The first film in this REBUILD series was a direct, often shot-for-shot, remake of early episodes of of the NEON GENESIS EVANGELION series, made primarily by the same people who made those episodes back in 1995. The second film superficially changed some things up, reshuffling parts of the story, filing off nastier (read: more interesting) edges to characters, but ultimately was still telling the same story. This seemed an odd direction to take the series in, particularly given how its creator Hideaki Anno had emphasised finality and messages of moving past escapsim and indulgence in both the original series and its sequel film THE END OF EVANGELION. In this third REBUILD film, the approach makes more sense, as it completely upends the safe and presumed retread course of the series, doubling down on the subversive and audience-hostile elements that made the original series finale and sequel film so divisive.
Back in the 1990s, Anno felt strongly about trying to communicate with the sorts of audiences he saw as with issue – socially stunted, willfully isolated, obsessed with escapist media and childish conceptions of socialisation and sexuality -, and put much creative effort into deconstructing the sort of media that fed into such attitudes, and trying to energise viewers out of that sort of indulgence. He sings something of a different tune now, in saying “My beliefs haven’t changed, but I stressed that most in the TV rendition. I’ve given up trying to reinforce that message, and don’t intend to emphasize as much as I used to. Despite my efforts, people didn’t change and maybe I was an obnoxious nanny, but it was necessary back then. I attempt to push the appropriate message at the right time; in fact, I currently stress a different one”, and “I still feel the same as I did at the end of the TV series. At the end of the TV series, I was really putting that to the forefront; however, I think that now I have kind of given up on putting that in the forefront. At the end of the day, people will not really change, regardless; they’re just people. At the time, I felt that message was necessary, that people will need to go back to reality; and in a necessary time, I will give out the necessary message. But I think that now it will be a different message that comes to the forefront, although (the original message) is still important“.
[spoilers for the REBUILD series, the television series, and THE END OF EVANGELION below]
In a way, Anno’s comments there are alarming. For all the hostility of THE END OF EVANGELION, it was undeniably very invested in its audience, in getting through to them. Comments like “Such people will not change no matter what I say. I now well understand that there is nothing I can do” indicate a resignation and abandonment of thinking betterment is even possible for certain viewers (the didacticism of this whole discourse is its own discussion, but I think the degree to which Anno clearly conceives of himself as in the same tradition that he criticises inoculates it from feeling ‘nannying’ as he describes). And, indeed, the first two REBUILD films felt like giving up and just giving viewers the repetition and fanservice they wanted. The second film outright had girls fighting over Shinji, the awkward, angsty protagonist, whose inability to even begin to connect with those same girls in the television series drove much of its story. Here in this third film, Shinji’s attempt to save one of those girls no matter the catastrophic consequences saw the world plunged into an apocalyptic cataclysm that the scant remaining population are entirely aware of as being his doing.
In THE END OF EVANGELION (a film which this REBUILD series occasionally and murkily suggests it’s some kind of direct sequel to – regardless of whether that’s the case, it’s certainly a follow-up thematically) Shinji ends the world willfully, condemning humanity to die out of his own pettiness and spitefulness. He changes his mind to some extent later, but the damage is done, the planet is wrecked, and only one other person comes back to life (who he proceeds to strangle!). For all the horror of this, the fact only one person came back means that, in a way, Shinji got off pretty scot-free. Here, in this film, everyone is all too aware of the depths of his failure. His former guardian outright (nearly) tries to kill him, after he quickly abandons her when not coddled. He copes so badly with not being coddled like he often was in the series that he plunges the world into an apocalypse again, even when all the other characters in the scene are making cases for why he shouldn’t, when he feels betrayed by the fact a save-the-world plan cooked up by his would-be love Kaworu turns out to be inoperable.
