This past weekend, Netflix finally did something anime fans have been waiting years for: The seminal mecha series Neon Genesis Evangelion was made available for streaming for the first time ever. You might have seen all the fuss and been intrigued. You might have started watching and want to know what to think about what you’ve seen. But here’s an idea: don’t read anything about Evangelion yet. Not even this.
Neon Genesis Evangelion—known as Eva to its legions of fans—was first broadcast in Japan in the mid-1990s, the brainchild of now-iconic anime director Hideaki Anno. Set a decade and a half after a global cataclysm brought forth the rise of towering terrors known only as Angels, Eva follows the stressful tribulations of a group of child soldiers recruited to the last hope of humanity, navigating a world of slick giant robots and much less slick psychological traumas in the face of the inevitable existence of humankind.
Its rapid subversion from typical mecha anime storytelling into a stark, existentialist contemplation of mental health and trauma—not to mention Anno’s own deeply personal investment into the themes he wanted to convey—turned Evangelion into a genre-defining series. And that was before it began re-litigating its legacy with even further metatextual introspection, from its controversial ending, and beyond into the still-ongoing movie additions and remakes. People couldn’t stop thinking about Eva. They couldn’t stop talking about it.
And they haven’t stopped since.
Before its arrival on Netflix, access to Evangelion, in a legal capacity at least, has been difficult for a long while. Outside of importing expensive Japanese copies, the most recent way to acquire the original series was on DVD in the early aughts, and those have long been out of print. But even within that context, the discussion, critique, and analysis of Eva never stopped, it just took on this awed, mythological status—the greatest thing you’ve never heard of, the legend you’ll never see.
You might have seen flashes of imagery that are only slightly more confusing without context as they are with it. Hell, if you’ve been on the internet for more than five minutes, I’m willing to bet you’ve at least been bathed in an approximate awareness of what some of Evangelion’s characters look like, just through memes and shared instinctual internet foreknowledge. In the same way it almost feels like we’re birthed with the knowledge that Darth Vader is Luke’s father or that Uncle Ben gets murdered 5-10 minutes into 90 percent of all Spider-Man origins, we all just kind of know that Eva is Big, and Fucked Up, and Has a Theme That Is a Bop.
The discourse around Neon Genesis Evangelion is as deep and as overbearing as the series itself can be. Tales of first-time watches, analysis of its themes, praises of its subversions and critiques of its failings, paeans to Anno’s own almost-impossible-to-remove place within the work itself—the endless search to define What Evangelion Is has been an ongoing process for more than 20 years.
The show’s arrival on Netflix has only fueled that into an almost-debilitating overdrive, as everyone that’s had an Eva take over the last two decades re-deploys it in an attempt to guide wayward newcomers who would dare to dance with the discourse in the pale moonlight. Even something that might seem as innocuous as a change in a translated line of dialogue between characters or the absence of an end titles theme can spark furious debate and analysis, and if you are one of the many, many people intrigued to see what the fuss is all about, the discourse can be as intimidating, if not more intimidating, than watching the show itself.
But the reason all this chatter even exists in the first place speaks to what makes Evangelion such a beautiful, powerful thing to experience. There is an intimacy with which so many people first witnessed the series—because of its history, its infamy, or how damn hard it was to find for so long—that its thematic subtext bonds with them in a way only some of the most far-reaching and special pieces of media can. You could say this of a lot of creative works, but nothing hyper-specifies it in such a way like the strange mix of reputation and faux-scarcity that turned experiencing Evangelion into some form of an existential, life-defining event.
But because what it deals with can be so heady, for better or worse, its reach can transcend so many different boundaries of interpretation, which is great, but it also means that there are legions of people who are ready to tell you What Evangelion Is, when really, you need to figure out What Evangelion Is To You.
And the only way you can do that, really, is to block it all out, and see for yourself. Not for spoilerphobic reasons, but because the true “joy”—in so much as Eva can have something resembling a fleeting connotation of joy—of watching Evangelion is seeing what level it touches you in, emotionally, creatively, critically. And now that so many more people can do that with some form of the show thanks to the reach of a platform like Netflix, that’s kind of wonderful. Especially to someone like me who did all that soul-searching and discovery as a young teen, scraping together cash for pricey DVDs (and turning to dubious means when I couldn’t) just to keep watching this strange, powerful, petrifying, bizarre thing unfold in front of my eyes for the first time.
Sure, there’s going to be some elitist snobbery (or at least jokes about that imagined snobbery) that almost too many people can watch Evangelion now. There’s going to be side glances from upon high as people go about experiencing Eva for the first time (sometimes clumsily!), as its themes and intent become clear, in that sort of “book reader before Game of Thrones got to the Red Wedding” way.
But Evangelion is something that can be so powerful on a personal connective level that, if you have even the smattering of an inclination to try it, please do so. If it speaks to you, then that’s wonderful, and welcome to this shared understanding of such a weird and moving piece of art. If it doesn’t, that’s fine! You’ve not angered the gods of Evangelion Discourse just because it’s not for you. It’s not going to be for everyone, and that it can be so many different things for so many different people is what makes Eva so fascinating and worthy of seemingly-endless debate in the first place.
Dive in. See what you think. Go with the flow. The discourse can wait. Eva is here now, and you can see for yourself what kind of impact it can have—first, second, third, or otherwise.
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