Neon Genesis Evangelion plays out like a Saturday morning cartoon, and that is meant as an earnest compliment. Characters are boiled down almost immediately to the one or two traits that define them, but they are good-natured, well animated and interesting. Misato is the drunk who can get the job done, Shinji is the young boy in over his head but defying all odds. These are tropes that would not suit a modern movie but are worked with amicable confidence here, the styling of each episode playing out like a bold, animated blend of Pacific Rim and Power Rangers but with a hint of quality unmistakable.
Some episodes stand out well above the rest, but most have an open and shut villain that is vanquished or vilified by the end of its twenty-minute chunk. Do we ever learn the name of these villains? It is most likely not important even if we do, for they serve the same purpose each time. They are the backdrop of action to the character-led drama, of which there is always strong writing. Angry professionals yelling and showing their passion in times of distress, all played out through the formalities of military service, with all the jargon and specific lingo peppered in to boot. EVA’s, nondescript governments and board members, all with their own acronyms, of course. Neon Genesis Evangelion is fun with or without this backlog of information.
Most of the enjoyment comes down to how much an audience will engage with the animation and characters. They are the driving force of the show. Japanese animation and all its highs and lows, paired with the technical skill necessary to carry a format that is, at the end of it all, a collection of forgettable monsters fighting memorable, human characters. They ooze sympathy and anger; Shinji is a bottle of emotions that explodes in a fury every other episode. It sounds repetitive, but the range shown for this character is superb, even if it deals with the same theme of coming-of-age in a world where more is expected of him than most. He grapples with this well, it is a young child gripped by problems that face the elderly. Death, deadlines and the fate of the universe are on his shoulders, and he reacts as only a child with a brave face would. It is realism in the face of fantasy, and the blend works well.
It is hard to choose one moment out of so many, but perhaps the sixteenth episode and Shinji’s showdown with death is as good an example as any. He is in a scenario that can offer nothing but the worst outcome, and with only a few hours left to live in the murky depths of a sinking city, and with no sign of hope, there is room to explore and play with imagery and colour. Neon Genesis Evangelion never shies away from such opportunities, but it is here, in his moments of raw panic and adrenalin, that he begins to have cutting visions. Splice this together with the most interesting, bloody villain of the series, and you have quite the episode, capturing everything magnificent about this series. Episode 19, too, showcases the strengths of the action, and the moral values that can be found within it.
Neon Genesis Evangelion often repeats the same story of action, inaction and redemption, but when the characters are fresh and likeable, and the animation so creative and effective in its use of colour and framing, it is hard not to be swept away with the quality found within. As for its ending, well, it depends if you care for the characters. I do, to some degree. They are well written but it is difficult to wholly care for the wild turn of events, as enjoyable as it may be. These characters are tropes, and while it is easy to connect with them from episode to episode, it is somewhat difficult to care for the meandering problems, lost loves and lives. I suppose it’s better to have them cramped inside of the Megazords than swanning about feeling sorry for one another.