What Do The Evangelion Rebuilds Do Better?

When you take an established property with a certain level of fame in the cultural gestalt and try to do it again, you are asking for criticism. Remakes have these nasty labels attached to them because in principal a worthwhile piece of art should be able to stand on its own. Why remake something when the old work still exists?

Apart from being a cash-grab, maybe to update art that is arguably out of date and hasn’t aged well. Better yet, perhaps the remake signifies an intention to take a work in another direction to use the original’s framing device in a new innovative way. Either way, it’s easy to divide people over a new vision. Too close to the original and it seems pointless, but too different and it could be seen as a betrayal.

But what happens when the same mind behind the original comes back to remake his work, albeit with new help? Hideaki Anno’s classic Neon Genesis Evangelion certainly gained fame over the years despite how infamous it was at the time. The psychological drama fueled by Anno’s anguish made it legendary and yet Anno felt there was more to be done.

Anno split off from Gainax and together with his underling, Kazuya Tsurumaki, he decided to “rebuild” Evangelion. These films have been praised and lambasted in equal measure over the years. Most often people find an issue with the lack of thoughtful psychological pathos that made NGE‘s characters so real despite the premise. You can find plenty who will praise the visuals of the rebuilds, but many who will argue it doesn’t make up for what is lost.

But is there nothing here of value? Are these films not without some quality that is superior to the originals? I like to think that isn’t the case and after finally watching them recently, I think there are plenty of reasons to fall in love with these films. With the fourth and presumably final film coming in 2020, now is the perfect time to ask, what did the rebuilds get right?

[Spoilers for Neon Genesis Evangelion and the Rebuilds]

[In the course of writing this I’ve realized how much of a pain the numbering system for these movies is. If I’m not giving the full title, I’ll typically be referring to the films as 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0, as those are just easier to read continuously. Besides, among fan discussion, 1.0 and 1.11 (and so on) seem to be interchangeable.]

There is not as much to discuss regarding 2007’s Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone, at least compared to its two sequels. As the first in this bold new endeavor, it didn’t deviate quite as much as you would expect from a “rebuild.” 1.0 is as close to a remake of the first six episodes as you can get.

The major beats of the story are mostly unchanged. The opening battle still sees tanks firing on an angel to no avail before Nerv is given free rein to engage with Eva Unit 01. Throughout the first film, countless shots and scenes are recreated but expanded in scope and detail.

Mechanical designs are made more elaborate and grand, such as the huge construction vehicles used in preparation for Operation Yashima. There have been small tweaks to the Evangelions’ designs and overall the film takes advantage of widescreen to show the world like never before.

There is an undeniable increase in flair added more often for the sake of style rather than any particular point. I’ve never been one to harp on something for just trying to be cooler though and some of the decisions dwarf the original. For instance, the angels themselves have been upgraded.

Most notably, Operation Yashima is made ten times more intense thanks to how freaky they made Ramiel. Now whenever they fire their laser, their form alters erratically and the sound of a scream emits as they attack. It’s horrifying and awesome, leading to some very satisfying destruction in the final act.

Not all of the angel redesigns are as impressive early on sadly. Studio Khara uses a lot more CGI for angels and for the Evas themselves and Angels like Shamshel aren’t necessarily better in CG. thankfully the CGI improves as the films go on.

If I had the choice between rewatching the first six episodes or this film, I would probably pick the latter. Mind you, I’m not choosing it solely because it’s “bigger” than the original. The original series throughout thrived on quiet scenes meant to invoke contemplation in the viewer. As a film, 1.0 takes a different approach to its pacing that I think I prefer.

In my review of NGE, I talked of how the start of the series didn’t resonate with me a whole lot. In 1.0, I found Shinji’s internal conflict more engaging thanks in part to how they condensed it into the film, but also how the film uses sound. Rather than the arc thriving on the silence, this film uses music to convey Shinji’s loneliness. Naturally, Shiro Sagisu came back to produce the music for the rebuilds.

