Bye-bye, all of EVANGELION.

Since Neon Genesis Evangelion dropped back in 1995, a heft of the commentary around the series has been centered around the personal feelings of its key creative lead, Anno Hideaki, and how these feelings informed the direction of the show’s story and the portrayal of its characters. Something else that crops up a lot in Eva commentary is… the franchise’s failure to adhere to schedule. Stories tell of Anno being late with scripts and storyboards as the original TV run got to the end, resulting in the rushed nature of the original TV series ending. Meanwhile, the manga, which was supposed to run alongside the anime, ended up running on and off for 20 years. Continuing on with his trend, the tetralogy of Rebuild of Evangelion, originally announced to come out between 2007 and 2008, ended up taking 14 years to complete. But with the March 8th, 2021 release of Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time–or FINAL EVA–it’s finally all out for everyone to see. Well, if you live in Japan, anyway.

I have seen FINAL EVA in the theater–exposing myself to diseased otaku in the midst of a pandemic–a whopping three times. So, “How was it?”, you ask? Well… what happened was that at each screening, Anno Hideaki came out in front of everyone and said, “I’m done with Eva, and you should be, too. Go to work and contribute to society, you nerds.” Okay, that’s not actually what happened. But it kind of felt like it. In a good, positive way.

Two of the screenings I saw were in the early morning, filled with a bunch of salarymen catching the feature before making their regular sales runs. Since Tokyo was under a State of Emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic until March 21st, movie theaters were not allowed to hold showings after 8:00 pm, meaning that anyone who wanted to catch the feature on Day 1–a fucking Monday–had to see it at 7:00 am… like me. And I consequently ended up seeing what was likely the earliest screening of FINAL EVA in the world.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the Rebuild of Evangelion films since they dropped. 1.0 is just something of a weirdly-paced rehash, 2.0 is a fun rock-em sock-em action flick, and 3.0 is well–you can read my initial take on it if you like. And to be honest, after revisiting the original Neon Genesis Evangelion TV series and subsequent End of Evangelion film for the first time in a long while last year, I lost all hope in the Rebuild films. “No matter what Anno does, it will never be as good as the original series,” I thought. Well, goddamn it Anno. You pulled it off. The release of FINAL EVA makes it clear that rather than trying to overwrite the original work, the Rebuild films work as an amazing response to the feelings Anno expressed in that original series and End of Evangelion film. And it’s unprecedented that creators get the chance to do that, and do so in as eloquently a manner that FINAL EVA does.

If you go back up and click that link to a random website quoting Anime News Service, you will notice that the initial announcement of the Rebuild project stated that and FINAL EVA were supposed to screen together. And actually sitting down to watch FINAL EVA, I can see why. FINAL EVA is the Key to Q, but more importantly, it’s also the Key to the Evangelion franchise as a whole. Does that mean it answers all the lingering questions from both Q and the rest of the franchise? Of course not! What it does do is deliver a spectacular emotional conclusion to a franchise helmed by a tormented man who wasn’t afraid to dance raw in front of his fans.

It’s going to be very difficult to talk about this film without outright spoiling key reveals. For those who want a clean review of FINAL EVA, I suggest reading my boy Matt’s review over at The Japan Times.

FINAL EVA commences immediately after the events of Q, treating us to a hauntingly beautiful opening credits sequence, taking us through the distressed, blood-red “Near Third Impact” world. Shinji is fucked after seeing Kaoru being subjected to Hokuto Shinken, and is being dragged to a rendezvous point by Asuka, and an Ayanami-Series clone, where they meet people who are there to help. Here we find out that Earth has actually been doing alright in the midst of Near Third Impact, with the crew meeting up with grown-up versions of Suzuhara Toji, Horaki Hikari and Aida Kensuke. After that time skip, it turns out they were alright! But Shinji isn’t, and him being not-alright makes up more or less the first part of this film.

I really like this opening section of FINAL EVA. It takes you out of the non-stop chaos of and sits you down with the post-Near Third Impact world. We also get to see a lot of Shinji crying in the fetal position in a corner, and him being force-fed rations by Asuka. It’s this part of the film where Shinji gets to work out a lot of his issues in light of nearly bringing about the apocalypse in 2.0, and seeing Kaoru’s head go boom in Q. But more than Shinji, how about FINAL EVA’s Rei? In this new post-Near Third Impact world, you find out that Toji and gang have been living in a village made out of random train cars centered around a station modeled after Tenryu Futamata Station in Shizuoka. There FINAL EVA-Rei befriends some old women who live in the town, and starts helping them plant rice, harvest crops, and at the end of the day hits the sento with them. And her earnest approach to all of this is great, funny, and dare I say… moe? Meanwhile, she works to help Shinji remove himself from the random corners he finds himself moping in, learns about the non-NERV world from people like Hikari, and starts to enjoy herself.

