There are myriad reasons why I feel unqualified to talk about anything related to the Evangelion franchise, but the primary one is that it’s not my thing. It’s a lot of other people’s thing, but not mine. Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time, is the first time I felt myself so deeply affected by an Evangelion product.
My thing is the much less acclaimed ending of Sailor Moon Sailor Stars where Usagi Tsukino tells us that the proper place for chaos or evil is in the hearts of everyone — a shared burden for humanity that can only be mitigated (not defeated) by love. This is hardly a new concept but I’d not seen it done at a time where I could understand the message in anything close to its simultaneous simplicity and depth. You cannot defeat your darker impulses, only mitigate them with genuine connection. The message of Sailor Stars was accompanied by another major influence my obnoxious and precocious high school self was obsessed with, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit). Combined, this meant that the mantra of my younger self was that even if I could never understand others and building relationships with them would sometimes make it more difficult to understand myself, seeking genuine relationships with them would provide profound answers to the many questions I had about the value of my own existence or why I existed at all.
Despite thinking I understood this on an intellectual level (I didn’t), I certainly didn’t follow this example on a practical level. I still don’t always follow this on a practical level.
Relationships are difficult. I seek them out despite this.
(Spoilers for all of the Evangelion franchise below.)
I watched the entirety of the Neon Genesis Evangelion television series at an older age rather than when it was airing. It was recommended to me as a must-watch in 2009, the same year that the first Rebuild movie, Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, was released in North America. This immediately placed me as someone on the outside looking in at a piece of art that was already lionized by large portions of the anime community. By virtue of listening to certain anime podcasts, visiting anime forums, and watching currently-airing anime at around the same time, I was more familiar with Evangelion as a nebulous concept and source of fandom wank than I was familiar with the series itself.
Neon Genesis Evangelion didn’t resonate like Usagi-as-Sailor-Moon embracing Galaxia in space while telling her that chaos belongs in the hearts of everyone, but it did affect me and I did enjoy it both on an emotional level and an artistic one. Evangelion‘s use of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma as a framing advice was simple and emotionally resonant. It (like many other works) reminded me of Huis Clos and the desperate struggle we all have while trying to connect with others.
“Hell is other people.” Joseph Garcin famously exclaims towards the end of Huis Clos. At face value this seems to be an indictment of relationships and connections in their entirety, but Sartre later clarified that it’s the nature of those relationships that can make them hellish. The most frustrating part is how we as humans are unable to detach ourselves from how others perceive us. If those relationships are bad, and that perception is bad, then we’ll truly be in a hell due to our connections to others. By logical extension, relationships can be heaven as well, but only if you love yourself. All of the characters in Evangelion struggle with this because the closer you allow yourself to be to someone, the more likely you are to cause pain. The most basic example of this is Shinji’s fractured relationship with his father, Gendo Ikari, which affects the way Shinji sees himself.
Shinji is manic in the original series and comparatively mature in the first two Rebuild films. Director and creator Hideaki Anno visibly and audibly plays with audience expectations in Rebuild and the changes made both expedite certain things for an uninformed viewer (for better and worse at different times throughout the films) and lull Evangelion faithful into a false sense of security before figuratively punching them in the face with the final two Rebuild films. There’s an added complexity to Rebuild that isn’t present in the original by virtue of what Evangelion became (a cultural touchstone and eventual worldwide phenomenon) and also who Hideaki Anno became. Like Shinji himself, Anno’s Rebuild is punchier and less frenzied than the original, but loses none of its emotional core and desperate quest to connect with people.
Both versions of Shinji (original television series and Rebuild) yearn for human connection and both struggle mightily with it in a variety of different ways.
Anyone who has watched End of Evangelion distinctly remembers how it ends: ambiguously, with choking turning into a caress and Asuka Langley Sohru’s “Disgusting.” An act of violence — one of the only ways that Shinji knows how to make close connections with others — met with the gentleness of her hand on his cheek. Between the two, only Shinji sounds like he’s choking as he gasps for air.
