Neon Genesis Evangelion – Why is it classic anime?

Neon Genesis Evangelion is considered by many critics to be a “classic” anime series. Loved and loathed in equal measure, its polarising reputation for invoking a distinct reaction from its viewers endures (inside and outside fandom) even today- an impressive feat being as it is a decade on from its Japanese TV debut. But what defines “classic” anime? Why is Evangelion still as relevant today as it was back in 1995?

“Classic” art direction

Art direction and animation fluidity are two separate entities. Neon Genesis Evangelion never had a huge animation budget, but its unique visual style still strikes a profound chord with its viewers. Unique and iconic, the colour scheme is exciting and suits the raging mood perfectly, strange bio-mecha designs and (if albeit redundant) religious symbolism top off a visceral presentation that instantly burns itself into memory.

Emotive characterization, world-wide accessibility and relevance

People either empathise with or passionately denounce Evangelion’s main character, Shinji Ikari. He is the ultimate “average” kid from a broken home, frustratingly shy and painfully reluctant. He isn’t a hero, just an awkward geek. The other characters are all breaking down in their own personal ways; Asuka’s fear of rejection and Misato’s desperate loneliness. These are close to the bone universal human emotions, characterised in realistic, painful circumstances and directed with an almost sadistic lack of warmth, relevant to every generation.

Sophisticated, controversial story teller

Under a slicker director, Evangelion would be another RahXephon; efficient, exciting and romantic but ultimately lacking any true sparks of originality. Hideaki Anno put his heart and soul into these characters and placed them within the confines of a mysterious plot to end the world, refusing to compromise on showing the unpredictable uglier sides of human nature. We’ve all been unhappy with ourselves or others at some point in our lives and what if at this exact moment, you were given the chance to save the world. Would it be “OK! Let’s do it!” or “Why me? Feck off!”.

Conclusion

Although I don’t consider Neon Genesis Evangelion a personal favourite, I accept it as a classic anime series. It took the formulaic mecha genre and transformed itself into an extremely potent mix of visceral art, controversial drama and symbolic science fiction. From what I’ve learnt, a “classic” movie or TV series is defined by global accessibility, (current) relevance and sheer impact; Evangelion is as popular today as it was 11 years ago.

Author: bateszi

A huge bloody nerd. I apologise in advance. I live in Cambridge, England. That's not an excuse, by the way.

14 thoughts on “Neon Genesis Evangelion – Why is it classic anime?”

  1. eva characters were as shallow as gundam seed characters. whine whine whine. omfg. go kill yourself emo kid. if you want a series with great "real" dynamic characters go watch Planetes or 12 Kingdoms.

  2. One strike against Eva that I frequently see (which totally misses the point, I think), is that the characters are "bad" (and thus the show is "bad") because they aren’t active and they don’t really grow or develop, even though that’s the entire point of them. Why does a lot of the bad stuff that happens in the story happen? Precisely because the characters weren’t growing or learning from their mistakes. Isn’t that one of the main reasons that most great tragedies are well, great? Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, etc. all feature main characters that don’t change throughout the course of the story and thus pay the price.

  3. no. the point is that the characters are annoying. it’s hard to watch a show where you can’t believe the emo stupidity of the characters. the characters are NOT likable for the most part. i mean i went through the entire show hoping shinji would die in some horrible way. he’s a pussy.

    i wouldn’t compare eva to an english tragedy. if shinji is the tragic hero his fall has nothing to do with hubris. in fact, he doesn’t even have a fall. the only way for this to work out is if you use shinji’s father as the tragic hero. however, shinji’s father is more of a villian. he isn’t noble. he doesn’t have the characteristics of a typical tragic hero except pride.

    eva might be a classic – but it has nothing to do with the show’s quality. the quality is subpar – as you pointed out. the animation isn’t that great, the story isn’t fully developed, etc. eva is a classic because of the typical fanboys who spread the series with lies about its greatness.

  4. Eva is a classic on the grounds that it did set a new direction and set of standards for the mecha genre. Yet for a number of other reasons it is pretty overrated.

    Its pretentiousness and questionable use of theology and philosophy. They appear to just use Cliff Notes for their research and seemed more interested in culminating a list of buzzwords they could drop into the dialogue for effect and string together nonsensically in sentences.

