As Ikari Shinji (Ogata Megumi) drifts aimlessly between tracks 25 and 26 of his father’s old Walkman in the four-film Rebuild of Evangelion series, he listens to the music on his father’s old Walkman on repeat. There is no coincidence that these numbers correspond to the final episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, a 26-episode mecha anime series that was condensed and retold in the first two Rebuild films.
As a result of a combination of budget and scheduling issues, and the storey being finalised late in the game, Episodes 25 and 26 are unexpectedly abstract. Hideaki Anno, the series creator, remixed them several times, starting with the theatrical remake, The End of Evangelion, in 1996, which was also highly divisive among fans. Each time the storey appears to end, Anno returns to the beginning of Shinji’s saga and finds new ways to express what episodes 25-26 represented at their core: a desire to live, with all the beauty and ugliness that comes with individualism.
Due to a combination of budget and scheduling issues, as well as the storey being completed late in the game, Episodes 25 and 26 are unexpectedly abstract. They were also divisive among fans in 1996, prompting series creator Hideaki Anno to remix them several times, beginning with The End of Evangelion, a theatrical remake. Anno has been telling Shinji’s storey for over 25 years, returning to the beginning each time it appears to end and finding new ways to express what episodes 25 and 26 represented at their core: a desire to live and accept all the beauty and ugliness that individuality entails.
Anno kicked off his Rebuild film project in 2007 — a decade after The End of Evangelion — with Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone (and the slightly expanded version, Evangelion 1.11). 2009’s Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance soon followed, re-released with minor adjustments as Evangelion 2.22. The first movie opens exactly like the show, with Shinji being recruited by Captain Katsuragi Misato (Mitsuishi Kotono), who works for Shinji’s estranged father, Ikari Gendo (Tachiki Fumihiko), at the Japanese paramilitary organization NERV, the last line of defense between the monstrous, inter-dimensional “Angels” and a third global cataclysm.
The first two films largely retell the show from the ground up, but they’re also enhanced for fans who’ve been with the franchise since the beginning and are familiar with all of its iterations. For example, until well into the third film, the films don’t explain the extent of Gendo’s perversions in the show, such as the fact that he cloned his late wife Yui to create Shinji’s teenage teammate Ayanami Rei (Hayashibara Megumi), or that Yui’s biological form exists, in some way, within the enormous biomechanical Evangelion piloted by Shinji. Meanwhile, these thoughts linger in the form of hints and glances. As the Rebuild series progresses, they feel like Pandora’s Boxes waiting to be opened once more, with significant departures from the TV show, culminating in a long-awaited confrontation between father and son.
These shifts are frequently startling. For example, Anno changes Shinji’s NERV teammate Soryu Asuka Langley (Miyamura Ykosurname )’s to Shikinami Asuka Langley in the films. Both versions of the character are child soldiers bred for war, and they’re both named after World War II naval vessels (Japan’s aircraft carrier Soryu and destroyer Shikinami, and America’s USS Langley), though Shikinami doesn’t appear to be burdened by the same baggage as Soryu, who was trapped by the trauma of discovering her mother’s body after she committed suicidal suicide. For the first time, it appears as if this character has a chance to break free from her cycle of misery, in which she appears destined to pilot an Evangelion for the rest of her life. Although the series uses Biblical imagery, the central struggle to break free from death and rebirth feels distinctly Buddhist.
Asuka’s confidence in piloting the new Eva Unit 03, which becomes possessed by the spirit of an Angel and which Shinji is forced to destroy — or rather, which his Evangelion is forced to destroy on autopilot, with him trapped inside — is the first manifestation of these differences in Asuka’s backstory. (His Eva can’t function without his passive presence.) Suzuhara Toji (Seki Tomokazu), Shinji’s classmate in the anime, piloted Unit 03, a minor character who loses his leg in the process and dies in the manga. However, in the second film, it is Asuka who suffers serious injuries as a result of this incident. While having Asuka pilot Unit 03 at first appears to be a way to streamline the show’s plot so that more important characters are involved, the domino effects of this alternate story soon become apparent.
Shinji’s TV arc of willingly piloting his Eva is rushed through in the first film. In the film, his reasoning is based on his feelings for his teammate Rei, who, like Asuka, is slightly more open than her TV counterpart. Shinji has a similar fondness for the film series’ warmer Asuka, which leads him to flee NERV after his father manipulates him into harming her in Evangelion 2.22, resetting his character to who he was before the first film.
