Catharsis [ kuh-thahr-sis ], noun: 1: the purging of the emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, especially through certain kinds of art, as tragedy or music. (dictionary.com)
As a lifelong anime fan, Hideaki Anno’s magnum opus Neon Genesis Evangelion holds a special — if tortured — place in my heart. Some of its darker aspects first lodged themselves into my psyche back in the late 1990s, when it became my number one teenage obsession. For many viewers, adolescent protagonist Shinji Ikari is a frustrating lead — frequently reactive where a traditional hero should be proactive. He’s grudging, reticent and even cowardly. His deep-seated impostor syndrome still speaks to me as a neurotic professional who constantly second-guesses important decisions.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: The Manga
My first exposure to Evangelion was in 1997, via Viz Comics’ translated manga, released simultaneously with the now defunct AD Vision’s dubbed anime VHS tapes. In Japan, the manga debuted in December 1994, 10 months before the 26-episode TV broadcast, despite being an adaptation of the scripts. That manga, released in short, 32-page monthly American comics format was Viz Comics’ first attempt at releasing “un-flopped” manga. At that time, the vast majority of English-translated manga was released mirror-imaged to conform to Western left-to-right reading standards. This was time-consuming and expensive, as many panels required to be retouched by hand to maintain continuity and coherence (such as altering reversed clock faces etc.) Viz compromised with Evangelion — they released each issue both flopped and un-flopped.
Evangelion’s manga was written and drawn by the show’s character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, and over the years he released chapters at a slower and slower pace. He finally concluded it with volume 14 in June 2013, 17 years after the conclusion of the TV series, and 16 years after the movies. Sadamoto took the show’s scripts merely as inspiration, and although he preserved the overall shape of the story, he altered many details, excised entire subplots, shuffled character introductions and streamlined continuity. As a companion to the TV show, it is a valuable and fascinating work that, long after issue one’s September 1997 English-translated debut, Viz still keeps in print via several omnibus editions that I heartily recommend, despite Sadamoto’s excision of the darker, more depressing elements of the Evangelion mythos.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: The TV Series
Even from the beginning, without seeing a single frame of animation, I knew Evangelion would be something special. Director Anno’s previous TV series Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water had at that point never been released in the UK, but I’d seen and enjoyed the 3-volume PAL VHS release of his Gunbuster OVA. I’d also seen both Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (in butchered version as Warriors of the Wind) and The Wings of Honneamise (Royal Space Force), both of which unbeknownst to me had featured incredible examples of his insanely detailed animation work.
Back in 1997, I had finished secondary school and was about to embark on medical school — something that would come as an enormous culture shock. Despite my good exam results, secondary school had not prepared me to study effectively, and I quickly degenerated from one of the most apparently able students in my secondary school class to one of the poorest in my medical school class. I struggled with the heavy workload and buried myself in distractions — voluminous sci-fi novels (The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton), multiplayer LAN PC games (Worms and Quake), and manga (Ranma 1/2, Battle Angel Alita…) Anime was very expensive — at £13.99 per PAL VHS tape containing two measly episodes, I could barely even afford to buy the bimonthly Neon Genesis Evangelion TV show releases, and nor did I even own a television with which to watch them if I did.
By the time I completed my first year, having barely survived humiliating re-sit examinations, I’d already read three volumes of the manga before acquiring my first tape. Alone in an unfamiliar city, with my first taste of academic failure and my self-worth battered, I saw myself reflected in Shinji Ikari’s wretched form —lonely but proud, eager to please those around me, but too socially incompetent to ask for help or recognise my poor coping strategies. What should have been a long summer holiday following first year was spent cramming in the formalin-reeking anatomy lab, forcing myself to memorise the complex innervations of muscle groups and their tendon insertions on obtusely-named bones. After a year separated by distance, my girlfriend joined me at university and together in her halls of residence, we borrowed her flatmate’s tiny integrated CRT TV/VHS player and finally watched the first two episodes together.