Sagisu has produced the soundtrack for all of Evangelion, Anno’s Shin Godzilla, and 2018’s SSSS. Gridman, just to name a few. On the merits of Decisive Battle alone – one of the greatest battle themes ever composed – the man is worthy of praise. These rebuild films are his best works though. Not only has he created several iterations of old tracks, but the operatic sound he created gives the rebuilds an almost mythical feel.

The first rebuild film was a visually pleasing retread of the original series, but other, larger changes hinted at something else beneath the surface. The sea was red, much like in End of Evangelion. The numbering of the Angels was off. Most shockingly, Misato already knew about Lilith and revealed them to Shinji to spur them on to fight. There are all kinds of things that spark the imagination of any Eva fan.

Some people theorized that the rebuilds were a cleverly veiled sequel set after The End of Eva, while others suspected this was the originally planned story for Eva brought to life. No one knew where these changes were going, if anywhere. The true test would be the next film, in which the series would begin its divergence.

Depending on who you talk to, Evangelion 2.22: You Can (Not) Advance will either be considered a great or terrible movie. It is heavily debated whether this or 3.0 was the moment the rebuilds fell from graces, but in my view, 2.0 was awesome. Maybe it was just the novelty of seeing the world of Evangelion shown in such a different way, but it was if the film itself was excited to go to brand new places.

The guidebook included in 2.0‘s Blu-Ray describes it as the “break” in the rebuild’s three-part structure, “Prelude-Break-Quick.” As the “break,” this film is the moment in which similarities to the original story are present but reworked and modified as the rebuilds approach uncharted territory.

So along with the expected introduction of Asuka and Kaji or moments like the Eva Unit 03 test or Zuruel’s attack on Nerv, we get completely new and unexpected things. Of course, different doesn’t excuse flaws in a story, but well-executed ideas that stray from the original should be given praise. I happen to think 2.0 presents the world of Eva in a manner both fun and uniquely appropriate with the most consistent theme of Eva: hope.

My favorite scene from this film is a montage of Tokyo-III as the sun rises and its inhabitants get started with their day. Eva‘s greatest visual motif is humans working together to persevere despite the grueling punishment doled out. After all, it can be easy to forget that half of humanity was wiped out in the second impact.

The original series conveyed the Second Impact’s lasting repercussions through how quiet the show was. The city felt abandoned as conversations eluded to people leaving Tokyo-III. Misato and Ritsuko discussed all their friends getting married because “no one wants to be alone when the world ends.”

Despite all this, the people who chose to stay in the story – in Tokyo – all are holding out hope. The rebuilds instead portray the whole of humanity as more hopeful. We see people going about their day during this short montage and as the buildings rise from underground, it seems to be thriving.

Where this hit home for me was during the “field trip” of sorts. In what could be considered the closest thing to an Evangelion beach episode, The Eva pilots and friends visit a water treatment facility. It doubles as a museum of sorts for aquatic life, of which Shinji and the others are not used to seeing. Remember that in the rebuilds, the ocean is perpetually red, polluted by the second impact.

Kaji explains to Shinji that the scent in the air is what all of the ocean used to smell like and that humanity is always trying to restore the oceans. This could have just been a little change for the sake of being different but instead, it became a thoughtful use of world-building in line with the franchise’s themes. It helps that a lot of 2.0‘s tone is similar to the midsection of the original series when things started getting lighter (mainly due to Asuka’s arrival).

One of the biggest complaints people tend to have with the rebuilds is how some characters just don’t get developed. Characters like Ritsuko don’t have any semblance of their original arcs emulated here and arguably stuff like Misato’s backstory is done poorly when Kaji explains it all to Shinji. Many people were disappointed with Asuka’s arc especially.

To a lesser extent, it’s because they renamed her from Asuka Langley Sohryu to Asuka Langley Shikinami. In defense of that, though, I’m told the name change was so that the theme of characters’ last names being that of Japanese naval vessels would be consistent. To a greater extent, it is because a lot of the baggage that made her compelling is glossed over.