While the Rebuild films, by retelling the story of Neon Genesis, form an overarching cycle of repetition, they also present repetitive character cycles within the film series itself, in which Shinji attempts to break free from his emotional isolation but is constantly rewarded with pain and alienation.
The climax of the second film begins similarly to the first, with Shinji rejecting his role as an Eva pilot before finally overcoming his fear and deciding to save Rei. Returning to the same dramatic well so many times may seem like a safe bet, but it soon becomes clear that in order for Shinji to keep making heroic returns, he must first abandon the team. Shinji’s problem isn’t that his victories don’t last. It’s that the consequences of his delayed decision-making in the face of difficult choices, in which people are harmed regardless, are the result of his delayed decision-making in the face of difficult choices.
Perhaps Shinji’s misery stems from his inability to stop fleeing. However, as the series explores, the central theme of his storey of overcoming cowardice is that he always has something, or someone, to flee from in the first place: his father, Gendo.
The film’s climax, Evangelion 2.22, finally sets the franchise on a new path. In the absence of Shinji, Rei is forced to face the invading Angel, which devours her and her Eva. Shinji finally takes action, and his grief causes his Evangelion — the iconic purple Unit 01 — to erupt in a transcendent rage, eventually transforming into a divine being that glows in the sky.
It’s a spectacular power-up in the context of the mecha genre. However, it also represents Gendo channeling Shinji’s suppressed rage and loneliness in the context of the franchise. Shinji is unaware that his own father is deliberately channeling his agony as the key to causing the Third Impact as part of Gendo’s secret plans to bring the world to an end.
Shinji’s love for Rei, the first person with whom he has a genuine connection in the series, is corrupted by Gendo — since Rei is a mirror image of Yui, it’s as if Gendo is corrupting his own love — resulting in the deaths of billions. The second film ends at this unimaginably terrifying point, and the Rebuild series departs from Neon Genesis Evangelion for good.
A new beginning
3.0 Evangelion You are able to (Not) Redo (and its updated release, Evangelion 3.33) ditches the 16:9 aspect ratio of its predecessors in favor of a more cinematic 2.35:1. Shinji feels as if only a few moments have passed when the story begins, but 14 years have passed since the events of Evangelion 2.22 as if to begin yet another new cycle of the story. (Around 14 years passed between the Second and Third Impacts when Neon Genesis first began.) Shinji’s world is a far cry from the one he grew up in. Its streets and buildings are blood-red, stained by his failures, and they are mostly deserted.
Asuka, who was severely injured in the previous film, now wears an eyepatch, and despite the fact that she is now 14, she is still trapped in her adolescent body, a cursed side effect of piloting an Eva. Shinji’s upbeat, purple-haired recruiter, who used to like to frolic and drink, has become reclusive, hiding behind dark glasses, a high collar, and a low-brimmed military hat. She leads WILLE, a new organization dedicated to destroying what’s left of Gendo’s NERV, and she uses an explosive collar to keep Shinji, her former ward, from transcending his physical form while piloting his Eva. The last time he did, he nearly caused the end of the world, though the question of whether this was truly his fault eats away at him.
In any case, Gendo bears some responsibility, as he took advantage of his son’s anguish to move a step closer to “Instrumentality,” apocalypse in which the barriers between individual bodies and egos are torn down and humanity reverts to its primordial state. It’s the only way for Gendo to see his late wife, who died when Shinji was a child.
In Evangelion 3.33, the macabre emptiness around Shinji echoes the nihilistic questions he’s now facing. Rei, it seems, did not survive the end of Evangelion 2.22 despite Shinji’s attempts to save her, so his actions may have amounted to nothing.
Shinji’s father continues to reject him when he returns to the ruins of New Tokyo-3, where he inadvertently caused the cataclysm, and he discovers a new version of Rei, presumably a more recent clone programmed to be even more subservient to Gendo. (It appears that Rei, too, will be reborn into Gendo’s employ.) Shinji, on the other hand, finds solace in the company of fellow teenage Eva pilot Nagisa Kaworu (Ishida Akira), who we know is an Angel in human form from previous iterations of the story. He’s also the key to unlocking the connection between Neon Genesis and Rebuild.