It took us well over a year to acquire every tape — this was before internet shopping and easy piracy via torrents. We didn’t have a fansub tape-swap culture in Scotland, at least not that I was aware of, and DVDs barely existed in the late 1990s. Every episode we watched together, though I would often re-watch them when showing them to friends. I was obsessed with the show and spent long hours at the university computer suite poring over fansites, reading wild theories and overly complex fanfic. As much as I appreciated the bonkers action sequences, what captivated me was the bizarre use of Christian, Kabbalistic and Gnostic mysticism to add thematic colour and apparent depth to the story. With complex and flawed human characters, it offered a deep, fascinating insight into the tortured mind of Hideaki Anno, its clinically depressed creator.
Shinji Ikari is wrenched from his quiet life of inoffensive obscurity to serve in a dangerous, unpredictable battlefield, all the while battling for the approval of the adults around him as he berates himself psychologically for his perceived failings. His relationships with females are complex and confusing, he doesn’t know what he wants, and multiple times he runs away in the face of adversity. In so many ways, in my late teens I was Shinji Ikari, as much as I might hate to admit it now. I never had to endure civilisation-ending cosmic threats or deformed acid-spewing day-glo monstrosities, but my fragile teenage male psyche dealt badly with failure, made terrible decisions and unknowingly hurt people I cared about with ill-chosen words and poorly-conceived actions.
Everyone in Evangelion is a screw-up, just like in real life. Even those people who seem to be most together, most confident, most successful, all have their hidden shame and failures. Hideaki Anno understands that, and uses the supposedly childish, brightly-coloured and hyper-stylised medium of animation to rip apart the defenses that human beings wrap around their imperfections, the Absolute Terror Fields that prevent us embracing true empathy and true human engagement. Honesty brings pain, we’re all destined to hurt others, and ourselves in the process.
My poor decision-making continued into second year, where again I struggled academically, my relationship with my girlfriend became volatile and then she fell pregnant. We quickly got engaged, and by the end of my second year, at the age of 19, (following disapproval from both sets of parents), we were married, I had a dangerously unwell premature newborn baby son, and more exam re-sits. There’s nothing quite like the pressure of parenthood to focus one’s mind on the more important things, and my wife made sure that I’d never re-sit anything ever again. Turns out it’s quite hard to procrastinate when your occasionally terrifying significant other develops a vested interest in your career success. Thankfully my son turned out ok after a prolonged stay in the neonatal intensive care unit, and it was only by the time I’d become a father myself that I was able to finally finish watching Evangelion with my wife on our terrible second-hand CRT TV that distorted the top quarter of the picture every time we watched a VHS tape.
Now that I had a son of my own, I could never imagine abandoning him like Gendo Ikari had done to baby Shinji after his wife Yui’s death. Thankfully my wife is still alive, but that relationship volatility continued and by the time my son had turned three years of age, our relationship deteriorated to the point of acute detonation. Head hung low, mind reeling and tears streaming from my eyes, I felt no option but to leave, to run from the overwhelming emotional pain, to safeguard my own sanity. Had I become as bad a father as Gendo?
I have no qualms in calling this the darkest, most upsetting period in my life. My emotional intelligence has never been great and I can only look back on this interval and wish I’d done everything differently. Following a couple of months sleeping on friends’ floors, after graduation I moved into the hospital family accommodation that should have housed the three of us. Instead, I was alone in a cold, sterile, empty home.
Death and Rebirth, and The End of Evangelion (SPOILERS)
Life as a junior doctor in the UK in the early 2000s was difficult — with basic wages no higher than a newly-qualified nurse, managing two households was financially devastating. 90-hour weeks of night shifts did not help my physical or mental wellbeing, and it was difficult for me to see my son as often as I would have liked. There was the constant fear that I might be posted to another city, and of course my separated wife and son wouldn’t follow. Some nights I returned home from work to cry — and those were the better times. At others I felt so numb and disconnected I’d stare blankly at the wall, unable to think or process my feelings. Useless, inert, like Shinji at his worst. Even just going to work felt like being forced to “get into the goddamn robot”.
