Note: This article contains explicit spoilers for Evangelion 3.0+1.0 and the entire Evangelion franchise.
A lot can change in twenty-five years — I should know, I’m twenty-five-years old. So, too, is the Evangelion franchise. Hideaki Anno’s monolith, multimedia, much-debated opus remains a cornerstone of anime discourse both openly and as a thematic and contextual foundation. Contemporary anime would not be here without Evangelion, and that’s its most terrifying prospect.
To have one’s intensely personal descent and re-emergence endlessly discussed, deconstructed, and, often, defaced must be an ungodly burden to bear. Anno has made it no secret that Evangelion is based on his own declining and fluctuating mental state before, during, and after its creation; to be forced to relive that ongoing moment in time is a cycle one would not wish upon their worst enemy. And, yet, here we are.
Anno’s characters, too, face this endless return to despair. Shinji Ikari, Asuka Langley Soryu/Shikinami Langley, and Rei Ayanami are characters reduced to their base traits: the former a depressed hedgehog unable to get in the robot, the latter two eternal rivals in an ongoing shipping war. Time weathers the sharp edges that make these core three extraordinary, their importance subsumed into a cultural consciousness so concerned with the next hit, the next Zero Two.
Then, 2007 comes along. A new Evangelion. A retread of the first with all the benefits afforded by a decade of advancements in animation. Some scenes are new, but the larger plot remains the same. 2009 sees the release of a second Rebuild, complete with an entirely new ending that signals the start of something new. Neo Neon Genesis Evangelion. 2012’s Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo completely splits from what we know, taking our characters in bold new directions that, at the time, were equal parts exciting, intriguing, and worrying.
Earlier this month, Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time released worldwide. An end to the Rebuilds and, as the promotional material repeated, the end of Evangelion. Twenty-five years since the original finale, twenty-four since The End of Evangelion. A lot has changed in that time. And Evangelion 3.0+1.0 is the culmination of that time. A confrontation of a franchise with itself, deconstructed and rebuilt into something final, life-affirming, and utterly, jubilantly hopeful. It is what the series has always been working towards — we just didn’t know it yet.
The End of Evangelion is a cultural touchstone, at least regarding animated film. In it, Shinji, Asuka, and Rei come face-to-face with themselves and those that made them, both literally and figuratively. Its conclusion is one of legends; the blood-red beach, a comatose Asuka strangled by Shinji, Rei’s head bisected and smiling. This ending comes through Shinji understanding that to live is to be in pain. To get close to others is to inevitably hurt them. Life is burdensome, but it is worth living. He rejects Instrumentality, rejects the subsuming of all life into one “being” free from sin, weakness, and individuality.
It’s an ending built around hope, for sure, but hope plagued with skepticism and a hesitation to fully commit to a world still seen as so fundamentally flawed. Hopeful realism, perhaps; cynical optimism, undoubtedly.
Evangelion 3.0+1.0’s strengths are many — I won’t mince words; I absolutely and unequivocally loved the film. But perhaps its greatest strength is its simultaneous deconstruction and reconstruction of Evangelion as a franchise without making that process disingenuous, snide, or dismissive.
Much of the film’s first hour takes place in Village 3, a small settlement some distance away from Tokyo-3, the focal point of the entire franchise. Thanks to some technological magic by Misato Katsuragi’s WILLE, Village 3 has been restored to its living state after the events of 3.33 left the world in a sort of frozen state. More importantly, though, Shinji’s friends are alive! Toji and Kensuke are grown men now and, in the former’s case, family men. I described this part to a friend as very “un-Evangelion.” Lush, green visuals coalesce with bright music and a communal, intimate atmosphere that the industrial confines of the GeoFront. It’s an early assertion that this is an Evangelion journeying towards something different. Something altogether unheard of for the franchise: undeniable hope.
Together with Asuka, Rei, and the rest of the village, they help Shinji re-emerge from his mental breakdown and semi-catatonic state the ending of 3.33 left him in. Shinji questions Rei why everyone is so nice to him all the time, and it is Rei’s answer that brings him back to reality:
“Because everyone likes you.”
Kindness is not conditional. We give kindness because others are kind. It’s radical. Shinji comes to realize this here and as the film carries on. After the “death” of Rei prior to him and Asuka leaving Village 3, it is her experiences at the village that further this development. Rei made friends, learned how to work, experienced shades of motherhood, and did so because she likes other people and other people like her.
