In the very early 1980s, a new anime company burst onto the scene, founded by a couple of fans who had determined to go pro: Gainax Studios. First gaining prominence with a fantastic video intro to the Daicon convention in 1981, Gainax gained funding and resources to release four anime which were generally considered classics, each in its own way: Gunbuster: Aim for the Top!, which was a high-powered space opera which combined ludicrous with the realistic in what was both a gentle parody and also a completion of the Giant Robot genre; Nadia: Secret of Blue Water, a Jules Verne-inspired TV series drawn from the same Miyazaki idea which later became Laputa:Castle in the Sky; Wings of Honneamise, a serious and detailed depiction of the birth and development of a space program in a world that wasn't, but could have been; and Otaku No Video, a simultaneous skewering of and triumphant anthem for the anime fanboys and fangirls, a work which was more than a little autobiographical. (No link for Gunbuster as I find no available copies of the OVA series for less than $115, which is ludicrous)
After these works, there was little of note from Gainax for several years, but finally word came of a new, serious, mecha-focused TV series about to be released, and many of us anticipated this greatly. After all, it was Gainax! This would have to be great!
And so, one day, we sat down to watch what was already gaining a reputation as a stunningly awesome new anime: Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Evangelion started out reasonably (for an anime), with the hapless hero dragged into the main action and eventually forced into becoming the pilot for the eponymous Evangelion, a semi-biological mecha weapon used to combat "Angels", alien invaders the size of small towns. The general concept is familiar, of course – Pacific Rim did this most recently, and many anime and sentai shows have done it before and since.
But this show was obviously trying to go beyond that; there were more layers beneath the surface, with the apparent goals of NERV (an organization whose name was never explained, as far as I know) hiding something much more complex and sinister than just protecting mankind from this bizarre alien invasion.
In point of fact, underneath the simple setup is a massive set of Xanatos Gambits of multiple groups trying to direct or control the Human Instrumentality Project, whose end result and goal is nothing more or less than gaining the power to reshape the world, perhaps the universe, in literal fact; the "Angels" may be what the literal word implies and the power of creation may be able to be tapped, for good or evil, if things work out just so.
This setup sounds pretty awesome. And in the beginning the show seemed promising. But as time went on, I found myself becoming less impressed, and my wife even less so. By the end of the show, I'd come to the decision that I did not, in fact, like Evangelion at all, and Kathleen hated it. My own antipathy for the show has increased markedly over the years.
Admittedly, some small part of that is due to the absolutely over-the-top success of "Eva", as it is often called. Neon Genesis Evangelion garnered almost unleavened effusive praise in the anime world, becoming an instant "classic" that people would insist was the best thing since sushi. Even if I only considered it from the point of view of the first few episodes, before it started to bother me, Evangelion simply was not that good. It was … okay. But not anything worth a tenth of the hype.
But there were more, and much more serious, problems with Evangelion. Perhaps paramount, for me, was that Evangelion never actually decided what kind of a show it really wanted to be. If it was meant, as some claimed, to be a deconstruction of the modern super-mecha genre, it took itself far too seriously and spent far too much time justifying itself to make a good deconstruction. If it was meant as a serious mecha show, it had too many moments of deconstruction to be able to take it on its surface. If it was meant to be a complex allegory with multiple philosophical and religious aspects, it took far too long to actually get that part of its plot moving.
As emerged later, a large part of Neon Genesis Evangelion came from writer (and Gainax founder) Hideaki Anno's own psychological issues; he was apparently advised to work out some of these through his work, and so in essence we got a lot of some guy's psychological junk dumped on top of us in the guise of a mecha show. Unfortunately, this did not do a service to the show itself. There's a reason therapy is considered private and getting access to the records of someone else's therapy is a difficult thing to do: not only do most of us not want our most private and sometimes embarrassing secrets aired in public, but also a lot of those secrets are, from story points of view, trivial, pathetic, and mundane. Perhaps using his art as an outlet helped Anno; dumping it into Evangelion, complete with his personal father issues, did no good for the series as a story.
There are some interesting and clever moments and elements in Neon Genesis Evangelion. For example, Evangelion is one of the only anime I've ever seen to recognize and deal with the major problem of such a giant mobile weapon: powering it. The Evas (as the giant weapons are called) are plugged in and thus can draw the energy to function from massive fixed-base generators; without the plug, an Eva can run for maybe five minutes.