After my first week of work, all the skin dried and cracked off the soles of my feet, I’d never spent such a sustained period of time standing, walking or running. Spending a month on the Acute Medical Admissions Unit without time to eat or drink during dangerously intense 16-hour shifts led to precipitous weight loss and the dehydration almost triggered kidney failure. I believe urine isn’t meant to look like thick, brown treacle.
During this darkest period, I was privileged to have a close-knit friend group of four other guys — two doctors, one nurse, and a medical student. They kept me sane, dragged me out of the house and kept an eye on me. I don’t think I had ever needed to rely on others so completely until then. It’s amazing how therapeutic the Sega Dreamcast with its Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 and Virtua Tennis was at 4am, with slightly drunk friends. If there’s anything I miss about those days, it’s my friends and our ridiculous escapades.
After what seemed like an unbelievable delay (5 years), in 2002 the Evangelion movies were finally released in the West. I bought a region-free DVD player with my first paycheck (priorities be damned) and ordered a US DVD of The End Of Evangelion. I’d slavered over tantalisingly psychedelic stills from the film on the internet, and I was so excited to get the disc out of its box that I somehow snapped it in two. I had to send it back and wait an agonisingly long couple of weeks for a replacement. What hadn’t helped was that immediately prior to this I had forced several non-Eva-aware friends to sit through the non-chronological, utterly incoherent clip show/recap that was Death and Rebirth, with the promise that the second film would be so much better. Oh, how they laughed when I snapped that disc. Possibly put them off anime for life. Note to all readers: Do not start with Evangelion: Death and Rebirth.
When I was finally able to watch the finale of the show I’d started watching/reading 5 years previously (no, episodes 25 and 26 do not count, they are a blatant shoe-string-budgeted slideshow caused by financial and time mismanagement on the part of production company Gainax), I had caught tonsillitis from working in the paediatric ward and was running a temperature above 40 degrees celsius, dripping with sweat, incoherent and probably hallucinating. Which was perhaps the best state in which to first experience Anno’s massively hyper-stylised, obtuse, psychedelic mind-fuck of a movie. Seriously, by the end of it, my sofa cushions were dripping with sweat.
Of everything contained within that deeply weird, deliberately provocative and painfully introspective movie, the part that resonated with me most was the absolutely incredible sequence set to the song Komm Susser Tod (Come Sweet Death), where director Anno finally succumbs to his worst excesses. He proceeds to annihilate humanity in a kaleidoscopic detonation of searing cruciform explosions, giant naked women and an ocean of orange juice freshly squeezed from the discorporated bodies of every individual human. Brutally nihilistic lyrics are married to an upbeat, poppy chorus while a joyful choir sings as the world ends. I had never seen anything like it, nor had I seen anything that so closely matched the interior topography of my mental state. I mean, just look at those lyrics, composed by Anno himself:
I know, I know I’ve let you down,
I’ve been a fool to myself.
I thought that I could live for no one else,
But now, through all the hurt and pain,
It’s time for me to respect,
The ones you love mean more than anything.
So with sadness in my heart,
I feel the best thing I could do,
Is end it all, and leave forever.
What’s done is done, it feels so bad,
What once was happy now is sad.
I’ll never love again.
My world is ending.
I wish that I could turn back time,
’Cause now the guilt is all mine.
Can’t live without the trust from those you love.
I know we can’t forget the past,
You can’t forget love and pride.
Because of that, it’s killing me inside.
(Lyrics: Hideaki Anno © Seven Seas Music Co. Ltd )
I adore The End of Evangelion, perhaps even more than the original series. It’s not just that the animation itself is leagues above in terms of fluidity and technical proficiency, it’s the unbelievable honesty in Anno’s sharing of his helplessness and pain. It isn’t hard to believe that during his 4-year-long battle with clinical depression following the end of production on Nadia that he must have contemplated suicide. Sometimes life is so hard, and other people seem so difficult, that it can be hard to see any other option but to remove oneself from the equation.
