After a nine-year intermission, 14 years since the New Theatrical Edition first premiered, and 26 years since Neon Genesis Evangelion first aired in Japan, the final film of the genre-defining mecha has been released in North America.
When the first Rebuild film premiered in 2007, the series was ostensibly a retelling of sorts. Creator Hideaki Anno wanted to make Evangelion relevant to a new generation and push the medium forward as the original did. Thrice Upon a Time cements that vision.
Often taking an antagonistic turn toward its own fans, Rebuild of Evangelion has criticized the anime inspired by it and escapist fictions of apocalyptic sentiment.
The original Evangelion is considered the grandfather of sekaikei, a neologism for “world-type.” Often driven by a high school romance, a male protagonist and empowering love interest confront apocalypses at the end of the world. Think Voices of A Distant Star, The Last Love Song on This Little Planet, and Iriya’s Sky, Summer of the UFOs. Evangelion was never quite like these, mind you. The phenomenon of sekaikei fiction in the ’00s has even been called Post-Evangelion Syndrome, with conventions as informed by the mecha as real-world apocalypses.
The incipient apocalyptic zeitgeist of mid ’90’s Japan that Evangelion rode was defined by three events: The 1992 burst of the Japanese asset price bubble, the 1995 Kobe earthquake that struck Hyōgo Prefecture, and the Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995. In the subsequent decade, the compounding social consequences of these events came into focus. These include hikikomori, a social withdrawal, and the expansion of classes of people either jobless or underemployed, failing to fulfill the societal needs previously met by marriage, career work, and investment in nation and community. A wide swath of the country wasn’t growing up the way it used to, and so escapist fictions proliferated.
Whether intentional or not, Shinji represents the hikikomori. Often read as depression by Western audiences, this more localized retreat overlaps with otaku culture. And despite Anno’s attempt to condemn the protagonist’s inaction, despite how the anime portrayed his rejection of humanity as selfish, many of these same fans latched onto Shinji.
Perhaps Anno felt misunderstood when he set out to retell Evangelion in 2007, or perhaps he had some perspective with age. Rebuild of Evangelion has always been retrospective, always aware of its own past despite the confines of narrative. The first shots of Evangelion 1.0 seemingly pick up from where End of Evangelion unfolded—the red sea, outlines of fallen Angels, city ruins. But the narrative moves along.
The plot manages to hold itself together until partway through Evangelion 2.0. New characters, and Angels, alternate characterizations, and some knowledge of what’s failed in the past all conspire to direct the plot in new directions. The mysterious British pilot Mari infiltrates Nerv, while Asuka—Asuka Shikinami Langley—resembles the ideals of her former self. When Asuka pilots Unit-03 in place of Toji, it all starts to come undone.
Acting out of his own selfish wish to keep Rei, who in the films has grown more independent and happy than we ever knew her, Shinji initiates the Third Impact. But the climactic apocalypse falls short of what it promised. Kaworu enters the stage and rewrites the script, in part delaying Human Instrumentality and buying everyone another 14 years to prepare for the end.
Firmly out of time and out of place, Evangelion 3.0 released in 2012. The production greatly expanded its use of 3D animation, reusing none of the models or designs of the previous films. It’s a mimetic metaphor for the film as a whole. Anno and his team abandon their false pretenses of retelling Evangelion and look to the consequences of Shinji’s actions in a wholly original story.
What comes to be known as the Near Third Impact colors the world red while Misato and Ritsuko lead a team of Nerv defectors against Gendo and the Human Instrumentality Project. When Shinji quite literally re-enters their world, he’s met with apprehension. He did this after all. Shinji, perpetually caught between inaction and selfish action that harms others, flees to his father, where he meets Kaworu and a new clone of Rei.
The third film was just a glimpse into that red world, which offered the most incisive criticism of the fans that saw themselves in Shinji. But nine years have passed, apocalyptic sentiment has continued to shape the media landscape of Japan, and anime has evolved further as a medium. Evangelion 3.0+1.0 enters such a world.
What’s the worth of a happy ending?
The way that sekaikei fiction moves between romance and apocalypse has much in common with cultural theorist Jacques Lacan’s writings on society, psychology, and culture.
In the foreground are interpersonal relationships and characters, belonging to the Imaginary. In the background, the end of the world, government, and other systems and processes occupy the Real. Lacan wrote the Imaginary and Real are mediated by the Symbolic, which is composed of community, society, and culture. The characteristic juxtaposition of these rests on how sekaikei skips over any middle ground between the Real and Imaginary. Thrice Upon a Time returns to finally fill that void with the Symbolic.
Sekaikei works affirm a withdrawal from the community by empowering their protagonists via magical or mechanized girlfriends to save the world. In these escapist fictions, no thought is given to those who live beyond the protagonist’s immediate concern. But where Evangelion 3.0 emphasized the lives of the characters around Shinji that had to survive the consequences of his past (in)actions, 3.0+1.0 shows these groups coming together to take on the same forces he alone could not withstand.
Shinji, Asuka, and Ayanami meet Toji, Hikari, and Kensuke, their former peers in Village 3 who have each grown up in the aftermath of the N3I. What they see in the village is resilience, and even gratitude at what each thought was a failure. Rei learns idioms from Hikari, and Shinji’s mourning is transformed as he comes to accept the limits of his predetermined role in this world. The Curse of The Eva’s is that the pilots may not grow, for the limits of omnipotence that harken age do not ensnare their mechs. In the village, they see that there is agency in what is left.
When the Additional Impact comes, Shinji has grown (he smells like it, Mari remarks). Arriving at Eva Imaginary, Gendo describes a life of hikikomoroi, his motivation laid out and his inner life undone. Asuka admits her loneliness too, and we learn she was a puppet trapped in a much larger marionette than her mother alone. But the interior interrogation that follows the impact this time is not of Shinji. Rather, Shinji must let go of understanding, of keeping others’ lives captive in his heart. Gendo and each child (except Mari, revealed to be a conspirator) are allowed to exist both in relation to him, and independently. The Symbolic, often fractured across Evangelion, is finally reached.
With Wille’s spear, Shinji does not answer the question posed by the Hedgehog’s Dilemma all those years ago. Instead, he imagines a world without Eva’s. Not one where their influence on the world and each person was not, but one where they grow beyond that. Anno’s supplication is clear as the medium comes undone, broken down to storyboards and sketches. When we last see Shinji, he has entered reality as an adult. The Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real joined together in a neon genesis. A happy ending in that the characters, and we too, may finally live a life beyond the script.