Kaworu is the only person in the TV series who shows Shinji unconditional love, which he lacks from his father, and Shinji’s psyche is fractured when he is forced to kill Kaworu in episode 24, setting the stage for the abstract montages of episodes 25 and 26. Kaworu makes a brief appearance in Evangelion 1.11, when he awakens from one of a series of identical coffins, implying the story’s cyclical nature. He also appears after the credits of Evangelion 2.22, where his brief dialogue hints at both an awareness of Shinji’s existence, although they have yet to meet, and an awareness of the fact that they have met in previous versions of the story.
“If no one else, I’ll make you happy this time,” Kaworu explains. The implication that Shinji, Kaworu, and the other characters are trapped in inexorable cycles of destruction — and that Kaworu is aware of it — is never logistically explained. However, it resonates thematically and resembles Shinji’s experience of being trapped in self-fulfilling cycles of self-loathing for an audience familiar with earlier versions of the story.
In Evangelion 3.33, Kaworu’s awareness of Shinji’s unending misery leads him down a new path, promising to help Shinji reverse the course of his actions and undo the worldwide damage he was manipulated into causing, rather than fulfilling his function as a harbinger of doom. The divine and graceful Kaworu is the first character to break free from his pre-determined role, and he offers Shinji the chance to do the same — but things don’t go as planned.
Shinji has the opportunity to not only rebuild the world and resurrect the billions who perished, but also to free himself from an emotional limbo in which his actions may or may not have meaning, and in which his former comrades blame him for harm that was possibly beyond his control. He doesn’t know for sure, but he needs to know. However, their mission, deep within Shinji’s Third Impact crater, turns out to be yet another Gendo ruse. Shinji nearly triggers a fourth (and final) cataclysm in his desperation to fix the world and fix his own mistakes, which Kaworu recognizes and offers him a way out.
This time, the impending destruction is unmistakably Shinji’s fault, and in a supremely ironic fashion, he is liberated from the uncertainty and meaninglessness of his actions. He is now convinced that his actions are harmful. He is certain that everyone else suffers as a result of them. The aftermath is gruesome and bloody. Shinji might even welcome this outcome — or any outcome, for that matter — on some level. Perhaps having a specific reason to despise himself is easier than pondering his place in the world.
The most nightmarish thing of all is that in order to prevent the apocalypse, Misato kills Kaworu, and Shinji is forced to watch him die a horrific, painful death up close. The ripple effects of this tragedy can be felt throughout Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (and its updated release, 3.0+1.01), in which Shinji is paralyzed by grief, and by the fear that his love for people only causes them harm — what the show refers to as “the hedgehog’s dilemma.”
The final film is an hour longer than its predecessor, and it uses that time to portray a world attempting to rebuild itself. In the years that have elapsed since Evangelion 2.22, Shinji’s classmate Toji, who was allowed to escape his doomed role in this version of the story, has grown up, married, and become a father, while Shinji has remained frozen in adolescence. As the two old friends catch up, Toji becomes a reflection not only of what the world is fighting for — a chance to lead a normal existence, filled with love — but of all that Shinji has lost. In living out version after the version of the same story, in which fear and indecision cause harm and keep him trapped in his teenage body and mind, he has lost time, love, and happiness, which cannot help but read as self-criticism of Anno’s nearly three-decade-long involvement with the saga.
The question of how to break free from this narrative cycle is challenging, and Anno answers it in equally challenging fashion, by returning to the source of Shinji’s alienation: his childhood abandonment.
Sins of the father
Thrice Upon a Time is the first version of the story in which Shinji’s relationship with Gendo is more than just an emotional backdrop, albeit a deeply affecting one. The film’s climax involves Shinji and Gendo, in their respective Eva units, hurtling into an abstract realm, in which their respective memories and traumas become as potent as any weapons they wield. Here, Anno returns to the plot of episodes 25 and 26 once more, in which Shinji’s psychology is writ large in the form of impressionistic montages, and his very existence, as a person and as a fictional character, is deconstructed through sketches and storyboards which break him down to his barest elements. Only this time, Anno applies this approach to Gendo as well, the series’ cruel and aloof antagonist, in order to get to the heart of why he abandoned Shinji in the first place.
