Hideaki Anno’s anime masterpiece FINALLY hits HD in the US and it’s a sight to behold
It’s hard to convey what it was like watching Evangelion during its initial direct to VHS release back in the late 90s. This was back when it was about $30 a tape at Suncoast Pictures, with two episodes per. A buddy of mine lent me the first few tapes and I was instantly hooked, there were only 3 tapes out at this point in the US and this is where Evangelion in its story arc is still very much a light-hearted Mecha anime with Shonen underpinnings. The internet was not the hive of information it is today and information on these Japanese cartoons wasn’t as plentiful as it is now. That led to a much different viewing experience, waiting and watching, release to release, compared to what we have today. When it’s possible to mainline the whole show in one sitting and fully appreciate the narrative turn, rather than feeling somewhat shocked and betrayed when the series starts turning on the exposition and filling in the narrative gaps.
For those unfamiliar with Hideaki Anno’s seminal Anime masterwork, Neon Genesis Evangelion, it takes place in the distant future of 2015, after an apocalyptic event known as “The Second Impact”. Along with decimating cities and melting the polar icecaps, the extinction level event also took out half the earth’s population. As the show starts 14 year old Shinji Ikari is recruited by his estranged father Gendo, who works for NERV, to pilot a giant robot called an Evangelion. NERV’s mission is using the Evas to stop the “Angels’’, giant Kaiju-like creatures who wish to bring upon “The Third Impact” and finish off humanity. Delivering the melodrama you’d expect from your standard mecha anime, only teens can pilot the Evas. So along with Shinji’s strained relationship with his father, the rest of the early drama in the show is fueled the sexual tension between Shinji and his fellow Eva pilots and any other woman he meets.
Watching the show now, almost two decades later, my perspective has shifted a bit from the show’s protagonist as I began to see things a bit more through the eyes of the adults around him. The women of Evangelion are noticeably the worst off on this show, surrounded by toxic masculinity at every turn. Even the women considered peers to Shinji are wise beyond their years and over burdened with what life had dealt to them, but most surprisingly to me on this rewatch was the arc of Shinji’s de facto guardian and director at NERV, Misato Katusragi. The show has her outshining her male counterparts in almost every episode, but also forced to constantly prove her worth. It’s a striking throughline that has her trying to have it all, that is until her lost love is reintroduced into the show along with Shinji’s red-headed fireball of a rival Asuka. Just when you thought this was the direction the series was heading, something great and jarring happens to this story.
Evangelion does something truly great after lulling the audience into a false sense of security, amping up these well worn tropes and archetypes of Shonen and Mecha anime letting you think you know what going to happen. While we’re distracted with these simple playthings, Anno slowly builds the densely packed backstory of the Evas and what NERV is really up to from episode to episode. This fascinating mythos utilizes Western religions, in particular Christianity along with Kabbalism in a way that does something that at the time felt wholly original in its take. For those wondering why given the popularity of the IP why it hasn’t been cannibalized for the US, this use of Christian imagery in particular, became a hot button for censors who famously scrubbed any use of it from the episodes that aired on Cartoon Network. Well the more we discover about what not only caused the second impact, but what NERV is really up to, allows the show to morph into this dark existential deep dive into humanity, religion, family and self, in a way that transcended the show into the worldwide phenomenon it still is today.
Famously the show simply ran out of budget in those final episodes, and Anno, strapped for cash, went with the less is more approach. This left some of the core mysteries unanswered and instead of showing the grand battle for the fate of humanity, we are trapped in of all places Shinj’s fractured consciousness, as he deals with how the human instrumentality project plays out. This is basically the organization above NERV, Seele’s endgame, using the Evas in a ceremony foretold by the Dead Sea Scrolls forcing humanity to evolve. This project would evolve us from a collection of individuals and minds into a single omnipresent consciousness. Given Shinji was basically an avatar for Anno, the refocus made sense, but that left behind too many unanswered questions about the intricate mythos and what the hell actually happened outside of the 14 year-old’s head. Besieged by death threats for this rather ambiguous ending, Anno would then attempt to tie up the film’s mythology in two films, Death/Rebirth and The End of Evangelion, both included here in this package.
While these films did do their part in attempting to deconstruct the dense mythology into understandable bite size narrative pieces and offering some explanation for the core mysteries of Evangelion, there were still some loose narrative threads. This would forever be a point of contention to the fans, who only grew in numbers over the years and who felt it was still a bit too open to interpretation. I am not going to lie, I feel like I have a decent grip on Eva and I feel like there’s still so much left to discover even after this re-watch. A decade later Anno would return to Eva to provide an “Alternate Retelling” of the series as four feature length lushly animated films, which recently concluded after 14 years of delays and stops and starts due to Annos struggles with depression. This was meant as Anno’s definitive take on the series and it’s something I will be checking out in the near future after revisiting this show in full.