It should be assumed that the intention behind the rebuilds was to create a new vision that stood on its own. We can imprint upon these characters what we know from NGE, but who is to say what elements of these characters’ backstories are consistent in this new vision. For that reason, Asuka’s portrayal may seem disappointing because there is a lot of her story missing.

There is more time to develop a character like this in a TV series than in a film, but that means time is a lot more valuable. For what it’s worth, I appreciate the little things done to give her a sort of arc in this film. Take for instance her scene with Shinji where he explains that he realized he wants to be praised by his father.

Sahaquiel

In NGE, this revelation comes after the Sahaquiel battle at dinner with everyone, but specifically to Misato. This felt right as Misato was very much the closest person to Shinji at that point and the one with perhaps the largest emotional investment towards seeing him grow. In the rebuilds, this revelation is stated in a one-on-one scene with Asuka, which to me works for completely different reasons.

This scene juxtaposes their vastly different personalities with their shared damage; parental trauma. Or… it would if we had any indication that she shared the same traumatic past as her other interpretation. If not, then the scene at the very least reveals that Asuka is starting to see a bit of herself in him for how he feels anti-social, albeit coping with it much differently than her.

Asuka’s arc is decidedly less depressing and less complicated, but still somewhat complete in this film. After starting to get close to Shinji and even Rei, she starts thinking that other people aren’t as bad and even opens up to Misato. Much like many of the plot threads by the middle of 2.0, things are looking up right before things get so much worse.

This time, Asuka is piloting Eva Unit 03 and it’s HER that gets critically injured. The rebuilds offer an almost happier version of Asuka that is, in turn, punished that much more thoroughly and out of commission for the rest of the film. This new Asuka is just as confident and sassy as ever, just less notably damaged at the cost of some complexity. If there is a character I think benefited severely from the rebuilds, it was Rei.

I’ll likely not win any fans with this statement, but I think Rei is rather boring. Before watching NGE, I never made any undue judgments as I was confident the show would present the beating heart behind the deadpan character. I was disappointed when I felt practically nothing for her nor felt I learned much more about her after the first six episodes.

In 2.0? She practically became my favorite character. It could just be fate that my favorite voice actress, Brina Palencia, voiced her if her arc throughout this film wasn’t already impressive. The impetus behind her emotional growth is the continued generosity received from Shinji since the end of 1.0.

Did I mention spoilers? We need more clips of the rebuilds on YouTube.

One of my favorite scenes from 2.0 shows Rei eating “dinner” with Gendo (she literally just has pills in front of her). She tries to suggest that Gendo have dinner with Shinji, to which he is first apprehensive but then accepts once he sees Yui in Rei’s visage. Gendo in NGE always had a lot of complex feelings about his role as a parent that was born of guilt and a feeling of inadequacy. Rei’s arc helps bring this out in the rebuild and subsequently helps other characters to develop as well.

Rei and Asuka both begin to try opening up to people more as evidenced by their attempts to cook for the benefit of Shinji, who makes food for them several times. This could also be seen as the two girls having a rivalry for Shinji’s heart, but it is just as much a sign that Asuka has grown enough to try piloting Unit 03 so Rei can try getting Shinji and Gendo closer.

Zeruel (after absorbing Rei)

The final act of 2.0 is chaotic and beautiful, culminating in some incredible character moments for Shinji and Rei. The latter ends up absorbed by Zeruel in the final fight leading up to a recreation of the battle inside Nerv headquarters from episode 19. The biggest difference between that episode and the rebuild, however, is how the story chooses to depict Shinji.

In NGE, the Eva goes berserk and Shinji loses control whereas, in the rebuild, he goes berserk, but remains in complete control. He stands up, regenerates his arm and shouts “give Ayanami back!!!” It’s the hero moment that I always wanted for Shinji but knew I couldn’t feasibly get due to the kind of story Evangelion was.

I should say around now that the English Dub for the rebuilds is phenomenal. I’m not the biggest fan of the original dub because the supporting cast can be of mixed quality, but the rebuild has none of those problems. They bring back Shinji, Asuka and Misato’s actors, but give them a much better supporting cast to play off of. THIS is the cast that people should have been petitioning for when Netflix released their dub.

