So much of NEON GENESIS EVANGELION, the television series, as well as its sequel film THE END OF EVANGELION was about pushing both its characters and its actual viewers to progress, to self-actualise, to come to a meaningful psychological understanding of themselves and make an effort to connect with other human beings. Creator Hideaki Anno was outright audience-hostile at times in his criticism of poisonous attitudes and isolating behaviour, the type overindulgence into passivity or escapism encourages. And yet, some two decades after making NEON GENESIS EVANGELION, he forms a new studio and creates this series, REBUILD, a reboot of NEON GENESIS EVANGELION. In this first film of the series, the first six episodes of the television series are adapted very directly.
Most of those who worked on the original series (including all the voice cast!) came back for the film, and a much higher budget than the series is very evident, with the glossier animation and much-extended action scenes. What’s left out in truncating the six episodes into a film is a lot of the character development, humour, measured pacing, and subtly of the series, but what’s added is more and more action. The film’s climatic action sequence adapts original storyboards for the show’s sixth episode that weren’t realised at the time. I can see the appeal in doing this; “art is never finished” and all that, the ability to go remake a vision with the resources earned from the initial realisation of that vision is tempting, and in part it’s what led to the sublime THE END OF EVANGELION, to my eyes the peak of the franchise. But I suppose it wasn’t “THE END”, in the…end, on account of these reboot films. And what do they add, after the glorious finality of that film? Well apart from some very short, trivial scenes and a mysterious coda, nothing’s really added here at all. Not that much is really even taken away. Some scenes are chronologically reordered, more linearly here than in the series. A few revelations from later in the sries are moved up. There are some character beats somewhat adjusted (here Shinji pilots the Eva more for Rei than in the original series where the Eva protecting him from falling structures seemed to affect him). Mostly it’s just…the same. It seems a bizarre regression, especially given the themes of the original series.
[spoilers for the original series, THE END OF EVANGELION, and this film below]
It’s odd watching a reprisal of the early episodes of the series with the deeper characterisation of series from the end of that series, and from THE END OF EVANGELION especially, in mind. Knowing him so much better makes it difficult to empathise with him as much, in a kind of two-way audience-media realisation of the hedgehog’s dilemma. We got too close to Shinji, and it hurt. So too do some earlier comments of Misato bring one to cringe now, knowing more context to her thoughts, and how things progress between her and Shinji – or at least how they progressed, as perhaps the future REBUILD films are less literal in adapting this series. That would seem indicated by the ending of the film, in an entirely new story beat where Karowu on a bloodstained moon (referencing the ending of THE END OF EVANGELION?) speaks of Shinji as if he’s interacted with him before. This would seem to suggest that the REBUILD series is in some way actually a sequel to THE END OF EVANGELION. Stranger things have happened in the franchise, and it would certainly give the project a reason to exist, where it otherwise seems a very hollow endeavour probably generating little else but more money and popularity.
Anno’s comments on the new film aren’t super encouraging, but aren’t hugely disagreeable either. He’s said things like he wished to “share, with an audience, the embodiment of image, the diversity of expressions, and the detailed portrayal of emotions that animation offers”. One would hope the initial series and film could stand on its own and continue to do that, but economic realities and trends in fandom are what they are, so as absurd as simply remaking the series to repeat its themes in the hopes of them affecting the audience seems, it doesn’t seem especially cynical. Anno statement that, with the REBUILD series, he had “the desire to fight the continuing trend of stagnation in anime” seems very ironic, however. What’s more interesting is his declaring “’Eva’ is a story that repeats. It is a story where the main character witnesses many horrors with his own eyes, but still tries to stand up again. It is a story of will; a story of moving forward, if only just a little. It is a story of fear, where someone who must face indefinite solitude fears reaching out to others, but still wants to try”. Perhaps there is some merit to telling the story anew, but it does not seem evident in this first of the four films at all.
Since the series and THE END OF EVANGELION Anno got married, and by accounts seemed to live in a healthier state, which seems a logical development from his mindset by the time of that film. Not many of his comments around this film seem as negative, contemplative, or societally critical as ones he made back then. However, something of interest from the film’s year of release was his reflections on Japan – “Japan lost the war to the Americans. Since that time, the education we received is not one that creates adults….I don’t see any adults here in Japan. The fact that you see salarymen reading manga and pornography on the trains and being unafraid, unashamed or anything, is something you wouldn’t have seen 30 years ago, with people who grew up under a different system of government. They would have been far too embarrassed to open a book of cartoons or dirty pictures on a train. But that’s what we have now in Japan. We are a country of children”. It seems odd to me that this film of his in no way commented on society as his previous works in the franchise did, but it is only the first film of four.
Less mollifying are statements from producer Toshmichi Otsuki, like “We’re not going to confuse people with a metafictional ending along the lines of the TV version, or do an absurd, end-of-the-world type ending along the lines of the movie version. Oriented towards entertainment, the ending will be close to the idea from the beginning of planning. I wanted to do it all along, and the director finally came around to it”, and “Right. If I say too much it will be a spoiler. With the situation of society at that time, Anno-san’s internal problems, and so on, and especially because the film version ended ruinously, with the world destroyed and Shinji and Asuka the only survivors, continuing the Eva of twelve years ago is not possible. However, with the passing of twelve years, and the turn of a [new] age, Anno-san has settled things within himself. The new films should be, in a sense, Eva with a happy end, or if I had to express it in a single phrase, a story which leads to hope”.
Other statements Otsuki has made that are of interest are “[Eva’s] success spawned a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding in the in the industry, the end result being a bunch of mass-produced junk. That mindset has persisted for ten years, but now we’re in a position to prove it wrong. We’re determined to close the door on the post-Eva era for good”, “…the plot is completely different. This isn’t a remake or a quick fix. It’s a totally new production”, “[it can be looked upon as a] standalone film series”, “Filling works with difficult words and concepts in order to create confusion among viewers was a good technique 12 years ago, but not anymore, and one of our primary goals for this project is to turn everyone’s expectations upside down….When you say ‘Eva’ there are probably people who are reminded of a worldview steeped in mystery, but this time it looks like those types of elements will be kept to a minimum”, and “The essence of this project is to foil all expectations that everyone has towards Eva”.
Kazuya Tsurumaki, one of the multiple directors for the film, said in its year of release that “We’re all working from the assumption that we weren’t able to reach our destination with the original TV series, but the exact nature of that ‘destination’ is still unclear to everyone on the staff. Since we’re going to all the trouble of making these new productions, we’d at least like to take the story as far as we took it back then, but it’s been an uphill struggle so far. I get the feeling this project is going to be a very unstable project–in a lot of ways”. So, statements on the purpose, nature, essential premise of the REBUILD series are confusing and sometimes contradictory. Are they an attempt to do a happier, more accessible version of the series, with a simpler and less daring ending? Doesn’t sound great. In fact, that sounds actively aggrieving, and at odds with the original series and THE END OF EVANGELION, in a painfully regressive way. However, the series transformed as it was developed, and its original ending was a product of unique circumstances. Perhaps the same will happen for the REBUILD series.
Judging the first film on entirely its own terms though, I found it a somewhat interesting diversion, but largely pointless. Much of what I loved in the series was present, but why did it need to be remade at all? Three entry plugs, and some fanservice.