Unfortunately good things cannot last. Right as Shinji works his way out of his rut thanks to Rei, starts helping out in the town, and finally starts talking with Toji, Kensuke and The Gang; this film’s Rei reveals that she cannot live outside of NERV HQ, and subsequently bursts into a pool of LCL. But between Rei’s straightforward kindness–and her sudden departure–along with Asuka’s tough love, and the support of his old friends, Shinji manages to figure out what he has to do. The manner in which the film expertly depicts this slow crawl out of depression for Shinji, and his assimilation into this new society, is some of the most positive character building Eva has ever done for the character. And it feels so satisfying to see him standing there, ready to go back and fight, with his eyes slightly red from crying out all he’s had to cry. “There’s always hope,” they keep on saying.

Once Shinji resolves to ultimately Get Back Into the Robot, the film takes us back into the chaotic territory of Q. But with the exposition provided by the Studio Ghibli-esque antics in the town, the world starts to feel more grounded, and all the crew of the AAA Wunder–including Misato, Ritsuko and Mari–who all felt like jerks in Q (or just annoying in the case of Mari) actually start to feel warmer, especially as they notice that Shinji is ready to confidentially steer this film to its conclusion. But then FINAL EVA heads into a 90-minute final act? Or it’s a two-to-three-act final act? I don’t know, but once Shinji and crew are back on the AAA Wunder, it feels like the film has 7 climaxes.

After the initial opening battle sequence that was free for the world to see, Gendo and Fuyutsuki come back in a big way, and this time they are determined to destroy the world, like the madmen they have become in the Rebuild series. Well, Gendo anyway. Pretty sure Fuyutsuki is still just following orders. Basically it’s the Final Battle, and shit gets crazy.

I am very torn about this last half of the film. On one hand, it dives deep into some really important emotional territory–which I will touch upon later–but on the other, it’s more of that chaotic and explody action, which I don’t like. I mentioned this in my review of Q, but rather than having the Evas shoot at each other, I’d love to see more of what we saw in the End of Evangelion, where Asuka wrestles down the Eva Series with her bare Eva-hands. The opening battle of FINAL EVA leans into this sort of chaotic action as well, but to a point that I can tolerate. However, as you get deep into the second part of this movie, it’s all about Asuka and Mari taking on giant swarms of enemies using their Super Saiyan Eva powers to destroy all the mass-produced thugs Gendo and Fuyutsuki throw at them. I know there is some producer there telling them to do this, but I still think there could have been a way to bring back the visceral beauty of the 1990s Eva action while still cycling through multiple different armament settings for Evas that can subsequently be turned into model kits. At one point we do get a chance to see the Evas take on some enemies one-on-one, but this battle is tragically short compared to all the time they spend having the Evas mow down rows of cannon fodder with lasers and toyetic weapons.

The 3D CG doesn’t help, either. Don’t get me wrong, I think it looks pretty good, but if you are going to have the AAA Wunder bonk into stuff, it would have looked cooler to draw that. Yes, the film does get into some weird battles between the AAA Wunder and other battleships operated by NERV, which is a new outing for Eva. And I can tell Anno was excited about these scenes, judging from the upbeat 1970s-inspired background music (that could be found in any old tokusatsu show) backing up these scenes. But stuff like this doesn’t really excite me if it isn’t painstakingly etched by hand and colored with raw fury. As a result, I felt the action on the whole was a little flat and drawn out in FINAL EVA. By the third viewing I softened up to it but… it’s not the Eva action I fell in love with as an awkward teenager.

But while all this madness is unfolding, we find out Gendo has taken a cue from Dio of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, and has thrown away his humanity in exchange for crazy Super God powers. It is at this point where Shinji tries to confront his dad–at the most extreme point of his madness–only to be ignored as Gendo steps into the mouth of Eva Unit 13 to try and bring about the apocalypse, again.

This is the part of FINAL EVA that I love. It’s just So Good. All throughout Eva, Shinji never really gets the courage to talk to his dad–but boy do they talk here. But first they have to battle it out, Eva Unit 1 VS Eva Unit 13. Except they’re in some crazy realm that only places them in environments based on their memories, which results in the two Evas battling it out in a tokusatsu TV show set depicting Tokyo 3, Misato’s apartment, Shinji’s school, and other nonsensical settings. It’s super wacky, and it’s the level of insanity I wanted out of FINAL EVA. But then it gets introspective. Shinji and Gendo sit down to chat against a beautiful collage of insane imagery, but ultimately they end up on the train. You know, that train.

But what’s good about all this? What’s good about it is that we get to see the Ikari Gendo Angst Show. All this time we only saw the Ikari Shinji Angst Show, but what we learn here is that Shinji’s angst was entirely driven by Gendo’s angst. Like father, like son I suppose. Of course, Gendo’s insecurities and obsessions–and how they fucked up Shinji–are touched upon in the original TV and film run of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but not in this level of detail. As Gendo rants and raves, and quite clearly tries to push his son away, Shinji quietly asserts, “Dad, I just want to talk to you.” Shinji tries to break down Gendo, itching to learn why he keeps driving humanity to the apocalypse time and time again. And Gendo breaks, gloriously. The best part of this examination into Gendo and his relationship to his son is a short sequence that breaks away from the psychological madness, and is just a very well animated shot taken from Shinji’s perspective, of him walking aggressively towards his dad, trying to get a word in. Another good part of this whole sequence of events is Gendo muttering, “this is why I hate kids.” In the end, the final conclusion of this confrontation between Shinji and his dad is something Eva was not yet ready to touch all this time, and in FINAL EVA it feels incredibly satisfying.