Anno frequently returns to the concept he established in one of Evangelion’s earlier episodes, that of “The Hedgehog’s Dilemma”. When two people try to get close emotionally, they often accidentally (or perhaps sometimes deliberately) hurt the other, and this can lead to emotional withdrawal. Human beings are social animals — we crave attention and affirmation from others, despite the risk of pain. It isn’t an option for us to explode into bright orange liquid and merge our souls (something which sounds terrifying to me, BTW) so instead we all must grow up, accept our faults, forgive ourselves and forgive others. It’s the only way to be a happy, healthy human being.
The End of Evangelion’s ending is ambiguous, and dark. Whereas the TV show ended on a positive (if frustratingly incomplete and inscrutable) note, here Anno offers a more definitive ending in terms of plot, but not in terms of theme. Where does Shinji go after this? Why does he strangle Asuka, even after choosing a world where individual humans can be reconstituted? Anno offers no easy solutions, he leaves it up to the viewer. Perhaps this was his way of saying “fuck you!” to his detractors, or perhaps the ambiguity was Anno admitting he hadn’t quite figured things out yet.
Rebuild of Evangelion: 1
5 years after the Western release of End of Evangelion, Anno returned to the beginning again with his Rebuild series of movies, with the first, Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone in 2007. His original plan to release all 4 movies before the end of 2008… did not go entirely to plan. Fans initially wondered what the point of these movies were — a blatant money grab, a way to further monetise a phenomenally successful franchise? Or was this something more? 1.0 (and its home video iteration 1.11, released in the West in 2009) was mostly just a condensation of the first six TV episodes, but redone with beautiful new digital animation and flashy CGI. Anno added enough strange background hints to suggest that perhaps something more was going on, and in the second movie, which initially appeared to be an even more condensed version of episodes 7–19, he made it clear that he intended to rip up the Evangelion rulebook and take his viewers on a wild, unpredictable ride.
Although Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance was released on UK DVD in 2011, I was able to see it at 2010’s Scotland Loves Anime festival in Edinburgh. By this time in my life, thankfully things had drastically improved. My wife and I had been able to patch things up back in 2004, and we had a second child — a daughter in 2005. Financially, things were still difficult, as I was still paying off enormous student and professional loans, we’d bought a house in a very expensive city, plus I’d just become a partner in a practice and had to get another loan to service the enormous buy-in. My wife was unable to work because of a severe illness that required multiple abdominal surgeries. At one point that year we had to sell many of our DVDs, CDs and video games to buy food. But my family were all together, and media was ephemeral and less important.
Thankfully we had extended family in Edinburgh who were able and willing to look after the kids so my wife and I could attend “a weird Japanese cartoon convention”. This was when she dressed up as Haruhi Suzumiya for me when we attended the UK premiere of the Disappearance movie. I’d also bought tickets for the subsequent showing of Evangelion 2.0, but she refused to attend that one. Turns out she mostly hated Evangelion after the first 2/3rds of the series, because she felt it disappeared up its own arsehole, forgot about plot, coherence and consistency, and she felt the movie was awful. I was kind of crushed, because I’d hoped this was something we could always share together, so I ended up seeing it alone (in a packed screening). These days whenever I mention the word Evangelion to her, she mostly rolls her eyes and groans. It seems when we were younger, she just wanted an excuse for us to spend time together, while I… was more focused on watching the weird cartoon. I’m not sure I ever grew up from that.
Anyway, 2.0 (2.22 on DVD) went absolutely batshit mental towards the end, and I could not wait until the next movie, 2012’s Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo. Shame that due to various adaptation disasters, the home 3.33 version wasn’t released in the West until 2016. That’s a bloody long time to wait. So I didn’t. For the first time ever, I illegally torrented an Evangelion thing. I don’t feel guilty. I did eventually buy the DVD, when it finally came out.
