There is anime, and then there is Neon Genesis Evangelion.
The series is hallowed ground in the anime canon, a legitimate cultural phenomenon that been a mainstay in the public consciousness since it premiered in 1995. Evangelion is regarded as an audacious storytelling achievement that subverted, even destroyed, the genre’s conventions and profoundly impacted every series that followed. The troubled production, complicated by everything from depleted budgets to creator Hideaki Anno’s mental health struggles, is as legendary as the series itself. Evangelion’s cultural significance has made it one of the most lucrative properties in the anime world, but also the most elusive. For years, a tangled web of licensing issues made watching the series next-to-impossible legally, leaving fans scrambling to DVD bootlegs and sketchy streaming sites. Where other shows may have died off, Evangelion endured, even flourished, in its self-imposed exile, present in meme culture and multiple YouTube videos debating the show’s myriad controversies. Its undeniable influence, paired with its scarcity, has elevated the series to near-mythical proportions.
Which is why Netflix’s acquisition of Neon Genesis Evangelion and its two films Death & Rebirth and The End of Evangelion sent shockwaves throughout the industry. It was considered a major boon to Netflix’s anime ambitions, acquiring anime’s “Holy Grail”, and fans celebrated the return of Shinji, Rei, and Asuka to their screens (legally). However, the response wasn’t entirely positive: Funimation president Gen Fukunaga blasted the deal in an interview with Polygon, accusing Netflix of overpaying and insisting that they would fail to do the franchise justice and just toss it into their vast library. There’s no doubt that Funimation is a bit miffed about losing its shot at Evangelion, but Fukunaga does raise a good point about the series’ relevance in the West. In a world where Dragon Ball Super and My Hero Academia are selling out movie theaters nationwide, where does Evangelion fit? Does its religious iconography and cerebral deconstruction of the mecha subgenre have an audience outside its fervent fanbase? We know that Evangelion does matter, but should it matter, particularly to those encountering it for the first time on Netflix?
It’s remarkable how well Neon Genesis Evangelion holds up. I was first introduced to Evangelion in college after discovering the (legitimate) DVDs in the library, and everything I enjoyed about the series back then I did again through Netflix. “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis”, with its thumping energy and elegance, remains one of the greatest anime opening themes of all time (“Fly Me to the Moon”, the omission of which from the US Netflix version sparked social media outrage, is one of the best ending themes). The hand-drawn animation is stunning, and Hideaki Anno’s direction is jaw-droppingly evocative. The characters are compelling, with individualized quirks and neuroses that feel intricately, intimately linked. There are plenty of arguments about the plot’s importance in the grand scheme of Evangelion, but “secret government organization in post-apocalyptic Tokyo recruiting pre-teens to pilot giant robots called Eva units to fight giant humanity-destroying aliens called Angels” is a powerful hook, even without the violence, sex, high school hijinks, and mind-bending mystery underpinning it.
What makes Neon Genesis Evangelion great for this particular moment is something that didn’t click for me seven or eight years ago, nor did it for many fans 24 years ago. Evangelion shifts its focus halfway through the season, away from the mecha robot battles to the psychological trauma of the characters. While mental illness was an implicit theme in its first stretch, the last ten episodes, and most controversially the last two, were outright psychoanalysis, breaking the characters down to unveil the strained personalities underneath. The complex psychology wasn’t easy to process, not for a scattered college student, nor for first-run fans who demanded resolution to the show’s central conflict (and more mecha battles). In the years since, our collective knowledge and appreciation of mental health has vastly expanded. People are comfortable speaking honestly and openly about their mental struggles, their need of professional help, and the triggers that put their emotional well-being at risk. We possess and utilize language now that profoundly changed Hideaki Anno’s approach to Evangelion, and the new context enriches the series. Shinji’s deep-seated, self-fulfilling isolation may have made him a polarizing antagonist and funny meme, but his perseverance is downright inspiring. Misato’s inability to extricate her hatred for her father from her approach to romance and sex adds tragic dimensions to a character who could’ve been solely treated as fan service. Asuka and Rei’s hotly-debated elevator scene was initially criticized for being 53 seconds of still imagery, but the tightly-coiled tension expertly conveys the limits of human interaction and intimacy (formally known as the “hedgehog’s dilemma”, a philosophical metaphor that serves as the show’s guiding ethos). The final two episodes, derided by many as being nonsensical, is a powerful, disarming, and essential exploration of depression and, most vitally, how it can be overcome. Today, the previously-mocked “Congratulations” scene that closed series brims with earnest catharsis, a celebration of surviving the darkest, most destructive impulses of the mind.
Hideaki Anno was never shy about Neon Genesis Evangelion representing his years-long battle with depression. The honesty and creativity of his work was admirable, but it may have been inaccessible to those accustomed to a more-straightforward tale of giant robot destruction (Anno responded to the initial outcry against the series’ ending with Death & Rebirth and The End of Evangelion, jettisoning the heady psychological ruminations for jaw-dropping brutality adorned with Judeo-Christian symbolism). It was a complicated, difficult watch, and that’s excluding discussions of shared human consciousness and the Oedipal subtext of the Eva units and their pilots. Time – eight years for me, 24 for first-run fans – has been kind to Evangelion. In a culture where self-care is a guiding principle, the series’ psychological themes feel resonant. Its explorations of identity, intimacy, sexuality, isolation and depression are bound to strike a chord with newer, younger audiences who are tackling these issues more openly than those before them. I can see younger viewers associating with Shinji’s nihilistic passivity and desperation for approval and how it reflects their own social media-driven lives.
In this way, Neon Genesis Evangelion was ahead of its time, opening up dialogue around mental health and human identity that audiences weren’t quite ready for (and, frankly, still aren’t). It slots right in with our cultural reckoning with these issues, and our providing space for those grappling with them to be heard and appreciated. The only thing that could hold Evangelion back from reaching the level of notoriety of other popular anime is, ironically enough, access. Watching Evangelion has never been easier if you know to look for it. For the casual stream surfer, it’s possible that, without the kind of marketing splash that, say, Funimation would’ve given it, Evangelion might be overlooked. Such a seminal classic deserves pomp, circumstance, and at least a top banner on the Netflix app (retaining the original dub cast and acquiring the rights to “Fly Me to the Moon” would’ve been preferable). That Neon Genesis Evangelion, a series that rewrote what was possible for anime, could wallow in the depths of Netflix’s genre channel feels inherently wrong.
Sour grapes and a possible sense of entitlement aside, Funimation might’ve been right. For the sake of anime fans worldwide, we should hope not.