Equally deserving of some discussion is the action of the rebuilds and the school of thought that it doesn’t ground itself like the original. I’ve continuously praised how the action of Eva soars because of how the sci-fi is grounded and feels more believable. The original was indeed more grounded and fights like those in End of Eva are notable for how the animation captures the weight of these behemoths.

Let’s be real though. Neon Genesis Evangelion was no stranger to ridiculous and stylized action. Not just in concept (like channeling all of Japan’s energy into a rifle), but in the movement of Eva’s as well. When Asuka got introduced she was jumping between battleships wearing a large tarp as if it were a cloak. Next episode she practices DDR with Shinji so they can do a synchronized Inazuma Kick from Gunbuster.

The biggest difference here is that while Hideaki Anno’s more subdued directing could occasionally present crazy action such as the above-mentioned, the rebuilds’ other director Kazuya Tsurumaki is known for even bigger and stylized projects. Having worked on FLCL and Diebuster, the man always takes that mentality towards spectacle and puts it into every part of his productions.

Frankly, I love that added spectacle, because it feels so supremely Gainax in how bombastic, yet organized the chaos is. The Evangelion rebuilds treat their biggest battles like a full-fledged super-robot show, with large, sparkling beams of light, pronounced special moves and musically enriched final attacks.

Hell, Asuka’s very introduction to the rebuilds made me fall more in love with her than I thought possible. Her dropping from the sky, blasting an Angel with a high-powered rifle and ending it all with an Inazuma Kick? It set the exact standard for what I could expect and I was happily ready for more.

In a TV series, you can take more time to focus on both the characters and a larger narrative. In condensing existing lore to film, you need to prioritize certain elements over others. 2.0 shows that the rebuilds were attempting to prioritize the most major characters and pay off their stories in the most spectacle possible.

You Can (Not) Advance is the exciting 2nd act of a new take on Evangelion and the more I think back on it, the more I like it. It expends the rest of its ties to the original while boldly changing the course of all three characters for the next chapter. Of course, as I’ve been watching all three of these films in 2019, I already knew the next installment wouldn’t exactly follow in the same footsteps.

Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo is the most flawed entry in the rebuilds and the one most cited by detractors of the films. Even in the prior two films, people found an issue with how unexplored some of the cast was compared to the original series. Most notably Misato and Ritsuko. Even the new pilot was kinda just there.

Mari Makinami is – as Digibro puts it – a meme. She is just barely a character if you’ll even give her that. After her initial appearance at the beginning of 2.0, she shows up like once at the beginning of the second act before helping out in the final battle.

Granted, I was still okay with her being this elusive character because she was so fucking fun. She was both peppy and overexcited while also rabid and ferocious once she started fighting things. She was the one who introduced the concept of Eva Unit 02 going beast mode and I was not without gratitude for that display.

Much like how Kaji’s role in the show was to plant seeds of a larger scope to the conflict in NGE, Mari builds that curiosity just by existing. As an added benefit, her English voiceover by Trina Nishimura has those occasional tinges of vulgarity that remind me of the days of the Black Lagoon dub.

But the allure wears off once you realize that by the end of 3.0, we don’t know any more about her. Hell, Kaji isn’t in 3.0 at all. None of the footage in the “next episode” preview even made it into this film. Also, there was the infamous post-credit scene where Kaworu seemingly stops the third impact, but in the new film, it’s not clear whether or not that scene even happened anymore.

On one hand, it’s as if the third film casts off what I thought made 2.0 great. On the other, it feels like it is challenging that very thesis. What I mean is that the rebuilds seem to try and prioritize the stories of the main three pilots. 3.0, in particular, follows Shinji 14 years after the second film and his harrowing journey in a world he doesn’t understand. The viewer is meant to share in his confusion by not having a god damn clue what is going on.

Throughout the entire second act of the film, we follow Shinji as he tries to understand what happened to the world. He encounters a particularly lifeless Rei, an on-brand doting Gendo (now with cooler glasses), an exposition dispensing Fuyutsuki, and of course Kaworu.