On rewatching the Rebuild films prior to seeing 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon A Time, it’s interesting that one of, if not the, first physical interaction with any amount of intimacy that Shinji has with another person is when classmate Toji Suzuhara punches him in the face while Kensuke Aida looks on and apologizes. Shinji returns the favor at Toji’s request later on after Toji apologizes for his actions. Again, it’s one of the only expressions of outward physical intimacy that Shinji has in the first Rebuild film. It distills the violence Shinji deals with as an Eva pilot tasked with saving the world as something personal, tangible, and grounded — from a nebulous concept into something real. Physical intimacy for Shinji only happens two other times in this film: once in a stereotypical fanservice moment with Rei that’s subverted by her non-reaction, and another surprisingly emotional moment where Misato Katsuragi takes his hand and holds it through an elevator ride down to the center of NERV and Lilith. (Hand-holding is an important expression of intimacy in Evangelion that’s expanded in Rebuild and bookended visually with Mari Illustrious Makinami and Shinji in the finale of 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon A Time.)
Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone moves quickly along familiar story beats with only a few deviations. This means that Toji’s turn around after seeing the pain that Shinji has to deal with as an Eva pilot comes quickly, as does Shinji’s first few interactions with Rei Ayanami.
Shinji doesn’t know much about what saving the world means to him, but he does hear Toji and Kensuke cheering him on and that means something. Shinji doesn’t think much of himself at all and wonders why he’s doing this, but sees Rei take the hit for him and that means something too. In a world where so much strife comes from trying to make others understand nebulous societal concepts, the answer to this struggle in Evangelion is there from the beginning: genuine relationships with others, even if those connections are painful. The moment that Shinji fires on the fourth angel, he’s not thinking of saving the world, he’s remembers Toji and Kensuke. He sees Rei in pain and wants to stop her from being hurt.
This sequence of events (and their subsequent iterations) hit me harder in Rebuild than they did watching the original. Despite knowing that they were coming, Rebuild is a lot more concise in its first two films because it cuts out a lot of wallowing that permeated the series (again, for better and worse situationally). Perhaps it was because both Hideaki Anno and I had matured since the series initially aired — and even though I had watched it later in my early twenties — since I had watched it.
It made me hurt for the person I used to be.
In Evangelion 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance, Shinji is far less outwardly self-pitying than his television counterpart. Instead Shinji is still whiny but nearly heroic in a way that frustrated television audiences wanted him to be when they screamed at him and told him to get in the fucking robot already and start kicking some ass. He has actual friends! He cooks! He shows genuine interest in others and it’s reciprocated! Like You Are (Not) Alone, You Can (Not) Advance is punchy with it’s important emotional beats while “fixing” complaints fans had about the first film being too close to the original source material (but shinier!) all while making Shinji who people wanted him to be, in a way. Both Rei and Asuka Shikinami Langley (née Asuka Langley Soryu) receive similar treatments. All three characters learn by the end of the film that they unsubtly cannot advance.
This is all a setup for the latter part of You Can (Not) Advance, and the entirety of Evangelion 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo.
Because Shinji hasn’t yet changed in a way that truly matters. He’s been given a glow-up by the powers that be, but hasn’t actually learned how to love himself — or, at the very least, not hate himself. He doesn’t know that there’s a difference between caring for someone else and wanting to sacrifice yourself because you don’t value your own life. He doesn’t recognize that in hating himself so openly, he invalidates the feelings of others who care about him. Shinji makes strides towards forming genuine connections, but in a return to “hell is other people” he still cannot see himself reflected in the perception of others as anything but worthless.
Hideaki Anno confidently guides the audience with the steady hand of someone who has already lived through all of this and more into the third Rebuild film, You Can (Not) Redo.
You Can (Not) Redo is a divisive and disjointed movie. It’s Rebuild and Evangelion at its most frustrated and angry. It’s also Evangelion at its most gentle and loving in its study of Kaworu and Shinji’s burgeoning relationship. If you’re a viewer paying particular attention to the latter, you already have a roadmap for where Rebuild will end.
