Neon Genesis Evangelion, one of the seminal works of mecha anime and a franchise that's confused and enraptured fans for more than a quarter of a century, finally got a proper conclusion with the movie Evangelion: 3.0 + 1.0 Thrice Upon a Time.
Thrice Upon a Time is the fourth film in a tetralogy that serves as a reboot or retelling of the original 1995 series, which ran for 25 episodes and chronicles the apocalyptic battle between giant "Angels" and mechas piloted by teenagers. The show is laden with Judeo-Christian references and continues to spur debate over its ultimate meaning today. It has also influenced films like Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, while its Eva mechs are iconic in Japan.
The original show was infamous for leaving fans with an ambiguous and seemingly half-complete ending, which inspired the new series of films, referred to as a "Rebuild of Evangelion." The first of these, Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone, came out in 2007, and the last film before Thrice Upon a Time, Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo, came out in 2012.
To say fans have been eagerly awaiting this film is a massive understatement.
After multiple delays, Thrice Upon a Time premiered in Japan in March. But most Americans haven't had a chance to see it until it debuted on Amazon Prime Video on Friday. CNETers Roger Cheng and Oscar Gonzalez, both long-suffering Evangelion fans, watched it over the weekend and finally processed it enough to lay out their thoughts. Spoiler warning: This piece delves into everything.
Roger: So Oscar, it's been a really long time coming. Overall, what'd you think?
Oscar: I'm glad there are YouTube videos out there trying to help me understand everything that went on with the movie. Funny enough, the ending made complete sense as the whole series has been about Shinji (the main character) overcoming his own fears. We finally get some big revelations about his father Gendo that was seemingly that last puzzle to this whole franchise. How about you?
Roger: You hit it on the head about his father. For as much as this show is known for giant robots and crazy monsters, the real key themes are about isolation (it nailed the topic of social distancing long before the pandemic) and how to form connections without the fear of getting hurt. Having Shinji confront his father and actually getting Gendo's perspective after all this time provided a huge source of catharsis for viewers. It shouldn't take the end of the world for a father and son to have a chat, but there you go. Speaking of which, can you explain what the heck happened at the end?
Oscar: Oh you're really going to put this on me? Shinji finally understands his feelings and realizes he's the one who can literally save the planet, as well as the universe. He does this by confronting his father and becoming at peace with him. Then he does the same with all the other key characters: Rei, Asuka and Kaworu. He then essentially re-creates the universe where he's a bit older, and he, along with everyone else, is living a normal life. How's that?
Roger: That's an impressive summary of such a complex ending. Let me try to add some context. As different as the various versions of Neon Genesis Evangelion are, the same general scenario plays out: Someone (usually Gendo) triggers another "Impact," a cataclysmic event where all life converges into a single soul, usually depicted as liquid goop (don't ask). In the middle of all this are some big mecha fights, but they're mostly just a metaphor for the characters' emotional struggle. Visually, they look amazing.
Case in point: Shinji and Gendo fight in their Evas in some meta combat scenes. When Shinji sees they're equally matched, he stops and does the sensible thing and talks to his father. Gendo admits that he's doing this to reunite with his wife, Yui, the only person he's truly loved. But after talking with Shinji, Gendo realizes that the last bit of Yui left is in his son, who he pushed away after her death. He relents and lets Shinji re-create a reality without Angels and Evas, undoing this whole mess. The film ends with Shinji and a character named Mari running through a train station that's actually live action footage shot by a drone. What do you make of that whole reboot?
Oscar: I was reminded how in some games you have the good, bad and then a "true" ending. The first two are obvious, but the third is where all the loose ends get tied up. The final shot of going to live-action, which has been done previously in End of Evangelion, was telling us to go out and live our best lives. It's clear series creator Hideaki Anno wanted this movie to put a clear-cut end to the franchise so he and everyone else can move on. How do you feel about this series -- something we've both followed for decades -- finally coming to an end?
Roger: I got a little emotional, realizing the person appreciating Evangelion now is vastly different than the 20-something geek who first put a bootleg copy into his DVD player for the first time. For the first time, I wasn't left confused or bummed by an Evangelion ending. In these dark times, Anno mercifully opted for an uncharacteristically upbeat ending that gave me the release I needed after all this time. You could argue Shinji hitting the reset button on reality is trite or too easy, but after this last year and a half, it feels earned. You can really see Anno saying goodbye to this franchise. How do you feel about that?
Oscar: I felt the same as you. I bought my first Neon Genesis Evangelion DVD when they started coming out in 2000 while I was a sales guy at Circuit City. That was the first anime series where I went online to talk about and try to understand all the symbolism that was packed into each episode. Most anime and manga creators tend to make content they find cool while adding a bit of their own personal feelings into their work, but it became pretty clear Anno put so much into it. Evangelion was so personal, and I think so many people related to the story in their own way, which is why they stuck with the series for so long. In the end, it was the absolute right way to close the book on the story that took decades to tell.
Roger: I was really nervous going into this film, but it managed to blow my expectations and leave me feeling satisfied. If you're interested, the original series is on Netflix and the four films are available on Amazon Prime Video.