The prospect of Kaworu and Shinji bonding over an entire movie rather than just one episode intrigued me. While I’m happy to say it did a great job building a believable bond between the two, the way Kaworu’s arc ended felt like it was pointless. In NGE, it was pretty clear what Kaworu’s goal from a story perspective was: he makes Shinji feel truly loved and then reveals himself to be an Angel. Tragedy ensues.

Here, he sorta gets duped by Gendo and then dies. There is a lot about the third act that can be confusing and hard to parse. After all, without knowing all of what transpired in those fourteen years since 2.0, it’s hard to follow Gendo’s already complicated motives.

There isn’t a lot of action throughout the mid-section of 3.0. After the first 20 minutes, it is mostly centered on Shinji’s lonely introspection and his search for truth. Things don’t pick up until the final act. My point is that things can get slow, but it’s not just because there aren’t explosions every ten minutes. I get that the film’s objective was to follow Shinji’s internal journey in extensive detail, but the film could have benefited greatly from more time with WILLE.

WILLE, the anti-Nerv lead by Misato, immediately captured my imagination with the design sense mirroring director Tsurumaki’s other works. The film’s opening wasted no time in establishing that humanity was far from giving up and that Asuka was still fighting. She was even working alongside Mari in a stunning suborbital space battle. A SPACE BATTLE IN EVA!!!

But as soon as Shinji gets rescued by “Rei,” we don’t spend any more time with Asuka or Mari or any of them. All I wanted was a few more scenes spliced into the middle of the movie centered on them so we might learn more about them and how they changed.

Most aggravating of all, in addition to all of the previous members of Nerv who themselves changed, we had a batch of new characters. We never really got to learn anything about them, save for some minor bits of dialog and characterization implicit of some potentially cool world-building.

Whereas with 2.0 I could go on and on about the world and how it perfectly fits with the themes of Eva, 3.0 is a lot harder to pick apart like that. The second movie was fun and exciting and filled with great character moments and I didn’t mind that it wasn’t as deep as the original. It’s more annoying that 3.0 went so far in one direction only to turn around and try to subvert things.

Still, I intend to stress what I LIKE about these movies and the visual style of 3.0 is by far the one that appeals to me the most. These films may have the stories and writing on Hideaki Anno, but the films look and feel like the primary trademark of director Tsurumaki.

It’s funny how perfect it is for these two directors to be working together. Anno made his directorial debut with Gunbuster back in ’88 and Tsurumaki, his direct underling, helmed the followup, Diebuster, in 2006. The two OVAs are so different, yet play off of each other in spirit so well that I consider the two to be synonymous masterpieces. It makes a lot of sense for the two to work together on this.

The military aesthetics are injected with more futuristic technology resembling Gunbuster and Diebuster. Our heroes’ base is now an airship with a fleet of floating vessels. Eva’s now use more melee weapons and advanced batteries. The character designs and interiors much more resemble the space sci-fi of Diebuster than anything Eva-related.

I would imagine that Anno has handed over more of the directing to Tsurumaki, as his style is more befitting of the high-concept spectacle of which the rebuilds have come to be defined. By this point in the series and especially after the time skip, there are plenty of new Eva’s.

In another life, I’d probably be collecting Eva figures like crazy. The dual-cockpit Eva Unit 13 Shinji and Kaworu ride together might be my favorite designed Eva yet. Rei’s Mark 09 is an upgraded Unit 00 with a freaky looking scythe and Mari’s look is perfectly complete with her bright pink Unit 08. However, nothing beats Asuka’s Unit 02.

Even beaten down and missing its original left arm, it has such character with its worn-down aesthetic. The arm is frequently swapped out with new variants throughout the film and Asuka finally initiates beast mode herself. They turned Unit 02 into a fucking mechanized jungle cat… how can I stay mad at this movie

Like I said before, the CGI gets better as this series goes on and I stand by that. Digital animation and CGI have improved greatly, even more since this film debuted. Whether hand-drawn or computer-animated, this film is one of the prettiest animated films I’ve ever seen.

