When the threat of the Angel menace escalates, mankind's defense force is pushed to its limits, with Nerv at the forefront of the struggle. Shinji Ikari and his partner Rei Ayanami are assisted by two new pilots: the fiery Asuka Langley Shikinami and the mysterious Mari Illustrious Makinami. With the aid of their mechanized Evangelion units, equipped with weapons perfect for engaging their monstrous opponents, the four young souls fight desperately to protect their loved ones and prevent an impending apocalypse. But when startling secrets are brought to light, will the heroes' greatest challenge prove to be the monsters...or humanity itself? [Written by MAL Rewrite]
Yup, that’s a hot row of 10s right there, blatant and unabashed praise for the Evangelion Rebuild series, or as it should really be called; “Anno’s Attack on Anime”. Here’s the truth: as an out-of-context standalone, this movie is a sack of shit. It’s essentially harem-shonen-mecha-explosions with shallow characters all defined by their unexplained and nonsensical heart throbbings for Shinji, God of War. It doesn’t present itself in this way, though: it’s actually incredibly smart about it, sticking close to the original series in regards to content but constantly cutting and changing small things so that the end result is something that appears to be a blockbuster epic but is in actuality just a continuation of Sword Art Online with much subtler writing, fantastic pacing and directing, and a 30-billion dollar budget.
Luckily, Evangelion 2.0 is not an out-of-context standalone: it’s part of a series with a legacy, and its connected to two other movies. The first movie is essentially just a gorgeous recap, so there’s no real reason to talk about it. It’s the hook of the series. Look how pretty Evangelion is now! These giant robot fight scenes have suddenly gone from ‘dated’ to ‘the prettiest goddamn shit you’ve ever seen’. It’s a little fast-paced, but it gets the job done.
Rebuild 2.0 is a whole lot more than that though. For starters, the original story gets scrapped. The movie vaguely follows the middle arc of the series, but by the end it’s completely different. We have new characters, new character dynamics, new events, and a different ending. Some changes are subtle, others are not, but all of them work together to serve the story: and it sure is one hell of a brilliant story. It manages to juggle two different extremely contrasting goals at once and blend them together into something that works for both of them.
On the one hand, Rebuild 2.0 is trying to gather as much of an audience as possible. It wants people to watch it and love it and crave a sequel. It’s extremely clever about it as well: it doesn’t just go for the Transformers appeal, it constructs scenes that are intended to be legitimately moving and others that come off as psychological horror. The characters are actually pretty vacant, but with the help of the absolutely stunning soundtrack and writing that walks perfectly on the line between dramatic and cheesy. It doesn’t fall into any of the pitfalls that action-packed pitfalls are so readily criticized for: Shinji is not constantly overpowered but he’s not exactly wimpy either, female characters are not entirely dependent on their male counterparts, the plot and pacing are concise and readily understandable, and the conversation is seemingly meaningful even if upon closer observation it’s just an empty shadow of the original Evangelion’s Words of Truth. The result is a Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood-type story that isn’t really about anything but does an amazing job at filling out all those little MAL numbers on the quality checklist. It’s “power of love” conclusion doesn’t even seem cliche as it derives naturally as an interpretation of Shinji’s character and his inability to make decisions for himself or make real connections with people. How inspiring! Shinji discovered that all he really needed was Rei Ayanami all along.
Now this is where it gets absolutely F8ckign brilliant.
Let’s talk about anime for a moment.
At this point, anime is more than a medium of storytelling: it’s a culture, it’s a genre, and it’s a lifestyle. There are massive amounts of people who LIVE anime. With dozens of industry giants churning out hundreds of shows each year there’s never a shortage of things to watch, and the producers know their audience. They know what the appeal is: the ability to live in a fantasy world that makes you feel powerful, cared for, and free from reality. You can escape into a world that is completely unbound by any of the aspects of our world: unlike live-action television which still uses actors and settings that are shot in real places with real people, anime is an entirely-constructed world. It’s a fully immersive experience. Don’t get me wrong: this can be an incredible feature used to tell stories that are profoundly effective and engaging. I love the genre for what it CAN accomplish and the brilliant and insightful pieces that it often produces.