Shinji and Asuka’s time on WILLE’s Wunder airship is one marked by closure. Asuka finally admits that she had feelings for Shinji, though their age difference now complicates those feelings. Her role in 3.0+1.0 is a strange one. Like in The End of Evangelion, she suffers and fights until her last breath. The reveal that she, like Rei, is a clone is both shocking and thematically appropriate. Rebuild Asuka is more openly anti-social and incendiary than her OG counterpart; yet, she also desperately wants to fit in, wants acknowledgement. That ackowlegement is more than just validation. It’s formation. It makes her real; it makes her the Asuka Shikinami Langley. Pairing her development throughout this film with Shinji furthers their connection as two sides of the same coin, both wanting others to make them real, both seeking kindness as self-creation.
Evangelion 3.0+1.0’s majesty comes in its final act. After Asuka’s sacrifice, the ever-present Gendo Ikari prepares to begin Instrumentality in earnest. Shinji pursues him after a verbal spar with Misato and the crew of the Wunder. Shinji Ikari destroyed the world, and he is now its saviour; it is that paradox and the crew’s subsequent acceptance of Shinji’s faults for faith that gives him the strength to confront his father. Evangelion founds itself on moments of straightforwardness as symbolic of the deeper connections we form through the experiences we share, and this moment on the Wunder’s bridge captures this brilliance.
What follows is a literal and metaphorical journey through Evangelion, centered on Gendo himself. The series has never explored Gendo Ikari as more than a sympathetic villain, a man so entangled in his quest to be reunited with his wife that he’s willing to sacrifice the world. That backstory does not change here, but the intimacy with which it is betrayed is stunning. Shinji, Gendo, and the viewer revisit his past, presented as rough sketches. It’s the original broadcast ending revisited from the perspective of the franchise’s most inscrutable character. By breaking Gendo down into who he was and who he is now, the film asks viewers and Shinji to finally empathize with a man profoundly in pain. We see an introverted man fall into despair after the loss of his wife and the subsequent rejection of his only child. It is this rejection that, ultimately, brought father and son back together. Yui Ikari never really left; she was in Shinji the whole time.
Gendo’s realization of this marks his most significant development in the series thus far. Where The End of Evangelion punished Shinji’s father for his actions, 3.0+1.0 finally empathizes with him. Shinji begins reciprocating the kindness that others have shown him, and he asks us to do the same. To forgive those who abandon us, to understand their reasons for doing so, and to recognize that reunion is as much a taking-in as it is a casting-out. Gendo apologizes to Shinji, realizing both his wrongdoing and Shinji’s maturity in gently guiding his father towards this outcome. It’s a moment the series has been building towards since its inception. The fact that it took this long is indicative of the difficulty of forgiveness and the strength of self-confrontation. It’s not a rejection of The End of Evangelion’s assertion that to form bonds is to feel pain, but a furthering of that conceit. Forgiveness is moving past that pain, recognizing that it does not and will not last forever. We just have to keep moving.
Asuka and Rei, too, get similar sendoffs. Shinji once again acknowledges Asuka’s feelings for him and reciprocates them. For the girl eternally fighting for the spotlight, it is her singular audience member that allows that light to be cast. Shinji’s final moments with Rei are where the film itself starts to break down. Their final talk occurs on a soundstage depicting the very first Angel battle. Buildings are nothing more than hollow constructions, cameras line the sidelines, and models of Wunder sit in the wings, ready for their time to shine. Together with Rei, Shinji decides to completely reset the world, having been granted that power thanks to Misato sacrificing herself and the Wunder to create a spear capable of rewriting reality. He chooses to create a world without Evangelion, a “Neon Genesis,” a new beginning.
I laughed out loud at the reveal of the soundstage. Stripping away the artifice of the action and the surreal imagery the series is known for in favour of something so uncomfortably candid and familiar reinforces 3.0+1.0’s deconstructive aspects. We quite literally watch as one of the franchise’s most iconic moments is reduced to something akin to a college-film-level production. Here is a film falling apart before our very eyes, viewers and characters alike thrown through a gauntlet of images and impressions equal parts evocative and honest. By stripping away the magic of the moment, Evangelion 3.0+1.0 creates new magic in its place: the magic of moving forward. The magic of rejecting the franchise in favour of the work. Evangelion becomes Evangelion once again. All it took was the willingness to dismantle it to its very core. Now to begin anew.
