A Life of Love and Sadness: Evangelion Fandom

A beautiful ruin.

To feel joyously numb — that is our fate.

Please note: plot points discussed below, including the rebuilds. Be careful! 

Neon Genesis Evangelion first came to me on a single VHS tape. With scraps of money cobbled together from part time jobs, this paltry collection grew. Each new tape would unlock another pair of episodes in agonizing succession. Weeks separated the moments when more of the story would unravel on the CRT television in my childhood den, where I would sit alone. Enraptured. Heartbroken.

I was barely a teenager. It was one of the first anime I ever watched, outside of Tekkeman Blade and Sailor Moon. Yet I still recall, with crisp clarity, the feeling of numbness that would come when "Fly Me To The Moon" punched through the speakers at the end of each episode. The screams and pleas of the cast ringing in the hollowness of the room. The queue for another week or two of waiting.

 Rei Ayanami.

Evangelion is incredible, and its creators brilliant. I am one of the (Rare?) fans that have enjoyed every interpretation, every ending, in the almost two decades of debuts. The original series stands as a masterwork of animation and cinema, a philosophical and emotional whirlwind brimming with unbearable silence and blood-curdling laughter.

I would rewatch those VHS tapes until the picture faded and the colors bled.  Savoring the happy moments but biting back tears minutes later. Feeling as hopeless as Asuka as she lay naked in a rusted bathtub, or as relieved as Rei when she let a smile slip to Shinji following Ramiel's attack. It made her sacrifice against Armisael all the more wrenching.

The final episodes, despised by many, provided a strange sort of happy ending to the crippling depression that preceded them. And the End of Evangelion suggested a different sort of conclusion, marked by pain and blood. I drank it all like a man maddened by thirst.

But it was with immense hesitation that I set out to watch the Evangelion rebuilds a few years ago. It'd been ages since End of Evangelion debuted, and the thought of digging up all those memories and emotions was an exhausting prospect. Yet the promise of a more refined, bigger-budget Evangelion was too great a temptation. And so I dove yet again into that sweet blackness, towards light and ruin.

The first two rebuilds annihilated my expectations. They simplified several plot elements to make the story more clear, while preserving so much of what made the original TV series great. And they did this with eye-rending animation that was almost too beautiful to behold. To achieve something so blissful in the overwhelming shadow of the original is a testament to director Anno and his team's work.

Shinji Ikari.

Then, last week, my friends and I hunkered down late one night in my hometown to watch Evangelion 3.33. Through a building desperation to sleep, I sat bleary-eyed on the floor and let it wash over me.

In the immediate aftermath of the film, I was gravely disappointed. I don't know the intricacies of Evangelion as well as other devoted followers, I readily admit, but You Can (Not) Redo was a tremendous shift in the series' themes and trajectories.

Another viewing is not only appropriate for me, but essential. But based on that initial impression, 3.33 felt wrong. Jumping the plot forward so far into the future can create interesting dynamics in some stories, indeed, but in Evangelion it was wholly unnecessary. The series has so much rich lore and conflict in its narrative present that a 14-year time shift is all but a total abandonment of dramatic potential. Instead the film invests in new plots and a dissonant tone that drive it away from the classic "Evangelion DNA."

We need only look to the baffling inclusion of WILLE, and its flagship, Wunder,  to understand why this isn't the Evangelion many of us grew up with. The Wunder echoes notes much more in harmony with Anno and Co.'s other projects -- Gunbuster and Diebuster (both immaculate in their own right) -- to feel at home in the Evangelion universe.

Traditionally, the weapons, technology, and awe of Evangelion bore a bitter grit. The Evas needed to be powered by nail-bitingly fragile cords. Tokyo-3, for all its marvels, still had old traffic signals, train systems, construction sites, and honest-to-goodness imperfections. It was all real, and made the peril of the Angels more believable and more frightening.

But with the Wunder,  much of that realness evaporates, replaced by a sterile science-fiction that doesn't quite belong in Evangelion. It sabotages all the perceived realities that the other two rebuilds worked so hard to fashion. It represents all of the concerns I have with the film as a whole, which -- ultimately -- doesn't feel like an Evangelion film in the original sense.

Asuka Langley Soryu.

Could this be a massive ploy by Anno to misdirect and shock his audience once again? Always possible, especially considering the internet's discoveries hidden within the film, or the mind-bending theories that these rebuilds exist within the same timeline as the original, only much later.

And I respect Anno for his dedication to the Evangelion vision. This man, and those around him, have given their lives to a fiction that has defined us, and guided the course of Japanese animation as a whole. As a creator, Anno is free to do as he pleases -- he isn't bound by the expectations or desires of his audience, despite what that audience chooses to believe. Even still, Evangelion 3.33 is a departure. From the canon we worshiped in our childhood. From the relationship between Misato and Shinji. From the unity of mankind against The Other.

It, for lack of a better word, stings. 

Yet even with that sting of disappoint so fresh, I still love Evangelion. It's a part of me. It's a part of all of us who watched it, lived it, with the same breathless abandon all those years ago.

I anxiously await the fourth rebuild, having spent days stewing over my mixed reactions to 3.33. How could I not be excited? It's the third conclusion to a recurring chapter in my life. We as viewers have shared and debated and argued and loved and loathed it together. And no matter where it leaves us, I know now -- as I always have -- that it will make me numb. A sensation so fitting of the Evangelion legacy. So painful. So perfect.

Like any true work of art, Eva can reach into your chest, twist like a knife, and leave a black and blue mark on your heart. To be nursed over time with a weak smile, and never forgotten.