Towards the beginning of this rambling essay, I touched upon how the phrase “Hell is other people” applies to Shinji in that his lack of self-worth comes back to the fractured relationship he has with his father. He cannot view himself as anything but worthless as long as his relationship with Gendo remains as it is. When Shinji unwittingly triggers the Third Impact to save Rei, he still doesn’t recognize the value of his own existence and says as much to Misato — he doesn’t care if he dies, only that Rei lives. This sentiment is repeated throughout You Can (Not) Redo. When you think that Shinji has finally learned to accept his own existence through his relationship with Kaworu, You Can (Not) Redo makes it abundantly clear that he’s leaning on Kaworu for strength in a toxic way without any meaningful self-acceptance. Similarly, Kaworu is trying to find happiness for Shinji by only thinking of Shinji. You can’t find yourself in other people like this, but it’s so close to real self-actualization that seeing them grow close before Kaworu sacrifices himself hurts.
Or in the words of Sartre himself, clarifying the meaning and philosophy behind Garcin’s line:
“If my relations are bad, I am situating myself in a total dependence on someone else. And then I am indeed in hell. And there are a vast number of people in the world who are in hell because they are too dependent on the judgment of other people. But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.”
Shinji spends most of Rebuild, and even most of the final movie, Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon A Time still stuck in hell.
More importantly, Gendo Ikari is also in hell.
The shadow cast by Gendo in particular is a lengthy one in and outside of the series and Rebuild movies. Where Shinji is known even outside the Evangelion fandom as “that whiny kid,” Gendo is known as the absolute worst anime father. If a father figure in anime is terrible or absent or any combination of other bad traits, he’ll inevitably be compared to Gendo and found lacking in a certain single-minded devotion to destroying all of humanity just to be able to reunite with his dead wife, Yui Ikari.
Gendo is the platonic ideal of horrid anime dads.
In End of Evangelion, Gendo realizes (to some extent) how his narrow-mindedness hurt him and Shinji both. And that it’s the last thing that Yui would have wanted for either of them. At that point, it’s too late for him to change the trajectory of the entire world ending, so he asks Shinji for forgiveness before he dies.
Thrice Upon A Time expands on this with a more mature mindset. It leads to a reunion between father and son where they both reconcile their perception of each other. Shinji finds his own self-loathing and loss in his father that he should have recognized ages ago while throwing a temper tantrum and yelling that he hoped that Gendo would lose someone close to him so he could, “Know how it feels.” Gendo always knew how it felt considering every action within the scope of the series has been to fill the void that Yui left in his life. After Yui, Gendo says, he didn’t know how to be lonely (see: live with himself) anymore. This was obvious to viewers from the start, but only in Thrice Upon A Time does Shinji understand what this means.
Meanwhile Gendo, who had purposely been keeping Shinji at a distance, finally realizes that the love he had for Yui has always been there in Shinji. Instead of asking for forgiveness, he realizes that his fear of getting close to Shinji — the thought that Shinji would be better off without him — made everything worse and apologizes. It’s effectively Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse” only with a genuine apology at the end, and a surprising amount of hope to follow.
As a child, being on the receiving end of your parent telling you that they were terrified of you is a uniquely surreal experience. When my mother told me something similar, I didn’t know what to say. We had never understood each other, and did not get along until I was much older. I always recognized my part in how bad our relationship was and felt horrifically guilty about it. Like Shinji, I hated myself and therefore couldn’t see why or how they could love me, especially when they appeared to reciprocate that hatred by being distant and stoic. Yet, I never realized that every time my mother said, “Yeah, your mom does actually know something, you know?” she was questioning her own knowledge and looking for reassurance.
I never realized despite automatically doing the exact same self-deprecating thing in my own speech.