However, there is a lot of stuff that is not so brilliant, insightful, or useful. It strives not to inspire or enlighten its audience but rather to appease them, to make them feel more attached to their own fantasies and less attached to the real world. It seeks to disconnect them from real people and replace them instead with fictional characters that they can understand easily and behave in ways that are desirable and predictable. In truth, it’s an incredible toxic and empty lifestyle and it can only replace reality for so long. Eventually, the tried-and-true tricks begin to run dry and the loneliness and emptiness sinks in once more, except now when you open your eyes and look around at reality, you find that it has left it behind completely. It’s not just exclusive to anime, either: the driving factors that can make people so addicted to anime manifest themselves in many forms, from video games to online forums. The emotions that drive this sort of behavior are not limited to such a specific community, though. The original Evangelion sought to show people that it understood them: Shinji’s fear of rejection, his uncertainty in who he was, his loneliness, doubt, frustration and powerlessness resonated within so many people because everyone could relate to these deeply honest human emotions.
The Evangelion Rebuilds are more pointed than that though. They seek to attack anime itself. NGE could be universally appreciated, but the Rebuilds are designed and targeted at people who already have experience with the genre. These movies are anime that are about anime. And they are not happy with what the majority of the medium has become.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Shinji is actually shouting at the end of the movie about how he doesn’t care about his own life or the fate of the world, just about saving Rei. It may come off as inspirational, but it’s not. That’s because Rei is one of the multiple symbols that represent anime itself in the franchise. In the original series, Rei never became humanized: she was always a lifeless doll, because no matter how much Shinji willed it he was unable to make his fantasies come true. He had to face the real world: face himself, and what he really was, and defy the human instrumentality project in order to make any progress with his deep-seated issues.
But now, there comes along a solution. An escape. Shinji no longer has to struggle with such difficulties as his hedgehog dilemma because there exists a way for him to live in his fantasies: he can turn to anime. Anime takes the form of Rei, it takes the form of his headphones, it takes the form of the Eva: each of them represents a different part of the phenomenon. His headphones show how he can use anime to tune out the real world, hearing only the soothing music of his own headset as opposed to the sounds of real people around him. The Eva itself shows how anime gives him the feeling of power: with anime, he feels special. Even if he’s an unwanted child, the robot makes him feel needed and like he can make a difference. Rei demonstrates how anime gives him a simulated feeling of human warmth and connection, even though she’s not actually human: she’s an emotionless clone that he is breathing life into and treating as a real person, ignoring the actual people around him that want to get closer to him because Rei gives him what he wants: she unconditionally cares for him, loves him, will do anything for him. She’s not real, but she allows him to live out his fantasy so he becomes obsessed with saving her and protecting her. In the movie, all of these different parts of the immersive anime experience keep bringing each other back to Shinji: the Eva robot helps him to protect Rei, Rei finds and returns his headphones to him when he tries to throw them away, and despite Shinji’s attempts to leave altogether and reject this vacant and empty substitution for really living and true empathy, one or another piece of the anime experience keeps dragging him back into it, plugging in his headphones once more, getting in the Eva and going in search of Rei.
The movie plays this off perfectly: on the one hand, it’s an addicting anime experience for the audience. On the other hand, it’s an addicting anime experience for Shinji. It’s simultaneously subjecting its protagonist to the repetitive appeal of his own fantasies and subjecting the audience to the same thing. What it’s really waiting for is the third movie, 3.0, which is now going to have a massive audience of 2.0-adoring fans lining up to see more of “Epic Blockbuster Evangelion”. Obviously this is a review for 2.0 so I won’t get too much into it, but I will happily recommend the third movie here as well. 2.0 is a movie about getting lost inside of the fantasy, whereas 3.0 is a movie about the cruel awakening, the moment when one has to open their eyes to reality all those years later and how difficult it is to start putting your life back together and move on without getting lost in regret or turning once more to the Eva that is anime in order to fill the void. Together, the two make an amazing statement without ever breaking face: the plot remains tight, the fan-service real, and the ironically flashy mecha-mosh as vibrant and explosive as ever.
In summary, Eva Rebuild raises an extremely important question: WHY are you watching this movie, or anime in the first place? Is it because you appreciate good storytelling? seek to improve yourself as a person through the lessons of what you watch? Have some fun mindless entertainment at the end of a long week? Or is because you seek to escape from your real life and the who you actually are? In addition to this, it raises the question in the form of a piece of entertainment that is carefully constructed to appeal to the people who most need to ask themselves this question in the first place. It’s certainly a question that I always want to keep in the back of my head lest I stray too far into the dangerous territory of escapism, and I will happily thank the Rebuild series for keeping that question grounded in my mind in the form of something tangible that I can refer back to.