3.33 is a deeply weird film, and a lot of people didn’t seem to know what to make of it, me included. It’s divorced completely from the previous series’ plot, adds so many new poorly-explored characters, concepts and plot points that it barely seems like an Evangelion film at all. I initially felt disappointed, and then confused, and then… kind of indifferent, to be honest. Its overwhelming psychedelia seemed to be yet another retread of 2.22’s and End of Evangelion’s, yet without clear emotional stakes to at least attempt to ground the insanity. Everything seemed so contrived, so deliberately different… yet similar. I awaited the fourth and final film without much excitement. I felt that Anno didn’t know where to go with this reboot series, that perhaps he had written himself into a corner. I do wonder if Anno himself felt the same way, because it took until 2021 for him to complete the final movie, 13 years late, after taking a several-year-long break to do other things.
Rebuild 4 — beware spoilers
So when Amazon decided to drop new dubs of all 4 Rebuild films on the same day (August 13th, 2021) I initially was not that enthused about watching the conclusion, the bizarrely titled Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (henceforth referred to as Rebuild 4, mainly for my own sanity). I thought perhaps it might be best to re-watch the series first, perhaps the new Netflix dub that I hadn’t previously bothered with. Then I read some reviews of the final movie — universally positive. Plus Amazon had reunited many of the original ADV/Manga Entertainment dub cast (unlike my usual practice with anime, I have always only ever watched Evangelion dubbed). And my PS4 randomly suggested it to me on its TV/streaming screen. So I watched it on a whim and was unbelievably glad I did.
The fourth Rebuild of Evangelion movie is a triumph. Anno, that mad bastard, finally did it. He made a satisfying (if not entirely coherent) conclusion not just to the Rebuild tetralogy, but to the entire Evangelion franchise. Whatever Anno’s original plans for Rebuild, this conclusion makes clear that the films cannot stand on their own, separate from the TV show or The End of Evangelion. So many deliberate throwbacks, both in terms of overall themes and in terms of overt visual referencing confirm that, as fans had suspected, Rebuild is no mere reboot, but a capstone to a cyclical story, a sequel if you will. Of course it steadfastly refuses to actually explain any of the connections between this iteration of the story and the versions before it, but as the title hints, this is the third (and final) ending to Shinji Ikari’s tale.
Rebuild 4 retroactively makes 3.33 a much better film, as it follows on directly from the previous movie’s open-ended conclusion. We gain more insight into the post-apocalyptic world, though not necessarily concrete explanations. Most of the world has become a deep red hellscape, random architectural anomalies float inexplicably in the sky, headless Evangelion monsters roam the wastelands, and the remnants of humanity cling to a meager, tenuous existence. Whereas 3.33 was the shortest Rebuild at 96 minutes, Rebuild 4 is by far the longest, at 155 minutes — closing in on the two longest ever anime movies — Final Yamato (163 minutes) and In This Corner (and Other Corners) of the World (168 minutes).
What Rebuild 4 achieves with this extended runtime is nothing short of remarkable. One early section is almost pastoral, in that an almost catatonic Shinji is taken to a survivors’ village where he meets the grown-up versions of some of his former school friends. This is a delightful surprise. I’d always wondered what possessed Anno to change the identity of unit 03’s pilot in 2.22. In the original TV show, it was Toji Suzuhara who Unit 01’s horrifying Dummy Plug System crushed and maimed (in the manga he dies, as was the original plan for his character in the anime, but Anno was forbidden from killing any children by his producer), in Rebuild it becomes Asuka. Now we see a happily married and responsible adult Toji who is a doctor, and a father, something that could not have happened in the original continuity. This is contrasted against the literal arrested development of the Evangelion pilots — despite a chronological age of 28, Shinji, Asuka and Rei are still stuck in 14-year-old child bodies, “the curse of the Eva”.
Shinji seemingly reverts to his old, depressed, introverted, “useless” self in the early part of this story, so much of the focus is instead on the latest version of Rei Ayanami, or “Miss Lookalike”, as she’s not the same Rei that was previously attached to Shinji. Witnessing her start to become more of an individual through her interpersonal interactions is another unexpectedly delightful experience… until the inevitable, brutal Evangelion-style plot twist reminds us that this isn’t a nice, staid movie about an idyllic rice-farming community.