    It borrows heavily from a number of sources with questionable results. Fans of old school (1970s-1980s) mecha will point out a number of similarities to Space Runaway Ideon. A fun piece of trivia is that Eva’s ED song was used almost ten years earlier in a soundtrack for another animation, A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

    The tendency for its fanbase is quick to dismiss most mecha series after Eva as "ripoffs" became pretty annoying when I was searching for good review sites years ago.

  5. This was the first anime series I ever properly watched so I’ve decided to return to it through watching the Platinum edition, after seeing so many other series in the intervening months/years. Y’know what? It looked great then and it looks great now.

    That said, it is a flawed series and its greatest strength – that is, the amount of personal feeling that the director put into it – sometimes makes it come across as whiney and self indulgent. The show’s success can be attributed to a number of different factors I think, rather than one single aspect. The unusual characterisation, the organic mecha, the epic storyline and the urban myths surrounding its troubled production (including both notorious endings!) all contribute to it.

    I could go into immense detail about my thoughts on this series but to put it simply the staff who worked on the series were all anime fans so created a series that was at the same time a mixture of old ideas that fans were familiar with along with things that had never been seen on TV before.

    I admit it’s not perfect but it’s still a favourite of mine and still gets us all talking about it years after, as much as the merchandising nauseates me. A series that can do all that has to be doing something right!

  6. I’m guessing I’m a lot older than most of the bloggers here so I remember being packed in a hotel room at a con in New Jersey with about a dozen other people watching a VHS raw of Evangelion Ep 1 less than a month after it aired with a professional translator trying to do a running translation.

    There are two basic kinds of robot shows. The kind like Mazinger Z and Tetsujin 28(Gigantor) where some young boy controls or pilots a huge robot his father or grandfather built to fight some unquestionable evil and the kind that with many smaller robots that are simply tools to do a job like Patlabor, Macross and Gundum. After years of the smaller robot shows dominating the airwaves of the late 80s and early 90s the giant robot genre returned with Evangelion.

    Except Evangelion was more than just a normal giant robot show. The pilot was older and realy didn’t want to be one, the motives of the enemy are an enigma, the true motives of the good guys are unclear and its all wrapped up with the angst of a young high school drama. It went from comical one moment to deadly seriousness the next. Plus it was the return to TV of those crazy guys from Gainax.

    The show starts like any "monster of the week" show but it slowly changes over time into unraveling a conspiracy, with the "truth" being peeled away like layers of an onion every week. The robots weren’t some mechanical creation you "drove" but a gigantic organic lifeform whose central nervous system the pilot hijacks and with control comes pain. Its armor used to bind it to humanity’s will as much as protection in combat. The shows use of western religious symbols, prophecy and conspiracy made it unlike any show that was available to the US college anime club circuit at the time. The idea of forced evolution of mankind was more like Clarke’s "Childhood’s End" where our destiny isn’t the conquest of space. No spaceships or lunar colonies or interstellar travel for mankind, just a forced nirvana on a planetary scale.

    It has became its own subgenre. Shows like RaXephon and, Argento Soma are cast in the mold of Evangelion. Heck there was even an homage to it earlier this year in the harem show "Amaenaideyo!! Katsu!!".

    It sad for me to think that Evangelion is now considered an "old school" clasic. That crowded hotel room seemed like yesterday.

  7. @Lynn

    You got me! I re-read and spell checked 3 or 4 times before posting anything, but this one slipped through, sorry! :)

    @Anonymous

    Fair enough, I certainly wouldn’t blame you for feeling worn down by the characters in Evangelion. Then again, Anno obviously didn’t want to write a story about likable heroes anyway. For my part, I’ve really come to respect the characterisation in Evangelion, they may not be perfect people, but then, who is?

    @jpmeyer

    I’m not sure if I agree that the characters never develop. ** Spoiler coming up ** Shinji ends the TV series embracing "life" **

    @nooneofconsequence

    The story certainly is mysterious, bordering on pretentious but then I’m not sure if the actual plot was ever supposed to be totally settled; it’s more of a framework to take Shinji to the point of realising a new enthusiasm for life. There is so much that can be read into the story, but I guess I prefer to focus on the more tangible human elements of the anime.