Repeating these sort of scenarios gives the REBUILD series the space to further probe and criticise characters essentially for actions made in the television series and THE END OF EVANGELION. Much of the film takes on this sense of furthered critique bolstered by the rising and festering takes on the franchise that have bubbled up in the intervening two decades or so. Evangelion pilots like the much-sexualised Asuka are now victim to ‘the Curse of Eva’; they eternally look like fourteen-year olds, an indulgence in the pedophilic defense such characters are often subject to (‘it’s okay, X character is actually not a child, even though they’re drawn as one and this is a visual medium!’) as well as a reflection of how Anno sees the audience as not having aged at all in those intervening years. What does it say that the last film essentially ended with Shinji throwing the world away to preserve with his ‘waifu’ (she literally asks “what is ‘like’?” in this film).
It’s worth noting how much Shinji reflects his father there, who’s tried to basically destroy the world and humanity in previous iterations of the franchise, so as to be reunited with his dead wife in some sort of sense. He and his son shut themselves off from anything that might lead them to the sort of growth and self-actualisation that would see them stop seeking infantile conceptions of how to remake the past world. It’s no wonder Shinji fixates on the clones of his mother, a mirror of his desires, rather than attempting the more difficult and socially-involved job of communicating and getting along with someone truly individual and with their own agency, like Asuka, or even Misato. So too is it worth noting that, despite all his protestations, Shini isn’t actually forced to do anything much at all. Rei didn’t grab Shinji and forcibly take him to work for his father in this film; he willfully left with her, abandoning Misato and Asuka.
Regarding Misato, and also applying to other characters like Ritsuko, is the fact this film offers something of a redemptive tack for them. When Anno talks about how he wouldn’t finish Evangelion the same way today, I suspect the treatment of characters like the show’s leading women plays a large part of that. In the television series such characters are used, finished, dumped by Shinji’s father, and ultimately die in an apocalypse of Shinji’s making. Here, their agency is clear, and they lead a fully-fledged movement of resistance strikingly and more or less successfully. What that ties well into is what appears the be a unique and central theme of the REBUILD series as it concerns the franchise; trying something again and again until it’s done correctly, or satisfactorily. What does making Evangelion again mean? Well, we see Shinji punished, Misato taking mastery of her own fate, and so on.
In a homoerotic piano duet, when Shinji protests he can’t play satisfactorily, Kaworu says to him “practice through repetition. Do the same thing over and over. Do it until you can think to yourself, ‘That’s pretty good’” – worth noting this comes from the character that most frequently drops dialogue suggesting the REBUILD films forming some kind of sequel to the television series and THE END OF EVANGELION. Shinji does not appear to have improved in any real sense beyond the iterations of the franchise, but other characters have, and the greater world has insofar as Shinji’s attitudes and flaws actually being probed and criticised. The question of how the final film in the series will answer all the questions this film pointedly raises is a big one, but on its own terms the manner in which this film utterly subverts the aimless (yet very successful and loved) retread of the previous two films is very well-executed. The incorporation of a fourteen-year timeskip works particularly well as a way to highlight the disconnect between both Shinji’s mindset and actions as well as the greater reception to the franchise in real-time. It also makes the start of the film gloriously confusing, and that feeling of a slow, controlled story where one isn’t handheld through it was something so appealing about the original series, and so sorely missing in the first two REBUILD films.
In this film, Shinji talks of loving look at the stars because they make him feel small, make his actions feel insignificant, enforce that feeling of displaced responsibility, the consequences of his actions externalised and rendered meaningless by greater cosmic forces. That naivete is put to rest soundly in the film. “One person means jack in the world now”, says Asuka, quoting Misato, and that goes doubly so for Shinji. The new, cinematic aspect ratio of the film (widescreen, compared to the 16:9 of the previous films) lends a weight and scope to the visuals, and the film itself widens out beyond the retreat remit of the series, and beyond Shinji’s own perspective and fantasies. Growth, in other words. And that’s what this film finally offers, in a film series that had previously seen entirely regressive. Regardless of whether this shift was originally planned or later came to Anno, it gives it an air of a magician’s trick, where the first two films were the bait and this is the hook. A prologue, to a film that finally offers new perspectives to the franchise. I still question how much that novelty is worth, given the utter finality of THE END OF EVANGELION. Can the final film in this sequence make a grand enough point to really creatively justify the REBUILD series? Maybe, and maybe not, but in any case it did produce a hell of a good film in this one, a film full of assured conviction and weight. Four airships, and an oversized shirt.