Emotionally The End of Evangelion left me a raw nerve, no pun intended. The End is a rough ride that takes everything the fan’s loved about the show and destroys it in front of them. It’s vengeful, unforgiving, sadomasochistic and something I still see as a fitting end of the series. Upon rewatching I also reflected on Anno’s now very public struggles with mental illness over the years. There’s a great doc that aired on TV Tokyo I believe, that just focused on Anno fighting against those demons along with fan expectations to finish the final of the four Evangelion films. There’s a sequence where he has emotional outbursts cancelling the doc and there’s a another stretch where Anno, depressed with the film’s development thus far, just stops showing up for work. Watching this series it’s often overlooked how Anno attempts to deconstruct mental illness and portray those subconscious demons in your head. In a way, the show could be about man attempting to eliminate the one that imbued man with these illnesses to begin with.
These themes really hit hard and caused me to reflect inward on my own struggles dealing with my own trifecta of mild OCD, manic depression and extreme hypertension, that rule over my own fragile construct. It’s something Anno makes very tangible and relatable in the show thanks to his avatar, Shinji who gets a lot of grief from fans for his emotional outbursts. Of course on his own he’s a bit melodramatic, but It’s when you put him into his situation and context of the show that it makes a bit more sense why these children are so traumatized, aside from the obvious abandonment issues. I mean you put the fate of humanity on their shoulders along with growing up in a post apocalypse, it is going to seriously amplify any emotional and mental issues and unresolved trauma. How the show deals with that aspect of its protagonists is something that definitely doesn’t get enough praise since it makes these things tangible and allows folks that maybe more adjusted to experience them through Shinji’s eyes.
All TV episodes here are presented in HD, scanned from the 16mm masters, except for Episode 16, for which the master was lost and it was transferred from a SD element. The episodes retain their TV aspect ratio, with some light DNR present in the image. The colors are bright and the show looks pretty amazing compared to its numerous DVD releases. The clarity was definitely a highlight given there are so many details I picked up on watching this series in HD that you’d probably miss on TV. Like when a basketball hits a backboard early on in the series it leaves a light scuff mark, or noticing all the all decals on the Evas and Tokyo 3. It’s those little details that are on full display here as you cull through the show. Granted the animation quality famously starts to dip later in the show, but it’s still presented looking better than any US audience has seen on physical media. The show is also presented in a new 5.1 sound mix that I found very impressive, especially given this starts out as a mecha show. The lows and surround are used heavily to really draw in the viewer and portray the size of the Evas. I also appreciated the new dub, which was present on Netflix, which offered a fresh, improved translation.
This may be a weird call out, but my only nitpick with this new presentation is the missing end theme “Fly Me to the Moon”, which oddly turned up in Squid Game as well. Previously each episode concluded with a new rendition that was sometimes influenced by the tone of that particular episode. This has been replaced by “Rei’s Theme”, which is much more somber than those first few episodes, which are a bit more light hearted. That’s not a huge call out, because most of everything else music-wise is still there.
Given we’ve been plagued by sub-par Evangelion releases for almost 20 years, it’s nice to see GKids FINALLY take the property seriously. The bulk of my complaints with previous releases stem from ADV not licensing the Japanese extras, deeming them too expensive. Instead they gave us commentaries with voice actors and locally produced content that gives in my opinion a secondhand interpretation of the property rather than hearing from the actual creators. I always found it frustrating to hear anyone not intimately involved with the creation giving their hot take on any included extras on this show in particular, because of how open to interpretation it can be. These issues have been addressed since what we have here is everything that previously surfaced on the latest Japanese set, and translated no less in English. They even included the Live Action deleted scenes and making of from The End of Evangelion.
Given at the low end this set retails for roughly $40 and this same set content-wise originally retailed in Japan for about $300 without English Subtitles — this is a no brainer. The show still hits just as hard and has aged surprisingly well. Thanks to this new presentation, it looks like it could have aired recently to be honest. But given the show is two decades old it still feels like nothing out there has even come close, with its mix of Christian mythology and mecha anime topped with an engrossing emotional drama. I was impressed at how well not only it all held up, but how my point of view was able to evolve from the Eva pilots, to the adults in the show, and I was still presented with an extremely engaging and moving story. Gkids did the best thing they could by finally giving us basically a 1:1 release with the Japanese extras included. This is an amazing release and one every US Eva fan needs to pick up ASAP.