As someone who only casually watches the most surface-level specimens of anime, I’m likely the least qualified person to register an opinion on Neon Genesis Evangelion. The show was a major reinvigorating boon for anime as an industry in the mid-90s and has maintained a strong cult following in America in the decades since, to the point where I remember at least 50% of all non-porn Tumblr posts being dedicated to the show’s meaning & legacy. I am one of the many, many Americans who didn’t bother seeking out Neon Genesis Evangelion until it became conveniently available to stream on Netflix earlier this year, though, running through all 26 of the episodes that fans have been obsessing over since the 90s in just a week’s time. It was a trip. The show starts off as a proto-Pacific Rim kaiju vs. mech suits action series, but then rapidly transforms into a psychedelic, philosophical crisis in which Humanity must escape the consequences of playing god by finding unexpected refuge in The Singularity. That is, if I understand even a tenth of what was happening in the defiantly convoluted & unconventionally structured story – an intricate web of conspiracy theories, flashbacks, Biblical references, and intense psychological breakdowns. It’s a show I should probably sit with over several years and a few rewatches before I speak on anything it’s attempting to accomplish, outside praising the artistry of its gorgeous, intricately detailed 2-D animation style. And yet, I still feel compelled to talk about a major aspect of the show’s legacy that I find outright fascinating: its ending(s).
The conclusion of Neon Genesis Evangelion is somehow even more difficult to parse out in words than the show’s perplexing premise. Most of the series details a government program that militarizes young children by psychologically linking them to organic mech suits to fight invading kaiju threats to their city. Mysteries about the government’s intent with the program, the origins of both the mech suits & the monsters, and the psychological effect of weaponizing children open the show up to sprawling obfuscation & subjective interpretations, but for the most part its story fits into a genre template we’ve become familiar with in the decades since its initial run. I was stunned, then, when the final two episodes in the series abandoned the mech suit program entirely to stage a psychedelic breaking down of each character’s individual identities, so that the world can be saved through reaching The Singularity rather than through battle. I loved this swerve. It reminded me a lot of the “How are you connected to yourself?” philosophical crises of Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, except interpreted through psychedelic animation instead of the gory payoffs of early-aughts J-horror. Apparently, contemporary fans of the show did not feel the same way. They complained violently, for years, that the series creator Hideaki Anno (who later directed the brilliant bureaucracy satire Shin Godzilla) ruined something truly special with this esoteric conclusion, to the point where they sent him death threats for the offense. Eventually, Hideaki Anno responded to this fandom bullying the way many modern pop culture creators find themselves doing these days: caving in to deliver more of the show, promising fans the ending they believed they deserved. Things only got weirder from there.
Reconstructing a proper ending for Neon Genesis Evangelion took two whole feature films to pull off. The first, titled Death & Rebirth, was mostly an incomprehensible editing room nightmare meant to refresh fans’ memory of the series arc in a glorified clip show. Anything new it added to series lore (besides a flimsy wraparound in which the weaponized children form a string quartet) has since been removed and added to the front end of the proper movie sequel The End of Evangelion – thanks to a series of revisions that’s too convoluted to be worth explaining. That puts all the weight of sending off Neon Genesis Evangelion with a fandom-satisfying ending on a single 90min feature film, which is structured as a three-episode arc of the show. What I love about The End of Evangelion in its final edit (at least the one that’s conveniently streaming on Netflix) is that it only pretends to play nice in satisfying the fandom for so long. The film rewinds the clock to before the Singularity experiments of the final two episodes (known as The Instrumentality Project in series lore) to provide a more linear, logical conclusion where the government base is under militaristic attack and each character gets a proper send-off in the fray (mostly through onscreen deaths). I initially hated this choice, as it seemed to be caving to fans’ demands entirely by reorienting the plot to be more of a conventional story of traditional character arcs rather than a grand philosophical statement on the nature of Existence. Then, with time, The End of Evangelion transforms into its own confounding monstrosity that’s just as bizarrely esoteric & inscrutable as the original conclusion to the show that pissed off fans in the first place. It’s the anime equivalent of an “Up high, down low, too slow!” prank, and I love it for that fandom-satisfying fake-out.
I don’t think it would be especially useful (or even possible) to describe what happens in The End of Evangelion here. If the series it’s wrapping up is to be understood as a warped, nightmarish Biblical allegory, this is certainly the Book of Revelations portion of the text. Images of The Rapture, in which characters pop like balloons or swell to the size of celestial gods, mix with Donald Hertzfeldtian animation that assaults the viewer in psychedelic mixed-media collage. It’s just as horny, grotesque, and stupefying as the best episodes of the show ever were, except that it’s now set free to melt down the confines of reality on a global scale, whereas the original ending of the show was more of an internalized crisis. What I love most about it, though, is how it resets the narrative of The Instrumentality Project only to ultimately reach the same conclusion: a psychedelic visual essay on humanity reaching The Singularity. The End of Evangelion calls for “Death to God, man, and all life so that we may become One.” I’m still not convinced that the movie sequels to the show ever needed to exist in the first place, but I greatly respect them for promising a more logical, linear result to the narrative only to backslide right into the same confounding breakdowns of reality, except now on a bigger scale. To make that prank on the fandom even more satisfying, Hideaki Anno even included images of the death-threat emails he received after the original finale as part of the multi-media collage. He might as well have appeared on camera himself to give his audience the finger.
Honestly, I wish more modern creators would have this openly hostile of a relationship with their own fandoms. Watching people like Rebecca Sugar, Rian Johnson, and the Game of Thrones dorks suffer nonstop hyperbolic complaints from the entitled brats they’re only trying to entertain has been insufferable in recent years, so it’s wonderful to look back to what Hideaki Anno accomplished in The End of Evangelion as an anti-audience pushback. He pretended to cave into his most abusive fans’ demands of a “proper” conclusion to his series, only to double down in a grand, grotesque spectacle. I wish more creators could get away with letting their “fans” squirm this way. It’s just as much of a dying art as traditional animation (as evidenced by the fact that even Hideaki Anno himself is working on more Neon Genesis Evangelion sequels as I type this, so that his own victory over his fans was somewhat short-lived).