At then end of Thrice Upon A Time, Shinji has finally begun aging and meets Mari Illustrious Makinami or, as Thrice Upon A Time reveals, Mary (as in Virgin or Magdalene, you decide!) Iscariot (as in Judas) on a train platform. Mari who in her initial arrival is the one who causes Shinji’s tape to finally skip ahead in You Can (Not) Advance. Mari who said that she would find Shinji no matter what. Mari who ultimately ends up with Shinji.
Mari who, arguably, was never in hell like Shinji or Asuka or Rei or Kaworu, or Gendo.
At the very least, Mari was never a part of Shinji’s particular hell and this is incredibly important when you think about why they end up together. When people consider the characters of Evangelion, they see them as facets of Anno’s own personality. He’s Shinji, but he’s also Asuka and Rei and Kaworu.
And in Rebuild, Hideaki Anno is also Mari. Mari, the one cog that fans were constantly scrambling for a place to fit into the overarching Evangelion machine. (At one point they thought that she was his wife, Moyoco Anno, but he refuted this directly.) She kicks off the part where Rebuild truly diverges from the original series and appears more self-actualized than any other Eva pilot we see. If anything, she’s the facet of the mature, adult Anno, revisiting the series to give it a much-needed kick forward to reflect who Hideaki Anno has become in the years of and at the end of Rebuild. After screaming at his fanbase for the entirety of You Can (Not) Redo, Anno tells him that he’ll find them, no matter what.
After accepting and reconciling with Gendo, Shinji visits the minds of his friends in fourth-wall-breaking but no less trippy alternative to End of Evangelion. Rather than remaining relatively detached with the allure of Human Instrumentality and a loss of self looming as he did in End of Evangelion, Shinji reconciles with Asuka, Kaworu, and Rei.
He tells Asuka that he returned her feelings all those years ago, and shows Kaworu how much he’s grown. This leads Kaworu to admit that it wasn’t Shinji’s happiness he had been seeking, but his own, bringing the emotional narrative of You Can (Not) Redo to a beautiful end. One version of “Rei Ayanami” already found her self once she was told that she didn’t have to be the Rei that Shinji knew. Shinji talks to “his” Rei, telling her that he wants a world (Neon Genesis) without Evas so she can find her own self. (As an aside this is all wonderfully done against the backdrop of an Evangelion highlight reel, and ends with Rei and Shinji leaving an empty lot that Anno actually used to shoot certain live-action shots.) At the end of this, Shinji finds love he didn’t even realize he was missing: the love from his mother Yui.
Shinji is able to form a stronger connection with everyone in his past where previously, his self-loathing kept them at a distance, just as Gendo kept Shinji at a distance. Only then is Shinji able to form his connection to Mari, after finally making peace with himself, his own existence, and his previous relationships.
Love is, in myriad ways, timing.
It’s both obvious and also too simple to say that Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time is a love letter from Hideaki Anno to his wife, Moyoco Anno. But the love and gratitude that Hideaki Anno feels towards Moyoco Anno is palpable all the same.
The Neon Genesis Evangelion television series is frequently summarized as a furious and confused indictment of Hideaki Anno and the audience of otaku he’s writing for as he screams at both to grow up all while creating a messy guidepost for doing exactly this. If this is the case, then the Rebuild films and in particular, Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon A Time, are still an indictment of people who refuse to grow up while also managing to be an even more loving advisor. These films escort their audience to a world with an adult Shinji and an adult Mari take each other by the hand confidently and run up the stairs, ready to live. The film ends with a live-action shot of Ube, Anno’s hometown.
It’s a love letter from Hideaki Anno to Moyoco Anno that says not only that he loves her, but thanks her for loving him, as messy and awful as he can be. It’s a love letter from Hideaki Anno to himself. And it’s a love letter from Hideaki Anno to anime or Evangelion fans in whom he sees his old self. It tells them “If I did it, you can do it too.” Thrice Upon A Time reiterates the message spelled out in You Can (Not) Redo: it’s not someone else’s love that makes you a worthy of being valuable human. You have value all your own and that makes you worthy of being loved.