Evangelion 3.0+1.0 ends with Unit-01 stabbing itself and Unit-13 with the reality-rewriting spear. All at once, every single Evangelion unit is stabbed too. Bye-bye, Evangelion. Instrumentality ends and reverses: humans and animals alike begin returning to a now-restored Earth. We return to the beach imagery found in The End of Evangelion, only now bright, blue, and alive. Shinji sits silently as the art of the film itself regresses into sketches, keyframes, and storyboards. In a non-Evangelion world, Shinji has no place.
An Eva unit rises from the water, a girl emerges, boisterous. She jumps into the water and the art returns to its finished state. Mari Illustrious Makinami.
I avoided discussing Mari thus far intentionally — she’s the Rebuilds’ most controversial character and, ironically, the one most crucial to 3.0+1.0’s thesis. Mari Illustrious Makinami is a rejection of the ongoing discourse that plagues the franchise and keeps it alive. She’s the heart at the centre of this film just as much as Shinji is. It’s Mari who spurs Asuka to admit her feelings for Shinji, it’s Mari who helps deliver the spear at the film’s conclusion, and it’s Mari who pulls Shinji back into the new world he created. Evangelion 3.0+1.0 is a film about learning to love others and letting others love you. It’s a film about forgiving others and forgiving yourself. And it’s a film about the eternal optimism of moving forward. Mari is a part of that forward movement for Shinji, the physical body he needs beside him in a world fundamentally unfamiliar to him. Where she felt extraneous in 2.22 and 3.33, here she is core. She, along with Shinji, is Evangelion 3.0+1.0. The third girl, thrice upon a time.
As I mentioned earlier, Evangelion is a franchise plagued by an unending debate between who Shinji should be with in the end: Asuka or Rei. For Evangelion 3.0+1.0’s central conceit to work, it needs to reject its central female cast. As with the rest of the film, it does this without betraying the eminence of who they are. It is a rejection of love with love, and Mari is its replacement.
Shinji awakens on a train platform, an adult now. Across the tracks, familiar faces: a blue-haired girl and a grey-haired man stand together, an orange-haired woman sitting on a nearby bench. The train is arriving when, suddenly, a girl covers his eyes. He knows her; she’s the “girl with glasses and big boobs.” Together, they run up the stairs of the train platform towards an uncertain future.
Mari Illustrious Makinami is Evangelion 3.0+1.0’s most definitive statement of reconstruction. She is the symbol of fresh starts, an opportunity for our hero to truly begin again in a world entirely unburdened by the past, yet only existing because of that past. Much of the ending’s impact comes from the film’s complete and utterly genuine selling that she and Shinji find each other in this rebuilt world. Not Asuka, not Rei. Mari, our illustrious new beginning.
Evangelion is dead. Long live Evangelion.
Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time is a film that could not exist without the twenty-five years of franchise that came before it. The original series, The End of Evangelion, Evangelion 1.11, 2.22, and 3.33, spinoffs, merchandise, blog posts, forum arguments, YouTube analyses, critical works, and rabid fans. It’s a film so intensely concerned with ending a franchise that, in the process, it rebuilds its entire oeuvre. By stripping itself down to its very barest essences, it reveals that behind the art, behind the mechas and the monsters and the setpieces and music and pretense is the human just searching for belonging, for acceptance, for acknowledgement, and for forgiveness.
We exist only because of those we’ve met before. They are and always will be a part of who we are, a grand tapestry of being and individuality and forgiveness and kindness and acceptance. It’s genuine without feeling forced; it’s two-and-a-half hours of whispering and yelling and screaming that we all deserve to be here and we all deserve to be heard. We can all rebuild. We can all move forward. And it’s okay to be happy.
After Shinji and Mari run away together, the camera pulls up and pans over the scenery surrounding the train station. It’s delightfully, beautifully, exuberantly normal. It’s Hideaki Anno’s ideal world. A world without Evangelion. One that couldn’t exist without Evangelion. As the camera continues to pan and pull away, the animated landscape becomes live-action footage. His ideal world isn’t so far away.
It’s our own, after all.
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