After 9 years of waiting, Neon Genesis Evangelion has ended for a third (and hopefully final) time. Hideaki Anno has released another capstone to the popular series and the fourth and final film in the Rebuild movie series “Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time.” To my surprise, the final movie opens with the most beautiful hour of Evangelion, a slice of life character section that reckons with its theme about mental health and connection better than it ever has before. The series is notorious for being dark and tragic, chock full of moments where characters suffer great physical and mental harm. That doesn’t mean the series isn’t hopeful but it spends the majority of its time depicting the dangers of relationships, abusive behaviors, and what it means to suffer from mental illness. The Rebuild movies have been different though; they cover those topics as well but take a different tact. Starting with “Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance,” the series diverged from the original series’ plot points, character interactions, and narrative focus. That movie made time to have its characters exist outside the moments of mecha action and showed us them processing growing up, dealing with trauma and what it means to have healthy relationships. 3.0+1.01 smartly builds on this with its moving depiction of Shinji learning to trust others and love himself by coexisting through cooperative labor.
The downside to Evangelion’s previous two endings, the tv finale and the follow up “End of Evangelion,” were having Shinji’s growth tied to the more mystical aspects of the series. It’s easy to see Anno slowly iterating on how to depict the central theme of connectedness over the course of 25 years. The TV finale, episodes 25 and 26, are the start of that path but it’s incomplete. The two episodes are known for being a struggle to complete; Anno wavered on how the series should resolve, leading them to run up against deadlines and big budget cuts. The result are two abstract episodes, containing intercut clips, hand drawings and other visual art mediums, diverging from telling a more linear story. They both nonetheless finish on a positive note. Shinji realizes that he needs others and resolves to open himself up and rejects Seele’s Human Instrumentality Project to make all beings be merged together. Even if the plot is hard to parse, the themes are easy enough to understand; people’s individuality makes us special and opening ourselves up to others makes our lives richer, no matter how hard it may be. Fans hated this ending. The original Evangelion series contains a lot of mysteries that are not even close to being resolved by the finales. Not dissimilar to how negative reactions happen today, fans sent death threats to the studio and Anno.
Which eventually led to the two movies, “Death & Rebirth” (recap movie) and “End of Evangelion,” (EoE the promised final ending to replace the controversial TV finales). There’s a metatextual read that a lot of people make with EoE; Anno’s declining mental health, resulting from the fan backlash, led him to make an extremely dark version of the finale. That read has helped me salvage parts of it that I do like, that no matter how cruel people can be to us the path forward is always to keep yourself open. There’s a lot of thematic content about the movie that I really like and I think a darker take could help hammer down Evangelion’s exploration of loneliness. It’s too bad that the movie itself is so vile, almost 90 minutes destruction that starts with Shinji committing sexual assault (the notorious “I’m so fucked up” scene). From that point it’s hard to route for Shinji, who’s more comatose than ever as people are annihilated around him. The uncharitable read is that Anno is making the most negative choices for all of his characters as a response to the fan backlash. Moments like Misato using the promise of sex to motivate Shinji certainly seem like a monkey’s paw for anime fans. I think the more real read is Anno using the template of a classic anime, the stone-cold classic Space Runaway Ideon movie “Be Invoked,” to explore his pain and trauma once again. The result though is mean and gross in a way that doesn’t earn the damage it puts its characters through.
3.0+1.01 has the exact opposite tone of EoE. It has a strain of positivity running through it that I don’t think has ever existed in any other piece of Evangelion. That all starts with its opening hour with our trio of protagonists in the village. After the beginning action set piece (my favorite action scene in the movie btw), we are reintroduced to Shinji, Asuka, and Alternate Rei walking along the apocalyptic scenery after the end of 3.0. They’re eventually picked up and transported to a small village. This village has started to regain some normalcy; the surrounding environment has recovered and they are able to farm crops and have access to drinking water (thanks to the technology from WILLE shown off in the opening set piece). We’re reintroduced to civilian characters that had disappeared after 2.0; Shinji’s friends and classmates Toji Suzuhara, Hikari Horaki and Kensuke Aida. These characters ground Shinji in a more real world. These characters don’t take part in the grander mythos of Eva having nothing to do with large robots, angels, or Human Instrumentality. As regular civilians they’ve had to deal with the after effects of these battles and learned to adapt to the apocalyptic scenarios the Earth faced. All three characters obliquely reference the hardships they’ve endured to survive, but all display an upbeat attitude. Their attitudes are the exact opposite of Shinji as they were never afforded the luxury to close themselves off. Essentially when their lives were altered they had to grow up fast and have learned to cherish the things in their lives in a way that the protagonists from NERV never did (they’re also the only ones to have physically aged as well). When acts of god are occurring all you can do is soldier on.