    @Father Xmas

    It’s nice to get your thoughts on Evangelion, it must have been such a shock to be watching this series when it first appeared and I can only the imagine the impact it had on the community. And I’m glad Evangelion put an end to the Mazinger Z style "super hero" shows, I really can’t get into such campy, pulp stories with little to no real grit.

  8. @bateszi

    Don’t dis the classics. As campy and simple the plots of shows like Mazinger, all genres come from somewhere and sometimes seemingly ignoble roots. Those "campy" serials of the late 30s inspired Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Series like Mazinger and other super robot shows from Yokoyama gave us "Giant Robo: The Animation" a fun smashup of a number of classic super robot series.

    And not all of the old super robot shows were campy. There was the sub genre, the combining super robot. Just about everyone knows the lion Voltron, GoLion in Japan or the vehicle Voltron, Kikou Kantai Dairugger XV but other series like Dancougar and Getter Robo were quite popular and enjoyable. Without them we wouldn’t have the homage of the genre of "Gekigangar III" in Nadesico or Gainax’s Gunbuster.

    The best of these combining super robot shows was "Space Runaway Ideon". It was done by Tomino, the same man who brought us the original Mobil Suit Gundam and like Gundam and its Universal Century sequels it had no problem killing off cast members in vast numbers. Not a kids series at all.

  9. Oh, one last thing. Not only the giant robot shows of yesterday influence those who make them today but in real life as well.

    Where some people can point to the communicator of the original Star Trek as an influence of today’s cell phones, in Japan you can see the influence of robot anime in the design of bipedal robots in development. Don’t you doubt one minute that the engineers working on these aren’t robot mecha fanboys.

    In one case Kawanda Industries hired the noted mecha designer from Patlabor, Yutaka Izubuchi, to design the outer covering for their HRP-2 robot. Here is a link if you are interested. Very Ingram like.

  10. Apologies for the delayed response Father Xmas; I’ve been somewhat distracted of late.

    I’m actually a big fan of UC Gundam- absolutely loved the original movie trilogy, Zeta Gundam and Char’s Counterattack and Space Runaway Ideon is next on my list of old series to check out (I’ve got a newly purchased 500GB hard-drive on its way just so that I can download stuff like this).

    I admit I was perhaps a little harsh on the cheesy old giant robot anime- but what I saw of Mazinger Z (which ironically, is merely old style rather than proper vintage) was enough to put me off the genre. If you know of an absolute classic of this genre- let me know, I’d be more than willing to give it a shot. Giant Robo, perhaps?

  11. I still find it surprising how many people subject anime to their own standards, where actually the opposite should be true. A director isn’t constrained by your personal expectations, rather it’s up to you to find an anime you’d rather watch. When you work from that mindset, it makes reviewing even an anime you don’t particularly like more realistic.

    As for Evangelion, I agree it’s a classic anime that completely redefined the genre in many ways, although I might be wrong since I don’t know too much about pre-Evangelion anime (I’m still working off pretty recent stuff, I haven’t had a chance to delve into many of the "classics" as yet). What impressed me though, and this is also true with Elfen Lied and several other anime, is the author/director’s willingness to depict human action and emotion in the rawest form you can really achieve in the available stages of animation. Elfen Lied particularly blew me away in this respect, and I plan to write an essay on the series this year for school.

    I agree Shinji got pretty annoying towards the end in Evangelion, and originally I’d rather have seen an anime where the hero rose to the challenge and kicked arse instead of being dragged into the final conflict practically against his will, but that would have gone against the entire basis of the anime and the message its designers intended.

    Instead of the characters "getting stronger" which seems to happen in every anime ever made, these characters did the opposite; they held up, and held up, and held up, under intense mental and physical and psychological strains, until they just couldn’t do it anymore, and they broke. This is made all the more intense when many of the main characters are adolescents, although the portrayal of the adult characters was just as impressive.

    To me, this is a much truer way to look at reality than a shallow "average" plot about a kid who overcomes his own shortcomings and becomes more self-reliant, that theme is way overused. Evangelion is one of my favorite anime in this respect, besides the fact that it can make some darn good AMVs.

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