The Phenomenon of the 'Rebuild of Evangelion'
You’ve heard it all before. Neon Genesis Evangelion, the definitive, cerebral 90’s shounen series, that laid the groundwork for all the giant-ass-robot shows and films we love today. Its massive appeal and impact on the films and series that came after it is, quite frankly, overblown, especially for a show that takes so much from its predecessors, such as Gundam and Ultraman. For a series that I love with all my heart, I understand and acknowledge its criticisms and failings as much as the next critic.
Despite those criticisms, though, the series has persevered over the course of 26 grueling years for Hideaki Anno, who’s churned out the original 28-episode series, its two follow-up features Death & Rebirth and End of Evangelion amongst other films, and now, the reboot film series Rebuild of Evangelion. The Rebuild films have not lost the clarity of the original, instead revamping the story of the TV series in more refined, saturated colors and animation. Here, the Rebuilds also offer an alternative sense of relief: instead of a long-drawn out series of episodes and films spanning over 16 hours, the Rebuilds manage to succinctly condense the arc of Shinji and his companions into just over half the runtime, capping in at roughly 7 hours across 4 films. Though the first of the Rebuilds films follow the same Anno habit of rehashing old episodes, the story goes entirely off the rails and devivates on its own after it, as it forges itself towards a path of redemption, and eventual hope for its hopelessly desperate characters who once again find themselves trying to save their world. Whereas the original TV series and films leave everyone at the end of humanity confronting their own flaws and truths, the Rebuilds instead consider the possibility of finding that relief while still retaining that sense of love and hopefulness for the world around us. And it’s that strong consideration condensed into a solid 4 films that arguably makes the Rebuilds so widely appealing and beloved, especially for viewers and lovers of the original series and films who may be hesitant on viewing a new approach to the narrative.
Moreover, the Rebuilds sacrifice some aspects of its origins while staying true to them as a means of shifting towards a more hopeful future. Instead of the unrelentingly cold and distant relationship between Shinji and his father Gendo, the Rebuilds allow for some amiability and reconciliation between the two in spite of their shared grief and the tragedies that have split them apart. The films also expand the character of Rei beyond the stoic and robotic nature that she’s mostly confined in in the original series, allowing her to eventually learn what more there is to life outside of Gendo’s cold laboratory, and reveling in the discoveries she makes along the way. At the same time, it retains some of its origins by keeping the incestuous implications and criticized pedophilic humor that the original show is known for, by now a staple in Japanese media. But the most important thing the Rebuild film series holds true to its heart, is its acceptance of terror not as an externally traumatizing fear, but as an integral part of the human soul and its growth. And it’s Shinji’s acceptance of terror, his decision in the fate of humanity as a unified psyche or as total individuality, that fosters this interactivity from the viewer themselves, asking them the same questions to ponder and decide upon.
Putting aside the theoretical engagement for a bit, the soundtracks and scores of the Rebuilds from Shiro Sagisu and Utada Hikaru (who heads the main title tracks for all 4 films) are not to go unnoticed here. The Rebuilds set themselves apart through their dynamic relationships between classical compositions and the fragile emotional states of the characters in the series. Sagisu hones in on strong influences of Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Satie, and many other musicians in order to depict the sudden disparities between the characters, most notably with Shinji and the antagonist Kaworu. The overarching orchestrals accentuate the emotional irony in the Rebuilds between the uplifting tones and the brutal suffering that the characters experience. Pair this with Hikaru’s vocals that often highlight the yearning seen in the films, and you get this cohesive and enticing soundtrack that seems to guide the films as much as merely accompany them, which adds to the charm and appeal of the Rebuilds.
Going back to the origins and ideas that Rebuild of Evangelion evokes, many philosophical and theoretical studies have been made over the course of the original series and its subsequent films. For instance, a Poststructuralist reading can be made with the shifting inconsistencies in identities amongst the characters, as well as the change in the weight of the world on their shoulders as they save it. We see this with the relationship between Rei (made from the spirit and remains of Shinji’s mother) and the god Lilith, who she eventually becomes inhabited by. Rei, along with the others, also becomes inhabited by their EVAs as they move into a womb-like space within the mechas. This essentially shifts the idea of the Gods inhabiting the motherly role to the mechas taking over that role as the pilots channel the spirit of their mothers and loved ones who have passed. To extend it further, it can even be argued that the entry plug encapsulating the pilots represent a phallus of sorts that impale the EVAs, creating an interesting Freudian connection between the pilot and the EVA. The endless possibilities of the readings puts the bulk of the responsibility of interpretation upon the viewer.
And so we arrive at the final question: should you watch the originals? It can’t be emphasized enough that the Rebuilds are in fact entirely divergent from their predecessors and start off on wholly new ground as 4 standalone films, but though the Rebuilds were meant to be a more accessible version of the original series and films, they cannot be watched or understood without comparison to the original series. You can start off on the Rebuilds without having seen the originals, but by doing so you lose the sympathy and understanding of the hardships faced by the characters. You also end up losing payoff of the consequences and grief leading up to the finale in 3.0+1.0. The phenomenon of the Rebuilds of Evangelion lies in the deviation of its origins, its grandiose score, its interactivity in the readings to be made out of the events that play out. And all of it cannot be understood without first having seen their predecessors, witnessing the growth and change of the work is imperative to getting the most out of the series and films.