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Evangelion Special: From phenomenon to legacy

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  • Evangelion Special: From phenomenon to legacy

    At 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 4, 1995, two years of hard work finally came to fruition as "Shin Seiki Evangerion" (Neon Genesis Evangelion) hit Japanese TV screens.
    The series was based on the concept of the battle between the Angels, the mysterious monsters invading the Earth and the Eva, the biomechanical humanoid robots that were the only things capable of repelling the invaders.

    The very first episode was about the young protagonist, Shinji Ikari, piloting his Eva.

    The next episode was a flashback showing how Shinji and his Eva had repelled the Angels, and at the Tokyo International Anime Fair in March 2006, fans voted these two episodes as the anime they would most like to see again.

    Production on the Evangelion TV series began about one year before it actually started airing, but Anno and the team working under him spent a considerable amount of that period working on Episode One and Episode Two.

    "I mustn't run away," a line Shinji mutters repeatedly to himself in Episode One, would become a mantra that summed up the entire Evangelion series in Japan.

    Until Evangelion, anime had ignored concepts such as having an ordinary person piloting such an elaborate and powerful machine as the Eva.

    "We had to think deeply about how we were going to present Shinji. And because we were thinking along these lines, we set our minds on the idea that the entire series would largely focus on how Shinji deals with things going on inside himself," Gainax's Sato recalls.

    Fans liked the concept, praising it for a psychoanalytical look at anime that had never been attempted before.

    Sato sees Episode 16 was of particular importance. A spherical black Angel called Ririeru (Leliel in English) appears and Shinji's Eva Unit 01 is absorbed into it.

    Normally, such close contact between an Evangelion and an Angel would have resulted in combat. Instead, in this episode, Shinji is confronted by another version of himself.

    The two Shinjis engage in conversation as the young boy probes "himself" about who he really is and the meaning of "self."

    The episode clearly shows how Shinji explores his inner self as he continues asking why it is that he has been selected to pilot the Eva.

    The series continues in this way with a strong focus on Shinji's internal struggles until Evangelion draws toward its climax.

    A controversial ending

    In Episode 24, Evangelion took a major change of focus with the appearance of an Angel called Kaworu.

    Kaworu was almost indistinguishable from an average human, which allowed the Angel to get close to Shinji and eventually befriend him before they being forced to take opposing sides in battle.

    Their fight scene is conducted with Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony" playing in the background and the intensity of the battle with a foe that should represent the final enemy seemed to be setting up an appropriate ending to be carried out over the series' final two installments.

    Shinji crushes his friend Kaworu using his Eva's hands in order to save humanity, and having made the ultimate decision to kill his friend for the sake of the world, it seemed the final two episodes would show how Shinji and the Earth would get on.

    It was not to be.

    When Episode 25 first aired the following week, nearly all viewers felt betrayed.

    The story did not develop at all and focused almost entirely on what was going on inside Shinji, a plotline that had been pursued numerous times in the past.

    Episode 26, the final show of the series, was much the same as it explored the thoughts of Shinji and two other major characters, Asuka and Misato.

    The TV series ended with people gathered around Shinji, praising him for saving them and the young boy finally realizing that he belonged in the world and apparently feeling at ease.

    Some people claimed the convoluted ending to the series came about because the production team had been unable to make deadlines, or that the team was too concerned about the movie version of Evangelion that was due to hit theaters shortly after.

    Anno never clearly spoke out about the final two episodes and why they were made the way they came out.

    Bitter disputes broke out on online bulletin boards, with some critical of the producers for failing to provide a clear-cut end to the story, and others who praised the finish for being "typically Evangelion-like."

    But when commentator Eiji Otsuka sent a letter to the Yomiuri Shimbun, complaining about the end of the Evangelion series, the debate went nationwide.

    "The debate that erupted over the ending went way beyond our calculations," Gainax's Sato chuckles. "Anno probably knew what was going on. He realized that media other than anime had taken notice of Evangelion."

    Otsuki, the show's producer and a close collaborator with Anno, agrees. "Anno loved it when the media wanted to report on him.

    He was especially keen when the media had nothing to do with anime," Otsuki says. "I suppose that ending was something that Anno really wanted to make."

    Not long after the series stopped screening in 1996, the feature-length Evangelion movie hit theater screens.

    Called "Shi to Shinsei" (Death and Rebirth) in Japanese, production failed to keep up with deadlines and it was not ready for its March 1997 opening.

    The final 30 minutes of the movie was completed and added to the movie to become "End of Evangelion," which opened in theaters in July 1997. "End of Evangelion" sees the implementation of the Human Instrumentality Project, which promptly kills every human on Earth except for Shinji and Asuka, and finally drew an end to the Evangelion saga.

    The legacy of Evangelion

    "Death and Rebirth" picked up 1.1 billion yen at the box office in 1997 (which made it the seventh-most successful Japanese movie for the year), while "End of Evangelion" made 1.45 billion yen (to end in fourth place).

    The box office success ensured Evangelion could take its place with "Uchu Senkan Yamato" (Space Battleship Yamato) and "Kido Senshi Gandamu" (Gundam) as one of the representative works of Japanese anime.

    The release of the Evangelion movies sparked renewed interest in the series. Cultural magazines like Studio Voice and Quick Japan ran special features on Evangelion.

    A spate of books using Old Testament themes and with stories that focused on solving mysteries started popping up on shelves everywhere. Studio Voice's Evangelion special was the prestigious cultural magazine's biggest selling issue ever.

    Evangelion dominated even karaoke. "Zankoku na Tenshi no Teeze," the series' theme song, remained top of the most requested karaoke anime theme song rankings for ages and laser disc sales of the TV series skyrocketed, becoming the best in Japanese history.

    Dolls of Rei Ayanami, one of the main characters in "Evangelion," sold like hotcakes and sparked the figurine market that has grown to huge proportions now.

    Successful side businesses prompted massive sales of Evangelion manga. Just before the first Evangelion movie was released, re-runs of all 26 episodes were screened in a late-night timeslot nationally over five consecutive nights, achieving very high ratings.

    Competing networks saw how successful the late-night timeslot had worked so well for Evangelion and began screening all sorts of anime in the wee hours, creating more anime opportunities.

    Copycat anime series featuring young boys and girls carrying the fate of the world in their hands began appearing as TV networks realized what hits these shows could be and began fattening production budgets.

    Evangelion also proved to be inspirational for other animators.

    Tomoki Kyoda spoke of how Evangelion had spurred him on to create an anime that would be bigger than it had been and methods and character developments in his work shows the influence.

    Evangelion also created what has been called the "Third Generation Otaku," young adults who grew up reading Evangelion manga and watching the TV series, with successful novelist Tatsuhiko Takimoto including himself among their number.

    Will there ever be anything as big as Evangelion again?

    Even the creators of Evangelion concede that their careers are unlikely to ever produce such a phenomena again. Evangelion producer Otsuki openly admits that he has still to create a work that has surpassed it.

    Gainax's Sato says, "The opening credits of Evangelion have the words 'Hideaki Anno, Director' in very large letters. No anime released since then has had a name attached to it so prominently."

    Anno himself has yet to exceed "Evangelion." He has made the TV anime series, "Kareshi Kanojo no Jijitsu," and the movie, "Cutey Honey," and while both were successful, neither were in the league of his magnum opus.

    This year, the 10th since the end of the Evangelion series, Anno and Otsuki are due to join hands again to work together on an anime project for the first time in a while.

    It remains to be seen whether they can again come up with a work that exceeds the impact on the manga world that Evangelion managed to achieve. (By Kei Watanabe, Daichi Nakagawa and Tsunehiro Uno)

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