There is this synergy of gothic imagery with a surprisingly bright color palate that may clash to some, but that I find to be surreal and eye-catching. The image of Eva’s battling atop this bright white sea of skulls is hard to get off my mind whenever I think of this film. If anything saved the movie in its third act, it was the visuals.

As a smaller piece of a larger tapestry, 3.0 could easily be looked back on more favorably depending on how this all ends. It’s hard to know what conclusions to draw from the rebuilds until Evangelion 3.0+1.0 comes out. 3.0 left fans in a weird spot, with our main heroes walking off into the horizon alone. What the next step in the journey would be is unclear, honestly.

So what did the rebuilds do better? The earlier you go back, the more it is a matter of presentation or small differences between a show from the ’90s and the film meant to recapture that same magic. As they went on, it became a discussion of style vs substance and accessibility vs depth. The discussion might be the most important thing about the rebuilds.

Anno set out to create these films with the hopes that he could convey the message of Evangelion to as many people as possible. But did Evangelion‘s message need to be simplified? After all, Anno himself seemed to sum up Eva’s message pretty well in his remarks on the rebuilds.

Eva is a story of repetition

It is a story where our protagonist faces the same situation many times over and determinedly picks himself back up again.

It is a story of the will to move forward, even if only a little.

It is a story of the resolve to want to be together, even though it is frightening to have contact with others and to endure ambiguous loneliness.

Hideaki Anno on “what are we attempting to create by doing this once more?”

Even in my review of Evangelion, I stated that I thought the series wasn’t nearly as impossible to follow as some critics have claimed. The messages are stated rather clearly in the dialog of the final two episodes and even End of Eva.

The other express purpose of rebuilding Eva was to propel the medium into the future. Neon Genesis Evangelion helped jump-start original TV anime back in 1995. Countless classics of the late ’90s and beyond can arguably owe their existence to Eva.

Anno has stated in the past that the anime industry has to evolve to stay relevant and continue touching peoples hearts. So he approached rebuilding Evangelion not with the mindset that there was a story that he needed to tell but that there was an industry he needed to foster.

In the same breath that he discussed conveying the message of Eva to as many people as possible, he discusses the art form and the technology. He talks of youth, to whom animation is the biggest target and how we need to spark their imaginations. Is this to say that today’s youth couldn’t be touched by the original Evangelion? No, but we can’t continue to touch the minds of future artists with just the past. We have to keep creating.

The Evangelion rebuilds are beautiful, technical, cinematic marvels of animation that have pushed far beyond what was thought possible. Only a few years ago I would despair even the thought of CGI in anime, but now I sincerely believe in its possibilities. The sheer marketability of Eva alone is evidence that his mission was a success. In Japan at least, it has brand recognition on par with Star Wars.

And what about how I personally feel about the rebuilds? Well, my favorite things about Evangelion have always been the spectacular high-concept science-fiction and the characters. Both 1.0 and 2.0 gave me great action and great character arcs, some of which I preferred over the original. 3.0 faltered, but if the series ends on a high note, three out of four ain’t bad.

I’d end this by saying that the rebuilds are worth it, but that would be underselling it. Evangelion, in general, is worth it. As a brand, it has produced some of the coolest, most sincere artistic vision in the medium of animation. Don’t disregard the rebuilds as part of that vision.

Naturally, we will make it accessible to those who do not already know Evangelion, we will condense the fun as a theatrical film, and we will reconstruct the world and aim to create a work of visual entertainment that can be enjoyed by all.

Hideaki Anno, “September 28, 2006, on a clear day in Kamakura”

Evangelion 1.11, 2.22, and 3.33 are all available on Blu-ray and DVD from Funimation.

Leave a comment below telling me what you think about the Evangelion rebuilds and be sure to share this with any fans you think might be interested.

This might have ended up being posted a bit late, but hopefully, it was worth it. School may have started again, but I’ve got more to write and I don’t plan on letting it slow me down. Thank you very much for reading and I’ll see you next time.

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