Their growth tied to material conditions in the real-world anchors Shinji’s and allows him to change in a way he never has in previous Eva media. He starts in a predictable mode; closed off, feeling a strong mixture of shame, regret, and self pity around how his actions have caused so much harm. Shinji has always had his decisions turn out horribly although that’s less of his fault and is actually from Gendo’s abusive manipulation of him. He still blames himself though and his response is close up almost to the point of being comatose. Being around the village is at first too much for him; he blames himself for how the citizens’ lives ended up and despises that his friends try to take care of him. He moves himself to the outskirts where the old NERV facility used to be like a cat running away to die. Alternate Rei meanwhile has ingratiated herself into the village and takes part in the cooperative labor of harvesting, finding a newfound happiness through the human connections she’s making. She learns how fulfilling being a part of a community feels and decides to help out Shinji. Alternate Rei’s growth is beautiful here but the movie does her a major disservice. You’ll notice I call her Alternate Rei; 3.0+1.01 makes a clear distinction between this genetic copy and the “real” version we last saw in 2.0. While Alternate Rei learns about shared humanity and cooperation, she inevitably gets removed from the movie by reverting her into a goop of LCL.
Before then though, she decides that she’s going to take care of Shinji and bring him food. Her routine of visiting him daily lasts for what seems like weeks in the movie. Eventually she gets through to him enough that he breaks down. He asks her through tears why Alternate Rei and the village continue to help him; she replies with “Because we like you.” It’s a tender moment, where Shinji realizes that even though he feels responsible for their suffering they still find redemption in him. Shinji starts to piece together that he needs to forgive himself first before he can bring himself back into the community of the village. This is the first time where Shinji as a character has been able to make this connection outside of the pivotal climax of Eva. He gets to learn through others actions, not large-scale metaphysical battles, that he’s worthy of human connection. Shinji gets to actually reckon with the abuse he’s suffered at the hands of adults and reckon with the trauma that came with it. After following the series for 13 years, it’s so rewarding seeing him make true connections. Getting to experience Shinji actually building relationships with people was truly gratifying in a way that the mecha action never surpasses.
The best part too is that his growth is also grounded in the cooperative nature of the village. His return is marked by contributing to Kensuke’s work. Shinji begins to tag along with him for his daily tech operations to keep the village running and secure. Shinji’s redemption is tied to directly making contributions instead of feeling sorry for himself. He realizes that walling himself off won’t help attone for the shame he feels and that he can find fulfillment in actually helping improve the citizens’ lives. Shinji also realizes that he has a place in the world and that he can be a part of something. He’s been misled and failed in his role as protector before, but he finds a new commitment through working to understand peoples’ conditions. It’s the most open we’ve ever seen Shinji and he actually gets to work through his trauma with others. He’s never been afforded the chance to be part of something that is so spiritually enriching and connecting. Anno seems to finally understand how to illustrate that next step of wanting to connect with others by playing an active role in coexisting with them. Shinji returning the favor to the village by taking care of him grants him a new autonomy over his actions. He finally gets to feel in control of himself. I couldn’t have imagined a better send off for the character.
The remaining hour and half had no hope of reaching the same highs. The other piece of Evangelion needs to be dealt with and we get the return of the mecha action and convoluted lore. The Rebuild movies shift to CGI and ridiculously large-scale fight scenes have left me a little cold and this final one is no different. I’m also not really interested in the ridiculous puzzle pieces of mythology anymore so I got a bit numb to the proper nouns being thrown around (“Eva Imaginary,” “Anti Universe,” and “Black Lilith” to name a few). We also get a huge upswing of the gross “fan service”; lots of boob and ass shots of girls in tight normal suits. While Mari becomes slightly more of a character here (and is weirdly important to the lore?), we are also treated to many shots of her butt and her talking about her big boobs.
The positivity from that first section is carried all the way through though; I’ve never felt a more powerful resolve in all of the characters before. Shinji himself is more confident throughout as well, knowing who he is and what he has to do. Comparisons to Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks the Return are warranted; Shinji is a character with a purpose. The forgiveness and tenderness Shinji displays to all of the characters he reunites with in the abstract last half hour are really touching. His growth anchors an almost perfect resolution to the series as a whole. The last section of waking up in a real-world Japan analogue is a bit hokey; I would’ve preferred he returned to the village. Regardless, I think the first village section ties a definitive bow on Shinji’s character arc and the Evangelion series as a whole. I don’t think anyone could top that piece of Evangelion and I hope no one tries.