Despite their distance, Shinji lives in his father’s shadow, which the film dramatizes by presenting a younger Gendo who looks almost identical to Shinji. As the film rips apart at its seams, it allows both father and son to peer deep into one another as a means to peer into themselves; they may be different characters, and representations of different personality traits, but they’re ultimately part of the same story, which wrestles with the existential question of how to deal with the fear and loneliness inherent to being alive — even in a world where love is briefly possible.
The climactic scene is framed as Shinji’s final, desperate attempt to understand and connect with Gendo, after years of remaining stuck on tracks 25 and 26 of a Walkman which, it turns out, was once Gendo’s way of staying cut off from the world, for fear of being hurt. The film’s empathy for its most vile and vicious character is moving, especially when he finally embraces Shinji and turns off the Walkman, potentially for good. But the climax also serves as the final barrier for Shinji himself. The screen contorts and fills with a collage of live-action footage and nightmarish animated imagery, similar to the abstract crescendo of The End of Evangelion. Anno folds every version of Evangelion into one, combining the heartfelt optimism of the original show with The End of Evangelion’s nihilistic aesthetic odyssey, so Shinji may finally dig deep and find the parts of his own story which were once inaccessible.
The same loss Shinji experienced after the deaths of Kaworu and Rei, and the same fears of isolation throughout his entire life, also plague Gendo, whose soul began to corrode when he lost his wife. They are more alike than they realize — even the Evas they pilot are nearly identical. And not only are they each other’s final challenge, they also share a common goal: forgiving Gendo.
The only way Shinji can escape the next cycle is by ending it before it begins —by making sure the next version of his world exists without Evangelions, though without erasing the past and all its hardships. As he lays this plan out to Rei, footage from previous versions of the story is projected onto them, as if to collapse each iteration into one, and capture the myriad of internal challenges these characters faced at a tender age. Each avatar may have existed in different universes, but to the audience, the combined versions of Shinji, Asuka, Rei and even Gendo have symbolized the rigorous struggle for self-acceptance, one with many failures, but ultimately, a slow and uneasy transition towards triumph.
The Evangelions were created by Gendo, and while they represent mechanical power fantasy, their souls and bodies also house enormous trauma and torment, which Gendo, like many other characters in the series, will not or cannot let go of. Together, in this abstract dreamscape, father and son help bring each other to a better understanding of themselves, and of the ways their fears of loss and abandonment have kept them at arm’s length from other people. When Gendo plunges a mythical spear into every existing Evangelion, including his own, a glowing light emanates from each one, as if souls were being freed from within each Eva — not just the ghosts trapped in each’s machine DNA, but the souls of their pilots, in a way, who are finally liberated.
In its final moments, Thrice Upon a Time offers a glimpse into what this liberation actually looks like, when Shinji, Asuka, Rei and Kaworu all show up to a quiet train station as adults. Some of them are coupled together, or standing with significant others they met elsewhere in the story; Shinji is waiting for his former teammate, Mari. The film allows the characters to grow up for the first time, and to lead fulfilling adult lives outside the bounds of this mecha-kaiju story. The cycle ends for good, not because the characters’ pain no longer exists, but because that pain no longer takes all-consuming physical form, to which they constantly return. As Shinji and Mari sprint out of the station, hand-in-hand towards the future — a scene made exuberant by Utada Hikaru’s song “One Last Kiss” — the animated footage begins to blend into live-action, and the final shot pulls back to reveal the real Ube-Shinkawa railway station and the skyline of the city of Ube, Anno’s home town. Like the characters, Anno is finally able to look beyond the boundaries of this story, and of the genre in which he’s been immersed for more than 25 years. All it took was going back to the beginning and staying there long enough that all of Shinji’s torment finally materializes, and takes a form so tangible and familiar that it can finally be embraced.
By breaking apart the boundaries between the many versions of this story, and between characters like Shinji and Gendo, Anno triggers an Instrumentality of his own, a kinder version, born not out of fear, but of self-acceptance and understanding. Evangelion’s physical scale may be that of a Biblical epic, but its intimate emotional story has always been about finding ways to survive mundane, everyday sorrows; the kind that even shattering grief turns into, after a while; the inevitable, numbing, silent suffering which people are expected to repress.
After Shinji is finally embraced by his father, he says: “I’m fine. I think I can handle pain and heartbreak.” May we all be so lucky.