But if exploration into Gendo wasn’t enough–and let me be clear, it is more than enough–the film goes out of its way to wrap up all the unfinished business with Asuka, Kaoru, and Rei, as well. And all orchestrated by Shinji, who goes from being an emotional mess at the start, to a therapist in the span of 2 hours. It is also at this point where FINAL EVA breaks the fourth wall more than any other Eva work. While Eva is about cool robot fights inspired by pop culture, it’s also about the real world. Namely, Anno Hideaki’s relationship with the real world, and perhaps how he would like otaku like him to interact with the real world, too. After years of Eva existing in the public consciousness, FINAL EVA knows that all Eva can do at this point is be self-referential. Anno gave it his all with the End of Evangelion, and with Rebuild concluded, it’s clear that rather than trying to do anything radically new with Eva’s story, the Rebuild series is all about confronting the emotional unpleasantness left over from End of Evangelion, while also taking on what a juggernaut Evangelion is as a pop-culture franchise.

The reason Eva always takes forever to come out is because it’s such a personal work for Anno Hideaki (this statement is only relevant for the anime, Sadamoto has no excuses). When recently watching the original series again, I noticed how difficult it became for Anno and crew to deliver those final episodes, because it was clearly taking a lot out of him emotionally. When reaching the final stretch of the series, the next episode previews just become sketches. That final “congratulations” almost feels like Anno congratulating himself because he managed to finish the damn show. Of course, that resulted in death threats from insane fans, which eventually lead to the crew having to deliver the real ending of the series, but undoubtedly with a lot of extra shade thrown in by a then-pissed off Anno. From what I can tell, FINAL EVA exists to ultimately confront both the lingering feelings of Eva’s characters, and Eva’s clout as a pop culture franchise.

While cleaning up the loose emotional ends of the characters, the film’s excursions past the fourth wall allow Anno to also clean up his unfinished business with his accidental masterpiece–an insane franchise that spiraled off beyond his wildest dreams, inclusive of pachinko and Doritos. With FINAL EVA, Anno is telling us he wants to move on–and for those nerds still stuck like he is, he probably wants y’all to move on, too. Neon Genesis, baby.

And that’s FINAL EVA. It’s about escaping from your demons and moving on, no matter how painful that may be. FINAL EVA says that we’ll be better for it. Anno is also telling us that it’s worth it to find your place in the real world, rather than finding comfort in fantasy and obsession. But more than telling us, he’s probably telling himself.

Before closing off, I must remark on the high technical merits of this film. Aside from my complaints about the 3D CG, on the whole FINAL EVA‘s animation and background artwork is fantastic. And for how much crap I give to the weird design of the AAA Wunder, I do like how it has a Tokyo Metro-inspired internal rail system. It’s weird in-world details like that, along with the subtle and nuanced character animation, that really brings FINAL EVA to life. The location hunting is on-point too–as mentioned earlier, the town Toji and crew live in based off a certain location in Shizuoka, and I am pretty sure the crew went to Shizuoka to draw those backgrounds.

On the musical front, as always, Sagisu Shiro knocks it out of the park. As is the trend with this series of films, he probably goes a bit too hard with the dramatics, but the score hits when it really counts. The main vocal piece, Voyager, is a cover of Matsutoya Yumi’s hit song, and with FINAL EVA‘s take on the number featuring 70s-inspired country twangs and an emotional string section, it underscores the finale of the film in a lovingly corny but extremely moving manner. The composition of the cover brings to mind insert songs from classic anime films like the Mobile Suit Gundam trilogy, and at the same time acts as a response to Komm, Süsser Tod, almost fighting against it by deliberately being a classic Japanese pop hit as opposed a deliberately retro-sounding song that Anno demanded be sung in English.

All said, the length of the film, its musical choices, and its technical proficiency–but also its very messy nature–bring to mind old, crazy anime franchise films for big titles like Yamato or Gundam. I am not sure if this is intentional or not, but it’s great that someone is still allowed make movies like this.

Much like FINAL EVA, this review of the film ended up being way too long. But that’s why we love Eva, right? It has been said many times before, but after the emotionally-challenging original series, and this equally obtuse series of films, it’s amazing that Eva has remained a key part of the Japanese cultural zeitgeist for this long. It’s simply a feat that a series which has enough courage to take on tough emotional issues in an intentionally difficult-to-digest manner remains this popular for this long. Furthermore, the fact that the creator–who has very publicly admitted to his internal turmoil–was able to formulate a response to his raw emotional expression in Evangelion with a “remake” over 20 years later is unheard of.

But it’s here, and it’s real.

Thank you, Anno Hideaki. I know it’s hard, but tomorrow, I will go out into the world once again, and face all the challenges that lie ahead with a little less weight on my shoulders.

Hopefully, anyway.

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