, trauma and depression are as crucial to our idea of the future as explosions, aliens and robots.
A brief summary: the 1995 anime follows schoolboy Shinji Ikari, who moves to Tokyo-3 at the request of his enigmatic, estranged father. His father is in charge of an organisation that finds gifted children to pilot gigantic, weirdly organic robots called Evas so that they can fight off the surrealist "Angels" that come from outer space to wreck the city.
So far so pulpy, right? That’s exactly what the show wants you to think: every mecha anime is about a boy put in a big robot and asked to kill aliens. Neon Genesis Evangelion even indulges this for a good five or six episodes. Then it gets weird. Then it becomes a masterpiece.
Slowly, the show begins to do something deeper. In one early episode Shinji and his two fellow Eva pilots are trapped inside their machine by an Angel that manifests as a virus, leaving the supporting cast to deal with the threat. It’s here we begin to realise that the many adults in the background are a twisted, disgusting bunch of misanthropes who have all slept with each other (or each other’s parents) and are all suffering from the emotional fallout of the "Second Impact", a gigantic explosion many years earlier that altered the earth irrevocably.
Then, it becomes clear that Shinji’s very normal high school is actually a training program for future Eva pilots and one of his very normal high school friends is brought into the program. What follows... is tough to watch.
In the second half of the series, a few things all work together in a perfect storm: show creator Hideaki Anno’s mental health is not great and he develops a big interest in psychoanalysis, plus time – and some would argue budget – began to run out and the original script was abandoned. The show becomes more character-focused and relies on still tableaus and recycled footage from old episodes. The consequences of the show’s big extraterrestrial fight scenes leave everyone deeply, deeply damaged and twisted. Yet still there is expert, subtle storytelling going on under the insanity. Characters start to have nervous breakdowns, others die, others do terrible things in the name of the greater good.
Throughout, there is a common trope that has become a meme since the show’s original airing: traditionally, in mecha anime, boys given the chance to battle in giant robots can’t wait to keep going. They inspire everyone with their gung-ho bloodlust and warm hearts. Shinji hates doing it. He runs away all the time. He is brought back by guilt and duty and loathing. He hates himself and treats the people around him terribly. He is a disgusting, pathetic pervert surrounded by damaged, violent sociopaths and he just wants someone to like him. It’s a painful show to watch because it’s just so real: what would happen if the people we tasked with saving the world were all absolute garbage?
By the end of the TV show, Evangelion is an absolute fever dream. Dwindling resources meant that the final two episodes are basically a clip show philosophical TED talk featuring death, destruction and terrifying visuals. Then Anno was given the budget to make the finale he really wanted – a movie called The End Of Evangelion – which is a deadly, perverse, trippy experience filled with horrific violence, human suffering and finally one of the most surreal journeys a main character has ever been on: a Kabbalistic version of Winnie The Pooh’s Heffalumps and Woozels nightmare. It is, and I cannot stress this enough, a masterpiece. I maybe think about it every single day.
So what, you might say? This all sounds like some fun, cult thing that a couple of people remember. Wrong. The fanbase for this show, both at home and abroad, is huge. There are still films being made in the series, such is the demand. The problem is that Neon Genesis Evangelion suffered from being out at a time when the West had little respect for Eastern animation and as a result it was hard to find ways to watch it: Netflix is a huge change for this. Neon Genesis Evangelion has such cultural cachet that Hideaki Anno was drafted in to make Japan's most recent Godzilla movie, which was heavily Evangelion-inspired (it even sampled the soundtrack) and also won Japan’s equivalent of the Best Movie Oscar.
On top of that, the theme tune – the exceptional "Cruel Angel’s Thesis" by Yoko Takahashi, has become one of Japan’s most performed karaoke songs. It’s been at the top for years and is so frequently performed that people are sick of hearing it: it came first in a poll of the most annoying anime songs to hear someone perform.
Still, you might think: I’ve seen anime; I sat through Dragonball Z for some reason; I’ve seen a Studio Ghibli film. But trying to say you know what Neon Genesis Evangelion will be like because you watched a show for teenaged boys and films for children is like saying you know what Game Of Thrones is like because you watched He-Man and The Sword In The Stone. Neon Genesis Evangelion is, for good reason, regarded as a masterful piece of storytelling and as an incredible character study full of complex and interesting men and women. Yes, it's a cartoon. Yes, it's old. Yes, it does have an... interesting dynamic with female anatomy that is very specifically of its time and cultural origins. But modern sci-fi owes Neon Genesis Evangelion a debt the same way it owes a debt to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. You've definitely seen something like this, and that's kind of the point: without NGE, you wouldn't have.