The artwork is beautiful – Gainax spared almost no expense in developing and creating Evangelion, and technically Evangelion was inspiring, bringing a clean, sharp, detailed dynamic to the screen that could present light or darkness in equally vivid and impactful ways. Gainax demonstrated they had learned a great deal about animation in the intervening time, and showed us everything they had learned. However…
As a story, Evangelion is something of a mess. Its major storytelling flaw is that the putative protagonist, Shinji Ikari, is quite possibly one of the most ineffectual and spineless characters ever, in live-action or animated form. He spends virtually the entire series pinballing from event to event as others push him; any minor attempts by him to show agency are weak, undirected, and generally fail miserably.
Shinji does, truthfully, have some reason for these issues; his father, Gendo Ikari, is quite possibly the Worst Father EVER in anime, which is going some distance when we remember that this means he's beating out people like Genma Saotome, father of Ranma, who was a lying, cheating coward willing to literally sell his son for a decent dinner – more than once. Gendo's one of the primary chessmasters in the multisided game for the destiny of the world, and he's mostly obsessed with his lost wife and has little-to-no interest in, and perhaps active hostility towards, Shinji.
The really noxious problem with Evangelion, though, is its omnipresent, pervasive, and multifaceted sexism. Anime in general has always had various issues with sexism, but in an anime as suddenly prominent as Evangelion came to be this becomes a greater problem… and Evangelion's sexism was both blatant and subtle in particularly poisonous ways.
The blatant is the character who became the symbol, the mascot/icon, and most popular element of Evangelion: Ayanami Rei. Basically manufactured (though we do not find that out for quite a while), Ayanami Rei is a lovely, blank-eyed girl with a nigh-toneless voice, flat affect, and in many settings appears little more than a mobile blow-up doll. What character background she has is shattering (and does explain why she's so broken), and aside from one sequence which may or may not be a dream towards the end of the show, she exhibits very little ability to indulge in actual human emotion. The person who made her this way? Gendo Ikari. And I haven't even touched on the… sicker aspects of this character. As mentioned, Rei became by far the most popular character, to the point that she was called "Premium Girl" by marketing types – anything with her on the cover or wrapper sold.
More subtle is the fact that there is not one single female character of note in all of the series who is not seriously messed up by a man or men, and virtually all of their character dynamics are concerned with their relationships to men. The women do nothing to themselves. They often do not even act except as they are ordered. But they are all "damaged goods": Asuka, the third Eva pilot (along with Shinji and Ayanami), is the typical overcompensating girl desperately trying to prove herself, with a chip on her shoulder a mile wide and a heart full of insecurity (the typical Gainax Girl cranked up to 11); Misato, the woman who first recruits Shinji and with whom he's supposed to live, tends to drink herself into a stupor and this was at least partially caused by one of the men on base and her relationship with him, a relationship that's rekindled and ends up causing other problems; Ritsuko Akagi is the second in command at NERV, but her development is mostly defined around her interactions with Gendo, with whom she is having an affair and who ultimately betrays her and drives her to act against NERV towards the end.
The ultimate problem with Evangelion is that all of these characters represent someone else's (Anno's) problems made manifest, and Anno was not going through a good time. This means that the problems don't resolve themselves, and when represented as people aren't healthy; in fact, they are self-destructive to a huge degree, and they're directly damaging to the story because they're hard-to-impossible to believe in the contest of the story.
Gendo Ikari one can sort-of believe as being in charge of such a massive project (given his puppeteer skills) but most of the others? This is a military project. All of them have issues that would almost certainly keep them out of any sensitive military areas. The Eva pilots have a bit of an excuse; there's physical reasons that only they can pilot the Evas and there are no huge numbers of replacements. But this isn't true of the rest of the staff.
The original series doesn't even have a real ending as such. It becomes a sort of mind-screw which includes a short view into an alternate reality in which Shinji was an ordinary (and vastly more well-adjusted) young man, going to school with Asuka (who is a childhood friend and also much less maladjusted) and encountering Ayanami Rei as the classic "transfer student" who also seems far more normal. There is a ray of hope in some interpretations of that ending, in which Shinji may be the one to choose the rewriting and in the realization of that alternate world, choose to MAKE that world, but it's very unclear.
Overall, I really, REALLY don't like Evangelion, and can't recommend it to anyone. Yes, I know it's popular and lots of other people think it's one of the most awesome anime ever, but for me, it's representative of how something that looks good can actually suck like a black hole connected to a Hoover. One star, and that's only because it's very pretty.