Following this brief, bucolic interlude we rush headlong back into more familiar Evangelion territory — conflict, screaming, bonkers mecha fights, fanservice (there are a lot of gratuitous butt-shots in this…) and impenetrable technobabble filled with Proper Nouns and Important Sounding Nonsense. Evangelion mechas use battleships as projectile weapons, everything explodes, pretty colours erupt everywhere, Gendo Ikari has somehow, inexplicably predicted everything that everyone is going to do, because that’s just Gendo’s plot purpose, and everything stops making any kind of coherent narrative sense.
But coherent narrative sense is not why we are watching Neon Genesis Evangelion. We are watching for Things To Explode In Various Brightly Coloured and Creatively Insane Ways, and it certainly delivers in that regard. There’s no point whatsoever in trying to decipher any of the gobbledegook, for that’s all it is. Anno read a dictionary of Kabbala or whatever, found some fun-sounding words and made his characters shout those obscure terms at each other with great import.
What’s more important here is the emotional resonance behind the bombastic spectacle. Asuka is finally honest with Shinji about her feelings for him. The apparently bitter and resentful, more grown up Misato finally gives Shinji a break, defends him and encourages him. (I’m not a fan of Misato being an absent mother… Surely she should have learned from Gendo’s terrible example, rather than emulating it?) And unbelievably, during the final metafictional Eva battle, Gendo finally admits his own failings to his son, and they realise that they aren’t so different after all. Gendo is a flawed, fearful human being who ran away from his son because he couldn’t accept he was worthy of love from anyone after losing his wife. And they hug. Shinji and his father actually hug. Now this of course happens in some vaguely defined, liminal mindspace/negative dimension or something, but Shinji is finally able to put his hangups behind him and move on.
Yeah, this is the part that’s incredible. See, Evangelion isn’t just about the effect of the AT Field — the terror that keeps people separated from each other, but about the bonds that attract them, both healthy and unhealthy. Shinji develops bonds of codependency between himself and Rei (extra creepy as she’s sort of a clone of his mum, and according to this movie she’s engineered to fall in love with him… ewww…) and Asuka (where neither are able to communicate with the other except via insults, rivalry and violence. Also, she’s apparently a clone now too, perhaps explaining her different surname in Rebuild). Shinji’s desperate for approval from his father, but also hates and fears him. Misato is like a (terrible) mother figure, and the only person he truly connected with on an equal level (Kaworu) was in reality an enemy who died because of Shinji’s actions.
So, in the end, the person who Shinji entrusts his future to is… the supposedly extraneous additional female pilot Mari “Iscariot” Makinami Illustrious, who in the last few minutes of Rebuild becomes an utterly pivotal character, someone who has no unhealthy, emotionally overcharged baggage shared with Shinji, someone he can stride confidently into the future with, as an adult. I have to admit that when that final scene played, with the adult Shinji — finally he’s been allowed to grow up — and the adult Mari, I was in floods of happy tears. He said his goodbyes to his previous life, owned his mistakes, accepted his flaws, and moved onwards with his life.
With this final Rebuild, Anno has done just that. He’s taken his seminal masterpiece and not only built upon it, he has completed it. This is the proper ending that End of Evangelion never was. This is the work of a mature artist, a mentally healthy human being who has endured suffering, felt pain, suffered anguish and has not just spewed his misery onto the screen in a primal, unfocused rage, but has worked through his problems, grown up, and shared that most precious of experiences — catharsis with the rest of us.
I left Rebuild 4 with a feeling of lightness, of a weight lifted — which is not something I could ever have said of Evangelion in the past. Anno has created something special, and in doing so reminds us that no matter how difficult our past lives, what traumas we have experienced, nor how down we are on ourselves, how arrested our emotional development, things will get better one day. Maybe it will take years, maybe we’ll have to endure terrible pain and suffering, but at the end of that dark tunnel is the light of hope.
Catharsis [ kuh-thahr-sis ], noun: 3: Psychiatry: discharge of pent-up emotions so as to result in the alleviation of symptoms or the permanent relief of the condition. (dictionary.com)