The Uneasy Heartbreak of End of Evangelion

First, let me say that I have seen filmmaker Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) thrice. I’ve seen the Rebuild of Evangelion (2007–21) films twice, mostly recently when Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time released in 2021. All of these hours spent watching were in my home, alone, using Netflix or other third-party methods. But now, for the first time ever, an American can (legally) watch End of Evangelion (1997) in a theater, just as Japanese audiences did in July 1997. And I can now say that I’ve seen End of Evangelion four times in total.

For those uninitiated, End of Evangelion is the finale to the 26-episode series Neon Genesis Evangelion. The last two episodes we were left with originally were so ambiguous — drastic changes in animation style, minimalist dialogue, the entire cast ominously repeating “congratulations” at the conclusion — that they prompted rumors that the studio, Gainax, had run out of money. (The more plausible reason was a rushed schedule.) This film is an alternate ending to fill in the gaps. And, despite a generous budget, it is via a similar visual ambiguity that Anno so successfully portrays anxiety and social isolation. In one of many possible interpretations (including allegories about trans identity and gender) the film is about a boy learning to trust others.

End of Evangelion can be methodically, uncomfortably slow, with monochrome palettes and interminably long shots, such as the opening hospital scene, which depicts a character masturbating next to someone. But it can also feel excessively fast, as during a pivotal fight sequence choreographed to Bach’s “Suite No. 3 in D major,” animated to visceral technical precision. Even knowing how it ends, it breaks my heart every time. Imagine: the heroic bloodshed of John Woo merged with the interiority of Andrei Tarkovsky. Both of these modes of pacing are crucial to underline the major themes of loneliness and depression and how protagonist Shinji Ikari develops to overcome his struggles with them. 

Listening to the soundtrack of End of Evangelion might be the best way to understand it, specifically “Komm, süsser Tod,” composed by Shiro Sagisu with English lyrics by Mike Wyzgowski. The lyrics come from a poem Anno wrote to serve as the song’s basis, which opens: “I’m uneasy. I’m afraid of being disliked by everyone. I’m afraid of being hurt. But I’m even more afraid of hurting other people.” It feels like the epitome of what the franchise is about: people build walls around their hearts to protect themselves from being misunderstood. Part of what makes Evangelion as a whole so compelling is how it features so many types of relationships and spotlights the lengths people will go to connect with one another. 

End of Evangelion is a masterful coming-of-age story disguised as a mecha anime filled with aliens, government conspiracies, religious iconography, and abundant esoteric dialogue. It is no wonder that 25-plus years later, audiences turn to sci-fi anime made in the late 1990s to early 2000s (Ghost in the Shell (1995), Serial Experiments Lain (1997), Cowboy Bebop (2001)) to find a shared sensibility of wonder and sorrow.

End of Evangelion is screening at the IFC Center until April 11 and will screen at BAM April 18 and 25.

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